A scene from the Amana Colonies, Iowa.

7 Picturesque Small Towns In Iowa For A Weekend Retreat

Iowa is a Middle American state with top American towns. These communities, all of which have fewer than 8,000 residents, are prized for their history, scenery, and non-smalltown-like attractions. Can you believe that an Algerian leader-inspired restaurant, a castle-esque college chapel, and the last concert venue Buddy Holly played before he died are in rural Iowa? Best of all, given their small size and proximity to big cities like Des Moines and Cedar Rapids, they can be explored and exploited in a single weekend. Learn where to go and what to see in The Hawkeye State's hollows.


A footbridge leading to a cave entrance.

Settled by pioneers in the mid-19th century, Maquoketa is a hilly historic haunt near the Mississippi River. Appropriately, Maquoketa's core is called Pleasant Street, where the stately Old City Hall gallery offers refined attractions and Squiers 1882 offers luxury lodgings.

But not all of Maquoketa is prim and proper. Visitors can get wild in the natural way at Maquoketa Caves State Park, which features 13 caves with varying ease of access, and in the artificial way at Codfish Hollow Barnstormers, a premier music venue in a "cool old barn." You can wind down with a movie at Voy 61 Drive-In Theatre, which is five miles south of town and is considering opening earlier in 2024 than ever before. Another site just outside of town is Sabula, Iowa's only island city. Do not miss this Mississippi marvel while weekending in Maquoketa.

Clear Lake

Historic downtown of Clear Lake, Iowa
Historic downtown of Clear Lake, Iowa. Image credit: Billwhittaker via Wikimedia Commons.

As you can guess from its name, Clear Lake has a pretty clear lake, which is also called Clear Lake. This body of water is the community's biggest attraction since it covers 3,000 acres and flanks 50-acre Clear Lake State Park with its 900-foot beach. The park offers camping, fishing, boating, canoeing, kayaking, jet skiing, and sightseeing, especially on scenic Woodford Island. Lakeside accommodations include Lakeside Inn and various rustic lodges.

Clear Lake's most unique attraction is Surf Ballroom & Museum, an active event center that, in 1959, held the last performances of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and The Big Bopper before they died in a now-infamous plane crash. The crash site is about five miles north. You can honor their memories by grabbing a piece of American pie at K&B Emporium.

Mount Vernon

American Gothic Barn in Mount Vernon, Iowa.
American Gothic Barn in Mount Vernon, Iowa. Editorial credit: EWY Media / Shutterstock.com.

Unlike Clear Lake and its namesake lake, Mount Vernon is nowhere near a mountain. George Washington's Virginia estate inspired the name - and presumably the elegance - of this eastern Iowa community.

Developed in the 1800s with local limestone turned into Gothic architecture, Mount Vernon retains many of its earliest buildings, including the Bauman House, constructed circa 1854, and King Memorial Chapel, a castle-like place of worship built in 1882 on the Cornell College campus. History and modernity meet in Mount Vernon since many of its ancient haunts celebrate contemporary art. Vintage 1891 sells trippy trinkets in a 19th-century bank building, while an old barn on a private farm displays Grant Wood's American Gothic.

In 2009, Mount Vernon was a finalist for Budget Travel's coolest small towns in America contest. See if that title holds up, and perhaps pick the first weekend in May to coincide with Chalk the Walk, where hundreds of artists coat 1st Street in (literally) a ton of chalk. You can stay just down the way at Sleep Inn & Suites.


A beautiful lake in Okoboji, Iowa.
A beautiful lake in Okoboji, Iowa.

Another lakeside community, Okoboji, has several hundred permanent residents but draws thousands of tourists during the summer. From the shores of the Okoboji Lakes in the Iowa Great Lakes region, temporary Okobojians sunbathe, swim, fish, boat, and jet ski. Out of the water, they wander the entertainment-rich streets, stopping for a bite at Outrigger Restaurant & Lounge, a drink at The Common Tasting Room, and a nap at Vintage Block Inn & Suites (not necessarily in that order). Moreover, Okoboji neighbors other resort towns with additional activities. Right over the bridge is Arnolds Park with the Iowa Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame Museum and Arnolds Park Amusement Park. This confluence of crystalline lakes and lively communities creates a summer retreat to remember.


Downtown Elkader, Iowa.
Downtown Elkader, Iowa. Image credit: Kevin Schuchmann via Wikimedia Commons.

Although Elkader sounds like it was named for the deer that once roamed Iowa, it actually originates from 19th-century Algerian resistance leader, the Emir Abdelkader, of whom a town founder was a fan. You can honor this original origin story at Schera's Algerian-American Restaurant, which sits on Main Street. More unique Elkader history can be gleaned at George Maier Rural Heritage Center and Museum, Elkader Opera House, and Elkader Jail House Inn, a historic jail converted into a luxury hotel. You will not find elk in modern Elkader, but you can see other incredible critters five miles south of town at Osborne Park & Nature Center. This expansive preserve has animals inside and outside enclosures, plus hiking trails, shelter houses, disc golf, a playground, and a pioneer village.


A scene from the Amana Colonies, Iowa.
A scene from the Amana Colonies, Iowa.

Amana is the main village out of seven established by radical Christian Germans in the mid-19th century. Havens from home-country persecution, the Amana Colonies were largely self-sufficient theocracies until 1932, the time of the "Great Change," when they separated the economy from the church and joined it with the state. Today, the Colonies have around 1,600 residents (roughly 400 in Amana alone), and although they retain unique industries and culture, they rely on tourism.

Outsiders come for heritage buildings and historic displays and stay at idyllic inns such as Hotel Millwright. Amana is not an Amish community, so it offers modern and impious indulgences at Bierstube Bar, Fireside Winery in the Village, and Millstream Brewing Co.


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

Check out the décor and decorum in Decorah, arguably the nicest small community in all of Iowa. A vibrant, historic downtown transfixes tourists via the Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum and titillates their taste buds with Rubaiyat Restaurant. A little outside the core are Pulpit Rock Brewing Company, a beer buff's paradise, and King Pin Entertainment Center, a bowling buff's paradise.

Splitting the community into two halves is the Upper Iowa River, replete with watercraft that you can take on a trip through the verdant countryside. If you want a downtown base for exploring Decorah, check into the iconic Hotel Winneshiek. If you prefer a natural base, rent a cabin or pitch a tent at Hutchinson Family Farm Campground.

Iowa may not be a person's first choice for a picturesque retreat, but hidden in this Middle American state are small-town oases perfect for a weekend trip. Maquoketa, Clear Lake, Mount Vernon, Okoboji, Elkader, Amana, and Decorah have all the sites of famous vacation spots plus unique attractions not found anywhere else in America. Do not obsess about the East and West. The best towns are front and center.

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