Places To Visit: Small-Town Europe In Small-Town America

Places To Visit: Small-Town Europe In Small-Town America

Anyone who has visited a small European village and a small American town would say there are a lot of differences between the two. Architecture, traditions and age, as well as city layout, landscaping and commercial businesses make these two destinations very distinct. However, most Americans will be quick to point out that their small towns are populated with citizens of European ancestry, usually from the same region of Europe. People of German, Polish, Dutch, Danish and Scandinavian ancestry make up the bulk of Americans in the northern midwest, where the weather and landscapes are similar to those in the Old World. And although some of the traditions of these Europeans have disappeared or dispersed along with their citizens’ European identities, there are still some small towns that thrive on their homogenous identity.

Travel though these small Euro-destinations to get a different picture of life in small town America.

German proliferation in the midwest

Herman the German
Source: Emily Manthei

One in four Americans can trace their ancestry to Germany (or the German-speaking world), so it’s not a surprise that there are multiple German-themed towns of a few thousand across the United States. Frankenmuth, a Bavarian-style village in Michigan steeped with architecture, food and Lutherans fitting of the description, was built by a mission colony in the 1860s. If your grandparents like to reminisce about olden days in the fatherland with Christmas markets, light displays and Nativity scenes, Frankenmuth is the place to trace those roots. Christmas-themed shops, most notably Bronner’s Christmas Store, are open year-round and Zehnder’s of Frankenmuth provides luxe chicken dinners and German bread in a home-style setting.

Minnesota’s community of New Ulm recreates the original Ulm in magical ways. The city’s downtown comes complete with glockenspiel and a brewery. Stock up on Milka chocolate, garden gnomes and other German delights at one of several gift shops downtown before you tuck in at Rathskeller, a German restaurant in Turner Hall painted with beautiful murals of Germany’s famed castles. Atop New Ulm’s biggest hill is a statue dubbed Hermann the German, dedicated to the victory of a Germanic warrior over Roman invaders in the first century CE.

If you're not Dutch, you're not much!

A real Dutch organ!
Source: Emily Manthei

Although not as multitudinous as the Germans, Dutch settlers also made their way to the wet, cold north of the New World in great numbers. Many settled together in Holland, a southern Michigan city of more than 30,000, near Grand Rapids. This was also at one time a religious colony led by Calvinist separatists. The city still boasts a large number of Dutch Reformed churches. Everything from architecture to culture still reflects the Dutch settlement, even though today’s city has such a large population. May brings the Tulip Time Festival, complete with wooden shoes and Dutch dancing. Windmill Island, a small plot of land in the Macatawa River, is a haven for tulip gardens, Dutch-style architecture and costumed guides where you can spend a pleasant summer day “in the canals of Holland.”

A true Alpine village

GaylordMI Downtown1
Source: Photo by Wikimedia Commons user Magicpiano used under CC BY-SA 4.0

Michigan just can’t get enough of the themed towns - or maybe central Europeans just can’t get enough of Michigan! Gaylord, a town on the Northeast side of the state, rebranded itself in the 1960s as an “Alpine village,” mainly because of its blustery winter climate and high concentration of ski resorts. The town receives a great deal of snow and, although its peaks couldn’t be considered mountains, the ski resorts do enjoy a certain reputation as “the best in the midwest.” Coupled with the Tyrolean traverse downtown architecture of “Alpenstrasse” and a dedication to their sister city of Pontresina, Switzerland, Gaylord embraced an Alpine identity. The summertime Alpenfest inhabits this new identity as an Austro-Swiss-German city with costumed parades, German beer, Swiss yodeling and the Austrian edelweiss flower.

Danish delight spreads west

Tivoli Square Solvang
Source: Photo by Wikimedia Commons user Allie_Caulfield used under CC BY 2.0

Whether it’s their philosophical taste or artistic sensibility, Danes are always a little further out of the box. So it should be no surprise that, instead of settling in a New World home which resembled the weather and landscape of their home (as the Dutch and Germans did), the Danish made it all the way to central California before they set up shop in a quaint village, which they call Solvang. Now in the middle of the Central Valley wine region, Solvang made a name for itself as the Danish village dedicated to Hans Christian Anderson, regional wine and Abelskivers (that’s a round Danish pancake with jam and powdered sugar). Take a ride on a wooden streetcar pulled by horses, learn about Danish history in a historical home at the Elverhoj Museum and wander the cobblestone streets of a very traditional village in a sunny climate that a true Dane wouldn’t recognize.

Kitschy European counterfeit towns are lots of fun

While they’re maybe not the most accurate representation of life in Europe, these small American towns that so proudly display their European roots are always fun for a visit. Both Americans and Europeans can enjoy the kooky copy-cat towns while appreciating the heritage they represent.

Disclosure: Trip101 selects the listings in our articles independently. Some of the listings in this article contain affiliate links.

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Emily Manthei is a Los Angeles-based travel writer and filmmaker who has lived and worked in Edinburgh and Oxford in the UK; Paris, France; and Dhaka, Bangladesh. Work as a documentarian and social...Read more

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