I am lucky to call Decorah, Iowa, my hometown. I spent a good deal of my childhood there and graduated from Decorah High School (go Vikings!). Growing up in Decorah, I knew it was a beautiful place. Now I live elsewhere, but every time I return, I see the town more as a visitor, and I am amazed at the good fortune I had to come from a place with so much to offer in terms of history, culture, and natural beauty. I’m excited to share this little slice of Iowa’s
amazing Driftless Area and hope you’ll come along for the journey.
A handsome, historic town of just over 8,000, Decorah’s connection to its Norwegian heritage runs as deep as the Upper Iowa River valley, and it is a picturesque destination for a
Small Town Getaway.
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Present day Decorah was founded on a dark chapter of United States history. It was the site of a Ho Chunk village in the 1840s - until the U.S. Army forcibly removed the natives to Wisconsin in order to clear this part of Iowa for settlement. In 1849, the Day family of Virginia were the first to settle on the site, with signs of the Ho Chunk village still standing. The Days named the settlement "Decorah," after the Ho Chunk chief Waukon Decorah who had been a U.S. ally during the Black Hawk War of the 1830s.
The settlement grew rapidly, and in 1851, Decorah became the seat of Winneshiek County. As the town prospered, many Norwegian immigrants were attracted to the area. They brought their culture along with their hard-working and thrifty ways to Decorah. Now a handsome, historic town of just over 8,000, Decorah's connection to its Norwegian heritage runs as deep as the Upper Iowa River valley, and folks flock from all over to visit this jewel of the Iowa Driftless Area.
Is Decorah Worth Visiting?
Decorah is absolutely worth visiting. It's a charming small city with tons of history and culture, as well as an esteemed institution of higher learning (Luther College).
It's also surrounded by unbelievable natural beauty that many folks would be hard-pressed to identify as being in Iowa. The better question is, "Why
not visit Decorah?" How To Get To Decorah
Decorah lies at the crossroads of U.S. Route 52 and Iowa Hwy. 9. Use Route 52 from the north and southeast; and from the south via Iowa Hwys. 150 and 24 to Calmar. Use Iowa Hwy. 9 to get to Decorah from the east and west. The nearest regional airports are in Waterloo, Iowa, and Rochester, Minnesota. Click on the map to find directions from your location.
Getting Around Decorah
Decorah is a super easy town to get around. You can walk most anywhere, although there are places that may be outside a comfortable walking distance for some.
Fortunately, Decorah is also easy to navigate by car, and it's a bicycle-friendly town, with paved trails and bike racks.
Usually, there's plenty of parking in town, and it's free. (Decorah removed its parking meters in the 1980s). The only time you may have trouble finding a spot is during events like Nordic Fest.
Best Time To Visit Decorah
Any time is a great time to visit, as there are always plenty of things to do in Decorah throughout the year. That said, I do have some preferences.
I think summer is the best time to visit Decorah. The bluffs are greener than green, the springs are flowing, and the trout are biting.
And Nordic Fest. It's the BIG DEAL event in Decorah, celebrating the town's Norwegian heritage. It happens every year over the last full weekend in July.
But fall is absolutely beautiful, when the bluffs are bedecked in blazing colors, and fiery foliage lines the town's streets.
For some, winter in Decorah is a time to stay inside and practice
hygge. Others adhere to the old Scandinavian adage, "There's no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothes," and enjoy cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and winter trout fishing. Spring
Spring in Decorah, as in most places, is a time for hope: Leaves start to bud, and ice pulls back to the banks of the area's streams. In a way, Vesterheim's annual
celebration also typifies hope: It memorializes the May 17, 1814, ratification of the Norwegian constitution. And it's a fine reason to visit Decorah in the springtime.
Where To Stay In Decorah
There are a few hotels in Decorah to choose from, as well as several
available vacation rentals. These are my two favorite places to stay in town, and each has its own benefits. Hotel Winneshiek
Hotel Winneshiek, East Water Street, Decorah, IA, USA
Hotel Winneshiek is a historic hotel in a 1905 building that was once… well, a hotel. Meticulously refurbished with attention to historic detail, the current
is the reincarnation of a former hostelry that had been converted into apartments. With a stay, you’ll certainly gain a sense of its grand legacy. You’ll also appreciate its prime downtown location. It is, in fact, the only Decorah hotel that’s not located on the outskirts of town. Be sure to
reserve well in advance
, though, as this boutique property does tend to fill up.
Fairfield Inn and Suites by Marriott
Fairfield Inn and Suites by Marriott
is one of the newer hotel properties in town. It's located at the intersection of U.S. Route 52 and Iowa Hwy. 9 on the southwestern edge of town. If you stay here, you'll be a few minutes away from downtown by car, but you'll get free breakfast and modern, extremely well-appointed rooms.
Day 1 Itinerary
On your first day, you’re going to get a sense of the natural beauty that surrounds and defines Decorah – all of it located within the city limits, just a few minutes from the center of town. You’ll also get to eat and drink at some of our favorite spots in Decorah.
Magpie Cafe & Coffeehouse, West Water Street, Decorah, IA, USA
Start your day off right with a cup of coffee - I like the cold brew, myself - and, if you need a quick bite in the morning, an avocado smash or another of its tasty breakfast or bakery offerings. Magpie was Decorah's first proper coffee shop, and it's been going strong for more than a quarter of a century. I always try to stop in at least once when I'm back in town.
Then, you'll kick off your first day with an overview of the area - literally! Head up to Palisades Park, on a bluff over the Upper Iowa River. Go slow and use caution as you curve up a single lane, mostly one-way, road that you'll probably be sharing with cyclists, pedestrians, and deer. But it will all be worth it once you arrive.
Palisades Park, Park Dr, Decorah, IA 52101, USA
Once at the top, hike around a bit. Enjoy the wooded trails and panoramic views over the town of Decorah. An overview trail guide is available from
Decorah Parks and Recreation
. It's a great tool for helping you choose where you want to hike. But for detailed routes and trail profiles, I almost always use
, which I can use to track my hike in detail even when I don't have service.
Family Table Decorah, 817 S Mechanic St, Decorah, IA 52101, USA
After you've spent some time at Palisades, you'll need to fuel up for the rest of the day. Head over to Family Table, which is just the type of hometown comfort food spot you'd hope to find in a charming town like Decorah. Breakfast is served all day, so you can call it brunch or lunch - you pick! Whatever it is to you, you won't be disappointed with the big, delicious portions at a more-than-fair price point.
Once fortified, it's time to head to the top of another bluff - but this time, you have to walk up. Fortunately, there are several stairs to help you on your way up to
. Follow the half-mile
trail to the top.
Pulpit Rock, Decorah, IA 52101, USA
Although it's short, the trail is considered moderately challenging for its near-vertical elevation gain. But once at the top, you'll be rewarded with sweeping views, over Pulpit Rock, itself, of Decorah and the Upper Iowa River valley. And it's all downhill from there.
Pulpit Rock Brewing Company, 207 College Dr, Decorah, IA 52101, USA
After your hike, head a few minutes downriver - back toward the west end of town - to Pulpit Rock's namesake brewery. Sit for a spell, and cool off with a pint of Salty Dog - a thirst-quenching brew infused with grapefruit zest and sea salt.
Next on the agenda is Iowa's most beautiful (and tallest) waterfall. You'll find it at nearby Dunning's Spring Park.
The park has undergone several phases of renovations and restorations. One particularly forward thinking change was closing the narrow lane to the postage-stamp sized parking lot to general traffic. Now, we park in a lot along the river and walk the short distance, along the babbling spring, to the waterfall.
Dunning's Spring Park, Ice Cave Road, Decorah, IA, USA
Dunning's Spring, like so many streams in the Driftless Area, emerges from a cave in the face of a limestone bluff. It then cascades over a series of drops to the stream below, which, in turn, tumbles swiftly downhill to its final plunge into the Upper Iowa River. You'll get to see two
of this same phenomenon tomorrow. But, now it's time for dinner!
Twin Springs Supper Club, 2149 Twin Springs Rd, Decorah, IA 52101, USA
For dinner, you'll head back out toward Pulpit Rock and follow Twin Springs - yes, another spring - up a winding road to the lovely, lodge-style Twin Springs Supper Club. This is about as upscale as Decorah gets, and it's just right. I usually go classic supper club and order a slab of beef with the twice-baked potato. But, given the chef/owner's Filipino heritage, I almost never pass up the lumpia appetizer.
Day 2 Itinerary
On your second day, we’re going to start off by sticking close to town. You’ll see all that historic and charming Decorah has to offer, and visit some spots that, for us Decorahans, are iconic.
We'll start you off with a jolt of caffeine from Impact Coffee, though.
Impact Coffee, West Water Street, Decorah, IA, USA
It's one of the newer entrants in Decorah's coffee scene, but it's quickly become popular, staying open later and hosting events like live music. I always find going there a little trippy, because when I lived in Decorah - and until 2017 - this two-story space was the J.C. Penney store that had been on the same corner for 95 years. But I'm glad to see a thriving business in the space - and the coffee's good!
Now it's time to explore Decorah's historic commercial district.
This stretch of several blocks of brick and stone-faced buildings, many from the 1800s and early 1900s, has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It's also one of the
best small town shopping districts
in Iowa. Take some time, poke your head into some shops, browse some titles at Dragonfly Books, or indulge your inner child at Donlon Pharmacy's Toy Store.
At some point meander down behind Water Street to the Flats - the former floodplain tamed by the 1947 installation of a levee along the Upper Iowa River. Take a look at historic Day Spring, named for the Day family who settled here in 1849, and which used to flow more reliably in my youth.
United States Postal Service, 401 Heivly St, Decorah, IA 52101, USA
Meander over toward the post office, which is, I think, one of the better-looking small-town mail stations that you're going to find in Iowa.
Winneshiek County Courthouse, 201 W Main St, Decorah, IA 52101, USA
Then head up cobblestoned Court Street, past the historic courthouse - still in use! - and two of the town's many churches, to Broadway.
There, you'll find Decorah's Historic District, with beautiful, old, ornate homes lining the street.
These beautifully maintained homes march up the hill for several blocks, from the courthouse to Phelps Park.
Be sure to linger a moment at the
Porter House Museum
and examine its fascinating wall, made of fossils, geodes, and all manner of cool rocks. If it's open, pop in and learn all about this 1867 home's intriguing history. Adult tickets run about $8.
T Bock's, West Water Street, Decorah, IA, USA
By the time you're done exploring, you'll likely be hungry. So, make your back down to Water Street and find a seat at T Bock's. You'll find a menu full of hearty, classic pub fare. The burgers are reliably tasty, but be sure to ask about the specials before you order. There's always something good cooking!
After lunch, mosey down to the west end of Water Street and the Vesterheim National Norwegian-American Museum and Folk Art School. Here, you'll get an up-front and center look at why Decorah associates so strongly with Norway.
As fascinating as the inside is, be sure to save time to tour the original homes of Norwegian settlers, and the old Decorah Mill, behind the museum. These are actual 19th-century structures that have been restored and maintained by the museum. Frankly, they're my favorite exhibit at Vesterheim (although the 25-foot sailboat is awfully cool, too). Adults should expect to pay around $12 for admission.
To get to the rest of our itinerary, you'll need to rush a bit - or better yet, linger at the museum, and push the rest back for a third day. But we're going to press on!
Decorah Municipal Swimming Pool, 701 College Dr, Decorah, IA 52101, USA
You're going to head slightly out of town for your next adventure, but you'll go right by
Decorah's Municipal Swimming Pool
. Its Art Moderne bath house is the oldest in Iowa, and it's listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Stop and have a quick look around!
A few minutes outside of town, you'll come to the Malanaphy Springs State Preserve and your first waterfall of the day.
Upper Iowa River Access Area, 2820 Bluffton Rd, Decorah, IA 52101, USA
Getting to the spring is a fairly easy,
30 to 45-minute hike
. At 1.8 miles out and back, the distance is not long, but the trail can be uneven in several places, and downed trees can be a problem, so be sure to bring
. The reward is definitely worth the effort. It's a beautiful hike and
is a picturesque waterfall that spills from a limestone bluff into the Upper Iowa River. If you have longer to spend in Decorah, a great way to visit this waterfall is by paddling up from the access area (where you parked) in a kayak or canoe. Once you make it back to your car, we've only got a couple more quick stops for you.
Next, you're heading to the Decorah Fish Hatchery on the south side of Decorah. There, you can enjoy the whimsical sculptures on the property, and even feed brown and rainbow trout in the hatchery's raceways, where they're waiting to be stocked in the area's streams.
One such stream is Trout Run, which starts as Siewers Spring in the bluff adjacent to the hatchery.
Decorah Fish Hatchery, 2321 Siewers Spring Rd, Decorah, IA 52101, USA
Like the other waterfalls you've seen in the area, it, too, emerges from a cave in the limestone and runs to the Upper Iowa River a few miles away.
By now, you're thirsty and maybe even a little tired. We figured you would be, and that's why your next stop is, arguably, Decorah's best-known business: Toppling Goliath Brewing.
Toppling Goliath Brewing Co, 1600 Prosperity Rd, Decorah, IA 52101, USA
Belly up in the massive taproom and enjoy a relaxing pint of one of the many IPAs - or, try a flight - and ease your way into the evening.
Mabe's Pizza, 110 E Water St, Decorah, IA 52101, USA
For dinner, you're heading toward a true Decorah institution: Mabe's Pizza. It's the favorite pizza of generations of Iowans, and for many folks, eating at Mabe's is the only requirement on a return trip to Decorah. Order the Around the Garden. Trust me.
After a pair of action-packed days in Decorah, I certainly hope you’ll see what’s so special about this town – and that you’ll come back soon (or even stay a little longer this time to spread things out a bit more). We’ll look forward to it.
T akk for laget!
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