Every city has its big, bustling attractions that are its claim to fame–its main event, its Friday special, its must-see hot spot. And the Iowa City area has many of these: The Ped Mall! Hancher! Kinnick Stadium! Coral Ridge Mall! But to really get to know a place, you have to seek out the smaller venues–the places that might not get all the attention and traffic, but make up for it in character and charm.
While we are technically called the Iowa City Moms Blog, the truth is that we serve a much larger area that includes dozens of smaller communities and towns. Iowa City is our hub, but our small towns nearby provide a depth of character to our community, as well as so many eclectic attractions that just beg to be appreciated! Having grown up in small town Iowa, I have always had a soft spot in my heart for those hidden treasures–a charming bookshop, a cozy cafe, a mom-and-pop grocery store–places full of nostalgia, comfort, and class. So here are some of my favorite local places to visit off the beaten path. Give them a try, and you may just find a new favorite.
Come for the out-of-this-world ice cream, of course. Sample several varieties, and always try the special flavor. But don’t miss the variety of grocery items available from local artisans and farmers! There are local meats, pasta, jams, sauces, bath products, and more, making Dan & Debbie’s a delightful place to pick up a few choice groceries. While you’re there, take a peek into the creamery through the viewing room and watch them in action! Consider yourself warned: if you leave without some fresh cheese curds, you’re making a mistake.
The Haunted Bookshop is more than a bookstore. It’s an experience. Wander through the stacks, admire the variety of titles both old and new, and chat with the fun and knowledgable staff. Located in the historic Wentz house in the Northside district, Iowa City’s oldest secondhand bookstore isn’t just filled to the brim with books; it also has an incredible selection of puppets, puzzles, games, and an occasional cat to pet.
I dare you to find a cozier coffee shop anywhere. (You won’t.) This place is perfect. Their baked goods are TO DIE FOR, but you have to get the breakfast casserole too, so plan ahead and come hungry. Browse the selection of local and handmade gifts, enjoy the charming decor, and grab some bulk coffee to-go. (Velvet Hammer is perfection.) Kava House also offers a variety of frappes, smoothies, lattes, shakes, and sodas, as well as a full menu for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Break out of your mundane routine and try something you won’t soon forget! Outfox is an experience activity in which participants work together to complete a series of puzzles within a one-hour time limit. Puzzles can include codes, locks, riddles, and clues, and participants attempt to win the game by solving the puzzles to “get out” of the room. An escape room is not your typical “dinner and a movie” experience, but they are gaining popularity and we are so lucky to have one right here in the Corridor!
This is everything you’d dream a country store run by the Amish to be. This is the best place to stock up on all your pantry staples at outstanding prices, including everything you need for baking, plus homemade breads, jams, pasta, dried fruit, bulk snacks, and more. Fun fact: You can sometimes get a bag of *just marshmallows* cereal charm bits…which is like an entire bag of off-brand Lucky Charms cereal marshmallows. Fresh produce, flowers, and farm-fresh eggs are also available seasonally. Make sure to bring cash or local check, as cards are not accepted.
A place to make art, admire art, display art, appreciate art, and celebrate art, Big Picture is a true gem for artists of all ages. It’s a fabulous place to host a party, send your kiddos to classes or a summer camp, or attend a workshop or wine-and-paint event. There’s something for everyone, and you’ll leave feeling full of inspiration and creative energy!
Wouldn’t it be cool if you could just show up at a gorgeous outdoor setting, sit in some lawn chairs as the summer sun is setting, and eat delicious wood-fired pizza with your friends? Well, it’s a great time to be alive, because you can, and it’s called Geyer’s Oven. Pizza is served on the second and fourth Thursdays of each month from May thru September at 5-8 p.m. Cost is $12 per adult and one dollar per year of age for children between 3 and 12.
It’s hard to decide what to love most about Secret Cellar. Is it the selection of wines and cheeses? The fun gift selection? The adorable house location? The outdoor wine tasting, dancing, or painting events? Take your pick. It’s all perfection. Stop across the street at Maddi B’s on your way out and pick up a take-and-bake pizza and some ice cream to-go. You’re welcome!
This is the ultimate farm-to-table experience. Serving locally-sourced breakfast, lunch, and dinner, Salt Fork has the ambiance of a spacious country kitchen with the perfectly-crafted food of a big city chef. My kids are obsessed with their chocolate chip pancakes, and I always get a side of loaded potatoes with whatever else I order. Plus, their coffee is divine.
The name is self-explanatory, but Jon’s is the perfect place to go for a great ice cream cone or a killer tenderloin sandwich. Situated right in the heart of Tiffin, it’s where my family loves to go on our way home from a day of swimming or hiking at Kent Park.
Iowa may not technically be “wine country,” but give Brick Arch a chance. They have some great wines to try, fun live music, small plate appetizers, and a cozy setting full of character. Plus, West Branch’s Main Street is everything you love about small town downtowns. Take a walk and do some window shopping while you’re there!
With an incredible selection of antiques, decor, and gifts, Slightly Vintage is a great place to find unique accents for the home. They also carry fun bath bombs, soaps, and a huge display of Melissa and Doug items for the kiddos! It’s like treasure hunting, only you don’t have to try very hard to find the treasures!
Give some of these unique places a try, and fall in love with the small town charm of Iowa City’s hidden treasures!
What are your favorite “hidden treasures” in the Iowa City area?