International travel doesn’t always require a passport. Here are five U.S. cities where you can immerse yourself in other cultures – without going through customs.
Travel goes the oft-quoted Mark Twain phrase, “is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” And it’s true. When we travel abroad, we witness people going about their everyday activities in ways we could never imagine. We are enticed by flavors and aromas we cannot name. We are fascinated by unfamiliar traditions. We willingly experiment with new rituals and new rhythms of life.
But travel can also be difficult. The language barriers, the flight delays, the jet lag, the unwelcome surprises. It’s worth noting that the word “travel” derives from “travail,” which happens to come from tripalium, a Roman instrument of torture.
That’s why it’s good to know — whether or not you decide to explore the great wide world in earnest — that it’s also possible to get at least some measure of international excitement without departing for foreign shores.
For generations, the world has been coming here — planting roots, settling in pockets, preserving homeland traditions of yore. And so today there are a handful of spots across the country where you can transport yourself across cultural borders and experience life through a different lens — without the transoceanic flight. Here are five U.S. cities where you can experience the phenomenon for yourself.
Westminster, Calif.: Vietnam Stateside
As a tourist destination, Orange County is usually associated with Disneyland, but travel beyond Space Mountain and you may think you are in Saigon. The city of Westminster hosts the largest Vietnamese population outside of Vietnam. Bordered by Westminster Boulevard, Bolsa Avenue, Magnolia Street and Euclid Street, Little Saigon, as it’s called, boasts over 3,500 Vietnamese-owned businesses.
Travel writer Matt Gross, the former Frugal Traveler at the New York Times, has spent a lot of time in (big) Saigon and Little Saigon. According to him, “it doesn’t look a lot like the real Saigon, but it helps that all the signage is in Vietnamese, and the smell of pho”— the popular beef and rice noodle soup — “is everywhere.”
It’s true: Little Saigon’s three square miles are crammed with pho (pronounced “pha”) restaurants. One of the best spots for a bowl filled with aromatic anise-spiked broth, noodles, crispy sprouts and accents of lime is Pho Thanh Lich. English is not the first language spoken here, which is a good sign you’re going to be served real pho. If you don’t speak Vietnamese, don’t panic — just point to pho on the menu (a bargain at about $6), and be prepared to savor.
After lunch, take a stroll in the Asian Garden Mall, the largest Vietnamese-owned-and-operated mall in America, where one can shop for gourmet food and Chinese herbal medicines in addition to Southeast Asian–style fashions.
Places to visit in Westminster, Calif.
Pho Thanh Lich, 14500 Brookhurst St.,
Asian Garden Mall, 9200 Bolsa Ave.,
Tarpon Springs, Fla.: Greece on the Gulf Coast
One hundred years ago, Greek immigrants with a proclivity for sponge diving turned up in Tarpon Springs, Fla. — and the place has never been the same. Which is a good thing, especially if you’re looking to drench yourself in Greek culture without leaving the United States. Or if you’re just looking for a new sponge. Or both.
“If you can’t get on an Athens-bound plane, Tarpon Springs is a great Greek alternative,” says Kimberley Lovato, author of the book Walnut Wine & Truffle Groves (Running Press, 2010) and a former Florida resident. “I would visit Tarpon Springs often because it felt way more Mediterranean than Floridian.”
Sun-bleached white buildings, some sporting Greek flags, house Greek restaurants; old men sit around drinking coffee; there always seems to be a guy near the docks playing a bouzouki, a traditional guitar-like instrument. Don’t miss St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral, which is a miniature version of Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia. Or a long, leisurely meal at Original Mama Maria’s, a restaurant founded by former sponge divers, where you can munch on olives, fresh fish and charbroiled octopus. There are also stores selling natural sea sponges in all sizes and for every imaginable purpose.
Lovato adds: “A fun thing to do early in the morning is head to Pelican Point Seafood Market, where you can still see Greek fishermen hauling in their catch.”
Place to visit in Tarpon Springs, Fla.
Original Mama Maria’s, 503 N. Pinellas Ave. (Alt. 19 N.),
Tara Mandala, Colo: Tibet in the Rockies
Located 7,400 feet above sea level, the Tara Mandala Tibetan Buddhist Retreat Center is about as close as you’re going to come to the Himalayas in Tibet without crossing an ocean. Named for the female Buddha of compassion, this striking retreat center is on the edge of San Juan National Forest (about 20 miles from Pagosa Springs, Colo.) and affords awe-inspiring views of verdant forests and snow-capped mountains. Visitors can partake in programs in yoga, alternative medicine and Buddhist meditation, or visit during one of the open-house days scattered throughout the year.
The grounds consist of a colorful three-story Tara temple constructed by Tibetan and Nepalese craftsmen and wood carvers, retreat cabins, a gift shop, a bookstore, and a large assembly hall. The center even packages its own herbal formulas, culled from the land around Tara Mandala. You can also take your newfound serenity on a mountain hike, using the trails to explore the surrounding area.
The Dalai Lama might not be hanging around during your visit, but there are plenty of lamas clad in maroon and saffron robes who teach and share Buddhist customs here. And when you come out of a meditation, gazing at the massive mountain peaks in the distance, you may very well feel as if both your body and mind have been on an extended vacation.
Place to visit in Tara Mandala, Colo.
Tara Mandala Retreat Center, 970-731-3711, www.taramandala.org
Fremont, Calif.: Bay-Area Afghanistan
Let’s say you really want to go to Afghanistan — except that there’s a war going on there. What’s a traveler to do? You could head to Fremont, a Bay Area town adjacent to San Jose that’s home to the largest population of Afghans in the United States. The neighborhood of Centerville, known as Little Kabul, is the cultural hub featured in the best-selling novel The Kite Runner, by Afghanistan-born writer Khaled Hosseini. The tree-lined streets, flanked by Afghan jewelry shops, clothes stores and food purveyors, make for a pleasant saffron-scented stroll.
“One sweet little treasure about Fremont,” says writer and Bay Area resident Jill Robinson, “is that the Afghan shops look almost like any ordinary shop from the outside, but once you’re inside, there’s a wealth of treats.”
Robinson recommends walking to the back of the Maiwand Market on Fremont Blvd., where you’ll find people queuing up for some of the best freshly baked Afghan bread this side of the Pacific Ocean. And don’t leave without picking up some ultra-fresh dates and cardamom tea.
If you want something more substantial, walk across the street to the diminutive De Afghanistan Kabob House, where you can enjoy a flavorful squash kabob or watch the meat roast until, at last, you get to tuck in to some lime-and-garlic-infused lean beef.
Places to visit in Fremont, Calif.
Maiwand Market, 37235 Fremont Blvd., 510-796-3215
De Afghanistan Kabob House, 37405 Fremont Blvd., 510-745-9599
Cedar Rapids, Iowa: Bohemia in the Heartland
When legendary Czech composer Antonin Dvorak visited the United States in the 1890s, he spent time in New York City and . . . Iowa. That’s not a typo. The Hawkeye State began attracting migrating Czechs and Slovaks as early as 1850, and by the time Dvorak arrived in the summer of 1893 with his family, there were plenty of towns filled with his native brethren. One such place is the tranquil town of Cedar Rapids, where today visitors can immerse themselves in Czech Village, a historic Czech neighborhood still occupied by descendents of Czech immigrants.
Jan Stoffer, the director of education and visitor services at the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library in Cedar Rapids, speculates that Czechs were attracted to the area because the landscape and climate felt familiar: “The rolling hills and the forests are very similar to Bohemia — the western half of the Czech Republic — and Iowa is landlocked, just as the Czech Republic is.”
Take a walk down the neighborhood’s main drag, 16th Avenue SW, and you’ll find shops selling antiques from Bohemia and restaurants serving up hearty Czech fare. Stop into Sykora Bakery for a koláč, a traditional pastry filled with poppy seed, apricot, cherry or prune, or wander across the street to the not-very-Czech-sounding Al’s Blue Toad. Stoffer says they make the best Czech grub in town. Order up a paprika-sprinkled mushroom tart and say, “Na zdravi!” (Cheers!).
Places to visit in Cedar Rapids, Iowa
Czech Village, http://czechvillagecedarrapids.com
National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library, 319-362-8500, www.ncsml.org
Sykora Bakery, 73 16th Ave. SW, 319-364-5271, www.sykorabakery.com
Al’s Blue Toad, 86 16th Ave. SW, 319-265-8623, www.bluetoadcr.com
An off-the-radar neighborhood smack in the center of Manhattan, Koreatown is a less touristy alternative to New York City’s more famous ethnic enclaves, Little Italy and Chinatown. “K-Town,” as the locals call it, is an intriguing trove of 24-hour restaurants, karaoke clubs and spas. The heart of the neighborhood, located in the shadow of the Empire State Building, is W. 32nd Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. You’ll know you’re in the right place when shop signs turn from English to Korean.
Start your K-Town odyssey with a visit to Juvenex Spa, a 24-hour cornucopia of spa treatments. There are Japanese soaking ponds, thermo-stone therapies, and variations on the theme of massage. But the house specialty is the jade igloo sauna, which is made of real jade (which contains magnesium and calcium, both good for the skin). Next, stop into Kunjip, a restaurant popular with the locals, for seafood-laced tofu casseroles, hearty kimchi stew, and delectable steamed veggie dumplings. Round out your experience by visiting Chorus Karaoke, where each private room is bedecked with a disco ball. Tambourines are optional.
Places to visit in Koreatown, New York City
Juvenex, 25 W. 32nd St., 5th Fl., 646-733-1330, www.juvenexspa.com
Kunjip, 9 W. 32nd St., 212-216-9487, www.kunjip.net
Chorus Karaoke, 25 W. 32nd St., 212-967-2244, choruskaraoke.com