Iowa has never been high on my list of places to visit. In fact, until recently, it wasn’t even on my list of places to visit at all! But when one of my husband’s best friends and his wife moved to northern Iowa, all of a sudden we put Iowa on our travel itinerary. We visited in late October, and stayed for a few weeks. One of our favorite discoveries of the trip was Decorah, Iowa.
The history of Decorah is complex; originally home to a Native American tribe. The U.S. Army re-settled them elsewhere, leaving the land for white settlers who built mills along the river. The area became a popular area for Norwegian-Americans settlers, and in 1861 they founded Luther College; affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church.
All of this helps contribute to Decorah today. Luther College is known for its music programs. So, you can hear everything from chamber music to a new, local symphony orchestra while you’re in town. Tourists frequent the Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum, which is apparently the largest museum in the U.S. devoted to one immigrant group.
You’ll find adorable cafes, murals of history and farm life, local music, farmers markets and an assortment of retail stores downtown. Highlights include a music store, a store for gamers, and my personal favorite, a wonderful food co-op! I scored some incredible cowboy boots while we were here (I only paid $40 for boots that normally retail for $200), as well as a gorgeous dress.
Also in Decorah? StoryPeople
If shopping for clothes isn’t your thing, you’ll still find plenty to check out, including all of the big box stores you could want. I highly recommend a visit to the headquarters of StoryPeople. If you’ve never seen their artwork, cards or books, it’s truly charming.
You can find the stories and art of Brian Andreas all over the artsy boutiques in New England (where I’m from). But until our visit, I never would have guessed Andreas was based in Iowa! The headquarters are just as beautiful as his art, and they even had some free samples to take when we were there. They’re extremely friendly, and it’s fun to “see where the magic happens.” I believe they even offer workshops.
Free Activities in Decorah
Looking for other free activities while you’re in town? There are historical markers all over downtown that will help you learn more about the area and its history. You can also find nature parks with walking trails, a waterfall and ice caves!
When we go back, I hope to visit the nearby Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum and see what the local college students are up to – perhaps there will be a play or a concert to catch. You can learn all about the area and what to do here. They also include information on where to camp. And of course, Outdoorsy is a great resource if you need to rent an RV for your trip.
Iowa had a few cities and towns that surprised me during our visit, and I look forward to returning. I highly recommend at least stopping in Decorah if you’re passing through!