Last weekend Keegan and I took our first “vacation” alone in a whole year and drove up to Decorah, Iowa, for a quick weekend getaway. Keegan’s mom grew up in Decorah, and we visited there together a few times while his grandparents were alive. But, we hadn’t been back since his grandmother’s memorial service three years ago. Prior to moving to Iowa, I had know idea Decorah existed and was surprised to find out it was the home of Luther College. I listened to Dave and Tim Live at Luther College on repeat for all four years of college.
Decorah is a beautiful little college town around three hours drive from Des Moines in the northeastern corner of Iowa. It’s a walkable community with beautiful old homes in a variety of architecture, a bustling main street (Water Street), and an ample selection of outdoor activities. I love the rich Norwegian heritage combined with a strong focus on artists and makers as well as the extensive trail system.
Toppling Goliath Brewing Co.
Toppling Goliath Brewing Co. was our first stop as we drove into town. Keegan’s favorite beer is Pseudo Sue, so visiting the brewery was tops on his bucket list. We sat outside on the patio and enjoyed a couple of beverage and a late lunch of loaded potato chips and pizza. The food was really good, and of course, he enjoyed the beer. The outdoor seating was fairly busy for the middle of the afternoon and several people had brought their dogs to hang out and sit in the sun.
Where To Stay
I feel pretty lucky to have found our AirBNB because options for places to stay were slim by the time we booked. (You can see the listing for the AirBNB here.) I can’t say enough good things about this particular AirBNB. It was the perfect location – a block or so from the action on Water Street. It had off street parking, a patio off the back door, and a deck that was directly accessible from the apartment on the second floor.
The second floor apartment in this historic brick building had been carefully remodeled. I didn’t take any photos inside, but the pictures on the listing are very accurate. The ceilings were high, and the large windows let in a ton of light. It had a spacious kitchen and comfortable living room. With two bedrooms (plus a pullout sofa in the den) and two bedrooms, it was overly large for us but would be perfect for a small family who wanted to visit Decorah for the weekend. Honestly, it would suit well for a longer stay as well because the kitchen was well stocked, and it also has a laundry room.
We sat out on the back deck both evenings and enjoyed a drink while listening to music and watching squirrels and the occasional person walk by. It might sound dull but it was totally peaceful and relaxing, which was just what we needed.
There were other options on AirBNB that also looked appealing, but I definitely wanted to stay on Water Street or no more than a block or two away. It would be hard for me to book another AirBNB after staying at this particular one because the location and the actual space were so perfect.
Of course, if you didn’t want to stay in an AirBNB, the Hotel Winneshiek is also right on Water Street. We’ve stayed there before, and it is very nice. I especially love it because of the historic architecture. If you are traveling with kids and need a pool or more space, we noticed a brand new Fairmont Inn just outside of town.
Where to Eat
I was a little worried with Covid that we wouldn’t be able to eat out at all, but that didn’t end up being the case. Of course, the Oneota Co-Op was our first stop upon driving into town. Located right on Water Street, it’s an organic and locally source market that is co-operatively owned that’s been around since 1974. We bought some snacks to have at the Air BNB – some local cheese and organic crackers as well as a couple bottles of wine and chocolate. But, you could easily stock on groceries there. The local produce was beautiful – I’ve never seen such perfect garlic, shallots, squash, and heirloom tomatoes.
Be sure to pick up a copy of Inspire(d) Magazine on the way out. I’ve loved reading this free local publication since the first time I visited Decorah. It’s wonderful for learning about the people who make up the surrounding community as well as their unique businesses and creative ventures.
On Saturday morning, I walked down Water Street to get a latté at Impact Coffee after it was recommended by both a friend and our AirBNB host. I ordered one of the seasonal flavors sans syrup which was delicious and picked up two sconces on a whim. I wish I wrote down the name of the bakery because those were the best scones I’ve ever had. Usually scones are just so sconce-like – dry and not very flavorful. These scones were like cake, and the apple almond was particularly delicious – full of apple chunks and topped with almonds drizzled with a light syrup. I’m still thinking about that scone a week later.
Later in the morning, we walked back down Water Street together for a late breakfast early lunch. In the past, we’ve eaten breakfast at Ruby’s which is an old-fashioned diner, but we wanted to stick with outdoor seating. Magpie Café was also recommended by our friend and by our AirBNB host, and we ate there on our last trip to Decorah. They had set up plenty of of outdoor seating right on the sidewalk, and we easily got a table. We actually ate at Magpies a second time on Sunday morning before we drove home. On Saturday, I ordered the Magpie Burrito, which was a good size and satisfying. On Sunday, we both got biscuits and gravy, and I ordered a side of bacon, which was outstanding.
Saturday evening, we ordered pizza from High, Wild and Handsome. I know Mabe’s is legendary in Decorah for pizza, but the menu at High, Wild, and Handsome appealed to me more. We each ordered a 7″ personal pizza – every pizza place should offer this option – and an order of garlic pinwheels. Everything was ready quickly, still hot when we brought it home, and I thought the pizza was better than most I’ve had in Des Moines.
I also got several recommendations for La Rana Bistro, and we would have eaten there if we had wanted to go out for a nice dinner. Their menu was small but looked delicious. They closed their interior seating and had several small tables available on the sidewalk as well as take out available.
Most of the restaurants we saw in Decorah adapted to Covid by offering takeout available and made it easy to order online. Several of the other restaurants also added outdoor seating, and we never felt like we were short of options. I don’t know what they’ll do when the weather gets too cold to eat outside.
Another Covid note: Decorah had a citywide mask mandate, and by and large, most people were wearing masks even outside and spaced apart except when eating or drinking. I never felt uncomfortable about wearing a mask, quite the opposite. It was kind of refreshing from Des Moines and suburbs where you never know what you’re going to get.
What to Do
I was slightly worried we would run out of things to do in Decorah, but that was never an issue. On Saturday morning, we drove over to Dunning’s Springs (if fit, you could easily walk) and made the very easy ascent to see the waterfalls and stone bridge. Keegan said the falls were the busiest he’s ever seen them. The parking lot was full, and there were several groups making their way up the road to the springs.
After we checked out Dunning’s Springs, we walked back down and took the trail along the river to the bridge, crossed the river and walked back along the Trout Run paved trail. It was very quiet and serene, the Fall colors were beautiful, and we only saw a few other people. The trail was mostly flat and very easy for just about anyone to walk on.
It was actually difficult to choose which trail we wanted to explore on Saturday, and there were several others we could have easily done as well. This map has a great overview of all the options.
Later on Saturday afternoon, we drove over to The Landing Market and Pulpit Rock Brewing Company, which are right next to each other. The Landing, which is designed to be a “modern food hall”, has a deli, wine bar, and a small convenience area for take out snacks and drinks. The interior was really cute, and I’m sure it’s probably popular with the Luther students.
We sat on the patio at Pulpit Rock and enjoyed a few drinks before heading back to the AirBNB. We noticed a biergarten across the street that also had outdoor seating and was advertising a food truck and live music for Saturday afternoon and into the evening. If we hadn’t been tired from our long hike earlier, it would have been a good option for the evening.
Decorah’s Water Street is the quintessential main drag in an idyllic small town. It’s lined with historic buildings that are home to a number of shops as well as restaurants and other services. It’s fun just to walk up and down each Water Street window shopping and examining the architecture from the far side of the street.
I was introduced to Agora by my mother-in-law when I first moved to Iowa. Back when I made jewelry, I had always hoped to get my pieces into Agora. They sell a range of locally made pottery, artwork, jewelry, books, gifts, and other home items and accessories. It’s a fun place to shop for unique holiday or birthday presents that are often handmade or one of a kind. On this trip, I picked up a piece of handmade ceramic dinnerware for my collection.
A friend recommended Dragonfly Books to me, and it did not disappoint. I love bookstores, and could spend hours in them if given the opportunity. Dragonfly was the perfect independent bookstore with a well curated selection of both contemporary works and classics. I was especially impressed with their children’s books and bought a board book for Ashton.
Rendered Unique is a really cute shop that was located on the first floor of our AirBNB building. I stopped in to check it out and enjoyed browsing the selection of candles, pillows, screen-printed tea towels, and baby gifts, most of which were locally made. I bought a super soft t-shirt in my favorite color combination of pale pink and rust as a souvenir for myself.
Pieces Home Market is a new-to-me home decor store that embodied the minimal Scandinavian aesthetic so popular right now. They had a nice selection of baskets, cutting boards, pillows, throw blankets, and other small accessories.
Not pictured, my favorite shop was a block of Water Street – Cardboard Robot. I glanced the sign as we were walking down Water Street on Friday night and was immediately intrigued. Cardboard Robot is a combination toy shop and art supply store, which has to tie bookstores with my favorite places to browse and dream. The toy selection was really unique and heavily focused on STEM activities or maker projects. In keeping with the shop name, they sold these kits for turning cardboard into just about anything, which you can shop right from their website. We picked up a birthday present for Ashton – a kit for making and taking apart of set of construction trucks. I really wish Des Moines had a store like this one because it was so fun to shop there and see toys and art supplies I would never know about otherwise.
I hope you enjoyed this recap of our quick Decorah, Iowa weekend getaway. It checked all of my boxes – get up in the morning and walk to get a coffee, walk to a bookstore and an art store, sit outside on the street while eating delicious breakfast, and a pleasant wooded hike along a body of water. For me, this is pretty much the perfect recipe for a weekend getaway. The only thing missing was our dog to accompany us on our walks.
We love Decorah, and I’m sure we’ll be back again next year maybe even with Ashton. I’d love to do more of the hiking and trails and bring our bikes so we can travel farther afield. Have you been to Decorah? If so, please share your favorite things to do in the comments so I can add them to my list for our next visit.