Half the fun of going abroad involves shopping for gifts and souvenirs that you can bring back and hang on the wall or give to friends and family. Some people may spend the entire vacation looking for that one perfect memento of their time spent on vacation, while others will have to settle for a mediocre gift like a shot glass or picture frame. Certain countries have a wealth of material or cultural artifacts that make them the best choice possible for a vacation gift. What rank as the coolest?
1) Wakizashi swords, Japan
Swordmaking has been an art in Japan for centuries, with secrets of steel and forging handed down from master to apprentice and jealously guarded. Each katana has been folded no less than ten thousand times, so that when the metal has been tempered it’s capable of breaking through concrete. These swords aren’t just weapons, they’re pieces of art, each bearing a decoration on the hilt, blade, and scabbard unique to its maker and bearer, with vibrant colors and fascinating geometric designs.
If you want to look the part of a samurai but a real sword won’t fit in your suitcase, worry not: samurai carry a second smaller sword only about the length of your forearm called a wakizashi. Those who visit Japan can come back with a souvenir wakizashi commemorating the long history of Japanese swordsmanship that fits neatly in their suitcase or pack. These swords are usually sold unsharpened to tourists for safety’s sake, but you can purchase a wakizashi capable of slicing a watermelon in one blow as well.
2) Granite, Finland
The smooth, textured, cool metamorphic stone that has been a popular choice for countertops in bathrooms and kitchens may be quarried from any place on the planet, but odds are good it comes from Finland. This Nordic nation leads the world in granite production and exports due to the fact that much of the landspace isn’t textured with mountains, and thus the quarries and mines aren’t interrupted by the igneous rock formations typical of mountain chains. Though you likely cannot bring an entire sink countertop in your luggage, Finnish granite masons craft this beautiful stone into all manner of decorations and trinkets.
You can bring back everything from granite coasters to a granite mousepad (the lack of friction makes scrolling your mouse easier) that adds beauty and style to your home. You might pay $50 per square foot for granite in the United States, but it only costs half that much next to the source in Finland.
3) Crocodile meat and skin, Australia
Visit the Land Down Under and you can find crocodiles basking out in the sun on the northern beaches without a care in the world. Not only can you feed these crocs at certain of the nature preserves, tossing them a whole chicken and watching them squabble for it, but you they can feed you as well since the Australian national park system raises select numbers of these massive creatures for the tourist trade.
In addition to a croc sirloin steak, you can purchase crocodile-skin clothing and accessories, such as a simple crocodile-skin belt or even an entire crocodile-skin jacket. Give a friend a pair of croc shoes: they’re comfy on the inside but extremely durable on the outside, since it’s nearly impossible to get through the dense scales of their hide.
4) Springbok rugby jersey, South Africa
In the United States kids grow up wanting to play in the Superbowl in front of an audience of millions; in Canada kids dream of winning hockey’s Stanley Cup for their favorite team. Go to South Africa, and the sport with the greatest passion is, by far, rugby.
Each city boasts their own team with a legion of fanatical followers, but the pinnacle of the sport involves the World Cup tournament between nations of the globe. Whoever South Africa selects for their national team gets to wear the prized Springbok jersey, the highest honor in all the nation. This beautiful green-and-gold jersey has over a century of history imbued in each fiber and remains an iconic piece of South African heritage.
5) Coral, Belize
Go down to Florida and you’ll find it’s illegal to take coral from the beaches, but visit Belize and you’ll find that so much of it washes up on the shore that nobody thinks twice about snagging the beautiful fibrous skeletons. The entire coastline of this small central American nation runs up against one of the longest stretches of coral reefs in the entire world, stretching from the tip of the Yucatan down to the rainforests of Panama.
Though tourist centers sell coral remnants to anyone passing by, there’s no need to shell out a single dime for this souvenir, since storms break away chunks of coral and deposit them neatly onto the beaches. Simply stroll along and you’ll find coral as well as sea stars and beautiful shells. Take as much as you want: the government encourages tourists to show off their sea bounty in order to drum up more interest in visiting the small nation’s resorts.
6) Alpaca wool, Argentina
The wool clothing that we purchase tends to be itchy and hot on account of the fact that sheep wool is meant to provide the sheep with protection in cold, wet climates. Not all wool comes from sheep, however, and not all wool tends to be so irritating. Cross the equator to land in South America and you’ll find that natives wear wool harvested from alpacas (a species similar to llamas, but far more fluffy) without any unease.
Alpaca wool feels far softer to the touch than sheep wool, while having better circulation to keep you dry and warm without overheating. Since alpacas live at high altitudes with little rainfall, their fur keeps them warm against rapidly-shifting temperatures in a dry climate, weighing less but providing better insulation. Visit southern mountainous nations like Argentina and you’ll see clothes like sweaters and ponchos that feel silky-smooth to the touch but will keep you warm and dry in the face of a winter storm. The natives spin this wool into beautiful designs, often using only two colors to produce a vibrant contrast.
7) Olive oil, Italy
Think of the Mafia’s complicity in illegal activities and what comes to mind? Murder most foul, threats and extortion, and so on. In reality, today’s Italian crime syndicates have found a higher profit margin and far less trouble from the authorities by going after a different target altogether: olive oil exports. Much of the olive oil shipped from Italy to the United States today has been heavily diluted by vegetable oil, to the point where only about a third of the oil in a given bottle comes from actual olives.
Cross the ocean to Italy, however, where the product’s as pure as can be, and you’ll immediately taste the difference. Whether you enjoy using olive oil for cooking or just for dunking a nice loaf of bread, take home a few bottles of the authentic stuff from Italy and show your friends how much we’re missing out on this side of the Atlantic.
8) Beer steins, Germany
What vacation trip to Germany would be complete without attending Oktoberfest, the world’s largest celebration of good beer and good food? Even if you cannot make it over to the Fatherland during the autumn season, beer halls can be found everywhere in Germany, from the largest cities to the smallest villages, each serving their own batch of quality light and dark beers. Along with the beer itself, artisans craft massive steins from clay or pewter that tell the history of the beer or the village.
A stein can rise as high as two feet and hold a full four liters of beer for an entire afternoon of drinking and camaraderie. Take home a stein from your favorite beer hall and you’ll have a piece of one of the most important parts of German culture, celebrating the love of good drink, good food, and good company.
9) Shipwreck coins, Bermuda
Three hundred years ago, the Spanish Empire stretched across all of South America and most of North America. Spanish conquistadors harvested gold and silver from up and down the western hemisphere, shipping bullion and bars and currency along the trade winds running from the Caribbean to Europe. Naturally, storms followed in their wake, and many of the ships overloaded with gold and silver sank to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.
Visit Bermuda and you’ll find a thriving industry that seeks to locate and surface as many of these treasures as can be found. A single ship may contain thousands of coins, along with gold statues, jewelry, bronze cannons, and relics like telescopes. So many have been found that Bermuda coin dealers will sell you a 300-year old coin for only a few dollars. Those who want to come away with a piece of history in their hand can visit Bermuda and come back with their own coin collection.
10) Brown sauce, Scotland
In the United States, there’s only so many options for condiments: ketchup, mustard, and mayonnaise tend to dominate the conversation, with an occasional pickle relish on the far end of the table. When you go abroad, you’ll find how many tantalizing condiments other nations use to spice up their meals. Perhaps the most delicious of all hails from Scotland and is known as brown sauce, a tangy and sweet blend that’s a mainstay for fish and chips.
It’s a cultural mainstay in Edinburgh, where the sauce developed, but is the subject of a rivalry in Glasgow where the natives furiously debate whether your fish and chips should have “salt and vinegar” rather than “salt and sauce”. Taste it yourself, then bring home a bottle or two of brown sauce and you’ll never look at ketchup the same way.
11) Callligraphy, China
For thousands of years, Chinese civilization developed a complex alphabet of several hundred characters, then worked to perfect each stroke of the pen with artistic calligraphy. Visit China today and you’ll find that calligraphy remains an art form despite the introduction of computers and printers.
You’ll find master writers spending hours to craft a single word in a sand bank or layer paint perfectly onto a sheet of paper. Take home a piece of this art by purchasing a calligraphy set to try it yourself, or buy a printed word celebrating a particular ethos of Chinese culture. Calligraphy mementos include charms, meant to give you luck at home or in the office, or signs that will ward off evil spirits.
12) Replica Faberge eggs, Russia
One of the greatest treasures in the history of global art, Faberge Eggs represent a master craftsman’s life work between 1885 and 1915, when the Russian aristocracy and monarchy demanded a set of golden trinkets or designs within an ornate outer golden egg shell.
While an authentic Faberge egg today will cost you around $20 million, give or take, Russian artisans labor to re-create the original work in brand-new mediums. You can buy a silver egg for around one hundred dollars, or an egg painstakingly carved from wood for only about twenty dollars. Some take the design to bold new horizons by creating beautiful replica Faberge eggs from common materials like bottle caps and paper-mache.