The Midwest was a popular region for European immigrants to settle in the 1800s and early 1900s because the terrain and weather reminded many people of their home countries. With northern Plains states, such as North Dakota, South Dakota, and Minnesota popular with Scandinavians, while Danish and Dutch immigrants preferred Iowa and Nebraska. Germans often liked Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ohio as areas to settle. Regardless of the reasons, European settlers brought with them traditions, culture, and celebrations that continue today. Visiting European-style cities in the Midwest may make you think you’re in Europe, all without having to bring a passport.
New Ulm, Minnesota
The German town in south-central Minnesota loves celebrating its heritage. With the country’s second-oldest family-owned brewery, Schell Brewery enjoys recognizing its German heritage with beers reminiscent of the homeland, as well as cultural celebrations.
With a downtown bearing buildings with German architecture, you’ll find a Glockenspiel at one end of the street. More than 40 years old, the 45-foot-tall clock features an animatronic three-member polka band that performs each hour during the afternoon, while 12 German characters rotate on a platform under the clock.
Shop like you’re in Germany at Domeier’s German Store and Guten Tag Haus, each featuring authentic German products, including chocolate, nutcrackers, and steins. Head to Hermann Park and climb the stairs to the Hermann Monument, where you can stand at the feet of Hermann the Cheruscan statue that stands 102 feet above ground.
Tulip Time may be the best time to visit Pella, as the Iowa city celebrates its Dutch history each May with games, music, food, and a parade. Open year-round, you’ll want to check out the Vermeer Windmill and Molengracht Plaza, with a small canal running through downtown.
A historical village offers a look into the city’s past, including the childhood home of western legend Wyatt Earp. With a klokkenspel providing musical performances four times a day, the Dutch clock anchors a small plaza, with flowers and European-inspired art tiles.
Known as “Michigan’s Little Bavaria,” Frankenmuth’s heritage began when 15 German settlers founded St. Lorenz Lutheran Church, creating a foundation for more than 175 years of Deutsch history. Tour the church and the Church Museum, with German-language headstones on display.
With buildings that transport you to Bavaria, you’ll enjoy touring the town on a horse-drawn carriage, as well as enjoying authentic German food at the town’s restaurants. Christmas is a wonderful time to visit Frankenmuth, but you can shop like it’s Christmas everyday at Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland, self-proclaimed as the world’s largest Christmas store.
Each August, thousands of people gather along Wilber’s main street to watch a two-hour parade celebrating the small town’s Czech history during the annual Czech Festival each August. Bringing in Czech festival queens from around the Midwest, and featuring a marching band of local musicians of all ages, the parade is a fun-filled event. It’s one of Nebraska’s must-see festivals.
However, you can visit the town, about 20 minutes outside of Lincoln, anytime of the year, visiting the Czech history museum, with displays of folk costumes, home exhibits, and photos. Stop by the local market for a kolache before strolling around town, taking in the Czech-influenced murals and buildings.
Enjoy a taste of Italy with a visit to Niles, where you’ll find a half-sized replica of the Leaning Tower of Pisa at a plaza surrounded by shops and restaurants. Standing 94 feet tall and 28 feet in diameter, the tower, which leans about 7.5 feet, was constructed in 1934 to cover a water tank.
Named to the National Register of Historic Places in 2019, The Leaning Tower of Niles is a must-see when in the small city, about an hour northwest of Chicago.
Cedar Rapids, Iowa
Czech and Slovak immigrants began arriving in the Cedar Rapids area in the early 1850s. Looking for a new home, they settled in the area as shopkeepers, farmers, and, later, homesteaders. You can learn about Czech and Slovak history at the National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library. The museum features historical exhibits exploring the immigrants’ stories, as well as special exhibits.
You can also enjoy shopping and restaurants at the Czech Village and New Bohemia Main Street District.
Minot, North Dakota
North Dakota’s terrain reminded Scandinavian immigrants of their homes in Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, and Iceland. Immigrants from the five countries found their way to northern Minnesota and North Dakota.
Minot is home to the Scandinavian Heritage Park, which features exhibits from each country, including a statue of Leif Erikson and a Finnish sauna. Learn about two Norwegians who played major roles in downhill skiing, including improvements to the sport’s equipment and techniques.
A Norwegian Stave church celebrates the transition from Norse religion to Christianity. Check out the colorful dala horse, which is one of the largest in the world. Minot is home of the annual Norsk Hostfest, an international Scandinavian festival held each September.
A visit to Hermann takes you back to 19th century Germany, with stone and brick buildings hugging the Missouri River. Explore the area’s German history during a visit to Deutschheim State Historic State, where you’ll walk among buildings dating back to the 1840s, as well as visit a vineyard with some of the original grapevines planted in the area. Enjoy tours of the wineries and breweries in the city.
Elk Horn, Iowa
Home to a 19th century windmill imported from Denmark, Elk Horn celebrates its Danish ancestry with a small museum inside the windmill, as well as a garden walk with sculptures of Hans Christian Andersen and other attractions. Learn the stories of Danish immigrants to western Iowa and eastern Nebraska at the Museum of Danish America.
Elk Horn was once the site of one of the country’s most successful folk schools (similar to a high school). While in Elk Horn, visit the Viking longhouse, which is an authentic replica of a Scandinavian home. Elk Horn celebrates its culture during the Tivoli Fest each Memorial Day weekend. Head to nearby Kimballton to check out the Hans Christian Andersen sculpture garden at the Little Mermaid water fountain.
Experience Dutch life during a visit to Holland. From watching wooden shoes made by hand to learning to Klompen dance in those shoes, you’ll get a firsthand lesson in what life may have been like in The Netherlands more than a century ago at Nelis’ Dutch Village. The theme park resembles a Dutch village and includes a variety of rides and attractions that will impress the entire family.
Learn about Holland’s history, as well as view an amazing art collection at the Holland Museum. With more than 100,000 tulips, a walk through Windmill Islands Gardens offers beautiful views during spring. Stroll to DeZwaan, an authentic Dutch windmill.
Immerse yourself in Holland’s Dutch culture during its weeklong Tulip Time Festival each May, featuring artisan markets, a carnival midway, and other festivities.
New Glarus, Wisconsin
Nicknamed “America’s Little Switzerland,” New Glarus was founded in 1845 by about 100 Swiss immigrants, because the southern Wisconsin area reminded them of their homeland. Today, the town is popular with tourists from all over, including Switzerland, because of its chalet-style architecture, history museums celebrating the town’s Swiss ancestry and art, brewery, and railroad depot.
Download a map and search for 16 decorated cows around town, based on an exhibit in Zurich, Switzerland.
German Village, Ohio
Located south of downtown Columbus, German Village was settled by Germans during the mid-1800s. Today, you can enjoy a walk around the area, taking in the German architecture and history.
Grab an authentic bite at restaurants such as Alpine restaurant and Schmidt’s. Modeled after Munich’s classic Hofbrauhaus, Columbus is home to the Hofbrauhaus Columbus Brewery and Restaurant, where you can tour a brewery based on Bavarian beer and then enjoy a delicious German-style meal, such as schnitzel or a bratwurst.
With a downtown resembling a quaint Swedish village, it’s easy to see why Lindsborg is called “Little Sweden USA.” Buildings have exteriors using Swedish design and bright colors. Dala horses are on parade, with several lining the main street, as well as surrounding areas.
Lindsborg is home to outstanding art exhibits and history at the Birger Sandzen Memorial Gallery and Red Barn Studio, as well as downtown galleries. A few miles outside of town, visit Coronado Heights Park and its castle, while learning the stories of Spanish conquistadors who made their way as far north as Kansas in search of gold.
Before leaving Lindsborg, stop by Hemslojd for Swedish souvenirs. You can also watch artists paint dala horse signs for homes.
(On a fairly related note, while we’re in Kansas, there’s a green B&B called Casa Somerset that looks straight out of Italy.)
From Sweden to Germany to Switzerland, and beyond, the Midwest is home to amazing communities that proudly share their European heritage. Their stories are told through attractions, such as windmills and museums, food, and festivals.
Friday 10th of December 2021
Please include Decorah Iowa in your update as it is a truly great place with Norwegian heritage galore!
Tuesday 14th of December 2021
You're right! I forgot Decorah. I remember trying some tasty rosette, lefse, kringla and sandbakkal while there.