Decorah, Iowa, becomes the center of the universe for bird lovers early spring. That’s when you can tune in to the Raptor Resource’s tree cam and watch baby eagles move about and cry for their parents to bring them food. And more food. And more food. In fact, you can see the eaglets in action for a while before they grow big enough to fly away, usually in early summer. Mom and Dad, however, stick around the Decorah area. The food source is great here, with a fish hatchery a short flight away and plenty of wild game and other fish in the water below.
The fish hatchery raises thousands of trout that will eventually make their way into streams and rivers. The hatchery is a tourist attraction itself. Visitors view fish from shortly after their birth through the release of adults into the water system. You can buy food pellets for a quarter and feed them to the fish. The frenzy created when they chase for the food makes watching the fish fun entertainment.
Afterwards, you can take a walk through a few trails around the hatchery, including the one that takes you past the eagles’ nest. The area is peaceful and relaxing. You can see cornfields on one side of the area and bluffs overlooking the river on the other side.
Think Decorah is only for the birds, fish and those who love them? Guess again. This northeast Iowa community of about 8,000 is fertile ground for those of Scandinavian descent. Norwegian, to be specific. And they let you know that, for one weekend every July. The Nordic Fest celebrates all things Norwegian through parades, food, music, dance, food, games, dance, music and even more food. Interested in trying lefse? They have it. Don’t know what lefse is? It’s a thin slice of potato bread, similar to a tortilla. It makes for a great wrap around a sausage. Norwegian Meatballs are delicious. I will never try to defend lutefisk (a fish dish with the consistency of a bowl of Jell-O).
Decorah observed its 51st Nordic Fest in July. Next year, the city celebrates July 26-28. If you like interesting food and fun times, Nordic Fest needs to be on your summer travel list.
Norwegian immigration to the US
The Vesterheim Museum provides a look at Norwegians immigration to the United States since the early 1800s. People packed a few items to bring with them and many set sail in small boats, hoping to reach the New World, full of opportunity. Much of the Upper Midwest is similar to northern Europe, so it made sense for some people to settle this region. Many were farmers. Some were merchants. Together, they helped build new communities, such as Decorah.
Inside the Vesterheim, visitors see firsthand items brought here. Ale buckets (early versions of pints and mugs), cooking pots and utensils highlight some of the items on display.
Norwegians lived in small homes here, with beds in the same room as the kitchen. One-room homes were easier to build and maintain.
The Vesterheim looks at the physical travel across the ocean through the TradeWind, a 25-foot long boat carried two brothers to the United States.
The museum follows early religious practices of Scandinavians, from a replica of a Stave church to contemporary Lutheran church displays.
Outside the museum, visitors can roam through living history buildings. The section includes a small mill, Lutheran church, a one-room schoolhouse, a couple of cabins and houses, as well as a larger mill building. I find the living history museums interesting with the stories they can share with us in seeing how people lived in the 1800s and early 1900s.
With Decorah being in the middle of farm country, it makes sense that a popular business attraction would be nature-related. Seed Savers Exchange offers people a variety of planting seeds, from tomatoes to fall favorites of pumpkins and other gourds.
Seed Savers experiments with improving garden production. The company has gardens focused on vegetables, grass, plants and flowers. In addition, people can stroll the farm on its trails and you may even run into their cattle herd.
Dunnings Spring Park
People who love nature will enjoy visiting Decorah. Dunnings Spring Park allows people to get close and personal with an attractive waterfall. It’s not your typical waterfall. Rather than drop over a cliff, Dunnings Spring flows downhill. People hike to the top of the falls and the view and take photos. The water isn’t deep, nor is the flow strong during decent weather.
A staircase climbs along one side of the waterfall, to allow an above the waterfall view. It’s an enjoyable stroll, walking among trees on one side the water on the other.
With all the activities Decorah has to offer, it’s a good thing that the city is home to some good food. A couple of breakfast opportunities challenge you in the morning. It’s tough to decide where to eat, so we started each day of stay at a different place. Ruby’s on Water Street (downtown’s main drag) is home to great food. More importantly, it has one of the world’s best cinnamon rolls. As a person was walking out as we were entering Ruby’s, he told us to try the cinnamon rolls. We’d love it. He was right! It tasted amazing and the frosting was out of this world good.
Our next breakfast experience was at Family Table. Again, the food was eggcellent. I had ham, eggs and hashbrowns. Good, good and good. We met a friend there, so she had already been seated. Otherwise, we would have been standing in line for a while. But, that’s a sign of a great restaurant – when people are willing to stand in line for your food. The thing I truly loved about Family Table (besides the great service and food)? The Viking statue featuring a slice of pie as a shield and cooking utensils as a sword. I knew we were at my kind of Viking joint.
When people learned we were traveling to Decorah, we were told we had to eat at one place for sure – Mabe’s Pizza. Fortunately, the pizzeria was next door to our hotel. We tried the taco pizza supreme. Oh. My. God. Was it good! Thin crust with taco toppings, plus sour cream mixed in. Adding the hot sauce that came in small packets and man were we happy campers. After a day of running around, we thought we were hungrier than we ended up being, so a good portion of the pizza went uneaten. But, I ensured I ate my fair share. After all, I was in the land of the Vikings (literally. Minnesota is only a few miles away. SKOL Vikings!).
It was a good thing we stayed at the Hotel Winneshiek. Centrally situated, we were able to waddle back to the hotel and collapse after a day of fun. Plus, we used the hotel to pop in and out and cut through during our downtown travels during Nordic Fest.
But, before we could retire one evening, we had to run to The Whippy Dip and enjoy an ice cream treat. I’ve been told that you can’t say you were in Decorah if you don’t have an ice cream from The Whippy Dip. So, I thought a butter pecan topping for an ice cream cone sounded kind of good. While it’s meant as a sundae topping, The Whippy Dip girl did her best to see if it could work on a cone. For the most part, it did. I enjoyed it. But, the main cone dips are chocolate and cherry.
The Hotel Winneshiek is amazing. Built in 1905, it screams elegance. The hotel’s décor embraces its history as the city’s hospitality anchor. It’s located next door to the Steyer Opera House. While it was my first visit to Decorah, Lisa had stayed at the hotel on a previous trip. She was excited to have me experience a stay at the Hotel Winneshiek.
All told, we had a great time in Decorah. With it being Lisa’s second time in town, I was concerned she might not have as much fun as her first trip, but there were enough new experiences that helped. We’re already discussing a possible return to the city for next year’s Nordic Fest, as well as maybe a different season – fall or spring. So, hopefully, we will see you there as well. We recommend visiting Decorah and its surrounding area.
For more information on Decorah attractions and events, please visit www.visitdecorah.com.
Disclaimer: Thanks to the Decorah visitors bureau for the complimentary stay at Hotel Winneshiek. However, all opinions and views are ours.