Today’s Iowa City Guide comes from Emileigh Barnes Williams, a graduate of the University of Mississippi’s MFA program in poetry and the University of Iowa School of Journalism. While Iowa isn’t exactly a vacation hot-spot, Iowa City is a fabulous literary town — home to the famed Iowa Writers’ Workshop, it’s also a UNESCO City of Literature and a place where students can live in a converted Carnegie library. Today, Emileigh takes us on a tour of this vibrant and entertaining city. Thanks, Emileigh, for this wonderful guide! — Stephanie
Read the full guide after the jump . . .
When I tell people I went to college in Iowa, the one question everyone asks is, “Why?”
Sometimes they’ll say, “Oh Iowa — potatoes.” Sometimes they’ll get it slightly less wrong and say, “Oh Iowa — corn.” But people rarely give the Hawkeye State credit for the progressive, impressive place that it is. Iowa was third in the U.S. in allowing gay marriages, at the forefront of women’s rights and a major player in getting Obama into the White House.
Within the state, Iowa City is the cultural epicenter, home to the University of Iowa and its famed Writers’ Workshop. The city was recently named a UNESCO City of Literature, one of only six in the world. And for good reason. There are readings, concerts and restaurants to rival much bigger metropolises. One popular student apartment complex is a converted Carnegie library. The city is vibrant, relevant and, yes, totally worth the trip.
If you’re vacationing in a literary town, you don’t want to miss its libations. Here are a few favorite watering holes:
The Fox Head: Looking for a writer’s bar? This is the place. Located in Iowa City’s Northside neighborhood, the Fox Head is a gathering place for graduate students post-workshop, where, historically, they’ve rehashed their successes and failures.
George’s: Another favorite haunt for the Writers’ Workshop, George’s is right down the street from the Fox Head. In addition to standard beer and liquors, George’s also offers a cheeseburger that’s both cheap and acclaimed.
John’s Grocery: While you’re on the north side of town, stop by John’s. It isn’t a bar, but the store stocks more than 450 beers and 1,500 wines. And while you’re there, you can enjoy the building itself, which, built in 1848, is one of Iowa City’s oldest.
Mondo’s Saloon: Owned by local restaurant giants the Mondanaros, Saloon is the best place for tequila. They have more than 25 high-quality tequilas on their menu. Located downtown with indoor and outdoor seating, stop by between 2pm and 6pm for half-price appetizers and $3 sangrias. Wednesdays are half-price specialty margaritas. I’m partial to the pineapple and black pepper flavor.
The Vine: This vibrant (read: loud) tavern was one of my favorite places to frequent as an undergrad. More than once I blew my paycheck on cheese fries and $1 apple pie shots, back when my paycheck was easily blown on one dinner and one-dollar shots. Even though I’ve left those years behind, I’d gladly go back to the tavern, especially for the “Vine Steins,” which start at $3 on Tuesdays.
If alcohol isn’t your thing, Iowa City has plenty of coffee shops where you can relax and pound out the next American classic. The Java House downtown made the list of America’s Best 50 College Coffee Shops. It doesn’t disappoint, but it stays busy, so be prepared to give your table up if you aren’t actively sipping a drink. For a more relaxing cup of joe, try Fair Grounds Cafe or Capanna Coffee.
hotelVetro: Budget Travel Magazine named this hotel one of the Top 100 Best Values in the World. Sophisticated, modern (think concrete floors) and dog friendly, hotelVetro also takes pride in being environmentally friendly. They make their pens from recycled plastic and their room keys from corn by-products. Their location is ideal, in the heart of downtown, and guests have access to the Iowa City Fitness Center and its heated indoor pool.
Sheraton: Next door to hotelVetro, the Sheraton is a more tried-and-true, classic Iowa City stay. Amenities include a heated pool and fitness center. Also dog friendly and also environmentally minded, the Sheraton offers guests a $5 voucher (at participating businesses) for each night they decline housekeeping.
Cantebury Inn: I have a soft spot for the quirky, and in that category this joint reigns supreme. From its misspelled referential name and its pool complete with a window to the hotel’s restaurant and its mock-Tudor existence in a commercial part of town, this place is wacky and fun. Located in Coralville, Iowa, it’s right next door to Iowa City, and it’s cheaper than what you’ll find in downtown IC.
The Bostick House & University Guest Houses are a series of historic homes near campus and downtown. These are available to visiting scholars, writers and business travelers.
Motley Cow Cafe: If you’re looking for seasonal, local, humanely sourced food, Iowa City has a lot to offer, and Motley Cow is one of the most popular. During the summer, Motley Cow sources about 85 percent of its vegetables from Johnson County. In an agricultural state, it’s something you’d expect to see everywhere but don’t. They have a smaller menu but change it regularly depending on what they can buy. On the menu right now: grilled grass-run farm steak frites with a bacon sabayon.
Hamburg Inn No. 2: One of Iowa’s most famous grease spots, the Hamburg Inn has been visited by Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. It’s been featured in the Washington Post and on NPR. Come here for burgers, pie, shakes and fries. I had a teacher once who was an avid runner, and she would only visit the Hamburg Inn on her birthday. To eat an entire pecan pie.
Oasis is on the same city block as Hamburg Inn and has hands-down the best falafel I’ve ever eaten, ever. Seriously. I’d consider going to Iowa City for Oasis alone.
One Twenty Six: For fine dining downtown, visit One Twenty Six. Their whole menu is superb, but I happen to love eating here for lunch. They have sandwiches, such as the grilled eggplant panini and the slow braised free-range chicken sandwich, each served with incomprehensibly delicious warm potato salad.
Atlas: Also downtown, Atlas consistently features seasonal foods on its menu. A local favorite is the buffalo chicken wrap, in which you’ll find fried chicken, wing sauce, mashed potatoes, celery and blue cheese or ranch dressing. Like many restaurants in this college town, Atlas has a full-service bar, too. Enjoy a Bloody Mary complete with blue cheese-stuffed olives.
Masala: Around the corner from Atlas, the service isn’t fast at this Indian joint, but it’s worth the wait. Farmers’ market vegetables are cooked in Indian spices, and with a dining capacity of fewer than 50, this space is never too crowded. Ask to make any of their dishes vegan.
The Airliner: You can’t write up a guide to a college town without including at least one place where you can grab a slice. The Airliner has been open in Iowa City for 60 years, and it does have fabulous pizza, among other fare. It was one of Tom Brokaw’s favorite spots when he was a student at the UI. (Brokaw says he majored in “beer and co-eds” at the University of Iowa; he eventually dropped out.) The Airliner is a great place to watch the Hawkeyes play on TV. Or if you’re inside on a Friday football weekend, you may hear members of the pep band as they swing through the downtown bars performing.
Trumpet Blossom Cafe: Come here for vegan fare. They just opened this year, and Taco Tuesdays feature items like seasoned seitan tacos and $5 margaritas.
The Farmer’s Market: If you’re in town between May and October, be sure to stop by this event. Wednesdays from 5 to 7 and Saturdays from 7:30 to noon, the market — located at Chauncey Swan Ramp and Park across from City Hall — is packed with vendors. With everything from local produce to handmade baklava, it’s impossible to leave here without something delicious in tow.
New Pioneer Food Co-Op: Right across from the Farmer’s Market, the Co-Op is open year round and has a wicked food counter. It also has a broad selection of organic produce, take-home deserts and freshly baked breads.
The Pedestrian Mall: One of the nicest things about strolling through Iowa City is the Ped Mall in the heart of downtown. It’s exactly what it sounds like, a mall only for pedestrians. Some of the best shops and restaurants are located here, and if you’re visiting in the summer months, there’s a fountain and a playground open to the public. I’ve been at the Ped Mall to witness both spontaneous parades as well as a speech by Barack Obama.
“1142,” also known as the Grant Wood House, the painter of American Gothic, lived here for the last seven years of his life. He remodeled the house himself and hand made much of its furniture. It’s now on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Literary Walk features the work of nearly 50 writers, all of which have a connection with Iowa. Spanning Iowa Avenue, the walk shows excerpts, quotations and biographies in bronze relief panels. Prairie Lights Bookstore and Iowa Book sell pamphlets with in-depth information.
Hancher Auditorium was severely damaged in the 2008 floods, but this university theater still hosts world-famous shows (think Joffrey Ballet) at several venues in town.
University Art Museum: Don’t take this university museum for anything less than an exceptional collection. The museum owns works by Joan Miró, Pablo Picasso, Marcel Duchamp and Henri Matisse, as well as a notorious painting by Jackson Pollock that the Board of Regents occasionally tries to force the university to sell, much to the chagrin of academics and residents. Luckily, all the art was safely evacuated when the 2008 flood ravaged the museum. Today, the art is still dispersed to several remote locations, but the museum’s website has plenty of information about galleries and locations for visitors.
Riverside Theatre puts on plays, musicals and festivals each year from September to April. Then in June and July, they have an outdoor season in Iowa City’s Lower City Park.
The Old Capitol was the first state capitol of Iowa. This landmark, located downtown, is a National Historic Landmark with a beautifully decorated museum inside.
The Englert Theatre has hosted everyone from Noam Chomsky to Pentatonix. It first opened in 1912 and was rebuilt after a fire in 1926. Today it remains Iowa City’s historic home for arts.
Paperback Rhino is Iowa City’s improvisation group. Their shows will leave you creased up with laughter.
Talk Art: If you’re lucky enough to be in town for one of these Writers’ Workshop readings, don’t miss it. Featuring fiction writers and poets, they’re not widely publicized and don’t always draw big crowds, but make no mistake, these are the literary voices of tomorrow. Check for fliers downtown or stop by the Dey House and ask for more information.
The Mill is a popular venue for bands. The acoustics aren’t fabulous in this bar and restaurant, but the space is intimate, and the drink specials and performances more than make up for it. So does the food, if you’re hungry. The Mill also cooks with local ingredients purchased at the Iowa City Farmers’ Market.
Public Space ONE: Located in the basement of the Jefferson Building downtown, Public Space ONE is booked by musicians, writers, videographers, theater productions and more. They’re open Tuesday through Saturday.
Summer of the Arts is responsible for several Iowa City events, including the Iowa Arts Festival, Iowa City Jazz Festival, Friday Night Concert Series and Saturday Night Free Movie Series. All their events are free and open to the public.
I had a high school teacher who swore that a person could judge the merits of a town based on its bookstores, and if that’s the case, Iowa City’s in good shape.
Prairie Lights has been open since 1978, and if you have any interest in the literary world, you’ve probably heard its name. The store boasts three and half floors and a coffee shop and has hosted some of literature’s biggest players, including e.e. cummings, Robert Frost, Langston Hughes and more. World-class readings are scheduled often, but arrive early if you want a seat.
Daydreams Comics: Located downtown, Daydreams Comics carries comic books, graphic novels and manga. They have old and new comics, with new shipments arriving weekly.
The Haunted Bookshop is Iowa City’s home for used and rare titles. Stop by this shop on the Northside and peruse the more than 40,000 books inside.
Bring Something Home
AKAR downtown sells ceramics, textiles, glass and other designs by national and international artists and designers.
Soap Opera, located in the Ped Mall, has supplied hotelVetro with their soap supplies, and their store features a wonderful collection, including several made-in-Iowa brands.
Revival: Also in the Ped Mall, this new and vintage store is home to moderately priced but fabulous vintage dresses, locket watches and locally designed items.
Artifacts: In the spirit of great finds on the cheap, Artifacts on Iowa City’s Northside has amazing vintage housewares, postcards, furniture and clothes. Digging through suitcases of vintage jewelry here is like rifling around in a real-life treasure chest.
RSVP is just down the street from Artifacts and has great stationery and supplies. My favorite find was a card with a letterpressed horseshoe crab and this inscription: “You are strange and wonderful.”
Out of Town but Worth the Drive
Amana Colonies: Seven villages make up this national historic landmark. They were settled by German Pietists in 1855, and they lived here in a communal society until the 1930s. Today, visitors can enjoy restaurants and see woodworking shops, craft shops and Millstream brewery.
Solon Beef Days is an annual July festival 12 miles outside Iowa City. It’s free to the public and features music and entertainment. Attendees enjoy bike rides, hay bale tosses, horseshoe tournaments and more. And, of course, ribeye steak dinners are served both nights.
Riverside Iowa: Here you’ll find the future birthplace of Captain James T. Kirk (March 22, 2228). Riverside hosts an annual birthday celebration in honor of the USS Enterprise’s captain. Year round, fans can find a plaque commemorating his birthplace behind a local barbershop. Also, the Voyage Home Museum is free to the public. Just call first to make sure someone’s there.
Notable Area Residents
Roberto Ampuero (fiction writer and designated “Illustrious son” of Valparaiso)
Ethan Canin (fiction writer and Guggenheim Fellowship winner)
Thomas Cech (Nobel Prize winner in chemistry)
James Galvin (poet)
James T. Kirk (future resident)
Alex Ko (Broadway actor)
James Alan McPherson (fiction writer and MacArthur Fellowship recipient)
Marilynne Robinson (fiction writer and Pulitzer Prize winner)
Russell Stover (candy maker)
Grant Wood (artist)