I take my souvenir shopping serious. I take it so serious that I do not want other people bringing back souvenirs for me when they return from their vacation. Souvenirs are a personal reminder of one’s experience in a certain place. So, if I didn’t go, how can the whatcha-ma-call-it be a personal reflection of the experience that I didn’t have? It can’t. So, my family already knows: do not bring anything back for Nicole. She will understand.
When I first began travelling and buying souvenirs, I thought that it would be cool to have a collection of postcards, key chains, and shot glasses from all the places I had visited. I must say that I have a pretty cool collection that includes cute shot glasses from my visits to Mexico and Las Vegas, key chains from San Diego and New York, and postcards from Germany and Italy. But recently, I’ve found that when going through my souvenirs from past adventures, it is so much cooler when I come across mementos that really reflect both the culture and my personal experience of that culture. While I enjoy combing through my postcards, key chains, and shot glasses, once I upgraded my souvenir shopping to more thoughtful purchases, my look backs have been much more special.
I made a few missteps in the past and thought that it would be helpful to offer some of my lessons in souvenir buying so you don’t make the same mistakes.
If you can, purchase items that are made in that country, state, or city.
This past summer, I took an amazing vacation to San Juan, Puerto Rico. The tiny island was packed with restaurants, beaches, mountains, and lots and lots of forestry. By our second day, I quickly realized that, like any other tourist location, it was also packed with souvenir shops. In Old San Juan especially, it was situated like a well-thought out pattern: restaurant, restaurant, souvenir shop, restaurant, shoe store, souvenir shop, art gallery with souvenir shop… and the pattern began again from the top. During the times our group decided to peek into the different shops that we stumbled across, I noticed some of the exact same trinkets from shop to shop. If you’ve taken only one trip or vacation your entire life, this is probably no surprise to you. After seeing this multiple times, I had partly given up on the thought of buying anything. For such a cultured place, I wanted an item that breathed that same culture from the inside out, and I surely wasn’t finding it in the souvenir shop pattern. Thankfully, our food tour guide introduced us to Mundo Taino.
The little shop was filled with hand-crafted dolls, jewelry, art, trinkets, masks, and much more… all made from people on the island. I loved it! The best part about the shop was that a number of the items also included a picture and a short description of the person who made them. I bought a pilon (a wooden mortar and pestle) and a small replica of a coffee grinder made with real coffee beans. I am excited for the stories I get to tell about my Puerto Rican-made souvenirs. Shops like Mundo Taino may be difficult to locate on your own. I would highly recommend asking your tour guide, the tourism office, and hotel concierge for some guidance on purchasing items that are made in the city or country your are visiting. A little research online would be helpful, as well. It may take some effort, but I promise you that it will be well worth it.
Buy items that are replicas of a particular thing, location, or place you admired during your adventure.
I am still kicking myself for not buying a small replica of the San Francisco trolley. It would have been a great reminder of my time spent journeying through the city by myself visiting Fisherman’s Wharf and being creeped out at the thought of visiting Alcatraz. I opted instead for a cute key chain and postcard, but I made sure not to make the same mistake on recent trips.
During our final full day in Rome, which we also deemed our souvenir-shopping day, I bought quintessential Roman souvenirs. I bought a silver colored replica of a gladiator’s helmet, a small white replica of the coliseum, and a book/DVD package that gave a complete history of the coliseum and its transformation from the very beginning to its current state. I also sent myself a postcard from the Vatican and bought a cute key chain that had a dangling Vespa on the end of it.
In Paris, I bought a desk-sized replica of the Eiffel Tower while in a store inside the Eiffel Tower. In London, it was the iconic red telephone box, in New Orleans a costume mask, and, to remember my time at Stonehenge, I bought a tiny replica of stones hanging from a key chain.
All of these pint-sized replicas are such great ways to remember my experiences.
Buy something that you can use in your everyday life.
I had never subscribed to this bit of advice. My souvenirs were solely meant to sit atop a shelf, only to be seen, never EVER touched, but where’s the fun in that? While I would still prefer that most of my souvenirs go untouched, my recent trip to Puerto Rico opened my eyes to a new way of seeing them.
While on the island, I had my fair share of mofongo, a traditional Puerto Rican dish made of smashed plantains mixed with garlic and butter or olive oil and topped with a meat or vegetable stew. I loved the stuff from the first taste. When I learned that the base of the dish was made with a pilon, I knew that I had to have one, especially since I decided that I would make mofongo as soon as the plane touched down in Florida. I have yet to make the dish, it’s a bit more difficult than I had previously expected, so for now the pilon will take its place with the other souvenirs but when its mofongo time, it will quickly be pulled from its stash.
Following these tips when hunting for souvenirs while on my adventures has helped me to build a collection of tangible memories that I am very proud to put on display.
What are some tips or rules you recommend when souvenir shopping? What is one of your favorite finds?