An Authentic Norwegian Experience in Decorah Iowa

For an authentic immersion into the Norwegian culture without actually traveling to Norway, there is no place more genuine in the U.S. than the adorable community of Decorah, Iowa. 

Located in the northeast corner of Iowa on the border with Minnesota, Decorah became a settling point for immigrants from the Kingdom of Norway in the 1850s. While the 8,000+ people who live here now are as all-American as fellow Iowan Grant Wood, they fully embrace the beautiful culture from which their ancestors came.

We encourage you to visit both — Norway and Iowa.

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A Big Slice of Norway in northeast Iowa

Norwegian Museum entrance in Decorah IowaThe Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum is the largest ethnic museum in the United States. It does a fabulous job of documenting the immigrant experience in the U.S. from the mid-19th century. But it’s not one of those stuffy, dreary museums. The Vesterheim has a great collection of colorful folk art, including woodcarving and textile arts. Check the schedule for folk art classes at the Vesterheim.

The museum coordinates art shows by Norwegian artists and tours to Norway. You think you have Norwegian heritage? The Vesterheim has a large genealogy section to help you trace your ancestors.

Historic buildings from Norway in Decorah Iowa

In a large park behind the museum, you’ll find a number of homes and community structures. Some were built in Iowa in the 1850s. Others were built in Norway and brought to Iowa where they were reconstructed by Norwegian carpenters.

Experiencing Norwegian Foods in Iowa

Norwegian dinners served in Decorah Iowa

A rømmagrøt dinner ready for guests at the Vesterheim Museum in Decorah, Iowa.

The Vesterheim offers cooking classes that feature authentic Norwegian foods. While I was there, we made rømmagrøt. Made of barley, flour, butter and cream, it will stick to your ribs and raise your cholesterol about 100 points. Sprinkle it with a little cinnamon for a bit more flavor.

But in a cold Norwegian winter or a cold Iowa winter when those immigrants were just getting settled, rømmagrøt provided the warmth and energy to see them through.

For another flavor of Norway, plan your visit to Decorah in the autumn months for a lutefisk dinner. The Lutheran churches of this region host lutefisk dinners in October like Catholic churches elsewhere specialize in fish fries during Lent. Not sure what lutefisk is? It’s basically a dried Norwegian cod fish soaked in a lye solution. Yummm.

Tip: Cod is a staple of Norwegian food. If you make it to Bergen Norway, here’s a local restaurant you have to try.

Norway’s Pulpit Rock in Decorah Iowa

Those who have visited NorwPulpit Rock Brewery in Decorah Iowaay may be familiar with Pulpit Rock. It’s a popular attraction and Instagram spot near Geirangerfjord. Simply a big cliff overlooking one of the thousands of fjords in Norway, Pulpit Rock is shaped like a church pulpit.

It should come as no surprise then, for those visiting Decorah Iowa, to stumble upon a craft brewery called Pulpit Rock. Pulpit Rock is also the name of a lovely campground on the Upper Iowa River nearby. The rugged landscape of northeast Iowa created by glaciers millions of years ago left a micro-version of the original Pulpit Rock in Norway.

Where to Stay in Decorah Iowa

Hotel Winnishiek Lobby in Decorah IowaAlthough Decorah’s Norwegian heritage bubbles over throughout the area, the Hotel Winneshiek takes its name from Winneshiek County. That name comes from a chief of the Winnebago tribe who were the original residents of northeast Iowa.

The Hotel Winneshiek is just gorgeous – inside. Seriously the outside is nice, but rather plain compared to what lies inside. The lobby is phenomenal with rich mahogany paneling, a working fireplace and the original terrazzo tile floor. It’s octagonal shaped and open all of the way up through the third floor.

And just look at this stained glass ceiling!

stained glass ceiling in Hotel Winn in Decorah Iowa

Decorah Iowa’s Beautiful Hotel Winneshiek

The Winn, as the locals call it, first opened in 1905, and over the course of the last century it was remodeled several times. At some point, someone closed in the lobby to make it square and covered up that stained glass. What’s wrong with people! That was all uncovered in the late 1990s restoration that brought the Winn back to its original stateliness.

At Christmas time, choirs sing in the lobby and I’m told it carries throughout the building.

Guest room at the Hotel Winn in Decorah IowaThe rooms – 34 of them – are equally lovely. They are ridiculously big for those who, like me, tend to spread their junk all over the place and make themselves at home.

This was mine, but some of them are even nicer and bigger for important guests. The best suite was remodeled when the King and Queen of Norway visited a few years ago.

Politicians Who Visit Decorah, Iowa

Obama at Hotel Winn in Decorah IowaBecause Iowa is home of the Iowa caucuses every four years, big name politicians find their way to Decorah on a regular basis.

As a result, people we all know have been here, either for an overnight stay or a gathering of people in this beautiful lobby. In recent years, it’s been Senator Marco Rubio and President Barack Obama.

There, I’ve named somebody from both parties, so nobody can get upset at the Hotel Winn for who has walked in the door. But lots of pictures of famous people who have stayed at the Winn line the walls of the hotel’s entryway.

Where to Eat in Decorah, Iowa

Exterior of Hotel Winn in Decorah IowaThe Norwegian culture returns in the name of the hotel restaurant. The Restaurationen was the first ship that brought Norwegian immigrants to the U.S. in 1825. In the Norwegian culture, the Restaurationen is known as the Mayflower of the Norwegian/American culture.

Although cod and lutefisk are occasionally offered on the Restaurationen menu, most of the entrees are good middle-America Iowa fare. Pork chops and meat loaf and mashed potatoes and fried chicken.

As the Norwegians would say “Vær så god.”  It basically means “good eating” or “bon appetit.”

To experience the Czech and Slovak culture found in Iowa, plan a trip to Cedar Rapids. To experience the Swedish culture in North America, plan a road trip to Lindsborg Kansas.

 Learn More About Iowa’s Norwegian Heritage