"Lovely place...." Top 5 Page for this destination Iowa City by leics
Iowa City Travel Guide: 100 reviews and 161 photos
OK...so how did I end up going to Iowa City, and staying there for almost a full week, when I have barely scratched the surface of the US?
Not going to tell you that..those who already know, know. But suffice it to say that I had no option and was actually quite looking forward to spending time in a non-tourist-destination in a 'flyover' state. I love Bill Bryson's writing and his sense of humour...and he was born and brought up in Des Moines (Iowa's state capital). He considers his fellow Iowans to be 'strangely serene'. So I thought I might like it.
Flying to Chicago from Heathrow on the day after the 2012 Olympics ended was much easier than I'd expected: no hassle, no queues, just loads of exhausted athletes lolling around the departure lounge looking as if they had partied all night (they probably had).
The nearest airport to Iowa City is at Cedar Rapids (Eastern Iowa airport), the nearest railway station an hour[s drive away at Mt Pleasant and, quite frankly, I could not face a Megabus trip from Chicago after an 8+ hour flight.
So I chose to fly into CR, the first time I've ever made a flight transfer. Fortunately I'd allowed myself loads of time..4 hours initially, then my flight was put back by an hour. 4 hours would have been ok, 3 hours would have been a bit tight I think.
First, 1.5+ hours waiting in line to be admitted to the US, then panic stations for all of us Brit passengers when we realised our bags had been taken off the conveyor (probably an hour before we arrived in baggage reclaim!) and relief when we found them neatly stacked in the middle of the baggage hall. Then a whizzy little train to change terminals..no problem..then much angst over the onward flight which did not appear on any departure boards and about which agents were rather dubious, and which was, in the end, delayed by a further hour.
But I eventually got to CR, and my pre-booked shuttle transfer existed and dropped me off at my hotel after 24 hours of travel. Yes, I pretty much went straight to bed! :-)
Up early the next morning and out to explore what turned out to be a rather lovely little town (I know it calls itself a city but in no way is it what I consider a city...it's a small town).
Iowa City was where Iowa's very first state capitol was built in 1840. The modern capitol is now in Des Moines, but the Old Capitol building (beautifully restored inside and well worth a visit) is part of the University of Iowa...the Hawkeyes...whose extensive campus is dotted about all over the town. Four other university buildings flank the Capitol, forming something which is called 'the Pentacrest'.
But I didn't see that on my first wander. I'd made myself a coffee (Starbucks provided for the machine in my hotel room, complete with lid) and just wandered around with it, watching the town wake up. It was Tuesday; it was quiet; few people were around, but those which were greeted each other, smiled, said 'good morning' to me.... I didn't know then that everything would change on Wednesday, for Wednesday was 'moving-in day'...all the freshmen would arrive (with their parents, mostly) and all the other students would also arrive on the subsequent 2 days. The University of Iowa has 30 000 students and the town underwent a fascinating transformation during the time I was there.
But Tuesday was still quiet. The centre of Iowa City is pretty small: walk two or three blocks in any direction and you are into green suburbia. But that made it all the more lovely for me. I felt instantly at home, and totally safe.
This is a university town, with many students from outside the USA (China and Hong Kong especially) so it's a more open, forward-looking place than you might otherwise expect such a small settlement to be...and the income from all those students means that its centre can still be a thriving place. There are numerous (and excellent) cafes and bars and restaurants, organic foods available in a rather good supermarket/cafe which also offers hot and cold meals, an also-thriving theatre (I would have loved to attend 'An Evening with Hugh Laurie' but, sadly, all the tickets were sold), a huge twice-weekly farmers' market in the town centre and plenty of shops (albeit rather on the pricey side; for cheaper stuff you need to go to Walmart outside the town, or to Coral Ridge Mall).
And, most wonderfully, several truly excellent bookshops. Not just the university bookshops...they exist as well...but proper nook-and-cranny bookshops, piled high with new and secondhand books and just waiting for browsing to commence. See tips! :-)
The central street of IC (the 'Pedmall') has been pedestrianised and re-vamped in a most attractive way, with 'graffitied' benches, trees, sculptures, a fountain, a children's play area, children's garden beds (with sunflowers and herbs and...of course...corn!). And there are chipmunks to watch! Yes, I know chipmunks aren't exciting for US citizens but for me they are. :-) We have nothing like them in the wild in the UK and I think they are fascinating.
The Pedmall (a whole street and a smaller street running off it) is a non-smoking area. Cycling, skateboarding and inline skating are all banned from IC's downtown pavements (sidewalks) so it's a really pleasant place to sit and watch the world go by. At the weekend the children's play area and fountain were thronged with kids and their parents, a free concert got everyone up and moving, a free salsa class did the same...lots and lots of community activity and enjoyment.
And people smiled and greeted each other (shaking hands is very much the norm here, it seems), joined in the dancing, clapped the band enthusiastically and joined in the singing, stood around and chatted with friends, sat with friends to have a coffee or an iced tea, smiled and said 'hello' to me, called me 'maam' (I felt like the queen!) and all just seemed to be very, very comfortable in their small town. It was lovely...at times it almost felt like a US version of the Italian passeggiatta.
By Thursday the town was crawling with groups of students holding maps in their hands, solo students grumpily exploring with Mom and Dad *still* hanging around, sometimes with brothers and sisters too. On Friday huge groups of freshmen (and women) in bright yellow t-shirts were being given guided tours by seniors, trailing along like slightly-frenzied golden ducklings behind their mother (sometimes father) ducks. The whole feeling of the town had changed..but not for the worse. It had simply become fuller, and more vibrant.
I hired a car, of course. IC has a bus to the Coral Ridge Mall, a few local buses and buses for the students. So exploring anywhere else really does need a car and, having driven around Connecticut on the 'wrong side' in an automatic in 2011 I felt I could cope easily enough in Iowa. I was right: traffic was almost always light, roads were straight (I think I only steered round about 6 bends in 100 miles of wandering!), other drivers were courteous and road signage was adequate. Not brilliant, not always as helpful as it might have been, but at least adequate. I definitely needed the map I'd bought beforehand: the assumption seemed to be that most people pretty much know where they are going, so there is no need for lots of signage. Fair enough.
Personal circumstances meant time for exploration was limited: I ended up taking the car back after 2 days, instead of the 5 I'd booked it for. But I did get chance to do some exploring around IC, and saw a little of the countryside. The Amana Colonies were a 'must', although I was slightly disappointed to find them quite so visitor-focused...rather like the UK Cotswolds in that respect. Kalona was a surprise: I hadn't realised that there were Amish so far west.
My second day was simply spent driving alone, seeing what I could see. Gently rolling landscape a la Grant Wood ('American Gothic), small streams cutting through narrow valleys lined with trees, cornfields (of course), little hills each topped by a wooden farmhouse, a wooden Dutch barn and a couple of silos, tiny settlements made up of a wooden church and perhaps 20 houses....lovely stuff.
I'd never have considered spending time in IC (or even Iowa), and I suspect many other people would not do so. But, having been sent there by happenstance, I can only say that I had a lovely time. It's a gentle, courteous and friendly place, a place to raise your children safely, a place where skies are vast and greenery always near. I liked it a lot; I could live there (and that is high praise from me).
So..if you must visit IC for some reason, or if you have a fancy to explore small-town USA...there is much here to enjoy, and far more to explore than you might think!
- Pros:Friendly, clean, courteous, green.
- Cons:No railway station nearby.
- In a nutshell:Small-town USA at its finest.
One of the other buildings on the Pentacrest, MacBride Hall, houses the rather wonderful Natural History Museum. My... more travel advice
I did enjoy wandering downtown Iowa City. It was friendly, it felt safe, there wan't much traffic...and there were lots... more travel advice
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