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I’ve been back from Europe for a few weeks, taking a breather, enjoying time with my sons and unpacking my bags from Spring touring season. What a mess my bag was at the the end! Stinky clothes, crumpled tickets and receipts, grimy toiletries ready for the garbage. Unpacking can be kind of gross. Sorry to disappoint, but even goddesses of packing light have bags in disarray after 7 weeks of constant movement. Yuck! It isn’t all bad though, because I’ve got treats hidden in there, my souvenirs.

Yep, you heard me right. I’m a professional traveler and I still buy souvenirs. I don’t have much reason, I’m going to places I’ve been and will surely go back to. The motive isn’t the same as it was years ago. I mean, do you buy souvenirs while at your job? But, boy, do my little trinkets and treats make me happy. It’s like finding little nuggets of gold buried amongst the ruins of my grimy belongings. That’s what I think about when I buy things, it’s a good incentive to get you unpacking!

I’d bet that in every light-packing, Backdoor-loving heart, that there’s a secret love of souvenirs too. I know it because I’m asked all the time about what to buy. So let’s talk about that dirtiest of travel industry words: shopping.

Mainstream Tour Shopping

You may wonder why I say that shopping is a dirty word. It’s pretty simple. Shopping is the money maker for big, mainstream tour companies and guides. Guides are usually paid little but make big money by taking people to buy things like diamonds and leather jackets. As a guide for a company focused on the experience of the travelers, we are all opposed to forced shopping. It makes my skin crawl to see big groups being fed into factory tours with lots of free liquor and no obvious exits. I know it works like this, I’ve experienced it.

For that reason, shopping has become something something I don’t like to talk about.  If people ask for suggestions for the perfect leather purse, I give vague answers. Shopping is personal in any case. But the thing is, everyone does it. And you know why? Because it’s fun. Bringing something cool and unique back from a foreign land is something that adds to an experience and provides something to tie our memories to.

I’ve thought a lot about tourism and how to be a good, responsible traveler. How to be a person that benefits the places visited. Adding to the economy by shopping can do that, when done the right way.

Everywhere you go, shoppertunities abound. You can’t sneeze around Notre Dame without hitting a guy with Eiffel Tower keychains. Pink plastic Venus replicas, Big Ben clocks, aprons with David’s naughty bits printed on them…you name it, I’ve seen it. If you love that stuff, that’s cool. I have a corner in my heart for kitsch. My only issue is that most of the fun ticky-tacky stuff you find in tourist markets tends to be pretty generic, made in China.

I’d like to suggest looking at souvenir shopping in a different way. Buying from locals, unique things made where you are visiting, preferably from the producer. Buying things that you can actually use, not just put on a shelf to collect dust. I’ve got a few ideas on items to consider.

Handmade Clothing

I was in Pisa recently and saw this….Miles and miles, as far as the eye could see, a sea of ugly t-shirts, knock off handbags and leaning coffee mugs. Ok, I admit the mugs were kind of cool. In the middle of all of this I saw this sweet girl and her very earnest little kiosk, called Luxury Spaghetti.

I’m a knitter and her hand printed logo of a knitted tower caught my eye. As it turned out, she was the only one in the souvenir area of Pisa that was selling something handmade. Along with t-shirts she specialized in making jewelry out of spaghetti, carefully engraved with a name or design. I’ve seen that done on rice, but spaghetti is a cute idea. She also sold watercolors of the tower. This little kiosk was like a drink of water in a hot desert of plastic tackiness, I couldn’t help but buy something and support her cause. If only all of the kiosks at the Leaning Tower were handmade crafts!

There are many shops these days selling handmade or hand decorated clothing items. I like this as a souvenir because you will actually use what you are bringing back. I tend to anticipate buying a new dress abroad when I pack and leave a little room in my bag.

I’ve noticed shops in beach locations like Athens that sell sandals, custom made for your foot while you wait. Some shops sell locally designed and made clothing, like a chain in Rome I shop at called Chopin. If you look and ask around, you’ll see many choices for locally made items.

Jewelry

My favorite souvenir is jewelry. Jewelry is light and packs easily. I’m not talking about expensive things, though, I’m thinking about costume jewelry. I seek out necklaces that are handmade and unique, with bonus points for a design that says something about where I bought it. I wear a different necklace every day while on tour because they are all interesting and are good conversation starters.

As an example, one of my favorite shops that I continue to go back to is Rialto 79 in Venice. There is no lack of glass jewelry in Venice, but the place that I go has some of the most interesting beads, all made in the Lagoon. If you look carefully at the cheap stuff, you’ll see it probably wasn’t made in Italy.

The owners of Rialto 79 are very kind and always patient with customers. The beads are their own design, made nearby in Murano. The jewelry isn’t expensive, most things $10-$40. If I can’t find what I’m looking for, Luisa opens the drawers of colorful beads and lets me design what I want, putting it together while I watch. Chain isn’t long enough? No problem. She pulls out a new chain, measures me and uses pliers to make it fit perfectly. Not only do I enjoy their jewelry, but I like supporting real Venetian artisans, taking pride in their family craft.

Food

The biggest crowd pleaser for souvenirs is food. If I’m buying for someone else, it’s always food. I don’t see much point in giving a memento of my trip to someone who didn’t go, but bringing back a piece of what I enjoyed is priceless.

Wine is an easy choice, but it’s a little heavy and cumbersome the lug around. If it’s for me to drink, I’ll bring back the wine. Otherwise, it’s not worth the effort. Candy is always a hit, no matter who you’re shopping for. It’s getting harder to find things that are not available in the US, but you’ll find them if you look. Cheese is a good souvenir, and it’s allowed back in the US under some conditions. Aged, vacuum-packed cheeses are just fine. No Camebert or gooey cheeses. Olive oil is also a great item to bring back as the quality abroad can be much better that what you find at home and at a better price.

I have a deep love of foreign grocery stores. I think you can learn so much about a foreign culture by their grocery stores–what is sold in greatest abundance, what they sell that we don’t. I’ve recently brought back some fun grocery items for myself- chestnut paste and chestnut flour, rabbit pΓ’tΓ©, Bavarian mustard, salmon paste in a tube. Grocery items are inexpensive but make fun gifts.

Keep in mind your customs restrictions when buying food. No fresh fruit or veggies, no meats like salami, only 2 bottles of wine.

Funky Junk

Many cities have lovely markets on the weekends. I like to look up the flea market dates and times from tourist information and plan my day around a market visit. I’m not talking about touristic markets like the San Lorenzo Market in Florence, but funkier garage sale markets. I look for vintage jewelry, postcards and magazines from the past. My kids collect cat figurines, so I comb the tables to find them a treat. You can find just about anything, and often the hunt can be part of the fun.

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Arts and Crafts

This is a category that seems pretty obvious, but I find it surprising how hard it can be to find something artsy that doesn’t cost a small fortune. Original paintings or prints are pricey, even from street vendors. Even so, if the piece is striking to you it may be well worth the price tag. I prefer to bring a sketchbook and do it myself. It might not be professional quality, but something I drew myself connects powerfully to the memory of the moment I drew it.

Other kinds of arts and crafts can be found. I knit, so I look for yarn shops selling locally made yarn. Consider your hobbies and find shops that sell tools or materials for those hobbies.

Pottery is popular in many parts of Europe. I found these adorable handmade tiles in the Cinque Terre that you can assemble like a mosaic village. Clever idea. Only challenge with pottery is weight and getting it home in one piece. It can be done, and I suggest packing it well and carrying it on the plane rather than shipping. Which leads me to…

Getting Your Stuff Home

I never ship. Shipping is super expensive and takes forever. Depending on the country, you may never see your purchase again. I recommend bringing a fold-up duffle bag with a zipper. Don’t go cheap here, get a nice one, made with good fabric and tough handles. Trust me. I’ve shredded a bunch of these!  There are big duffle bags and smaller totes available. Use that as your carry-on luggage and check your main bag on the flight home. Who cares if that bag gets lost, it only means that the airline will bring your stinky laundry to you.

Pack your goodies in your carry-on and pad them with clothes. Wine, olive oil and other liquids have to go into your checked luggage, pad them well also and wrap them in plastic bags in case of breakage.

To Buy or Not to Buy

As a final thought, I’m always asked advice about what, when or if something should be bought. Should you buy that scarf? Yes. You should. And here’s why. You may never be in that location again. You won’t have time to go back, most likely. I suggest you risk having buyer’s remorse rather than buyer’s regret. I see travelers every day that hesitate and later wish they’d just bought that cool mug or pair of earrings. If you buy something and later realize that you don’t like, give it to someone for Christmas. You know someone who would be thrilled with that thing. That’s a much better feeling than lamenting a missed opportunity.

Not a shopper at all but kind of wishing you were? Think about something cheap or free that would be fun to collect in each city. Pins or patches for your bag, bus tickets, toiletries from the hotel. I collected matchbooks as a kid. You can’t do that today of course, but I still have my collection from 30 years ago.

Have ideas on good souvenir items? Please comment here or share your ideas on my FB page!

Happy shopping, er….traveling! πŸ˜‰

AWS Staff

This post was published by the Adventures with Sarah team. Click here to find out more about the people that make everything at AWS happen.

29 Comments

  • Cee says:

    I collect tea/kitchen towels. They dont weigh much so are easy to transport. They can be used as packing around breakable souvenirs and best of all once home I use them every day! And I have to say foreign grocery stores are some of my favorite places too!Love your blog! Thanks!

  • Kelly Teague says:

    I like shopping the kitchen sections of local department stores when in Europe. Yes, the stuff may be made in China but it’s usually much more modern/funky than products we have the the States. Towels & trivets are easy to pack….and fun to use back home.I also buy baskets…they then work as my carry-on home.Little tchotchkes are lame by themselves but grouped together amidst books on our book shelves make the books more interesting.

  • Kat Villines says:

    Since our kids have the Christmas ornaments they received over the years when they were home, we like to collect ornaments from most of the places we visit. They don’t have to be “Christmas” just a little token of your visit that can be put on the tree or on the shelf at Christmas. When we decorate for the holidays, we have fond memories of our travels!

  • Bill says:

    I wish the guidebooks would list some of the things you mentioned in the blog on shopping.

    • sarahinitalia@yahoo.com says:

      That’s a good point, I think Rick prefers to stay away from the shopping issue. We do have small shopping sections in our city guidebooks though.

  • Katie says:

    Great post! I’ve noticed that the souvenirs I bring back over the years have changed. I used to buy the kitschy mass-produced stuff, both for myself and friends. Now I have a pretty standard list of things I buy — one scarf, a few Christmas tree ornaments, a needlepoint canvas for my mom and specialty foods I can’t get in the US (including my favorite small-batch gin).Nowadays, I rarely bring back gifts for other people unless I spot something I know they will love, and that usually ends up being a Christmas present, not a post-trip present. For example, my niece is a big Shakespeare fan, so I got her a mini puzzle with quotes from A Midsummer Night’s Dream when I was in Stratford-Upon-Avon this spring.

    • sarahinitalia@yahoo.com says:

      I’m the same, I rarely bring back things for anyone, even my kids. But I do save thing for Christmas.

  • Chelle Downey-Magee says:

    We most often purchase reusable grocery bags…Waitrose in London, Carrfour in Paris, Marks & Spencer in Amsterdam. They’re useful while traveling and are welcome reminders of adventures while shopping at Trader Joe’s in suburbia.

    • sarahinitalia@yahoo.com says:

      That’s a great idea! I do that too, although not on purpose πŸ˜‰

    • Katie says:

      I’ve done that, too! I’ve bought some great grocery bags from Marks & Spencer. On quite a few occasions, store clerks in the US have asked where I got them because they are so easy to stand up while packing groceries inside. A few years ago, I was in London in November and bought some of the holiday-themed grocery bags to use as gift bags for my Christmas presents that year.

  • Tom A. says:

    Great post, Sarah. I agreed with so much of what you said. I like to bring back things that are very personal for me because they remind me of that trip whenever I look at it. And I, like you, try to buy things that were made in the location or country I’m visiting. I love to bring back locally-made candy — for myself and for small gifts to others. I’ve been to Ireland a few times in the past five years, and I always bring back some Butler’s chocolate bars!You mentioned that you collect certain types of things. I have brought back a few beer pint glasses from Ireland — NOT ones that I bought in a souvenir shop, but ones that I drank from in a pub and, um, “borrowed” to bring home with me. Therefore, they might not mean much to anybody else, but they mean so much to me. Those are the best souvenirs!

    • sarahinitalia@yahoo.com says:

      That is so funny you say that! My dad is from Northern Ireland and on a trip to visit my family, the local pub gave me several pint glasses. They are treasures, as well as the stein from Oktoberfest that a security guard insisted that I “borrow” πŸ˜€

    • Suanne says:

      I love going to the grocery stores and checking out the cookies and candy to bring back home for treats. I will usually try to find a small item that is unique- a small pottery bowl, a vase, or jewelry. My husband has a huge collection of Beer glasses(more than 200!) – mostly from Germany- all different- and many were ones he drank from. He usually will ask the waiter/waitress if he can buy the glass as a souvenir since the beer was special- many times they just give it to him or only charge a few euros. In the 25+ years he’s traveled, only 1 was broken on the trip home.

  • Sue says:

    We love finding Christmas ornaments or key chains which are unbreakable & much easier to pack. We actually put the key chains on our tree. I learned that from a friend who always puts up a tree decorated with only key chains from their travels.

  • LCH says:

    Sturdy reusable supermarket bags are my fave too as a souvenir. They cost one or euros, pack flat. I have Billa from Vienna and Bonus from Reykjavik. Always useful and a fun reminder of a trip. Great topic and fun to read about other travelers interests.

  • DeeDee says:

    Magnets (small) and not on the refrigerator. My husband lined a shadow box with metal and I have about 40 in it. The latest Iceland and Nicaragua.

  • Deb says:

    I buy things I love. If I see handmade doily’s I’ll buy a couple. I crochet so I can spot handmade vs machine made. It’s usually older women and I love their pride in their work. I have also bought teacups, because I love drinking tea from beautiful cups. They too are getting harder to find as mugs are more popular. Recently in Netherlands I bought a handmade vase with tulips on it. When I got home my daffodils were still blooming and I had small sweet bouquets in it for a couple weeks.

  • Shellie says:

    I’m a beer lover so I’m always looking for locally brewed beer when I travel. They usually come on a coaster from the bar or if you’re lucky the beers logo itself. These are so easy and fun to collect they are my favorite souvenirs.

  • Janet says:

    I started a question about “souvenirs” on the Rick Steves tour forum a while back. There are some very interesting responses including: a spouse, rocks, works of art, magnets and lots more. Lots of fun to read and get ideas from. My favorite souvenir is the hand carved wooden Nativity scene I purchased in Bellagio on the tour you guided. I also remember that you told us “if you see it, buy it. You won’t have another chance to come and get it later.”

  • Linda says:

    I too love grocery/tote bags since plastic bags are now illegal on the Big Island of Hawaii, we bring our own or pay for paper. When going to b&b’s in places where I know they also use their own bags I take locally made Hawaiian bags with Hawaii flower prints or ones that say ‘Aloha’ , etc. from a local crafter as a gift for the owner with Mac nuts inside. I also collect Christmas ornaments or a small toy or something that I can turn into one for our tree.Look forward to checking out your jewelry store choice in Venice. The one I’ve loved and shared with friends several times is Leslie Genninger’s studio near the Guggenheim. Lovely, lovely earrings, very different from the standard things you see, and very reasonable, all made by her in Venice. She has a great website.Thanks for such a great blog, I’m so happy to have found it!

  • A welcome fun and honest post after some history – laden humorless tours. Delight in beauty is part of travel and warring things that came from a conversation and exchange feels so lovely back at home.Delphi , Bonnieux , Aix and Athens all lie in my daughter’s closet or in mine. πŸ™‚

  • Grier says:

    I collect book marks and pencils from gift shops and museum shops which are very easy to carry home and are useful.

  • I love to buy linens local to the area: napkins, a table runner, sometimes a big tablecloth, all of which remind me of our trips when I use them. Easy to pack, unbreakable, and make great gifts as well. Provence and the Alto Adige of Italy are both great regions for linens.

  • Linda says:

    Oh, and vintage and antique postcards from the location we’re in, can often find them in antique stores or used book shops. I have a standup postcard holder in the corner of my living room to display them on.

  • Kate says:

    Great post! I am traveling to Italy with my Mom and Aunt in September (Venice and Florence) and we are all huge knitters as well. Any recommendations for yarn shops would be so appreciated! We have come across Lellabella in Venice online, but do you have any favorites or suggestions?

    • sarahinitalia@yahoo.com says:

      Unfortunately it is getting harder and harder to find good yarn shops. There is a good one near Campo Manin in Venice, another in Lucca near the Roman Amphitheater. In general, look for stores called “Mercerie” which will probably have underwear in the window. Those shops sell yarn also.

  • LCH says:

    I already posted to this story, and then realized I forgot to mention my guilty souvenir fave – small plastic garden gnomes. They have to be small (6″ or less) and made in Europe. They are lined up on my kitchen window sill and they always make me smile.

  • Christine says:

    In Poland it was a lot of touristy stuff but there were little nooks and crannies to find something exceptional. Handmade chocolates for one. We also discovered a little shop called the Art Factory in Krakow that was like walking into Etsy! Such cute and clever things! One purchase was a funky postcard with a cow. I told her we are from Wisconsin, America’s Dairyland and so cows are a big deal. When I got home I discovered she has a Facebook page so I posted on it how fun her shop was and she said she remembered us, LOL.Another favorite item is my Krakow key ring. I use it and when people ask me about it I get to relive my trip.

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