April 22, 2024

Olympia Travel Tips

Maniac Travel Update

7 Places in the US That Feel Like Europe for the Holidays

7 Places in the US That Feel Like Europe for the Holidays

Airfare prices are high this holiday season and expected to climb even higher as year-end travel kicks in.

Delta LAX

There are various small towns in the US that offer a European feel without the cost of an international flight.

Brady MacDonald/Insider

For many US travelers, these surges mean a dream vacation to Europe to take in Christmas markets, snowy mountain peaks, and idyllic cities and towns is out of reach.

I grew up in Florida, lived in Washington DC for several years, and traveled all over the US for work and leisure. I’m now a travel writer based near Orvieto in central Italy, and Europe is my stomping ground. Still, it’s always nice to discover cities and small towns in the US that impart that lovely European feel, thanks largely to various immigrant populations who settled there. 

So if you’re hungry for a European fix during the holidays, but short on disposable income or credit card points to get you there, find it closer to home. Here are seven places in the US that impart the feel of Europe without the cost of an international trip.

Swap San Francisco’s North Beach for Southern Italy to get your fill of Italian holiday treats.

North Beach San Francisco

Enjoy classic Italian eats in San Francisco’s North Beach.

Elizabeth Heath

Following the great 1906 earthquake and subsequent fires, more Italian immigrants moved into San Francisco’s North Beach and the neighborhood became known as the city’s Little Italy.

Today, even as the neighborhood has become more diverse, North Beach is still the city’s traditional Italian quarter, and I think it’s a great place to visit for a taste of real Italian cuisine and ambiance. When I’ve visited North Beach, I’ve always been pleased to find authentic, red-checked-tablecloth style trattorias and cozy coffee bars, and bakeries fresh with the aroma of holiday panettone, pan d’oro, and cannoli. Liguria Bakery is one of my favorites for Northern Italian pastries.

And of course, you can’t leave Little Italy without eating pasta. If you’re there at Christmas, do as my Italian family does, and order a classic lasagna as a part of your holiday lunch or dinner. You’ll find it at the top of many menus around the neighborhood. 

Here are some other North Beach holiday highlights: 

  • Christmas midnight mass at Saints Peters and Paul Church. Known as “the Italian Cathedral of the West,” this twin-spired church was rebuilt in 1924 and is still the spiritual heart of the neighborhood.
  • Columbus Avenue is the main drag through North Beach, and you’ll find it decorated with festive holiday lights and storefront displays.
  • Though it’s not in North Beach, historic Ghirardelli Square is nearby and hosts a giant Christmas tree and holiday events.

Stay at the Hilton San Francisco Financial District for a modern 4-star option steps from North Beach. Or stay right in the heart of the neighborhood at Hotel Bohème, a boutique option in a vintage building constructed by Italian immigrants. 

For cobblestoned streets and architecture reminiscent of London, visit Charleston, South Carolina.

Charleston, South Carolina, USA town skyline.

Exploring Charleston’s graceful architecture and holidays markets will feel like a slice of London.


Since the earliest days of the 13 colonies, Charleston was an influential seaport and the Atlantic gateway to the American south, including during the eras of slavery and Civil War, according to Smithsonian Magazine. Ship traffic and trade were so brisk here that the city was dubbed “Little London.”

I especially love visiting Charleston’s old town, with its cobblestone streets and Colonial-era architecture, during the holidays when it feels like a little slice of Londontown. 

During the holidays, I think the city looks like something right out of “A Christmas Carol,” with graceful mansions decked out with garlands, palmetto trees strung with twinkling lights, and horsedrawn carriages offering tours of the historic area. 

Here’s what to watch for in Charleston at the holidays:

For accommodations over the holidays, I recommend the French Quarter Inn. I don’t think you’ll find anything more festive than the Sleigh Bell Suite, which is outfitted with garlands, a holiday tree, and an in-room eggnog bar. The HarbourView Inn is another festive pick for the end of the year for the gingerbread house replica of the hotel in the lobby, live Christmas carolers, and a visit from Santa on Christmas Eve.

Hop over to Oahu, Hawaii, for a tropical escape that feels like the Portuguese Azores.

A beach on the west coast of Oahu, Hawaii

In Kauai there are fun winter activities like the Waikiki Holiday Parade and a Christmas trolley light tour.

Dudarev Mikhail/Shutterstock

When thousands of immigrants from the Portuguese Azores arrived to Hawaii at the turn of the 20th century, they found a familiar landscape of lush volcanic terrain and abundant marine life. The Portuguese settlers brought elements of their culture to the Hawaiian islands, most noticeable in malasadas, sugary donuts that are a Hawaiian staple, and in the familiar twang of the ukulele, which originated as the Portuguese braguinha.

Despite its tropical setting, I’ve found Oahu, and especially the capital of Honolulu, to go all out for the holidays. I love to explore streets and shopping areas decked out with Christmas lights on palm trees and attend fun local events to mark the season.

Here are a few ways to celebrate the season in Oahu:

  • The Waikiki Holiday Parade features a torchlit marching band procession down Kalakaua Avenue along Waikiki Beach, and culminates with a poignant wreath laying at Pearl Harbor. 
  • At the city hall, the Honolulu Hale Christmas lights are a colorful outdoor display, with a huge central tree and festive lanterns adorning buildings and trees.
  • A brightly lit Honolulu Trolley takes guests on a Christmas light tour, with sing-alongs and seasonal stories.

In Oahu, stay at the trendy, pet-friendly Surfjack Hotel & Swim Club, or splash out at the historic Halekulani Hotel, home of the legendary House Without a Key restaurant and hula show.

Visit Charlottesville, Virginia, for a stateside taste of Provence, France.

Charlottesville Virginia Downtown Pedestrian Mall at Holidays_Image credit Visit Virginia.jpg

Charlottesville’s colonial architecture feels especially festive when decked out for the holidays.

Visit Virginia

With its undulating rows of vineyards, sprawling green hills, and fragrant lavender fields, you can’t be blamed for confusing the countryside around Charlottesville, Virginia, with the bucolic landscapes of Provence, France. Here, you can get a taste of France without getting on a long-haul flight. I haven’t visited Charlottesville personally yet, but it’s on my radar to explore the Colonial-era architecture in the old town, the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Monticello, and the neoclassical design of the University of Virginia, elements that will transport visitors to France of several centuries ago.

During the holidays, go for cool, crisp weather and cozy lodgings, special holiday tours of local landmarks, pop-up Christmas markets, and more. Here are a few highlights:

For an upscale winter spa or golf weekend, stay at the luxury Keswick Hall. Or in the historic center, choose The Inn at Court Square, which occupies the oldest existing house in Charlottesville.

Instead of Switzerland, head to Midway, Utah, for an abundance of skiing and snow sports.

A Swiss-themed resort in Midway, Utah.

Many buildings in Midway, Utah, are designed in the Swiss chalet-style of architecture.

Monica Humphries/Insider

From skiing, sledding, and ice skating, to dining on hearty mountain fare and strolling through a quaint village with pretty squares, what sounds like a perfect winter vacation in the Swiss Alps can be found much closer to home in Midway, Utah. 

After an influx of Swiss immigrants in the 1860s, Midway became known as “Little Switzerland” thanks to its architecture, Swiss-German traditions, and location at the base of the mighty Wasatch Back mountain range.

I haven’t been to Midway yet, but I think when there’s snow on the ground around the holidays it would be a solid swap for a Swiss Alpine town. Fill your visit with a lively calendar of Christmas events, horse-drawn carriage rides, ice-skating, and keep an eye out for appearances from Old St. Nick.

Here are some holiday highlights: 

For stays, book Midway’s Zermatt Resort, which captures some of the cachet of Switzerland’s most exclusive resort town, or the cozy Blue Boar Inn that looks like something straight out of Old Europe.

For a Danish holiday experience right out of the storybooks, go to Solvang, California.

Solvang Paula's pancakes

Homes and commercial buildings throughout Solvang are built in the traditional half-timber style from Denmark.

Anneta Konstantinides/Insider

There’s no place quite like Solvang, California, unless you go to Denmark. Developed by Danish immigrants in the early 1900s, Solvang capitalized on its historical roots and architecture in the post-war years by transforming itself to look like a charming village that reminds me of the stories of Hans Christian Andersen. I haven’t visited Solvang yet, but if it’s anything like Copenhagen’s Tivoli Gardens at Christmas, then it must be quite magical indeed.

In the town center, there are commercial and residential buildings, some of which date to the town’s founding, done in traditional half-timber style. And of course, there are Danish windmills. 

Year after year, Solvang has been dubbed one of “the most Christmassy towns in America” and it really does go all out for the holidays, with gorgeous light displays and a full calendar of events. 

Here are some not-to-miss moments: 

  • Solvang Julefest is an extended European-style Christmas festival that runs from late November to the Epiphany (January 6).
  • Also part of Julefest, take a candlelight walking tour through the village with a costumed guide, who will explain the town’s Danish history and traditions. 
  • Shop for authentic made-in-Denmark gifts and hand-crafted ornaments and other items in Solvang’s village center.

Set right in the village center, I recommend staying in the boutique Mirabelle Inn, which is done up in full Danish style. The M Solvang is another sweet choice and is built around a lovely courtyard garden.

Head to St. Augustine, Florida for winter warmth that feels like sunny Spain.

St. Augustine Florida Night of Lights holiday travel courtesy FloridasHistoricCoast.com

St. Augustine embraces the holiday spirit with light displays throughout town and a Christmas parade.


I grew up in Florida so I’ve been to St. Augustine several times. As a kid, it was one of the first places that spurred my fascination with Europe. Visiting there still feels like a sliver of Spain thanks to its old architecture and sunny weather. Stroll through the city’s 450-year-old historic district, with its cobblestone streets, quaint Spanish-style stucco homes with terracotta roofs, and a 17th-century seafront fortress.

Cancel out the sounds of modern life — and all the English being spoken — and you can easily believe you’re in Spain, albeit Spain of several hundred years ago. As the oldest continually inhabited city in the US, St. Augustine is rich in heritage, history, and attractions that speak to its Spanish colonial past as well as its roles in the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and the Civil Rights Movement.

St. Augustine is beautiful every time of year but at the holidays, it takes on a special ambiance, when its pedestrian-only streets are illuminated with holiday lights and festooned with decorations. Here are some key holiday events:

The Agustin Inn is one of many charming small inns and B&Bs in the old center where I love to stay for a quiet retreat. Or for something more modern, I recommend the voco St. Augustine – Historic Area, which is conveniently located midway between the historic district and the beaches of Anastasia State Park.

Read more from Insider’s guide to holiday travel:

How to book holiday travel this year, from the best day to find cheap flights to snagging free hotel upgrades 

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I’ve been visiting Mexico for 15 years and these are the best all-inclusive resorts I recommend for a holiday getaway

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8 affordable tropical vacations you can take this winter, according to a travel writer who skips the snow every year