How to pick meaningful souvenirs OR getting coffee mugs from Norwegians

When I was a kid, I was pretty addicted to bringing back cool souvenirs from any new countries I visited. I’ve still got quite a few of them, and now that I’m living somewhere for longer than a year or two, I’ve got them sitting on shelves above my desk so I can enjoy them when I’m working.

But you might already be on to my problem: “sitting on shelves” is not a great thing for souvenirs. (And honestly, I hardly ever look up and see them – my eyes are always on my monitors!). I still like them, though – the ornament in this photo is, in fact, the very first souvenir I bought, when I was in Hong Kong at the age of eight.

How to pick meaningful souvenirs from your travels

I love this gorgeous Hong Kong souvenir but I have learnt better since then …


Sometimes the most meaningful souvenirs are not the ones you buy

Before I give you my own personal rules for picking meaningful souvenirs, I want to digress to a story I heard when I visited my friend Jo for morning tea recently. She made me a cup of tea and handed it to me in the mug you can see below. And she told me I would love the story about where this mug came from …

How to pick meaningful souvenirs (or get given them!)

I drank tea from this mug and heard the best travel souvenir story …


She was right. The story is … my friend Jo and her friends were all on holidays in Greece, having an island holiday on Crete. (Important context: Jo grew up in England, so popping over to Crete for a summer break is something like us Perth-ites heading to Bali, except of course I think her version is way better).

There were all the usual kinds of tacky souvenirs available around the place where they were staying. One possibility was using a photo to make a coffee cup, ready to take home with you. (Back when this stuff was relatively rare.)

On their holiday, Jo and her friends struck up some friendships, one of them with a Norwegian guy, whose name has (probably fortunately) been lost to historical memory. But we know what he looks like, because as a parting gift, he got these photo mugs made with a picture of him, and gave them to all his new friends!

Now that’s a unique souvenir! It’s hard to see in my photo, as the poor coffee cup image has faded a bit over years of use, but there’s even a random passerby there – the picture was taken right at the little stall that created the coffee cups. As you can imagine, Jo remembers her trip to Crete every time she uses this coffee mug.  We had a good time wondering what that guy was up to now (and what kind of gifts he might be giving out these days!).

How to pick meaningful souvenirs – my rules!

If you’re not lucky enough to have some random person give you a souvenir, you’ll have to choose your own. I have a lot of experience of bringing home tacky and terrible souvenirs in my lifetime, so I have a few rules now that I try to stick to. (Not always with success but I’ve got much better.)

1. Can (and will) you wear it, on a regular basis?

This single rule has made the biggest difference to my souvenir buying habits in the last ten years. And the word “regular” is important (buying a thick scarf when you live in a warm country doesn’t count, for example). This winter I’ve been wearing the green jacket with its Inis Meain logo from my Ireland trip last year very regularly. And as I type this, I’m wearing the woolen jumper I bought from the knitting factory on Inis Meain. The only mistake I made in this regard was to also buy my son a green Irish jacket and when I’m not careful and we wear nearly the same thing, people give us some strange looks.

I’ve also got some really gorgeous bracelets, necklaces and earrings bought on my travels. I love to dig around in my collection and wear something different, each time remembering where I got it and what else I did on that trip.

2. Can (and will) you use it on, on a regular basis?

Clothing and jewellery aside, there are lots of other souvenirs you can buy that are practical enough to get regular use. For me, it’s technology-related stuff. In Penang, for example, I bought a gorgeous iPhone cover with an image of George Town’s famous street art on it … although sadly, it remains at large in my lost luggage, but if it was here, I would definitely be using it because my current phone cover is cracked and in need of urgent replacement!

3. Is it truly beautiful and do you know where it will live when you get home?

Sometimes a souvenir might really be something that’s just ornamental, but that, under well-thought-through circumstances, can be okay. I have a few souvenirs hanging on my walls that fit this category although as I look at them, I realise they’re mostly gifts from students from around the world – from where I sit right now I can see hanging ornaments from Russia, Slovakia and Turkey – and it’s the people I remember in this case, rather than the place, but the same principle applies. But if you don’t know which wall you can hang it on or where else it can sit (and what you’ll get rid of so there’s space for it), don’t add it to your suitcase.

How to pick meaningful souvenirs on your travels

I didn’t buy either of these souvenirs from Slovakia and Russia, but I love them!

Simple as that – those are my three criteria and if a potential souvenir doesn’t fit into one of these categories, it gets left in the shop or at the market stall. Well, most of the time, anyway! What are your rules for buying souvenirs on your travels?

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  1. Susan Dunn says

    My souvenir buying history came to a rapid halt when I met my husband. For every item I bought he would say ‘another dust collector’! It wasn’t until many years later when he asked me if I collected anything in particular (maybe looking for gift ideas) I told him, no, I’d stopped when he made ‘that’ comment. His look and actions after that spoke a thousand words! In Austria somewhere he bought a most ridiculous candle souvenir which we still have, and would stop with me while I chose my random items, (still sometimes with a semi groan – always light hearted though!).
    So to this day I have a cabinet full of special things- some useless – some gorgeous like my Delft ware. My favourite though is my Steffi Bear from Hamleys; my Charlie Bear from Bridgetown; and my bears from … yes, I collect teddy bears!
    I love scarves too. My fave rave is my genuine Pashmina from Dubai and all the fake and real ones I since added. And yes, I do wear them!
    A stunning silk (he thinks!) dressing gown – kimono style from – wait for it – Thailand – not Japan! – is my favourite latest ! And yes, hubby bought that one for me!
    So no rules apart from – either being wearable or being a genuine teddy bear!!

    • Haha Susan my husband has a similar attitude!!! Wearable or genuine teddy bear sounds like an excellent set of souvenir buying rules, though. Well done!!

  2. Hilary Mcwilliam says

    Lovely blog Amanda, I’ve even printed it out. The souvenir I bought back from Italy this time was one I didn”t want and would never had bought. In Rome on a quiet Sunday morning we were stopped by a man in a smart suit driving a smart car asking the way to the railway station. Feeling flattered that I didnt look like a tourist was able to tell him. Then he beckoned my husband to his window saying “Your wife is lovely. Look I work for Armani and I would like to give her a gift of this Armani handbag” which he handed over but then he said “But perhaps you would give me a note towards it”to which my husband got out his wallet and handed over 20 euros.” öh that is not enough More”my husband handed over 20 Aussie dollars but by that stage it was beginning to dawn and he was able to say he had no more so I had a souvenir fake Armani handbag !

    • Oh dear Hilary, yes that wouldn’t be my choice of souvenir either – but at least you have a funny story to tell about it! We had a similar incident in France when I was a child. Ended up with a horrid ivory tusk that we got rid of somewhere along the way.

  3. After a while you just can’t buy more souvenirs! 🙂 My family purchases Christmas ornaments when we can. It’s fun to reminisce about our trips as we decorate the tree each year. Sharing the memories could possibly be one of the best parts of travel.

  4. I always love buying any souvenir, but my boyfriend also thinks I collect too much! Now that we packed everything up as we are moving overseas, I tend to agree with him 🙂 now I am limiting myself to collecting postcards and Christmas ornaments!

    • Ah yes Amy – moving overseas makes a big difference to your perspective on souvenirs, sure did for me! Postcards and Christmas ornaments sound like a good plan.

  5. In highschool it seemed mandatory to buy a Hard Rock Cafe beer stein on every vacation (or a t-shirt). I tried mugs for a while, but I’m not a coffee drinker. Finally hubby & I switched to buying magnets for the fridge! I don’t mind an article of clothing, but the magnets are cheap and practical for our family (the kids get to help). Occasionally something for decorating the home (like on the walls), but NO knick-knacks!!!

    • Sounds like you have a good strategy there Cristin! And magnets are definitely nice and small and easy! (until your fridge is full …!)

  6. Love the tips about buying things that are wearable or useful – I don’t like dust collectors myself and am trying to declutter for the last few years as we are in the process of finishing the build of the home that we are living in.
    Some of our latest souvenirs have been rugs from Portugal – we even bought new suitcases whilst in Portugal specifically to fit the new floor rugs into. And we are so glad that we did because now it’s cold, windy and wet and the insulation in our home is not fully installed but we have cheerful and warm floor rugs for our feet to enjoy.
    We aslo bought some lovely decorative tiles and have installed them in our nearly finished kitchen – it was a great day when we finally unpacked the tiles from the box they were stored in for the last two years and put them in place.
    One of my favourite souvenirs however is neither wearable or very useful – it is a little Teddy Bear, named Travelling Ted. He was given to me on my first Christmas away from home so that my nephew and niece would not think it strange that Santa Claus had not brought anything for their visiting Auntie. My nephew and niece are now adults and it still brings a smile to my face when I come across Travelling Ted, he is currently being moved from box to box as I slowly declutter and move into our new home. I’m sure one day he will find a permanent place however for the moment he is still travelling 🙂

    • Oh Travelling Ted sounds fabulous! I also love the idea of using souvenirs or stuff from abroad to decorate/build your home. Slightly impractical for us here in Australia in terms of transporting stuff but great idea!


  1. […] to say all souvenirs that can’t be worn or don’t serve a practical use, are pointless would be severe, but […]

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