The guy in the cycling bibs, with labradoodle in tow, pedaled straight to the brewery from mountain bike trails along the bluffs. Two fly-fishermen join him on the patio, after surrendering trout streams to the midday sun. A middle-age couple beside them keeps inviting strangers to the table—before filling growlers and leaving to camp under hardwoods along the Upper Iowa River.
It’s the Decorah brand of Iowa Nice: revelry and bonding over untamed terrain in a state where nearly 90 percent of land is dedicated to agriculture. Here, however, dedication means refined paddling strokes, fly-tying, radical conservation efforts and brewing (with precision that has birthed beers voted No. 1 in the world). It also means honoring the town’s heritage through Nordic festivals and events at Vesterheim, The National Norwegian-American Museum—plus support of Luther College, a liberal arts school founded 150 years ago by Norwegian immigrants.
Despite an elevation below 900 feet, Decorah feels like a mountain town, a nook hiding more than an hour from any interstate. The land helps, with limestone cliffs and clear streams that dodged the last glaciers. (Northeast Iowa is part of the Driftless Area, rolling hills that also ripple into Minnesota and Wisconsin.) But it’s Decorah’s 8,000 residents that fuel the town’s spirit, with their yen for nature and pink-cheeked living. And they’ll eagerly share secrets with anyone who will listen.
Bear Creek Anglers Guided half-day, full-day or evening fly-fishing trips deliver you to just the right streams and rivers. bearcreekanglers.com
Decorah Zen Center Daily meditations are open to the public (and all faiths). Decorah Zen Center on Facebook
O.F.F. The Driftless Wellness and Adventure Company The outfitter supplies tubes, canoes and kayaks for floats on the Upper Iowa River. offthedriftless.com
Upper Iowa River
Parks For pretty waterfalls, follow short hiking trails to see Dunning’s Springs and Malanaphy Falls. At Phelps Park, bluffs surround hiking trails and playgrounds. parks.decorahia.org
Seed Savers Exchange Pick up gardening tips, seeds or gifts, and roam the grounds at the 890-acre heritage farm, the nation’s largest nongovernment seed bank. seedsavers.org
Decorah’s Seed Savers Heritage Farm.
Shopping Immerse yourself in Decorah’s local arts scene and Norwegian roots by exploring downtown along Water Street. You’ll find everything from traditional rosemaled (decorated) wooden plates to T-shirts reading “Hanging with my gnomies."
Toppling Goliath Tap Room The mission: Make big beers in small batches. Try the King Sue Double IPA, voted one of the top 50 beers in the world by website RateBeer. tgbrews.com
Trout Run Trail The 11-mile paved biking-walking route circles the city limits, crisscrossing streams. troutruntrail.com
Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum Trace Decorah’s Norwegian heritage through 33,000-plus artifacts, a folk art school, a library and 12 historic buildings. vesterheim.org
Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum
La Rana Bistro Pair a mojito or The Frog (vodka tonic and cranberry) with locally raised meats, such as a Rock Cedar Ranch burger. La Rana Bistro Facebook
La Rana Bistro
Mabe's Pizza Chewy, thin- crust pies from this 66-year-old staple have drawn national attention. Try the Chicken Cordon Bleu pizza. mabespizza.com
McCaffrey’s Dolce Vita Their specialty is thin-crust wood-fired pizza. Try the Thai Kickin’ Chicken or Greek pizza, but be sure to get good directions to this secluded restaurant. mcdolcevita.com
Oneota Community Food Co-op Dig into local ingredients at the hot food bar, which might be serving roast pork, turkey tenderloins or Moroccan meatballs. oneotacoop.com
Rubaiyat More than200 wine varieties and 40 beers on tap complement dishes such as seared scallops with a lingonberry maple drizzle. rubaiyatrestaurant.com
T-Bocks Sports Bar and Grill The bar is known for its peanut butter cheeseburgers, but you’ll find plenty of other options, too. tbocks.com
B&B on Broadway The 1910 home’s five guest rooms come with luxe baths and organic breakfasts. The location in Decorah’s historic district is near shopping, restaurants and other attractions. bandbonbroadway.com
Hotel Winnishiek The lobby’s terrazzo floors, marble walls and cherry woodwork set the tone for the elegantly restored 1905 hotel, which has 34 rooms and suites in the heart of downtown. hotelwinn.com
For information: Winneshiek County Convention and Visitors Bureau (800) 463-4692; visitdecorah.com