Washington: 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. 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)
Here are some authentic, and popular souvenirs from across the world:
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 has received well-deserved recognition recently through international exhibitions. 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. 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: Maple syrup is the country’s original sweetener, dating to aboriginal times. 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.
Blankets: Early Europeans used Hudson’s Bay blankets as currency with the First People, trading the wool item for beaver pelts. Today, you’ll need a heap of 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.
Indigenous art: The umbrella of indigenous art is culturally and geographically wide, covering works by First Nations, Mtis and Inuit who collectively inhabit all 13 provinces and territories. 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 is synonymous with China, where it originated thousands of years ago. Unless you are buying aged tea, check the date it was bagged to make sure it is fresh - no more than a year old.
Seals: 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.
Coffee: Colombia is the world’s third-largest coffee producer, so you’re almost obligated to take some home.
The sombrero vueltiao: It 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.
Mochilas: When girls from the Wayuu tribe hit puberty, they learn to weave the cotton, wool or fique Wayuu bags, 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.
Wooden toys: 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.
Glass: The area that was once Bohemia makes up a large part of the Czech Republic, and glass 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. Avoid purchasing Bohemian glass in gift shops. If you can’t swing a piece of glass, some Czech glass beads would make a nice souvenir as well.
Olive oil: All of Italy’s regions produce olive oil, 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. 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: It 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.
Day of the Dead (El Da de los Muertos) figurines: These are popular all year, not just on November 1 and 2, when Mexicans throw a welcome-home party for deceased loved ones.
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.
Mole sauce: 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: 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.
Delftware: 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.
Printed dyed cotton fabric: It 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.
Zulu beading: The country’s largest ethnic group uses the vibrant ornamentation of Zulu beading 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.
Rooibos, or red bush, tea: It 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.