Sharing a boundary with Cedar Rapids, Marion is an historic city with its own personality and a burgeoning population that has doubled since 2000.
The city is named after Francis Marion (1732-1795), the “Swamp Fox” who helped swing the Revolutionary War in the United States’ favor in South Carolina.
Historic Uptown Marion is a fabulous place to be at any time of year, with a cluster of independent businesses, a monthly market and several exciting festivals attracting big crowds.
The most famous of these is the Marion Arts Festival, a juried fair inviting 50 talented artists from around the country to show off their work at idyllic City Square Park.
1. Uptown Marion
When we wrote this list, Marion’s endearing central business district was being rejuvenated. Among the projects was a reconstruction of the arterial 7th Avenue and a whole batch of streetscape improvements to make the heart of the city more walkable and sociable.
City Square Park is central to these plans, and has long played host to important events like the Uptown Marion Market, Marion Arts Festival, Swamp Fox Festival and Christmas in the Park.
With pretty, late 19th-century storefronts, the blocks directly north of the square are a treat, boutiques, antique stores, quirky gift shops and an amazing concentration of cafes and restaurants, all independent.
2. Marion Heritage Center
Off the southwest corner of City Square Park is an eye-catching building, dating back to 1855 when it was a Methodist Church.
This is a fitting location for the Marion Historical Society, with a compact but enlightening museum for all things Marion.
The Marion Heritage Center has a large collection, and puts on superb exhibits, normally in conjunction with local organizations and companies.
When we put this list together the main exhibit was an intriguing look at peat-cutting activity on the prairie during the fuel crises that plagued eastern Iowa in the second half of the 19th century.
A real treasure in the museum’s collection is Communication by Mail (1939), a fresco painted for the Marion Post Office by Muralist Daniel Rhodes.
3. The Granger House Victorian Museum
A gentle walk north from Uptown Marion, along leafy 10th Ave, will bring you to a beautifully preserved Italianate house dating to 1860.
Occupied by a single family for almost a century, the Granger House was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973.
Now a museum, the house has kept hold of many of its original furnishings and fixtures, presenting the lifestyle of a prosperous middle-class family in the second half of the 19th century.
At the time of writing, tours were available on Saturday and Sunday afternoons.
4. Thomas Park
Marion’s largest park is on the banks of Indian Creek just southwest of Uptown. Winding through Thomas Park next to the creek is the paved Boyson Trail, connecting with other local green spaces like Hanna Park to the southeast and Boyson Park to the north.
Thomas Park attracts families year round, with a splash pad and sand box beloved by children in the summer, and then the best sledding hill in the city and an ice rink in the winter.
There’s a disc golf course here with wooded and open holes, as well as tennis courts, basketball courts and a playground with up-to-date equipment.
5. Uptown Marion Market
City Square Park is the setting for a special market held once a month in the summer and soundtracked by live music from local performers.
Taking place on a Saturday morning, the Uptown Marion Market is a top-notch farmers’ market where you can purchase farm-fresh fruits, vegetables, flowers, baked goods, Iowa wine and all kinds of artisan products.
All the vendors are local and you’ll have the chance to chat with them about how their goods are grown, made and raised.
6. Swamp Fox Festival and Parade
Francis Marion earned the nickname “Swamp Fox” during the Revolutionary War for his mastery of guerilla tactics in the swamps of South Carolina.
The name has been adopted by Marion for an annual celebration of the city’s heritage, observed for more than 30 years over a weekend in late September.
Set on and around City Square Park, the Swamp Fox Festival features a pancake breakfast, 5k run, fall market, food vendors, a dog fashion show, fun activities for kids and a program of live entertainment.
The parade on Saturday morning is always a highlight, and the festival closes out in style with fireworks in Lowe Park.
7. Marion Arts Festival
Launched in 1992, the Marion Arts Festival is another hotly-anticipated event, putting the city on the map in the art world.
On the third Saturday in May, the festival invites 50 artists from around the country to showcase their work to more than 10,000 people.
With no distractions like live music or beer gardens, this event is all about the art, generating big sales for artists and giving visitors a chance to purchase something absolutely unique, be it painting, sculpture, ceramics or photography.
The only side event to speak of is a half-marathon, accompanied by a less competitive 5k run/walk.
8. Boyson Park
North of Thomas Park, the Boyson Trail is paved with crushed limestone and meanders beside Dry Creek through a series of connected green spaces.
The northernmost of these is Boyson Park, which is a peaceful spot for walks and bike rides, with beautiful hardwood forest, big grassy areas and flower gardens.
There are a few picnic tables here so you could bring a packed lunch in the spring and summer. Given the abundance of deciduous trees the park is delightful in early fall as the leaves turn.
9. Christmas in the Park
A Marion tradition for more than a quarter century, Christmas in the Park is a one-day event sure to bring some festive cheer in early December.
Incorporating the lighting ceremony, there’s hot cocoa & popcorn, horse drawn carriage rides, holiday music and of course, Santa Claus and Mrs. Claus.
Most of the activities take place at City Square Park, and more than two dozen small businesses in Uptown Marion take part in the Peppermint Walk, offering a peppermint treat to people who stop by.
10. Cedar Rapids
Marion is contiguous with Iowa’s second-largest city, noted for its distinct Czech and Slovak heritage, and for being the place where Grant Wood (1891-1942) produced his most famous work.
The Cedar Rapids Museum of Art holds the world’s largest collection of works by Wood, and also preserves the studio in which he painted American Gothic in 1930.
The city was badly affected by the Iowa flood of 2008 but has rebounded with the dynamic cross-river district, New Bohemia and Czech Village, home to the National Czech and Slovak Museum.
Just a few minutes from Marion is Brucemore, an opulent 26-acre estate built in the mid-1880s and seat for a succession of important families until it became a community center in the 1980s.
11. Wanatee Park
For a taste of the rural scenery bordering Marion you can visit this 1,000-acre park on the city’s southeastern margins.
Wanatee Park is somewhere to make the most of the outdoors, hiking, horseback riding, cross-country skiing, nature watching, picnicking and camping.
The main trail is over four miles long, leading you across creek bottoms, through wildflower-rich meadows and into mature woodland.
The campground at Wanatee Park has 69 campsites complemented by a modern restroom and shower facility.
12. Hunters Ridge Golf Course and Country Club
Part of a new residential development in the north of Marion, this 18-hole public golf course has distinct front and back 9s.
The forgiving front 9 mingles with the new homes, featuring large landing areas and spacious greens. Integrated with wetlands, the back 9 is a different story, and has a chain of ponds to punish wayward shots.
The most devilish of all is the par-5 17th measuring 600 yards from the back tees, and guarded by water. Hunters Ridge has a well-stocked pro shop and a driving range so you can work on your iron play in advance.
13. Allen’s Apple Orchard
This U-Pick orchard in the north of Marion has been going strong for more than half a century. Allen’s Apple Orchard is a working farm, welcoming the public August through October to pick apples, pears, grapes and pumpkins.
There are more than 50 apple varieties growing at the farm, and the website has an informative guide telling you which kinds are available and what you can do with them at home.
The farm store has plenty to tempt you, with apple cider donuts and a selection of pies and turnovers, fresh from the bakery, along with Allen’s signature apple cider slushies.
14. Grant Wood Bike Trail
Marion is at the western end of an 8.5 mile multi-use trail running through Linn County and parts of Jones County.
The Grant Wood Bike Trail follows the right-of-way of the Milwaukee Road railroad, and has taken shape in phases over the last 20 years. When we wrote this article there were five segments, either paved or laid with crushed limestone.
The longest of these begins not far east of Uptown Marion, with a parking lot at Waldo’s Rock Park.
From here you can break out into the rolling countryside as far as Oxley Rd, and another segment begins a little way east of this point, tracing Simmons Creek for a couple of miles from Creekside Rd to Springville Rd.
15. Lindale Mall
On the boundary between Marion and Cedar Rapids is a large enclosed mall, which first opened its doors as an open-air shopping center in 1960.
Surrounded by big box stores, Lindale Mall was enclosed in 1980 and expanded during the 90s, and now offers more than 100 stores and services on two floors.
A few of the many well-known brands are Foot Locker, Hot Topic, Kay Jewelers, rue21, Von Maur, GameStop and American Eagle, together with eateries like Five Guys, Panda Express, Chipotle and Arby’s.
The mall is also home to plenty of local small businesses, while the Play Station Cedar Rapids next door is a giant indoor playground.