13 US Destinations Where You Can Experience a Bit of International Culture
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With much of the world closed to US citizens, many travelers are itching for the chance to feel like they're on an international trip. And while we’d argue it’s possible to make a trip within the US every bit as exciting and eye-opening as one to a foreign country, we know it’s still not quite the same, especially if you’re missing a particular country you just can’t visit right now.
But the US isn’t a monolith. Not only does every region and state have its own culture—more often than not heavily influenced by immigrants from around the world—there are cities and towns all over the US where you can taste the food, see the architecture, or learn about the traditional culture of another country.
To help you get a small taste of international exploration without leaving the country, we’ve put together a list of US destinations that share some similarities in their atmosphere, food, architecture, landscape, or traditions, with a country or culture around the world.
This isn’t a comprehensive list (one could make a similarly long list of Chinatowns or Bavarian-style villages alone), but we hope it helps inspire you to plan your next globally minded adventure—even if it’s within the United States.
If you love the hills and waterfronts of Lisbon, check out San Francisco, California
There are more than a few visual similarities between the Portuguese capital city of Lisbon and California’s “City by the Bay.” First, both cities are dominated by seven main hills, with homes perched seemingly precariously along the steep streets. Both cities rely on unique transportation to navigate those hills—Lisbon has its famous yellow trams while San Francisco has its iconic cable cars—and both cities are set along stunning waterfronts with San Francisco on the Bay and Lisbon at the mouth of the Tagus river. The architect who designed the Golden Gate Bridge is also the very same one who designed Lisbon’s Ponte de 25 Abril—the bridges look like siblings.
Beyond the geographic and aesthetic difference, both cities also have a similar artistic vibe, abundance of delicious farm-to-table food, and Instagram-worthy views around every turn.
To see replica Bhutanese temples, visit El Paso, Texas
You’d be forgiven for wondering why some of the architecture in the town of El Paso along the Texas-Mexico border resembles that of the tiny Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan, but there it is, nonetheless. In 1914, the wife of the University of Texas at El Paso’s dean saw photos of Bhutanese dzongs (fortresses) in National Geographic and was taken with the architecture. When she compared the mountainous terrain of Bhutan to that of El Paso, she had an idea—and an unexpected connection was born.
Now, not only are the vast majority of buildings at the University of Texas at El Paso built in a Bhutanese style, dozens of Bhutanese students attend every year, and Bhutan’s royal family has gifted art and artifacts to the school—including a prayer wheel, a huge altar with intricate carvings, and a replica of a lhakhang (temple) built and ornately decorated by Bhutanese artisans.
>> See cheap flights to El Paso
For a taste of Cuban food, head to Miami, Florida
Miami’s “Little Havana” is one of the best-known international neighborhoods in the United States—and there’s good reason for that. Cubans started arriving in Miami in droves after Fidel Castro became Prime Minister, and today the district known as “Little Havana” is the largest Cuban cultural center in the country.
The majority of the businesses in the neighborhood are owned by Cuban-Americans, and that includes lots of restaurants serving authentic Cuban food. This area also hosts the huge Calle Ocho Festival (held during Carnival), when people who hail from all over the Caribbean and Latin America celebrate with music, dancing, and plenty of food.
>> See cheap flights to Miami
To explore the largest Greek community in the US, visit Tarpon Springs, Florida
While it was a local who started the first sponge business in Tarpon Springs on the western coast of Florida, it was a Greek immigrant who brought sponge harvesting techniques from his native land and really put Tarpon Springs on the map. Today, the little town is home to the highest concentration of Greek-Americans in the US.
In the Greektown Historic District, there are plenty of options for Greek food and you’ll see lots of the familiar blue-and-white paint schemes of the Greek Islands. Every summer during “Night in the Islands,” the town gets especially festive, shutting down streets for traditional Greek music, dancing, and food. Sponge diving is still an important part of the local economy, too. Visitors can see boats unloading sponges and learn about sponge diving at the Spongeorama Sponge Factory.
For traditional German food and beer, check out New Ulm, Minnesota (or the not-so-authentic village of Leavenworth, Washington)
There are several states in the US that have strong historic ties to Germany, so you’ve got quite a few Bavarian-style towns to choose from. Named after Ulm, Germany, the Minnesota town was founded by German immigrants in the 1850s. Not long after, one immigrant in particular started what would become a major beer brewing company. August Schell Brewing is still in New Elm, and the brewery throws a huge Oktoberfest party every year (or at least every year there’s not a pandemic). If that’s not German enough for you, there’s a glockenspiel in the city park (you can watch the figures twirl around three times a day, and during festivals a polka band plays at its base) and shops around town sell imported Bavarian items like cuckoo clocks and beer steins.
Ironically, one of the most-loved Bavarian villages in the country does not have German roots. Instead, Leavenworth in Central Washington created a tiny Bavarian village (one main street, really) to attract tourism—and it worked. Not only does Leavenworth offer great German food and beer, there’s also a Nutcracker Museum and a rollicking Oktoberfest celebration. What makes Leavenworth particularly special is the backdrop of the snow-capped Cascade Mountains, reminiscent of the mountains of southern Germany.
To explore the largest Chinatown in the US, go to Queens, New York
The New York borough of Queens has not one, but three Chinatowns, the largest of which, Flushing, is home to the biggest Chinatown in the world. And it continues to grow, attracting immigrants from all over China. As a result, there’s an impressive variety of regional Chinese cuisines represented in the restaurant offerings. There are places you can get traditional foods that aren’t always easy to find in most of China, including Mongolian (Happy Lamb Hot Pot is a favorite) and Dongbei-style noodles. The food court at the New World Mall even has a stall serving Uyghur cuisine.
There are also several big Chinese food markets if you want to try your hand at making your favorite dishes back home, as well as Chinese herbalist shops. Hong Kong Supermarket is part of a chain, and Flushing’s outpost is particularly large, but be prepared with a translation dictionary or a serious sense of adventure—very few of the store’s signs are in English.
>> Read our guide to Queens
For the next best thing to Tuscany, visit Napa Valley, California
It’s not hard to fall in love with Tuscany, what with those undulating green hills and cypress trees rising like Roman columns alongside winding roads—not to mention the art, natural hot springs, and all that glorious wine. Thankfully, California’s Napa Valley also has literally every single one of those things so you don’t have to travel to Italy for a little dolce vita.
Art galleries in towns like Napa and St. Helena feature local artists, Calistoga is well known for its hot springs, and rolling vine-covered hills are just about everywhere you look. If it’s the wine you love most, though, you’re in luck—there are more than 500 wineries in Napa Valley, most of which are open to visitors who want to taste. There’s even a winery in a replica 13th-century Italian castle just outside Calistoga.
>> Learn more about the history, culture, and wine of Napa
To learn about Polynesian culture or visit a replica Japanese temple, explore the islands of Hawaii
Much of Native Hawaiian culture comes from the Polynesians who initially settled there. For example, taro, which was brought to the islands by Polynesian explorers more than 1,000 years ago, still features prominently in Hawaiian cuisine. And Hawaii’s famous hula dance has its origins in the dancing of those same early explorers. Travelers who have visited places like Fiji or Tahiti will have no trouble recognizing their influences in Hawaii, especially with a stop at the Polynesian Cultural Center on Oahu.
In the mid-1800s, Japanese workers started arriving in Hawaii by the thousands to labor on sugar plantations. By the 1920s, nearly half the population of Hawaii had Japanese ancestry. Today, Japanese-Americans make up one of the largest ethnic groups on the islands, so experiencing a bit of Japanese culture on the islands is easy.
There’s a cherry blossom festival on the Big Island every year, a huge Japanese garden in Hilo, and plenty of places where you can order authentic Japanese fare. But there’s nothing quite like the Byodo-In Temple on Oʻahu to make you feel like you’ve been transported to Japan. The gorgeous structure is a replica of a 950-year-old temple near Kyoto. Peacocks wander the tranquil grounds and koi swim in the pond. In addition to using the space for quiet contemplation, visitors are also welcome to ring the three-ton bon-sho (sacred bell). The tone is said to cleanse the mind.
>> See cheap flights to Maui
To admire the architectural style of Seville, head to St. Augustine, Florida
When we think of early settlers in the United States, we often think of Pilgrims from England landing in Virginia—but the oldest continuously inhabited city in the country is in Florida, and its roots are Spanish. St. Augustine was founded in 1565 and ruled by Spain for more than 250 years.
Some structures dating from the 16th century still exist, including a shrine in the Nombre de Dios mission, but the architecture that makes St. Augustine look most like sunny Seville dates mostly from the late 19th century. The gorgeous Hotel Ponce de Leon (which is now Flagler College) and Hotel Alcazar (which is now the Lightner Museum), both built in the 1880s, were specifically intended to blend the Spanish and Moorish architectural styles of Seville.
If you’re missing Swedish traditions, plan a visit to Lindsborg, Kansas
The little town of Lindsborg in the middle of Kansas is known as “Little Sweden USA.” The town was founded in the mid-19th century by Swedish immigrants, and Swedish cultural influences remain front and center to this day. There are public art projects (like the colorful Dala Horse statues around town) and the original Swedish Pavilion from the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, which was moved to Lindsborg.
Swedish customs are on full display during festivals, including the Midsummer’s Festival (during which a traditional maypole is raised), Julkärve, and the St. Lucia Festival around the Christmas holidays. The enormous Svensk Hyllningsfest takes place every other year (odd-numbered years only) and includes folk dancing, Swedish food demos, costume displays, genealogy workshops, and a traditional smörgåsbord.
To pretend you’re in a mini version of the Sahara Desert, visit Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado
The desert landscapes of the Sahara are truly epic, but those utterly Instagrammable golden-sands-and-blue-skies can be found in Colorado, too, at the Great Sand Dunes National Park. The tallest sand dunes in North America are inside the park, including a few that reach 750 feet, and the landscape is constantly shifting and changing with the wind.
The park covers more than 230 square miles, so it’s a fraction of the size of the Sahara Desert, but it’s not too hard to find a little solitude if that’s what you’re looking for. Visitors to the Great Sand Dunes can also make the sandy mountains a playground—sandboarding a popular activity.
For a taste of Danish culture, take a trip to Solvang, California
You probably know that Scandinavian culture isn’t hard to find in the Midwest, but you might not expect to find such a thriving Danish community in Southern California. The Danes who founded Solvang in the early 20th century were looking for a break from harsh Midwestern winters—and now everyone can enjoy a little bit of Scandinavia with a milder climate.
Solvang definitely looks Danish, thanks to the traditional architecture around town, but the windmills (there are four) really hammer the point home. There are Danish bakeries aplenty, and the town’s Danish Days festival, held every September since 1936 (currently still scheduled for 2020), features a parade as well as Danish music, folks dancing, and foods like æbleskivers.
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Published December 13, 2023
Last updated December 21, 2023
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