How to Buy Great Souvenirs


Ever receive a souvenir from friends or family members and think “huh?”

Even the most well-meaning traveler can run out of time and end up buying a souvenir headed for the trash.

I mean, how many magnets does one person need? How many trinkets can you scatter around the house? Do you really need another coffee mug?

Buying great souvenirs for your loved ones is an art form. 

So how do you nail it every time? What are great ideas on souvenirs? Here are some tips on how to buy souvenirs they’ll love.

How to pick great souvenirs your family and friends will love

First, Narrow Down Your Souvenir List

You don’t have to bring home a present for everyone you know. You can’t!

Narrow it down to the people you really want to buy something for. And you don’t have to stick to that list exclusively.

If someone didn’t “make the cut,” but you see a gift you know they would love, then go for it. And if someone did make the list but you couldn’t find anything for them, that’s fine too.

Most people are not going to assume you’re bringing something home for them, so don’t worry about offending someone.

Sometimes, some of the best souvenirs are those that cost nothing.

For example, I have a friend who loves weird noises–so I filmed a video of the sound penguins make while trying to mate, and he loved it! It was a simple way to say “I’m thinking of you” without spending a penny.

Think about their Interests, then combine practicality and aesthetic value

Souvenirs have the most meaning when they actually take the recipient’s interests into account.

Does your best friend love to cook? Bring her back a potholder or other kitchen accessory. Looking for great gift ideas for men? Is your cousin a big wine-drinker? Scour the local craft fairs and street markets for a unique hand-painted or hand-carved wine bottle holder.

If you can find something the recipient will actually use, you’re on the right track. Bottle openers, serving trays, coasters, photo frames and vases all come to mind.

There are also the standbys of shot glasses and coffee mugs, but they can sometimes get a little old and seem generic unless you know the person collects those items.

Choosing the right souvenirs is an art form. Here are tips on how to nail it!

Make sure the gift is unique or representative of the culture or location

This doesn’t mean the item has to have the name of the country or city emblazoned across it. (Although my best friend did love her potholder with sea turtles on it that said “Jamaica.”)

It could be something as simple as bringing back a food or drink that the place is known for, such as Jamaica’s Blue Mountain coffee or jerk spices. Or it can be more along the lines of a piece of Australian art.

For the really special ones, maybe invest in a piece of jewelry with a gem, like some diamond rings, or stone that is found in the region. (I know my mom loved her Australian opal necklace!)

Regardless, whatever you pick should be representative of the place in some way, whether stated outright or just in terms of a craft the country is known for.

Would you Want it for Yourself?

When thinking of what would make a good souvenir for someone else is to think of the souvenirs you have received and liked the most.

Maybe you are sick of getting pens from every city your friends visit, but you absolutely adore that notebook with gorgeous photo of Venice on the cover. You’ve never worn that T-shirt from Cancun, but you smile every time you look at the custom-designed, handmade photo frame from London.

Would you like receiving the gift you’re thinking of buying?

If not, maybe it’s time to reconsider.

The bottom line is that whatever you give someone, they are going to be touched that you thought of them. But if you really want to wow them, put a little more effort into the souvenir search.

Street fairs and markets are usually really great places to find affordable, unique and meaningful gifts for the ones you love.

If you decide to forego the gifts on a trip or two, that’s fine too. They will be just as thrilled to hear stories about your adventures as they would be to get a tangible souvenir.

I know you have some things hidden in drawers and in corners that you can’t stand looking at, but might have to pull out when that friend or family member comes to visit.

Or maybe you’re not even in the habit of buying souvenirs for people – how do you share your experiences with them and let them know you were thinking of them while you were away?

Great Souvenir Ideas

Souvenirs that are thoughtful and funny are always a winner. I have a friend who loves weird things, so I always aim to find the cheesiest, strangest tchotchke I can find.

I have another friend who loves shells, so I pick up pretty shells and rocks that I find along my walks.

Other great ideas: some mud from the Dead Sea, some sand from a famous beach, a printed calendar of your favorite travel photos, local snacks from a country.

Avoid, if you Can

  • Coffee mugs
  • shot glasses
  • cheesy t-shirts
  • bad keychains
  • bad fridge magnets

You can do better than that!

Tell us: what are some of the best and worst souvenirs you’ve received?

Your guide to how to buy souvenirs they'll love.

About Author

Lindsay spent the first 18 years of her life in Baltimore, then moved on to North Carolina for college. Spending a semester studying in Perth, Western Australia changed her life and gave her an incurable case of the travel bug. After a year and a half of cubicles and admin work, she decided it was time to go after her dreams. She is now working as a freelance writer and editor in Annapolis, Md. and taking whatever trips she can manage to fulfill that wanderlust and hopefully fuel her soon-to-be travel writing career.


  1. Who thought of those little bottles of sand? All that says is “I was there & you weren’t… don’t you wish you were me?” I think I’d prefer they take a beer bottle & fill it with sand & shells…at least that takes thought.

  2. Amanda Friesen on

    My sister and I admit to ourselves that it is hard to find non tacky gifts most of the time so we make it a game. When one of us is traveling we give them a noun (ex. shoe, buckle, globe, daisy) and they have bring something back that relates to that. Makes it into a bit of a scavenger hunt for the person travelling and takes off the pressure for them to find something good. As long as it fits with the game you know they were thinking of you, no matter how tacky it is.

  3. I had a friend bring me “my own personal beach” from a trip once with sand a shells she’d collected herself and I really liked the hand-made touch. I agree that gifts should take the recipients interests into account first and foremost – cookbooks, photo frames, unique foods or drinks are all good choices.

  4. Another great idea is to make a tradition out of buying a certain type of souvenir for someone wherever you go. For example, I always buy my mom a magnet from every place I’ve visited. When you look at her refrigerator, it’s like a travel journal of all the places I’ve gone! She loves looking at all the different places and thinking of me.

    • That is cool! I always think of magnets as one of the “tacky” choices, but when someone actually uses them and when they become a collection like that, it becomes a really nice idea! I can just picture how the fridge must look…

  5. Lindsay, what a thoughtful and considerate post on buying gifts for others when we’re away. I’d just about given up on that. Thanks for taking up this question and blogging about it.
    All the best as you re-tool. I’m assuming you’ve read The Four Hour Work Week (is there a woman’s version?).

    • Thanks, Russell. I think a lot of people have given up on buying gifts for people – and that’s OK! But for those who have given up on it just because they don’t know what to get, maybe this post will help.

  6. When I backpacked through Europe, I couldn’t carry around a bunch of bulky souvenirs with me. I only bought actual souvenirs for my parents and sister — mom got Italian glass earrings, dad got an Italian silk tie, and my sister (the dancer) got Degas postcards to be framed later on. For everyone else, I made sure to look for things that reminded me of them, then took a picture and tagged them on facebook (and in the future, may put it in a frame as a gift, if appropriate). That way, no one has to pretend to coo over a tchotchke, and I didn’t have to put out any cash or carry it around!

  7. One of my best friends went to Jamaica and brought me back a bag with Bob Marley’s face and “One Love” emblazoned on it. I LOVE it because I love Bob (who doesn’t?) and because it saves me from collecting yet another plastic bag when I go grocery shopping! And I think of her whenever I use it 🙂

  8. There’s a few of us at work who exchange key rings so we all have the same ones from all different countries. We try to find something slightly odd though. The hardest is for the people who do expect something. When you can find something perfect for 4 out of 5 nieces, then the 5th sometimes does end up with something tacky from the airport :/

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