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It’s a streetcar split-screen! Lisbon and S.F. have more in common than you think.
It’s a streetcar split-screen! Lisbon and S.F. have more in common than you think.
Getty, Unsplash

Can’t Swing a European Vacation? Try These U.S. Destinations Instead!

No passport (or deep pockets) required

Matt Kirouac is an Oklahoma City-based travel writer whose work has appeared in Afar, Condé Nast, Thrillist, InsideHook and many other publications.

April 26, 2024 12:27 pm

Close your eyes and imagine this: a gentle breeze over Lake Como on a bright sunny day, an Aperol Spritz in hand. The Swiss Alps, awash in snowmelt and abloom in wildflowers, which somehow smell perpetually of chocolate. The azure-blue sea, lapping at the whitewashed shores of Mykonos as the cries of fishermen mingle with those of seabirds. Europe sounds like a great place for a summer vacation, doesn’t it? All those Instagram influencers sure make it seem that way. Like this one. And him. And her. And these folks….

Here’s something better: soaking up all that glamorous summertime fun, but without renewing your passport, hopping on an international flight or spending a small fortune. I’m talking about luxe, European-style vacations that are — brace yourself — not actually in Europe. The U.S. is filled with analogues that scratch the itch, at a fraction of the airfare. From a makeshift Amalfi Coast to a convenient Iceland hack, there’s a whole world out there — and it’s far closer, and more affordable, than you think.

Lisbon: San Francisco

Spanning the Tagus River, linking Lisbon with Almada, the Ponte 25 de Abril bridge in Portugal’s capital city is the spitting image of the Golden Gate in San Francisco. That’s your first indication that S.F. is the Lisbon of America — and vice versa. Both cities boast (mostly) walkable hilly streets, temperate climates, kaleidoscopic architecture, bustling culinary scenes starring local seafood, and, of course, a shared affinity for those beautiful old-timey trams. The parallels run deeper than the San Francisco Bay. (Which is 372 feet, or 113 meters, at its deepest point, if you’re wondering.)

San Francisco Proper provides artsy accommodations
Courtesy of San Francisco Proper

Stay: The Luma Hotel brims with artwork from local artists and boasts floor-to-ceiling windows, overlooking Mission Bay, with Oakland and the Bay Bridge a stone’s throw away. Conveniently located, and excellent ambiance. Nice. Plus, the newly minted Central Subway stop nearby makes it easy to crisscross town. In the Theater District, the ritzier and centrally located San Francisco Proper offers dining spaces and rooftop firepits that’d make even the chicest Portuguese nightlife hound pink with envy.

Spring on a plate at Villon. Delicious.
Courtesy of Villon

Eat: Villon is a rapturous showcase of the California bounty: beet ravioli with turnip cream, lamb shoulder grilled over redwood. Uma Casa amplifies the Lisbon atmosphere: a Portuguese restaurant in Noe Valley where salt cod casserole and egg custard tarts are expertly matched with a (mostly) Portuguese wine list. Distinctly San Franciscan is Tosca Cafe — a North Beach institution which opened way back in 1919, known for its meatballs and boozy hot chocolate. Delightful.

The Haight Street Art Center is as trippy as you think it is
Rupert Coles

Do: Golden Gate National Recreation Area is a vast urban park of 80,000 acres that includes the Muir Woods National Monument, Alcatraz Island and 130 miles worth of trails. Take a ride in a cable car (just like in Lisbon!) and go thrifting in Haight-Ashbury. (Indigo is a favorite for sustainable threads.) For an artistic interlude, the Haight Street Art Center is all about poster art, pulling from music and socio-political counterculture for inspiration. Later, chug a fancy latte at Spro Coffee Lab (like the seasonal charcoal-infused Black Swan, or Mardi Gras cold brew with chicory root), and caffeinate for a night on the town: El Rio is a queer-owned club in the Mission, with a vast backyard patio, shuffleboard and a playlist as diverse as its clientele — from funk and disco to R&B and Afrobeat.

Rhode Island = The American Amalfi
Getty, Unsplash

Amalfi Coast: Newport and the Rhode Island Coast

Italy’s Amalfi Coast has sheer cliffs, rocky beaches, decadent homes and hyper-fresh, hyper-local, hyper-delicious cuisine. And you can find all of that exploring the coast of America’s smallest state…especially in and around Newport, with its epic cliffside mansions, cobblestone streets and harbor bobbing with megayachts.

Courtesy of Rose Island Lighthouse B&B

Stay at Rose Island Lighthouse B&B for the essence of New England

Stay: Amalfi-worthy opulence awaits at the Newport Harbor Island Resort. Sip a Negroni in this harborside oasis fresh off a $50 million renovation, sampling oh-so-fresh local blue crab by the sea by day, sipping on champagne by the firepits at night. There’s also the Rose Island Lighthouse B&B: An active lighthouse in Narragansett Bay, it’s a museum by day, and offers boutique rooms that are only accessible via the island’s private boat.

Matunuck Oyster Bar is a warm-weather wonder and an outdoor-dining dream
Courtesy of Matunuck Oyster Bar

Eat: Giusto does a top-shelf Amalfi impression: harissa-spiced octopus, lobster garganelli and squid-ink calamari…along with a 100% Italian wine list. A short drive from Newport, the Matunuck Oyster Bar is nestled on a gorgeous inlet, where dayboats literally pull up to the dock behind you and unload the briny bivalves you’ll soon be slurping. Be sure to try a Del’s frozen lemonade — a local summertime staple; you’ll see their carts at every beach and in many towns — which on a hot summer’s day is as refreshing as a dip in the ocean.

Who needs Italian villas when there’s the Breakers?

Do: Among the most scenic routes in the U.S., the 10-mile coast-hugging stretch of Ocean Drive winds between craggy cliffs on one side and Italian-esque villas on the other. In fact, considering Newport is the unofficial U.S. capital of seaside villas, the mansions and Italian-Renaissance palazzos practically steal the show from the ocean. Among the most decadent homes in the country, with Gilded Age estates owned by the Vanderbilts and Morgans, mansion tours are a cottage industry (if you will) — and an absolute must. Keep the decadence flowing with a harbor tour aboard a schooner, yacht or sailboat. For some sea and sun, head over to Jamestown’s Beavertail State Park, and find the trails down to the hidden beach coves; bring a cold Peroni and you’ll be whisked away to Positano.


Miami and Mykonos: sun-drenched, beach-filled and nightlife to die for

Mykonos: Miami

Home to some of the most distinct architecture, culture and cuisine in the U.S., Miami is rightfully earmarked as one of America’s least-American cities. Squint a little, and the Magic City will feel like Mykonos: jewel-toned water juxtaposes bright-white buildings, fresh seafood abounds, and debauched, louche nightlife goes ‘til (and beyond) sunrise. And everywhere you look, there are more beautiful internationals than a Benetton ad from the 1990s.

Freehand Miami takes the summer vibes and cranks them to the max
Courtesy of Freehand Miami

Stay: Located a couple blocks off South Beach, the bungalow-esque Freehand Miami has a swimming pool, and a beachy cocktail bar, Broken Shaker. On Brickell Key, the Mandarin Oriental touts swanky skyline views, a bayside pool (yet more pools, but I shan’t complain) and sun-soaked veranda rooms. Both hotels are the essence of Mykonos. Just a much shorter trip away.

Mediterranean flavors abound at Miami’s Walrus Rodeo
Courtesy of Walrus Rodeo

Eat: Mandolin Aegean Bistro, with its white-and-teal color palette, appears magically transported from Mykonos itself. The Mediterranean menu brims with tzatziki, zucchini chips and whole sea bass. Walrus Rodeo earns points for its audacious name, and its equally audacious menu: think carrot tartare with carrot-top salsa verde, halibut puttanesca with pine-nut gremolata, and mustard green lasagna. Audacity, indeed! The more literally named Zak the Baker, in Wynwood, serves up a trove of delicious, fresh pastries, breads, toasts, sandwiches and pretty much any other carbs you can imagine. Go early, before they sell out of something(s) you want to try.

Mimic Mykonos with Sweet Liberty’s tasty cocktails and hip vibes in South Beach
Courtesy of Sweet Liberty

Do: Going to Mykonos and skipping the beach is like going to Miami and skipping South Beach. In short: don’t miss either. Of the latter, the massive coastline, famously dotted with colorful lifeguard stations, is an idyllic way to spend an afternoon. Indoors, you can’t go wrong with some art. Home to the U.S. edition of Art Basel, Miami’s art scene takes many forms. The Rubell arguably has America’s best collection of modern art, outside of NYC’s MoMA. And what’s more modern than graffiti? Take the famed murals at Wynwood Walls, or the Museum of Graffiti, the world’s first dedicated to the guerrilla style. Grab a cocktail at Sweet Liberty, a South Beach staple that harnesses Mykonos’s nightlife energy, before dancing the night away at Twist, a multi-room, multi-bar gay club open until 5 a.m. If you find you went a little too hard, book some time at The Standard Hotel spa, and rejuvenate in its Turkish-style hammam.

Yellowstone: Iceland’s equally rugged and gorgeous twin?

Iceland: Yellowstone National Park

Iceland and Yellowstone are both nature at its most epic, raw and inspiring. Volcanoes, hot springs, mountains, roaring rivers, geothermal activity and vast swaths of beautiful desolation abound in the small island nation, and the big national park. But…does Iceland have grizzly bears, bison and wolves? Nope! (Though in fairness, they do have Björk, and she is truly the most glorious of creatures.)

It doesn’t get more Scandi-looking than this. Under Cover offers glamping in one of America’s most gorgeous state parks.
Courtesy of Under Canvas

Stay: Overlooking its namesake geyser, the Old Faithful Inn is the most in-demand lodge in the world’s first national park. Built in 1904, it’s a beauty to behold (the soaring stone fireplace in the lofty lobby is a must-sit). For those wilderness-goers who are more comfort-focused, a company called Under Canvas offers two glamping sites in West Yellowstone and North Yellowstone — just like the popular ones found throughout Iceland.

Courtesy of Snake River Grill

Eat like a proper mountaineer at Snake River Grill

Eat: Snag a seat at the Mammoth Hotel Dining Room, where the bill of fare — like smoked trout and bison burgers — is locally sourced, and impeccable. In West Yellowstone, the Buffalo Bar is a soulful tavern where the whiskey cocktails are strong, the grub is pubby and the taxidermy is plentiful. On the other side of the park, in Jackson Hole, find Persephone Bakery, a cottage-like cafe where you can keep things wholesome (seeded avocado bowls) or decidedly not (s’mores cookies). And it doesn’t get any more Wyoming than Snake River Grill, a rustic cornerstone with a log cabin motif, perpetually crackling fireplace and burly mountain fare, like bone-in Wagyu rib-eye and saffron-scented duck breast.

Iceland’s full of waterfalls. Spoiler alert: so is Yellowstone.

Do: Swap Old Faithful for the Fairy Falls Trail, which provides a unique vantage point of the colorful Grand Prismatic Spring: a rainbow-colored version of Iceland’s Blue Lagoon, but way too hot to touch, let alone bathe in. The Lamar Valley also has quieter, more peaceful trails. (Just make sure to always hike with bear spray, and never solo. Being mauled will make summer decidedly less fun.) After hiking and chasing waterfalls all day, you’ll have earned a seat at the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar, a Jackson institution since 1937. A biblical whiskey selection, and horse saddles as barstools? It ain’t Reykjavik, but it rocks all the same.

Lakes Como and Tahoe are total twinsies, yo

Lake Como: Lake Tahoe

Como and Tahoe are both famous, shimmering lakes, frequented by famous, shimmering people. They’re also both all-season locales flanked by lush mountains, stunning architecture and a bevy of high-end (and a few somewhat affordable) lodging options. The main difference? Lake Tahoe doesn’t entail crossing the Atlantic.

Desolation Hotel: way comfier than you’d be led to believe
Courtesy of Desolation Hotel

Stay: The Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe is a waterfront property with dreamy views, a spa, lakefront cottages and — true to Nevada-side-of-Tahoe fashion — its own casino. Literally steps over the California border, the Desolation Hotel is a lot cozier than it sounds: The historic, rustic-glam property offers cabin-like rooms with crackling fireplaces, private outdoor soaking tubs and beach access.

Courtesy of Boathouse on the Pier

Literally wouldn’t know I wasn’t in Italy. Boathouse on the Pier is just that gorgeous.

Eat: Twirl caprese chicken linguini while watching kayakers paddle through sweeping views at Boathouse on the Pier. For more Como flavor, check out Cafe Fiore, whose cozy, wood-paneled confines are in perfect harmony with its buttery scampi and famed eggplant crepes.

Emerald Bay State Park is “giving” Alps, as the kids would say

Do: Emerald Bay State Park offers numerous Como-esque trails and glistening vistas. If your ideal form of footwear is more cowboy boot than hiking boot, peruse the apparel at Bonanza Boot and Leather: The shop harkens to Tahoe’s history as a grazing area for cattle (and the cowboys who wrangle them). You’ll also find DeRubeis Fine Art of Metal for all manner of conceptual metal ephemera. For a nightcap, wind down at Shedcat Distillery & Kitchen, with small-batch spirits like housemade vodka, elderflower liqueur and — for that Italian panache — Sicilian limoncello.

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