The little collections travelers accumulate… or, finding unique souvenirs

When you travel somewhere new, it’s pretty common to want to bring a little something back with you. Some people collect shot glasses or key chains, or baseball caps. In the end though, the best souvenir is something that is unique to that place. The same piece of mass produced kitsch that simply has the name of a city plastered on it doesn’t interest me. It doesn’t say anything about where I got it. So how do you find really unique and interesting items to commemorate your trip?

Open-air markets are a favorite spot of mine. Most cities will have farm and craft markets where things are locally made and sourced. Think about what the area is famous for. In Florence I bought a leather bound notebook because 1) I have a notebook addiction, and 2) the region is known for its leather craft. Even at markets though, use caution. In popular tourist areas you still might stumble upon some goods marked “made in China.”

Local supermarkets can also be unexpectedly exciting as well. Popular shelf stable  treats like local candies, drinks, or condiments are a fun way to take a piece of travel home. A bag of matcha KitKats from Japan, salted licorice from Northern Europe, Korean chili paste— these are shareable with friends and family who didn’t get to take the trip with you. When you’re flying with only a carry-on, you might not be able to pack that nice bottle of wine or liter of maple syrup, but dry goods can be easy to fit in your backpack.

 

If you’re committed to having a more minimalistic lifestyle, you don’t have to forego souvenirs all together. For the past few years I’ve kept a scrapbook in the truest sense— little scraps of paper from my travels get pasted in after each trip. A piece of map, a ticket stub, a cool sticker or logo, even a reciept from something special gets added. These little bits of ephemera in some ways feel even more special because they’re so specific to the trip I took. They remind me of the museums I went to, trains I rode, specific things I experienced. They all neatly fit in a book that can come with me wherever I move to next.

Even when assembling gifts for friends back home, experience driven items instead of traditional tourist memorabilia can be even more special. A friend of mine who visited Walden Pond (famous home of Henry David Thoreau— a favorite author of mine) gifted me a framed photo of Thoreau’s resting place complete with a leaf from one of the many old trees on the property on the backing matte. It’s a little piece of the place. I’ve gifted a tiny piece of chipped marble I rescued from a walking path at the Forum in Rome to a dear friend.

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Collecting little pieces of somewhere else is one of the joys of travel. But a consumer driven life isn’t typically what we’re seeking by going new places. International moves have taught me to be really selective with what I keep. Still, I have my little collections. Like a pile of transit cards for cities I swear I’ll go back to before the cards expire.

What are some of the best and most unique things you’ve found in your travels or received from others?

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