This Unique Town In Iowa Is An Overlooked Gem That's Like The Netherlands In America

A trip to the Netherlands from the U.S. can be expensive and, depending on where you're departing from, requires at least a seven-hour flight. Thankfully, you can get a taste of the European destination without even leaving the country. Book a flight or plan a road trip to Pella, Iowa, a hidden gem bursting with Dutch character.

The town may be in the middle of nowhere — it's a 50-minute drive from Des Moines and nearly two hours away from Cedar Rapids — but that might explain how Pella has maintained its unique European charm for so long, making it one of the best Midwest cities for history buffs. It was established in the 1840s after a group of Dutch pilgrims left the Netherlands in search of a new home where they could freely practice their religion. These settlers played an important role in building the town and shaping its culture.

Today, you'll find sights similar to those seen in Dutch cities such as Amsterdam or Delft. There are traditional windmills, a man-made canal, a Dutch-style bascule bridge, and tulips in the parks. Some of the buildings in the town center also have the Netherlands' characteristic decorative façades, with painted window shutters and curved gable roofs. Everywhere you look is a photogenic scene, and the only thing giving away its Midwest location might be the big American cars and the notable lack of Dutch bike lanes.

What to do on a trip to Pella, Iowa

Pella makes for a great day trip in Iowa, though you could easily spend a few days in the little Dutch-inspired town. Regardless of how long you stay, make sure to visit the town's windmills. Start at the Vermeer Windmill, the tallest working windmill in the U.S. If you purchase an entrance ticket, you'll receive a full tour of the five floors, where you'll learn the ins and outs of how Dutch windmills work. Other windmills can be spotted at Sunken Gardens Park and Brinkhoff Park.

Just around the corner from Vermeer Windmill is the Pella Historical Village, a series of buildings showcasing the town's earliest days. Visit the log cabin, general store, Amsterdam School, and other historical structures, each with their own Dutch flair. Scholte House, the preserved 19th-century home of a Dutch family, is another museum worth a stop. These attractions might not be as robust as Amsterdam's Museum Quarter, but they're a fascinating way to learn more about Pella and the lives of early Dutch settlers.

Near the center of Pella, you'll find the Molengracht Canal, a channel of water reminiscent of those found all over Holland. One block north is the Klokkenspel, an old clock with daily performances. After doing some exploring, be sure to make time for food. Dutchfix is a must for frites, bitterballen, and other Dutch foods, and Frisian Farms Cheese House is worth the 15-minute drive for authentic Gouda cheese.

When to visit Iowa's Little Netherlands

Pella, Iowa's quaint Dutch features and attractions are charming all year round, but there are two periods each year where the town most comes to life. The first is in the spring during the annual Tulip Time Festival. It's a great opportunity to see the tulips blooming (Central Park is one of the best spots in Pella for colorful, blooming tulips), as well as participate in Dutch festivities and munch on delicious street food. Plan your trip around the Volks Parade to catch the floats, marching band, and fireworks.

Christmas is another magical time in Pella. Of course, the holiday looks a bit different in the Iowa town compared to other American cities. In Pella, you'll discover a Dutch-style Christmas market, along with a celebration of Sinterklaas — a holiday inspired by the Netherlands' version of Santa Claus — in early December. In true Dutch fashion, there are also indoor activities to partake in (after all, the Netherlands can be quite cold and gloomy in December!). Check out the Christmas Tour of Homes, a chance to peek inside houses elaborately decorated for the holidays.