11 places to see, stay and eat in Iowa

11 places to see, stay and eat in Iowa

There’s just something about a classic road trip, and there’s plenty to explore within Iowa’s borders. Here are a few hidden (or not so hidden) gems full of uniquely Iowa culture.


Northside Cafe, Winterset

Come here to feel what is warm and good and straight from your momma’s kitchen. The Northside Cafe, with its renovated camouflage green dining room and bar stools, calls you in for a real old school, back-to-the-roots kind of experience. No bagged soups or gravy from a can, this Winterset mainstay is all about cooking from scratch. Tastes, texture, seasonal and fresh come to mind with the diversified menu. It sets you up for a choose-your-own adventure. Keep it casual with a sandwich based under $10, like the fried catfish or muffuletta, or fire up your fancy for steak and potatoes or pasta primavera.

Homemade apple crisp or a shared dessert of bananas Foster with ice cream tops everything off in this quaint cafe. You can walk it off with a visit to John Wayne’s birthplace, just off the square, 216 S. Second St.

Come back the next day for breakfast — eggs, bacon, and griddlecakes — served until 11 a.m.

Find it: 61 E. Jefferson St., Winterset

Hours: 7 a.m.-8 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, Saturday; 6 a.m.-8 p.m. Friday; 9 a.m.-2 p.m. Sunday

Region: South and west of Des Moines, in central Iowa

Drive time from Des Moines: About 45 minutes to Winterset from Des Moines

— Mackensie Smith

RELATED: How to travel well (and enjoy your trip)

Schera’s Algerian-American Restaurant, Elkader

Iowa’s only true Algerian restaurant, some would argue, sits tucked away in the rolling hills of northeast Iowa. There, in downtown Elkader, you’ll find Schera’s Restaurant, where locals, the current president and plenty of passers-by have dined on North African cuisine since 2006.

Located on the bank of the Turkey River, Schera’s is no small-town diner: Its current dinner menu boasts baked tilapia ($14), couscous ($17), roasted cauliflower ($13) and rubbed pork ($14). That’s along with a drink list featuring Algerian wines and an entire page of Templeton Rye-based cocktails. You could eat and drink a lot worse in a town of 1,300.

Fine food aside, a good deal of Schera’s sophistication-in-a-small-town charm lies in its back story: Founders Frederique Boudouani and Brian Bruening moved from Boston to start the restaurant after learning about Elkader’s historic ties to Algeria. Boudouani, himself a native Algerian, learned the town was named after Emir Abdelkader, the 19th century hero called the “George Washington of Algeria.”

Since then, Schera’s food and atmosphere have caught the attention of media outlets like NPR and CNN and attracted Algerian ambassadors as well as Barack Obama.

Find it: Schera’s Restaurant, 107 S. Main St., Elkader

August hours: 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday and Tuesday; 11 a.m.-2 p.m., 4:30-8 p.m. Wednesday; 11 a.m.-2 p.m.; 4:30-9 p.m. Thursday and Friday; 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Saturday; 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Sunday

Region: Northeast Iowa

Drive time from Des Moines: About three hours.

—Josh Hafner

David’s Milwaukee Diner, Perry

This unexpected restaurant is anchored to the historic Hotel Pattee in Perry, Iowa. The restaurant’s name is a mashup of Milwaukee Railroad, the main employer of the town for 100-plus years, and David Jackson Pattee, the man in whose honor the hotel was constructed in 1913. So it chugs back to the rail-car dining era, food served on well-plated dishes of good intentions.

With a flair for fine dining from executive chef Chris Case and a dash of down home, the restaurant is perfect if you’re staying. From sources who have visited, some dishes are exceptional so choose something you like; consider the shrimp carbonara, Irish salmon and eggplant agnolotti.

They also serve a tempting breakfast menu seven days a week and a big brunch buffet the first Sunday of the month.

Dessert is delicious, (say yes to the creme brulee) and classic cocktails may send you up to your themed room early.

Find it: 1112 Willis Ave., Perry

Hours: 7 a.m.-8 p.m. Sunday; 7 a.m.-9 pm. Monday through Thursday; 7 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday

Region: Central Iowa, west of Des Moines.

Drive time from Des Moines: 45 minutes

—Mackensie Smith

Canteen Lunch in the Alley, Ottumwa

Yes, this small-town lunch must-stop with bars over the windows is indeed in an alley, and nestled under a parking garage. With its 15 seats around the horseshoe bar consistently full, Canteen Lunch in the Alley has been around since the 1920s and built up a base of regulars young and old. Consider this a no-menu stop. The star of the show is the steamed loose meat burger (with or without cheese) intended to be paired with a soda, chocolate malt and slice of pie. There are no plates and no utensils, just paper wrapped around the sandwich to keep everything from falling. Check your expectations for gourmet and attentive service at home. Also, don’t mention Maid-Rite inside this hole-in-the-wall, the town is fiercely loyal to the canteen.

Find it: 112 E Second St., Ottumwa

Hours: 10 a.m.-7 p.m Monday through Wednesday; 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday

Region: Southeast Iowa

Drive time from Des Moines: About an hour and 45 minutes.

—Mackensie Smith


Hotel Pattee, Perry

The Hotel Pattee has a classic, small-town charm that you just don’t get from modern hotels. Built in 1913 and located in Perry, the Hotel Pattee isn’t some Microtel to stop at on your way to your destination. Hotel Pattee is the destination.

The hotel’s 40 rooms are each unique, with African, Irish and Central American themes. There’s a quilting room, a RAGBRAI/BRR room and the Louis Armstrong Suite, named for the jazz trumpeter who stayed at the hotel in the 1950s.

The hotel has two bowling lanes in the basement and recently opened the Copper Door Spa, which has massage therapists and an esthetician on hand.

For bike riders, the hotel is located near the Raccoon River Valley Trail and has a bike repair station, tire pump and indoor storage. Bike rentals are also available.

David’s Milwaukee Diner provides food options in the railroad-themed restaurant, serving breakfast, lunch and dinner seven days a week. Great Lakes walleye, pork chops, Irish salmon and steak deburgo are among the dinner options.

A recent addition to the hotel is Pattee Cakes, sweet snacks including cupcakes created by La Mie bakery.

The Hotel Pattee also hosts regular live music performances on Friday and Saturday by acts like Patressa Hartman, Bryan Baker, Paul Doffing, Max Wellman and others.

Find it: Hotel Pattee, 1112 Willis Ave., Perry

Book it: 515-465-3511; hotelpattee.com

Region: Central Iowa, west of Des Moines.

Drive time from Des Moines: 45 minutes

—Joe Lawler

Historic Park Inn, Mason City

Built by the dreams and drawings of Frank Lloyd Wright (yes, the real one) the hotel is one of six designed by the infamous architect and the only one still standing. Walking through the doors is treading on refurbished tiles of history, grandeur, weddings and adventure. The style is Prairie School and it will inspire you to learn more about the crafted corners and art panels on one of the town’s architectural walking tours and in a trip to the Frank Lloyd Wright Stockman House half a mile away.

You’ll be begging your engaged friend to book the Inn for the reception with its beautiful two-story ballroom. Hit up the 1910 Lounge for drinks then head over to the 1910 Grille for a dish like “Prairie” Mushroom Risotto, chicken marsala or filet mignon.

A stay at the Historic Park Inn is anything but antiquated. Amenities boast free Wi-Fi, continental breakfast (did someone say mini muffins?) and parking for your jalopy.

Find it: 7 W. State St., Mason City

Book it: 641-422-0015; stoneycreekhotels.com

Region: North Iowa

Drive time from Des Moines: About two hours

—Mackensie Smith

Hotel Winneshiek, Decorah

To stay at the Hotel Winneshiek is to step back into the early 1900s, give or take a few modern conveniences. The boutique hotel, built in 1905 and restored in 2000, captures a classic sophistication you wouldn’t expect in Des Moines, let alone Decorah: Think crystal chandeliers, marble walls and a three-story stained-glass atrium in the lobby. It’s a breath of old-school charm, but with free Wi-Fi in every room.

The hotel originally opened with a billiard room, a barber shop and a bar called the Buffett. Guests today can grab drinks the Tap Room, a sleek cocktail bar, or dine at Restauration, the hotel’s dining establishment with an emphasis on locally-sourced ingredients. Kick off a weekend brunch there with cornmeal ricotta pancakes, fresh berries and honey butter ($9.50) or dine on stuffed wild race cakes with Iowa cheeses at dinner ($16).

Find it: Hotel Winneshiek, 104 E. Water St., Decorah

Book it: Guest rooms at the Hotel Winneshiek can range anywhere from $109 to $234 for top suites, depending on when you book. Reservations can be made online at hotelwinn.com.

Region: Northeast Iowa

Drive time from Des Moines: About three and a half hours.

—Josh Hafner


The Surf Ballroom and Museum, Clear Lake

Clear Lake’s Surf Ballroom is piece of music history on the plains, a shrine to the classic rockers who played there, like Roy Orbison, Little Richard and, of course, Buddy Holly.

The ballroom, a 2,000-person venue in north-central Iowa, is most known for hosting Holly’s final performance in 1959 before he died in a plane crash nearby. Today, the Surf functions as both a venue and a museum, hosting events alongside educational programming.

It’s open daily for self-guided tours ($5 suggested donation) and still holds a concert or two each month. Modern day incarnations of the Temptations will take the stage this month on Aug. 29 (Tickets $30-$35).

The Surf became registered as a nonprofit in 2008 and found itself named a “rock and roll landmark” by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame the year after. In 2011, the ballroom landed on the National Register of Historic Places. Most of the building remains original after 60-plus years, including its maple dance floor and its surrounding booths. The original stage is still in use today, although it’s been expanded to make way for the larger stage setups modern acts require.

Find it: Surf Ballroom & Museum, 460 N. Shore Drive, Clear Lake.

Summer Hours through Labor Day: 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday through Friday, 9 a.m.-1 p.m. Saturdays, 1-4 p.m. Sunday

Region: North central Iowa

Drive time from Des Moines: About one hour and 45 minutes.

—Josh Hafner

River Music Experience, Davenport

Cleveland has the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Davenport has River Music Experience.

The Quad Cities’ RME is a nonprofit performing arts center featuring live performances in four different venues, educational opportunities, a museum celebrating roots music and more in the historic Redstone Building. It opened in 2004 as part of Davenport’s River Renaissance project.

It hosts four music venues, the RME Community Stage, RME Hall, the Courtyard and the Redstone Room. Performers range from unknowns playing the weekly open mic to touring national acts. Upcoming performances include Buckwheat Zydeco (Aug. 22), Cody Canada & the Departed (Sept. 22), Chicago Farmer (Oct. 2) and Judah & the Lion. Past performers include Lisa Loeb, G. Love & Special Sauce, Cory Chisel and Johnny Winter.

In addition, the space features an educational recording studio, the Sound Lab, and hosts Rock Camp USA. River Currents Tours highlight the history of American roots music.

River Music Experience also organizes River Roots Live, a two-day music festival in August that has featured acts like Los Lonely Boys, Robert Randolph, the Black Crowes, Umphrey’s McGee, Greg Brown and others.

Find it: River Music Experience, 129 Main St., Davenport.

Hours: noon-5 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Friday; noon-6 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday;

Info: 563-326-1333; rivermusicexperience.org

Region: Eastern Iowa

Drive time from Des Moines: About 2 and a half hours.

—Joe Lawler

Toppling Goliath, Decorah

Beers made by Decorah’s Toppling Goliath can be in short supply on Des Moines shelves. Beer fans snap them up as soon as stores put them out. So why not go to the source?

Toppling Goliath has a beautiful tap room in its hometown, allowing you to consume the beer at its freshest. Dorothy’s New World Lager, Pseudo Sue, Murphy’s Irish Red, Naughty 90 and Hop Patrol Series beers like Zeelander and 1492 are all on tap.

If you stop in on a Friday you can participate in Firkin Friday. Each week the brewery rolls out a firkin keg (about a quarter the size of a regular keg) with a specially brewed beer. Sometimes they run out on the first day, but if you’re lucky you might still be able to get a glass on Saturday.

At this point, Toppling Goliath is to Iowa beer what Templeton Rye was to whiskey a few years back. You can keep stalking the aisles at Hy-Vee, hoping to quench your thirst, or you can drive a few hours and make a weekend of it. Unlimited Toppling Goliath, is this heaven? No, that’s a little farther south. This is Decorah.

Find it: Toppling Goliath Tap Room, 310 College Drive, Decorah.

Hours: Noon-8 p.m. Sunday through Tuesday; noon-9 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday; noon-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday

Info: tgbrews.com

Region: Northeast Iowa

Drive time from Des Moines: About three and a half hours

—Joe Lawler

Bridges of Madison County

Worth the Iowa road trip if even to see this Midwestern muse that inspired Robert James Waller’s 1992 book, followed by Clint Eastwood’s 1995 movie and the 2014 Broadway musical by the same name. Barn red and covered, the bridges are a picturesque crossing over the Middle River waters of no troubles trickling through Madison County. Only six of the original 19 bridges remain; built in 1870, the Imes Bridge reigns the oldest. Visit all of them, take a few pictures, and remember to stop and take a minute with the romantic backdrop to appreciate the strength of timber floors. These bridges have seen and felt a lot … they’ve been burnt, moved, renovated and repainted.

Cross the “haunted” Roseman Bridge at night. According to local legend, this bridge is the site where a county jail escapee was caught by the sheriff in 1892. The convict was rumored to have risen through the roof, cry out and disappear … he was never seen again.

Find it: Start at the Cutler-Donahoe Bridge in the town of Winterset at the Winterset County Park (plug 398 S Ninth St., Winterset, into your map app) and plot your adventure from there.

Info: A map available at madisoncounty.com for self-guided tours.

Region: South and west of Des Moines, in central Iowa

Drive time from Des Moines: About 45 minutes to Winterset from Des Moines

—Mackensie Smith

About the Author

Juice is the definitive guide to being a 25- to 34-year-old in the Des Moines area.

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