Known for good ol’ traditional hospitality, vast valleys, and picturesque bodies of water, Iowa is a stunning state. It is home to beautiful towns with cultural centers housing deep European heritage on display through architectural marvels and attractions for any taste. These eight towns are the essence of small-town Iowa charm with a galore of sights and pursuits in scenic nature.
This picturesque village-town in Van Buren County, in the southeast of the state, is simply breathtaking. There is plenty of opportunity to capture the serene, picture-perfect landscape from along the scenic shores of the Des Moines River. Bentonsport was a prominent port city in the 1840s that retained historical charm veiled in a small-town atmosphere for a cozy hamlet today. It is home to around 50 residents but sees thousands of visitors each year for the immensely beautiful nature all around, on a getaway from the city.
Bentonsport greets with an eclectic mix of local stores and restaurants for any taste, housed in facades from the mid-19th century that emanate a strong "Pleasantville" vibe. The entire village is a designated National Historic District, along with the marvelously-old truss bridge across the river, used as a pedestrian path. The one-lane iron bridge offers great photo ops from all sides, including views of the surrounding area while leading to a former mill site-turned-beautiful garden.
The scenic enclave of Decorah called the "Norway of Iowa" is in the northern portion of the state with a population of 7,425. The small city full of Norwegian architecture is home to the largest Norwegian museum in the US housing numerous exhibits. The Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum, named one of the 15 Best Small-Town Museums in the nation by Fodor’s world-renowned travel guide is a top attraction. There is also the adjacent Heritage Center, as well as the Porter House Museum in-town with more displays about the history, art, and nature around this Italianate villa. Following a museum tour, visit the incredible nearby Ice Cave, a trout hatchery, and the Winneshiek Wildberry Winery for varied pastime pursuits.
Surrounded by a vast natural landscape of valleys and rivers, Decorah holds some of the state's most unique sights. There is the Dunning’s Spring and the Siewers Spring to sightsee and relax, while a number of parks built on bluffs are perfect for hiking, biking, and simple strolls. The lovely Decorah is an absolute must-visit for the outdoors and culture lovers in the warmer months. During summer, on Decorah's charming Water Street, there are floral baskets to enjoy while perusing incredible old buildings with galleries, unique shops, and restaurants. July's Nordic Fest is a real celebration of heritage with countless cultural and traditional activities, sights, and events.
Dyersville is a small, aesthetically-pleasing town of 4,603 residents on the state's eastern border. It is full of historic charm and architecture, along with the movie set of the iconic Iowa-based Academy Award-nominated film, Field of Dreams, starring Kevin Costner. The movie was filmed at the century-old Lansing family farm, with everyday tours to step onto the diamond and feel the magic, as well as partake in the "greatest show on dirt." There is also a tour of the iconic white-picket homestead for a small fee, while the real event not to miss is the "Ghost Sundays" where baseball players emerge from a cornfield and put on a free, family-friendly show every week during summer.
For more cultural family attractions, there is the National Farm Toy Museum, and the Dyer-Botsford Doll Museum. Founded in 1848 by James J. Dyer, Dyersville is a charming community today with a picturesque downtown filled with restaurants such as the Palace Saloon. There is also the Gothic architectural marvel of the Basilica of St. Francis Xavier, a Gothic, as well as the Dyer-Botsford House in a Victorian mansion showcasing antiques, artifacts, and 2,000 dolls on display.
LeClaire is a pretty river town at eastern Iowa's border, across the Mississippi from Illinois. It is home to 4,992 residents, scenic landscapes, and tons of local eateries. The Buffalo Bill Museum is a must-visit for fascinating exhibits from around the Mississippi River region, as well as details of the famous frontiersman, William Frederick, or Buffalo Bill, who was born on locale in 1846. There are also scenic river cruises for a different perspective of the beautiful village.
The picturesque town was home to many river navigators who tamed the dangerous Upper Rapids. Today, it is a widely-known tourist destination with a galore of outdoor adventures and traditional Iowa hospitality. For wander-worthy strolls, the Cody Road Historic District includes mid to late 19th-century commercial buildings and homes. Nature enthusiasts love visiting in time for the wintertime "convocation" of eagles over the free-flowing river's waters to sightsee over a picnic along the banks. There is also the scenic Lock and Dam #14 surrounded by lush nature with more opportunities to sight bald eagles and pelicans.
The little river town of McGregor is home to a quaint landscape and a population of around 700 people. Residents enjoy the ultimate getaway into the vastly-beautiful Pikes Peak State Park for daily hiking, boating, and bike rides. Explore the Spook Cave via a river boat followed by a visit to the Cafe McGregor for a filling meal after all the adventures. Check into one of the inns or B&Bs to extend your stay and explore the full scope of Iowa's northeastern beauty along the Mississippi, such as the Driftless Area and Effigy Mounds.
Founded in 1847, McGregor served as a prominent shipping port for many years before the pontoon bridge, connecting the rail lines. Today, it is the epitome of small-town living with tons of businesses to peruse within old-style buildings from the heyday, including antiquing and boutiques. Popular events such as the annual Arts and Crafts Festival and the Lazy River Beer and Wine Fest will fascinate appropriate fans.
The town with a proud Dutch heritage is most-known for its architectural marvels and the annual Dutch-themed Tulip Festival in May. It is a truly beautiful event, bestowed by nature's hand in a spectacular display of colorful blooming tulips during spring. Pella's lucky population of 10,497 enjoys living in one of the country's cutest towns, eating a Dutch pastry from Jaarsma Bakery, and strolling along the Molengracht Canal that inspires thoughts of the old country. Tourists love sighting the Instagram-worthy Vermeer Windmill and tours of one of the tallest working windmills in the US.
Settled by the Dutch in 1847, Pella is now home to one of the state's best downtown areas, with the renowned Molengracht Plaza split by a canal. It includes shops, restaurants, a theatre, and more scenic sights for strolls and relaxing sits. The delightful community is "America’s Dutch Treasure" with natural scenery at every corner and must-visits such as the Pella Opera House.
The picturesque small city in northwest Iowa near the Minnesota border is the largest city in Dickinson County. It is a water-abundant hot spot among vacationers and day-trippers for a change in pace and scenery from the metropolis. There are many vast water bodies bordering the lovely resort town, including the East and West Okoboji Lakes along, and the natural Big Spirit Lake, the largest natural lake in the state. The small city of about 5,619 is a true-vacation land where residents enjoy daily relaxation along the banks throughout the year.
Spirit Lake is often overrun by tourists in the summer months for waterside recreation and activities such as fishing, swimming, and boating. There are several overnight accommodations along the shores of the Iowa Great Lakes, as well as traditional attractions such as the nearby Arnolds Park. The historic family park offers a sprawling spread of amusement rides for all ages, other entertainment, museums, and midway games.
Winterset is a small town within the nation-famed Bridges of Madison County. The Covered Bridges Scenic Byway connects many bridges each offering various fantastic views of the Iowa countryside. The surrounding rolling hills complement the scenery for the best drives and stops, with breathtaking views of the fairy-tale setting. The community is easily accessible 30 minutes from the Des Moines metro area, with the downtown Winterset a must-visit for a lively summer's day spectacle. It is home to the magnificent town square crowned by the historic courthouse from 1876, and vibrant buildings with interesting shops and delicious eateries.
The lovely town is the famed birthplace of Hollywood's icon, John Wayne, inclusive of Duke's legacy at the non-profit John Wayne Birthplace and Museum. It is also the setting of the famous novel and film set of The Bridges of Madison County, with town maps available to guide one through the notable movie sites. The charming town surrounded by covered bridges is the historic epitome of Madison County in south-central Iowa. There are six covered bridges with a paved road leading up half and hikes for the other three. Other notable attractions in-town include the Iowa Quilt Museum and the Madison County Historical Society.
These towns of unrivaled beauty each offer a unique mix of vibrant culture, nature, and attractions. You will never be able to forget the small landscapes eager to meet every new visitor with Iowa hospitality in the refreshing natural embrace.