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Holland, MI
Photograph: Dan Irving

8 places in the Midwest that look like they could be in Europe

Ditch your passport for these scenic Midwest getaways full of European culture and kitsch

Emma Krupp
Written by
Emma Krupp
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As much as we love the best Chicago attractions, it’s hard not to crave far-flung vacations to places like the cobblestoned streets of Europe. But if an expensive overseas trip isn’t in the cards for you right now (or even if you’re just in the mood for a fun weekend getaway from Chicago), don’t fret: You’ll find plenty of quaint little towns throughout the Midwest that mimic all the charm of the continent, sans any expensive flights or passport requirements. Whether you’d prefer to walk along a canal-lined Dutch settlement or raise a beer stein at a recreated Bavarian village, these gems offer a taste of the regional food, drink and culture you’d discover overseas—and plenty of kitschy fun, too. Take a road trip from Chicago and check out these Midwestern getaways that look like they’re straight out of a European postcard. 

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Midwest cities that look like they could be in Europe

Head about an hour west of Des Moines to reach the small villages of Elk Horn and Kimballton, Iowa, home to the country’s largest rural Danish settlement and bountiful Scandinavian pride. Upon arrival you’ll be greeted by the charming Danish Windmill Museum & Welcome Center (built from an authentic 1848 windmill which was later reassembled stateside), where you can tour the itty-bitty Morning Star Chapel and ponder a medieval life at a 900 AD Viking blacksmith’s workshop replica. From there, pick up butter-layered pastries at The Kringle Man bakery before checking out the Museum of Danish America, or sip local wine in a European-style barn at the nearby Danish Countryside Vines & Wines. For a peak Danish experience, visit for celebrations like the settlement’s annual Tivoli Fest featuring food, live music and cultural demonstrations galore.

Back in the late 19th century, groups of Scandinavian immigrants crossed the perilous Death’s Door passage—a turbulent six-mile strip of water that connects Lake Michigan and Green Bay—to settle in Washington Island, located off the northeast tip of the Door County peninsula. Nowadays, you can embark on a scenic (and very safe!) half-hour ferry ride to reach the small island community of Washington, which is home to galleries, stunning beaches, the sprawling Fragrant Isle Lavender Farm and one of the country’s oldest Icelandic communities. Explore the island’s Nordic roots at attractions like the Jacobsen Museum, an impressive collection housed in Danish immigrant Jens Jacobsen’s turn-of-the-century log cabin home, or the Norwegian-inspired Stavkirke church.

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Affectionately called “Little Bavaria,” the colorful, wood-heavy architecture of this central Michigan town looks like it’s been transported straight out of a Franconian village. For the full Bavarian experience, stop by one of Frankenmuth’s many German restaurants for schnitzel, soft pretzels and overflowing beer steins, and take a tour on the historic, paddle-powered Bavarian Belle Riverboat to learn a little more about the town’s Franconian roots. Fans of Christkindlmarkt-esque decor will also be pleased to learn the town is home to Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland, which professes to be the world’s largest year-round Christmas store.

Originally settled by Swedish immigrants, Lindsborg’s Scandinavian heritage remains palpable through public art (like its Dala horse sculptures, a well-known symbol of Sweden) and plenty of Swedish specialty shops, so prepare to load up on Scandinavian textiles, tinned cookies and bottles of spiced Glögg. Best of all are the town’s yearly Scandinavian celebrations, like the Midsummer’s Festival in June, where you’ll find folk dancing performances, bake sales, flower crown-making demos and tons of other Swedish traditions.

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Founded in 1847 by a group of Dutch immigrants, the prairieside town of Pella is home to buildings with classically Flemish stepped gable designs, a canal with a working drawbridge, the tallest working grain windmill in the U.S. and tons of other Netherlands-inspired features (including a wooden shoemaker shop and a decorative pond shaped like a wooden shoe). Make a picnic of gouda cheese and Dutch letters—a buttery puff pastry filled with almond paste—in one of the town’s flower-filled parks, and be sure to visit in the springtime to catch the annual Tulip Time festival.

The appropriately named Holland, Michigan, which was settled on Lake Michigan’s shores by Calvinist separatists in the late 1840s, proudly flaunts its Dutch origins. When you’re not splashing around at the beach, get a glimpse of turn-of-the-century Holland on the quaint grounds of Nelis’ Dutch Village (where you can eat, shop and take classes on everything from Stroopwafel making to Klompen, a traditional Dutch dance), or take a walk around Windmill Island Gardens to spot a 250-year-old genuine Dutch windmill. In the spring, spend the day wandering among millions of tulips at Veldheer Tulip Gardens; the town also hosts the annual flower-filled Tulip Time Festival in May.

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Much of Niles looks like the rest of suburban Chicago, but if you visit a plaza on an otherwise unassuming retail strip at 6300 W Touhy Avenue, you’ll find a pleasantly Euro surprise: a half-sized replica of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Constructed in 1934 to conceal a water tower, the Leaning Tower of Niles stands 94 feet tall with a 7.4-foot tilt to mimic the listing charm of its Italian namesake (in fact, Niles even counts Pisa as a sister city). Make a trip to the plaza for photo ops—don’t worry, no one will fault you if you do the touristy pushing pose—and to hang out among the surrounding fountains, gardens and 30-foot reflecting pool.

Many Chicagoans know New Glarus for its eponymous brewery, home to delicious brews like Spotted Cow and Moon Man that are only available over the Wisconsin border. Take a stroll through the village’s downtown, though, and you’ll soon realize why the charming locale is nicknamed “Little Switzerland.” Named after the canton (or state) of Glarus in Switzerland, New Glarus’ chalet-style buildings, Swiss restaurants and museums, and gently hilled environs make for an almost Alpine experience; to heighten the effect, visit during yearly folk heritage events like Polkafest in June.

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