Are you craving Europe and all its magic? Me, too. But sometimes we can’t get there, whether a pandemic has us confined to our own borders, or the timing simply isn’t right. (Then there’s that dang budget.) Try these U.S. destinations when you’re seeking an “overseas experience.”
COVID-19 brought the world to its knees. And it absolutely smashed the travel industry, as well as our personal plans. Experts predict a slow return to pre-pandemic travel activity; international flights probably won’t return to full schedules until 2022-2023. (AFAR Magazine has ongoing updates. See the New York Times article: Gauging the Prospects for International Travel)
Even without blaming COVID for our travel woes, let’s acknowledge that sometimes it’s easier, faster, and cheaper to explore our own country. In our haste to explore the planet, we forget that there’s an “embarrassment of riches” outside our own doorsteps. Let’s pause and reframe, shall we?
International travel isn’t always an option
Certainly COVID-19 took international travel off everyone’s calendar. But there are other reasons that can keep us from galloping the globe. Financial constraints spring to mind. Then there are work and family obligations. Maybe health–ours or someone else’s–make foreign travel impossible at the moment. Or perhaps current world situations make us too jittery to set out.
Craving Europe? You can “scratch that itch” at some US destinations. No passport required, and you’ll support domestic economy. Will these places be identical to their counterparts across The Atlantic? Of course not–but you may be pleasantly surprised…
Germany: Leavenworth, Washington
Literally situated at the foot of the mountains, Leavenworth wasn’t always a “German” destination. Native Americans, fur traders, gold prospectors, and lumberjacks all had their turn before the town’s leaders decided to rebrand their spot to attract tourists. In the early 1960s, thinking the setting resembled Bavaria, they set out to make it as German as possible. Whether you. think it’s charming or cheesy, there’s no doubt their plan succeeded. More than a million folks visit every year.
Storefronts, shops, parks–even the McDonald’s–have a Bavarian theme. Oktoberfest? Of course! And where else in Washington State can you attend an alphorn concert? When you add all the activities found in the Pacific Northwest, there’s plenty to do here. Lederhosen and dirndl skirts not required.
Want to get a glimpse of Leavenworth? Check out the live stream!
New Ulm, Minnesota, about 90 miles southwest of the Twin Cities, is another spot to raise your stein. One of the country’s oldest breweries was started here by a German immigrant. New Ulm was founded by Turners, members of a society that promoted universal education, German culture and physical fitness through gymnastics. Many were socialists who had fled Germany after the nobility suppressed a wave of democratic revolts in 1848. Today the population is still more than 50% German-American. Find out more about New Ulm here.
Greece: Tarpon Springs, Florida
About 2500 years ago, the Aegean Sea of Greece was the source for the world’s sponges. Homer wrote of them. Cleopatra demanded them, especially the Mollissima sponge, considered to be the finest. The sponge diving industry of islands Kalymnos and Symi kept the supply chain wide open for centuries. Sponges were an important part of Greek economy and international trade.
When over-harvesting, blight, and general greed caused the Greek sponge industry to collapse, some of the divers immigrated to Florida in the early 1880s, where sponge beds had been discovered. Tarpon Springs became an authentic Greek community.
Today, Tarpon Springs is the Sponge Capital of the World. Stroll the docks to see the working vessels. Take a boat ride with a diver in a skafandro, a weighted underwater suit with an enormous helmet that features an air hose that runs up to the surface.
The town is pure Greek: Blue and white, reminders of the Greek flag, are the main colors. Restaurants and bakeries abound, especially on Dodecanese Boulevard, the main Street. Signs and menus are in both Greek and English. There is a beautiful Greek Orthodox cathedral, named after Saint Nicholas.
For more information, get the Tarpon Visitors Guide. And read 10 Best Things to Do in Tarpon Springs.
Can’t get to Florida? Check out Chicago’s Greektown. Or visit Nashville, Tennessee to see a full-scale replica of the Parthenon.
Paris: New Orleans, Louisiana
I’ll admit that my first pick for a French Fix is Quebec City. Montreal satisfies, too. But until Canada opens its borders to other countries, New Orleans will do just fine. Tip: Read my popular post, Mornings in NOLA: Watching New Orleans Wake Up.
My friend–and very accomplished traveler–Ginna, once told me, “When we can’t get to Paris, we go to New Orleans.” It’s true! The French-ness is everywhere: street names, architecture, city layout. Food is as important in NOLA as in Paris…although you may find it has a little more “kick” to it.
If you’re a traveler, chances are good that you already know how to “laissez les bon temps rouler.” (Let the good times roll!) If you haven’t yet had the pleasure, go to Visit New Orleans and start to plan a trip.
Looking for other French-inspired places in the U.S.? Natchitoches, Louisiana (Nack-a-tish)is the state’s oldest city and first French colony. And Washington, D.C. was designed by Pierre Charles L’Enfant. The French native succeeded in planning a Paris-like city with grand, tree-lined boulevards and plentiful gardens and monuments.
Spain: San Juan, Puerto Rico
Hop on a plane and travel to “Spain”…no passport needed. San Juan feels like Spain–especially the Canary Islands–but without the jet lag. Established in 1521, the capital of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico features colorful Spanish colonial buildings and 16th-century landmarks including El Morro and La Fortaleza, massive fortresses that protected the “crown jewel of Spain” for a few centuries.
Plazas, promenades, Colonial homes, churches…feed the pigeons in El Viejo San Juan (Old San Juan) and enjoy authentic Spanish food. Of course, being a tropical island, you also get extra benefits: beautiful weather, rainforests, beaches, and coral reefs. Another plus: Puerto Ricans are bilingual, so if your Spanish is, well, non-existent, they’ll happily help you out.
Find out more about San Juan…and consider going for your next vacation. And did I mention it’s the Birthplace of the Piña Colada?
Italy: Sonoma County and Napa Valley, California
Vineyards? Check. Villas? Check. Views? Check. Until you can get–or return to–Tuscany, northern California will provide a pleasant diversion. Napa Valley has over 500 wineries, Sonoma counts 425. You’ll find every type of place, from small, rustic spots to famous international brands. If you’re craving Europe in general, and Italy specifically, head West…
Italian grapes love California. For example, DaVero, in Healdsburg, grows Barbera, Montepulciano, Nebbiolo, Sagrantino, Sangiovese, Malvasia Bianca, Moscato and Pallagrello Bianco. It also partners with area growers on Dolcetto, Primitivo and Vermentino. And that’s just one place.
You may recognize some of these Italian names in Sonoma wineries: A. Rafanelli, Foppiano, Gallo, Martinelli, Pedroncelli, Rochioli, Sebastiani and Seghesio, to name a few. Napa has Andretti, Antica, Benessere, Far Niente, Mondavi, Nichelini…and the spectacular Castello Di Amorosa, an authentic medieval (13th-century) Italian Tuscan castle and winery in Calistoga, surrounded by 171 acres.
And just like in Italy, food matters. A lot. Farm-to-table choices are abundant. Find an Italian restaurant at every turn. Is it all exactly like Tuscany? No…nothing can duplicate that experience. But you’ll have a mighty nice time until you can touch Italian soil!
Learn more about Sonoma County and Napa Valley. Ciao! Arrivederci!
On the opposite side of the country, Boston, Massachusetts, has a thriving Italian community on its North End. (Boston is also compared to an English village, because of its Colonial architecture. And if you’re there around St. Patrick’s Day, you’ll see how deep its Irish heritage runs!)
The Netherlands: Holland, Michigan
The name says it all: Holland. They should probably spell it with capital letters: HOLLAND. Wooden shoes, Saint Nicholas…and tulips. Millions of tulips, every May, for the week-long Tulip Festival. And DeZwaan, the city’s windmill, is the only authentic, working Dutch windmill in the United States.
Don’t think it’s only about the tulips. You may actually have a better experience if you avoid the crowd and come just about any other time of the year. Holland’s downtown has earned a “Best Mainstreet in America” award, and deserves your full attention. Eat at the old downtown Windmill Restaurant, or take my advice and stop for breakfast at Russ’ to get a Saucljzenbroodje–Pig-in-a-Blanket. Pork sausages are wrapped in a pastry shell…and they’re only available while the day’s supply lasts.
Like the other “Craving Europe? Try These US Destinations,” Holland, Michigan has more to offer than the international experience. There are beaches–including The Big Red Lighthouse, parks, breweries, and museums.
Besides Holland, you can “visit” the Netherlands in Pella, Iowa, where Dutch-style architecture lines the streets and the Vermeer Mill (a windmill) is the largest structure of its style in the United States. Pella brands itself as “America’s Dutch Treasure.” So…if you find yourself in the region, and your current wooden shoes are worn out, it might be worth your time.
Where else? Share your discoveries!
The United States was built by immigrants from around the world. There are cities, towns, and enclaves of people who settled and created their sense of “home” in America. Tell us your favorite spot to go when you’re craving Europe. Write it in the comments, so everyone can see.