10 Ways to Decorate With Travel Souvenirs
Updated: Apr 7, 2022
For us, our house is a cozy place with nothing matchy-matchy but everything put there by purpose. With the mere exception of our kids' rooms, every room in our house is full of our travels. I have a hard time passing by an outdoor market - I love to see what artisans from different regions like to make. I also find that a lot of times the handicrafts use the bright colors, interesting designs, and varied textures that I crave.
Today, I want to show you more about how we let our travels influence the decor in our house. This was all organic (i.e., not by design), but it is authentically us:
1. Displaying Travel Books Together for Impact
We have a small third-floor study with an adjacent set of bookshelves. Things are loosely arranged by genre. Front and center is our travel book section. It's my pride and joy because it is almost exclusively places that we have been. There are exceptions but they are happy exceptions (like "happy trees" for the Bob Ross fans) that are on my bucket list like Japan or trans-Canada on a train.
The top shelves are for coffee table-size books: atlases, National Park compendiums, big beautiful books. The next few shelves are travel guides that are arranged by the company: Lonely Planet, Moon Books, Frommers, Fodor's, etc. Below that, are travelogues and other travel stories that we have read while on the road.
Books are bookended (pun intended) by meaningful tchotchkes: beautiful wooden elephant bookends from Africa, an ink well and stamp with our names in Chinese, a wooden box filled with leftover coins. In a future post, I hope to tell you more about my favorite travel essays and fiction - some are on everyone's booklists but many are not.
Next comes language reference materials: French from high school, German from my early 20s, and Spanish most recently. Finally, we have world religions.
2. The East African Safari-Inspired Bathroom
Years ago, Bill and I went on a safari to Kenya and Tanzania in Eastern Africa. Our friend, Sang, graciously let us borrow his zoom lenses and we have some really amazing shots. I framed a few of our favorites and they adorn a bathroom upstairs.
Separately, I purchased towels with a white and black tiger print along the bottom to go with the theme. I hung a picture made from banana leaves that I bought at a roadside stand in Kenya above our pedestal sink. We have a lion's tooth from a Maasai warrior and some beaded bracelets, also from Africa that sit atop a shelf. When friends and family stay in our guestroom, they always remark on how fun the bathroom is decorated.
Related Post: Using Mixtiles to Display Travel Photos
3. Displaying a Traditional Lamu Dhow Boat Name Plate
Lamu is a small island off of the coast of Kenya. The small town has no cars, only donkeys and dhows for transport. A dhow is a traditional Arabic boat that is made of wood and has a sail. They are usually rather drab save for a bright blue and white nameplate that they put on the front of the boat. We had ridden on one up the Nile for an overnight trip and I immediately fell in love with these boats. One day, we were standing on the shore about to watch their annual dhow regatta. Several guys waved to Bill and I and asked us to get onto their boat. We were there for good luck and they wanted to show us a great time. We didn't help them win but it was a wild ride and lots of fun. Somewhere in the BBC archives is a much younger Bill being interviewed from that day.
Later that week, we went out fishing with a man named Ali. I mentioned to Ali that I loved the nameplates and asked him if he had an old one. He was really confused as to why I would be interested in such a thing but he said that he had one from his old boat, "Bumblebee". He brought it over the next day and gave it to me. I asked how much he wanted for it. "Ten dollars," he said in a voice clearly surprised that I was willing to pay for it. "How about $20?", I replied. The deal was done.
We had no estimated arrival information from the Post Office and spent the rest of the year traveling around the world. It hadn't made it to my parent's house when we arrived home ten months later. But the next month, it did. Who knows what adventures it had while sailing the seven seas? And that's how I ended up with a piece of a boat in our dining room.
4. Traditional Christmas Decorations from Other Countries
Every November, I start to put up my Christmas stuff. There are two groups of people: those that do it right before Thanksgiving and then naysayers that insist on waiting until after Thanksgiving. You can tell how I feel about the second group. I have six large Christmas trees, several tabletop ones, and a village that could be considered a Victorian metroplex. It easily takes me at least three weekends to set up fully and I have no interest in doing that through the holiday only to promptly take it down in January.
This year, the decor provided even more solace than normal. But every year, opening my ornament boxes is a trip down memory lane. My ornaments are almost exclusively a mix of things that my kids have made, friends have given me, or ornaments that have come from travel.
5. Jewelry from Around the World
I like to wear jewelry but I don't seek it out when we travel. Sometimes things catch my eye though and if I know a place is known for a metal or gem, I may actively seek it out.
Once, we traveled to the country of Georgia. We were walking down a hillside from a beautiful church and we saw a woman knitting. The woman had beautiful knitted socks and felted circles that she had put onto a necklace. The socks became Christmas stockings for Bill and me and the necklace adorn my necklace display.
Also on display, are pearls from the Beijing and Hong Kong pearl markets. There is also an Indian glass bead necklace and anklets to ward off snakes made from silver and gemstones. I have copper earrings and silver bracelets and earrings from Argentina, a silver and gemstone necklace from Chile, and Tanzanite earrings that were not bought by us in Tanzania but were bought for me stateside by Bill as an inside joke from our travels.
6. Art and Sculpture from our Travels
Sadly, I'm neither rich. nor a good artist. I am very opinionated on what I like and it's usually out of my price range.
Right at the beginning of our round-the-world trip, we were in Buenos Aires at Recoleta park. I met a woman that painted beautiful Tango scenes. She told me that there were ~7 steps to the tango and she liked to paint some of them. I noticed that she had painted certain positions but I couldn't find the other ones. "Have you ever painted all seven," I asked. "No," she replied.
I asked her if she would ever consider doing so and how much that might cost. And that is precisely how I ended up commissioning artwork right at the beginning of our long trip. Bill still brings up the fact that I commissioned art just a few weeks into a year-long highly budgeted trip.
A year later, we returned to Dallas and for the next year, we would periodically get a new piece in the mail. It was so fun and so worth it and I still smile to see them in our music room.
I have also picked up other pieces of art or souvenirs from our trip. A model yurt from Mongolia, paintings from Italy and Peru, a vase made by an artist in Vancouver, B.C.
7. Wooden Games from Around the World
Bill and I have always enjoyed playing board games and sometimes we find some interesting ones on our trip. We have some beautiful travel-sized dice from Argentina, an inlaid wooden backgammon board with Mt. Ararat on it from Armenia, and a Bao game from the island of Lamu off the coast of Kenya.
8. Textiles of the World
As I mentioned, I have a thing for vivid color and wild patterns. I have a gorgeous red and green coverlet covered in tiny mirrors and a bright-patterned rug from Rajastahn. Actually, I went nuts buying things in India. Everything is a feast for the eyes.
In Vietnam, we had bespoke suits and shirts made as well as a traditional ao dai, a silk tunic with silk pants underneath. We also have a beautiful silk lantern.
In Ecuador, an Otavaloan market had me at alpacan blankets and panchos.
A large map on your wall inevitably draws a lot of commentaries from house guests. Bill and I have a world map where we pinpoint where we have been. It is hung downstairs in my study which also serves a pass-thru on the way to the kitchen. It's fun to re-visit the places that we've been and to ask others where they have traveled and where they want to go next.
Creating Your Own Souvenir
After I originally published this article, I came across a site with some very fun and inexpensive ways to inspire travel wanderlust. Staying Afloat blog has a couple of craft ideas that would be so fun to display in or outside of the house:
Also, I found this round-up of other world travel decor ideas that I think are fantastic, I particularly love the idea of collecting some sand from everywhere that you go and adding it to a vase. It creates a cool, striated look.
I am no designer and I know that no one walks into my house and mistakes me for one. But I do hope that people see that this is a house filled with stories to tell and experiences taken.
What souvenirs do you display in your house proudly and why?