This Midwest Town Feels Like a Trip to The Netherlands

Windmills and holiday markets much closer than Europe.

You’ve seen the Instagrams: the fields of rainbow-hued tulips, the gigantic swirling windmills, the stacks of warm, almond-y pastries, and the winding canals and quaint streets full of cyclists. Only in The Netherlands can you… no, wait. Those Instagrams are from Pella, Iowa.

Less than an hour southeast of Des Moines, Pella is one of the best slices of Europe you’ll find stateside. (And the flight sure is a lot cheaper and shorter than its Dutch counterpart.) The town’s massive gardens, historic architecture, cuisine, festivals, and events all come Dutch-inspired, making the city today a true “Pella,” a name that refers to a biblical city of refuge. Step foot here, and you’ll have a hard time arguing otherwise. Plus, the town throws a December holiday festival that’s down right transportive to a merry, magical world. Like the Danish hygge, take a look at how this 10,000-person town packs in some serious gezellig comfort, and not just during Tulip Time.

Jaarsma Bakery
Not donut holes, banketletters / Dutch letters. | Jaarsma Bakery

Wander canals while eating every Dutch pastry possible

When you get into Pella, do two things: grab a banketletter pastry—”Dutch letters” to us Americans—at Vander Ploeg Bakery or Jaarsma Bakery, both Dutchin’ it up since the 1800s. (You could also go for a strudel or a four-dozen sampler, delivered to wherever you’re staying.) Then ask around about how the town came to be so itself. The locals all know: In the 1840s, around 700–800 Dutch immigrants made their way to central Iowa, in an attempt to escape religious persecution. You’ll probably get the lowdown and then some, and maybe even in Pella Dutch, a dialect based on South Guelderish. Many descendants of the original townspeople still live in Pella, and they wear their heritage with pride.

After your Dutch letter is long gone, stroll down Franklin Street to the Vermeer Windmill, the tallest working grain windmill in the US, shipped directly from The Netherlands. Take the guided tour and you’ll learn about how some old-school windmills grind grain or spices, while others drain water to keep land from flooding. When you’re done, climb up to the observation deck for a bird’s-eye view of Little Holland. The Historical Village is made up of 22 buildings, including the Werkplaats, where wooden shoes are made; a pioneer-replica sod house and log cabin; and, somehow, the boyhood home of Wild West gunfighter Wyatt Earp.

Then it’s time to wander some canals. On Molengracht Plaza—an authentic Dutch square or amazing imitation, you decide—you’ll find a shop-lined canal and promenade fit for Amsterdam. Make time for The Wijn House, a shop dedicated to Iowa wines and many free tastings. Leave lots of room for Dutchfix, probably the only Dutch drive-thru restaurant in the country. Try the poffertjes (Dutch pancakes), stroopwafels, and oliebollen (Dutch beignets), at the very least; and eye the Dutch taco (Pella bologna and Doritos) or raw herring, if you’re feeling gutsy. Dutchfix also offers goodies from nearby Ulrich’s Meat Market and Frisian Farms Cheese. If you’re Dutched out by now, head to Smokey Row Coffee for a caffeinated pick-me-up or cheeseburger chowder in a bread bowl.

pella
You’d almost think tulips were native to Iowa. | Flickr/Phil Roeder

Submerge yourself in a flower festival

There’s no better time to be in Pella than Tulip Time. Always in early May, the town erupts in hundreds of thousands of tulips throughout the super-strollable gardens—the town also erupts in thousands of tourists, so come early. The flowers are known to bloom for a week or so both before and after the three-day festival, if you’re looking for the blooms without the crowds.

But come during Tulip Time, and you’ll see that Pella was holding out on just how Dutch they can get. The streets fill with bonnets, klompen (wooden shoes), dancers, concerts, and sweet and savory aromas wafting through the streets. Don’t miss the Volks Parade and the crowning of the year’s Tulip Queen.

And then there’s the actual tulips: scout out some Instagrammable blooms in the city’s Central Park on “Tulip Avenue.” There’s also a great display at Klokkenspel Plaza (check out the musical carillon clock, of course) and the nearby shoe-shaped Sunken Gardens, which comes with its own cute windmill overlooking the water. Fair Haven Memorial Garden clocks in another 13,000-some blooms to take in, but it’s a tiny slice of what the town plants every year: 300,000 tulips in every shade Mother Nature could dream.

pella
All of Pella turns up the cute around the holidays. | Visit Pella, Iowa

Lose yourself in outdoor holiday markets

If waiting till May to get your Dutch fix is just too damn long, Pella also knows how to throw a European holiday celebration. Kerstmarkt, on the pretty Molengracht Plaza, is a traditional Dutch winter market, running for three days in early December. Come for the Christmas Tour of Homes or just to grab some cocoa and scope out the vendors, wandering beneath the soft glow of holiday lights. Expect plenty of Dutch goodies, like pannekoeken (puff pancakes), fresh gouda cheese, live music, decorations, arts and crafts, and—most importantly—an excuse to get bundled up for some serious Dutch gezellig.

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Jacqueline Kehoe is a writer, photographer, and geology geek. See her work on Instagram at @j.kehoe.