4 Places to Experience International Culture in the U.S.

European style town in the US

People travel abroad to experience exotic markets, striking architecture, fascinating people and surprising cuisine: the distinctive flavors and aromas of a culture other than their own. But if you’d rather not spend the time and money on a three-week jaunt around the world, don’t despair. From centuries-old French enclaves to secluded African communities, the United States is full of places that can stimulate your inner adventurer and quench your wanderlust while remaining convenient and affordable. Have a look at the pictures below and take a guest where they were taken — the answers might surprise you.

Where is Destination #1?

 

Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic Church This former church now operates as a cultural museum, but can you guess where it is?

 

Did you say France? Try the other side of the Atlantic! This is Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic Church in Aroostook County, Maine, one of the oldest Acadian churches in the U.S. Now a cultural museum, it houses artifacts related to the area’s Acadian history. The Acadians are a French-speaking ethnic group who immigrated to North America in the 17th and 18th centuries, and their culture, distinctive architecture included, is thriving to this day. From poutine-eating contests to fiddling folk music, the Acadians of Maine celebrate their heritage at every turn.

The Acadian Village is a budget-friendly Maine tourist attraction serving up cultural fun for families from mid-June through mid-September. (Admission: $7 for adults, $4 for kids.) Located along U.S. Route 1 in Van Buren, the village — functioning as a heritage museum — features a fully-preserved, 19th-century Acadian community, complete with three houses, a school and a church.

For an extra lively experience, visit in August during the annual Acadian Festival, a free Woodstock-meets-family-reunion gathering. Families and vacationers have been flocking to Madawaska, Maine, for the event’s music, food and activities — like dance performances and quilt shows — for more than four decades.

Getting to Aroostook County: From Portland International Jetport, drive northeast about 285 miles. Follow Interstate 95 north toward the Canadian border, and then follow U.S. Route 1 north into the heart of Aroostook.

Where is Destination #2?

 

Dancers inside Oyotunji Enjoy festivals, dancing and a dose of culture in this village in the woods.

 

Where did you guess? Ethiopia? Ghana? Nigeria? Not quite, though the last one would have been close. The above dancers are from the Kingdom of Oyotunji African Village, just outside Sheldon, South Carolina. In the 1970s, Oyotunji, as it’s commonly known, declared itself as a colony of the nation of Yoruba, an ethnic group from Nigeria that claims more than 40 million members across the globe. You won’t need a passport to enter the village, but you will quickly notice a cultural, social and spiritual change in customs upon arriving at Oyotunji.

Although they are separatists from the ’70s, they welcome visitors. Residents of Oyotunji live in the woods, surrounded by imposing concrete monuments, Yoruba shrines and artwork honoring their heritage. Visit this African village in South Carolina to participate in Yoruba religious ceremonies and enjoy traditional Nigerian food, music and celebrations throughout the year. (Admission varies by event.) When the residents beat the ceremonial drum to welcome you, you might find it hard to believe you were driving through sleepy South Carolina only moments before.

Getting to Sheldon and Oyotunji: From Charleston International Airport, take U.S. Route 17 south 55 miles to Sheldon. Oyotunji is on Bryant Lane, a right turn just after passing through Sheldon’s town center. Honk your car’s horn when you approach the village, and someone will come greet you and point you toward the parking lot farther down Bryant Lane.

Where is Destination #3?

 

The Islamic Center of America Inside, stand beneath the dome and look up to admire its ornate decor.

 

No, it’s not anywhere in the Middle East. You’re looking at a photo of the Islamic Center of America — the largest mosque in the U.S. — in Dearborn, Michigan, home to the country’s largest community of Arab-Americans. The 92,000-square-foot structure can hold about 1,000 people in its prayer room alone and is open daily to visitors, with some restrictions around worship times.

This town, once most famous for Ford Motor Co.’s headquarters, is now known for its community’s cultural institutions and cuisine. The gem of Dearborn’s attractions is the Arab American National Museum, a three-story monument to Arab-American culture that functions as a window into the daily lives of many Dearborn residents. (Admission: $8 for adults; $4 for kids ages 6 to 12.)

When you’re hungry, experience Dearborn’s many international flavors — from Ollie’s, on Ford Road, featuring Lebanese delicacies like beef or lamb kafta, to Sheeba, an upscale Yemeni restaurant where you can order the Sheeba Family Platter for up to eight people.

Getting to Dearborn: From Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport, drive about 14 miles northeast on Interstate 94 to Dearborn.

Where is Destination #4?

 

Vermeer Windmill This windmill was assembled across the Atlantic Ocean before being disassembled and rebuilt in its current location. Photo courtesy of Vermeer Windmill.

 

Guessing the Netherlands? Belgium? Guess again. This is the Vermeer Windmill in Pella, Iowa, the tallest functional windmill in the U.S. Pella, a town founded by immigrants from the Netherlands in the mid-19th century, is the center of Dutch culture in America. From windmills to tulips and clogs, Pella is like a little Holland in America’s heartland.

While the Vermeer Windmill is Pella’s main attraction, it’s not all this town of 10,000 has to offer curious travelers. Standing 65 feet tall, the Tulip Toren monument in Pella’s Central Park is unmissable; it’s also a hot spot during the town’s annual Tulip Time Festival in May. Complete with Dutch dancers, traditional music and an abundance of flowers, this free festival captures the spirit of the Netherlands without the flight to Amsterdam.

Visit the Historical Society Museums and Gift Shop to discover how this Dutch colony ended up in Iowa and to take a guided tour of the windmill, where flour is still produced using wind power. (Admission: $10 for adults; $2 for kids ages 5 to 11.) For a snack, check out Jaarsma Bakery on Franklin Street — opened in the 1800s by an immigrant from Holland, this bakery is still owned by the Jaarsma family and is famous for its delicious and authentic Dutch treats, like stroopwafel, a caramel-filled waffle cookie.

Getting to Pella: From Des Moines International Airport, drive east and follow Iowa Highway 163 for about 50 miles.

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About the Author

Charles Cody Siler is a writer, photographer, cyclist and active travel guide based in Bogotá, Colombia. His work has appeared in Club Traveler magazine, Gambit Weekly, Berkeleyside and other publications. He spends his summers working as a guide in Iceland, where he tries his best not to antagonize the local sheep.