Travel Souvenirs: What to Buy Where

Published 24 June 2016

Angela Griffin

Angela Griffin

We’ve all got them, the ‘I ♥ New York’ fridge magnet (or in my case, pyjamas), the Eiffel Tower keyring or the ridiculously expensive hand-carved mahogany table you had shipped back from Malawi (sorry mum). Love them or hate them, souvenirs remind you of the good times, the people and the places far away, and hopefully brighten up your home a bit too.


Our house is filled with souvenirs: our bookshelves overflow with guidebooks, every wall is coated with photographs of our travels to far flung and exotic locations, and every surface is covered with mementoes.

Some I’ve lived to regret. Did I really need that mosaic ashtray from Barcelona? I don’t even smoke! But others, such as my beautiful beaded elephant from Cape Town, and my cuddly little panda (nicknamed Ding Ding) from the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, evoke a happy travel nostalgia. For my husband, his bargain ‘Calvin Kleins’, just five yuan from a backstreet market in Xi’an, count among his favourite possessions. That and a flashing, solar-powered keyring with the Leshan Giant Buddha on it, which he has affectionately named Grant. As you do.

But how do you know which holiday memento will be a lasting keepsake and which will end up in the bin? Here are a few of my tried and tested suggestions for selecting travel souvenirs that will stand the test of time:

Souvenir Sellers in Togo

Buy authentic

It’s easy to pick up mass-produced merchandise wherever you go, but the more unique souvenirs are usually better quality, last longer and often support local businesses, as well as benefitting the community too.

One of my personal favourites is Sasik, a local women’s cooperative in Zanzibar. From their shop in Stone Town’s Gizenga Street, the ladies sell handmade batik cushion covers and pillowcases in a variety of bold colours. On an island with few opportunities for women, they obtain meaningful employment and business experience, enabling them to earn their own income, improve their living standards and, in many cases, send their children to school. Not only this, the Arabia-inspired designs are easy to pack, good value and make a great gift too.

Buy quality

I bought a lovely handbag from a market in Kenya, only to use it once and have the strap break and the beads fall off. Clearly it was not the handmade masterpiece I thought it was. If buying souvenirs as a gift, it’s just embarrassing if it falls apart within days, so spend a little more and get something of quality. Check it before you buy – does it look well finished and properly fitted together? Is the stitching neat and tight? To find quality you may have to shop around – look in markets where the locals shop, or browse the more upmarket shopping districts.

Colourful pots at a market stall

Know what you can carry

I’m not just talking about airline baggage weight limits – the importing of certain items into the UK is restricted, so you don’t want to buy that custom-made Samurai sword only to have to leave it behind at the airport. Australia and New Zealand have strict import and export laws too, especially on plant and animal products, so be careful what you buy on your Hong Kong stopover. A few years back, I bought a lovely lampshade made of pressed flowers on a trip to Laos, only to have it promptly confiscated when discovered by a sniffer dog on arrival into New Zealand. Oops.

Think about the size and shape of your purchases – those life-sized carved giraffes, ubiquitous in South Africa, really won’t fit in the hold, and china and glass isn’t a great idea either, unless you’re prepared to have it on your lap during your flight.

Shells for sale

Shells: leave them on the beach

Don’t buy animal products

Shells are pretty, I grant you, but they belong in the ocean; likewise with corals, anemones and sea sponges. And don’t even think about going anywhere near ivory, tortoise shells or anything made from an endangered species – besides the moral implications, you are unlikely to be allowed them into the country. Sadly, I have seen ashtrays made from gorilla hands in the Chinese markets – these would not be there if people did not buy them. If you want a memento of your wildlife holiday, take some photos instead, or just appreciate the animals in their natural habitat – the memory will stay with you forever.

Small cuddly panda

Ding Ding, who reminds me of watching pandas in Chengdu © Angela Griffin

Don’t get ripped off

In many parts of the world, it is customary to bargain for items before you buy. Remember that the first price you are quoted will be too high – it’s up to you to barter the seller down a bit. Although it’s fun to get a deal, do bear in mind that the difference of 10p might not be a lot to you, but it is to those whose livelihood depends on it. Having said that, don’t get ripped off or overpay out of pity – if the offer sounds too good to be true it usually is. Watch for devious sellers quoting low prices in local currency only to tell you once you’ve shaken hands on it that they meant US dollars. Finally, shop around – can you get it cheaper around the corner?

Eiffel Tower keyrings

Don’t buy at the airport

By all means stock up on duty-free whisky and interesting eastern European chocolates for yourself, but no one wants a yet another dark chocolate Toblerone hastily bought at Heathrow, when you’ve just spent three weeks sunning yourself in Australia. Perhaps find something a bit more meaningful (see below).


My bombilla © Angela Griffin

Buy something meaningful

Let your souvenirs remind you of where you went and what you did. It’s all too easy to buy a pen in the shape of the Grand Canyon, or to purchase a ‘unique’ gift only to see it in the shops at home, and cheaper too. For more significant, one-off items try the markets, or people selling their homemade crafts in the streets. Think about the traditions and culture of your destination – is there something made locally that you can’t get elsewhere? I have an ornate bombilla, a metal straw used for drinking mate – South America’s favourite tea – which I bought in Argentina. You can’t get those in Tesco.

New York City pyjamas

Modelling my NY pyjamas © Angela Griffin

Buy something you’ll use

Don’t buy that glow in the dark Virgin Mary-shaped torch from Lourdes (I kid you not) if you’ll never use it. Go for something that you know will come in handy – just think, every time you use it, you’ll be reminded of your travels. If it’s ornamental, make sure that you have somewhere to put it too. That table from Malawi sat in the attic for a good few years until we moved house and it finally got donated to the local charity shop. Lesson learned.

Shop for souvenirs on one of our cultural experience-focused Journeys.

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