The city of Pella is one of America’s true hidden gems, tucked away in the heart of the Midwest. Founded in 1847 by settlers from the Netherlands, this little town has maintained its cultural ties. Now, it puts on one of the premier tulip festivals in the entire United States each year. Every spring, hundreds of thousands of visitors flock to this little Iowa town to catch its Dutch heritage in action during the annual Tulip Time festival.
While rural Iowa may sound a bit out of the way, Pella is actually very accessible. So accessible, in fact, that the festival hosts visitors from all over the country, ranging from the Northeast all the way to California. This post will highlight everything to know about visiting the Tulip Time Festival in Pella, IA including the best things to do, what to eat, and other tips to make your trip as memorable as possible.
When Is Tulip Time in Pella, Iowa?
Tulip Time occurs every year in early May, as this is when all of the tulips are supposed to be in full bloom. The exact dates of the festival range a bit, but it is usually the first Thursday, Friday, and Saturday in May. For information about visiting Pella and the Tulip Time Festival, head to Visit Pella’s website.
We advise arriving a couple of days before, or staying a few days after the festival. The festival draws in massive crowds, and the town has an entirely different feel when the streets are only occupied by Pella residents. To get a true Pella experience, you should see the town at its busiest and on a normal day!
Best Things to Do at Tulip Time in Pella, Iowa
1. Chow Down on the Best Food in Pella
Tulips might be the namesake, but the food is the true highlight of Pella’s Tulip Time. During Tulip Time, the town is bursting at the seams with great food. It is mostly served up by local schools, churches, and community organizations.
Some of the food can be found year-round. For example, Jaarsma Bakery bakes its mouthwatering Dutch Letters all year and Ulrich Meat Market makes its famous Pella Bologna year-round as well. Dutchfix is open throughout the year, too, serving its Poffertjes, Gouda Burgers, and Bitterballen.
However, other foods can only be found during Tulip Time. Since many of the food vendors are local churches and organizations, they only set up when the massive crowds are in town.
Among the foods that you really need to try are the Poffertjes served by the Pella Kiwanis Club, the Dutch Stack, Vetbollen in front of the Vermeer Windmill, and the Romanian Sausage served by the Orthodox Church. For other sweet treats, you won’t want to miss Vander Ploeg Bakery.
2. Visit the Pella Historical Village and Ascend the Vermeer Windmill
A couple blocks down the main street from the central park you can find the Pella Historical Village and the famous Vermeer Windmill. These two sites are both managed by the Pella Historical Society, which is a great organization that works hard to preserve Pella’s history and Dutch heritage.
The Pella Historical Village is filled with historic buildings that resemble a Dutch town. From the Blacksmith’s shop and General Store to the Bakery and the famous Wyatt Earp’s boyhood home, this is a highlight of Pella that absolutely should not be missed.
The Vermeer Windmill is also found here. This is the largest functioning windmill in the Americas, and the views from up top are the best views in town. If you are visiting during Tulip Time, be sure to get a windmill entrance time at the entrance of the Historic Village.
3. Attend a Parade Down Franklin Street
Franklin Street is the main drag in Pella, and it is a part of the Tulip Time parade route. There are parades at 2:30 and 8:00 every day, and the parades are filled with locals dressed in Dutch Attire partaking in old Dutch traditions. From street scrubbing to pushing babies in antique carriages, the parades are among the best examples of Dutch culture in Pella.
While you could sit anywhere on the parade route, Franklin Street was our favorite place. There are several great stores and cafes there, the sidewalks are very wide, and the crowds tended to be a bit smaller than compared to around the central park.
4. Experience Live Music and Dutch Dancing in the Street
People in Pella really cling to their Dutch roots. Almost anywhere you go during the iconic Pella tulip festival you can find Dutch Dancers performing a set of traditional songs. These groups sing and dance in traditional Dutch costumes, and they are free to watch.
The truly amazing thing is that they do it all while wearing clogs! Clogs are large wooden shoes, and they seem to be very uncomfortable. But the dancers manage to perform just fine in them, and clogs were actually the original tap shoes!
The ages of the Dutch Dancers range from toddlers to old folks. One of our favorite groups consisted of a bunch of high school girls who performed several sets throughout the weekend.
5. Attend the Dutch Dinner at Central College
You can’t attend the Pella Tulip Time Festival without attending the Dutch dinner show at Central College. This exclusive dinner is hosted each night of the annual festival, and tickets tend to sell out a while in advance. While the food served on the streets is very good, the meal served at Central College is mouthwatering.
The dinner consisted of several authentic and delicious Dutch foods, as well as live entertainment by a group of over 20 Dutch Dancers. Central College is within walking distance of Pella’s downtown area, making it a convenient place to try delicious food and make new friends – especially if the forecast calls for cold weather!
6. Admire the Scholte House Gardens
The Scholte House is one of the oldest buildings in Pella, as it was built right as the town was first settled. Exploring the house itself is enjoyable, but the house’s gardens are where the real magic is.
The Scholte House Gardens are filled with beautiful tulips of every variety. While Pella doesn’t have the sprawling fields of tulips (Tulip Toren in Dutch) that some other towns have, it has endless flower beds filled with thousands of colorful tulips of just about every variety. Pella imports its tulip bulbs directly from the Netherlands, and the sheer amount of varieties that they plant is breathtaking.
Since the town receives so many orders, they fulfill them all a few months after the conclusion of the festival.
7. Take a Tractor Tour of the Town
While it isn’t the most exciting thing to do during Tulip Time, it is probably the first thing you should do. Throughout each day of Tulip Time, there are tours of the town available for about $8. The tours start on Franklin St. just off of the central park.
The tours are very relaxing, as you get to sit in a trolley pulled by a large tractor and listen to a local in traditional Dutch clothing talk about their town. The tour takes visitors to all of the top sights through the town’s streets, including a few further off-the-beaten-path spots like Fair Haven Memorial Garden, Tuttle Cabin, and Sunken Gardens Park. We made the mistake of waiting to do this tour until the last day of Tulip Time, and we recommend doing it as early as possible to get the pay of the land.
8. Check Out the Vendors at West Market Park
West Market Park is a local park on the west side of town. During Tulip Time, this area is loaded with a wide variety of shopping delights, as vendors rent out space to sell their goods. Ranging from food and clothing to decorations and stationery, the park becomes a sort of Dutch craft market that should absolutely be checked out.
9. Visit the Tuttle Log Cabin
The Tuttle Log Cabin is the oldest building in Pella. Built in 1843, it was once the only thing standing in the entire area. It is now a great place to learn historical information about the town and its origins.
Like most of the major attractions in Pella, it is walkable from the center of town. While it is a little bit of a hike from the central square, it can totally be reached by foot and is a place you don’t want to miss while visiting Pella.
10. Head to the Windmill at Sunken Garden Park
Just a short walk away from the Tuttle Log Cabin is Sunken Garden Park. This park is a small, quiet place where you can relax and enjoy the town’s tranquility. There is a medium-sized windmill here, a large pond shaped like a Dutch clog, and plenty of flower beds filled with tulips.
Entrance is free, as it is just a public space. It is also within walking distance of the center of the town. While the windmill is nowhere near the size of the Vermeer Windmill, it is a great place for pictures!
How to Get to Pella, IA
How to Get Around Pella, IA
Pella is a very small town. Its population is just over 10,000, and most of the best things to do are within walking distance of each other. If you are staying at a hotel right in the town, you will be able to walk to just about all of the best things to do in Pella.
If you are staying at one of the hotels a couple of miles outside of the town, or if you are staying in Des Moines, your best bet is to drive in and park for free anywhere in town. We never had an issue finding parking within a few blocks of the central square…even during Tulip Time. If all of the free parking is full, there are several houses and businesses that provide parking for around $5 near Central College, which is about a 5-10 minute walk from the central square.
Can You Use Credit Cards at Tulip Time in Pella?
Pella’s Tulip Time is very credit card friendly. I heard that in the past it wasn’t this way, and Tulip Time was mostly a cash-only event. However, that has mostly changed, and the vast majority of stores, restaurants, and street vendors accept credit cards and Apple Pay.
If you do come across the need for cash while in Pella, there are several banks and ATMs that you can use. Most of them are local Midwestern banks, but we did find a Wells Fargo ATM on Washington St.
What Is a Dutch Letter?
Dutch Letters are an authentic Dutch pastry that is usually served around Christmas. They are made by rolling pastry dough, filling it with an almond paste, and then forming it into the shape of a letter.
Pella’s Dutch Letters are all in the shape of an S. This stands for Sinterklaas, or Santa Claus in Dutch. This is fitting, as they are traditionally served in Holland around Christmas time!
Is Pella Worth Visiting?
When we booked our trip to Pella, we weren’t sure exactly what to expect. The town looked adorable, but we had to spend 5 hours on an airplane to get there. Des Moines has a pretty small airport, and there aren’t too many cities that can access it without at least one layover.
As soon as we arrived in Pella, we knew we had made the right choice. The town truly blew us away, and our opinion of it only continued to go up the more time we spent there. While it isn’t quite as Dutch as Amsterdam, it is shockingly similar in many ways!
The town is loaded with small businesses, and all of the owners are very friendly. The tulips are gorgeous, and the town honestly feels like it was picked up straight from the Netherlands and dropped in the middle of Iowa. We have been to the Netherlands several times, and this town is probably as European as you can get in the United States.
If you’re thinking about visiting Tulip Time in Pella, you probably should. If it sounds even remotely interesting to you, it is probably worth your while. As a young family with a love of foreign food and culture, Pella was the perfect weekend trip and we plan to return again in the future!
After reading about it how can you not want to take the whole family to Pella’s Tulip Time?!
Comment if you’re headed to Pella next spring!