Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Why I love Decorah, Part I November 26, 2018

Vesterheim Norwegian American Museum in downtown Decorah draws many visitors interested in learning about their heritage.


TWICE I’VE VISITED DECORAH in northeastern Iowa. It’s one of those towns that feels comfortable, inviting, an ideal destination for someone who prefers rural to urban.


Decorah is named after Ho-Chunk Chief Waukon Decorah. I spotted this portrait by noted artist Charles Philip Hexom on a stairway wall at the public library.


What makes Decorah so appealing to me?





The architecture.


“Doe and Fawn” sculptures by Victoria Reed stand in a public plaza near a downtown co-op.


Love this mural of “Irene” painted by Valerie Miller of Steel Cow.


A stone sculpture on the Nelson & Co. building.


The art.

One of my favorite spots in Decorah, the waterfall at Dunning’s Spring Park, site of a former grist mill and gifted to the city in 1946.


The natural beauty.


Valdres House, one of many authentic Norwegian rooted buildings at Vesterheim. This is a typical Norwegian landowner’s house, dismantled and shipped from Norway to Decorad in the mid 1970s.


The downtown shops and eateries. The city’s appreciation of its strong Norwegian heritage, even if I’m of German heritage.

And the people. While at Pulpit Rock Brewing, Randy and I shared a picnic table with a young couple and their daughter (and her grandpa). They were quick to answer our questions about places to eat, sleep and explore.

Upon their recommendation, we stayed at a new hotel on the edge of town and met a trio of college friends together for their annual girlfriends’ reunion. They welcomed us into their circle at a gas-fired campfire on a perfect early autumn evening. When did hotels start adding this amenity? I loved it. There’s something about fire…


The Upper Iowa River runs through the 34-acre Decorah Community Prairie and Butterfly Garden. This view is from a scenic overlook in Phelps Park.


And water. Water is part of the draw for me to this river town.


Magnificent stone work at Phelps Park, which also includes a fountain (not on at the time of my visit) crafted from stone.


Upon the recommendation of the family at the brewery, we sought out Phelps Park. There we found extensive stonework done by the Civilian Conservation Corps. I often wonder when I see such work, “How did they build this without modern equipment?”

Outside an historic downtown building with a corner tower, I chatted it up with an elderly man on a bench. He drives in from the farm every morning to meet friends for coffee and to sit and people-watch. He lives out by the supper club, he said, which meant nothing to me. But I pretended like it did. He’ll never see me again.

That’s the thing about travel. If you engage with the locals, you’ll learn a thing or ten about the place you’re visiting. Stuff you won’t find on a website, stuff best learned in conversation.

TELL ME: Do you chat it up with locals when you’re traveling? I’d like to hear your stories.

PLEASE CHECK BACK for more photos from Decorah. Have you ever visited Decorah and, if so, what appeals to you there?

NOTE: I took these photos during a mid-September visit to Decorah. The landscape obviously looks much different today. So if you’re not inclined to visit this Iowa city now, think ahead to next spring or summer.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


16 Responses to “Why I love Decorah, Part I”

  1. I love Decorah. It was one of our favorite places to visit for a weekend getaway when we lived in Mason City. there are some really great restaurants as well as wonderful parks and natural areas. I loved seeing the Decorah eagles that I had watched on the online webcam. Looks like it might be covered in snow today from the looks of the weather news this morning. Brrrr…How about you?

  2. treadlemusic Says:

    I LOVE Decorah and visit often (much closer for me than you!) and the quilt shop is quite nice (understatement!). The Oneota Coop is the best and I always find some goodies to take home to Tom. The architecture and Norwegian “flavor” of the neighborhoods just beg that you spend a few moments getting to know the ppl. And, yes, engaging the locals in convo is a fave pastime of mine. The “Magpie Coffeehouse and Eatery” is my absolute fave stop ( http://www.mymagpiecoffee.com/) for lunch, or a little ‘nosh’. Thank you for taking us along on your saunter through this sweet town (and warmer times!). Hugs………

  3. Almost Iowa Says:

    I can’t remember the name of the bar – but they had poetry on the walls. Now, THAT is my kind of bar.

  4. What a lovely place! I love old architecture! It’s one of my favorite things about San Francisco.

  5. Valerie Says:

    Sounds like a nice place…we’ve only been to Luther College…didn’t make it downtown.

  6. Jackie Says:

    It’s is darn close to us and I really want to go explore, I’ve been through Decorah but never really to check out the sites. My Aunt and Uncle farm on the edge town. I’ve been on the farm a few times, but never venture into town. I hope too soon!

  7. Bella Says:

    I enjoyed tour travelogue to Decorah. Your eye for details highlights the the best the town has to offer.. I particularly liked the architecture photos and landscape photos. And yes the very best is engaging with locals you learn so much.

  8. Gunny Says:

    I will be up there this June – and ya all make it sound so inviting! I may be in Memphis, TN in July and or maybe Mobile AL. On the road again!

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