As you approach the Eiffel Tower in Paris, you’ll see more and more souvenir shops. When you get really close, you’ll be surrounded by people trying to sell you little Eiffel Towers on a keychain. And the climax is when you get to the Eiffel Tower itself, which is filled with gift shops where you can buy magnets, postcards, snow globes, plates, spoons, stress-relief balls, condoms and a lot more, all emblazoned with an image of the famous landmark.
France is the best place to start when discussing souvenirs. The word souvenir is French, and translates to “memory.” Originally, souvenirs were popular among religious people on pilgrimages. They would take little bottles of dirt, or, more destructively, bring back physical pieces of the place they were visiting. Fortunately, businesses figured out that there’s a demand for keepsakes, and they have filled it in a big way.
The word souvenir is French, and translates to “memory.”
Souvenirs are now a massive part of the tourism industry. In 2013, 60 tons of Eiffel Tower keychains on their way to be sold by black-market vendors were seized by French police. Trinkets like these keychains have become the norm for gift souvenirs. And let’s be honest: not many people like these gifts. No one needs a mug that says “I Heart London” on it.
But how do you shop for souvenirs, then? If everything you come across seems like a cheap tchotchke that’s probably available on Amazon, what do you do to get a truly worthy gift for your friends and family? Fortunately, we at Babbel have a lot of experience with traveling and finding worthy mementos. Here are some of our staff’s best tips for souvenir shopping.
Search For The Local Markets
“Go to local markets” probably isn’t earth-shattering advice. The most obvious thing to do when you want to get away from the typical trinkets is to visit local artisans and craftspeople. And you’ll want to make sure that the artisans aren’t actually selling something that is mass-produced. Content producer Dylan Lyons, for example, says one of the best souvenirs he’s gotten someone was a hand-painted bull he found at a market in Spain.
To find something fun and memorable, you don’t necessarily have to go to an artistic marketplace, however. Executive producer Jen Jordan says she likes to go to the local grocery stores and drug stores to find local brands and items that reflect things locals would actually purchase. You know, because Italian people probably aren’t buying scale models of the Tower of Pisa for their homes. This isn’t to say a bag of crisps will necessarily be the best souvenir from London, but at least then it would be something genuinely British.
Find Out If Anyone You Know Is A Collector
If anyone in your family collects a certain object, you’ve hit the jackpot. You can buy them something to add to their spoon/plate/shot glass/model lighthouse/snow globe collection pretty much anywhere in the world. But not every collectible needs to be a trinket bought in a souvenir shop. Designer Drew Pak says he liked collecting matchbooks from local restaurants. Things like that — coasters, postcards, bookmarks — can be cheap or even free, and they’re quick, elegant mementos that don’t take up too much space in someone’s house.
Everyone Loves Food
Food souvenirs can seem a bit too temporary. It’s not really a “memory” after you eat the whole thing. But among the staff at Babbel, food is a very, very popular gift. Maybe that says something about us. But really, everyone loves food. So buy food for people.
No, this doesn’t mean you should buy fish and chips and try to get it through airport security. Our director of digital marketing Olga Eskina says she and her friends always exchange spices. Spices, after all, are both useful and tasty, and they certainly beat a lame knickknack. Our statistical analyst Ting Ding adds that she always brings back specialties from the area, like getting sage and olive oil in Greece. Food is often the best part of a vacation, so bringing back some flavor is a great way to remember a trip.
Make It Weird
You’ve been to the markets, shopped ‘til you’ve dropped and thought for hours about what souvenir your friend would like. Still, you’ve got nothing. It’s not that you haven’t tried, you just haven’t found anything that screams their name. In that case, we recommend getting the weirdest thing you can find. Personally, I find the kitschiest souvenir store possible and find the strangest thing they offer. The sheer volume of stuff that some stores have is amazing, and you should take advantage. That’s how my friends all ended up with bobbleheads of the royal family after my trip to London.
Go Personal Or Don’t Get Anything At All
Look, I don’t know you. Maybe you have relatives that absolutely demand you bring stuff back for them after a trip. But for the most part, souvenirs should be given because you genuinely saw something and thought of someone you know. Designer Ally Zhao said the best souvenirs she’s gotten have been the most thoughtful: one was a hand-made glass penguin given to her by her brother because she loved penguins, and the second was a postcard her mother sent all the way from China to the United States. Both are special because they were clearly bought with her in mind. If you’re running through the airport looking for gifts at the end of your trip, you’re doing it wrong.
If you’re running through the airport looking for gifts at the end of your trip, you’re doing it wrong.
Speaking of personal, now’s a good time to mention that you shouldn’t forget yourself. You’re the one going on the trip, so you’re really the only one who needs the memory. UX research lead Rachel Lynch said her favorite souvenir is a mug and a spoon from Mexico, which she got for herself. While she doesn’t usually get souvenirs, she says, “If it’s a really special trip and I find something I can actually use in my life that will remind me of my time somewhere else, I will get it.”
Seeing a friend’s face light up when you get them a souvenir that they love is great, but shopping can cause some unneeded stress on vacation. Frankly, your friends should appreciate you thinking about them at all while you’re away. So go out, enjoy your trip, and hopefully these tips will lead you to find something that will brighten your friend’s day.