Why endure a 14-hour flight when you can experience foreign culture in these American towns?
From a Dutch windmill to stunning Spanish Colonial architecture, it turns out America is loaded with exotic pockets where locals fiercely hold ties to their heritage. In lieu of traveling to big cities, where it’s not that difficult to wander an ethnic neighborhood, consider exploring small-town charm with a heavy dose of culture. Trust us, if you spend a few nights in one of these towns, you’ll feel as if you’ve been transported across the ocean.
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WHERE: (Feels Like) Denmark
This community of around 6,000 residents in Santa Barbara County was settled by Danes in 1911 who wished to escape harsh Midwestern winters. Absorb the region’s culture at Elverhoj Museum of History & Art, marvel at the town’s many windmills, and start your morning(s) with aebleskivers (pancake balls, basically), a custard kringle (danishes), and/or a butter ring (coffee cake). Solvang is home to five authentic bakeries, including Birkholm’s Bakery & Cafe, which was opened in 1951 by an immigrant family from Denmark. Score European-style cheeses at Cailloux, and close out the night at Copenhagen Sausage Garden, which is open until midnight. The Landsby, a cute property with Danish-style architecture, is Solvang’s newest hotel.
INSIDER TIPSolvang is nestled in one of the country’s most esteemed wine regions (Santa Ynez Valley), as highlighted in the 2004 film Sideways; don’t even think about leaving without sampling a glass of Pinot Noir!
Chimayó, New Mexico
WHERE: (Feels Like) Mexico
An easy day trip from Taos or Santa Fe, this tiny town of around 3,000—settled by Spaniards in 1692—is extremely sacred. Each year during Holy Week, 30,000 people walk from as far as Albuquerque (90 miles southwest) to seek blessings. Dirt in the floor of El Santuario de Chimayó, an adobe Roman Catholic church that dates back to 1816 and is featured on the National Register of Historic Places, is believed to possess healing properties. Curious about colonial cuisine? Book a table at Rancho de Chimayo, which has been thriving since 1965, and experience blue-corn enchiladas, a prickly-pear margarita, green-chile stew or a sopaipilla drizzled with honey. Art lovers will enjoy the abundance of weavings, Hispanic carvings, Navajo pottery, and Zuni jewelry for sale through local galleries.
INSIDER TIPCan’t decide between red and green chile with your food order? Request “Christmas,” which gives you both.
New Glarus, Wisconsin
WHERE: (Feels Like) Switzerland
North of Chicago (via a 2.5-hour drive), and 40 minutes south of Madison, Green County is the country’s “cheese belt,” settled by mostly the Swiss during the 1840s. Borrowing knowledge from generations past, creameries like Edelweiss Creamery (which has a cheese shop in New Glarus), craft award-winning Alpine-style cheeses. Brush up on local history at the Swiss Historical Village & Museum and bookend your day in New Glarus— which has about 2,000 residents—with stollen or slices of apple bread at New Glarus Bakery in the morning and beers with a local-cheese plate at Puempel’s Olde Tavern around nightfall. You could even pack a picnic of deli meats and cheeses from Edelweiss and take it to the 435-acre New Glarus Woods State Park.
INSIDER TIPCraving a cold beer? New Glarus Brewing Company’s Spotted Cow is only sold in Wisconsin and is so popular, Illinoisans and Minnesotans drive to the border for a six-pack.
WHERE: (Feels Like) Germany
In this Hill Country town 70 miles north of San Antonio, overnight stays are often booked in cozy guesthouses just a short walk from Main Street. Founded in 1846, some of the locals in this town of 11,382 residents still speak Texas German, passed down through the family’s first-generation settlers, and you might hear it while strolling antique shops in downtown Fredericksburg. For a bite of authentic German cuisine, dine at Ausländer Restaurant and Biergarten, which specializes in Bavarian cuisine, including Texaschnitzel (schnitzel covered with ranchero sauce), as well as traditional eats, like schnitzel or kraeuterbutter lendensteak. Agritourism experiences range from winery visits to Hill Country Lavender, a lavender farm.
INSIDER TIPOktoberfest in early October is, obviously, a grand event in Fredericksburg.
WHERE: (Feels Like) The Netherlands
The name of this small Michigan town alone—settled by immigrants from Holland in 1847—should tell you that 100,000 tulips pop up each spring at Windmill Island Gardens and there are two breweries (not bad for a town of around 35,000 residents!). Hugging the east side of Lake Michigan, Holland’s vibrant downtown includes New Holland Brewing Company’s brewery, restaurant and bar. Upon visiting Holland, be sure to also dive into Dutch culture with a guided tour of DeZwaaan (the country’s only authentic Dutch windmill, which was actually moved from the Netherlands), grind local wheat into flour that you can buy, wander through 800 tulip varieties at Veldheer Tulip Gardens, and score wooden shoes and hand-painted delftware at Nelis’ Dutch Village.
INSIDER TIPCityFlats is a cool eco-friendly boutique hotel in Downtown Holland, part of a Michigan-based hotel group.
WHERE: (Feels Like) Brazil
This suburban Boston town (20 miles west of Massachusetts’ largest city) is home to around 6,500 Brazilian immigrants, about 10% of Framingham’s population, which makes it the largest percentage of Brazilian immigrants in the country. The first wave of immigrants from Brazil arrived during the 1980s. Fortunately, these first-generation folks adopted culinary careers in their new country, allowing visitors to dine at places like Pao Brasil Bakery (try pão de queijo, Brazilian Cheese Bread) and Terra Brasilis Restaurant (signature dish is picanha, a cut of beef sometimes called sirloin cap or rump cap).
INSIDER TIPDuck into one of Framingham’s specialty and ethnic grocery stores, which are loaded with Brazilian foods and snacks.
WHERE: (Feels Like) Norway
Most of the 8,000 residents in Decorah, Iowa, claim Norwegian ethnicity and, until the 1970s, the town published a Norwegian newspaper. Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum’s 15 historic buildings offer an excellent primer in the region’s history while the after-dark scene thrives with two craft breweries (Toppling Goliath Brewery and Pulpit Rock Brewing Company). If you’ve got a green thumb, then you know about Seed Savers Exchange; visit its 890-acre farm with hiking trails and gardens any time between March and September. Additionally, July’s Nordic Fest is a highly-anticipated event.
INSIDER TIPThe 34-room completely restored Hotel Winneshiek is the hottest room reservation in town.
St. Augustine, Florida
WHERE: (Feels Like) Spain
As the oldest city in the U.S., St. Augustine, (on the Atlantic side of northern Florida), is loaded with interesting Spanish Colonial architecture that dates back to its founding in 1565. It’s also not hard to find authentic Spanish cuisine, often with Cuban fusion. Indulge in a veritable tour of Spain with tapas (from an Iberian cheese and charcuterie board, to plantain montaditos) at Michael’s Tasting Room in downtown St. Augustine and paella at Columbia Restaurant, which, with its darling fountains and hand-painted tile, has been in business since 1905. Whether you have one day in St. Augustine or a week, book a tour with St. Augustine Historic Walking Tours; there are five signature tours, ranging from food to paranormal.
INSIDER TIPSplurge on a stay at Casa Monica Resort & Spa, an Autograph Collection hotel right on the beach.
Hocking Hills, Ohio
WHERE: (Feels Like) Scotland
Practically designed for nature lovers—including the namesake Hocking State Forest—a trip to this Ohio region 65 miles southeast of Columbus also means a veritable trip to Scotland. Book a night or two at Glenlaurel Inn & Cottages where nightly dinners are accompanied by candlelight and bagpipe music. Guests also receive shortbread cookies and can play golf at the five-year-old Scottish Links at Glenlaurel. The Historic Square Arts District in Nelsonville is a sweet spot to acquire local art, particularly on Final Friday (the last Friday of the month, when galleries are open late).
WHERE: (Feels Like) Germany
Life in this central Washington town emulates Bavaria—and not just on the surface. Sure, there are chocolate-brown trimmings on the buildings and tons of arched doorways, but there are also eats that include sauerkraut and Käsespätzle. Pension Anna is chalet-chic and in the heart of downtown, with hand-painted armoires and wooden bedframes. Leavenworth is home to two breweries: Icicle Brewing Company, with its large outdoor patio, and the pet-friendly Doghaus Brewery. Andreas Keller is an authentic German restaurant with wurst and specialties like Bavarian goulash. But you’ll also find modern spins on cuisine, like foraged ingredients, that make up the eight-course dinner menu served at Mana Restaurant on Fridays and Saturdays. Shopping in Downtown Leavenworth ranges from German cuckoo clocks to nutcrackers, plus specialty items—not necessarily German—such as bath fizzers, cheese, and tea.
INSIDER TIPLike to ski? Book a stay during the winter months.
Tarpon Springs, Florida
WHERE: (Feels Like) Greece
While it’s not Santorini, life in Tarpon Springs is pretty darn close, with Greek eateries lining the Gulf of Mexico waterfront, just 30 miles northwest of Tampa. This city of around 25,000 residents has the highest percentage of Greeks in American city. Immigrants first arrived from Greece during the 1890s, lured by the sponge-diving industry (learn more and shop for natural sea sponges at Spongeorama Sponge Factory). Tarpon Springs’ Greektown district is included in the National Register of Historic Places, and there are around 10 dining destinations specializing in Greek cuisine, including Hella’s Restaurant and Bakery, dishing out flaming cheese and gyros since 1970.
INSIDER TIPShort on time? Book a cruise with Spongeorama Cruise Lines, which includes dinner beforehand at Yanni’s.
WHERE: (Feels Like) Sweden
Seventy miles north of Wichita lies the largest concentration of Swedes in the country, so you won’t have trouble finding meatballs and pickled herring here. One of the attractions that draws visitors is Wild Dala Horses—huge replicas of the wooden Dalecarlian horse— scattered throughout the city. Swedish spins on what you’d expect to find in any small town include the Bibliotek (a library complete with its own “Swedish Room,” which houses wood carvings and ironwork) and a bank whose walls are adorned with Swedish folk paintings. The Swedish Country Inn opens under new ownership in March; its restaurant serves Swedish meatballs and tea rings!
INSIDER TIPThe biennial Svensk Hyllningsfest—with traditional folk music, dancing, and cuisine— happens next in October 2019!