Beyond photographs and memories, travel souvenirs brought home from distant lands keep the joy of travel alive. Our contributors share their favorite mementos they’ve carried from travels afar.
Each has the power to transport us to a different time and place, triggering distinct, sensual memories of sights, sounds, tastes, aromas, and textures. Through these souvenirs, we can relive our travels, even as we’re sticking close to home due to the pandemic. In this post, we share some of our most precious mementos.
We’d love to hear about your travel souvenirs and the memories they inspire.
House of sand and shells
While I have small pieces of pottery and other items that are native to the countries I’ve visited displayed throughout my home, some of my most treasured travel souvenirs are those that were not purchased in a shop or market. For many years, I’ve collected small bags of sand, which I put into glass spice jars and other containers. Each is labeled on the bottom to remind me of where it is from.
I display my sands on tabletops and shelves, along with shells I’ve collected on beaches in Florida, Caribbean islands, and French Polynesia. My love of beachcombing for shells and also bringing sand samples home began in childhood, when my family and I vacationed in various parts of Florida. Now, I cannot walk down a stretch of beach without scanning the shore for shells. Nor can I leave a new tropical destination without filling a small Ziploc bag with sand.
When I’m home in Indiana, far from the beaches that bring me so much joy, I often look at the colors and textures of sand I’ve collected, or pick up a shell that I recall finding on a distant shore. In a small way, I am transported to that place and can bask in the memory of being there.
Ephemera and flea market finds
Through the years, I have filled my house, my heart and my stomach with souvenirs gathered while traveling. At first, I pampered my pantry with cooking equipment from Europe: a paella pan from Valencia, dish towels from Umbria, goose-feather pastry brushes from Budapest and a chef’s worth of baking equipment and specialty cookware from France.
Italian culinary keepsakes
One of the joys of traveling is being able to bring home a small piece of that special place you visit, an ever-present token of your travels and not-so-subtle reminder of why you need to go back. From rocks and feathers to more beautiful artifacts, my home is a treasure trove of travel trinkets big and small. While I don’t label each rock, feather or shell with its origin (but probably should), I do remember the important ones.
A window on the world
Despite being grounded, like journeying to Narnia through the magical wardrobe, I travel the world through an office window filled with mementos. My magical window evokes memories and emotions that lift my COVID-weary soul and fuel my wanderlust and dreams, transporting me to distant lands, without leaving home.
A New York World’s Fair souvenir globe not only sets the theme, but also recalls my earliest adventure: a helicopter flight from the roof of Manhattan’s Pan Am building to the fair. An intricate scherenschnitte (paper cutting) whisks me to an artist’s home in Montreux, Switzerland. When my gaze falls upon a wooden cow, I chuckle remembering nattily adorned cows parading through Gstaad. The palm-size funerary a Navajo surprised me with in Arizona stirs spiritual wonderment. A flat katsina serves delicious memories of a traditional lunch served in a Hopi home. Roses handcrafted from bark strips reminds me of learning to make them on Haida Gwaii.
One glance at the manatee swimming in my menagerie, and I’m kayaking through mangroves on Sanibel Island. I feel sand in my toes, when gazing at a beach diorama from Curacao, and Ireland’s gentle rain dampening my hair, at the sight of a ceramic Dublin door. A colorful bighorn sheep on skis carries me to the endless runs of Lech/Zurs and St. Anton, Austria. And, when sunlight pierces the intricately carved elephant received when exploring India or highlights the zebra or hippo picked up during African safaris, I bask in luxurious memories.
Must go … My Dreamliner is boarding through my “Saving pennies for a trip to Paris” piggy bank.
On a trip to Quebec City in 2018, my husband and I found ourselves on Rue du Petit-Champlain in Vieux Quebec below the looming Chateau Frontenac. Every tourist eventually finds his or her way to this shopping street, which teems with picturesque artisan boutiques. I wasn’t planning on buying anything, but a shop window filled with an array of creatures crafted in wood caught my eye. I zoomed in on a little antlered deer standing on a window shelf looking at me, and knew I’d found the souvenir of my trip.
Back in 2015, when my father was in home hospice, my siblings and I watched an antlered deer swim calmly and at length in the pond outside my dad’s room the day before he died. We felt the deer was maybe a symbol of… something? I looked up “antlered deer” on Google, and wrote about what I learned in this post.
Fast forward a few years to our Quebec visit, where I dragged my husband into the remarkable (and a bit kitschy) Sculpteur Flamand atelier. As I held the small marquetry deer in my palm, a bittersweet feeling of love and sorrow washed over me.
Upon returning from our trip, I placed the wooden deer on the window shelf above my computer in my home office. When the sun beams in, I look up to see that stately deer looking down at me, and am glad to remember both my father and the wonderful time I had exploring beautiful Quebec City.
Feasting on Southeast Asia
Wherever we travel, Tom and I seek out food experiences. We always bring home spices, recipes from hands-on cooking sessions, and a bottle or two of wine. When we spent two months on the go in Southeast Asia, on a trip that culminated in a Windstar-James Beard cruise along the coasts of Thailand and Vietnam, it was hard—but not impossible—to find space in our small suitcases for flavorful items to relive the journey after the fact.
We ate some of our souvenirs along the way. And, we shared sparkling wine from Thailand’s GranMonte winery with fellow travelers on our cruise. Even so, we managed to bring an assortment of goodies from Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, and Vietnam home with us. From a home-style Peranakan meal with Chef Jennifer Tan of Don & Lily’s in Malacca, we brought back small parcels of blue rice to prepare at home.
Coffee and spiced peanuts recalled our visit to Indonesia, and we welcomed a new year with Pino de Bali from our Hatten Winery visit. Jackfruit chips and dried mangos took us back—albeit too briefly—to strolls around Bangkok. Dried shrimp and anchovies delivered a distinctive boost to Asian dishes long after our day of cooking and shopping with Chef Benz on Thailand’s Kokut Island.
I’m always delighted to find that food souvenirs are just right for an evening with friends. They evoke the most precious moments of our travels and always tempt us to book another journey.
Cooking up memories
Travel is meant to broaden perspective as well as scintillate and awaken the five senses. While photos can give us visual memories, food souvenirs appeal to both taste and smell. So, when I travel and want to bring back mementos of my experience, I look to food products as a way to recreate my travel and savor the flavors.
The Peruvian Amazon is home to an assortment of chili peppers that range from mild to spicy. However, one stands out from the rest because of its flavor, aroma, and heat. Only found growing wild in the Peruvian Amazon, the small yellow chili pepper called Aji Charapita (Capsicum frutescens) is extremely popular with Peruvians. Few have heard of it outside of the country, and that is a shame.
A pea-sized chili that finishes with a slightly fruity citrus flavor, the aji charapita imparts a unique flavor to ceviche and typical dishes of the Peruvian jungle. Hot and full of flavor, these prized peppers are often pickled in vinegar to accompany classical jungle dishes, macerated with lemons, and even served with cold salads.
Just how hot is this small chili? Compared to the Jalapeno pepper, it can range from four to twenty times hotter. But one thing you should never do is eat them raw. Best to purchase the aji charapita in bottled hot sauces or condiments that can be bought at the Iquitos airport before flying back to Lima for your international connection. Be advised that only a little bit of this Peruvian specialty is needed for flavoring.
Whenever I visit Hungry, I experience childlike glee anticipating crossing the Szechenyi Chain Bridge to ride the funicular to Buda Castle Hill for a leisurely walk past the museum toward Matthias Church at Fisherman’s Bastion. I have come to love Budapest, especially the breathtaking views from this historic site.
The castle was founded by Hungarian kings, conquered by the Turks in the 16th century, re-taken by Austrians, and attacked by Nazi and Russian troops in the 20th century, suggesting there weren’t many peaceful years in the history of the Buda Castle Hill. But, you would never know it today, especially when sipping a cool soda from a perch above the blissful Danube.
Fisherman’s Bastion was built between 1895 and 1902 by Frigyes Schulek. His son, Janos Schulek, restored the Neo-Romanesque tower after its destruction during World War II. Now, it’s one of the most visited attractions in Hungary, a place where locals and tourists come for the views and exceptional dining at Halaszbastya Restaurant.
On my latest visit to Buda Castle Hill, I stopped in a small art shop and bought a print by a local artist, Herczeg Jozsef, renowned for his realistic townscapes of Budapest. Once home, I proudly hung it in my living room, where it reminds me of beautiful Budapest and Fisherman’s Bastion every day.
A tisket, a tasket, a French market basket
My sturdy French market basket, handcrafted of natural palm fibers has a distinctive herringbone pattern with leather trim and handles, and functions both as a carrier and a magic carpet. One look in my pantry at that iconic straw tote, and I’m instantly transported to the lively outdoor Saturday market in Beaune, France, in the heart of Burgundy’s famed vineyards. That’s where I bought my signature souvenir.
In reality, I may walk out the door of my house in Charlotte, NC, with bag in hand to pick up sweet corn and heirloom tomatoes at my local farm stand. But in my reverie, I’m joyfully wandering through Beaune’s food stalls overflowing with the region’s seasonal abundance. I envision myself selecting a round of Époisses, Burgundy’s lusciously stinky cow’s milk cheese. I might ask the butcher for a slice of jambon persillé, a traditional terrine made of cooked ham cubes and chopped parsley molded with gelatin. If it’s springtime, I’ll pick up a carton of sweet gariguette strawberries.
The mother-daughter owners of The Cook’s Atelier, a small family business comprising a cooking school, culinary boutique, online shop, and wine shop, introduced me to this medieval city’s colorful and aromatic celebration of Burgundian gastronomy. I participated in their one-day market tour, hands-on cooking class, and luncheon. Now, whether grocery shopping at home or in my memories of Beaune, my cherished and trusty French market bag protects my precious provisions.
Pillow talk: Dreaming of Africa
So many trips. So many trinkets. Years ago, I vowed to only acquire useful items when I travel, things I can either eat or wear. Now and then I slip up — as in the time I fell for a pillow cover to brighten my condo’s earth tone sofa.
I was gearing up for an African safari with a stay at Zimbabwe’s Victoria Falls Hotel, sadly during its waning days, not its posher eras. While browsing in the hotel’s gift shop, I spotted a stack of intriguing pillow cases, all quite flat and without stuffing. I was hooked by the row of fabric-covered buttons along the top, which would open to make adding filling at home a snap. The cases were locally made with hand-printed fabrics sporting various African animals in a unique geometric style. Later, I learned such prints were traditionally created using stamps carved from potatoes. I settled on one featuring elephants, row upon row of elephants in green, red and blue.
Back home, my solo pillow looked lonely. Happily, a safari to Namibia loomed in my future. Between wildlife outings, I searched Swakopmund’s craft shops for a companion case. Once found, I snapped up a smaller version, this one depicting guinea fowl.
The pillows, which prop me up while I scan travel brochures, take me back to thrill-packed sightings of giraffes, rhinos, lions and other wondrous creatures. I think I’m overdo for another safari, as well as a third pillow case.
Little bowls of joy
My collection of small ceramic bowls brings me great joy every time I fill them with condiments. Since turning 50, I’ve garnered more than ten handcrafted bowls from various international cities. And, each has a backstory to share that makes it a fun serving piece.
I purchased a Spanish bowl in Barcelona, while waiting in line for admittance to the Picasso Museum. During my travels to Italy, I bought a few of my favorites, including one with a multi-colored design that depicts the houses on the hill in Positano. Another, I purchased from a pottery stall in the coastal town of Cefalu, during my vacation in Sicily in 2019. A pretty one from Greece with blue swirls reminds me of my stay along the Aegean Sea in Santorini.
We always say yes to cruise assignments, but when we learned our transatlantic cruise aboard Holland America Line’s Zuiderdam would include Iceland and Greenland, we were thrilled. Our Greenland stops were Nanortalik and Qaqortoq. After passing imposing glaciers and icebergs (plus their smaller cousins “growlers” and “bergies”), we stepped ashore at Qaqortoq on a glorious, blue-sky day, the rocky shoreline peppered with colorful houses. Rambling on foot, we stopped to admire a particularly tidy and enticing garden roadside. The owner, wearing an Arctic Winter Games T-shirt, came out to say hello. Turns out that Alibak Hard, the town’s former tourism manager, now manages the post office.
Magic carpet bride
For our second date, my girlfriend and I headed to Europe for a few months of backpacking. (I guess the first date had been good). We took a ferry to Morocco in search of Rick’s Café—you know, “Play it Again Sam” sort of stuff. We did not find this romantic hangout in Casablanca, or even Marrakech or Rabat, but rather in the enchanting, laid-back coastal town of Essaouira.
In our wanders through the lively and colorful medina, we found ourselves at a Berber carpet seller’s shop, the beautiful creations covering the floors and flowing from the walls. We sipped mint tea and chose a splendid rug. The shopkeepers were so taken by us (my girlfriend mostly), that they invited us back that evening for dinner. We sat cross-legged on a mat of carpets and shared a communal dish of tagine, scooping it from the earthen pot with hunks of bread. Between delicious mouthfuls we discussed all things worldly: the Gulf War, Canada’s climate, and the manners of camels.
Thus my love of travel was born. I carried that carpet around Africa and through Europe, strapped to my pack. It has adorned my living room, bedroom, and office. And now, although a bit thread-bare, it sits in front of the fireplace hearth at our cottage. A poignant travel memory for my wife and I: Yes, our second date was also good, and my girlfriend has become my lifelong travel partner, thanks in part to that magic carpet.
Taste of the Big Easy
It was my one-and-only RV trip, and if I’m lucky, I’ll never sleep on the top of a kitchen table in a rest stop in Alabama again. Or break down underneath the New Orleans city-limits sign, after limping across the 24-mile-long Lake Pontchartrain Causeway. Although to be fair, that flat tire wasn’t too much of a hardship as the men got out to fix change the tire, while the women stayed inside and ate brownies.
It was my first trip to the New Orleans JazzFest, and we traveled in an RV with two other couples. Like any good trip to New Orleans, it was filled with unparalleled memories, plus several mishaps and misadventures. These included being pelted with change by falling-down drunk people one morning in the French Quarter and the RV breaking down, again, on the way home.
One of the best things to come out of the trip, however, was a recipe I got for pimento cheese made by Caroline, one of the owners of the RV. It is so delicious, and with only four ingredients, super easy to make. Although that trip was more than 15 years ago, every time I make RV Pimento Cheese, I think of that trip to the Big Easy.
When I travel, I love bringing home various kinds of memorabilia. But, what I look for changes over time. Since 2009, when I launched my career into writing about chocolate and cacao around the world, my most coveted souvenirs and memorabilia have been connected to the world of chocolate. As chocolate and cocoa nibs are consumable, they don’t last long in my house. But as cocoa pods—the melon-like pods that grow on cacao trees and house anywhere between 30 and 50 cocoa beans—can be dried to virtually last forever, they are my most coveted travel souvenirs.
Cacao grows in countries 20 degrees north or south of the Equator. Seventy percent of the world’s cacao grows in West Africa (notably Ghana and the Ivory Coast), but it’s also found in the Caribbean islands, Mexico, Central and South America, as well as Indonesia, the Philippines, and Australia. I made a quick visit to a cocoa farm in the Dominican Republic in 2009 as part of an agri-tour. But, in 2013, I made an intensive visit to Peru, where I stayed with cocoa farmers living along an Amazon tributary in the San Martin region.
It gives me great joy to be reminded of my chocolate travels by admiring the cocoa pods I proudly keep on the shelves in my sitting room. These days, I may not be able to get to faraway places, but I can write about them, share my memories with friends and family, and daydream about more chocolate-flavoured travels to come.
I’ve visited Acoma Sky City, that ancient indigenous village on a cliff in New Mexico, five times. And, at home, I proudly display five beautiful hand-made pots selected from a little rough-hewn display table on the edge of that cliff.
The cliff edge with view of the valley that won’t quit is the ancestral summer home of the Chino family. I think Emil Chino is one of the best potters at Acoma. His work is traditional yet always has a modern twist in his detailed painting. He decorates with images of what he sees there — butterflies, quail, adobe-walled homes, or a turtle, symbol of water. And, he paints with a brush made of fine strands of yucca, picked just outside his door.
We’ve come to be friends and he recognizes me when I drop in unexpectedly, even briefly on one of the village’s historical tours. You can’t visit without a tour guide, and reservations must be made ahead of time. I look forward to these visits and always hope Emil will be home. And those times, for a few minutes, I have the pleasure of standing with him feeling the cleansing wind softly blowing through my hair, looking out over the valley and thinking about the many generations who have lived there, farmed the valley below, climbed the mesa with ollas of water, and made the famous Acoma pottery.
Functional and fanciful fashion
When you’re an empty-nester who’s recently downsized from a large home, you’re likely to lose your desire (and space) to accumulate travel tchotchkes (souvenirs). But even a Herculean move doesn’t dampen one’s desire to memorialize experiences in some concrete way. So now, I only bring home small, functional items that convey a sense of place.
I searched local hardware stores in Los Cabos, Mexico, for the perfect size exprimidor de limón (lemon squeezer) to squeeze lime juice into Paloma cocktails. Every day, I use the indestructible natural wood hairbrush (with wooden bristles) I discovered in a pharmacy near the Christmas market in Nuremberg, Germany. My rice gets scooped from pot to plate with a patterned, wooden mold that I sighted when strolling the downtown plaza in La Serena, Chile.
But I must say that I’m totally smitten with the polka dot shower cap I found at Galeries Lafayette, in Lyon, France. My friend Donna and I wandered through the department store and wound up in the bath department. The linens were beautiful but too heavy to carry. This ruffled shower cap’s polka dots remind me of French fashion and style and even suggest the whimsy of a petticoat worn by the Folies Bergère. Yes, it’s functional but it’s also an objet d’art when viewed through the glass shower enclosure each time I enter the bathroom.
Time travel on the menu
On a rainy morning in Nashville, a melting message on a sidewalk chalkboard drew me into the Sun Diner, a 24-hour joint serving neon, country music and southern hospitality in equal measure. The narrow entrance in a low slung red brick building was just steps away from the new Johnny Cash Museum, but inside it was still 1954.
Sam Phillips was recording The Million Dollar Quartet — Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison and Johnny— on his new label Sun Records, and that’s what I listened to as I drank hot, black coffee from a thick rimmed ivory mug. I watched as the worn red vinyl chrome stools around the counters filled slowly with sleepy-eyed locals, then took my leave.
My waitress smiled as she gave me the menu as a souvenir, and now it hangs in my kitchen. Every time I see it, I’m back in Nashville on a rainy morning, listening to that old time rock and roll.
The siren sounds of Barbuda’s pink sands
It’s been far too long since I’ve been to Antigua’s enchanting tiny sister island of Barbuda (pronounced ‘bar-boo-dah’). Known for its spectacular pristine beaches, it has a population of less than 2,000 within its 62 square miles, and just a handful of small resorts.
And though my trip there was peppered with awesome firsts like riding a horse bareback in cerulean aqua waves and witnessing one of the Caribbean’s largest frigate refuges, it was the pink sand that stole my heart. But it was not only its sweet rosy hue and the feel of the silky softness beneath my bare feet that inspired my rapture, it was the sound. Yes, sand can make a sound.
Pink sand gets its unique coloring from a gazillion little shells, coral pieces, and calcium carbonate bits called foraminifera. As the waves drag all these tiny crushed bits back to the ocean they make a distinctive clacking sound as they tumble over each other, a rhythmic tikka-tikka-tikka-tikka after the whoosh of the wave, and in my mind at the time, I also heard a singsong echo of “Follow me, follow me, into the sea…” It was a siren song hard to resist. My souvenir from that trip was a tiny bottle of those pink sand pieces, and it was capped with the traditional madras (tartan) of the island. Every time I look at it, I hear that song, and it reminds me to return as soon as I can. Hopefully this coming year.
Joy in a box
I rarely bring home anything more than photographs, but I purchased a small music box in Bratislava last year. I keep it by my bedside, so that I am reminded daily of the last European trip I took, a wonderful cruise on the Danube River.
Bratislava’s historic old town has a beautiful square with both government buildings and small shops. The place where I purchased the music box drew me in with its colorful presentation. It specialized in locally crafted items that are unusual and special. I felt like I could do some serious retail damage there.
I’m not normally drawn to music boxes, but these featured images by Austrian artist Gustav Klimt on the top. I chose The Kiss, one of his most well-known paintings, and turned the little handle. The romantic and mysterious melody it played sealed the deal. The tune is called Arabesque, but the composer isn’t credited. I’ve had no luck discovering the original composition from which it was taken.
Music always evokes strong emotions and memories for me. I can recall every detail of a setting if there is music attached to it. So, every time I listen to the tune, I remember my week on the Danube experiencing new sites, sounds, and tastes, with new friends. It always brings a smile to my face, kindling feelings of joy tempered by wistful longing to return to Europe and long-distance travel.
All photo credits by authors, unless otherwise noted.
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