Where to Get a Taste of Asia in Europe

For many, visiting Europe means eating steak-frites in France, enjoying pub crawls in England, and admiring Baroque architecture in Germany. But there’s so much more to explore. Many European destinations are home to ethnic enclaves where people of the same heritage work and live. These neighborhoods showcase the food, traditions, and culture of its inhabitants’ mother country. For tourists, they offer the chance to learn about the overall destination through a different lens. Plus, they provide a nice change of pace from an itinerary full of similar meals and activities. Many of these ethnic enclaves house Asian communities. From London and Paris to Prague and Amsterdam, discover some of the vibrant European neighborhoods where you can embrace Asian culture.

Soho, London

Carolina Chiao/Flickr

China’s migrant population has settled in a diverse range of cities, evidenced by the many Chinatowns outside Asia. And while we enjoy the Chinatowns of Antwerp and Athens as much as the next traveler, London has to be our favorite. It is Europe’s largest, after all. Sitting at the intersection of Soho, Leicester Square, Piccadilly Circus, and Covent Garden, it’s marked by the grand oriental gate on Gerrard Street. Locals and tourists flock to the area for the Chinese markets, bakeries, teahouses, and restaurants. If you like dumplings, dim sum, and baijiu, you’d be remiss to skip this predominantly Cantonese neighborhood. It’s especially lively at the end of January or early February, when 300,000 people gather to celebrate Chinese New Year.  

As it turns out, Chinese immigration to London dates back much further than the annual lunar festivals that take place on this small street in Soho. It was actually mostly Maltese and French immigrants who settled in Westminster. The city’s first Chinatown was in Limehouse on the eastern side of the city. Chinese sailors and traders had settled there since the late 18th century. Then, during World War II, the old Chinatown was largely destroyed. Combined with a shortage of work for immigrants in the city, the community started to fade. But when British veterans returned from overseas, they wanted the food they had eaten during their service in Asia. The cheap rent and short leases of Gerrard Street were a perfect combination for the Chinese looking for a new home. 

While you're in west London, spend some time in Southall or "Little India." It’s home to many South Indian immigrant populations, but mostly Indian and Pakistani. The sounds of Bhangra music, sights of bright saris, and smells of samosa street vendors await.  

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Libuš, Prague

Prague/Oyster

Prague isn’t all gothic spires and medieval magic. The Jewish Quarter here ends to steal the show when it comes to must-visit ethnic enclaves, but we think a neighborhood out in Prague 4 deserves attention, too. Nicknamed Sapa or Little Hanoi, the Vietnamese community in the southern district of Libuš is perfect for a day trip. Centered around a former industrial factory, it’s home to one of the largest Vietnamese markets outside of Vietnam. That means you’ll find all the pho, banh mi, and wholesale Asian knickknacks you could ever want. Other than its distinct entrance gate and little Buddhist temple, the area looks much like its Communist-era surroundings. But the big signs and bustling maze of stalls will make you feel like you’re on another continent entirely. 

So how did a bustling, thriving Vietnamese mini-town wind up in the Czech capital? Politics. Czechoslovakia and Vietnam both went through a period of Communist rule and their leaders crafted agreements that encouraged young Vietnamese citizens to migrate to Prague to study and provide much-needed labor. After the collapse, many chose to stay and raise families rather than return to their former home. Today, the Vietnamese are the third-largest immigrant group in the country behind the Ukrainians and the Slovaks. In 2013, they were recognized as an official ethnic minority. There are about 60,000 Vietnamese citizens in the country and it’s estimated that around 7,000 of them live in Libuš. 

If you need help navigating the chaotic community, use Sapamapa to find the restaurants, market stalls, and other hot spots you’d like to visit. It’s open daily from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.

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Kreuzberg, Berlin

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The Association of Turkish Döner Producers in Europe (ATDID) revealed that there are around 40,000 kebab shops across Germany. Berlin leads the pack with 4,000, which the tourism board says is more than Istanbul. Can you guess where this is going? Among all the street art and state buildings, Berlin is also home to the largest Turkish community outside their home country. The group is mostly concentrated in Kreuzberg and Neukölln. Beyond the delicious quick meals, Little Istanbul or SO36 is also a great place to get fresh produce, amazing cheese, and Turkish delights by the kilo. If you pop into a convenience store in the area, don’t be surprised to see Erdogan posters and hear Turkish hip-hop.

The latest rush of Turkish immigration was the result of a 1960s guest worker program the West Germans started, but the Turk-German connection runs much deeper. Back in 1761, when the Ottoman Empire was in full swing, the leaders established an embassy in Berlin to facilitate trade with Prussia. An ethnically Turkish community has existed in the city ever since. Though it was thought that the temporary workers would return to Turkey once the demand for labor subsided, Turkey’s instability in the 1970s made that an unattractive option. In fact, many ended up bringing their families over and further expanding the group’s presence. Experts estimate that more than five percent of today's German population have Turkish ancestry. 

If you just want a glimpse at the community, head to the Turkish Market on Tuesdays and Fridays. The stalls hawk everything from jewelry and traditional textiles to electronics and household wares. It’s a great place to wander, watch shoppers haggle, and eye your next purchase as you enjoy a kebab.  

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13th Arrondissement, Paris

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Parisians have a reputation for welcoming plenty of immigrants. Most of the Asian settlers found a home on the Left Bank, in the southeast corner of the 13 Arrondissement. Some refer to it as Chinatown or the Quartier Chinois, and others call it the Quartier Asiatique. The high rise-filled neighborhood contains significant Vietnamese, Laotian, and Cambodian businesses and cultural organizations in addition to Chinese. At any given moment, you can hear Cantonese, Teochew, Vietnamese, Lao, and Khmer. The enclave is also known as Petite Asie or the Triangle de Choisy, thanks to the shape formed by Avenue d’Ivry, Avenue de Choisy, and Boulevard Masséna. The restaurants, shops, and markets you'd expect are present, but there are also tea shops and salons to enjoy.

Asian migration to Paris really ramped up during the Vietnam War. The whole quarter was originally a Vietnamese neighborhood. Later, many others fled their countries during Communist takeovers and other new governments. As time went on, a large percentage of the neighborhood’s original population assimilated into French society and moved to other areas of Paris. A Vietnamese commercial and cultural presence has lasted, but residents now are mostly Chinese. 

Paris is home to three other Asian neighborhoods, which offer an arguably more authentic experience. Belleville, in the 20th Arrondissement, hosts an outdoor market on Tuesdays and Fridays. The Japanese quarter along Rue Sainte-Anne in the 1st Arrondissement provides a peek (and taste) of Japan. And the smallest of the three neighborhoods also happens to be the oldest. Located near the Musée des Arts et Métiers in the 3rd Arrondissement, this district was established in the early 20th century, when migrants from the Wenzhou region of China arrived to work in the leather and porcelain industries.  

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Niederkassel, Düsseldorf

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Chinatowns are much easier to find than Japantowns, but they do exist. Interestingly (and unexpectedly), Düsseldorf is said to have one of the largest Japanese expat communities in Europe. The Japanese grocers, sushi restaurants, and ramen spots lie just beyond the tree-lined canals, sausage stalls, and ritzy designer boutiques. Centered around Immermannstrasse in the quiet Niederkassel neighborhood, there are restaurants, cafes, travel agencies, art galleries, toy shops, and bookstores all catering to the expat crowd and curious tourists hoping to learn more about this unique cultural exchange. It’s the perfect place to grab seaweed snacks and bento boxes, sip some sake, and find peace. The highlight is definitely EKŌ-Haus der Japanischen Kultur, a Buddhist temple, study center, and tranquil meditation garden. If you can, plan your trip in May to coincide with the city’s annual Japan Day

Düsseldorf is a predominantly commercial center, and for Japanese immigrants, it was an affordable and manageable spot to establish their European and German headquarters. It started with metal workers and traders in the 1950s, and reached its economic height in the 1990s. Nearly 600 Japanese businesses were registered in North Rhine-Westphalia and 380 of them were in the capital. The community grew slowly at first, but hastened to keep up with demand. An international school opened with bilingual teachers, followed by Japanese hoteliers, doctors, insurers, and shopkeepers. A Chamber of Commerce and Industry and Consulate-General were established. Recently, All Nippon Airways went so far as to offer direct flights between Düsseldorf and Tokyo.  

Before you make the journey, consider picking up this Little Tokyo map. It’s as helpful for exploring the area as it is adorable to look at. The same designer also makes charming "Tokyodorf" tees and tote bags.

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A Few More...

Craving more? While not as prolific as the neighborhoods mentioned above, there are several other Asian enclaves worth visiting. Head to Indische Buurt in the Zeeburg area of Amsterdam to soak up some Indonesian culture. It’s estimated that 10 percent of Netherlands residents can trace their roots back to Indonesia. 

In the mood for the Mediterranean? Italy hosts the largest population of overseas Filipinos in Western Europe. They were among the first immigrant groups to work in Italy and currently compose the country’s sixth-largest foreign community. If you find yourself in Rome, make time for Mercato Esquilino. It’s as full of fresh Filipino ingredients as it is pasta and pizza. 

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