While all of us would love to travel the world and fill up our passports, the hard reality is that most of us find ourselves planning a trip to Disney or LEGOLAND instead. However, we’ve found a loophole. It is possible to get a “feel” for Germany, Denmark, England and more without actually leaving the United States. We’ve uncovered some of the best towns with international appeal (think Solvang, California and more), and some of them just might be near you. Put down the Rosetta Stone and let’s go!
Find the Netherlands in Pella, Iowa
Founded in 1847 by Dutch immigrants, Pella is known by many as “America’s Dutch Treasure.”
What to do: The Vermeer Mill serves as the town’s crown jewel. It is the tallest working mill in the U.S. that offers daily guided tours. It is surrounded by the historical village, flower gardens and canal with a drawbridge. Be sure to visit the Klokkenspel during one of its daily presentations when eight, four-foot tall mechanical figures come to play to the music of 147 bell carillon. Pella is also home to the Frisian Farms Cheese House which makes artisan Gouda. The can’t miss event of the year is Tulip Time which comes the first weekend in May. It features parades, Dutch costumes, crafts, quilt shows and lots of tulips!
Where to eat: Your best choices for authentic Dutch cuisine include the Jaarsma Bakery (which specializes in made-from-scratch Dutch pastries) and Monarchs Restaurant & Lounge (which offers Dutch Spiced Beef served with hutspot and rode kool—aka mashed potatoes and red cabbage).
Find Bavaria in Leavenworth, Washington
The Cascades mountain range makes the perfect backdrop for the Bavarian town of Leavenworth where the hills are alive with the sound of music or so it seems.
What to do: Festivals are planned all year long including Maifest during Mother’s Day weekend, the International Accordion Celebration in June, three weekends of Oktoberfest and three weekends of the Christmas Lighting Festival. Very few chain businesses are allowed in town, and the ones that are here must fit in with the German theme. In town, you’ll find numerous themed shops with authentic music playing and many art shows in the park during the summer months. For families with older kids, Leavenworth is a great place to try white water rafting during the summer or various snow activities during the winter.
Where to eat: Authentic restaurants include Andreas Keller (specializing in rotisserie-broiled chicken and schweinshax’n, sausages and sauerkraut), Gustav’s Beer Garden and Grill (serving burgers and German sausages) and Baren Haus (with German entrees and some the best burgers and pizza in town).
Find Venice, Italy in Venice, California
While Venice may not be the first place in mind while visiting Los Angeles, it is certainly worth a stop. In 1905, developer Abbot Kinney created man-made canals in hopes or recreating the look and feel of Venice, Italy.
What to do: Today, many of the original older houses along the canals have been replaced by larger modern houses, so the “look” isn’t the same, but the “feel” is. It’s still a fun place to visit and a nice reprieve from all of the hustle and bustle of the nearby big city. While in Venice, other sites worth visiting include the famous Venice Boardwalk where there are lots of little shops, dining spots and street performers hoping to make it big. Then, of course, there’s Venice beach where the water is a favorite for surfers and the sand for musclemen.
Where to eat: You don’t have to go far to get the whole Italy experience as the Venice Canal Historic District is home to four Italian restaurants (Casa Ado, The Tasting Kitchen, Barrique and Cetanni) all located less than a mile away.
Find Switzerland in New Glarus, Wisconsin
Known as “America’s Little Switzerland,” New Glarus can be found in the heart of Green County in southern Wisconsin.
What to do: The town has been considered a magnet for Swiss settlers for over 150 years. The town’s attractions include the Chalet of the Golden Fleece Museum (housed in a 1937 authentic copy of a Swiss Bernese mountain chalet), the Swiss Center of North America (which collects and showcases all that is Swiss in North America), the Swiss Historical Village (14 buildings that focus on the town’s history) and the amusing New Glarus “Cows On Parade" (14 fiberglass and decorated cows are on display throughout the town).
Where to stay and eat: While in town, stay at the authentic Chalet Landhaus which combines old Swiss charm and modern conveniences. For Swiss cuisine and great steaks, dine at Glarner Stube. And, if you're a beer geek, a stop at New Glarus Brewing is a must.
Find England in Boston, Massachusetts
While Boston is rich in American history, it is worth noting that most of the city’s oldest buildings have a distinctly British feel to them. In some parts of the city, it feels as though you're walking the streets of England.
What to do: To get the full experience, take your family on the 2.5 mile Freedom Trail Tour. Tours are led by the Freedom Trail Players who'll take you to various historic places that tell the story of the American Revolution—including Paul Revere’s house.
Where to eat: Continue the history lesson by dining at such places as the Green Dragon Tavern (which first opened in 1654 and was a hangout for Revere), the Union Oyster House (which has been around since 1826 and home of the first toothpick) and the Warre Tavern (which opened in 1780 and is rumored to have been a favorite of Revere’s as well).
Find Spain in St. Augustine, Florida
Many families only think of Florida as the home to Disney World, but St. Augustine proves that there is much more to see in this state.
What to do: St. Augustine has the distinction of being our country’s oldest city. The historic district is where you’ll find city’s strongest Spanish influence with its cobblestone streets, corner cafes and bed and breakfast inns. Some of the historic sights worth visiting include Fort Mose State Park, Fort Matanzas, the Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park and Flagler College. On the spooky side, your family might enjoy the Lightner Museum, with its weird collections of shrunken heads and mummies or the Ripley’s Believe it or Not museum which is housed in the Castle Warden built in 1887.
Where to eat: Nestled under a famous cedar tree for over 50 years, a stop at the Spanish Bakery & Cafe for empanadas and picadillo, prepared in a traditional stone hearth oven, is a must.
Find Denmark in Solvang, Califonia
Solvang is home to various Danish icons such as the Little Mermaid Fountain, the Round Tower, historic churches and five windmills.
What to do: Visit the Hans Christian Andersen Museum to learn more about the author who penned The Princess and the Pea, The Ugly Duckling and others. The town features over 150 one-of-a-kind boutique shops; many with European imports. Two of Solvang’s biggest festivals include Danish Days in September (which features three parades, Danish folk dancing and a Viking encampment) and Julefest all month long in December.
Where to eat: No trip would be complete without stopping at one of the five authentic Danish bakeries or visit all five, we won’t judge. For awesome lunch, check out the Aebleskiver Café (serving Danish Aebleskiver and sausage).
Find France in Charleston, South Carolina
There’s no denying the strong French influence that covers Charleston with its numerous mansions and historic building to explore.
What to do: The strongest influence can be found in the French Quarter District due to its large number of French merchants. Here you’ll find the Pink House Tavern that was built in 1712, the beautiful Dock Street Theatre and French Huguenot Church. After some exploring, wander toward the Joe Riley Waterfront Park where the kids can cool off in the giant pineapple fountain and splash pad. For souvenir shopping, check out the Charleston City Market.
Find China in Seattle, Washington
Seattle’s Chinatown-International District also features Japantown and Little Saigon. It is only a mile away from downtown and features an eclectic mix of old and new world values.
What to do: The area is the center of many festivals held throughout the year including Lunar New Year Festival in February, Dragon Fest in July and C-ID Night Market held in September which features food, arts and crafts, live entertainment and a beer garden. The Wing Luke Asian Museum is a must-see, as well as the 86-year-old 35,000 square foot Uwajimaya Asain grocery and gift store.
Where to eat: As you can imagine, authentic restaurants are in an abundance and are too many to list here. Just take our word for it!
Find Mexico in San Juan Bautista, California
San Juan Bautista is known as the “City of History” that ranges from organic farming to a bustling shopping center of town with a variety of shops and boutiques.
What to do: The largest of all California missions, Old Mission San Juan Bautista is located here, and the only Spanish Plaza left in the state can be found at the State Historic Park. Authentic Mexican food is available on every corner, the Old Adobe Antiques shop and the Plaza Market Shops will transport you to Mexico and the El Teatro Campesino features professional Latino theater productions for all ages. And if you need a little excitement, this city likes to party, offering 15 different festivals every year.
Find Japan in San Francisco
While visiting all the fun places in busy San Francisco, take some time to chill at the Japanese Tea Garden.
What to do: It is the oldest public garden of its kind in the United States and probably the grandest. Sure, the idea of getting kids excited to see a bunch of plants might sound like a chore, but they’ll be amazed when you arrive. Located in the Golden Gate Park, the garden is five acres of beautiful native Japanese plants and cherry blossom trees. Among the treasures, you’ll find here is an arched drum bridge, pagodas, stone lanterns, stepping stone pathways, koi ponds and a zen garden. Stop by the Tea House for fortune cookies and other treats and find perfect souvenirs at the gift shop.
Find Greece in Tarpon Springs, Florida
Less than a half hour away from Clearwater, Florida you’ll find Tarpon Springs which was founded in the early 1900’s by Greek sponge divers.
What to do: Today, the area offers numerous boat tours with some that allow kids to try on antique scuba diving gear. The Dodecanese Boulevard aka the “Sponge Docks” lines the riverfront of the town with gift shops, antiques and authentic Greek restaurants which include Mama’s Greek Cuisine, Hellas and Mykonos. A stop by the St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral is in order too. Other non-Greek things to see in town include the Brooker Creek Preserve Environmental Education Resource Center, which features many interactive exhibits and a nature store and the numerous beaches.
Find Germany in Helen, Georgia
Nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains, the city of Helen received a German makeover in 1968. Today it boasts of over 200 specialty shops and import shops with many of them featuring craftsman busy at work.
What to do: During the summer, float down the Chattahoochee River, pan for gold and gems or take in a horse-drawn carriage ride. Helen’s annual festivals include the an annual balloon race in early summer, Oktoberfest in September and October and Alpenlights Christmas celebration in December, but year round there are a ton of family activities for kids of all ages. Check out their calendar here.
Where to eat: One of the best German-style restaurants in town is the Troll Tavern serving up Bratwurst sausages on hoagie rolls, Grilled Reuben sandwiches and Wienerschnitzel Platter (which is a breaded and fried veal cutlet).