Iowa City is a vibrant college town with plenty of nightlife, shopping, dining, and sightseeing to offer visitors. Even long-time Iowa City residents are always discovering new places to call their own.
Hardly one of the small, backwater farming towns traditionally thought of as quintessentially Iowan, Iowa City is a cultural mecca of over 62,000 people, a progressive and open-minded Midwestern locale.
The heart of Iowa City is the University of Iowa, and no trip here would be complete without a look at the recently-restored Old Capitol, on a rise in the center of campus at Clinton and Iowa Streets. Iowa City served as the state capital from 1840 until 1857, and this gorgeous Greek Revival building housed the state government. When the capital was moved to Des Moines, the Old Capitol became the university’s first building.
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A fire destroyed the building’s gold-leaf dome in 2001, but the restoration was completed this year and the building just recently opened to the public as the Old Capitol Museum, where visitors can see the interior as it appeared when it housed the state government during the 1840s and ’50s, including the former home of the Iowa State Supreme Court and the Senate Chamber, a current popular site for doctoral dissertation defenses.
The ground floor hosts rotating exhibits related to Iowa history. The museum is free and is open Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday from 10-3; Thursday and Saturday from 10-5; and Sunday from 1-5.
More Iowa City history, of the somewhat grisly variety, can be uncovered at the 1855 Johnson County Poor Farm and Asylum, 160 acres at Melrose Avenue and Slothower Road, where the poor and mentally ill were housed and labored at farm chores.
Many of the original buildings and a cemetery of unmarked graves survive. Tours are free and by appointment only.
The Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum in West Branch, 10 miles east of Iowa City at 210 Parkside Drive, is worth the trip. Here visitors can view artifacts and exhibits chronicling Hoover’s life, including an elaborate doodle drawn by the former president, as well as stroll the extensive grounds of the museum to see his birthplace cottage and gravesite.
Fascinating rotating exhibits are also on display in the museum: through October 28, it’s American Riddles, Mysteries, and Controversies, featuring artifacts such as Amelia Earhart’s flight jacket, tools used by the Watergate burglars, and the name tags of the astronauts who died in the Challenger explosion. The museum costs $6 for adults and is open daily from 9-5.
Finally, check out the University of Iowa Museum of Art, an airy and spacious free museum whose permanent collection includes works by Joan Miro, Max Beckmann, and Jackson Pollock and whose temporary exhibits are always cutting-edge. The museum is located at 150 North Riverside Drive and is open Wednesday-Sunday 12-5 and Thursday and Friday 12-9.
Another must-see is the car-free, brick-paved Pedestrian Mall (“Ped Mall” to the locals), beginning at the intersection of Dubuque and Washington Streets. A colorful crowd can be seen hanging out here at anytime of the day or night, and the Ped Mall is the place to be for participating in political demonstrations, listening to a street musician, playing chess, enjoying a snack from one of the food vendors, or people-watching.
During the summer months, children flock to play in the Weatherdance Fountain, an unenclosed fountain made up of several arcs of water. Lined with shops, restaurants, and bars, the Ped Mall also hosts a free Friday night concert series in the summer.
Iowa City is a haven of chic, locally owned shops. Celebrate Iowa City’s strong literary history–it’s the home of the world-renowned Iowa Writer’s Workshop and the Nobel Peace Prize-nominated International Writer’s Program–with a visit to Prairie Lights, 15 S. Dubuque St.
You can browse three floors of books and sip a latte in the coffeeshop on the site where the local literary society once met and hosted the likes of Robert Frost and Langston Hughes.
R.S.V.P., 114 E. Washington St., carries a variety of gorgeous papers and cards. The Silver Spider, inside Old Capitol Mall at 201 S. Clinton St., is a store crammed with unique specialty gifts, from rolls of packing tape imprinted with pictures of Jesus to funky jewelry to quality wooden toys for children.
If you’re a dedicated thrifter, check out Crowded Closet, 1213 Gilbert Court, which sells, among many other miscellaneous items, books, records, fabric, clothing, furniture, toys, and housewares for unbelievably low prices. Dulcinea, 2 S. Dubuque St., is a boutique offering high-quality designer clothing for women.
If shopping has led you to work up an appetite, there is almost no end to the number of downtown restaurants to choose from. For breakfast, try an Iowa City tradition: Hamburg Inn, 214 S. Linn St., offers a huge, diverse menu that includes the famous New York Times-featured “pie shake.” The restaurant, which has a 1950s diner atmosphere, is a mandatory stop on the campaign trail for all aspiring politicians who make their way through Iowa. Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton have dined here!
For lunch, check out Airliner Bar and Restaurant, 22 S. Clinton St. A favorite student hangout since 1944, the recently renovated Airliner offers $1.50 pizza slices all day on Sundays. Formosa, 201 S. Linn St., is a new upscale dinner hot spot featuring shabu shabu (Asian-style fondue), a wide selection of sake, and an elegant feng-shui inspired environment.
Other local favorites include Lou Henri, 630 Iowa Ave., a homey diner which emphasizes locally-grown ingredients, and Devotay, 117 N. Linn St., which began as a couple selling spice blends and infused oils at the local farmer’s market and grew to a restaurant featuring Mediterranean cuisine served on crockery handmade by one of the owners.
As a college town, Iowa City has a well-established nightlife, but there are many bars not overrun by the barely-legal crowd. Hilltop Tavern, 1034 N. Summit St., is a true neighborhood bar with a dedicated cult following. Nestled in a mostly-residential area, this drinking establishment is cheap, dark, gritty, and has plenty of character.
The Picador, 330 E. Washington St., is Iowa City’s premier venue for live music, featuring local and national acts seven nights a week. The Deadwood Tavern, though in the heart of downtown at 6 S. Dubuque St., is more of a hipster hangout than a favorite of college freshmen, and has tons of seating and a mellow atmosphere.
Iowa City is a modern, progressive town steeped in fascinating history, a welcoming gem of a city smack in the center of the Midwest, with plenty to do and see for locals and visitors alike.