And if they're not better, they're pretty close to being just as good.
Let’s start by addressing the obvious elephant in the room: yes, it’s impossible to substitute a European vacation with anything other than, well, a European vacation. But hear me out, it is possible to come pretty darn close. There are at least 10 European-inspired activities you can participate in throughout the United States. Some pay homage to the original experience by going to great lengths to replicate it, while others sneakily manage to one-up their European counterpart.
In some cases, Mother Nature has simply outdone herself in North America. In others, it’s the companies and destinations that have discovered how to outshine the overseas competition by homing in on the very best attributes of each experience while eliminating some of the frustrations. From encountering fewer crowds to increased access that gets you up-close-and-personal with some of these marvels, you’re bound to see the beauty (and convenience) of these U.S.-based alternatives to European vacations.
Top Picks for You
Gondola Rides in Texas vs. Italy
WHERE: Las Colinas, Texas
For anyone who has ever waited in line for a shared gondola ride in Venice only to be stuck with a grumpy gondolier who is not in the mood to sing (tips be damned), you’ll know it’s a far cry from the fairytale experience you’ve imagined. Instead, reserve a private cruise with Gondola Adventures in Texas, and you’ll wind your way through Lake Carolyn and the twisting canals of Las Colinas, outside of Dallas.
Your gondolier, most of whom were trained in Italy and either sing or play a musical instrument, will be dressed in traditional attire while holding Italian-made rowing oars crafted by a Venetian artisan. The bridges and cobblestone promenades mimic those found in Venice, but here you can choose your adventure by selecting a romantic dessert cruise, festive Italian dinner cruise, or a casual pizza cruise.
INSIDER TIPCan’t make it to Texas? Gondola Adventures has a second location in Newport Beach, California.
Fjords Cruises in Alaska vs. Norway
WHERE: Tracy Arm Fjord, Alaska
Surrounded by spruce-covered rolling hills, towering snow-capped mountains and an ocean so blue it’s almost impossible to discern where it ends and the sky begins, cruising the Norwegian fjords is a majestic experience. Yet somehow, even more, impressive scenery awaits in Alaska, specifically at the Tracy Arm fjord south of Juneau.
One of the easiest ways to view this marvel is on a small-ship cruise. Unlike larger ships that are unable to approach the vertical cliffs rising 4,000 feet from the sea, Windstar Cruises slips right in, anchoring directly in front of the twin Sawyer Glaciers at the end of the 30-mile-long fjord. Here, you’ll take a zodiac boat for an up-close and personal tour of floating blue ice while you watch mountain goats traverse the cliffs above and harbor seals hunt for lunch below. You’re practically guaranteed to see and hear the glaciers calve as the thunderous ice chunks break off into the ocean.
Julbord Christmas Dinner in Wisconsin vs. Sweden
WHERE: Door County, Wisconsin
Why settle for a simple Christmas ham during the holidays when you can treat yourself to a scrumptious Scandinavian Julbord instead? This traditional Christmas smorgasbord hails from Sweden, as does Chef Freddie Bexel, who brought his family recipes to Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant & Butik in Door County, Wisconsin. Chef Bexel has been serving up an impressive buffet to guests for the last seven years, but this special reservation-only event only lasts two nights each holiday season (typically in early December).
The first course features cold fishes—such as herring and lox—that Chef Bexel cures himself. Course two is a tantalizing selection of cold sliced meats, Scandinavian cheeses, and various salads. The third course consists of warm dishes, such as meatballs, Jansson’s temptation (a potato casserole), and a Christmas ham with honey mustard glaze. Save room for some made-in-house desserts, and don’t be shy about washing it all down with Glögg (a hot spiced wine) or chilled Aquavit.
INSIDER TIPReservations open on November 1st for this year’s Julboard, which will be held December 10th and 11th.
Hot Air Balloons in New Mexico vs. Turkey
WHERE: Albuquerque, New Mexico
Is there a more Instagrammable sight than the 100+ hot air balloons seen floating through the skies of Cappadocia? Little do travelers know that you can capture similar footage and excitement by visiting the annual Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. What started with a mere 13 balloons in 1972 has since morphed into the world’s largest ballooning event (it also happens to be the world’s most photographed event, so bring your camera). For nine days each October, visitors can walk among the 500+ balloons and chat with pilots from around the world at Balloon Fiesta Park.
INSIDER TIPMake sure to be there for Mass Ascension when all of the participating balloons launch over a two-hour window.
Windmills in California vs. Denmark
WHERE: Solvang, California
There’s no need to trek to Scandinavia to experience the architectural charm and mouth-watering pastries for which Denmark is famous. The Santa Barbara County city of Solvang looks like a quaint Danish village transported to California, thanks to its use of bindingsværk, its signature post-and-beam construction style.
Settled by Danish immigrants in 1911, Solvang has a pedestrian-friendly European vibe, five authentic Danish bakeries, more than 20 wine tasting rooms, bars, independently-owned shops, and a scaled-down replica of the iconic Little Mermaid statue. There are four wooden windmills in town, and a couple of them are accessible to visitors. One of the windmills is attached to the Solvang Brewing Company, one houses a children’s shop, and the other has retail and office space in its base. For an authentic Danish stay, book a night in a hygge Airbnb that looks an awful lot like Copenhagen’s famous Round Tower.
Tulip Fields in Michigan vs. The Netherlands
WHERE: Holland, Michigan
Each spring, The Netherlands comes alive with a colorful sea of tulips. In Keukenhof alone, 7 million bulbs are planted annually. Thankfully, Holland isn’t the only place to see Mother Nature’s seasonal flower show. The town of Holland, Michigan, which was settled by Dutch immigrants in 1847, has been hosting Tulip Time since 1929 and certainly does its motherland proud. Roughly half a million people visit during the eight-day festival, eager to see the 4.5 million tulips planted, but these blooms also can be seen free of charge all around town from late April through mid-May.
INSIDER TIPWindmill Island Gardens is one of the best tulip viewing spots where you can tour the United States’ only authentic Dutch windmill and see 120,000 tulips showing off their varying hues. It’s worth the entrance fee, we promise.
Oktoberfest in Washington vs. Bavaria
WHERE: Leavenworth, Washington
Grab your dirndl or lederhosen and head straight to Leavenworth, Washington, where each October you’ll find a stateside version of Oktoberfest. While the 2021 rendition will be more of a street fair (due to COVID-related supply chain issues), the town typically gets all decked out with traditional festivities from beer halls and oompah music to imported German beer and German music performers. Of course, Leavenworth is a Bavarian-style village all year long, thanks to a city-wide renovation in the 1960s that capitalized on its alpine setting of the Cascade Mountains and Mount Stuart’s similarities to the Bavarian Alps. Throughout town, you’ll find unmistakable Bavarian architecture, restaurants serving German fare, and German-inspired boutiques (think: nutcrackers, beer steins, novelty hats, and wooden toys) mixed in with modern galleries.
Christmas Markets in Wisconsin vs. France
WHERE: Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin
Making your list and checking it twice while holiday shopping in a European Christmas market is a bucket-list item for many; so it’s no wonder that the Christkindelsmärik in Strasbourg, France—one of the oldest in Europe—draws a few million visitors each year. While you might assume the best American version of the Frace’s Christmas Market would be found in a city like New York or Chicago, it’s actually located in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin.
The Old World Christmas Market at The Osthoff Resort lures vendors and visitors from around the world by trading the traditional open-air concept for a cozy, football-field-length tent adorned with wooden booths, pine trees, and festive décor at every turn. The 10-day-long market offers a hefty dose of holiday cheer alongside hand-crafted goods from 70+ artisans, including ornaments, fine woodwork, soaps, and sweaters.
Natural Hot Springs in Colorado vs. Switzerland
WHERE: Ouray, Colorado
While you may not have the Swiss Alps insight during a natural hot spring soak in Ouray, there’s a reason this Colorado town is known as the “Switzerland of America”—it’s situated 8,000 feet above sea level, amid the 13,000-foot snow-capped San Juan Mountains. Head straight to the Ouray Hot Springs, which has been operating year-round since 1927. Here, you’ll find mineral-rich and sulfur-free water brimming with iron, manganese, zinc, fluoride, and potassium, which is the perfect way to replenish after a long day of hiking, backcountry skiing, or mountain biking. The water is gravity fed from Box Canyon into five geothermally heated pools, ranging from 78 degrees (the Lap Pool) to 106 degrees (the Overlook). Trust us; it’s still a view worth bragging about.
Cobblestone Streets in South Carolina vs. Europe
WHERE: Charleston, South Carolina
The moment you step onto cobblestone streets, you’re instantly experiencing one of Europe’s most charming qualities—even if those cobblestone streets happen to be in Charleston, South Carolina. But the roads aren’t the only thing giving off European vibes in this southern city. You’ll find plenty of French influences through its Lowcountry cuisine, charming alleyways covered in flora and fauna, horse-drawn carriage rides, and its annual 17-day Spoleto Festival, which brings opera, theater, and dance performances from all over the world (this American version spun off from the annual Festival of Two Worlds in Italy).
Spend a morning perusing more than 300 vendors at the Charleston City Market, one of the oldest public markets in the United States. Also known as The Holy City, hundreds of church steeples extend above Charleston’s skyline just as you’d see throughout Europe. The architectural styles of the various churches and city buildings range from Greek Revival and Gothic Revival (the Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist is a favorite) to Italianate and Victorian.