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Inside Scoop: Allison's unusual (and cheap!) souvenirs of San Francisco

No trip is complete without a personal piece of memorabilia to frame on a wall or add to a scrapbook. Some people like taking photos, others insist on buying those fabulously tacky, "I heart..." t-shirts, but in a place as iconic as San Francisco, there are some souvenirs that can really capture the essence of the city (short of trying to bottle up some of that infamous fog!).

Allison Doyle, our marketing intern, shares her favorite free or cheap treasures that best say, "I've been to San Francisco."

Allison says, "Whenever I go anywhere, I always mail myself a little something. I like stationary and hand-written letters, so my souvenirs are almost always stamps and postcards. It's a classic, cheap souvenir, no matter where you are in the world."

But there are some more eclectic little knickknacks that, if you can fit them in your backpack, can be the perfect San Francisco souvenir.

"Most San Francisco guidebooks will tell you where to eat, what to see, and what to do, but they don't tell you what to buy," says Allison. "Souvenir shopping, even on a limited budget, can also be a great way to explore the city."

The Medicinal Souvenir

Chinatown is one of San Francisco's biggest tourist attractions but it's also home to nearly 27,000 people; making it the largest Chinatown in the world, outside of Asia. Betwixt and between the vibrant bazaars, crowded restaurants and aromatic tea shops, you'll find a true Chinese treasure: herb shops. Some places, such as the Great China Herb Company (857 Washington Street), have been around since the early 20th century and feel like an old-world apothecary. Purchase a small glass flask and fill it with a colorful memento. At Great China, there's a Chinese doctor on site for those hoping to find a cure for anything from stomach pain to stubborn acne.

The Stiff Drink Souvenir

The Sunset District has a reputation of being among the coldest neighborhoods in the city (which is probably true, since it is definitely one of the foggiest), but the Little Shamrock Pub (807 Lincoln Way) is a warm haven with cheap, local beer and a friendly atmosphere. Established in 1863, this Irish pub withstood the Great Earthquake and Fire of 1906 and is still going strong. Enjoy traditional pub fare, great drink prices, and a wide selection of board games. After you've soaked up your fill of history from the locals and booze from the bartender, find a coaster advertising a local brew to remember what you will inevitably forget after a night of drinking.

The Incredible Edible Souvenir

Although it might not make it back on home, a delectable and eatable souvenir from San Francisco is a must. After all, this town has a rich culinary tradition and vibrant local food scene that is not to be missed. Since leftovers from a Mission taqueria are not so easy to transport, I recommend visiting the Ferry Building (at Market Street and the Embarcadero) for some sturdier delicacies: artisanal salumi from Boccalone, cookies and confections from Miette, dried mushrooms from Far West Fungi, or Rechiutti or Scharffen Berger chocolate. Stop by on a Saturday morning for the farmer's market and experience Northern California's beautiful bounty: fresh flowers and an astounding array of local fruits and vegetables.

The Ironic Souvenir

What trip to San Francisco would be complete without a bit of hip, SF swag? Head to Wishbone (601 Irving Street) and check out their collection of neighborhood t-shirts. This neighborhood novelty store, also in the Sunset District, has a vast collection of strange and interesting gifts -- from cards and kitschy plastic baubles to clothes and accessories. The t-shirts, in true San Francisco form, are manufactured in the U.S. using only fair trade, organic cotton. The graphics are bright and colorful and the only text is the name of the neighborhood. My personal favorite is the Tenderloin neighborhood t-shirt, which features a hairy, muscular leg rocking a stiletto heel. The company who designed the collection, Ape Do Good, has a reputation for producing tongue-in-cheek graphic material.

The Musical Souvenir

San Francisco's gritty and glamorous hippie haven, Haight Street, is home to dozens of stores where any tourist could find something truly novel to commemorate their travels. My pick for the best place to snag a Haight Street souvenir is California's own Amoeba Records. Amoeba, born in Berkley in the '90s, bills itself as the world's largest independent record store. Browse their thousands of titles of music, books, and movies and bring home such rare gems as season one of Wayne's World (on VHS), limited addition vinyls from bands none of your friends have heard of, and out-of-print comics or posters. I also recommend picking up a cassette tape (yes, they still sell those) of Scott McKenzie's 1967 classic, "San Francisco (Flowers in Your Hair)."


This story is part of a series asking hostel staff to share their insider tips and recommendations with travelers. Last month, Casey shared his top Sacramento burger joints. Before that, Stuart offered seven San Francisco sightseeing secrets.
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