Businesses lined along W Water Street in Decorah, Iowa. Editorial credit: Steve Heap /

The Best Small Towns in Iowa for a Weekend Retreat

Iowa is a lovely state nestled in the heart of America's Midwest. With a four-season climate, the Hawkeye State is home to more than three million people, making it the 31st most populous state in the United States. Although known for its vast cornfields, Iowa is also home to charming small towns full of breathtaking scenery and offers some of the best vacation spots. From the covered bridges of Winterset to the student environment in Coralville, each of these eight towns offers a unique appeal that makes them perfect for a rejuvenating getaway.


The Hogback Covered Bridge in Winterset, Iowa.
The historic Hogback Covered Bridge in Winterset, Iowa.

Warm and inviting, Winterset lies in the idyllic countryside of Madison County. To this end, the town presents a serene retreat from the hustle and bustle of city life. Famously featured in the novel The Bridges of Madison County, the county boasts six picturesque covered bridges, one of which is the Roseman Covered Bridge. Beyond the bridges, visitors can take a leisurely stroll or enjoy a picnic at the scenic Winterset Park along the Middle River.

For a history lesson, one may tour the John Wayne Museum, which is believed to be the only museum in the world dedicated to John Wayne. Visitors are welcome to stay at Cobblestone Inns and Suites, where they can start the day with delicious complimentary breakfasts and convenient access to and from the roads.

Le Claire

The Buffalo Bill Museum in Le Claire, Iowa.
The Buffalo Bill Museum in Le Claire, Iowa. By Kepper66 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons.

Le Claire is a charming village resting on the banks of the Mississippi River. A stroll along the cobblestone alleys, dotted with charming cafes, will transport visitors to a bygone era. Enter the past with a visit to The Buffalo Bill Museum, a great place to learn about the town’s history. Or, head to the Mississippi Cottage Antiques for some keepsakes. After learning about local tales, one can head to Hollyhock Park, a serene place in Le Claire perfect for a relaxing evening.

For a similar experience on the water, you can tour the river through the Riverboat Twilight, constructed to imitate the opulent steamboats that were common in the Victorian era. As the sun sets, there are various hotel options in Le Claire for tourists, such as Eagle Ridge Inn and Holiday Inn Express.


Aerial view of Lake Okoboji in Iowa.
Aerial view of the coast of Lake Okoboji near the town of Okoboji, Iowa.

Okoboji, situated in the Northern Iowa region, is another waterside community. Its special feature is its collection of interconnected lakes, which make it a summer wonderland. Swimming, fishing, and sunbathing are among the top activities in the tranquil waters. The Arnolds Park Amusement Park is also one perk Okoboji has to offer. Visitors can experience classic amusement rides and entertainment at Iowa's oldest amusement park.

Additionally, you can take advantage of the fair weather and visit the Okoboji View Golf Course. Be sure to get some gifts for your loved ones at Barn Swallow Gift Shop. After an adventure-filled day, you can unwind at the Vintage Block Inn & Suites of Okoboji, which promises a luxurious stay and impeccable service.


View of a cave near Maquoketa, Iowa
View from within a cave in Maquoketa Caves State Park in Iowa.

Maquoketa is a laid-back town in Jackson County, famed as the home of the Maquoketa Caves State Park. This intricate park boasts a labyrinthine of underground corridors and stunning natural formations, making it a must-visit for spelunkers and nature lovers. Along with the various underground caves, the area above ground has been a favorite hiking and picnic spot since the 1860s.

Visitors looking for a more relaxing outdoor experience can take a scenic drive and visit the area's leading winery, the Iowa Grape Vines Winery. If you are an art enthusiast, you may love the vibrant arts scene at the Old City Hall Gallery. It displays original oil paintings by the nationally known Iowa artist Rose Frantzen. The Maquoketa Art Experience is also a place to visit in your free time. You may relax at Econo Lodge, a low-cost hotel that delivers the best of Maquoketa.


Victorian-style properties in Decorah, Iowa.
Intricate Victorian-style architecture on display along Main Street in Decorah, Iowa.

Noted for its terrain, Decorah is a small town in the Midwest's Driftless area with Norwegian roots. The town combines a taste of Europe in the middle of Iowa with exciting outdoor activities. Visitors can explore the Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum, the largest museum dedicated to Norwegian heritage outside of Norway.

Meanwhile, those interested in authentic Norwegian cuisine can grab a meal at the award-winning Rubaiyat Restaurant. One may also enjoy a pint at Pulpit Rock Brewing Co., which has a variety of beers on tap to try. After feeding themselves, families can visit the Decorah Fish Hatchery and feed a bunch of fish, which will be a fun experience for kids. For accommodation, Hotel Winneshiek offers an idyllic environment to rest and prepare for a fun-filled day.

Clear Lake

The Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa.
The iconic Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa. Editorial credit: Joseph Kreiss /

Clear Lake is a scenic town home to its namesake, Clear Lake (the lake). This tranquil body of water lives up to its name with its crystal-clear waters, which are the main draw for visitors. It spans a whopping 3,000 acres, and boating is one of the best ways to have a blast, with plenty of rental and guided boat tours on offer. Back on land, the lake borders Clear Lake State Park, boasting a 900-foot sandy beach along its 50-acre expanse. Here, one can spend the day walking, wildlife watching, or relaxing in Iowa’s lovely outdoors.

Another place to visit in Clear Lake is the famed historic Surf Ballroom, known for being the location of The Big Bopper, Ritchie Valens, and Buddy Holly's final performance. One can also opt for a meal at Lake Time Brewery, a great choice for beer tasting and meeting the locals. As the day ends, AmericInn by Wyndham is the perfect place to stay, with a heated indoor pool and hot tub so visitors can de-stress.


Buildings lined along downtown Elkander in Iowa.
Rustic brick buildings in the downtown historic district of Elkander, Iowa. By Kevin Schuchmann - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons.

This small but captivating hamlet of Elkader in Clayton County is a hidden gem named after Algerian commander Abd al-Qadir al-Jaza'iri. Nestled near the scenic Turkey River, Elkader exudes a timeless charm that anyone can enjoy. The ideal place to be on a sunny day is Elkader Golf & Country Club. The country club also holds competitions for every skill level and has well-kept greens, so there is no shortage of fun.

Visitors can also visit the Carter House Museum, stroll around Elkader City Park, kayak at Elkader Whitewater Park, and have a sumptuous meal at Schera’s. No matter what you’re into, there is something for everyone in this quaint abode. At the end of an eventful day, you can lay your head at the Elkader JailHouse Inn for an indoor stay or camp outdoors at Elkader City Campground.


A shopping complex in Coralville, Iowa.
The City Center Square complex in Coralville, Iowa. By American007 at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons.

Located just minutes from Iowa City, Coralville is home to over 23,900 individuals. One of the major attractions of Coralville is the Antique Car Museum of Iowa. The Antique Car Museum features around eighty vehicles in its collection, which spans the years 1899 to 1995. Among the notable displays are a 1916 Haynes Cloverleaf Coupe and one of just three Demots left in existence. The Devonian Fossil Gorge, 15 minutes away, is also an exciting place to visit. You can take your kids for a stroll and check out the Coralville Community Aquatic Center. The Iowa Children's Museum will also be a massive hit with them. With raving reviews, the Drury Inn & Suites in Coralville offers you some of the best facilities to spend the night.

Wrapping Up

It makes sense that Iowa is an excellent destination for a soulful escape. These hidden gems offer a welcome diversion from the usual weekend getaway destinations. Winterset, Le Claire, Okoboji, Maquoketa, Decorah, Clear Lake, Elkader, and Coralville all have that unique charm that promises to make your weekend retreats as eventful as possible. So pack your bags and hit the roads; you are in for a pleasant ride into the Hawkeye State.

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