A Glimpse of Decorah: Winneshiek County, Iowa

The green, rolling farmland and gorgeous limestone bluffs of northern Iowa is a peaceful setting for the artistic, busy, hard-working populace that lives here. Settled in the heartland, just an hour-and-a-half drive south of Rochester, Winneshiek County vibrates with progressive, down-to-earth values and a strong Norwegian heritage. Jump at the chance to take road trip down to Decorah, Iowa.



Downtown Decorah is bustling with local businesses, bakeries, coffee shops and restaurants featuring everything from steaks and hamburgers to traditional Norwegian food. “The downtown is pretty moving,” says Charlene Selbee, executive director of the Winneshiek County Visitors Bureau. “And the shopping is excellent!”  

All it takes is a quick stop at the visitor center to get outfitted with maps, brochures and friendly information about local entertainment and events. If you want to spend the day outdoors, take the self-guided historic architecture walking tours downtown or follow the paved, 11-mile Trout Run Trail that circles the city. Decorah also boasts 25 miles of mountain bike trails that lace through the many different parks and along the river. It’s easy to find a place to rest and enjoy the natural beauty of the area.

One of the local favorites is Phelps Park. Settled right in the bluffs, the Phelps hiking trails are lined with scenic stone work from the early 1900s. “There is nothing flat around Decorah,” chuckles Andy Nimrod, Decorah Parks & Recreation director. “We’re settled on the banks of the river, and all the limestone bluffs are valleys that lead down into Decorah.” For more interesting natural sights, check out the waterfalls at Dunning’s Spring, enjoy the scenic overlook at Palisades Park or take the family camping for the weekend at Pulpit Rock Campground.

Be sure to visit the Winneshiek County Farmer’s Market, held every Wednesday night and Saturday morning. The market features all things homegrown and homemade, including krumkake, breads, jellies, wines, flowers, fresh and pickled vegetables and artist’s handicrafts. “You’ll really need to come and visit!” laughs Charlene. 


Vesterheim is the National Norwegian-American Museum and Heritage Center. The museum tells the story of 18th-century pioneer immigration to America. With 12 buildings and over 24,000 artifacts including furniture, folk art and tools, it is the most expansive collection of its kind in the world. 

“You don’t have to be Norwegian or American to visit!” says Becky Idstrom, Vesterheim’s editorial assistant. “People come from all over the world to visit Vesterheim. It really is an amazing collection.” 

Vesterheim offers classes in their Folk Art School, where instructors come from all over the country and Norway to offer classes in rosemaling, woodworking, weaving and knife-making. This summer the National Exhibition of Folk Art in the Norwegian Tradition will be held from June 12 through July 25, and final judging will take place at Nordic Fest. “It’s an exciting time!” says Becky. “It is a really beautiful exhibition of contemporary folk art working in the Norwegian tradition.” 

During Decorah’s annual Nordic Fest, held from July 23-25, the whole downtown area will celebrate its Scandinavian heritage with Norwegian food, traditional crafts, a canoe race, a lutefisk eating contest, a competitive rock throw, Viking re-enactments and a genuine Viking ship, as well as music, entertainment and fireworks. For more information visit nordicfest.com or for information on the Folk Art School visit vesterheim.org.


It’s not just at Vesterheim Museum where culture runs deep; heritage is thriving at the Laura Ingalls Wilder museum in Baroque, The Bily Clocks Museum in Spillville and the oldest one-room school house in Iowa, the Locust School, built in 1854 and still set with the original desks, maps and books. Between the antique stores and the museums, there’s plenty of history to be found in Winneshiek County.

The rich steeping of history and culture runs parallel to the progressive, homegrown attitude that Winneshiek projects—an attitude that can be found deeply rooted at Seed Savers Exchange, just 6 miles north of Decorah. This 890-acre heritage farm and nonprofit organization is dedicated to the tradition of preserving and sharing heirloom seeds. Their extensive gardens and historic apple orchard are open to the public, and they offer educational workshops, dinners and lectures. 

Don’t miss out on the opportunity to get down to the Decorah area this summer. For more information and to keep up on events go to visitdecorah.com.

Amanda Wingren is a freelance writer.