Deborah French Designs via Houzz
If you’re like me, there's box in your closet filled with mementos collected while on vacation. Inside mine, a miniature Eiffel Tower dangles from a key ring I bought while on a trip to Paris in 2012, a silk bookmark from Korea sits inside a mug featuring a Canadian maple leaf, and a plastic mirror, emblazoned with a glittery version of the Union Jack, rests atop a stack of London city maps. The lid of my box is dusty; I haven’t opened it in a while. Some travel souvenirs were given to me by well-meaning family members and others I bought in airport gift shops as afterthoughts, feeble ways to memorialize my overseas trips. Even though I fondly remember my travels, the mementos live in my closet, largely forgotten and definitely dusty. Maybe it’s because of my newfound love of minimalist decor, but as I’ve gotten older, those everyday trinkets don’t satisfy me. Although there isn’t one, universally perfect keepsake (after all, different strokes, different folks) there are ways to curb needless souvenir grabs—and make every travel memento something you’ll treasure for years to come. So without further ado, here are the top 5 travel mementos you should score while you’re on vacation.
Image by Pipa100 via Dreamstime
Avoid Generic Tchotchkes
The first rule of souvenir shopping? Avoid the airport! Airport gift shops are chock-full of cheesy plastic collectibles, like key chains, travel mugs, and “I Heart (city name here)” memorabilia. If you want to collect something with meaning, steer clear of impersonal mouse pads and seek out something you won’t find while waiting in line to buy magazines. A good rule of thumb is to look for travel mementos you wouldn’t find anywhere else but in the place you’re visiting. Handmade items should be at the top of your list. Textiles, artwork, dishware—even funny lighters—are all fair game. Sure, the airport is good for commemorative post cards, but if an item isn’t unique to the place you’re visiting, eschew it for something more meaningful.
Image by Erik Madigan Heck for the NYTimes
I once worked on the Navajo reservation in Arizona and hiked to the bottom of the Grand Canyon on a day off. A group leader warned against buying anything in the souvenir shop. Another hiker, however, ignored the advice and bought a Sunstone Energy memento with a card guaranteeing its authenticity. Not surprisingly, the stone broke in half a few hours later, its “MADE IN CHINA” stamp revealed.
On a later visit to a market featuring local Navajo artists and jewelers, I bought a beaded turquoise bracelet right from the artist who made it—and ended up discussing its cultural significance and learned how her craft is passed from one Navajo generation to the next. Lesson learned. Even though others on the trip may have bought a similar piece, it didn’t matter. I was supporting the local community—and I knew that I had the real deal.
Budget for One Splurge
Skip the small knickknacks while you’re on vacation. Instead, budget for one splurge-worthy souvenir. No need to spend hundreds (though that’s up to you), but just one $50 pair of hand-tooled leather slippers or framed painting is so much more valuable than a hundred $5 key chains could ever be. When traveling in Paris, I invested in three painted canvases from a street artist, each depicting a different city scene. The vibrant, textured paintings are completely unique—something I’d be hard pressed to find anywhere in NYC, or online for that matter. And they now receive pride of place on my bedroom wall.
Image by Jürgen Lehl, 1002 Spoons, via Shearyadi
Start a Collection
Already have one or two treasured travel souvenirs? Rather than looking for a different keepsake every time you sightsee, seek to collect only that type of thing going forward. Allegra’s grandmother, Kemmy, was an avid globetrotter who collected small handmade and ceramic plates from each place she visited and displayed them together, in a hallway. Instead of being tacky and mass-produced, the collection of handcrafted and hand-painted plates gave her home a storied, cultivated look. She further documented her adventures by writing the year, city, and country of origin on the back of each plate. Whenever guests walked through the hallway in awe, she would rattle off the story of where she found it and why she loves it so much. Having trouble deciding what to collect? Gravitate toward an item you feel a deep connection to, or one that simply makes you happy. Colors, textures, materials, and patterns are all unifying factors. Think: red teapots, shagreen boxes, woven cotton textiles.
Image by Jim Golden via UCreative
Find the Unexpectedly Memorable
If you want to come home with something unconventional or are just drawn to random stuff you find in your travels, look for meaning in the mundane. Items found in nature are a prime example—and they’re completely free (most of the time). Stones, shells, and more can be displayed inside potted plants—and if you have trouble finding cohesiveness in the jumble of your treasured treasures, mount dissimilar items alongside one another in a shadow box, immediately elevating their significance. Just be careful of what you take and where from. And when in doubt, remember the old adage, “Tread lightly, take only pictures, leave only footprints, kill only time.”