The Midwest state of Iowa offers pretty farms, rolling fields, and a slower pace of life than other, more populous places, and its position just west of the Mississippi River makes it a truly western place. Few places embody that Western notion like these small, cozy Iowa towns. And beneath these places' attractive homes, buildings, and historic districts, Iowa's history and culture seem to stand on every corner. That includes the state's small-town movie history, from "The Bridges of Madison County" to "Field of Dreams." Those films no doubt inspired the state's tourism motto: "Fields of Opportunity." Since Iowa's admission to the Union in 1846, the state has only developed its sense of place further, as these small, attractive towns are bound to offer the traveling visitor.
Bearing the name of the Native American princess of Virginia legend, the town of Pocahontas, with 1,900 inhabitants, lies in northwest Iowa. The town celebrates its namesake with a 25-foot-tall roadside statue of the historical figure and a teepee. For other cultures, visitors can take in local culture and history at the Pocahontas County Historical Museum, which has fascinating artifacts from Iowa's bygone days. The Rialto Theatre, first built in 1939, offers performances of plays, cabarets, and concerts for the neighboring Pocahontas County to enjoy. For fresh air, head to Elbert Park north of town, which sits along the picturesque Lizard Creek.
Winterset, with 5,500 souls, is a small and friendly community in Madison County, several miles south of Des Moines. The town's quaint and well-preserved architecture has inspired television and movies for generations. Winterset is particularly known for its covered bridges, built to avoid road accidents in the region's frequent wintertime snow and ice.
Today, the town's Covered Bridges Scenic Byway draws drivers, cyclists, and other visitors. "The Bridges of Madison County," a hit romantic movie released in 1995, made the area even more popular with local and more distant visitors. Winterset enjoys film fame for another reason: it is the birthplace of John Wayne, the Hollywood actor and cowboy-movie legend. The John Wayne Birthplace Museum in town honors his legacy.
With a larger population of 10,700, the town of Pella sits some 40 miles southeast of the state capital, Des Moines, Iowa's capital. First founded by Dutch immigrants, their legacy is celebrated across Pella today. A Dutch-inspired Tulip Festival takes place there each May, drawing thousands of visitors. For other natural attractions, Brinkoff Park features a tulip garden and a Dutch-style windmill, while Pella's Historical Village shows examples of Dutch architecture of a kind and quality that are rarely seen in the United States. Travelers with a sweet tooth should hunt for a Dutch Letter, Pella's signature flaky pastry that is sold at the Tulip Festival and year-round in town.
Pella bears a separate history as the childhood home of the legendary western lawman Wyatt Earp. Earp's three brothers also served as law enforcers, and the four spent most of their childhoods in the town. Other illustrious Pellans include artists, athletes, politicians, and a US attorney general.
With a modest 1,200 residents, the quaint village of Elkader is a little place with big appeal. Founded in 1846, the northeastern town's unusual name stems from an unusual source: Abd el-Kader, a mid-19th-century hero of the Algerian struggle against French colonial rule. The Iowan town, located on the Turkey River, Elkader, makes up part of Iowa's "Little Switzerland" region, so called for its early immigrant communities and the distinctive culture and architecture they developed here. Elkader's downtown features an opera house, local history museums, and stately homes, joining the National Register of Historic Places in 2012.
Outdoors enthusiasts should seek out Eklader's two small parks, Keystone Park and Mascara Park, the latter name drawn not from women's makeup but from Elkader's current-day sister city in Algeria.
The postcard-pretty town of Dyersville, population 4,600, lies about an hour south of Elkader. It is best known in recent decades as the movie location for "Field of Dreams," a 1989 feature about baseball. In a great example of life imitating art, the famous baseball field hosted two professional baseball games over 2021-2022.
Beyond films and baseball, Dyersville's history is much older and just as interesting. Bavarian immigrants arrived in the region as early as the 1840s, followed by others, including the Englishman James Dyer, after whom the town took its name. Dyersville residents built The Basilica of St. Francis Xavier in 1888, a double-spired Catholic church. The town also hosts the National Farm Toy Museum, named after the miniature farm-themed toy industry the town began in the 1940s.
LeClaire, population 4,700, is a petite town on the Mississippi River's western bank. It takes its name from Antoine LeClaire, a French-Canadian trader of mixed European and Native American descent, who once owned the land here. The birthplace of western showman Buffalo Bill Cody, the town's Cody Road Historic District offers travelers a genuine dose of local lore. The neighborhood features old homes, buildings, and signboards filled with historical information.
The Riverboat Twilight, an old-time vessel that has been repurposed for tourist outings, gives a deeper sense of the river-based commerce and trade. The Buffalo Bill Museum sheds light on the career of its namesake, who helped forge the myths of the Old American West that we know today.
With such cozy small towns to appreciate, Iowa's rich tourism options have drawn local and not-so-local visitors for generations. The state offers something for every taste, from baseball and movie locations to ethnic enclaves, preserved architecture, connections to Wild West history, and a continuing respect for Dutch, Swiss, Native American, and other peoples to have traversed Iowa's borders. The future visitor should probably think not in terms of if but when they will make a trip to Iowa's small, delightful towns.