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The scent was floral and musky. I couldn’t quite place it, but it reminded me of the strolls we had taken that week during our honeymoon, the smell of flowers in each yard harmonizing to cloak the city in its distinct magic.
I bought the candle and walked out of the shop to rejoin my husband. I didn’t know it at the time, but I’d just sparked a new tradition — one that I would bring with me on travels around the world.
Whenever I visit a new city, I venture out to purchase a candle at the beginning of the trip. I look for scents that embody my newfound surroundings, and then I burn the candle at my hotel or lodging. As the days pass I begin to associate the scent with the city, and at the end of my stay, I pack the candle, bring it home and burn it again whenever I want to be transported back.
New Orleans, to me, smells like lychee flowers, copal and a walk through the Garden District. Paris smells like huckleberries, black musk and late nights in the 2nd Arrondissement. Los Angeles smells like eucalyptus. Chicago smells like sandalwood. Charleston, like figs.
It’s common knowledge that our sense of smell is strongly intertwined with our memories. Neuroscientists have conducted research to figure out exactly why, and the nitty gritty includes things like your olfactory bulb, amygdala and hippocampus, according to Scientific American. “Empirical evidence indicates that odor evoked memories are more emotional” and “associated with stronger feelings of being brought back in time,” one study found.
As a traveler, I think, that’s something to take advantage of.
Companies have capitalized on this science themselves. It’s now common for hotels to have signature scents, pumping perfume through lobbies and rooms and selling candles behind the front desk. The Gramercy Park Hotel ricocheted Le Labo’s Santal 26 to cult status in New York City and beyond. Homesick has built an entire brand around candles that smell like home. And luxury perfumery Diptyque is known to drop limited-edition “city collections,” with each candle usually only available in the corresponding city. Their Berlin flame combines acacia with linden tree and honey, while Tokyo boasts cypress, incense and ginger.
I’ve tried all the classic travel souvenirs. Shot glasses from various spring break destinations line my cupboards, while magnets from Seoul and Havana adorn my fridge. But once unpacked — if we’re really being honest here — the keepsakes rarely matter to us again.
Bringing home a sentimental scent is a souvenir that keeps on giving, long after the candle’s wick burns to the bottom. I now order that same candle from New Orleans every year for our anniversary, and with one spark I’ve traveled back in time. The fragrance notes of a candle wrap themselves around the memory of a trip.
More travel tips
Planning: Your guide to traveling again, in 5 steps | How to move to Europe | Less busy national park alternatives |Protect your plans from covid chaos | Save on wedding travel | How to cook at a vacation rental | How to travel with kids under 5
Road trips: How to find a rental car | Snacks | National park tips | Rental car disasters | Try Kevin Costner’s road trip app | Trying a fancy bus from NY to DC | How to save on road trips as gas prices soar | What it’s like to rent from Turo
Flying: What to do about lost luggage | Getting through to airline customer service | How to get a refund | Extend your flight voucher | Find a good neck pillow | How to deal with chaotic airports | Cut the line at the airport | Get your kid a frequent flier account | Plane workouts | Why you should pick your seat | Can you fly with edibles? | When an airline bumps you | Your canceled flight emergency kit
Camping: Finding a campsite | Plan your meals | Solo camping | First-time tips | Watch out for wildlife | 6 surprising camping essentials
Greener travel advice: Should you bike to the airport? | How to find ‘greener’ flights | How to actually make your travel better for the planet | What it’s like to rent an EV
Hot takes: Get up early on vacation | Why you should dress up for a flight | Talk to strangers | In a relationship? Travel alone anyway