Visiting Iowa is like immersing oneself in multicultural Europe, with many towns being the state's marvelous hidden gems. These nine under-the-radar towns are bucket-list-worthy for one's next great getaway to see and experience what many have not and will regret not to.
Elk Horn, an enclave of Danish ethnicity, is home to the Danish Villages and the Danish Table Hygge Kitchen. The latter is a full-service restaurant right in the heart of town, offering views of the Danish windmill as one dines on the old country-inspired dishes, such as frikadeller and stegt flaesk with homemade red cabbage and cucumber salad. Platted in 1901 and named after the Elk Horn Creek, the small, 0.77-square mile town has the Museum of Danish America to learn more about its historical roots. They are comprised of twin villages and celebrate their heritage pride twice a year through a Tivoli Fest in May and Julefest in November. One of the most popular attractions is visiting the Viking House, a grass-roofed building next to the mill as a longhouse replica showcasing early life in Scandinavia and Northern Europe in 900 A.D. The house would have belonged to a middle to an upper-class family, while a Viking re-enactor describes a Viking's role, such as invading and pillaging villages. There are also memorials and murals throughout town to marvel at.
The winner of the "Great American Main Street Award," it is surprising that the small town of Bonaparte is often overlooked. Nevertheless, once discovering the gems of its historic downtown area, such as the Burns Gallery, the Tea Emporium, and the Bonaparte Retreat Restaurant, which are well-known among the locals, one will become an addict for life. Moreover, the Riverfront District of the town is garnished by a butterfly garden, historic lock walls, refurbished bandshells, and restored mills, offering an atmospheric place to pass the time overlooking the waters. The streets of Bonaparte are also adorned by historic street lights, making the Victorian homes and charming 1800s cottages dotted throughout town charming in the evening. Aside from the magnificent architecture, quintessential shops, laidback atmosphere, and chatty locals, Bonaparte is a true jewel of Iowa with an exciting past that can no longer go unnoticed on the map.
Decorah is a little taste of Norway in a small-town environment packed with a ton of adventures and things to see, such as exploring the Ice Caves, a trout hatchery, and the Winneshiek Wildberry Winery for a diversified day. The annual Nordic Fest celebrates the town's Norwegian history, with many traditional and cultural events right on the streets, including a rock-throwing contest and sampling a variety of delectable Norwegian grub, like Lefse and Kranskake. There are nature trails to take advantage of by the active, offering a variety of local marvels along the way, including Dunning's Springs. Out of the three waterfalls in Decorah, the greatest one is set northwest of town: a spring-fed waterfall that includes a two-hour trail hike along the scenic Upper Iowa River. As one of the town's hidden treasures, it is only known by locals and a few lucky tourists. "The Whippy Dip" is known as a place for a quick and tasty bite to eat with a variety of food and ice cream, and in close vicinity to Luther College and downtown for more explorative strolls afterward. Eagle sightings is another secret of Decorah.
The beautiful lake town has its own Blarney Stone (that one must kiss for luck), a limestone block from the Blarney Castle in Ireland, along with the views, the water, and the cute town appeal that make one fall hard for Emmetsburg. The town east of the Des Moines River was first settled by Irish immigrants during the Irish potato famine between 1845 and 1852 and named after Dublin-born Irish nationalist Robert Emmet, executed at 25 for leading an 1803 rebellion against the British. Also home to Five Island Lake, there are many waterside activities for plenty of wholesome family fun. There is also the Wild Rose Casino & Resort; while in town for St. Patrick's Day, the town continues celebrations into the following week with many festivities showcasing traditions of the Irish. Not surprisingly, Emmetsburg's sister city is Dublin, featuring similar infrastructure, layout, and culture on the streets.
Orange City burst with color at the seams as another overlooked Dutch town. There are many reasons to flee to the town for those who know about it, including the authentic architecture, the beautiful tulip festival, and the charming windmills, making strolling along the atmospheric streets a real delight for all the senses. The food fanatics greatly appreciate the Blue Mountain Culinary Emporium, while historians of all kinds will revel in visiting the Sioux County Historical Museum. The month of December brings about the beloved celebrations of Sinterklaas Day into town, a day full of lively events, culture, and traditions.
The town of Le Claire seems to have it all, from the historic downtown shopping area to the great restaurants and the Mississippi River Distilling to its epic setting overlooking the Mississippi River. Named after the landowner and Métis trader, Antoine Le Claire of First Nations-French Canadian descent and first settled by European Americans in the 1830s, the town is a setting of the American Pickers reality television series on the History Channel. It is also home to the Antique Archeology antique store. In early August, the annual three-day-long Tugfest comprises an event with a rope stretched across the Mississippi River from Le Claire to Port Byron in Illinois. A ten men's team of 20 and one woman's team of 25 tug the rope from each end for a real beloved competitive spectacle. The event also includes the fireworks display, live band, road race, and river-bound carnival food stalls. The town is also home to the riverfront Buffalo Bill Museum. It also offers one of the best bald eagle photography opportunities on the continent when the migrating bald eagles over the Mississippi River congregate at the lock and dam to catch fish from December to March.
A lovely little Mount Vernon has something for everyone, from the scenic Palisades-Kepler State Park for the outdoor lovers, to the Skillet Cafe favored among the food lovers, to the state-famed Chalk the Walk Festival each May starting back in 2006. A gathering of 300-some artists from around Iowa create beautiful chalk art on the street, requiring more than a half-ton of chalk, in the free event with cash prizes awarded, making it a wonder that the town is often overlooked. Established in 1847 and named after Mount Vernon, George Washington's estate, the town's central geographic feature is Mount Vernon on which it sits. Actually, a paha or a ridge of sand and loess one mile (2 km) long and 1/4 mile (1/2 km) wide, and rising to 100 feet (30 m) above the surrounding landscape, the "mountain" formed along the line of the prevailing wind during the ice ages. A notable landmark comprises Mark Benesh's rendition of Grant Wood's American Gothic on the side of a barn, while other popular events include the Chocolate Stroll, Heritage Days, Chili Cook-Off, and Uptown Thursday Nights.
Historically, the hungry and angry band of Sioux Indians would seek food and shelter during rough winters around the Little Sioux River basin, followed by a confrontation and massacre or kidnapping of 33 pioneer settlers, now known as the "Spirit Lake Massacre." A small band of soldiers from Fort Dodge made their way to the region to identify and bury the bodies and get revenge on the Indians in the area. The tiny town of 1.86 square miles (4.82 km2), Okoboji is a major outdoor tourist's dream with the Iowa Great Lakes, Arnolds Park, and the Spirit Lake. The bumper stickers, mugs, and sweatshirts with "University of Okoboji" logos, popular with college students in the Midwest, force a chuckle from the most serious about quirky and the fictitious University of Okoboji. For more outdoor pursuits, there's boating in the bright blue waters, basking at the beachfront resorts, and visiting the amusement Arnold's Park.
One of the nation's cutest towns, there's plenty to do in the yet-to-be crowded streets of Pella, in solitude or with a close group to absorb everything it has to offer. Proud of its Dutch heritage, there is the Jaarsma Bakery's quirky and fresh from the oven delectable treats, including a "dutch letter" to be savored with a cup of tea or coffee on a lovely afternoon. The marvelous authentic architecture adds to the charm, for the atmospheric evening walks along the Molengracht Canal are modeled after the ones in the Netherlands. Other Dutch treasures include the Vermeer Windmill, the tallest working grain windmill in the United States, and the annual Dutch-themed Tulip Festival, when the springtime green grass and bright sun bring out all the colors of the blooming tulips. The Pella Historical Society Museums teach one about the historical settlement of the region by the Dutch immigrants.
Stepping into some of these towns is like transporting into a European city, with the environment complemented by the old continent's architecture, culture, and traditions. Crowd-less for now and proximate to many big cities, one can explore all the marvels in tranquility for a truly relaxing getaway and a quintessential experience from one's backyard.