How to Decorate with Travel Mementos

Advice from design experts on bringing the vacation home

Strolling along a well-worn path in pursuit of the faint tune and spicy aromas wafting through the breeze, you are the kind of traveler who looks past major monuments teeming with fellow tourists. Instead, you seek out the quiet corners of an unfamiliar city. You also are not content with bringing home goods and apparel of the “I <3 NY” variety.

If this sounds like you (or even if it doesn’t), you’ll love these ideas from other travelers that provide a method to the madness behind seeking out genuine goods from the places you visit—and then intentionally using them as decor in your home.

travel decor mementos design san diego

Designer Julie Smith of Jula Cole Design grouped items with similar textures, but varying heights and widths, to form a cohesive overall look atop a white console. Photo by Samantha Goh Photography.

Pre-Trip Planning

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The shelves of Petra de Luna Shop. Photo by Angela Garzon.

Yolanda Brionez, owner of the Ocean Beach-based boutique Petra de Luna Shop, takes trips to Central and South America every two to three months. Every six to eight months she’ll go farther abroad to Europe, Asia and Africa. She may have wanderlust but traveling to exotic places is how she restocks her shop’s inventory of textiles, leather goods and all manner of handmade wonders.

“I always research before I travel,” Yolanda says. “I usually try to find some artisan craft that the area is known for. I mostly go to small towns instead of large cities. Most big businesses in the city order from the small artisans out in the countryside, and I like to go directly to them in order to find the best products. The smaller artisans are always going to have the best quality work.

“When you travel, you should really try to absorb some of the local languages—simple things like please, hello and thank you,” she continues. “The locals will really appreciate it and it makes things much easier when you go to make purchases.”

Julie Smith of Jula Cole Design loves utilizing items from travels—sourced both from her own journeys and her clients’ trips—when decorating. “Before you travel, consider the available space in your home in need of decor and the available dimensions for something new. Plus, if you already have a few of something—like terra-cotta vases—consider looking for that same object in differing shapes and heights to create a cohesive collection.” 

Erika Gervin of South Harlow Interiors says you should definitely leave ample room in your suitcase for your future purchases. While Erika is an advocate of spontaneous buys that bring you joy, she recommends using social media beforehand for a sneak peek. “Instagram is a great resource. You can save images and categorize them so you can look ahead and find beautiful things you want to check out in each area you visit.”

To streamline your Instagram shopping inspo hunt, try checking out the feeds of popular travel bloggers (like @theblondeabroad and @nastasiaspassport) and being as specific as possible when sifting through the hashtags for great finds (try things like: #shoppingin(location) or #fleamarket(location).

Where to Look

“Always ask the locals for tips,” Yolanda says. “They will tell you where they shop versus the tourist traps, and if you are looking for something in particular, they will know a maker or have suggestions for a shop where you can find it.”

Antique markets also make Yolanda’s list of suggested venues for locating unique treasures.

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Julie forms a lovely tableau using a mix of clay, glass and woven containers. Photo by Anna Gex.

Erika is also a huge fan of shopping at flea markets (she found great—and very reasonably priced—items at one in Paris) and little local shops. “These are the types of places that you find special items. Nothing there will be mass-produced and you will find things that will be perfect conversation starters. Commissioning a piece from a local artist is also a great way to get a one-of-a-kind piece of artwork that embodies the place you are visiting.”

Julie counts flea markets and consulting the locals among her top resources as well. “Locals will have their finger on the pulse of the art scene in that area,” she says. “Go off the beaten path where you can find the real culture and be sure to invest in fair-trade works.” Another one of her secrets?  “I’m always a sucker for a surf-type shop in the middle of nowhere.”

Petra de Luna Shop OCean Beach travel decor

Petra de Luna Shop, an Ocean Beach-based boutique, stocks all manner of textiles, leather goods and handmade wonders found by owner Yolanda Brionez on her travels abroad. Photo by Yolanda Brionez.

Favorite Finds

Sometimes to discover the best items to bring home, you need to look past the obvious and hone in on more unexpected options.

“My favorite thing to go hunting for in any locale is leatherwork,” Yolanda shares. “Every country I’ve visited has some kind of leather working that they excel in. This doesn’t just mean picking up a new satchel. There are also musical instruments—such as drums—saddle bags, leather-bound books and clothing items, like the pair of vintage chaps I have at home.”

Yolanda connects her love of leather back to her overall obsession with texture—all textures. “I have a hat wall in my house with a lot of cowboy and straw hats from all over. I also hung a giant aged-leather bag in our entryway and strung raw cotton spools in various places. These are all easy pieces to seek out abroad that provide a unique element.”

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This woven basket plays both artwork and functional vessel on a coffee table (styled by Erika Gervin of South Harlow Interiors). Photo by Amber Thrane.

Julie most values keepsakes that are significant but practical, so that they don’t become needless clutter at home. “I try to get one amazing piece that blows me away accompanied by more functional objects. Books are always a great reminder of where you’ve been and buying them in a similar color palette maintains a curated look.”

Wooden objects are preferred because they create a story without adding clutter, Julie says. “Look for wooden bookends and vases and pieces that can be useful in the kitchen like bowls and utensils.”

TIP: Budget Buy

If you’re traveling on a strict budget, Julie Smith of Jula Cole Design suggests searching out wooden figurines from each stop on your itinerary. “Every culture has their own gorgeous version of wood carving,” she says. “Small figurines are not only inexpensive, but they can easily fit in your suitcase. You can buy them in varying heights and widths to get an eclectic collection going.”


TIP: Haggle Know-How

Yolanda Brionez of Petra de Luna Shop says that in many cultures—Morocco and Turkey in particular—haggling is part of the process, and you’re considered rude if you don’t try to negotiate for an item before deciding against buying it. Brush up on your bargaining skills.


Perfect Placement

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Julie touts wooden objects as one of the most cost-effective mementos you can collect. Photo by Victoria Pearce.

If you didn’t already stake out the perfect places for your purchases during your pre-trip planning—or if you (shockingly) came back with a few more items than expected—there are plenty of foolproof ways to fit in your acquisitions from aboard.

It never hurts to up your #shelfie game. Weave small items in with existing pieces on your shelves to create a diverse, layered look, Erika suggests. The same goes for your coffee table: Add height by stacking those vintage books you just had to have from that shop in Antwerp right next to the hand-carved bowl from Mexico City.

At a loss for what to do with the fabulous textile pieces you found? “Turn them into accent pillows or a throw at the end of your bed,” Erika says. “Or even wrap a bench seat if you have enough fabric. If you’re working with a smaller piece of fabric, you can frame it and hang it or lean it against the wall on a shelf.”

If you went a little crazy buying bowls, don’t worry since the uses are essentially limitless. “I use bowls in so many different ways and spaces,” Julie says. “I’ll utilize them as planters, storage for cooking utensils and a place to put keys and jewelry.”

Even large rugs have a lot of diverse styling potential. “I have custom rugs in my shop that we display in all kinds of ways,” Yolanda says. “We hung them from the ceiling at different depths, which could easily be recreated at home, or a single rug could be used as a fun wall hanging.”

Categories: Home Design