This Midwest Town Feels Like a Trip to Old Europe
Dutch windmills, holiday markets, and tulip festivals—right in America’s heartland.
When you see the rows of rainbow-hued tulips, gigantic swirling windmills, winding canals, and streets overtaken by cyclists, you’ll immediately think you’ve landed somewhere in the Netherlands. And despite the stacks of warm pastries lining the shelves of Dutch bakeries, no, you’re not in Amsterdam—you haven’t even left the US.
Less than an hour southeast of Des Moines, Pella, Iowa, is one of the best slices of Europe you’ll find stateside. (And the flight is a lot cheaper and shorter than its Dutch counterpart.) Everything here from the historic architecture to the food and festivals all take on a Dutch theme, making the city a true “Pella,” a name that refers to a biblical city of refuge. Walk around here and you’ll have a hard time arguing otherwise.
This mini Dutch outpost hidden away in the Midwest has all the elements to feel nearly identical to the Netherlands—down to a December holiday market and flower festival. 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.
Wander enchanting canals while eating every Dutch pastry possible
When you get into Pella, grab a banketletter (S-shaped pastry filled with almond paste that’s traditionally eaten in December) 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, brought in 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, set off and wander the 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’s wines with 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.
Indulge in traditional treats at the holiday market
If waiting until May to get your Dutch fix is too long, Pella also knows how to throw a European holiday celebration. Kerstmarkt, on pretty Molengracht Plaza, is a traditional Dutch winter market that runs for three days in early December. Come for the Christmas Tour of Homes (which coincides with the market) 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.
And come spring, get your flower fix at a tulip festival
There’s no better time to be in Pella than Tulip Time. Held 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 are filled with bonnets, klompen (wooden shoes), dancers, and concerts. Don’t miss the Volks Parade and the crowning of the year’s Tulip Queen.
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.