Over the years I’ve accumulated a lot of items from traveling. As soon as I stepped off the plane, my mind would go into “souvenir shopping mode,” even if that meant buying pointless items that later ended up in the trash. I began revising my strategy and considered what I wanted to purchase (for myself, and for my friends and family) beforehand so I had an idea of what to look for. Then I narrowed it down to specific categories and came up with a list of things that people actually like to receive. Now, when I’m souvenir shopping, I’m not blowing my money on useless items that take up much needed room in my suitcase. Here are seven things you won’t regret picking up on your next vacation.
Authentic Handmade Jewelry and Accessories
A few weeks ago I took a photo of my first autumn manicure and noticed every single bracelet on my wrist was purchased on a vacation. Now, I make a point of searching for a piece of jewelry whenever I travel so I can add it to my growing collection. As I look down at my wrist, each bracelet reminds me of a special trip or memory that I can reflect on when I wear it. Right now I’m collecting bracelets with tiny stones and gold accents, and I prefer the theme to be cohesive so I can stack them.
I also make a point to bring back jewelry and accessories that represent the state or country I’m visiting. A cactus necklace and earrings to remind me of my time in Arizona; a palm tree bracelet that brings back memories of shopping in Sayulita Beach; and a handcrafted fire opal ring from a hut in Tijuana. Then there’s Billy and I’s December tradition of traveling to New York City and spending the days leading up to my Birthday and Christmas Eve in our second favorite place. I used to love spending hours in my all-time favorite store—Bendels (which sadly closed). Each year I ended up leaving with a new piece of jewelry, and a purse, wallet, or a makeup bag.
Whenever I’m souvenir shopping, I’m thinking of what I can bring back for others and jewelry is usually a safe bet. I prefer to stick with the theme of where I’m vacationing and I try to find authentic and native items.
Another favored item that takes up zero suitcase space is enamel and button pins. I love finding ones that illustrate where I am, plus they’re inexpensive and make a fun edition to any gift.
I added a few pins that I had from my childhood onto a denim jacket and that’s when I decided to start my collection. Over the years I’ve accumulated a lot more, but my favorites are a Ban.do “Lucky Break” poker chip pin that I purchased in Vegas; and my “we all scream” ice cream pin”, and a “love at first slice” pizza pin. The food items remind me of all the tasty things I ate this past summer. PS: there’s nothing better than East Coast pizza!
When I’m not sure what to bring back for someone, my tried-and-true choice is an authentic food item. During my recent trip to Puerto Vallarta, I picked up Mexican coffee (known as “cloud coffee”), and a trio of Mayanik Habanero hot sauces (similar here). They were meant for Billy, but I enjoyed them just as much, if not more. While I was in Tijuana my family and I went in to a little hut and sampled a variety of Tequilas. The shop had thousands to choose from and most were only available in Mexico. I picked: Licor de Cafe Don Cleofas. It had a chocolate taste (which may sound weird when talking about Tequila, but it went down smooth and had a hint of coffee flavor).
Another one of my go-to choices is stocking up on sweets. My favorites are chocolate, lollipops, salt-water taffy, gummies, and nostalgic candy that reminds me and my friends of our childhoods—like ZotZ and candy cigarettes. They also make a great bite to eat after a long day of sightseeing. Usually, I’ll end up snacking on a bag while I’m in my hotel room (like I did with all the Sugarfina I bought in Vegas).
Decorative Accents For The Home
When it comes to souvenir shopping for home decor items, if I don’t know the person’s specific taste, I’ll opt for a candle or chocolates instead. If I do, however, purchasing authentic and handcrafted mementos can make a well thought out and meaningful gift. A few of my favorites were scoring a Virgin Mary decorative box and magnet, a miniature hand-painted turtle figurine, and a handmade matchbox. I found these keepsakes at little markets in Puerto Vallarta and Sayulita Beach.
The other day I was looking around my apartment and realized that the majority of my candles came from places I’ve traveled to like a cactus candle from Arizona, or a sea salt scent from my trip to the East Coast shore. Since they make wonderful Birthday, housewarming, and thank you gifts, I’ll bring a few back so my friends and family can enjoy these lovely aromas as much as I do.
Random Mementos That Represent Where I’m Vacationing
This is perhaps my favorite category of souvenir shopping. These are the little elements that take me back to that memorable place, and they’re also what I love gifting others.
Mexico: A bottle of Blue House, Pai Pai nail polish (I found this right before I boarded my flight and it was only available in Mexico). A Las Bayadas beach blanket from Revolución Del Sueño in Sayulita Beach—I paid $7 dollars, but it retails in the U.S. for around $48! Trinkets, postcards, jewelry, and food items from Riviera Nayarit and markets in Puerto Vallarta.
Arizona: A sparkling mineral from a gift shop in Jerome. A cactus sticker, pins, jewelry, candles, and candy from boutiques in Old Town, Scottsdale.
East Coast shoreline: Shark teeth, pins, candy, and a tiny jar of seashells from Block Island. A postcard to remind me of my fun-filled day trip to this charming place. A sea salt candle to invoke images of sunny days on Long Island Sound. Some of my favorite things were handpicked and free—seashells, driftwood, rocks and stones that my family and I collected on the beach.
Las Vegas: The coffee table book Las Vegas Then and Now. A pink Ban.do pin, casino chip, and dice lollipops from the Eiffel Tower Gift Shop. A rose quartz bracelet, puka shell necklace, white orchid candle, and a realistic-looking ice cream magnet from the shops in Miracle Mile. (This is also where I purchased a grapefruit body wash and scrub from The Body Shop to give Billy.)
New York: Pictures from photo booths like the one inside Dylan’s Candy Bar. Eloise at The Plaza Band-Aids, and a notebook and pen from The Eloise shop. jewelry, accessories, and candles from what used to be my favorite store, Herni Bendel, and NYC magnets.
Free things: You don’t have to spend a ton of money on souvenirs. In fact, some of my most cherished items were free. No matter where I go, I’ll make a point of saving airline tickets, flyers and free postcards, metro cards, currency, stickers, hotel room keys, wristbands, matchbooks, paper coasters from favored restaurants, ticket stubs from concerts and shows, and business cards from shops I’ve visited (and want to return to). One of these days I’m going to create a travel journal and fill it with my mementos.
Souvenir Shopping Tips
- Ask friends and family what they would like before you leave.
- Skip the tacky stuff that will most likely end up in the trash unless it’s requested: shot glasses, t-shirts, keychains, itty-bitty spoons, novelty picture frames, giant water bottles, novelty ashtrays, and playing cards. Note, most of this stuff is found on touristy streets and in airports. Head further into town for more authentic goods.
- Don’t buy anything illegal or unethical. A lot of places sell counterfeit goods that look like the real deal or even sell stolen merchandise at discounted prices. Purchasing this stuff can put you in a lot of trouble, especially in other countries. You also should never buy anything you suspect might be made unethically.
- Ask locals and tour guides where the best places are to pick up authentic souvenirs. You can usually find handmade goods in markets, mom and pop shops, art galleries, huts and stands in the center of town, and food shops.
- Skip purchasing large or heavy items if you’re flying.
- Also, if you’re flying international there are certain items you’ll want to avoid buying: gift-wrapped items, alcohol over 140-proof, bottles of liquid over 3.4 ounces (that includes snow globes), animal products like cheese (declare with customs), certain cultural artifacts, and knock-offs. Here’s a complete list of what you can and can’t bring via TSA.
- For ideas on what to purchase, these are the best items in 17 cities throughout the world.
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