Gone are the carefree days of yesteryear when strong-dollar wielding Americans indulged their Old World travel cravings at whim. Today’s would-be pond-hoppers are instead up against an evermore powerful euro that has wreaked havoc on the greenback’s value abroad, as well as rising fuel costs that have translated to sky-high transatlantic airfares. Still, these economic hurdles have done little to quell our hankerings for Europe's rich culture, history, architecture, and cuisine. Happily, there are alternative locales oozing with European flair conveniently spread across the Americas, where travelers can get a taste of Europe, without having to stomach the euro — or having to combat jet lag for that matter, with many of our picks within long-weekend striking distance.
One could easily argue that Boston, packed as it is with Revolutionary War sites (tea, anyone?), is the most quintessentially American city. Compared to other large U.S. cities, however, the cultural heart of New England practically flaunts its historical associations with the Old World. Founded by Puritan colonists from England in 1630, Beantown has grown into a graceful, immensely walkable city of narrow, crooked streets (many dotted by Irish pubs) — from the Italian-influenced North End to cozy Beacon Hill — with architecture encompassing Georgian, Romanesque, and Victorian styles. Saunter along the leafy banks of the Charles River as collegiate rowing crews glide by; squint a little, and you’ll swear you’re in Oxford. Geographical déjà vu may emerge again once the new wing of the city’s Museum of Fine Arts opens in 2010 (it was designed by British architect Sir Norman Foster, who recently put his stamp on the British Museum in London).
2. Buenos Aires
The lively Argentinean capital is South America's answer to Paris or Barcelona, exuding European flair in everything from its leafy boulevards and grandiose architecture to Old World cuisine, while not missing a beat on the sexy Latin vibe that permeates it. The porteños (Buenos Aires’ residents) themselves boast a multinational European heritage, having largely descended from the city’s founding Spanish settlers and a successive wave of 19th-century Italian immigrants; in fact, Italian fare remains the most abundant food choice in the city. For a one-stop Paris sampler, stroll Avenida Alvear, where chic boutiques share real-estate with palatial manses, or tour the historic Avenida de Mayo, which was designed to rival Paris' Champs Elysées. If that weren't enough, almost everything the city has to offer can be had at an amazing price: Tuck into a meal with all the trimmings at an upscale restaurant for $30 or be tucked into bed at an elegant boutique hotel for $80. Take that, euro!
3. New Orleans
This spicy Southern city owes its unique flavors to a jambalaya of cultural heritages that have simmered to perfection for centuries. First and foremost, French influence abounds, resonating from the city’s original Gaulish settlers who left their mark on everything from cuisine (beignets and café au lait, anyone?) to such eponymous locales as the French Quarter, where street and business names still today recall la langue française. That said, the same area is equally marked by Spanish influences (after the city fell under Spanish rule for a brief period in the late 18th century), from romantic walled courtyards to wrought-iron balconies. Of course, African, Caribbean, and other ethnicities also added their own special ingredients to this zesty melting pot of a city, but there’s little doubt that La Nouvelle-Orléans is predominantly European at heart.
Setting foot in the seaside Brazilian town of Paraty (also spelled Parati) is like stepping back in time to 17th-century Portugal. Not only are cars banned from the peaceful village's cobbled streets, but the simple, stucco buildings are almost uniformly colonial with their colorful doors and windows and softly rounded rooftops (such harmonious preservation is so rare, in fact, that UNESCO designated the entire town center a heritage site).
Once a bustling port, thanks to the gold that was exported to Portugal from the mines of nearby Minas Gerais, Paraty was abandoned due to pirate raids in the 19th century, only to be rediscovered again in the '70s. Now, the area's history — not to mention its proximity to pristine beaches — have once again put it on the map.
5. Quebec City
Celebrating its 400th birthday in 2008, the first permanent French settlement in North America is celebrating its joie de vivre with a yearlong party along the St. Lawrence River. Wander the steep cobblestone streets of Old Town — the only city north of Mexico with its original city walls intact — and the sights (17th-century stone buildings with bright flower boxes), sounds (French is spoken everywhere), and smells (fresh baguettes!) will instantly transport you to France. And with all the money you’ll save by avoiding transatlantic airfare and hotel stays, you can easily splurge on all six varieties of foie gras at chef Frédéric Boulay’s sensational Le Saint-Amour restaurant. Fantastique!
6. San Juan
Just a short flight from most East Coast cities, the capital of Puerto Rico will have you reveling in activities, culture, and sights that recall The Continent — without ever having to leave America. Indeed, the oldest city in the United States delivers a winning combination of European culture with Caribbean charm, most notaby in the historic district of Old San Juan. Here, colorful buildings reminiscent of Austrian Hundertwasser join cobblestoned streets evoking steep Italian walkways and the magnificent Castillo de San Felipe del Morro fort that would be right at home on the Iberian Coast. With al fresco cafés and restaurants doling out international gourmet creations, you might even overlook the spicy local fare, while the nightlife is comparative to that of Spain’s, marked by late-night parties and trendy crowds at the casinos, bars, and nightclubs.
7. San Miguel de Allende
Mexico’s mountainside colonial hamlet brims with old-world European charm, from its architecture, artistic culture, and joie de vivre mentality. In fact, New York Magazine described it as “the closet thing Mexico has to Florence” — and while this European reference relates more to San Miguel’s prestigious artist colony, the striking cityscape is undeniably Spanish. It was, after all, founded by Franciscan friar, Juan de San Miguel, and settled by Spanish conquistadors. While strolling through the colorful cobbled streets past fountains and plazas, keep an eye out for the gothic spires of La Parroquia, the neoclassical towers of La Iglesia de San Francisco, and the domes and baroque façade of El Oratorio de San Felipe Neri.
The capital of Chile may be Latin, but Santiago feels deeply European all the same, both in its historic appeal and in its contemporary flair. Hints of the city's 16th-century Spanish roots remain in mission-style buildings like the Palacio la Moneda where arched doorways and a lemon-tree-filled courtyard channel another world, and in the old European grandeur of churches like Santo Domingo. At the same time, shiny skyscrapers and a clean, efficient metro system reveal the city's rapid economic growth, putting it on par with modern Europe. The opening of the glossy Centro Cultural Palacio La Moneda in 2006 marked the beginning of a newfound pride in the city’s heritage — a pride that has continued to evolve through Santiago’s burgeoning culinary, shopping, and nightlife scenes.
9. St. George
At a mere two-and-a-half hours by plane from the East Coast, Bermuda is a quick-and-easy way to get a solid dollop of British culture (with some very unBritish beach time) without having to cross the pond to get it. Head to Bermuda's original capital (for over 200 years), St. George, a UNESCO World Heritage Site marked by historic buildings and monuments, black cast-iron gas lamps, miniature gardens, and narrow, winding alleys.
The main square, King's Square, fronts the harbor, with classic colonial structures including the stately town hall and the circa-1700 Globe Hotel, and of course, an English-style pub (the colorful White Horse Tavern). When not seeking out history and heritage, visitors can simply bask in the lush British vibe and tee-off at pink-sand-fronted beach resorts in peace and quiet — there are few sounds to distract other than the thwack of a cricket bat or the clink of tea cups in the distance. Keep in mind, though, that the high cost of things on this British-flavored island means little in the way of savings compared to a visit to Great Britain itself, except when it comes to your airfare.
A Netherlands transplant in the Caribbean, Willemstad, the capital city of Curaçao, is not your typical harbor town. The only Caribbean city besides Havana to be ranked a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Willemstad is more of a mini-Amsterdam, loaded with pretty 17th- and 18th-century Dutch colonial buildings along its waterfront streets. Plazas turned into outdoor markets, gabled rooflines, gingerbread buildings, and beautifully restored mansions dating back to the 1700s are some of the hallmark Dutch influences. You’re likely to hear a variety of languages spoken as well, since some 55 ethnicities call the island home, and almost 40 percent of visitors hail from Europe. The cultural hub is also renowned for hosting the Mikvé Israel-Emmanuel Synagogue, the oldest synagogue in continuous use in the Western hemisphere (consecrated in 1732), and the Kura Hulanda Museum, which documents the rarely discussed slave trade in the region.
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