Iowa is nestled in between Nebraska and Illinois, in the heart of the Midwest. Crisscrossed by the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, the countryside is a gorgeous place to get away and relax for a few days. Bring your camera and admire the rolling plans and cornfields, and check out our recommendations for the best towns off the beaten path. Dotted with historic communities that keep their founders’ cultures very much alive, you could attend a Tulip Festival and feel like you were in Holland, all without leaving the continental US!
Check out our list of 15 best small towns in Iowa!
1. Pella, Iowa
Pella is located in Marion County. The town was originally settled by Dutch immigrants who named the town “Pella” in reference to “Perea”, a refuge for Christians fleeing Jerusalem during the Roman-Jewish war of 70 AD. The Dutch had moved out to Iowa in search of religious freedom, much like the Jews fleeing the Romans. Many centuries later, Wyatt Earp grew up here before launching his famous career.
Wander the downtown area and try a dutch letter from Jaarsma Bakery. You can take a tour of historic Vermeer Windmill or stroll along the Molengracht Canal. Appreciate the Dutch flavor that Pella has preserved, and mark springtime on your calendars – the town hosts a Tulip Festival! Pamper yourself at The Cheesemaker’s Inn and revel in the change to your routine!
2. The Amana Colonies
The Amana Colonies is comprised of seven villages stretched across 26,000 acres in Iowa County. These villages were built by German Pietists who fled their home country in search of religious freedom. They managed a self-sustaining colony for several decades, not interacting much with the outside world. Come visit this preserved and still very unique part of the colorful American immigration story!
The Amana Colonies has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and draws in many visitors interested in heritage tourism. Visit these towns to experience the independent shops, local artists, and see firsthand the German roots this area is so proud of. Visit a preserved Woolen Mill, or the Village Winery! Kick back at A Prairie Rose Bed and Breakfast and let yourself be transported back to simpler times.
3. Bentonsport, Iowa
Bentonsport is a village on the Des Moines River, in Van Buren County. Bentonsport was built around the first dam on the Des Moines River and became a successful mill and port town. This former bustling 19th century steamboat port has changed very little since – you can visit a large Historic District that includes waterfront property, the town’s historic bridge, and 16 blocks of buildings!
Bentonsport is now an artistic and B&B haven for those looking for a quiet weekend. Walk across their historic Bentonsport Bridge or visit the local quilt company. You can check out a preserved blacksmiths as well! Enjoy some rest and relaxation at Bentonsport Village B&B, and indulge your sweet tooth at Forever Sweet Creations. You deserve the break!
4. Decorah, Iowa
Decorah is located in Winneshiek County, and was originally settled by the Days in 1849. It was named after Waukon Decorah, a Winnebago leader who allied with the US during the Black Hawk Wars until being relocated to Iowa. Later, a large number of Norwegians settled in the area, converting the town into a center of Norwegian American culture. A large Norwegian-language newspaper was even published here until 1972.
Come visit to get a taste of Norwegian culture a bit closer to home than Scandinavia! In July, Decorah puts on a Nordic Fest, celebrating their roots with dancing, food and music. You can also learn more about Norwegian-Americans at the Norwegian-American Museum, the largest museum devoted to one individual immigrant group! Get some exercise and enjoy the nature along the Trout Run Trail, and put your feet up after at the Dug Road Inn.
5. Orange City, Iowa
Located in Sioux County, Orange City was named after William of Orange and is still rooted in its Dutch origins. Orange City was founded by Dutch immigrants from Pella, Iowa who were searching for better, cheaper land. The town was initially even called Holland until being renamed in honor of Dutch royalty.
Experience their Dutch Heritage and go to the Tulip Festival they host every spring! Check out their Woudstra Meat Market, or the Stitch Studio. Really though, the best way to experience a new place is through food, so we recommend Dutch Bakery and De Koffiehoek & Bistro. Stretch your legs after your meal and enjoy the Dutch architecture of downtown.
6. Mount Vernon, Iowa
Mount Vernon is located in Linn County and is named after George Washington’s estate. It was founded in 1847 and sits atop a paha – a ridge of sand and silt that was formed during the Ice Age. The Union Pacific Railroad’s main line also passes right through Mount Vernon.
If you visit in May, you’ll be able to catch their Chalk the Walk fest – streets are closed down and people create their own works of art on the main street! Over a half-ton of chalk is used per year! Mount Vernon also hosts Magical Night, a Christmas festival in December, and a Chocolate Stroll! Go stargazing while you’re here at Palisades-Dows Preserve and Observatory and enjoy a meal or drink at Lincoln Winebar.
7. McGregor, Iowa
McGregor is located in Clayton County, on the Mississippi River across from Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin. The town was officially called McGregor’s landing in 1847 by Alexander MacGregor, a descendant of Rob Roy MacGregor, whose family settled the original town. A ferry was operated between town and Wisconsin and eventually McGregor became a bustling shipping post.
Now, the town draws tourists, especially during the summer, due to its location on the Mississippi and its antique stores. Pikes Peak State Park is also close by, as is Spook Cave if you’re feeling brave. Enjoy dinner with a view at River View Restaurant and relax and step back in time during your stay at the Alexander Hotel. The cool river breeze will make you feel like a new person.
8. Elk Horn, Iowa
Elk Horn is located in Shelby County. Named after nearby Elkhorn Creek and founded in 1901, the town is a center of Danish ethnicity and culture to this day. It has maintained a strong connection to its Danish settler roots and is home to the Museum of Danish America!
Take a tour of the Danish Windmill Museum after you’ve checked out the Museum of Danish America and wander downtown to get a feel for this town’s Scandinavian past. Stop in at Larsen’s Pub for a pint or some comfort food. You can always extend your stay at Tivoli Inn & Suites and enjoy being off the beaten path for a few days.
9. Dyersville, Iowa
Located in Dubuque County, Dyersville was named after early property owner James Dryer and platted in 1851. This quaint community boasts a historic Victorian mansion, the Dyer-Botsford House, and is also home to the Basilica of St. Francis Xavier, one of the few Catholic Basilicas in the United States!
You’ll notice that the town might seem familiar – the movie, Field of Dreams, was filmed at the historic Lansing family farm, and they built a baseball field just for this film in town. Explore the downtown shops area and enjoy this time away from “normal life”. The Basilica is a peaceful place to sit and think regardless of your religious beliefs.
10. Eldora, Iowa
Eldora is located in Hardin County and founded in 1853. The origin of the town name is a sad story: it was named by a local woman who had lost her daughter, Eldora. The name was derived from Spanish and means “the gilded”. Come visit this whimsical town and enjoy proximity to the Iowa River and Pine Lake State Park.
Wander downtown Eldora – much of it is listed on the National Historic Register. Stop in at the courthouse square or the Farm Museum. Time has stopped here – you can still go to Ahoy Fountain and order a delicious malt like in the good old days. Tube down the river or relax at Rock and Row Adventures!
11. Elkader, Iowa
Located in Clayton County, Elkader is also the county seat. Its founders, Timothy Davis, John Thompson and Chester Sage, named the town after Algerian leader Abd al-Qadir al-Jaza’iri, who was leading a resistance against the French colonial invasion of Algeria at the time. Elkader is right on the Turkey River and is built from stone from the local quarries.
Come visit this curious little town – you can admire the architecture at Motor Mill Historic Site or catch a show at Elkader Opera House. Antique lovers will love browsing the wares at Carter House Museum. Relax at Elkader Jailhouse Inn and enjoy a meal at Johnson’s Restaurant.
12. Le Claire, Iowa
Le Claire is a town in Scott County, and is named after Antoine Le Claire, a First Nations-French Canadian descended trader who was the original landowner. The town is also known as the birthplace of Buffalo Bill Cody, and was the shooting location of the reality series, American Pickers.
While you are here, take a Riverboat Tour or visit the Buffalo Bill Museum. You can also find a souvenir at Antique Archeology. Indulge your sweet tooth at the Shameless Chocoholic or have a drink at Green Tree Brewery. Treat yourself to a leisurely weekend at Latimer Bed and Breakfast and relax in this Midwestern paradise.
13. Okoboji, Iowa
A town in Dickinson County, Okoboji is located along the eastern shore of West Okoboji Lake. A resort destination in the summer because of its proximity to the Iowa Great Lakes, this town is full of loyal locals who proudly represent their fictitious University of Okoboji in bumper stickers and sweatshirts, saying that they attended college there. Come visit to find out what they love so much about Okoboji!
Come get a taste of this quirkiness yourself! Enjoy a lakeside vacation or hiking in Arnolds Park. Pikes Point State Park is also nearby. Explore the Iowa Great Lakes Maritime Museum or attend a summer show at Okoboji Summer Theatre! They have a display of classic cars at Okoboji Classic Cars. Pamper yourself at Vintage Block Inn & Suites and refuel at Barefoot Bar.
14. Winterset, Iowa
Winterset is located in Madison County. Famous for being the birthplace of actor John Wayne, the town was founded in 1849. Nestled in the picturesque Iowan countryside, Winterset is dotted with covered bridges – six in total!
Come out for their Covered Bridge Festival in October, and catch a show at the Winterset Stage while you are in town. Take a stroll through Winterset City Park and admire Clark Tower – if you go to the top, you’ll have great views of the Middle River Valley area. Learn more about John Wayne at the John Wayne Birthday Museum, and have a relaxing cup of coffee in Northside Cafe. Find your own paradise at Heavenly Habitat B&B and enjoy disconnecting from everyday life.
15. Johnston, Iowa
Johnston is located in Polk County. It was established in 1905 and named after the railway supervisor of the station between Des Moines and Perry, John F. Johnston. Get out of the big city without having to go far – Des Moines and Urbandale are close by!
Brush up on your history at Iowa Gold Star Military Museum or go camping at Saylorville Lake. Bob Shelter Picnic Area is a perfect place for a picnic. Stop in at Trostel’s Greenbriar for a delicious meal, or enjoy a sweet treat at Van Dee’s Ice Cream Shoppe. If camping isn’t for you, stay at Stoney Creek Hotel for a few days and kick back – you’ve earned it!