When I say this place blew me away I’m not kidding. I have enjoyed my time visiting Iowa’s state parks and exploring its larger towns such as Iowa City. The me of last month would never guess that my favorite Iowa experience would be in a little town called Pella…And yet it was – so let me tell you about the Pella Tulip Festival Experience.
Parades, Dutch food, organ recitals, museums, history, and of course the tulips. Keep reading to learn everything about how Mohave the best Pella Tulip Festival experience.
Where is Pella?
Pella is a small town that can be found in south-central Iowa. The town population numbers just 10,000 and was founded in the 1850s by Dutch immigrants.
Pella is about an hour away from Des Moines and the only way to reach it is via car. Other than Pella, there is not too much else to do in this area, although Lake Red Rock has a pretty cool observation tower.
I would also recommend adding Pella to your Iowa or US road trip even if you can’t make it for the Pella Tulip Festival experience. The tulips really are just the cherry on top of an all round awesome place to visit. In fact, when you’re distracted by the festivities, it’s easy to miss out on some things Pella has to offer.
What is the Pella Tulip Festival Experience?
Officially called “Tulip Time” this festival is almost 100 years old! Starting in 1936, it didn’t even have any tulips – those would have to be planted that year to be enjoyed at the second festival.
Tulips are frequently associated with the Dutch and The Netherlands – perhaps you’ve even heard of the Tulip Mania that resulted in one of the most famous market bubbles in history. So it makes sense that a town full of Dutch immigrants would want to bring a little bit of home festivities to liven up the corn fields.
This festival takes place over three days, Thursday through Saturday. It is typically held in May. During that time you can expect to see many tulips, eat Dutch food, and engage in a variety of fun activities.
What to See in Pella
These sites are available year round, so if you can’t make it to the festival, or want to experience Pella in a more relaxed situation, these are the things to see. Of course, they are also available during the festival! But be sure to book tickets ahead for the museums as they tend to sell out.
This 124 foot working windmill is the tallest working windmill in the United States. And, you can take tours to see the inside and learn how important these windmills were and how they work. It’s also beautiful, and the flags attached to its blades can be seen from many different vantage points, floating above the town.
Tickets are $15 during non-festival time, and $20 during the Tulip Time Festival.
The Scholte family are the original founders of Pella. Hendrik, the leader of the secessionist movement from The Netherlands, built the house (which is over 175 years old!). The museum is a fascinating look into the changes Pella saw over the decades. Descendants of the family still live in the area today!
Tickets are $15 and you can buy ticket combos to other events and museums for a discount.
One of the coolest little things to do in Pella, this working Klokkenspel brings back a time long gone. When the bell rings, eight different mechanical figures emerge to ply their craft. Make sure you start watching from the Main Street side and then run over to the other side to see the second half.
An underrated museum in Pella, it is only accessible via an arranged appointment ahead of time. Still, it’s worth some planning ahead if you enjoy history. It’s 150 years old and its where the children of Pella went to school.
Who knew that the middle of Iowa had so many amazing organists? A dying instrument, it was truly something awe-inspiring to have the music vibrate through your body. Three different masters regaled us with a surprising array of pieces (samba on the organ? Yes, please!). I was shocked there weren’t more people!
One of the oldest buildings in Iowa, it is in absolutely beautiful condition. Looking at how robust the wooden beams are, it’s still difficult to understand how they survived the winter without electricity, but it does make more sense.
Walk Down the Canal
While it may not be a real canal it is a very pretty area to walk in. This area made me feel that Pella is the most European-looking town in Iowa. It’s highly photogenic, peaceful even among the crowds, and adds character to the town.
Best Places to See Tulips in Pella
There are several good spots to see tulips at the Pella Festival – a lot of them that won’t even have crowds! The entire town is dotted with tulips (perhaps it is a requirement to live here?)
This is a bit out of the way of all the other areas and requires a bit of a short drive. I highly, highly recommend visiting earlier in the day due to the stressful driving situation that develops later in the day.
But, it’s very cool to see this local college and the thousands of tulips they plant yearly. Additionally, they have a strong music program and if you attend the organ concert most of the performers will be affiliated with the college.
This is the main area in which to see the tulips, but expect it to be very crowded! If you are interested in purchasing tulip bulbs, they have an area with little plaques and all the names of the different types.
They have some very picturesque arrangements in this area and it’s right in the center of Pella. It’s a lovely area to walk through as you go from place to place.
Fair Haven Memorial Park
This is definitely one of the quieter areas to see the tulips which was given to Pella as a thank-you gift from The Netherlands after their support in WW2. Personally, it’s definitely one of my favorite place that I saw the tulips in.
There is a nice sign that explains some of the history behind the waves of Dutch immigrants to Pella. For some reason, there were far fewer people here so it was extra enjoyable.
Scholte House Gardens
This garden is available year-round with annuals planted after tulip season. This garden is also historical, having originally been planted by Maria Scholte (the wife of Pella’s founder).
If you are planning to visit the museum, you will be able to view the 30,000+ tulips planted here.
One of the loveliest areas in Pella, it was the original location for the tulips during the Tulip Time Festival. There are some amazing photo locations with the flowering trees, the pond, and a windmill. This area is also near the Tuttle Cabin. The walk from the cabin to the garden features some plaques that give a fantastic rundown of the history of how Pella came to be.
Where to Eat at the Pella Tulip Festival
There are several wonderful places to snack at in Pella. My biggest recommendation for your arrival to Pella is to make sure you get your food early. If you’ve bought all of your food by 11AM, you will avoid all of the massive lines later in the day. The cafes tended to have much smaller lines, so supplement your pre-bought food with snacks from the cafes.
Vander Ploeg Bakery
There are two Dutch bakeries in Pella. And despite this being the “less popular” bakery, a lot of people think that this is actually the better bakery overall. I agree, and it will save you the longest lines in the entire town.
Treat yourself to some delicious and flakey cream horns, turnovers, and the famed Dutch Letter pastries. They’re quite inexpensive as well, my order cost around $10 and I bought an entire coffee cake!
The Bread Board
If you’re wanting to buy their delicious sourdough bread, you need to show up early. They sell out of their loaves quite quickly and they will absolutely be gone by 2PM.
If you can’t get a loaf, be sure to try either a sandwich or their bread pudding, which sports that same delicious bread.
This is the more creative coffee house in Pella, but it’s not as cute or as comfortable inside. The good news is, their drinks are easy to carry around. So, it’s good for Tulip Festival time since you’re unlikely to get seating anywhere anyway.
These drinks tend to be fun bubble tea or coffee mixes. I tried the blue chai, which I’m fairly certain had no actual chai in it, but was still delicious.
Brew Coffee House
This has some very casual and classic drinks. Think Starbucks but independent, with good staples done well. There’s a lot more indoor seating, and even some really lovely covered outdoor seating.
If you order a drink iced, just be aware they put a *lot* of ice in, so maybe ask for less.
This place is the one to go to for Dutch “faire-style” food. Think Dutch hotdogs and fried things. You have simply got to try the Bitterballen. This stuff is fried gravy and it is so ridiculously good I regret not ordering two.
I wouldn’t say anything else on the menu is particularly exciting, but it’s a nice option for lunch since the items are portable. It’s definitely extremely overpriced, as well, with each item costing $7-8, but I regret nothing when it comes to the Bitterballen.
In’t Veld’s Meat Market
This is more likely a small specialized grocery store but there are plenty of snackable options to be found here as well. I wish I’d given the boloney a go, or some of the sausage. But I did pick up some of their beef jerky and imported cheese, both of which were delicious.
Things to Book Ahead for the Pella Tulip Festival
You might not think that a festival in Iowa would need things to be booked ahead – and you (and I) would be wrong. This festival gets upwards of 250,000 people each year. Things sell out! Here are the things to plan ahead for if you’re interested:
Maria’s Tea Room
Located in the Scholte House, this is a great opportunity to experience Dutch “Koffie Tijd” or coffee time. Delicious snacks and drinks in a historical setting? What could be better? It does need to be booked ahead via phone at least a month in advance – there is very limited seating and times.
All of the museums get pretty overrun around the time of the Tulip Festival. I highly recommend booking ahead if you don’t want to stand in a very long line/not be able to get in at all.
Dutch Dinner Show
The Dutch Dinner Show does not happen on Saturday of the festival, so you will have to be in town on Thursday or Friday to experience it. The show involves traditional Dutch fare served in a Dutch setting – it’s a fun way to start or continue your festivities.