Midwest

8 Weekend Getaways in Iowa with Scenic Escapes and Thriving Main Streets

Visit vibrant city centers and astonishing scenic wonders in a matter of minutes with these eight weekend getaways in Iowa.

The scent of century-old wood and worn leather hits me as I near the top of the stairs to the second floor of West End Architectural Salvage. The smell is reminiscent of summers spent with my cousins exploring boxes of forgotten toys in our grandpa’s attic.

I pause for a second, taken aback by the sheer number of salvaged items that fill this floor. An old chandelier catches my eye and I hang a left to go take a closer look. I hear my sister’s footsteps stop behind me as she, too, pauses in awe at the thousands of antique items.

As two creatives, this is our kind of shopping. We love the hunt and our imaginations run wild with ideas for repurposing items into home decor. I discover a whole section of vintage signs and call my sister over to take a look. A few minutes later, she excitedly motions me over to a table piled with gorgeous vintage glass jars. Before we know it, we’ve spent our entire morning wandering the four floors of West End Salvage.

My home state of Iowa itself epitomizes West End Salvage. Neither appears flashy or exciting from the outside but give them a chance and you will discover delightful treasures not found anywhere else.

You’ll still find the postcard-worthy cornfields, fabulous farmers markets and charming Main Streets you might expect from a Midwestern state, but you’ll also find hip cities with explosive local food scenes and lively entertainment districts. Whether you crave an urban adventure or rural getaway, Iowa really is the best of both worlds. You can get from vibrant city centers to astonishing scenic wonders in a matter of minutes.

Cedar Falls

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Downtown Cedar Falls is a nationally-recognized downtown and vibrant arts and entertainment district. Ranging from eclectic decor and knitting supplies to natural makeup and kitchen essentials, there’s a variety of fun shops to explore.

Don’t miss Scratch Cupcakery, a popular Iowa business that got its start in downtown Cedar Falls. Blueberry Mojito, Oatmeal Cream Pie, and Root Beer Float are just a few of the flavors on the menu. Pick up a snack for the trip home from the gourmet popcorn shop or bulk candy store just down the street.

You’ll find a large network of bike trails and water trails to explore during your stay no matter the season. Check out a pair of binoculars at the Visitor Center and do some bird watching. Continue your weekend exploring the great outdoors with a trip to the University of Iowa Botanical Center and Hartman Reserve Nature Center.

Catch a show at the Oster Regent Theatre or Gallagher Bluedorn Performing Arts Center. Or kick back and relax at Voodoo Lounge or SingleSpeed Brewing Company.

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Hotels in Cedar Falls

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Stay at The Blackhawk in the heart of downtown. It’s one of the oldest continuously operating hotels in the United States.

The Blackhawk

8.6 Excellent (320 reviews)
Excellent Cleanliness 9.2 / 10
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Clear Lake

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Plan a lake-cation to Clear Lake for a weekend of unforgettable outdoor fun. Put your toes in the sand, jump right in for an afternoon of swimming, find a great fishing spot, rent a kayak, or try your hand at sailing. Clear Lake is one of the best sailing lakes in the Midwest and sailboat races take place every weekend from Memorial Day to Labor Day.

Step back in time with a visit to the Surf Ballroom. A must-play venue on the rock and roll circuit in the 1950s, it’s most famous for being the last concert venue for Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. “the Big Bopper” Richardson. Visitors are welcome year-round to admire the hardwood dance floor, ocean-front murals and leather booths reminiscent of milkshakes and rock-and-roll. Surf Ballroom remains an entertainment venue today so check for special events happening during your visit. The event calendar is packed during the summer months with the biggest bash taking place over the Fourth of July weekend.

When you’re ready for a bite to eat, look no further than the food trucks that pop up all over town. If you’re looking for a place to sit down, Clear Lake’s patio scene is the best in the state.

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Rumorz Neighborhood Hideaway is a short drive from the beach and downtown.

Rumorz Neighborhood Hideaway

8.6 Excellent (49 reviews)
Excellent Cleanliness 9 / 10
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Pets allowed
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Decorah

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Travelers looking for a breath of fresh air and incredible scenery will enjoy Decorah, a small city nestled in the scenic bluffs of northeast Iowa. Bike, walk or run the extensive Trout Run Trail which passes Decorah’s most scenic views. Whether you want to bike, canoe, kayak, fish, hike or hunt, Decorah has it all. Connect with a professional guide to discover the best streams, rivers and hunting grounds.

The locals take great pride in their Norwegian heritage and celebrate it annually with Nordic Fest. This Norwegian festival draws thousands of visitors to the city for a weekend of traditional food and crafts, entertainment and parades each summer. Vesterheim Norwegian American Museum, located downtown, boasts the most comprehensive collection of Norwegian-American artifacts in the world.

Head up the road to the tiny town of Bluffton, whose claim to fame is being home to Laura Ingalls Wilder for a short time as a child. Locals staff the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum & Park and celebrate their connection to the famous pioneer with Laura Days each summer, a festival complete with a parade, pioneer games, craft demonstrations and more.

After a day exploring the outdoors, relax with an evening at Mabe’s Pizza, a local hotspot that’s been serving up incredible thin crust pizza for generations. Mabe’s is located downtown among many brick storefronts filled with interesting shops and eateries. Beer and wine lovers will definitely want to visit Toppling Goliath Brewery and Winneshiek Wildberry Winery.

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Hotels in Decorah

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Stay the night at Winneshiek, a historic boutique hotel with dazzling marble walls and terrazzo floors in the middle of downtown.

Take Your Kids To A Water Park!

Midwest

Indoor Water Parks in Iowa

Winneshiek

8.8 Excellent (276 reviews)
Excellent Location 9.4 / 10
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Des Moines

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Downtown Des Moines is the place to go for arts and culture, entertainment and nightlife. Start by taking a walk through the Pappajohn Sculpture Park — a great place for a photo opp. If the weather is warm, there is bound to be an outdoor festival or event happening nearby. You’ll definitely want to check out the Downtown Des Moines Farmers Market and catch a show at the Des Moines Civic Center or the Des Moines Community Playhouse.

West End Architectural Salvage is a treasure chest of interesting and quirky finds, made famous by the hit HGTV & DIY Network reality show, West End Salvage. You never know what you’ll find as you meander through this old warehouse that’s filled to the brim with everything from vintage license plates to reclaimed pocket doors.

The Historic East Village is filled with dining and shopping. Raygun, the self-proclaimed “greatest store in the universe” is known for the witty and sarcastic sayings it prints on t-shirts. Walk down the street for an entertaining meal at Zombie Burger, a local burger joint with a large dose of personality. Families will enjoy visits to the Blank Park Zoo, Science Center of Iowa, Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden and Brenton skating plaza.

Visit Des Moines in August to experience the Iowa State Fair. Take selfies with the butter cow, sample delicious fried foods (almost always served on a stick), check out amazing arts and crafts, and take in a free concert.

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Hotels in Des Moines

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Spend the night at the Renaissance Des Moines Savery, an elegant hotel and architectural landmark in downtown Des Moines.

Renaissance Des Moines Savery

8.1 Very good (811 reviews)
Excellent Location 8.9 / 10
WiFi in rooms
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Pets allowed
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Dubuque

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Named one of the best riverfronts in the country, Dubuque is a must-visit. Start your weekend with a stop at the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium – part aquarium, part museum and part science center all rolled into one cool experience. Touch the stingray, feed the fish, watch a 4D movie and hear stories about the rich history of the Mississippi.

Lock & Dam #11 is a fascinating place to watch boats and barge traffic move up and down the Mississippi. Explore more of the river by taking a river cruise–short tours and day-long excursions are offered by several cruise companies.

Take in the nightlife with free Friday night concerts downtown that range from jazz to blues to salsa. You’ll find dozens of restaurants in the downtown area. Check out Backpocket Brewing for a local brew and a friendly competition of Pac-Man. Continue the evening at Diamond Jo Casino and Q Casino.

Take a stroll through Art on the River, an outdoor art exhibit that rotates sculptures each year. And be sure to visit the Dubuque Museum of Art, conveniently located downtown.

Before you leave, take in the picturesque scenery of the Mississippi River at the Fenelon Place Elevator. It’s the world’s shortest, steepest scenic railway and will take you 189 feet in the air for breathtaking views of Iowa, Illinois, and Wisconsin.

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Hotels in Dubuque

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Stay at Julien Dubuque, a historic landmark in downtown Dubuque that promises a luxurious experience. The guest rooms are immaculate, the spa is marvelous and the Riverboat Lounge is superb for after-dinner drinks.

Hotel Julien Dubuque

Top rated
9.0 Excellent (2363 reviews)
Excellent Cleanliness 9.2 / 10
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Gym
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Grinnell

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Nicknamed the “jewel of the prairie,” Grinnell is a charming small city in central Iowa. Its downtown storefronts have been meticulously maintained and house an array of small retail shops and local eateries.

The crown jewel of Grinnell’s downtown is the Sullivan Bank, an impressive National Historic Landmark designed by the well-known architect Louis Sullivan. The ornate details on the exterior are impressive while stained glass windows are dazzling from the inside.

Pagliai’s Pizza is the definite hometown favorite and the place fills up as soon as it opens its doors each evening. Foodies will be delighted by the menu and atmosphere of Prairie Canary on Main Street. For an ice cream treat, check out Dari Barn for a cookie dough cyclone or Candyland Station for a Candyland sundae.

Grinnell College is the hub of activity with performances, concerts, and events taking place year-round. The best part? Admission to activities at the college is always free.

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Hotels in Grinnell

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Grinnell is a new boutique hotel that’s given new life to the former high school building in Grinnell’s downtown district. Modern furnishings combine with thoughtful nods to the building’s historic past to create a one-of-a-kind lodging experience.

Hotel Grinnell

Top rated
8.7 Excellent (115 reviews)
Excellent Cleanliness 9.3 / 10
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Mason City

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An architectural hotbed, Mason City is home to the last remaining Frank Lloyd Wright-designed hotel in the world. This city is filled with architectural gems like the Rock Crest-Rock Glen Historic District, the world’s largest unified site of Prairie-style architecture.

Fans of The Music Man will be delighted to know that composer, Meredith Willson, grew up in Mason City. Learn more about him with a visit to the Music Man Square and Willson Boyhood Home.

The art museum boasts an intriguing collection of more than 500 marionettes and puppets created by native Bil Baird, a famous puppet master whose work appeared in The Sound of Music.

Cool off with an ice cream sundae at Birdsall’s Ice Cream (a Mason City favorite for decades) and sample local brews at Fat Hill Brewing and Mason City Brewing. Unwind for the evening with a visit to the always-popular Northwestern Steakhouse, recognized as the “Most Iconic Steakhouse in Iowa.”

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Hotels in Mason City

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Few get the opportunity to stay in a building designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, so this is your chance. Every nook and cranny of the Historic Park Inn is filled with exquisite architectural details.

Historic Park Inn

Top rated
8.9 Excellent (97 reviews)
Excellent Cleanliness 9.4 / 10
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Gym
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Pella

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Step back in time in Pella, known as the country’s Dutch Treasure. Pella’s downtown, reminiscent of historic Netherlands, looks like something out of a storybook with its charming brick buildings, quaint canal, and working windmill. Visitors from around the world flood Pella for Tulip Time in May, a multi-day festival filled with parades, Dutch costumes, performances, craft fairs, quilt shows, and as the name hints, a plethora of tulips.

Visit the Pella Historical Village for a tour of the Vermeer Mill, an 1850s working mill that is the tallest in the country. The historical village surrounding the mill depicts pioneer life in Pella. Walk down the block to see the Klokkenspel, one of the only animated musical clocks left in the U.S. The Klokkenspel plays at the top of each hour and features mechanical figures that stand more than eight feet tall.

The Molengracht is a modern rendition of a Dutch mill canal with brick buildings surrounding a plaza with a canal complete with a drawbridge. This is the center for many activities throughout the year. Continue your walk to the nearby Pella Opera House for another dose of history. The Barton vintage organ and elegant tin ceiling are the focal points of this historic treasure.

Even more history awaits at the Scholte House Museum & Gardens which displays the life of Pella’s founder. Tour the 22 rooms inside the home and relax in the garden that bursts with colorful tulips and flowers during the warmer months. Be sure to also stop by one of the local bakeries for specialty Dutch pastries.

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Hotels in Pella

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Stay at the Royal Amsterdam located on the Molengracht in downtown and you’ll be within walking distance of charming shops, bakeries and restaurants.

Hotel Royal Amsterdam

8.4 Very good (109 reviews)
Excellent Location 9.4 / 10
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Featured image courtesy of Travel Iowa