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Iowa’s 9 Most Underrated Towns to visit in 2024

by Staff

Iowa is perhaps the most overlooked state in the United States. Smaller states, whether in size like Rhode Island or population like Wyoming, are still relatively iconic for their history, natural landscapes, or something else of cultural relevance.  Iowa, on the other hand… what comes to mind? Hog farming and cornfields? Well, you should scrap this idea. Like anywhere else in the country, there are hidden gems, and the Hawkeye state is full of them, one just has to know where to look. This covers nine towns that contain a surprising amount of things to do, whether it is a hike in the woods, a visit to a museum, or a night out on the town. 

Decorah

The Vesterheim, a museum dedicated to Norwegian-American culture. Image credit David Harmantas via Shutterstock.

Situated amid the rolling hills of northeastern Iowa, Decorah offers a good mix of cultural heritage and natural beauty. The downtown area is filled with locally-owned shops and eateries, providing visitors with a taste of authentic Iowa hospitality. Don’t miss the opportunity to learn about the area’s Scandinavian heritage at the Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum, which showcases artifacts and exhibits reflecting the town’s rich cultural history. Outdoor enthusiasts can explore the scenic Trout Run Trail, winding through lush forests and alongside tranquil streams, or visit Dunning’s Spring Park to admire its serene waterfalls and hiking trails.

Whether you’re looking to explore the historic architecture of downtown or get lost in the beauty of the surrounding landscape, Decorah offers a charming retreat for travelers seeking an authentic Iowa experience.

Mount Vernon

 American Gothic Barn, barn-sized rendition of Grant Wood's painting
 American Gothic Barn, barn-sized rendition of Grant Wood’s painting. Image credit EWY Media via Shutterstock.

Located in eastern Iowa’s picturesque countryside, Mount Vernon, with a population of around 4,500, invites visitors to explore its historic downtown strip and scenic landmarks. Wander the streets lined with well-preserved 19th-century buildings, home to boutique shops and cozy cafes offering a glimpse into the town’s vibrant community. 

Visitors may appreciate a visit to Cornell College, founded in 1853 and known for its stately architecture, while outdoor enthusiasts can explore the nearby Palisades-Kepler State Park, renowned for its scenic hiking trails and limestone bluffs overlooking the Cedar River. Whether you’re admiring the Prairie School architecture of the Rock Crest-Rock Glen Historic District or soaking in the natural beauty of the surrounding landscape, Mount Vernon offers an idyllic destination for travelers seeking an enriching Iowa experience near the city of Cedar Rapids.

Pella

Windmill at Dutch village Pella, Iowa, USA
Windmill at Dutch village Pella, Iowa, USA.

Rich with Dutch heritage and surrounded by scenic landscapes, Pella beckons visitors with its cultural and natural intrigue. See the town’s charming streets lined with eye-opening traditional Dutch architecture, where vibrant tulips bloom in the spring, and iconic windmills dot the horizon. Seriously, you will feel like you were transported into the Netherlands! Check out the Vermeer Windmill too, a functioning Dutch windmill towering over the town, or delve into the area’s immigrant history at the Pella Historical Village, featuring exhibits and artifacts that highlight the town’s rich cultural heritage. 

Nature enthusiasts can venture to Lake Red Rock, Iowa’s largest lake, for a day of boating, fishing, and hiking amidst breathtaking scenery. Pella offers a captivating escape for travelers looking to see the cultural influences that built the state.

Mason City

Aerial view of Mason City, Iowa
Aerial view of Mason City, Iowa.

In the heart of north-central Iowa, Mason City invites visitors to explore its notable architectural heritage and cultural attractions. Wander the historic streets of this 27,500-resident town lined with Prairie School style architecture, including the iconic Park Inn Hotel designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, or delve into its artistic legacy at the Charles H. MacNider Art Museum, home to a diverse collection of American art spanning centuries. Outdoor enthusiasts can escape to Lime Creek Nature Center, where miles of hiking trails wind through scenic woodlands and offer opportunities for wildlife viewing and birdwatching. You could be exploring Mason City’s historic landmarks or the natural beauty of the surrounding landscape; this underrated town offers a captivating destination for travelers seeking the fun side of Iowa.

Winterset

View of downtown Winterset, Iowa from the courthouse square.
View of downtown Winterset, Iowa from the courthouse square. Image credit dustin77a via Shutterstock.

In the picturesque countryside of Madison County, Winterset calls visitors to discover its historic covered bridges and charming downtown area. Stroll amongst the quaint shops and eateries that line the courthouse square, or go on a scenic drive to view the area’s famed covered bridges, immortalized in both literature and film. Speaking of cinema, movie fans will enjoy a visit to the John Wayne Birthplace & Museum, which pays homage to the legendary actor’s Iowa roots through exhibits and memorabilia!

For those looking to enjoy the outdoors and maybe have some lunch outside if the weather calls for it, explore the scenic trails and picnic spots at Winterset City Park. It is not hard to admire Winterset’s historic architecture or explore the rugged surrounding landscape. Winterset offers a tranquil retreat for those looking for a gem of a town to explore on a weekend road trip. 

Fairfield

Downtown Fairfield, Iowa.
Downtown Fairfield, Iowa. 

Tucked away in the fields of southeastern Iowa’s scenic countryside, Fairfield captivates visitors and residents alike with its vibrant arts scene and holistic lifestyle. See the eclectic shops and galleries lining the downtown square, or catch a performance at the beautifully restored Sondheim Center for the Performing Arts. History fans can appreciate a visit to the Carnegie Historical Museum which showcases the town’s diverse heritage through exhibits and artifacts. At the same time, those looking for outdoor activity can explore the scenic trails and picnic areas at Jefferson County Park. 

Spend some time with a loved one and explore Fairfield’s artistic side and take in the lush nature. Fairfield offers all who happen to visit a unique experience in this underrated part of the country! 

Waverly

Downtown Waverly, Iowa. Image credit Billwhittaker via Wikimedia Commons
Downtown Waverly, Iowa. Image credit Billwhittaker via Wikimedia Commons.

The Cedar Valley of northeastern Iowa contains Waverly, a town of about 10,500 residents that invites visitors to look at its historic downtown and outdoor recreational opportunities. 

Here, you can kill an afternoon wandering along Bremer Avenue, where well-preserved 19th-century buildings house charming shops and eateries, or take a stroll through Kohlmann Park, home to scenic walking trails and a beautiful waterfall. History enthusiasts can delve into the town’s past at the Waverly Heritage House Museum, which is housed in a beautifully restored Victorian home.

Those visiting for outside adventure can enjoy fishing, kayaking, and hiking along the Cedar River. You can check out the town’s historic landmarks, and within a short drive, you will reach the beautiful Cedar Valley. Waverly certainly has a little of something for everyone while having all the amenities you’ll need while visiting or living there permanently.  

Spirit Lake

Pier on Lake Spirit at bright summer day, Arnolds Park, Iowa, USA
Pier on Lake Spirit at bright summer day, Arnolds Park, Iowa.

Do you enjoy being near the water? Spirit Lake is a watery respite on the shores of one of Iowa’s largest natural group of lakes with a plethora of scenic beauty and outdoor recreation. 

Be sure to see Spirit Lake’s fun little downtown area, where locally-owned shops and eateries provide a warm welcome to visitors, or spend a day exploring and relaxing on the sandy shores of one of the nearby lakes (Big Spirit Lake, East Okoboji Lake, West Okojobi Lake, and more), enjoying swimming, boating, and fishing. 

You should also look at the Dickinson County Museum, which showcases the area’s rich heritage through exhibits and artifacts. In contrast, outdoor adventurers can take the time to visit one or more of the many scenic trails and wildlife habitats of Lakeside Lab State Park. 

Iowa’s many underrated towns offer a delightful blend of history to learn about and nature to explore, inviting travelers to uncover hidden gems tucked away in this great state. From the quaint streets of Decorah to the scenic shores of Spirit Lake, each town covered here captivates visitors and residents with unique characteristics and an inviting atmosphere. As you plan your next adventure, consider venturing off the beaten path to discover the hidden treasures awaiting in Iowa’s most underrated towns, where history, culture, and natural beauty converge to create unforgettable memories.

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