One of the most beautiful states to visit in the Midwestern US, Iowa offers stunning natural surroundings, fascinating history, and plenty of cultural diversity. Iowa’s main cities, Des Moines and Cedar Rapids often attract the most attention, but the “Hawkeye State’s” small towns also have much to offer. With charming history and quaint beauty, these are the best small towns to visit in Iowa.
Founded in 1837 and named after the French Emperor Napoleon, the small town of Bonaparte is home to a population of 359 people. Still, this town on the banks of the Des Moines River offers plenty of wonderful charm and historic fascination. Situated along the famed Mormon Trail, several sites in Bonaparte are on the National Register of Historic Places list, including the Riverfront District and the Bonaparte Pottery Archeological District. In addition to the authentic slice of 19th-century living, visitors can enjoy a delicious meal or shop at any number of charming souvenir stores that make Bonaparte a delightful place to explore.
Located on the shores of West Okoboji Lake (within the Iowa Great Lakes Region), Okoboji is a wonderful small town with a population of just under 800 residents. A popular summer destination, visitors can enjoy swimming, sailing, or even a simple sunbath along the beautiful blue waters of the lake. At the nearby Arnold’s Park Amusement Park, there are fun activities for the whole family. Do not forget to ride the “Legend”, a wooden track roller coaster sure to create some screams!
Decorah serves as the seat of Winneshiek County, located just south of the Minnesota border. Home to a population of 7,587, and founded back in the 1850s this town is the site of the famous Decorah Crater, created nearly 470 million years ago by a meteor strike. Besides its geologic attraction, Decorah is also celebrated for its Norwegian heritage brought over by immigrants from Norway in the mid-19th century. Tourists can visit the Vesterheim Norwegian American Museum for a moving look into the immigrant experience. In the summer be sure to check out the Nordic Festival which celebrates all things Scandinavian. Some 50,000 visitors descend on this small Iowa town during the festival alone!
Forming part of the Quad Cities region along the border with Illinois is the small town of LeClaire. Founded in 1855, it boasts a modest population of just under 5,000 residents. Full of historic intrigue and natural beauty, visitors to LeClaire will have something to remember. Tour the Cody Road Historic District and its 19th-century edifices, spend an afternoon at the Buffalo Bill Museum, or catch views of majestic bald eagles at the nearby locks on the Mississippi River. Tasting some locally made and delicious spirits at the Mississippi River Distilling Company is never a bad idea, where you can sample and purchase from one of the top craft distilleries in the US.
Founded in the 1840s, the seat of Madison County, Winterset is only a 40-minute drive from Des Moines. Home to a population of 5,353 residents, this beautiful and charming small town was also the birthplace of Hollywood icon John Wayne in 1907. Indeed visitors can stop by the John Wayne Birthplace Museum and learn more about the actor’s formative years in this quaint town. Winterset is also known for its covered bridges which dot the landscape. Every October tourists can enjoy the Covered Bridge Festival highlighting these special architectural designs while spending time at Winterset City Park. A stopover at Clark Tower, a castle-like lookout, erected in 1926, and the Madison County Courthouse (1876), is sure to be a special photo opportunity.
Bentonsport is a historic village situated along the Des Moines River. Founded in 1839, it was an important steamboat port town for much of the 19th century. Today, it functions mostly as a tourist attraction, where you can view and enjoy numerous bed and breakfasts and historically preserved buildings. With 16 blocks of historic importance, tourists can visit authentic 19th-century style businesses, blacksmith shops, restaurants, and protestant churches. A great place for antique collectors, shoppers in Bentonsport have quite the selection to choose from, and bringing home a piece of old America has never been easier.
Established by Dutch immigrants in 1847, the town of Pella is home to almost 10,500 citizens. Retaining a special Dutch heritage, tourists can expect to find a variety of festivals and unique landmarks that celebrate this ethnic group. Take a stroll along the Molengracht Canal, visit the Vermeer Windmill, and enjoy the day at the annual Tulip Time Festival. Here the beautiful sights and smells of the flowers are not the only things to remember. Traditional Dutch food, folk dances, and regional costumes are all on the menu, making this one of the most alluring events and towns to explore in all of Iowa.
Iowa is a land filled with great attractions and natural beauty. Any visitor to the "Hawkeye State", would be remiss for overlooking its stunning small towns. Though the state's large urban centers require their share of attention, Iowa's small towns offer charming and fascinating histories. From the Dutch town of Pella to the lakeside shores of Okoboji, these small towns await exploration.