The Best Souvenirs For Backpackers

People say that photographs are the best souvenirs. And I agree – I took hundreds upon hundreds of photos! They’re snapshots of memories. They’re personal.

However, I also think there is something satisfying about bringing back a tangible item. Something actually from that country, that city, that moment.  Only, I have found souvenirs to be both a blessing and a curse.

If I could, I would buy everything. It’s always a battle. That tapestry would just look amazing back at home! This hand-painted bowl is so cute! How much Italian olive oil do you think I can get through customs?

I have a dream of filling a place with trinkets from around the world. There’s even an extensive list on my phone for future souvenirs. I would love a string of traditional prayer flags from Nepal.

However, when I was backpacking I found it hard to find the perfect balance between being able to get the souvenirs I wanted and not feeling like I was carrying another person on my back. Because, if you like to travel light and cheaply, chances are you won’t be checking a bag.

So here’s a few ideas of some great souvenirs that you can easily carry no matter how long you travel.

Postcards

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Just because you’re supposed to send postcards doesn’t mean you have to.

What I love about collecting postcards is that they’re slim, barely weigh anything, and can fit in between the pages of a book.

But aren’t postcards just more pictures?

Yes, but postcards will have photos of things maybe you were unable to capture. Perhaps you really enjoy skyline photos but only have the time to stay in the city. Maybe you don’t have the luxury of traveling off season and it seems like the entire world also happens to be there. Or maybe you weren’t allowed to take pictures of your favorite painting or sculpture, as cameras were prohibited. Sometimes it happens.

I’ve built quite the collection. Sometimes I’ll grab two or three from one place, depending on how big the city is. Don’t know what I’ll do with them yet. Maybe I’ll make a collage or just keep them loose in a box that I can leaf through every now and then.

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And (the best thing) they’re only 50 cents and just as common as European cafes.

Magnets

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They’re a bit bulkier, but still lightweight and easy to shove in a carry on. I used to think collecting magnets was tacky (don’t know why) but I became obsessed with how adorable they are. Like, an Eiffel Tower made of baguettes?? It made me laugh so hard I just had to get it. I don’t have as many magnets as I do postcards, but they’re just as easy to find.

Sew-on patches

I’ll admit it, I totally snagged this from another backpacker. But, how cool is this?

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Patches are cheap, usually 1 to 3 euros (cheaper if you buy them in a tourist shop instead of ordering online). Pack a small sewing kit if you want to sew them on along the way, or just wait until you get home. There’s even iron-on ones if sewing really isn’t your thing.

A lot of other backpackers do this with their large 40L, but I like the idea of sewing the patches onto a bag I can carry anywhere. Talk about a conversation piece.

Keychains

I’m not a collector of keychains myself, but they’re also great as gifts. They say everyone has keys.

Everyone except for a backpacker.

Anything that is consistently wearable

Consistently is the key word here. Novelty t-shirts are cool, but clothes take up a lot of space. Instead, find accessories that you can wear every day.

Maybe pick up a leather or wooden bracelet in Italy.

If Budapest is getting cold, a scarf is a very practical and stylish option. I love buying scarves while traveling. I got one from Amsterdam too!

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Don’t have shoes for a warm climate? Buy some sandals once you get to Spain.

I ended up buying one too many rings on High Street in Edinburgh. Oops . . . (but not really) . . .

I won’t lie, sometimes I break my rules and splurge on things I can’t pass up. My arsenal is growing. I did get a leather journal from Florence and a beautifully painted ceramic espresso cup from Vicenza. I rolled up a small tapestry and stuffed it in my already overflowing backpack after spending the weekend exploring Carcassonne.

It’s okay to splurge a tiny bit. You’re traveling! At least, that’s what I tell myself.

If you see something you absolutely love, chances are you aren’t ever going to find it again. You’ll say you’ll come back later, but you won’t. I have a lot of potential souvenir regrets where I saw something that was amazing, but I either didn’t think the time was right or thought it was too bulky. I’ll just let you know now, the time is never right. And if it’s bulky and you love it, you’ll make it work (ex: beautiful ceramic espresso cups from Italy). Except posters. Those don’t travel well anywhere, unless you’re Nicolas Cage and have one of those Declaration of Independence cases that strap to your back. But I’m betting if Nicolas Cage is off busy stealing some priceless document, he probably doesn’t have time to backpack.

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I also like to collect things that don’t necessarily fall into categories. I’ve kept used maps with notes scrawled in the corners, the cork from the bottle of champagne I popped on New Years while standing outside the Louvre in Paris, miscellaneous ticket stubs, packets of vin chaud from Germany, and a jar of loose change rattling with coins from different countries. I have a large wooden box filled to the brim with little odds and ends. Sometimes the best souvenirs are the things you end up shoving in your pocket. 

Don’t think that just because you’re backpacking doesn’t mean you don’t have room to find good souvenirs. And when you’re finally back home months later, dreaming of those golden days when you were traveling, you’ll get the question everyone has been waiting for.

“Oh, I love that! Where did you get it?”

And then you can just smile.

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If you have any other ideas for great (and portable) souvenirs, help a fellow backpacker and comment below. I’d love to hear what you’ve found abroad!

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