Finding Europe in North America: Cities with International Culture

April 3, 2013 by

North America, Things to Do, Travel Advice & Inspiration

People who write travel guides love to find easy points of comparison to give would-be travelers a reference point. Consequently, you’ll hear about cities all over the world being declared “the Paris of” or “the New York of” that country. While clearly no city is a cookie-cutter copy of the places to which it might be compared, there are some places in North America that bear enough of a resemblance to European destinations that you can fool yourself into thinking you’re on a European vacation – if only for a little while.

What makes a city European if it’s not actually in Europe? Well, that depends on what each traveler thinks of as European. For the purposes of this article, we’re looking at places in North America that have a Euro-style look, and that will give you the sense that you’ve landed in Europe when you actually haven’t. To really experience Europe, of course, you have to go to Europe – but these places offer the next best thing.

Here, then, are our picks for North American alternatives to European destinations.

Quebec

Quebec City; European cities in North America

Quebec City

In one very important way, the entire Canadian region of Quebec can make you feel like you’ve stepped off the plane at Charles de Gaulle airport outside Paris – French is the official language. Residents speak English widely, too, but those who are francophone first are proudly so. Expect to get much further with your attempts at French than you would if you just assumed everyone spoke English.

Visitors to the regional capital of Quebec (Quebec City in English) are especially apt to feel transported to France. The city is one of the oldest in North America, it still has some of its fortified city walls around the old city center, and much of the architecture in the historic parts of the city is French. The iconic Chateau Frontenac even makes Quebec look like it has a French castle at its heart.

And although the French you’ll hear in Quebec isn’t the same as the one you’ll hear in France, untrained ears will still feel like they’ve had a Parisian getaway in Canada.

Book a sightseeing tour of Quebec City

San Francisco

Palace of Fine Arts; European cities in North America

San Francisco’s Palace of Fine Arts

San Francisco has a real diversity in its residents and neighborhoods that helps to make it a popular tourist destination, but did you know that in many ways it’s just like a major European city?

Europeans love San Francisco, often for its similarities to cities they’re used to. It’s a city where a devotion to quality of life is paramount, and Europeans work to live instead of living to work like their American counterparts. The historic architecture in much of the city helps to give it an older feel. San Francisco’s excellent public transit system means it’s a walkable city, not one that requires residents to have cars.

The city’s diverse neighborhoods offer some of the culture and food of different parts of the world, including Italy (in Little Italy/North Beach), the French Quarter (a tiny square of land with several French restaurants in Union Square), and even Russia (in the Inner Richmond district). What’s more, there are world-class wine regions in nearby Napa Valley and Sonoma Valley to make you feel like you’re taking a day trip into the vineyards of Italy or France.

And as it turns out, San Francisco bears more than just a passing resemblance to the Portuguese city of Lisbon – right down to its cable cars, crazy hills, and bright orange bridges. Some of the city’s streetcars (trolleys – not to be confused with the cable cars that go up and down the hills) were actually built in Milan.

Book a wine country tour from San Francisco

Victoria, British Columbia

Victoria; European cities in North America

Victoria

Victoria, the beautiful capital city of British Columbia, seems almost tailor-made for tourism – a pretty waterfront, gorgeous natural surroundings, historic architecture, and some great tourist attractions. The fact that it’s often referred to as a mini-England doesn’t hurt, either.

The city was named for Queen Victoria and founded in 1843, so the ties to the former monarchy date back to Victoria’s origins. The historic English feel of the city has been enhanced over the years, often in a calculated way, to further drive home the point – and of course the British features are alongside distinctly Canadian features, making Victoria utterly unique.

Still, you can pretend you’ve awakened in Merry Olde England with high tea at the famous Empress Hotel, a stroll through the nearby Butchart Gardens, and sampling dishes like Welsh Rarebit or fish and chips from local pubs. It might feel a tad contrived at times, but Victoria’s many genuine charms are good enough reasons to visit anyway.

Charleston, South Carolina

Charleston waterfront; European cities in North America

Charleston’s waterfront

Sometimes it’s hard to put your finger on why a city outside Europe reminds you of the old country – especially when it’s a combination of several factors adding up to an overall feel. Such is the case with Charleston, South Carolina.

This sweet southern city has an historic center with shorter buildings, several old (and grand) churches, well-kept (and sometimes quite small) homes, a walkable downtown that encourages both sightseeing and shopping, and lots of great places to eat. Charleston’s historic attractions include Civil War landmarks as well as nearby beaches. Overall, the scale of the city and relaxed atmosphere is more reminiscent of a small European town than an American city – despite the fact that Charleston is also quintessentially southern.

The word “charming” is so overused in travel guides that it’s hard to find any real meaning in it anymore, but Charleston is a genuine Euro-style southern charmer.

Old San Juan, Puerto Rico

Old San Juan; European cities in North America

Old San Juan

San Juan, Puerto Rico’s capital city, might feel more Caribbean when you’re making the short walk to the gorgeous beaches and soaking up the spectacular sun. But the city’s historic center, founded as it was by the Spanish in the early 1500s, still resembles a European city.

Old San Juan is the former colonial part of the city, where you can still see historic buildings like the Fort San Felipe del Morro, the Cathedral of San Juan Bautista, and the Governor’s house (La Fortaleza) – as well as most of the ordinary homes and other buildings, which date from the 16th and 17th centuries. The old fortified city walls still partially surround Old San Juan, the streets are made of cobblestones, and the entirety of Old San Juan is an historic UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Of course, the fact that all of these European influences are within walking distance of Caribbean beaches doesn’t hurt.

Guanajuato, Mexico

Like San Juan, the Mexican city of Guanajuato owes much of its European vibe to the fact that its colonial center is largely intact. In this case, it’s well-preserved Spanish architecture from the 17th century that gives Guanajuato its European feel.

A street map of old Guanajuato, like the street maps of similarly old cities in Europe, looks a bit like an upended plate of spaghetti. The streets are narrow, many are paved with cobblestones, and yet the nearby silver mines poured enough wealth into the pockets of the Spanish that they left behind spectacularly beautiful buildings. There are three churches in Guanajuato noted by UNESCO as some of the best examples of Baroque architecture in the New World.

What makes Guanajuato particularly interesting is the combination of all of these European features with the region’s important place in the story of Mexican independence. Visitors can enjoy both sides of the city in equal measure.

Boston

Boston Faneuil Hall Marketplace; European cities in North America

Faneuil Hall Marketplace in Boston

Boston is another city in North America that is said by many to have a European feel – without having any specific-enough elements of any one European culture to make it easy to say why.

What are those elements? There is history here, and not only does it include a critical piece of American history, it’s inextricably tied to colonists from England. (Remember all that British tea that Bostonians dumped into the harbor?) There are also significant ties in Boston to European countries like Ireland and Italy – Irish American and Italian American communities in Boston have very strong identities and their own neighborhood centers. In a more general sense, the historic city center maintains its low skyline, and many of its older structures are brick buildings.

Boston is undeniably American, but the overall feel of the city is somewhat familiar to anyone who has an affinity for Europe. Plus, you get to go to the original Cheers bar, too.

Book a tour of Boston’s historic pubs

Jessica Spiegel

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