As my thousands of pictures of California attest, my favorite souvenir is usually a photograph. So when the question came up about what the best souvenir is to bring back from California I asked my fellow California friends. With over 50 friends chiming in I got a lot of good suggestions so I will break this list into 4 categories:
- souvenirs to eat or drink
- souvenirs to use
- souvenirs to collect
- souvenirs to wear
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California Souvenirs to Eat or Drink
If California were a country its economy would be the 5th largest in the world, below the U.S., China, Japan, and Germany and above the UK, India, and everyone else. It produces more than $5 billion worth of electric vehicles, more than $3 billion worth of integrated circuits, but all that is dwarfed by its agriculture which exceeds $21 billion. So if you think all California makes are computers and movies, think again.
Yes, I know that your state has at least one vineyard, but 81% of the wine production in the United States comes from California. You know about Napa and Sonoma, but some great wines are made in Lodi, Monterey County, Livermore, the Santa Ynez Valley, Paso Robles, Mendocino, and elsewhere in the state.
A great souvenir from California is a bottle of that wine that you tasted at that vineyard where you took that great tour. Better yet, many of those vineyards will have a wine club that will keep shipping you bottles of wine. If you are not sure that it will pack you can ask them to ship it to you. Or, if you flew to California on Alaska Airlines then be aware of their unique Wine Flys Free program. Wine is one of my recommendations and also a recommendation from Brianna J. S. and James I.
It came as a surprise to me but the largest agricultural crop that California exports is almonds. 90% of ALL almonds in the world come from California. Ruth R., Jack G., and Noel M. recommend picking up a can of almonds. Most of the almonds grown in California come from the Central Valley with Kern County in the south having the most acreage.
If you are a fan of other nuts instead, know that 99% of the pistachios and 99% of the walnuts grown in the U.S. are grown in California. M’Liss H. recommends picking up some pistachios to take home while Noel M. recommends walnuts.
Marcy G. recommended picking up some weed. Personally, I never touch the stuff and you might want to be extra careful where you are heading if this is your souvenir of choice.
Doug P. Suggested Hot Sauce. I have enjoyed bringing back unique hot sauces from various trips. I love finding the obscure bottle of something fiery. You can find hot sauce specialty stores around the state like Pepper Palace near fisherman’s wharf. If you are looking for authentic California hot sauces I would recommend Tapatio. It is made in Vernon, Ca near downtown LA by a family that immigrated from Guadalajara, Mexico. I remember seeing a burrito place near Camden Locks in London that said it had authentic California Burritos. I was skeptical until I saw the bottles of Tapatio.
The other popular hot sauce that is produced in California is Sriracha which is based on an old Thailand recipe but is made in Irwindale.
Doug P. also suggested beef jerky which you may not associate with California. I don’t know what brand of jerky Doug is taking with him but an interesting souvenir is the many flavors of jerky from Alien Fresh Jerky in Baker, California. If you are driving in the high desert, this is an area that is as much a tourist trap as a food store.
Jonathan R. suggested dried apricots. Maureen B. expanded that to include garlic, figs, and dates. In many of California’s agricultural areas, you can easily pick that up by stopping by a local fruit stand.
The quintessential spot for all things dried Fruit is Casa de Fruita on Pacheco Pass Highway between Gilroy and the Central Valley. This is a fruit stand on steroids. Now in addition to Casa de Fruita (house of fruit), they have Casa de Restaurant, Casa de Amusement, Casa de Wine, Casa de Sweets. They also have a small train on the property which they call… and I swear this is true… Casa de Choo Choo.
90% of the dates grown in the U.S. are grown in California, mostly in the Coachella Valley between Palm Springs and the Salton Sea. Jack G. recommends picking some dates for your date. For a super special treat, wrap them in a 3rd of a strip of bacon, secure with a toothpick and bake until the bacon is cooked, turning once.
Ciaran B. suggests oranges instead. If you want oranges, then Tulare County between Fresno and Bakersfield grows more than any other county in California.
For your garlic, you should head to Gilroy which hosts the annual Gilroy Garlic Festival. You won’t have to ask when the garlic is ripe in Gilroy. You can smell it for miles. Jay F. suggested garlic ice cream and yes you can find that in California, particularly at the Garlic Festival in Gilroy… but I am not sure how well that’s going to travel.
California is the only significant state in the United States that grows olives, although the U.S. still only grows 1% of the world’s supply. Most of the Olives in California are grown for eating rather than for olive oil. Noel M. suggests taking some home from the 30,000 acres of olive trees in the state.
An easier way to bring home fruit could be in jam. Ciaran B. suggests bringing something home from Knott’s Berry Farm and what could be better than something made with Boysenberries like their Boysenberry jam? If you like berries then you might want to visit during their Boysenberry Festival.
Like fruit, there are many different vegetables that you can purchase in California, but I am not sure that “I just got back from California” and I brought you this head of lettuce will go over that well. Deidre S. suggested artichokes. The place to do that would be at the Giant Artichoke in Castroville California on the central coast by Monterey and Salinas. Marinated artichoke hearts might travel better. You could also time your visit to Castroville for when they crown the artichoke queen.
Jay F. Did suggest you could take home a can of Andersen’s Split Pea Soup from your visit to this classic California restaurant in Buellton near Solvang. I remember eating here as a kid. If you eat all your soup you can see the picture at the bottom of the bowl.
Ciaran B. suggests Eucalyptus Honey to remind you of the many eucalyptus trees planted in California, particularly on the central coast.
A loaf of sourdough bread is one of the most common San Francisco souvenirs that visitors pick up at the airport and it is also recommended by Ruth R., Rosie R., Mary O., LiLing P., Maureen B., Charles M., and Deidre S.
Sourdough bread has been associated with the city since the time of the 1848 gold rush. These days you can pick up a loaf of fresh sourdough from the Boudin Bakery right in the heart of Fisherman’s Wharf or at the airport. The Boudin Bakery dates back to 1849 and they believe that their sourdough starter dates back to the 49ers (the gold miners not the football team) who came west to mine the goldfields.
Ruth C. recommends pick up some sourdough starter instead and start your own sourdough tradition.
Chocolate / Candy
What better to bring back to the people you love than chocolate or candy. There are a few California favorites. Mary O., Leticia B., Jack G., Charles S., and Sue L. recommend the well-known Ghirardelli chocolate. Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco is a great place to pick up some of their chocolate or just stop for an ice cream sundae. Ghirardelli’s is the 3rd oldest chocolate company in the U.S. (Whitmans and Baker’s chocolate are older). It was founded in 1852. Domenico Ghirardelli came to California to strike it rich in the gold rush but found more luck selling to gold miners. He had learned candy making as a child as an apprentice in his native Italy. One of my favorites is Ghirardelli’s Dark Chocolate and Sea Salt Caramel.
Leticia B., Jay F., and Meryl O. also recommend a box of See’s Candies. See’s is a relative newcomer as they only date back to 1921. They were started in Southern California but now are based in South San Francisco but have shops all over the state. Their assortment boxes are great, but also consider a box of their Milk Molasses Chips which may be my favorite.
Jay F. also recommends Scharffen Berger chocolate out of San Francisco that also makes baking chocolate. I have had Jay’s confections and I trust this man to choose chocolate.
Jelly Bean fans like Susanne O. should visit the Jelly Belly Factory in Fairfield or at least pick up a bag of their sweet candy which comes in at least 40 different flavors. Meryl O. suggests their irregularly shaped jelly beans which they call Belly Flops.
Janet L. recommends saltwater taffy. If you are from Southern California that might mean a trip to Balboa Candy, but for me saltwater taffy immediately reminds me of Santa Cruz Beach and Boardwalk.
To be fair, Wisconsin still produces more cheese than any other state, but California is in second place. There are some great local options for cheese.
LiLing P. recommends Cow Girl Creamery cheese. You can pick up their cheese from their dairy directly at Point Reyes Station or from their shop in the Ferry Building in San Francisco or you can order it online. Sarah Christine H. and Jay F. would opt for the Point Reyes Blue Cheese from Point Reyes Cheese instead.
You can also visit the California Cheese Trail in Sonoma County for dairies like the Bohemian Dairy.
If you like French-style cheeses then Marin French Cheese in Marin County north of San Francisco is a great place to sample the cheese.
Might Not Travel Well
Mary O. suggested In-N-Out Burgers, but I am not sure they would travel all that well. In my opinion, the burgers are best when ordered with fried onions from the secret menu and the fries when ordered “well-done and animal style”. But to be honest, the fries are the biggest weakness with In-N-Out. Leticia B. suggested taking home an In-N-Out t-shirt instead.
California Souvenirs to Use
Some souvenirs come home and get put in a drawer. These souvenirs can remind you of your trip every time you use them.
Sue L. recommended the beautiful ceramics from March Ceramics in San Francisco. They are indeed beautiful but if you have to ask how much they cost… you can’t afford them.
Charles M. buys playing cards wherever he goes. It seems like an ironic souvenir for California as some people think people in California aren’t playing with a full deck. An ideal gift for Charles would be playing cards with California sites on them.
I am not sure where you can get this California cutting board during your visit but you can pick up one online. If you buy it before your trip you can even use it as a map. Thanks to Bradley G. for this suggestion.
Sharon A. recommended that if you are a wine lover that instead or in addition to a bottle of wine, how about wine glasses etched with the logo of the winery?
My wife and I have collected mugs for many years. Linda F. also was a mug collector. That way when you have your morning coffee you can remember your trip. It does not have to be a California mug. Esther P. might recommend one from the Monterey Bay Aquarium (although a stuffed animal in the shape of an otter is good too). Or it could be a Yosemite mug or Disneyland or whatever was the highlight of your trip.
California Souvenirs to Collect
Did you have a dear aunt or great aunt who used to collect spoons or ashtrays? I suspect some still do but my friends suggested these collectibles.
Stacey E. collects magnets because you can find them everywhere, you can put them on your fridge and they travel better than fish tacos. Bradley G. does the same with stickers for the kids.
Lauren A. collects Christmas ornaments to remind her of where she has been. It doesn’t have to be one shaped like California… although it could be. But it might be one you bought in a Christmas shop like The Holiday Shoppe in Sausalito or Jule Hus in Solvang.
Anne C. collects jade from places like the Jade Cove area past Big Sur, while Jay F. might bring back an Abalone shell. Jan P. would bring home shells. Both she and Maureen Mergi B. would bring home sea glass. Fort Bragg’s Glass Beach has the reputation for the best sea glass in the state.
Charles S. suggests bringing home gold flakes from the gold country in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains (or from panning for gold at Knotts Berry Farm in Buena Park).
Gerald C. and Bill H. recommend bringing home something made of redwood. You could also bring home a small piece of redwood as long as you do it legally (not from a national park). Beatriz I. suggested you might also bring home a piece of petrified wood. Petrified Forest in Sonoma County has the largest petrified trees in the world but admission does not include a souvenir.
Sherry S. would pick up something to remind her of the Golden Gate Bridge. Her favorite place to do that is the Golden Gate Bridge Welcome Center Gift Shop at the south end of the bridge because nothing says I love you like a San Francisco greeting card with a pop-up bridge.
If you are more of an audiophile, then Sarah Christine H. would suggest picking up a record at the world’s largest independent record store Amoeba Records in Los Angeles. They also have shops in San Francisco and Berkeley.
Ciaran B. suggests Catalina Island tiles, shell fossils from the San Andreas fault, or something swallow related from the Mission at San Juan Capistrano.
Something to Read
Mark W. suggests a collection of John Steinbeck novels. You can find out more about Steinbeck at the Steinbeck center in his hometown (and mine) of Salinas California. Sarah Christine H. suggests other local authors like George R. Stewart and Amy Tan.
Perhaps your quest for California authors will take you to some of the great independent book stores in the state. Brian H. would recommend a stop at City Lights in San Francisco or Moe’s in Berkeley. My favorite bookstore in the state is The Last Bookstore in Downtown Los Angeles which is built in an old bank building… complete with a vault.
Theme Park Souvenirs
California has a few theme parks you might have heard of. Paul C. recommends a souvenir from the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios Hollywood. If you have a young Potter fan then nothing can be quite as special as choosing a wand (technically the wand chooses the wizard) at Ollivanders.
If you are visiting Disneyland instead then consider Mickey Mouse ears with your name embroidered on the hat. I am not saying that I was scarred that my parents didn’t get me Mickey ears when I was a kid… but it was traumatic. But I did get a map of the park that hung on my wall for years.
Photographs and Art
My walls are covered with photographs and artwork from places that I have been. Our guest bedroom has a collage of just photos from the Golden Gate Bridge.
LaVinnia P. suggests you support a local photographer. “From the redwoods to the banana slug, from El Capitan to Half Dome, from sunrise to sunset at the beach, the beauty everywhere is breathtaking.”
Tom B. says “I have some Ansel Adams prints of Yosemite that I treasure…from Napa…a vineyard picture…part of a cable car line”.
California Souvenirs to Wear
Nothing is quite so Californian as the t-shirt. When I worked at Apple Computer they used to say you could not start any project until you designed the t-shirt. Many of my friends suggested bringing home a t-shirt or something else to wear. Many of you reading this will bring home a sweatshirt from Northern California… because you forgot to pack one and can need one any time of year.
Favorite Sports Teams
I had a lot of suggestions to deck yourself out in gear from your favorite sports team. Of course, which colors you wear depends on your allegiances.
- San Jose Sharks Hockey, San Francisco Giants Baseball, San Francisco 49ers (Tori E.)
- Golden State Warriors (JD L. suggests a Steph Curry jersey)
Others took sides over their alma mater. Deidre S. voted for a Stanford sweatshirt while Brian M. and James S. would get a UC Berkeley sweatshirt instead. If not a UC Berkeley shirt how about a tie-dyed t-shirt from Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley instead (Carole M. and Oola M.) or one that says the People’s Republic of Berkeley (James S.). Oola M. suggests throwing in a pair of Birkenstocks to really complete the look.
As long as we are picking teams why not pick up a t-shirt from your favorite tech company when you are in Silicon Valley suggests Leticia B. Some of the companies have company stores which can be a lot of fun if you are a fan. Whether your favorite company is Google or Intel (Susanne O.) or Apple (Ryan M. and Paul C.).
Or just bring back swag from your favorite place. That might be a Santa Cruz Skateboard t-shirt (Owen B.), an Alcatraz hat (Susanne O.), logo gear from your Tahoe ski resort (Charlie S.), or a Tomales Bay Oyster t-shirt (Oola M.).
Pizza My Heart
The prize for the most self-serving suggestion goes to Chuck Hammers who owns the Pizza My Heart chain and suggested a Pizza My Heart shirt. While the suggestion was a bit self-serving, Chuck gets in under the “friends since Jr High exemption”. Also… I really like their pizza and they do always have a California-themed t-shirt. Although they seem to have dropped my favorite pastrami and pepperoncini pizza. Say it ain’t so Chuck!
As long as we are being self-serving. You can get swag for the Amateur Traveler in our online store.