Tulip Time Festival Parade of Pella's Dutch community in Pella, Iowa, USA. Editorial credit: yosmoes815 / Shutterstock.com

7 of the Most Hospitable Small Towns in Iowa

Iowa may be firmly planted in "flyover country," but this friendly Midwest enclave is an ideal destination for anyone on the hunt for a wholesome, unpretentious, and communal place. The Hawkeye State is characterized by sunny prairies, sizable glacial lakes (the first stop on this upcoming tour), windmills, tulip gardens, riverside parks, and festivals galore. Even though Iowa is blessed with an attractive landscape, it is the tight-knit communities that make this state shine.

These seven small towns (and tiny cities) are some of the most hospitable that Iowa has to offer. They may be just what you need for a welcomed weekend getaway, or they might even turn into the new home you didn't know you needed.


Lake Okoboji is a popular Tourist Area known as the Great Lakes of Iowa.
Lake Okoboji is a famous Tourist Area known as the Great Lakes of Iowa. 

Northwestern Iowa has its very own "Great Lakes" region – seven lovely communities centered around six glacially-carved lakes that total 12,000 acres and close to 70 miles of shoreline. At the heart of it all is Okoboji, which has set up shop at the confluence of the East and West Okoboji Lakes. This Dickinson County Laketown is particularly appealing in the summertime, thanks to its quick access to Pikes Point State Park, Gull Point State Park, Arnolds Park Amusement Park, several golf courses (including one disc golf facility), go-karts, and 60+ miles of paved paths for waterfront walks or cycling tours.

And while things may slow down in the off-season, Okoboji is still a hospitable place in the winter. There is ice fishing, cross-country skiing, and snowmobiling to be enjoyed, and there are plenty of museums, theaters, galleries, and live music venues to keep visitors cozy and entertained. 


Tulip Time Festival Parade of Pella's Dutch community in Pella, Iowa, USA.
Tulip Time Festival Parade of Pella's Dutch community in Pella, Iowa, USA. Editorial credit: yosmoes815 / Shutterstock.com

Founded by Dutch immigrants in 1847, Pella has a warm and novel presence to it. Though situated just 45 miles southeast of the state capital (Des Moines), thanks to its authentic windmills and tulip displays, visiting this Marion County community feels like flying across the pond. If you're lucky enough to arrive at the beginning of May, you will be treated to the 3-day Tulip Time Festival, when hundreds of beds of colorful flowers are in full bloom.

As spring shifts to those hot Midwest summers, Iowa's largest lake, Lake Red Rock, which is immediately west of town, looks extra inviting. Pella is not only one of the top 10 safest cities in Iowa but it was awarded the number 3 spot on USA Today's list of Best Places to Live in the US. So, who knows, a trip to this Dutch treasure may very well inspire a permanent relocation.


Shops and stores on W Water Street in Decorah, Iowa.
Shops and stores on W Water Street in Decorah, Iowa. Editorial credit: Steve Heap / Shutterstock.com

Skipped over by the glaciers during the last Ice Age, Northeastern Iowa, aka "the Driftless," is a region rich in geological diversity. Perched on the Upper Iowa River, Decorah, in particular, enjoys a refreshing atmosphere of rolling hills, limestone bluffs, and a continuous string of riverside parks (with the 200-foot waterfall at Dunning's Spring Park, and the rock formations of Ice Cave Hill Park being two of the standouts).

Decorah also loves to display its historical treasures in local museums. Get a taste of the Norwegian-American experience by visiting the Vesterheim Museum & Folk Art School. There are over 33,000 artifacts spread across 12 historic buildings. To cap it all off, this Winneshiek County gem has a surprising range of breweries, wineries, and ethnic restaurants to keep the weekend fresh and engaging. 

Orange City

Cars parked in front of shops along Central Avenue in downtown Orange City, Iowa.

Central Avenue in downtown Orange City, Iowa. By Tony Webster, CC BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

Another friendly and prosperous community with a palpable Dutch heritage is that of Orange City in northeastern Iowa. Each May, this rural Sioux County enclave has a vibrant Tulip Festival of its own – drawing some 100,000 tourists, not only for the flowers but also for the traditional Straatfeest parade, performances, souvenir shopping, and great grub. Just like with Pella, the holistic power of Holland has crafted a remarkably livable city.

Orange City enjoys a 98% high-school graduation rate, a 2% unemployment rate, a high median income, affordable housing, and for those with a religious background, there are 16 churches (whose spires compliment the modest windmills) in this 1.5-square-mile community. It is no wonder why The New Yorker referred to Orange City as a place "where the small-town American dream lives on."

Amana Colonies

Amana Colonies, founded by German Radical Pietists, in Amana, Iowa.
Amana Colonies was founded by German Radical Pietists in Amana, Iowa. Editorial credit: EWY Media / Shutterstock.com

Iowa has a healthy dose of German culture to round out its Dutch and Norwegian influences. Amana Colonies is a collection of seven communal (literally and figuratively) villages in the east-central section of the state. Declared a National Historic Landmark in 1965, the Amana Colonies attract plenty of annual tourists who are curious to learn about the traditional, international, and religious-based culture, indulge in delicious German cooking and a hearty stein, and participate in the four-season festivals.

A quick glance at the colony's event schedule shows that there is hardly an empty weekend on the entire calendar. And while there are lots of small-scale gatherings, there are also the major bashes that one would expect from living German heritage: namely, Oktoberfest, Wurst Festival, and Maifest. Christmas celebrations are also a high priority in these parts. 


View of downtown Winterset, Iowa, from the courthouse square.
View of downtown Winterset, Iowa, from the courthouse square. Editorial credit: dustin77a / Shutterstock.com

The six covered bridges in the vicinity of Winterset earned it the "Covered Bridge Capital of Iowa." The quaint and romantic setting of this rural Madison County pearl also inspired the setting for the novel The Bridges of Madison County. It was used as a shooting location for the subsequent Meryl Streep/Clint Eastwood film by the same name. Speaking of Clint Eastwood, another famous cowboy helped shine the limelight on Winterset: John Wayne. Visit his Birthplace Museum to learn more about the star of Hollywood's Golden Age.

While you are in the heart of downtown, consider stopping by the Iowa Quilt Museum and the limestone Madison County in the middle of the National Historic District town square. For the full Winterset experience, time your visit for the John Wayne Birthday celebration (late May), the Madison County Fair (late July), and/or the Covered Bridges Festival (early October).

Spirit Lake

Spirit Lake is the largest town in the Okoboji Great Lakes area of Iowa, known for tourism.
Spirit Lake is the largest town in the Okoboji Great Lakes area of Iowa, known for tourism.

Let's bring it full circle back to the Iowa Great Lakes, to the summer resort community of Spirit Lake. This sister city to Okojobi sits on the northern arm of East Okoboji Lake, right where it bumps up against Big Spirit Lake. Spirit Lake invites visitors to explore its many waterfront parks and beaches, many of which are well-suited for tent and RV camping. The closest standout is the family-friendly Elinor Bedell State Park, just 2 miles outside of town.

A bit further on, on the north side of Big Spirit Lake (right on the Minnesota border), Mini-Wakan State Park is another cute and beloved nature getaway. Spirit Lake has 10 miles of urban trails that connect to the 100-mile network that fans out across the rest of Dickinson County. Alternatively, you may wish to rest your legs by launching a boat for the day or simply casting a line into the angler-friendly waters.

Discover Iowa's Welcoming Community

Iowa excels at family-friendly, community-driven experiences. The salt-of-the-earth spirit of the Hawkeye State, which was founded by eclectic settlers who let the isolated, rural farmlands sprout into supportive towns, is alive and well in the 21st century. At a time when modern life moves at a breakneck speed and prioritizes individual pursuits, Iowa likes to slow things down, highlight the value of doing things the old-fashioned way, and convert strangers into friends. If this sounds like a formula you could use more of in your life, then set course for these seven hospitable Iowa towns.

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