Get A Taste Of Europe In The Midwest's Troll Capital Of The World

A few years ago, you may have called Mount Horeb, Wisconsin, a sleepy mountain town. But with its growing food scene, main street shopping, and plentiful winter activities, it's unlikely to remain a hidden gem for too much longer. If you're planning on visiting the Madison or Milwaukee area, Mount Horeb is an easy day trip by car worth folding into your itinerary.

Upon arriving, the first thing you'll notice is the European influence. When the area was first settled in the 1800s, the majority of inhabitants were from Norway. One of the ways the town honors its heritage is by drawing inspiration from some Old World folklore. Within a few minutes of poking around, you'll spot 36 life-size wooden trolls spaced around the streets. They are said to guard the kind residents and beautiful natural surroundings.

The troll theme started in the 1970s when the shopkeeper at Open House Imports, a Scandinavian gift store, set out a few wooden trolls on the lawn to entice travelers to stop off the main road and shop for a while. When a highway was built to go around the town, many locals feared it could dampen the economy. They enlisted the help of a local woodcarver to create more trolls and renamed the main street "the Trollway." Mount Horeb has since dubbed itself the troll capital of the world, and it's well deserved. You can grab a map from any shop and go "troll hunting" yourself to find them all.

Troll hunting and the Scandihoovian festival

Trolls aside, there are still more nods toward northern Europe scattered around town. The residents' heritage is celebrated with Scandinavian architecture in the downtown area and a handful of restaurants dedicated to fare from across the pond, like Sjölinds Chocolate House for cafe favorites and sweet desserts or Skal Public House for a pint of beer, Norske-style. In fact, it's not uncommon to see signs around town that greet you with "Velkommen," the Norwegian word for welcome.

The homage to Europe doesn't end there. Each winter, residents put on the Scandihoovian Winter Festival to celebrate the town's Scandinavian roots. It has become a tradition for attendees to show up in red pointed hats, the same style worn by elf-like creatures called "nisse" in Norway's folklore. From February 9 to 11, 2024, the free festival events will include an ice-sculpting competition, a bake-off, and turkey bowling in the snow.

Cave of the Mounds and Tyrol Basin

Beyond its European influence, there's still plenty to do around Mount Horeb. If you think trolls are weird, wait until you see the nearby House on the Rock, a museum that feels like a maze with endless antiques. It's a short trip to the Cave of the Mounds, which offers daily guided or self-guided tours through limestone caves, which stay cool at a comfortable 50 degrees no matter when you decide to visit. You'll follow the lighted pathway underground and take in fascinating rock formations and crystals, with signs about the history and geology along the way.

During winter, there are plenty of ways to enjoy Mount Horeb's beautiful landscape. Tyrol Basin is perfect for hitting the slopes on your skis, snowboard, or snow tube. There are also three county parks and one state park in the area that provide an idyllic backdrop for all your cross-country skiing and snowshoeing adventures. Round out your day in the great outdoors with a hearty dinner and handcrafted beer at — where else? — the Grumpy Troll Brewpub.