The charming town of Pella, Iowa.

6 Serene Towns In Iowa For A Weekend Retreat

Located in the heart of the American Midwest, Iowa offers no end of great excuses for travelers to want to visit. For those seeking a memorable weekend getaway, “The Hawkeye State” is home to many awesome small towns that each provide everything needed for a memorable escape. Attractive scenery? Check. Cultural activities? Yup. Historic downtowns? Definitely! From the picturesque surroundings of Decorah with its deep Norwegian roots to the Dutch-inspired streets of Pella, Iowa's prettiest small towns offer a diverse array of experiences for every traveler. Find out more with this list of six serene towns in Iowa for a weekend retreat.


 Ornate building housing Porter House Museum on W Broadway in Decorah Iowa
Ornate building housing Porter House Museum on W Broadway in Decorah, Iowa. Editorial credit: Steve Heap /

Decorah is located in the northeast corner of Iowa and certainly epitomizes the beauty and rich cultural tapestry of the Midwest. With a population that embraces its vibrant Norwegian heritage, Decorah offers a glimpse into the traditions and customs brought over by the area’s early Scandinavian settlers. Highlights include the Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum, a fascinating tourist attraction that houses the most extensive collection of Norwegian artifacts in the United States, showcasing traditional folk art and costumes as well as their significant contributions to American culture.

The Upper Iowa River meanders through the town, creating a picturesque setting that attracts outdoor enthusiasts year-round. Activities such as fishing, canoeing, and kayaking are popular. For those who prefer land-based adventures, the Trout Run Trail is an 11-mile loop around town that’s ideal for biking, hiking, and birdwatching. A good time to visit is during Decorah’s annual Nordic Fest, a celebration of the town's Scandinavian heritage with folk dancing, traditional foods, parades, and craft demonstrations (it’s held in late July). If you do visit, then Hotel Winneshiek and the cozy Bed & Breakfast On Broadway offer classy accommodations within walking distance of the festivities.


The beautiful Lake Okoboji.
The beautiful Lake Okoboji.

Okoboji, set in the heart of Northwest Iowa, is a great getaway destination for those wanting to explore the Iowa Great Lakes region. Long a popular resort area, it’s famed for its vibrant blue lakes and outdoor adventures. The crystal-clear waters of West Okoboji Lake, one of only three “blue water” lakes in the world, are especially pleasing and are an idyllic setting for boating, fishing, and water sports. More can be learned about this and other natural wonders at the Dickinson County Nature Center, with its trails and interactive exhibits that showcase the local flora and fauna.

No weekend warrior should visit Okoboji without exploring nearby Arnolds Park Amusement Park. Opened in 1889 and one of the oldest amusement parks in the country, this family-friendly attraction offers rides, games, and live entertainment, with its legendary wooden roller coaster, The Legend, thrilling visitors since 1930. The park's Maritime Museum, dedicated to the history of the Iowa Great Lakes, provides a fascinating glimpse into the region's past. Whatever you do here, great places to stay in Okoboji include the highly-rated Vintage Block Inn & Suites and Lake Okoboji Resort.


The famous Cedar Bridge in Winterset, Iowa
The famous Cedar Bridge in Winterset, Iowa.

Its location just a 30-minute drive southwest of Des Moines makes the quaint town of Winterset an ideal and easily accessible weekend retreat destination. Must-visit attractions in Winterset include its six iconic covered bridges. Immortalized by Robert James Waller’s novel and the subsequent film, The Bridges of Madison County, these rustic, romantic structures are scattered throughout the surrounding countryside, and fun guided tours are available through the Winterset Chamber of Commerce’s Welcome Center. The Cutler-Donahoe Covered Bridge is the easiest to find as it was relocated to Winterset City Park.

Another highlight is the John Wayne Birthplace Museum. Dedicated to the legendary American actor born here in 1907, it features an extensive collection of memorabilia from the star’s film career and personal life (be sure to grab a selfie next to the impressively detailed life-size statue of "The Duke" himself). The Madison County Historical Complex is also fun. This 18-acre site includes 14 historic buildings dating from the 1800s, including a Victorian mansion, a schoolhouse, and a log cabin. Accommodation options include the elegant Heavenly Habitat Bed and Breakfast and Bed & Breakfast by JASS.

Mount Vernon

Mount Vernon, Iowa
A scene from Mount Vernon, Iowa.

Mount Vernon is located just 20 minutes east of Cedar Rapids and is well-known as the home of Cornell College, a liberal arts college known for its attractive campus and unique "One Course At A Time" academic calendar. Campus highlights include historic buildings and quiet green spaces that make a delightful backdrop for a pleasant stroll, as well as a rich program of public events, performances, and lectures.

Downtown Mount Vernon is also fun to explore, especially for its many well-preserved 19th-century buildings that now house an eclectic mix of shops, galleries, and eateries. It’s also home to the First Street Community Center, an old school that’s now full of shops, studios, and an arts venue. Outdoor activities are plentiful at Palisades-Kepler State Park, just a short drive away, including hiking trails, fishing spots, and views of the Cedar River. Annual events like the Lincoln Highway Arts Festival in September add to Mount Vernon's charm. For a weekend stay, check out the centrally located Brackett House or the cozy Elaine's Bed & Breakfast for rates.


Tulip Time Festival Parade in Pella, Iowa. Editorial credit: yosmoes815 /

Pella is a picturesque town that mixes its Dutch heritage with that immutable Midwestern charm. Founded by immigrants from the Netherlands in 1847, Pella’s Dutch origins are on display at the Vermeer Mill, the tallest working windmill in the United States. This fully functional windmill, built in the Netherlands and assembled in Pella, offers tours showcasing traditional flour making. Other must-visit attractions include the Historical Village, a collection of over 20 buildings replicating a 19th-century Dutch village, complete with a blacksmith, bakery, and schoolhouse, and Scholte House, named after the home of Pella's founder.

Pella's Dutch heritage is also celebrated with great fanfare during the Tulip Time festival held each May. This fun event transforms the town with thousands of blooming tulips, parades, traditional Dutch costumes, dances, and delicious Dutch treats. Central Park, with its sunken gardens and historic opera house, provides a peaceful retreat in the heart of the town. Great places to stay in Pella include The Amsterdam Hotel (naturally!) and Country Inn & Suites by Radisson, Pella.

Le Claire

Downtown LeClaire, Iowa.
Downtown LeClaire, Iowa. Image credit: Ericnotderek via Wikimedia Commons.

Le Claire is a great place for a weekend spent exploring the Mississippi River. Located in Eastern Iowa, Le Claire is best known as the home of the American Pickers, the popular television show that has put the town on the map. Antique Archaeology, the flagship store featured on the show, draws treasure hunters for its eclectic collection of vintage finds and Americana. The town’s riverfront area is perfect for leisurely walks, especially during sunrise or sunset.

Top attractions in Le Claire include The Buffalo Bill Museum, which is dedicated to the legendary figure who was born there. Highlights include displays relating to his life and the history of the Mississippi River Valley, as well as exhibits on Native American history and the riverboat era. For those looking to experience the area's natural beauty, the Riverboat Twilight offers cruises on the Mississippi, providing a relaxing way to see the river's scenic landscapes and wildlife.

The Final Word

There’s little doubt that Iowa's serene towns offer a mosaic of experiences that cater to weekenders seeking a fun mix of history, nature, and culture. From the European charm of Decorah and Pella to the unique historical insights on offer in le Claire and Mount Vernon, each of these towns presents an ideal way to get to know the Hawkeye State a little better. Whether exploring historic windmills, traversing covered bridges, or enjoying lakeside retreats, visitors are guaranteed a retreat from the ordinary with these six serene towns in Iowa that are perfect for a weekend retreat.

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