At ethnic neighborhoods across the nation, families can experience the sights and sounds (and flavors!) of vibrant cultures.
Bins of wriggling eels, flaming cubes of cheese, hanging mahogany ducks, alluring souvenirs: short of taking a trip that requires a passport, you just can't get a more international experience than you can in a thriving ethnic neighborhood within our great American melting pot. You've probably been to a Chinatown (and if you haven't, you should), but many U.S. metropolises have so much more to explore. Is a trip to a big city in your future? Here are five of our favorite cosmopolitan fun spots you shouldn't miss.
Manhattan's Lower East Side
If the Statue of LIberty is the symbol of hope, yearning, and huddled masses, this deeply historic Jewish immigrant neighborhood, located right up against the dim sum carts of Chinatown and the sausage-fueled parades of Little Italy, is the nitty-gritty reality. My husband, Michael, kids Ben, age 13, and Birdy, 9, and I started at the visitors' center of the fantastic Tenement Museum, then toured the museum's restored apartment building for a vivid snapshot of the area's history. (In any ethnic enclave, a museum, a cultural center, or a walking tour is a great way to get oriented.) After that, we just walked around, more or less tripping over our Jewish roots at Streit's Matzos and Eldridge Street Synagogue. For me, ethnic neighborhoods are as much about the food as anything: black sesame ice cream in Chinatown, say, or arancini in Little Italy. The Lower East Side is no exception. Besides Kossar's Bialys (imagine an onion bagel, only chewier and with a mere dent where the hole would be), there's famous Katz's Delicatessen, where we ate thick pastrami sandwiches and sour pickles, then eyeballed (and sampled) cheap floor-to-ceiling sweets at the ethnically indeterminate Economy Candy shop.
Boston's North End
Inhabited continuously since the 1630s, the North End is known as the Little Italy of New England. The waterfront neighborhood is a key part of the Revolution-themed Freedom Trail walking tour, and you can learn about such monuments as the Old North Church (of "One if by land, two if by sea" fame) and the vindictively designed Skinny House, built by one brother to block another's view, across from the historical Copp's Hill Burial Ground. But really, you'll be coming here to eat. Regina's Pizzeria is famous for fabulous pies and brusquely limited offerings ("You want a salad? There's no salad."), and you'll leave Mike's Pastry with a charmingly string-tied box full of tiramisu or cannoli. Summer feasts are named after the saints (luckily, there are lots of them), and the biggest is Saint Anthony's, with parades, carnival games, and all-too-tasty street food: sausages and peppers, calamari, quahog clams, and zeppole, Italian-style fried dough. That's amore.
It's all Greek to Chicago -- at least since the first Greek ship captains arrived in the 1840s. Greektown deliciously celebrates that history: restaurants and bakeries abound, offering traditional meals, savory dips, honey-drenched baklava, flaming saganaki cheese (Opa!), and gyros (YEE-ros), those pitas full of sliced, spit-turned meat that Greektown made famous. Still hungry? The Taste of Greece festival in late August should satisfy. Between meals, try the beautiful National Hellenic Museum, 'the newest thing in ancient history," with artifacts and hands-on exhibits that cover ancient Greece through the American immigrant experience. And don't miss the fragrant Athenian Candle Company, packed with tapers, pillars, and hocus-pocus -- just the place to seek spiritual or magical paraphernalia.
Los Angeles's Olvera Street
Known variously as the L.A. Plaza Historic District and El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument, this Hispanic neighborhood includes more than 20 historic buildings, five museums, and a Mexican marketplace that pay homage to the city's deep Latin American and multiethnic roots. Start at the visitors' center for a guided tour of the monument-filled plaza and La Placita church or simply stroll the quaint main drag to check out the souvenirs: pin?atas, puppets, giant sombreros, and Mexican pottery. Don't-miss eats include carnitas tacos, caramel-filled churros (like a stick-shaped doughnut), and taquitos with "world famous avocado sauce" from the 1934 Cielito Lindo stand. You might time your visit for one of the colorful annual festivals: springtime's Cinco de Mayo, Dia de los Muertos (near Halloween), and the furry, scaly, pet-filled Blessing of the Animals (the Saturday before Easter).
San Francisco's Japantown
This west coast city's Chinatown may be more famous, but its Japantown is deliriously packed with just the kind of cool and kawaii (cute) stuff kids go crazy for: bento supplies, wacky candy, anime and manga, colorful washi tape, "Hello Kitty" everything, and omiyage (souvenirs) of all kinds. There's Pika Pika, a purikura photo place where kids can design tons of little stickers, and, of course, all the noodles, sushi, hibachi BBQ, and even crepes you could crave (along with all the fun plastic food you can ogle). A pair of charming indoor shopping malls, with a five-tiered Peace Pagoda between them, defines the walkable neighborhood. For the more historically minded, there's the National Japanese American Historical Society and a self-guided walking tour, as well as the popular Cherry Blossom Festival and Parade in April. To learn more: sfjapantown.org
Originally published in the March 2013 issue of FamilyFun