The above image of River Street in Savannah, Georgia is reminiscent of Paris, France. Image courtesy Savannah.com
Tour the World With an American History Road Trip!
By Ria Nicholas
As we go stir crazy due to COVID-19, we’re eager to pack our bags and get our travel on. But journeying abroad may still lie outside our comfort zone. Fortunately, there is plenty of “foreign” ambiance to explore right here in the U.S. See, taste, discover, and immerse yourself in the exotic sights, sounds, and cuisine of these fabulous American destinations!
Below, you will find information on more than Two Dozen Destinations, representing Twelve Foreign Countries:
So, in the spirit of international fun, let’s play a little game: See if you can guess which of the following four photos was taken in Germany? Once you have made your choice, scroll down for the answer.
Image #1: Wilkommen to America! From snow-capped mountains to brightly painted façades, Leavenworth, Washington duplicates the Bavarian Alps to a tee. Formerly known as Icicle Flats, the town was built in 1890 on land previously used for hunting and fishing by the Yakama, Chinook, and Wenatchi Indian tribes. It grew into a thriving timber town – until the railroad bypassed it. In 1960, clever town leaders decided to reinvent the entire town, renovating it to look like Bavaria and creating a series of German-themed festivals. Leavenworth is now a top tourist destination in the Pacific Northwest, especially during the holiday season! While there, visit the Nutcracker Museum or the Reindeer Farm, sample the wines at the Icicle Ridge Winery, or celebrate one of the many festivals hosted there throughout the year.
Image #2: Nope, this is the U.S.A.! Originally inhabited by Cherokee Indians, the first non-Native settlers to the area arrived in 1807 and called their community White Oak Flats. In 1854, Radford Gatlin opened a grocery store and post office here, and the town was renamed Gatlinburg in his honor. Gatlin, as it turned out, was a Confederate sympathizer in a region of the country loyal to the Union, and the locals ran the community’s namesake out of town. However, they kept the name, and today, Gatlinburg, Tennessee (and its neighbor, Pigeon Forge) offer an amazing array of tourist attractions for visitors of all ages. One of them is riding the tram to “Ober Gatlinburg,” a Bavarian-themed ski area and amusement park. Others include taking in the view from the Space Needle, touring Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies, and playing among the trees at Anakeesta Mountaintop Park. Best of all, Gatlinburg is the gateway to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, offering miles and miles of scenic hiking trails.
Image #3: This is still America! Step into a Brothers Grimm fairy tale as you walk the town plaza in Helen, Georgia. The history of this community parallels that of Leavenworth, Washington. Platted in 1912, Helen started off as a booming logging town. When the timber industry went bust, the people of Helen recreated their town as a Bavarian village in the Appalachian Mountains. The town’s zoning laws now require that every building, even national franchises, include a nod to southern German style. Today, a large part of Helen’s economy is based on the tourism industry. Adults might enjoy a visit to the Habersham Winery & Vineyards, one of the oldest wineries in Georgia or choose from over 200 specialty and import shops. Children – or the kid in all of us – will thrill to Charlemagne’s Kingdom, an Alpine Model Railroad Museum. If you’d rather ride than look at rails, try the Georgia Mountain Coaster, a gravity-powered roller coaster that will send you zipping through the trees.
Image #4: Wrong again; this is the United States! Hugging the banks of the Cass River, Frankenmuth, Michigan strives to emulate Neuendettelsau [noy-en-DET-tels-ou], Germany, from whence 15 settlers emigrated in 1845, seeking a new life in America. Seven years later, 80 cabins and farmhouses dotted the countryside, and in 1854, Frankenmuth residents formally organized as a township. German settlers continued arriving until WWII, and today the German language is still prevalent in signage and speech. Its distinctly German character is also apparent in the town’s architectural features. Visitors to Frankenmuth may enjoy a variety of German themed celebrations, including the first Oktoberfest outside of Munich to be sanctioned by the German Parliament and the City of Munich. Stroll through the Frankenmuth River Place Shops to pick up a souvenir or grab a bite to eat. Authentic brats and local brews from Kern’s Sausages are bound to hit the spot. Then take a leisurely ride aboard the Bavarian Belle Riverboat for a one hour narrated historical tour.
Okay, I admit it. I didn’t play fair. None of the above photos were taken in Germany. But that only goes to show that you can get the feel of foreign travel right here in the U.S.A. No passport required. I promise not to cheat in any of the guessing games below!
- Leavenworth, Washington
- Gatlinburg, Tennessee
- Helen, Georgia
- Frankenmuth, Michigan
- Savannah, Georgia
- New Orleans, Louisiana
- Napa Valley, California
- Charleston, South Carolina
- Lindsborg, Kansas
- Washington Island, Wisconsin
- Minot, North Dakota
- Rapid City, South Dakota
- Georgetown, Washington, D.C.
- Solvang, California
- Holland, Michigan
- Pella, Iowa
- Boston, Massachusetts
- Saint Augustine, Florida
- Tarpon Springs, Florida
- Kahaluu, Hawaii
- Chimayo, New Mexico
- Santa Barbara, California
- San Antonio, Texas
- San Francisco
Here are some more places that will make you feel like a world traveler:
The headline image at the top of this post looks like a street in Paris but is actually River Street in Savannah. The first city in Georgia, Savannah was established in 1733 when General James Oglethorpe and 120 passengers from the ship “Anne” landed at a bluff on the Savannah River. Oglethorpe named this 13th colony after King George II of England. Here, southern hospitality merges with a distinctly European flavor. This town is steeped in history and hauntings! To take it all in, join one of many available tours – by trolley with Hop-on Hop-off Tours, by bike with VBT, or on foot with GPS My City. For something different, you could also opt for an after-dark tour with Savannah Ghost Tours. Finally, you can take a Savannah Riverboat Cruise on the Georgia Queen or Savannah River Queen. Or sign up for the Savannah Tybee Island Dolphin Cruise, which includes dolphin watching and a stop at Tybee Island Light Station, Georgia’s oldest and tallest lighthouse.
Hidden courtyards in New Orleans’ French Quarter* seduce visitors with their flowers, fountains and old world charm. Indigenous people once referred to this area along the Mississippi River as Balbancha, “land of many tongues.” Jean Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville founded the city he would call La Nouvelle-Orleans here in 1718. Soon after, in 1723, France ceded Louisiana to Spain. Then, in 1788 and again in 1794, major fires destroyed over a thousand old French buildings, and New Orleans was largely rebuilt in Spanish style. Today the French Quarter is best described as a mixture of French, Spanish and Creole influences. Offerings in Vieu Carre are plentiful and varied. Whether it’s grooving to jazz at Maison Bourbon, where Harry Connick, Jr. got his start, or rummaging through Marie Laveau’s House of Voodoo for that darkly unique gris gris souvenir, there’s plenty to keep you occupied. But New Orleans is really all about the food! So chow down on a Muffuletta sandwich at the Napoleon House, throw back a Hurricane at Pat O’Brien’s, and treat yourself to beignets and chickory at Café Du Monde.
* For more detail about New Orleans’ French Quarter, see our article titled “Tour the French Quarter With NOLA’s Original Bad Boy!“
Here’s another game: Can you guess which of the two images below is of Napa Valley, California and which is of a vineyard in France? Read on to find the answer.
Settler George Yount was the first to plant grapes in Napa Valley, California in 1839. Charles Krug founded the first commercial winery there in 1861. Then, beginning in the 1890s, a root louse killed 80% of the grapevines. Later, Prohibition (1920-1933) forced the closure of most of the remaining vineyards. Over the ensuing decades, wineries survived by collaborating and gradually rebuilding the industry. Today, Napa Valley is home to over 500 wineries. Of course, there are many vineyard and wine tasting tours in Napa Valley. What else is there to do? Billed as “a nature walk in the sky,” hot air balloon rides from Napa Valley Aloft offer stunning views of the lush, rolling landscape of the Valley. Rather stay on the ground? Then pamper yourself with the Napa Valley Wine Train (est. 1864). A gourmet restaurant on wheels, this luxurious vintage train will whisk you away on a full-day tour to some of the most celebrated wineries in California. (The top image is of a French vineyard; courtesy Aida Toromanovic. The bottom image is of Napa Valley, California; courtesy James Daisa.)
Can’t head to the French Riviera this year? Head to Charleston, South Carolina instead. In the Spring of 1670, the “Albemarle,” with 150 English colonists, indentured servants and slaves aboard, sailed into a harbor on the coast of what would become South Carolina. They established a settlement and called it Charles Town (later Charleston), after King Charles II of England. By 1672, they recognized the benefits of moving their settlement across the river to a peninsula they called “Oyster Point” because of the discarded oyster shells left there by Kiawah Indians. The town has since grown into a thriving port known for its southern hospitality and philosophy of religious tolerance. Bone up on Charleston’s history with an Old South Carriage Tour. Be sure to visit Charleston’s own French Quarter. Here the Powder Magazine, the oldest remaining building in Charleston, preserves history predating the American Revolution. The Old Slave Mart Museum presents the story of African Americans, and Waterfront Park, with its gardens, fountains, and walking paths, offers respite from the hustle and bustle of daily life.
For a smörgåsbord of Swedish atmosphere, plan your escape to Lindsborg, Kansas. Settled in the spring of 1869 by a group of Swedish immigrants from the Värmland province of Sweden, and led by Pastor Olaf Olsson, locals envisioned a community rich in culture, learning, religion, business, and farming. Visit the Höglun Dugout, a 6 ft. x 12 ft. stone-lined pit, where settlers Gustaf and Maria Höglund spent the summer of 1868, using their wagon as a roof . . .
. . . or head to Coronado Heights, where the Works Progress Administration castle casts a medieval looking shadow over the undulating hills. Wherever you wander around the town, you will come across colorful street art, including iconic Dala Horses. And whenever you choose to visit, you will probably be able to attend a festival of some kind, since there is something on the events calendar for practically every month of the year.
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Stave churches were built from the 12th through 14th centuries and combined Christian and Nordic motifs with the concept of the Viking great hall. They were constructed of staves, or thick wooden posts, intricately carved. The choice of wood for these structures was likely due to an abundance of timber in the regions where they were erected.
Let’s play another game! Although typically associated with Norway, three of the stave churches shown below are located in the United States; only one is located in Norway. Can you figure out which one is the Norwegian stave church?
Image #1: This one is American! Washington Island is one of a number of islands scattered across Green Bay in Wisconsin. Beginning in the 1600s, the area became central to the fur trade between Native Americans and French explorers. Later, in 1870 a Dane by the name of W.F. Wickman persuaded four bachelors from Iceland to move to Washington Island. They established the second oldest Icelandic settlement in America. Other immigrants, including Norwegians, Swedes, and Danes, followed. The Stavkirke, based on drawings of one built in Borgund, Norway in 1150 CE, was erected 1992 – 1995 to honor the community’s Scandinavian heritage. To see more of the island (or to go fishing), you can book a boat tour with Death’s Door Charters or rent a moped at Annie’s Island Mopeds. For a unique shopping and dining experience, drop by the Washington Island lavender farm.
Image #2: This is another U.S. landmark! Scandinavian Heritage Park in Minot is home to the Gol Stave Church, a full-size replica of the 800-year-old stave church at Bygdoy Park Folk Museum in Oslo, Norway. Minot was founded in 1886, when the Great Northern Railroad ended its push through the state for the winter. A tent town sprung up over night, and the town site was established on land belonging to homesteader Erik Ramstad. He traded his real estate interests for a position as one of the city leaders. Other worthwhile destinations in Minot include the Roosevelt Park Zoo and vintage airplanes at the Dakota Territory Air Museum.
Image #3: Congratulations if this was your choice! This image is of an actual medieval stave church in Borgund, Norway.
Image #4: Rapid City, South Dakota, founded in 1876, also boasts a Stavkirke based on the medieval one in Borgund, Norway. Known as “Chapel In the Hills,” the church was built to expand upon the popularity of a local Lutheran preacher’s radio show. Since many of the settlers of the surrounding area were Norwegian Lutherans, the idea of a traditional stave church took shape. Of course the Black Hills of South Dakota are also rich in geology and Native American and history and culture. No vacation here would be complete without a side trip to the Crazy Horse Memorial or to Mount Rushmore. The stunning Devil’s Tower National Monument is only a 1 hour and 40 minute drive to the northwest. Kids might also enjoy Dinosaur Park, a display of dino-sculptures atop a sandstone ridge where paleontologists have unearthed dinosaurs from the Late Jurassic and Early Cretaceous periods. The ridge affords a spectacular 100-mile view of the South Dakota Badlands.
The quaint Danish town in this photo is actually Solvang, California. A group of Danish immigrants moved here to escape the harsh winters of the Mid-west and founded the town in 1911. They built their community on 9,000 acres of the former Rancho San Carlos de Jonata. In 1946, promoters decided to redesign the facades of the town to re-create a Danish Village. Since then, Sunset Magazine named Solvang one of the “10 Most Beautiful Small Towns in the Western United States.” Today Solvang attracts over 1 million visitors a year. Take a self-guided walking tour to locate Solvang’s four wooden Danish windmills, the clock tower, the Hans Christian Andersen statue, and the Little Mermaid fountain.
The Netherlands (Holland):
Georgetown, an upscale neighborhood in Washington, D.C., is not named for our first president. Instead, it honors Britain’s King George II. It was laid out in 1751 on 60 acres of riverfront in what was then Maryland, just a few miles up the Potomac from Alexandria, Virginia. Washington D.C. didn’t exist at the time. By 1790, Georgetown was a thriving exporter of goods, with textile and flour mills, among other industries. In the early 1800s, Georgetown became the eastern terminus of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, used to transport coal and other goods. Defunct by 1920, the canal fell into disrepair. Fortunately, the National Park Service and the non-profit Georgetown Heritage organization have partnered to restore a one-mile section of the canal running through Georgetown. A new historical replica canal boat is tentatively scheduled for launch in the Fall of 2021 and may soon transport you down the canal and into the “Amsterdam” of your imagination. Alternatively, head to the Potomac River to rent a canoe, kayak, or stand-up paddle board at Key Bridge Boathouse. While at the river, pop into one of the waterfront restaurants, such as Fiola Mare for a gourmet meal. Stroll the gardens at Dumbarton Oaks or tour one of several historic homes.
In 1847, a group of 60 men, women, and children escaped the religious oppression and economic deprivation in the country of Holland in Europe to establish the community of Holland on the banks of Lake Macatawa in Michigan. Those first years brought many hardships to the settlers, but through hard work they were able to transform their settlement into a thriving community, prompting Forbes to name Holland one of “America’s Prettiest Towns.” In 1927, a biology teacher at Holland High School suggested planting flowers as part of a beautification program, and the annual festival known as Tulip Time (early May) was born. Each year tulip bulbs imported from the Netherlands are planted and attract scores of tourists to Windmill Island Gardens. Here you will find costumed guides, an Amsterdam street organ, a hand-painted Dutch carousel, and the DeZwaan windmill, the only authentic Dutch windmill operating in the United States.
The story of Pella, Iowa is almost identical to that of Holland, Michigan. In the same year (1847), a group of Hollanders left the Netherlands to escape religious persecution. Led by Rev. Hendrik Pieter Scholte, who had been arrested for his lack of cooperation with the state-supported church, they set sail for Baltimore. They traveled through St. Louis before settling on the prairies of Iowa. These pilgrims called their new home Pella, the name taken from a biblical city of refuge. A prosperous, fastidious, and hard-working people, the settlers built their community in the style of their homeland. Like the community of Holland in Michigan, Pella preserves its history through tulip festivals, through their Historical Village and Windmill (at 12 stories tall, it’s the largest Dutch windmill in the U.S.), and through the Scholte House. However, while in Pella, you can also visit the boyhood home of Wyatt Earp of Tombstone, Arizona fame.
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Here’s a quick game: Boston or London?
Beacon Hill, the oldest historic district in Boston, Massachusetts, started in 1630 as an area of country estates and rural houses. One of them is the Paul Revere House, from which Revere departed on his legendary “midnight ride.” The area remained pastoral through the time of the Revolutionary War. Then in 1795, the State House was built here. That year, several wealthy Bostonians formed an association to develop the area. Brick row houses, reminiscent of old London, populate Beacon Hill’s South Slope. These are marked by brick sidewalks and cobblestone streets, gaslights and doors with elaborate brass knockers, wrought iron railings and cheerful flower boxes. After slavery was abolished in Massachusetts in 1783, Beacon Hill’s North Slope became a center for black and white abolitionists. It also became an important stop on the Underground Railroad. It is the location of the Abiel Smith School, the nation’s oldest public school for African American children. There you will also find the famous African Meeting House, the oldest remaining black church building in the nation. The Meeting House was built by free African American artisans, and served as a recruitment center for African Americans enlisting in the 54th Massachusetts regiment in 1863. Both the Abiel Smith School and the African Meeting House belong to the Museum of African American History.
St. Augustine was founded on September 8, 1565, by Spanish admiral Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, making the city the oldest permanent European settlement in the United States. The colony of Florida had been claimed for Spain by Ponce de León in 1513, and now the Spanish were back for the purpose of expelling French Huguenots who were trying to establish an outpost here. Menéndez was assisted in his efforts by a violent storm or hurricane, which disbursed and sank the French fleet. In 1586, Sir Francis Drake, serving as a privateer for England’s Queen Elizabeth I, raided and burned St. Augustine. But the Spaniards rebuilt it. In 1672, they constructed the oldest masonry fort in the United States. Castillo de San Marcos still stands watch over the city today. You will also want to tour the Ponce de León Hotel at Flagler College. In 1888, industrialist Henry Morrison Flagler established the hotel as the first of a series of luxury accommodations along the east coast of Florida. Next, stop in at Ponce de Leon’s Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park for a comprehensive overview of St. Augustine history.
Tarpon Springs began as a pioneer settlement on Florida’s Gulf side in 1875. As the story goes, Mary Ormond Boyer stood on the banks of Spring Bayou in 1880, saw a fish jump, and exclaimed, “Look at the tarpon spring!” And so the settlement got its name. The 1880s also saw the first immigrants from Greece, and the Greek industry of sponge diving took hold, turning Tarpon Springs into the “Sponge Capital of the World.” Today, bazouki music plays along the Dodecanese Boulevard, where shops are painted blue and white – the colors of the Greek flag. The seductive aroma of Greek cuisine, wafting from restaurants such as Mykonos*, beckons visitors to partake of Peloponnesian culinary delights. Visit the Tarpon Springs Aquarium and Animal Sanctuary to see alligators and pet baby sharks. Book a sunset cruise with Odyssey Cruises. And be sure to visit the Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral, patterned after St. Sofia’s in Constantinople.
*Mykonos Restaurtant, 628 Dodecanese Blvd, Tarpon Springs, FL 34689
China / Hong Kong:
Beginning in the mid-1800s, vast numbers of Chinese citizens began disbursing around the globe in search of a better life. As they settled into new cities, they aggregated into communities generically referred to as “Chinatown,” the largest of which took hold in San Francisco, California. In order to support themselves and their families back home, as well as repay their sponsors for their passage, Chinese laborers often were forced to accept work at lower wages and to work for longer hours. After surviving the initial hardships of immigration, a series of discriminatory laws, and the 1906 Earthquake, San Francisco’s Chinatown experienced a rebirth. Today, its 30 city blocks, packed with shops and restaurants, comprise one of the U.S.’s premier tourist attractions.
Okay, so technically most of you can’t make a road trip here. You will need a plane ticket, since it isn’t located on the U.S. mainland. But, hey, you won’t need a passport! The original Byodo-In Temple was built 998 CE in the city of Uji in Kyoto Prefecture, Japan, and has its own complex history. A scaled-down replica of the Byodo-In Temple was built in Kahalu’u in 1968 to commemorate the 100-year anniversary of the island’s first Japanese immigrants. This non-practicing Buddhist temple invites visitors of all faiths to enjoy its beautifully manicured grounds, gardens, waterfalls and ponds. Head east from the temple, to find sun drenched beaches and to rent a kayak or snorkel gear at Kama’aina Kayak and Snorkel Eco-Ventures. Just to the north, you can visit 21 Degrees Estate, a real cacao farm, to learn about the chocolate making process and to taste the product.
Chimayo, also known as “Lourdes of America,” has served as a center for worship and healing since long before its construction in 1813 and now attracts over 300,000 pilgrims each year. Pueblo Indians had inhabited the Sangre de Cristo Mountains since the 12th century, and sought the healing powers of the earth long before the arrival of the Spaniards. The Pueblo Indians briefly managed to expel the Spanish during the Pueblo Rebellion of 1680. After the Spaniards returned, various spiritual ‘revelations’ induced them to build the chapel dedicated to Our Lord of Esquipulas. El Santuario de Chimayo sits in the center of the small village of El Potrero, one of several settlements in the Santa Cruz Valley collectively called Chimayo. Only a 35-mile drive to the south, you will find the city of Santa Fe, renown for its adobe architecture. There you will find numerous art galleries and museums, including the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum.
The history of Santa Barbara begins 13,000 years ago with the earliest known Native American artifacts. The oldest human skeleton found in North America was unearthed on Santa Rosa Island, approximately 30 miles (48 km) from downtown Santa Barbara. In more recent times, peaceful hunter-gatherers, known as the Chumash people, inhabited the area. Representations of their culture count among many exhibits at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History. Although Portuguese and Spanish explorers passed through the region beginning in 1542, it wasn’t until the completion of Presidio de Santa Barbara in 1792 that a permanent Spanish settlement was established there. The earthquake of 1812 destroyed the original mission. The replacement mission and church, completed in 1833, survives to the present day. Digging your toes in the sand during a sunset walk along a Santa Barbara beach may be a given. Digging into some creative problem solving at the Wolf Museum of Exploration + Innovation (MOXI) might not have occurred to you, but this one-of-a-kind museum comes highly recommended as a fun STEM learning experience for kids of all ages. Adults will find comfort food and California wine at Cold Spring Tavern, which served as a real stagecoach stop over 100 years ago.
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A perpetual fiesta for the senses, this Texas town is a “muy caliente” tourist destination. In 1718, a Spanish expedition from Mexico established the Mission San Antonio de Valero (better known as the “Alamo“). The presidio, or military garrison, known as San Antonio de Béxar was established later the same year. Eventually a civilian settlement, today’s city of San Antonio grew up around the mission and presidio. Although San Antonio is primarily remembered for the Alamo, it offers a huge variety of attractions. Among them, its other historic missions are definitely worth a visit. Known as the Queen of the Missions, San José, which was founded in 1720 and completed in 1782, is also the largest. The River Walk, a special pedestrian walkway that snakes through the downtown area, is the heart and soul of San Antonio. Take a boat ride, shop, or dine river-side while being serenaded by a traveling mariachi band. For more shopping, excellent Tex-Mex food, and ice cold margaritas, head to “El Mercado,” San Antonio’s Historic Market Square. Consider staying at the Menger Hotel right next door to the Alamo. The Menger reigns as the oldest continuously operating hotel west of the Mississippi and Teddy Roosevelt once gathered his Rough Riders in the hotel bar here.
This concludes our American History Road Trip World Tour. Hopefully you are inspired to travel right here in the U.S. and support our awesome American destinations while still indulging your taste for the exotic. If you know of a U.S. destination that deserves attention, please contact us and share your stories and photos. You never know; they might just appear in a future post!