10 Iowa Small Towns You Must Make The Time To Explore

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By Guest Post

July 5, 2023

If you have found yourself on this page, surely you already know that Iowa is far more than a so-called “flyover state.”

While more than half of the state’s population resides in its urban areas, there’s much more to Iowa than Des Moines, Cedar Rapids/Iowa City, and the Quad Cities.

The state is home to a wide range of rural areas with small-town charm, beautiful panoramic views, and deep history. 

  1. Mount Vernon

If you love natural wonders and picturesque main streets, look no further than Mount Vernon 20 miles east of Cedar Rapids. Though the population is just about 4,500, Mount Vernon’s downtown area is bustling with antiques, fun shops, and dining. Make sure to take a peek at the beautiful historic downtown buildings and at Cornell College. Just outside town is The J. Harold Ennis Preserve, a stunning nature preserve with an easy hike down to the river. As with any nature preserve, make sure to stay on the trails to protect the natural landscape. 

  1. Salem

Salem, Iowa, was a critical part of the Underground Railroad before the Civil War, and the town’s history is still evident today. Visit the Lewelling Quaker Museum to learn about the town’s Quaker abolitionist history, but be sure to carve out some extra time to see the southeast Iowa town’s other great offerings, too; just a walk or drive around the town will reward you with the sight of lots of beautiful old architecture! To wrap up your adventure, make a stop at East Grove Farms, one of only three meaderies in the state, which also has a vineyard and caneyard.

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  1. Mount Pleasant

Mount Pleasant was also a stop on the Underground Railroad and, like Salem, has a rich history of abolition, community education, and Quakerism. But Mount Pleasant, about 30 minutes northwest of Burlington, is also the place to go to dive into our nation’s agricultural and railroad history. Start your day checking out the train depot, then check out the Midwest Central Railroad, which collects and restores historic locomotives and often has fun events where you can see them in action. For more history, check out the Richard E. Oetken Heritage Museum, which covers midwestern agricultural history, and mark your calendar for the yearly Old Threshers’ Reunion, a huge multi-day event featuring steam engines, agricultural equipment, and live entertainment. For an unexpected twist, make sure to visit The Theatre Museum of Repertoire Americana and research library to learn about American theatre history. 

  1. Kalona

Iowa is rich in historic architecture and fun shops, and Kalona is a great place to experience both. Kalona, about 30 minutes southwest of Iowa City, and the surrounding area have a large Amish population. It’s common to see a horse and buggy riding down the road ahead of your car. Make sure to stop by the Kalona Historic Village and, if you’re traveling in a group, check out the historical society’s private countryside tours for a special treat. Come to Kalona hungry and thirsty, too, so you can enjoy Kalona Chocolates, Kalona Coffee House, Kalona Creamery (where you can watch cheese curds being made!), and wrap up your day with a beer at Kalona Brewing

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  1. The Amana Colonies

Amana Colonies Ackerman Winery

Amana, Iowa, is a unique place that’s well worth a visit whether you love shopping, dining, or history. The Amana Colonies were originally founded as a utopian community in the 19th century, and many of the original buildings remain today (some of the descendants of the original families even still work in them!). If you like living history, you can watch people perform a variety of crafts including blacksmithing and cooking, and even ask them questions about their work. You can also enjoy a huge family-style German meal at the Ox Yoke Inn, or purchase gifts (for yourself or others) in the wide variety of shops. One favorite gift is local preserves and country wines in a dizzying array of flavors ranging from peach to dandelion. 

  1. Pella

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You may recognize Pella’s name from your doors and windows, and the famous manufacturer is still housed in its hometown. But the city of Pella itself, originally founded by Dutch immigrants, is equal parts beauty and history, and worth taking time to stop and explore. The Pella Historical Village and Windmill, an unexpected Dutch village in the middle of Iowa’s rolling prairies, is beautiful and offers a chance to learn about the town’s history. Make sure to check out the town’s many other historic places, including the Pella Opera House, the Wyatt Earp experience (he lived here as a boy), and a range of museums and historic houses including the Amsterdam Schoolhouse. Enjoy a snack and beverage at the historic Maria’s Tea Room, and for a burst of beautiful springtime color you won’t want to miss Tulip Time, a festival celebrating Dutch culture that features thousands of stunning tulips each spring. 

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  1. Decorah 

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Speaking of plants, Decorah should be high on every gardener’s list of places to visit. Seed Savers Exchange, one of the country’s premier preservers and sellers of heirloom seeds, is located in Decorah, and you can visit the Heritage Farm to explore the visitor’s center as well as trails that weave around gardens and livestock areas. The Dunning’s Spring Waterfall and Ice Cave is a unique opportunity to visit natural wonders, and the park itself boasts beautiful scenery. Prefer to enjoy your adventures indoors? Make sure to check out the Vesterheim Museum, which includes a Folk Art School, the national Norwegian-American folk art museum and research center. Once you work up an appetite, stop by Rubaiyat or one of the town’s several breweries. 

  1. Winterset

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Located about 40 minutes southwest of Des Moines, Winterset has two claims to fame for film buffs: It’s the birthplace of John Wayne (and current home of the aptly named John Wayne Birthplace & Museum), and is in an area made famous by “Bridges of Madison County.” The covered bridges in Winterset live up to the hype, and a simple online search or a search in your maps app will offer hours of exploration and Instagrammable photo ops! If you aren’t a movie lover, you’ll still find things to love about Winterset, including the Iowa Quilt Museum, and the historic Iowa Theater. Make sure to stop by Winterset City Park too, and the Clark Tower; it was built in the 1920s but looks like it belongs in a Medieval castle.   

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  1. West Branch

Herbert Hoover national historic site

Photo courtesy of the National Park Service

While West Branch, just outside of Iowa, is perhaps best known as the birthplace of President Herbert Hoover, there’s plenty more for history and nature lovers to explore here. Make sure to check out the historic one-room schoolhouse that’s part of the Herbert Hoover National Historic Site, which includes his birth home along with a whole host of structures important to the town’s history. That site alone can take a whole day to explore! For an extra special treat, make sure to visit the tall grass prairie; tall grass used to make up the vast majority of our nation’s prairies, but development and farming practices have almost entirely wiped it out. However, West Branch has preserved a patch of tall grass prairie so you can see these magnificent plants and even schedule a tour with a park ranger to tell you all about them. 

  1. Elk Horn 

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Last but certainly not least is Elk Horn, a town settled by Danish immigrants that still holds on to its roots today. Make sure to visit America’s only working Danish windmill, as well as the Museum of Danish America, where you can visit the turn-of-the-century Bedstemor’s House. The Danish Windmill museum also has a replica Viking home, if you’re interested in stepping even further back in time. Or maybe shopping is more your thing. Check out the Egg Krate, once an egg candling business that has since transformed into an antique market. Mark your calendar for Tivoli Fest in May and Jule Fest in December, two big Danish celebrations that offer you the chance to enjoy the town culture as well as Danish treats and wares. 


By Julia Skinner

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