Why Your Best Souvenirs Could Be Better

What are the best souvenirs?

I used to buy key hangers, posters, and masks.

After several trips, I realized I was always buying similar items.

I was also overconsuming and acquiring things I wouldn’t use.

That’s why I decided on a new strategy.

Optimize Emotional Value | The Best Souvenirs

In The Lifechanging Magic of Tidying, Marie Kondo wrote that items could be seen as functional, informational, emotional, or a rarity.

Our best souvenirs should fulfill the function of emotional items. Their single purpose is to safeguard a memory from your trip or to make a friend happy by gifting this souvenir.

But how emotional are these items really? If you buy a magnet at the airport, will this product fulfill its role of reminding you of happy days? I doubt it will in most cases.

And how useful is the product? One key hanger is helpful, but if you have ten from different countries, they’re probably stored away in a drawer somewhere.

After realizing this, I decided to optimize for emotionality and functionality.

Let me give you an example. After visiting a local bookstore and talking to the owner, I’d buy a novel from a local author. It would remind me of our conversation (emotional) and take me back to that specific moment. It would also have a functional and informational value because it’d teach me about the culture.

Other examples are asking your favorite holiday restaurant if you could buy one of their coffee cups, buying swimming shorts from a local designer and using them during the holiday, or buying a bottle of Mezcal after visiting a tasting.

These souvenirs remind you of specific events. So when a friend visits your house and inquires about your souvenirs, it’ll trigger a memory and provide an opportunity to share a great holiday story.

Why This Post About the Best Souvenirs?

So why do I write this post?

After lecturing you about your souvenir-buying behavior like a grumpy grandpa, I feel that I owe you an explanation.

This post started after a thought about combining items and culture.

I always loved reading the GQ articles called 10 essential items. Artists, celebrities, and designers share their favorite items, allowing readers to discover valuable tools and beautiful designs.

I thought it would be cool to do a similar series but from people around the world. Their items would tell a personal and cultural story.

That’s why I asked a friend from Vietnam if she wanted to be the first one in the series. She responded that she could but that I should kick off the series.

I agreed, so here we are. These are ten of my most valued items, including some of the best souvenirs I ever bought.

My Top 10 Essential Items

1. Alpaca Blanket (Ecuador)

I got this blanket in Otavalo, a huge indigenous artisanal market in Ecuador.

I lived in Quito back then, working for the Red Cross Employee and studying Spanish. Since Otavalo is only a few hours from Quito, it was an excellent destination for a weekend trip.

Once I arrived, I felt overwhelmed by the colors and hundreds of stands full of products in thousands of sizes and colors.

My eye caught a beautiful wool alpaca blanket, and since it was pretty cold in my apartment in Quito at the height of 3,000 meters, I decided to inquire about its price.

I always thought alpaca wool was expensive, so 30 dollars for a blanket seemed too good to be true, but I decided to buy it anyway. Five years later, it’s still in great shape and one of the best souvenirs I ever bought.

If you’re not visiting Ecuador but are interested in the blanket, you can find them on Amazon, Ecuafina, and Alpacaloca (in the EU only).

best souvenirs ecuador blanket
best souvenirs el dorado

2. El Dorado Rum (Guyana)

When I graduated, one of my best friends gifted me a bottle of El Dorado Rum 12. He’d just finished a water-related project in Guyana and decided to bring back a bottle of their local rum.

It’s probably one of the best souvenirs you can buy from Guyana.

Rum is usually underrated compared to the more popular whisky and cognac, so you typically get a much better bang for your buck.

It is good to know that El Dorado rum is bottled outside of Guyana, so the government has a more straightforward job regulating sales and taxing imports. This means they’re pretty expensive even locally and might be priced similarly to Europe and the US.

You, therefore, might want to buy this souvenir when you return to your home country.

3. Vinyl Record Player

As a student, I got an old stereo tower. It was a relic from a previous generation, a rather large construction, but of outstanding quality. It also had a record player and sparked my interest in vinyl records.

Later, when I moved to Ecuador, the heavy tower had to go. I gave it to a friend, which meant I had to buy a new one upon return. I didn’t consider myself an audiophile and decided to purchase an entry-level model.

I found the Lenco LS300 Model (also available on Amazon) with two speakers, a record player, and Bluetooth function to play Spotify music from your phone. I bought it during a sale for 140 euros, including a 2-year guarantee.

These entry-level record players are a great way to test if you like vinyl records. In a worst-case scenario, it stops working after the 2-year guarantee, meaning you’d have paid 70 euros per year (140 euros in total) to test-drive vinyl records.

My three favorite records are Portrait in Jazz by Bill Evans, Afrobeat Pioneer Fela Kuti‘s Sorrow, Tears & Blood, and Miles Davis’ Somethin’ Else. Recently I’ve been buying more records by musicians from Mali.

best souvenirs vinyl

4. Nag Champa Incense

Burning incense is a great way to set the scene for meditation (or any ritual) and to give your room a pleasant smell. There are many expensive brands, but my favorite is the nag champa agarbatti incense sticks.

Nag Champa incense is cheap. A package costs only 1,89 euros, and half a stick would already do the trick. In the Netherlands, I buy them at the Xenos, but you can also find them online.

Last year I found a lovely minimalistic brass incense holder I use with it now.

5. Grandpa's Seiko Watch

After my grandpa passed away, my grandma gifted me his old Seiko watch. It’s one of my most valued items for obvious reasons.

It’s a simple and formal watch with a steel strap, automatic timework, date in English and Spanish, and a fluorescent number plate.

Besides wearing it casually, I use it during formal events if I need to feel my grandpa’s support or if I’d like to feel he’s celebrating there with me.


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6. GOWOD Stretch App

For the previous ten years, I’ve had recurring neck pain. I wouldn’t say it’s severe, but it did impede my work some days.

I assume the origin is a mix of stress, a lousy work posture, and spending too many hours seated (remember that sitting is the new smoking).

I tried everything from chiropractors, physiotherapists, and personal trainers to different work schedules, but nothing solved the issue permanently.

That’s until I learned about GOWOD. This app enables you to create a flexibility profile and a personalized schedule. You then check in once a month and keep improving.

My issues are not entirely gone, but I feel much better. I also realized that with a starting score of 37/100, that flexibility may have been one of the issues.


7. Burtbees Lipbalm (Canada)

When I was 16, my parents, siblings, and I traveled through Canada to visit family around Toronto and Vancouver Island.

It was the first time I saw whales and wild bears, discovered iced cappuccinos and donuts at Tim Hortons, and listened to John Mayer. It was a grandiose trip.

Whenever I ware Sunmen (a cologne I wore at the time), I listen to John Mayer’s song 3×5, or use Burtbees lip balm, I’m instantly back to one of those family road trips, driving through never-ending rows of trees where we’d spot an occasional black bear cub.

Besides unlocking memories, Burtbees is also the best lip balm I’ve ever had. It lasts a long time and is available in Europe. It’s the best souvenir I keep on buying.

8. Coffee Mug (Malawi)

In 2017, I decided to write my Master’s thesis with the Red Cross. My topic would be typhoons in the Philippines. It was the ideal subject because I’d been there, and the Red Cross had a lot of data available.

On my first day in the office, there was a slight change. Instead of typhoons in the Philippines, my focus was going to be floods in Malawi.

The amount of data available?


It sounded like a nice challenge, though, and I took it.

Several months later, it allowed me to travel to Malawi.

I read I Dreamed of Africa and arrived with unrealistically high expectations. Surprisingly enough, Malawi lived up to all of them.

We hiked the Zomba plateau at 5 AM before work, encountered the ocean-like view of Lake Malawi, and every road was surrounded by lush green hills. At night, we would listen to the sounds of the garden’s colorful birds and the rain drumming on the tin roofs of our little cottages. 

One of my colleagues who grew up in Malawi told us we had to stop at the Dedza Pottery because they had some of the best souvenirs. 

We arrived at a lovely workshop with pottery in all sizes and colors. We picked several items, our preferred prints, and a few weeks later, they all arrived in the Netherlands

This coffee mug still reminds me of that beautiful trip.

best souvenirs malawi dedza pottery

9. Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones

I’m a big fan of Tim Ferris’ podcast and books.

In Tribe of Mentors, Tim interviews scientists, artists, athletes, and celebrities to extract their life learnings. 

One of the questions he asked these guests was: “What is your favorite item you purchased under $100.”

My favorite was also the most unexpected: a Rabbi who recommended the $400 Bose 35ii Noice Canceling headphones.

At the time, noise canceling was a new invention and I remember walking into an electronics store, trying them on, and hearing absolutely……nothing.

I then waited for two years until they became more affordable and have used them every day since. They’re great for calls, travel on trains and planes, meditation, and sports.

If you’re still in doubt, this is the universe telling you, you should buy a pair. 

Bose already released a new model, which I heard is similar in quality to the Sony headphones.

10. Northface Duffle Bag

In 2015, I went on an AEISEC volunteering exchange in the Philippines. It was my first-ever trip outside of Europe, and I wanted to prepare well.

My way of doing so was to buy an overly expensive professional backpack with 18kg worth of storage space. 

If you want my advice, don’t take more than 12 kilos when backpacking

I did not take my advice and realized that 18 is too much after an hour of hiking at 35 degrees.

Luckily though, after buying the backpack, the shop asked me for a review and said I had a 1/75 chance to win a coupon for a hundred euros. 

I liked my odds, tried it, and won the voucher. I then used it to buy a much lighter Northface Duffle Bag

It’s undestroyable, waterproof, and a perfect carry-on bag because airlines will only check in suitcase hand luggage

I combine it with a vacuum bag for my clothes. These bags are cheap, save a lot of space, and are usually waterproof, keeping your clothes dry at all times.

Disclosure: I’m sharing these items because I love and use them myself, and hope you’ll feel the same. If you want to buy something and would like to support Cultural Reads, you have the option to buy it through one of the affiliate links in this post.

Share Your Best Souvenirs!

your best souvenirs

Do you have cool souvenirs?

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2 Responses

  1. Most of my early travel was spent in Latin America where I would buy textiles of all descriptions. This later morphed into artwork. Both not terribly easy to transport and really, what are you going to do with it all? That said, my absolute favourite painting (and the only one I ever got framed) is one I bought at the Otavalo market near Quito 😀

    When I started travelling full-time, I switched to buying a piece of jewelry from each country. Bonuses: it was small, light and I could wear it! It also gave me a treasure hunt for each place I visited as I wouldn’t buy just any piece. I specifically sought out jewelry where I could talk with the person who made it and, of course, I had to love it. In more than one country, this proved quite challenging!

    I still wear the jewelry that I’ve collected from around the world, and each time I select a piece to wear, it takes me back to that country.

    1. It’s nice to see how you get more “skilled” in souvenir buying right? I remember the first time I went to Kenya, I bought all kinds of gifts for family and friends and my colleagues bought almost nothing. Later I realized that many of the souvenirs were mass-produced and sold in many African countries. For me the combination of wanting to buy fewer things and support local entrepreneurs and artists led to a huge shift. Thanks for sharing, really cool to hear about these experiences from others!

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