An important geographic and cultural center of the Midwestern United States, the “Hawkeye State” of Iowa is indeed a land full of stunning surroundings, fascinating American history, and splendid cultural attractions. While major cities in any State will always dominate much attention, smaller towns should never be overlooked, and in Iowa, this continues to stand true. Through an exploration of some of Iowa’s most charming, rustic, and culturally pleasing towns, one will certainly find a treasure trove of beauty for all ages. So come see another side of the “Hawkeye State”, across a discovery of these wonderfully underrated smaller towns.
Marion County’s largest town, just under 10,500 inhabitants, call Pella home which was originally established by Dutch immigrants in the 1840s. Indeed a very special sense of Dutch heritage can be experienced here that allows guests to ‘travel’ to the Netherlands without leaving America. Take a leisurely walk along the splendid Molengracht Canal, visit the Vermeer Windmill (the tallest of its kind in the nation), and take in all the sights, smells, and pleasures of the great Tulip Time Festival. With traditional food, dances, colorful folk dresses, and of course, loads of flowers and associated parades, this event is surely one of the liveliest in the State. Whether it's dancing, sampling new foods, or taking great pictures, spending time in Pella is always a delight for all ages.
Decorah serves as the seat of Winneshiek County and has a modern history that dates back to the 1840s. Today home to just over 7,500 residents, Decorah is uniquely situated just south of the border with Minnesota and where visitors will find loads of special cultural attractions. Experience the town’s Norwegian roots where several settlers from Norway first arrived in the mid 19th century and spend some time at the Vesterheim Norwegian American Museum. Here interactive and informative displays shed light on the pioneer lifestyle and the role of Norwegian settlers in developing this area of the State. And in the summertime one surely cannot miss the Nordic Festival and its loving celebration of all things Scandinavian, from food, to dance, to music and so much more!
Also near the border with the State of Minnesota, the town of Okoboji is situated on the shores of West Okoboji Lake and is a popular place for activities like swimming, sailing, and even old fashioned sunbathing. Though only home to a modest population of under 800 inhabitants, thousands visit this charming community for great dose of relaxation and small town allure. Meanwhile when not enjoying fun on the lake, families can spend time at Arnold’s Park Amusement Park which includes among its attractions the wooden track roller coaster “Legend”! And with Okoboji’s assortment of welcoming local shops, eateries, and other charming businesses this is surely one small town that will leave a most positive impression of the American Midwest.
The town of Eldora was established in the 1850s and named for the daughter for one of its founders, and today it serves as the seat of Hardin County where just over 2,600 people call home. With easy access to the nearby Iowa River and the Pine Lake State Park, outdoor lovers will certainly appreciate this small town where opportunities for fun on the water and close encounters with nature are never far away. In addition guests can get acquainted with some 19th century history through time spent at Eldora’s Historic District, much of which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Indeed with its preserved buildings (including the First Congregational Church from 1894) a genuine sense of old world charm can be felt here.
Bonaparte was founded in the 1830s and named for the famed French Emperor Napoleon, and today it has a very humble population of just over 350 permanent residents. Still this small town remains a place of great cultural intrigue within a most welcoming atmosphere that only a community of this size can offer. Located along the Mormon Trail and the Des Moines River, Bonaparte is home to several listings on the National Register of Historic Places, which include the Historic Riverfront District, the Pottery Archeological District, and the Meek’s Flour Mill (1878). These offer guests a special look back at 19th-century life and the industrial changes that occurred in this time period. Naturally, like any good small town, Bonaparte has a fine assortment of welcoming shops, restaurants, and cute lodgings, making it a very comfortable and special place to enjoy small-town life.
Known as the birthplace of movie icon John Wayne in 1907, Winterset serves as the seat of Madison County that is widely celebrated for its famed covered bridges. A scenic and culturally rich town just under 5,500 residents call Winterset home which enthusiastically honors its ties to the beloved architectural works. Visit ones like the Roseman and Cedar Covered Bridges both completed in 1883, and do not forget to enjoy October’s Covered Bridge Festival, where live music, vendors, and guided tours lovingly commemorate this very special form of American infrastructure. Meanwhile an afternoon at the beautiful Winterset City Park is a great place to catch splendid views of the Middle River Valley. And of course visiting the John Wayne Birthplace Museum cannot be forgotten, where special mementos and an interactive look at the star’s life highlight the Golden Age of Hollywood.
Named for a 19th century Algerian military leader, the town of Elkader was founded in the 1840s and is today the home of just over 1,200 residents. Seat of Clayton County, this charming community is situated on the banks of the Turkey River all while surrounded by splendid streams, wooded hillsides, and welcoming tracts of farmland that make for a most picturesque atmosphere. Indeed for a quiet and reflective place full of stunning natural beauty, Elkader is a must visit in the State while its cultural and historic allure is also of note. Take a stroll through the downtown historic district and its assortment of landmarks on the National Register of Historic Places like the Carter House Museum (1850). And of course crossing the famed Elkader Keystone Bridge (1889) makes for quite a special set of photo memories for all ages. Combine the natural setting and a welcoming small-town feel with 19th century furnishings, and Elkader is certainly one of Iowa’s most special places to discover.
Orange City serves as the seat of Sioux County and was founded by Dutch settlers in the 1870s. Named for the king William of Orange, this humble town is now home to just over 6,200 residents and it actively celebrates its Dutch heritage throughout the year. With several Western European style buildings and plenty of 19th century attraction, visiting Orange City is both like travelling back in time and visiting the Netherlands of old. Stop by the Woudstra Meat Market for some of the best in authentic Dutch food and do not forget about the Tulip Festival. Each spring colorful flowers, informative cultural displays, food vendors, live entertainment and more honor Holland and the immigrant group that created this special town all those years ago.
Near the border with the State of Illinois, the town of LeClaire is a part of the Quad Cities region and boasts a population of just under 5,000 inhabitants. Founded in the 1850s, this welcoming town is a great place to get acquainted with 19th century American history and time spent at the Cody Road Historic District will surely transport any guest back to the tumultuous days of the 1800s. In addition one can also learn about the life of famed frontiersman Buffalo Bill who was born in the town in 1846. At his eponymous museum besides information into his fascinating life, an interactive look at life in the 19th and early 20th centuries is a great way to discover the nation’s past. And of course with the nearby Mississippi River always ready to welcome guests, views of this majestic body of water will surely leave an impression on the young and old.
Iowa, or the “Hawkeye State”, is undoubtedly one of the Midwestern United States’ most beautiful and important places. Whether it is its beautiful natural features, its intriguing history, or its varied cultural attractions, Iowa and its small towns are great treasures that any lover of Americana will want to experience. From the Dutch settlement town of Pella to the covered bridge splendor of Winterset, these and other smaller Iowa towns are reflections of some of the very best places in the country. Iowa is indeed calling, so do not wait and longer and discover what makes the State so special through its some of its very best small towns!