National Geographic Traveler‘s assistant online editor Mary Beth LaRue often brags about her alma mater, the University of Iowa, despite barrages of corn and farmer jokes, and the occasional puzzled look ("I know the state exists, but where is it?"). But Iowa City, which she likes to call the "cultural hub" of the Midwest, is home to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, fabulous restaurants, and outdoor festivals. Mary Beth traveled "home" for a long weekend and reported back to IT with her favorite spots:
Like any region with a viciously hot summer, early fall is the best time to visit. Get a cheap flight into Chicago, only four hours away, and catch a train or flight heading into the nearby city of Cedar Rapids. For a scenic fall walk, run, or bike ride, check out the paths along the Iowa River, which wind through the university campus. Or just wander through the area’s quiet residential neighborhoods, many of which are dotted with restaurants and boutiques.
Try the downtown farmers’ market. There is a great selection of locally grown produce as well as delectable baked goods. If you miss the market, you can just go straight to the source. Bike or drive to the Amana Colonies, a utopian society comprised of seven villages on 20,000 acres of land outside of Iowa City. Visit Hahn’s Hearth Oven Bakery, a bakery selling breads and pastries that are baked in the original wood-fired stone hearth. For Amana ham, bacon, and kasseler rippchen (smoked pork chops), stop by the Homestead Meat Shop and Smokehouse.
Market Street is my absolute favorite. There’s Dave’s Fox Head Tavern (402 East Market St.; +1 319 351 9824), a bar known for its phenomenal jukebox, Writers’ Workshop clientele, and Iowa City-beloved Pabst Blue Ribbon. Down the street is Artifacts (331 East Market St.; +1 319 358 9617) and Decorum (323 East Market St.; +1 319 354 2183), two used-furniture/hodgepodge stores filled with treasures like old Life magazines, worn cowboy boots, and antique side tables. Also check out the Northside Book Market, a used bookstore with rows of dusty hardcovers and cheap finds.
When back in Iowa City, I usually plan which restaurants I’ll hit well in advance. Try the downtown Indian restaurant Masala (9 South Dubuque St.; +1 319 338 6199) for a delicious vegetarian lunch buffet of naan, chole batura chickpea curry, and more, for around $6. For cheap deals on "Big Girls," 23-ounce steins of any beer, stop by Quinton’s Bar and Deli (215 East Washington St.; +1 319 354 7074) during happy hour from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. on weekdays. With so many favorites, I can never decide where to have dinner. Will it be sangria and a portobello and asiago quesadilla at Devotay, or vegetable curry from the Red Avocado?
The Englert Theatre was constructed in 1912 and has recently been renovated. The brightly lit marquee is a staple of downtown Iowa City’s brick-paved pedestrian mall and a great stop for plays, concerts, and speakers. If looking for a grittier scene, try The Picador, formerly known as Gabe’s Oasis, at 330 East Washington St. This concert venue is a grungy but prominent downtown spot that attracts big-name indie and punk acts.
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