I Only Buy Souvenirs That Are Actually Useful — and It's Changed the Way I Travel

It's the best way to relive your travels.

Illustration of souvenir collections sitting on shelves in a home with wall art

Kailey Whitman/Travel + Leisure

Whenever I grab a pinch of salt while cooking, I think about the road trip my mom and I took to Burlington, Vermont, right after I graduated from college. When I drink my morning coffee, I reflect on the first weekend my boyfriend and I spent together in upstate New York. And when I reach for a pen at my desk, I’m reminded of another mother-daughter vacation to Copenhagen. It’s not just because I have a really good memory — it’s because my home is filled with thoughtful souvenirs.

Most of my travel itineraries revolve around restaurants, bars, and coffee shops — mainly because I’m a far more pleasant traveler when I’m well-fed and caffeinated. But local shops and flea markets always make their way on my list of trip must-dos. In part because they’re a great way to understand a culture more deeply, but also because I’m constantly on the hunt for a good souvenir.

When I look around my home now, and the physical representations of my travels I’ve filled it with, I’m reminded of the souvenirs I eyed — and begged my parents to buy, with a middling success rate — as a child. Think stuffed animals, bags of polished rocks, and miniature license plates with my name on them. The items themselves might not have had much sentimental value, but it was more about what they represented. These little trinkets — whether they were a ridiculously shiny gold-tone Eiffel Tower keychain or a magnet in the shape of Florida — said, "I was there."

Whenever I returned home, the knickknacks would usually find themselves on a shelf or in my closet, and I wouldn’t give them much thought after getting back into my routine. That’s why now, as an adult, I’ve found that souvenirs in the form of items I actually use daily are much more valuable to me.

That’s not to say I don’t love the occasional novelty sweatshirt or bumper sticker, but I tend to buy goods made by local artisans and designers: ceramics, glassware, home linens, clothing, etc. My salt dish from Burlington, my mug from upstate New York, and my ceramic vase from Copenhagen are just a few of the items I’ve purchased as functional souvenirs. At this point, they’ve been in at least four apartments, and I have no plans to leave them behind any time soon. 

Illustration of souvenir collections, a golden Eiffel Tower Keychain from Paris, A Florida shaped magnet and a designer dress

Kailey Whitman/Travel + Leisure

On a recent trip to Mexico City, I was on a mission to come home with meaningful souvenirs. I knew I wanted to bring something home that I could remember this trip by — the first big trip I took with friends since the pandemic began.

While browsing a clothing store in the Roma Norte neighborhood, we stumbled upon a rack of silk dresses from a local designer Carla Alfonsina. (She is an illustrator and tattoo artist, and the dresses feature her own drawings.) We crowded in the small dressing room, trying on two different printed versions of the dress, helping each other tie the silk straps in the back and elbowing each other to get a look in the mirror. It was dumb luck — the dresses fit each of us and our styles perfectly.

We each bought one. None of us live in the same city, so we’ll never run into the issue of wearing our matching dresses at the same time and place. (Although, I like to think of us unintentionally wearing them together from across the country.) I’ll be reminded of that charming shop, that beautiful day, and my wonderful friends every time I wear it. 

For me, travel is about being present. It’s about, briefly, leaving my life at home and immersing myself in a different world. When I’m back at home, though, I’m able to recapture some of those feelings thanks to my souvenirs. Even if just for a moment, I can transport myself back to Burlington, Copenhagen, or Mexico City, just by reaching for a pinch of salt, grabbing a pen, or slipping on a dress.

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