How to shop for souvenirs when you’re broke and yet have impeccable taste

by Sara Clarke

Shoppers in Istanbul's Grand Bazaar. Photo by Sara Clarke.

I don’t think there are many places left in the world where you can’t buy a cheap mass-produced souvenir. You can buy keepsake shot glasses in Cleveland, I Heart Reykjavik tee shirts, and snow globes from Bangkok, where it never even snows. Every world region that is famous for handicrafts has markets set up every ten paces, selling cheap foreign-made versions. I wonder if any tourist has ever visited the Peruvian alpaca-yarn mitten and Turkish pashmina factories of China?

With all this crap to buy, we find ourselves looking for a truly unique souvenir. Being someone who, as we’ve already learned, has champagne tastes and a “wanna drink forties in the park?” budget (and whose grandmother was a tough act to follow in the souvenir shopping department), I’m always on the lookout for cheap stuff to bring home from my travels.

While Gloria can spot the perfect weird bit of antique farm equipment at fifty paces, my souvenir specialty is ephemera. I bought vintage Bollywood posters on Mutton Street in Mumbai’s Chor Bazaar for a couple dollars apiece. At the end of a trip to Italy, my backpack already stuffed with €2 bottles of wine (my other souvenir speciality is hangovers), I was sad not to be bringing anything more durable home. Then I realized that my free tourist map of Rome was a specimen of flawless European design. It now hangs above my bed, a reminder not only of a fun vacation but also that I am the queen of cheap beautiful things.

Sadly, this is not one of the posters I got. Great movie, though. Abhimaan stars Amitabh Bachchan and his wife Jaya Bhaduri. Creative Commons image courtesy ramesh_lalwani, via flickr.

But let’s say you’re traveling light. Or that you’re sitting at home, moping that you didn’t bring any cool examples of the local design aesthetic home from your last trip. The amazing thing about art as a souvenir is that, through the glory of the internet, you can turn back time and correct this oversight. And it’ll still be a lot cheaper than deciding you really did want that silk Kimono or Persian carpet.

The Madrid metro system, courtesy of Lineposters.

Nostalgic for your semester abroad in Spain? This stylized map of the Madrid metro system will run you $28.

Drawing by Jennifer Maravillas.

Pining for New York? Jennifer Maravillas’ colorful illustration of the lower Manhattan skyline is just $35.

Drawing by Suhita.

Maybe you regret not taking more photos in India. You can pick up Suhita’s lovely watercolor sketches of Varanasi for $20 apiece. She even takes commissions!

The holy grail of illustrated ephemera, though, is the event poster. In order for this to count as a souvenir, at the very least the venue has to be in a city you’ve actually visited. Ideally, your poster should reflect a place you’ve actually been, and the gig should be something you would actually go to (a band you like, a gallery show that reflects your tastes). Even better, look for posters advertising events you’ve actually attended. This is something I haven’t managed to pull off yet in my travels. I don’t know if I’m too discerning about my poster art, or maybe just not going to cool enough spots. But someday, I’m going to score something like one of these:

A poster for the band Tortoise's shows in Madrid and Barcelona. Image courtesy Error Design and


This would be even cooler to have if you've been to both MoMA and Falling Water itself. Image courtesy MoMA Design Store.


One of the Birmingham Museum of Art's posters from the Who Shot Rock N Roll exhibition that's been making the rounds of American museums over the past few years. I suppose it's a tall order to have seen Jimi Hendrix live, though.


On the other hand, if you'll be in Fredricksburg, Virginia, this May, you have a shot at seeing Lynyrd Skynyrd. Poster by Les Herman, image courtesy of


The above posters can all be purchased at, the MoMA Design Store, and the Birmingham Museum of Art. It’s unlikely that any of them cost more than $30 or so.