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Welcome back to The Abroad Blog! Despite my website’s name, today’s post is going to cover another US state. If you haven’t been following along over on Instagram or reading here, I recently completed my #50stateschallenge and can officially say that I’ve been to every state in the USA! This took a lot of strategy to complete — mapping out various road trips and finding small cities just over the borders from other states. Today’s post is going to cover one of those cities: Decorah, Iowa.
I visited Decorah during a midwest road trip in 2021 that also included visits to Minneapolis and St. Paul, Milwaukee and Madison, Grand Rapids, Indiana Dunes National Park, and a weekend in Chicago. If you’re hoping to visit all 50 states yourself, or just want to cross Iowa off the list… keep reading for things to do in Decorah, Iowa!
Where is Decorah, Iowa?
Decorah is located in northeast Iowa at the intersection of State Highway 9 and U.S. Route 52, and is the largest community in Winneshiek County, Iowa. Iowa’s state nickname is the Hawkeye State. It’s a midwest US state land-locked by Wisconsin, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Minnesota.
How to get to & around Decorah, Iowa?
The best way to get to Decorah is by car. I drove here after visiting Milwaukee and Madison, Wisconsin. From Madison, Decorah is a 2 hour 45 minute car ride west. After visiting Decorah, I continued onto the Twin Cities in Minnesota. Minneapolis is also about 3 hours in the car from Decorah. The drive is quite rural but super scenic as you’ll pass lots of farmland!
Once you’re in Decorah, the easiest way to travel around is by car. There are public shuttles and taxi services but no other public transportation systems within the city. Things to do in Decorah, Iowa are mostly within walking distance of each other and the main part of town.
If you’re traveling to / from out of town, the Minneapolis International Airport is the largest international airport in the area. There’s also the Rochester International Airport in Minneapolis. Visit Decorah advertises that there are shuttles that visit both. La Crosse, Wisconsin has the closest regional airport.
What is the area known for?
Decorah is a small city, with a population of only about 8,000 residents. However, the city is widely known in the area for its Scandinavian influence. It’s become a center for Norwegian-American culture originating from a high number of Norwegian settlers beginning in the 1850s. Since 1861, Decorah has also been home to Luther College, a liberal arts institution affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church. It has about 2,000 enrolled students. Since this small city is a college town, you can find quite a few inns, restaurants, and little bars in the area, among other fun things to do in Decorah, Iowa!
Best things to do in Decorah, Iowa
Decorah is so small, this list isn’t going to be super expansive. However, all of these recommendations were provided by a sweet local in a book shop on Main Street!
Pro-tip: Always ask locals for recommendations when you travel! Whether it be a server in a city as large as Paris, or a local bookkeeper in a small shop in Iowa, be sure to ask for suggestions. This sweet lady wrote out all the below recommendations on a sticky note for me to keep and reference as I spent a few hours bopping around the city. And now, thanks to the power of the internet, I’m able to share them with YOU! Here’s a list of a few fun things to do in Decorah, Iowa:
Visit the Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum
This museum is the largest in the country devoted to one single immigrant group. The museum and Folk Art School explore the American immigration experience through the Norwegian-American lens. The Vesterheim showcases the best in historic and contemporary Norwegian folk arts through its 33,000 artifacts and a Heritage Park of 12 historic buildings. One of which is the Folk Art School, which offers apprenticeships and classes to the public. Taking a class here is one of the most unique and fun things to do in Decorah, Iowa.
The museum is open daily from 9-5 pm and costs $12 for adults to visit. The second Saturday of the month is free to all, and admission is always free to local Luther College students + faculty. You can learn more about visiting the Vesterheim here.
Address: 520 W Water St, Decorah, IA 52101
Pro-tip: Water Street is the main road in Decorah, and is where most restaurants and shops can be found. Mabe’s Pizza is well known in the area and Dragonfly Books is the sweet store that I met the local at!
Walk around the Luther College Campus
As mentioned above, this school is small but it is quite scenic as Decorah sits on a river valley and is surrounded by rolling hills. Plus, this school is one of Decorah’s claims to fame, so do a quick drive through it or walk around before hitting the road!
Address: 700 College Dr, Decorah, IA 52101
Visit Dunning’s Spring Park
Dunning Springs is the site of a beautiful waterfall surrounded by limestone cliffs, located just off the main roads in the city. To visit, park in the gravel area just south of the entrance to Dunning’s Spring Park. Walk to the waterfall and be sure to take time to walk across the stone bridge and climb the steps to view the source of Dunning’s Spring. To the right of the stone bridge is a steep trail leading up to a series of trails above Ice Cave Road.
There are numerous trails throughout this area, but not all of them are marked on printed maps due to their complexity. If you’re interested in hiking in this area, be sure to talk to a local . I just parked my car and walked to the spring for photos since I was traveling solo!
Address: Ice Cave Rd, Decorah, IA 52101
Attend the Nordic Fest in July
Each July, Decorah hosts the Nordic Fest a celebration of Norwegian culture with ethnic dancing, music, and food. Attending this festival is without a doubt one of the most fun things to do in Decorah, Iowa.
Since 1974, the Arts & Crafts Center has been a main event at Nordic Fest. It features work from over 30+ artisans in the region. Here you’ll find Scandinavian themed wooden figurines, ceramic, embroidery, Nordic folk art, Norwegian needle craft, jewelry, soaps and lotions, fabric, and much more. Entertainment includes Nordic dancers and a beverage garden. Of course, there’s TONS of traditional food served here as well over the 3 days!
Pro-tip: Time your visits in 2024 and 2025 with the following festival dates: July 25-27, 2024 | July 24-26, 2025.]
Enjoy the local breweries
My last recommendation for things to do in Decorah, Iowa is to take advantage of the local breweries in the area! Toppling Goliath Brewing Co. is known for its unique sour flavors, such as caramel apple. Aside from the tap room, this location also has a full restaurant attached.
Address: 1600 Prosperity Rd, Decorah, IA 52101
Pulpit Rock Brewing Co. has an event room on site and is known for its contemporary, Kentucky-inspired beers.
Address: 207 College Dr, Decorah, IA 52101
That brings us to the end of this Iowa-focused blog post, covering the most fun things to do in Decorah, Iowa! Iowa is a fairly large US state, so it offers so much more to see in its capital Des Moines and Cedar Rapids. Maybe I’ll go back and visit one day.
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