Just 70 miles southeast of Rochester sits an alluring town with heritage so rich that it’s gained national notoriety. Thanks to its Norwegian-American charm, “Forbes” magazine named Decorah, Iowa one of “America’s Prettiest Towns.” Whether you’re interested in its natural beauty or its thriving art scene, pack up the family (or leave them at home) and spend a day in Decorah.
“When I’m asked to describe Decorah, I tell visitors it’s vibrant, historic, quaint and filled with energy,” says Charlene Selbee, executive director of Winneshiek County Convention & Visitors Bureau. Selbee’s admiration for the town of around 8,000 residents is clear when asked to name her favorite thing about Decorah. “The art community,” she replies immediately.
Decorah’s main street, Water Street, is lined with local shops. Agora Arts features fine crafts and art created by over 250 American artists. Ace Kitchen Place is a proud supplier of Scandinavian heritage cookware made in Iowa. As their website explains, “If you need help with kransekake, krumkake or lefse, head to Ace Kitchen Place.”
The most renowned art attraction in Decorah is Vesterheim, the National Norwegian-American Museum and Heritage Center. Becky Idstrom, communications and marketing manager, explains, “Because Norwegian immigrants started collecting their history after immigrating, you see the complete story of a people as they left their homeland, adapted and found success. We also offer classes through our Folk Art School.”
The current exhibit, “50 Years of Folk Art,” runs until April 2017 at Vesterheim. It explores folk art as a window into heritage. Idstrom shares, “The thing people don’t expect to see is the ship. The TradeWind is a 25-foot sailboat built by two Norwegian brothers who sailed it across the Atlantic. It’s in a gallery that spans three floors!” If you’re traveling with preschoolers, come to Barnetimen (children’s hour) from 10-11 a.m. on the third Tuesday of each month for hands-on art projects and museum tours.
TAKE A (COFFEE) BREAK
Art and coffee unite at the local coffee shops. Java John’s Coffeehouse has an event calendar filled with visiting artists. Painters, writers, quilters and photographers all exhibit at the coffeehouse. With organic roasts such as Uff da Espresso and Nicely Nordic, you can count on a uniquely Iowan cup of coffee.
To set your sights globally, Impact Coffee offers a unique experience. On any day, stop in to discover over a dozen coffees from around the world. Go ahead, try the Haraaz from Yemen or the El Rosal straight from Colombia. If you love it, you can order more online.
If you prefer your coffee with a side of freshly-made food, go for breakfast, lunch or fresh pastries at Magpie Coffeehouse. Magpie doubles as a market for take-home goodies.
If your family is less interested in caffeine and more interested in sugar, visit Pinter’s Candy and Gifts. Pinter’s carries candy from every decade, including jams, fudge, old-fashioned candies and more.
RECREATION AND ROMANCE
“The local place I most recommend to people is Dunnings Springs,” Selbee says. “Beautiful scenery and friendly people are what we’re known for.” Dunnings Springs Park is home to a 200-foot waterfall. Year-round hiking, exploring and enjoying the natural beauty make this Decorah’s top ranked destination on TripAdvisor (followed closely by Vesterheim).
Selbee adds, “I also highly recommend a visit to Phelps Park.” While the kids are enjoying one of the playground areas, you can enjoy the fountain and a view of the brick walking bridge. “I think it’s the most romantic spot in Decorah,” Selbee says.
With so much to do and see, you may need more than one day. Hotel Winneshiek & Opera House, opened in 1905, offers the perfect end to a perfect day. From the three-story rotunda with stained glass ceiling to high-amenity, lush suites, you may need to extend your stay.
Gina Dewink is a freelance writer who loves roadtrips (with or without her husband, precocious preschooler, and fearless toddler.)