Two small towns in Iowa — Elk Horn and Kimballton — combined forces to draw more visitors to the area by highlighting a shared heritage. Long ago, Danish immigrants settled in rural southwest Iowa, and traces of their impact on the area remain today. Here are a few things I recommend seeing if you’re planning a visit to the Danish Villages.
I visited during a festival weekend when I knew the exact hours businesses and attractions would be open. Hours are often limited when it comes to small businesses and nonprofits, so check ahead of your visit to be sure the places you want to go to will be open.
Immerse yourself in Danish-American history
I recommend starting your trip at the Museum of Danish America in Elk Horn. The beautiful building features several permanent exhibits and details the journey of the Danish immigrant. You’ll appreciate the places you visit in the Danish Villages more if you know a bit more of their history.
The museum has some spaces dedicated to children, including a LEGO building area (naturally). In the basement, there’s a small kid’s corner to play in. The museum’s visual storage is also in the basement and it’s pretty interesting to look at with the kids.
During Julefest in November, the museum has several activities and live musical performances.
Bedstemor’s House (Grandmother’s House) is not too far from the museum, and a nice little extra stop to see a well-preserved home of 20th century Danish immigrants. It’s not a huge home, so it won’t take a lot of time to walk through all the rooms.
As far as historic homes go, I’ve visited others with a lot more stories to them. There isn’t a whole lot to Bedstemor’s House, except for the tale of why it was built: The businessman Jens Otto Christiansen built the home as an engagement gift for the woman he hoped to marry. She turned him down.
1. Museum of Danish America, 2212 Washington St., Elk Horn, Iowa
2. Bedstemor’s House, 2105 College St., Elk Horn, Iowa
Climb the Danish Windmill
It’s hard to miss the large Danish Windmill when you first enter Elk Horn, and it’s entirely understandable if it is your first stop because of it. It’s got an interesting story to it, and you can learn about that during a brief tour (yes, you get to climb up much of the interior of the windmill). It was one Iowa man’s hair-brain idea that resulted in the 60-foot smock windmill from Nørre Snede, Denmark, traveling across the world to be rebuilt in Elk Horn.
There’s a small fee to tour the windmill. If you visit during a holiday weekend, tour fees may be waived, as was the case when I was there during Julefest.
3. 1848 Danish Windmill, 4038 Main St., Elk Horn, Iowa
Shop for a souvenir
While you’re at the Danish Windmill, you’ll be tempted to browse the connected shop. You’ll find Danish souvenirs, books, Hygge goodies, foods and drinks there, as well as many Iowa-made items. I bought some delicious cider from a nearby cidery while we were there.
If you’re hoping to buy some Danish Kringle while you’re in town, you’ll likely find some made by The Kringle Man for sale inside the shop at the windmill.
The complex around the windmill has some interesting places to see. One I liked was the Old Danish Workshop, where you can purchase handmade items like bird houses and wooden toys.
Beyond the complex, there are a few shops along Main Street, as well. There’s also the Design Shop inside the Museum of Danish America, which has some great souvenirs and gifts.
4. Danish Windmill Shop, 4038 Main St., Elk Horn, Iowa
5. Old Danish Workshop, 2104 Elm St., Elk Horn, Iowa
Enjoy drinks and good food
Just outside of town, there’s a winery beckoning you to visit. Sample some sweet wines at Danish Countryside Vines & Wines.
If you’re more inclined to have a beer, and maybe a meal, I liked The Norse Horse Tavern in Elk Horn. It’s a bar & grill that embraces the Danish Village vibe, and it has a few Iowa craft beers on tap.
Larsen’s Pub is also located in Elk Horn, and while I haven’t visited this popular restaurant, it is ranked on several lists, including 12 Unforgettable Iowa Restaurants. It’s most known for its pork tenderloin sandwich, which topped the Iowa Pork Producers Association’s 2021 best list.
6. Danish Countryside Vines & Wines, 1398 280th St., Exira, Iowa
7. Norse Horse Tavern, 4224 Main St., Elk Horn, Iowa
8. Larsen’s Pub, 4206 Main St., Elk Horn, Iowa
Look for The Little Mermaid
Kimballton is smaller than Elk Horn, but don’t skip out on a visit because the Danish Village’s iconic sculpture garden is there. Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid & Sculpture Garden is tucked in Kimballton City Park. It includes a fountain featuring a replica of the famous Little Mermaid statue of Copenhagen, as well as several smaller statues depicting various tales written by Andersen.
9. Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid & Sculpture Garden, 214 N. Main St., Kimballton, Iowa
Attend a festival in the Danish Villages
Elk Horn and Kimballton plan several events throughout the year, but to two big events are Tivoli Fest, held annually over Memorial Day Weekend, and Julefest held weekend after Thanksgiving. Tivoli Fest is a full celebration of all-things-Danish with food, live music and dancing, a beer garden, and more.
Julefest kicks off the holiday season. Admission to attractions is free during the weekend, and decorations are festively found throughout the town. Even the Little Mermaid fountain area gets into the festive mood.
10. Tivoli Fest is held annually on the Friday and Saturday of Memorial Day Weekend
11. Julefest is held annually on the first Friday and Saturday after Thanksgiving