Keepsakes worth keeping

Souvenir shopping? Swap T-shirts and snow globes for items that reflect a country's culture.
Illustrated by Jessica Allen

Universal souvenirs such as shot glasses, magnets and key chains are popular for a reason: They’re small, inexpensive and collectible. But they don’t usually say much about where you’ve been. For an elevated keepsake, look for objects that embody the unique culture of your destination. These tend to be items that locals use in their own homes, wear themselves or wrap up as gifts to other residents and visitors. Think beyond disposable trinkets to clothing, edibles and artwork — to handmade goods with a history and a handprint.

Authenticity should be the main selling point, and the store or vendor should possess the documentation to support the memento’s provenance. On a more practical note, be mindful of portability, since you will need to carry the object home (unless you ship it), and cost, since you must declare all purchases at customs. Below, you’ll find a sampling of souvenir suggestions for 10 countries with good shop ops. You might even want to double or triple up, in case you can’t part with your purchase: There is no shame in repeat souvenirs.

Here’s a souvenir you can use on your trip: an Akubra hat. The iconic outback hat — think of Crocodile Dundee’s — has a wide brim for protection from the strong Australian sun. Its name comes from the company that originated and still sells them, though the Dundee style has been discontinued and the rabbit fur felt used to make them is now sourced from Russia. (You can find outback hats made by other manufacturers and from other materials, including straw or oilskin.)

Indigenous art (above) has received well-deserved recognition recently through international exhibitions, purchases by institutions including the Tate Modern, and the efforts of collectors such as Steve Martin. The best-known form, established in the 1970s, is bright acrylic Aboriginal dot painting, in which the traditions of body painting and sand art are transferred to canvas. But there are many other forms of indigenous art; the term encompasses both Aboriginal Australians, whose mediums also include bark carving and soft sculpture, and Torres Strait Islanders, whose artwork includes wood sculpture and lino printing. Check the Aboriginal Art Association’s website for a guidance about purchasing indigenous art, or visit an indigenous community art center to ensure the work is genuine and the money goes to the artist and community.

For a super-transportable souvenir, consider Australia’s national stone: the opal. There are three main types found in Australia, which has the world’s largest supply: black, white, and boulder (cut from a host stone). Purchase from a reputable dealer, who will provide you with a certificate of authenticity from a member of the Australian Opal Association.

Maple syrup is the country’s original sweetener, dating to aboriginal times. The boiled sap still flavors a full day of dining, from sunup (doughnuts, pancakes) to snack time (cookies, candy) to nightcap (whiskey, ice wine). Most maple syrup originates from groves in eastern Canada. For tree-to-bottle syrup, visit a sugar shack in Montreal or Quebec. Canadian travel expert Heather Greenwood Davis says the rural outposts sell artisanal varieties, including the flavorful dark version. Whether you shop at a Loblaws supermarket or Toronto’s St. Lawrence Market, look for the “pure” label. You don’t want to end up with some modern-day treacle.

Early Europeans used Hudson’s Bay blankets (above) as currency with the First People, trading the wool item for beaver pelts. Today, you’ll need a heap of furs — or cash — to purchase the pricey blanket, which is still made in England and sold at Hudson’s Bay, a national department store. The off-white blankie with the green, red, yellow and blue stripes isn’t just for couches and beds; the design also appears on mittens, scarves and, yes, blanket coats.

The umbrella of indigenous art is culturally and geographically wide, covering works by First Nations, Métis and Inuit who collectively inhabit all 13 provinces and territories. Inuit and Haida pieces, for example, portray slices of northern life, such as spear fishing with narwhals, and explore ancestral customs, mythologies and religious beliefs. For quality works, including totem poles, sandstone carvings and graphic prints, shop at reputable art galleries and museum stores. Or visit a native community and watch the artists transform a block of wood or slab of stone into a masterpiece.

Tea (above) is so synonymous with China, where it originated thousands of years ago, that it has worked its way into our idioms — we wouldn’t trade anything for all the tea in China, for example. It ticks off a lot of other souvenir boxes, too: It differs depending on the region, is light, and can be packed in pretty canisters. Go to a tea shop or a tea market, where vendors will prepare and pour samples for you. Unless you are buying aged tea, check the date it was bagged to make sure it is fresh — no more than a year old.

The Chinese have used seals colloquially known as chops to sign artwork and documents since the Shang dynasty (about 1600 to 1046 BC) — think of the square red mark in the corner of Chinese paintings. You can purchase chops, made of stone found in China, in many markets. Pick out a piece you like, and the merchant will carve the characters you choose into the bottom. Chops are a few inches tall and are packed in silk gift boxes, sometimes with a container of red paste.

Jade, mined and carved in China since the Neolithic era, is valued for its beauty and strength; it is said to protect wearers and bring them luck. Confucius ascribed 11 virtues to it, including truth, credibility and morality. Unfortunately, not all sellers share those virtues. Find a reputable dealer in a large city (ask some locals) and make sure you get a certificate of authentication. Jade comes in three categories — A is completely natural material, B has been chemically bleached and injected with resin and C has been dyed.

Colombia is the world’s third-largest coffee producer, so you’re almost obligated to take a stash home. The Juan Valdez brand is pervasive — and tasty, too. Grab a bag from a grocery store or, if you’re a procrastinator, at the airport. For a more boutique bean, Daniel Buitrón Jaramillo, co-founder of Colombia Eco Travel, recommends a visit to a farm in the UNESCO Coffee Cultural Landscape of Colombia region, such as Hacienda Venecia or Café San Alberto, which specializes in high-end and high-altitude joe.

The sombrero vueltiao is the national symbol of Colombia, and to protect its heritage, the government bans imports. The unisex accessory is made of woven palm. The finer the weave and the more intricate the pattern, the higher the price. The traditional color combo is black and white, but if your style is more tropical bird than zebra, choose a colorful version.

When girls from the Wayuu tribe hit puberty, they learn to weave the cotton, wool or fique Wayuu bags (above), a popular accessory among Colombian students. The satchels, often called mochilas, are pocket-less pouches with a drawstring closure and tassels that hang down like mutton chops. They come in mono-hues or peacock colors with patterns inspired by nature or a geometry lesson. Men from the Kogi tribe tote two bags, including one to hold their coca leaves. The wool carriers come in brown, with an occasional detour into dark greens and blues. For the most authentic shopping experience, and the best prices, purchase the bags in the tribal community. Or visit a government-supported Artesanías de Colombia stores in Cartegena, Bogota or Medellin.

Even grown-ups are charmed by Czech wooden toys, prized for their simplicity and durability. You’ll find unfinished or brightly painted push toys, pull-along toys and press-up toys in stores and holiday markets. If you want something even more specifically Czech, buy a wooden version of Krkek, the beloved Little Mole cartoon character from the 1950s. For a more elaborate souvenir, consider a marionette; puppetry in the Czech Republic and Slovakia is on UNESCO’s list of intangible cultural heritage.

The area that was once Bohemia makes up a large part of the Czech Republic, and glass (above) has been produced there for more than two millennia. In the 13th century, Bohemia became a dominant force in glassmaking with an especially stable product and artisans who employed innovative designs, color, cutting and engraving; during the Art Nouveau Era, they added iridescence. Avoid purchasing Bohemian glass in gift shops: The Czech Republic has plenty of stores — Moser is more high end; Blue Praha more affordable — studios, schools and factories where you can also learn more about this tradition. If you can’t swing a piece of glass, some Czech glass beads would make a nice souvenir as well.

The country has a strong heritage of natural healing — it’s dotted with picturesque spa towns — and one native remedy is Becherovka, a bittersweet herbal liqueur developed in 1807 as a digestive aid. The liqueur — a secret recipe with 20-plus herbs and spices sold in a flat, green bottle — recently has been appearing in craft cocktails. (You can bring back one liter of alcohol duty free.)

Lord Ganesh is a good god to have on your side: The beloved elephant-headed Hindu idol removes obstacles from your path. Ganesh comes in nearly every size (pinkie size to head high) and type of material, including brass, terra-cotta, ceramic, sandalwood and semiprecious stone. He appears in statue form, paintings and wall sculptures, and dangles from necklaces and bracelets. Ganesh is sold in every nook and cranny of India, including New Delhi’s Chandni Chowk shopping district and the retail arcade inside the Taj Mahal Palace in Mumbai.

Indian women of all ages and relationship status wear stacks of bangles (above) made of metal, wood, glass, plastic and, for the very posh, gold. However, the jangly adornment is more than a fashion statement. Brides, for one, pile on red bracelets as part of the matrimonial ritual called solah shringar. The bangles cover the entire price and sparkle spectrum. Find them in street markets, costume and fine jewelry stores, and department stores such as Fabindia. The owners of India Beat, an India-based tour operator, recommend the old city bazaars in Rajasthan, which sell lac bangles in bulk.

Khadi clothing is stamped with Gandhi’s seal of approval. In the 1920s, the independence leader urged Indians to wear apparel made of the hand-woven fabric as an act of protesting the British. The cotton, which is sometimes blended with wool or silk, is crafted into shirts (men’s and women’s), kurtas (ditto), Nehru jackets, saris and dresses. The Khadi and Village Industries Commission runs more than 8,000 outlets around the country and launched an app with a store locator tool.

Florence is the capital of Tuscany — and leather goods. Pick up purses, belts, wallets, gloves and key chains if you’re on a budget and a coat if you’re not. If you can sniff out the real Italian leather from the fake, scour the street markets, such as San Lorenzo. For less detective work, drop into a reputable leather store, where the goods should boast “Made in Italy” and “Vero Cuoio” (“True Leather”) tags. For shoes, dream big at the Salvatore Ferragamo Museum in Florence then head to Milan for more realistic shopping. Many of the shoe designers and makers go back generations, such as Calzoleria Rivolta, which has been dressing feet since the late 1800s.

All of Italy’s regions produce olive oil (above), but the best extra virgin originates in Sicily, Liguria and Lake Garda. While driving around, look for olive tree groves, then prepare to stop at the farmhouse selling bottles of oil squeezed from those trees. At grocery and chain stores, expect to pay more for small-batch production than industrial size. Of course, every oil needs a vinegar. For Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena, the geographic-specific comestible protected by the European Commission, head to Modena and Reggio Emilia provinces.

Handcrafted paper received a modern makeover in the 13th century, when artisans in Fabriano experimented with new techniques involving animal gelatin and watermarking. The town in the Ancona province still produces the luxurious paper and even has a museum where visitors can make their own sheets. Fabriano Antonio Mauriello, president of Savour Italy Tours, directs shoppers to Umbria for stationery, cards and notebooks featuring the logo of the esteemed paper house. Or pick up a framed signed letter, such as the John Hancock of a pope.

Day of the Dead (El Día de los Muertos) figurines (above) are popular all year, not just on Nov. 1 and 2, when Mexicans throw a welcome-home party for deceased loved ones. The papier-mâché or clay skeletons perform land-of-the-living activities, such as dancing, dog-walking and getting hitched. La Catrina, who dons a large hat and flouncy boa, is the queen of the underworld. She is famous in Capula, in the state of Michoacan, though her image is sold in markets and folk art stores nationwide. Stephanie Schneiderman of Tia Stephanie Tours suggests buying directly from the artists in Puebla, Oaxaca and Michoacan.

Talavera pottery picked up several influences on its way to Mexico during colonial times, including a high-temperature firing technique from Moorish Arabs and nature-themed motifs from Asia. Local artists transform the hand-painted earthenware into tiles, plates, dishes, vases and bowls. The cities of Puebla and Guanajuato specialize in the clay art form and support several established workshops, such as Talavera Santa Catarina and Talavera Uriarte.

Oaxaca and Puebla both take ownership of mole. Puebla claims the sauce was born in a local convent; Oaxaca, which is known as the Land of Seven Moles, boasts the best mole in Mexico. But there’s no need to take sides, because both regions produce a stellar sauce. Visit a local mercado to sample the vast array of flavors, such as negro, which contains 30 ingredients, including chocolate, and yellow, a simple blend of ground corn meal, dried red chili and a green herbal leaf. A quarter- or half-kilo jar costs only a couple bucks, so go ahead and buy all seven.

Wooden clogs (above), developed in Northern Europe in the Middle Ages as an effective and affordable way to protect feet from moisture and muck, were widely adopted in the Netherlands. (The word means lowlands, after all.) They were still worn on factory floors in 1997, when the European Union unsuccessfully sought to ban them in the name of safety. Today, however, most of the shoes with the delightfully onomatopoeic name of klompen are manufactured for tourists. Seek out a traditional clog-maker — there are only about a couple dozen left — to help preserve a fading craft.

Cheese from cows grazing on well-watered Dutch pastureland has been popular since the Golden Age of the 1600s, and the Netherlands remains the world’s second-largest cheese exporter. In addition to Edam and Gouda, named for the cities where they were first sold, you’ll find tasty varieties such as Maasdammer (like a Swiss cheese) and Leidse kaas, which has cumin seeds. You can taste cheeses in cheese markets (held mostly for the benefit of tourists), local cheese shops (kaaswinkels) and factories. U.S. residents can bring back pasteurized cheese products; ask the shop to vacuum wrap your purchases.

Delftware was developed in the 17th century as a more affordable alternative to Chinese porcelain. If you want an authentic piece of the blue-and-white earthenware, consider traveling to the charming city of Delft and shopping at the two remaining factories there, which will give you a certificate of authenticity. If you’re after antique Delftware, expect to declare your purchase at Customs; pieces run thousands of dollars.

The printed dyed cotton fabric goes by several names: The Sothos call it seshweshwe, the Zulus refer to it as isishweshwe and the Xhosas label it ujamani. Despite the different monikers, the patterned cloth is the same — and nearly unchanged since it arrived via Europe in the 1800s. Today, Da Gama, in the Eastern Cape, is the only original shweshwe manufacturer left in the world. Designers create table linens, decorative pillows and clothing out of the textile. Presidential, for one, uses the fabric in its Madiba shirt, the pocketed garment popularized by Nelson Mandela. Peruse the patterns at the Pan African Market or buy it by the meter at Mnandi Textiles, both in Cape Town, or the Work Shop New Town in Johannesburg.

The country’s largest ethnic group uses the vibrant ornamentation of Zulu beading (above) as a form of communication, with the geometric patterns and primary colors relaying information about the wearer. Zulus share their tradition with tourists through jewelry, ceremonial headdresses, collars, napkin rings, coasters and artwork, including wire animal sculptures. For shops, Sunit Sanghrajka, founder of tour operator Alluring Africa, recommends the Big Five duty-free stores in major airports, and Sandton City and the Rosebank Art and Craft Market in Johannesburg.

Rooibos, or red bush, only grows in South Africa — the Cederberg region of the Western Cape province, to be exact. The caffeine-free, antioxidant-rich herbal tea supposedly contains more healthful and healing properties than green tea. Buy it bagged or loose leaf, and drink it black: You don’t want to muddy the earthy flavor. Non-tea drinkers can get their rooibos fix through infused cosmetics (check Boots pharmacies and Cape Grace Hotel), chocolate (try Le Chocolatier outlets) and spirits (Cape Town Gin’s Rooibos Red).

Credits: By Elizabeth Chang and Andrea Sachs. Designed by José Soto. Illustrated by Jessica Allen.