Iowa City, a UNESCO City of Literature
In America's Heartland of Iowa, a Beacon of Books
By Karina Schroeder
Iowa City is the internationally renowned creative hub of the Midwest. The former capitol seat of Iowa and home to the University of Iowa, the city attracts thousands of visitors per year.
With the University of Iowa’s acclaimed creative writing graduate program, this city also attracts some of the world’s best creative minds. In 2008 it was named one of only five UNESCO Cities of Literature.
A diverse, unique, and intensely artistic city just four hours west of Chicago in Eastern Iowa, there is no shortage of things to see and experience in Iowa City. When planning a vacation there, check out these local favorites for places to stay, eat, shop, and learn about Iowa City’s heritage.
What To See
Iowa City is the former capital city of Iowa- the state government moved to Des Moines in 1857. While the government moved on, it left behind a beautiful and historic building that is now a National Historic Landmark. The basement hosts an art and history museum gallery with seasonal exhibits, while the first and second floors are restored to reflect the capitol building as it was in the 19th century. You can see the Supreme Court Room, the Governor’s Office, and the Senate and House Chambers, among other rooms.
The Old Capitol building is at the center of the University of Iowa’s eastside campus, one of five buildings collectively called “The Pentacrest.” It is literally across the street from downtown Iowa City.
Iowa Avenue Literary Walk
This landmark celebrates Iowa City’s historic literary culture, as well as Iowa City’s designation as a UNESCO
City of Literature. Stretching along Iowa Avenue from Clinton to Gilbert Streets, the walkway is a series of bronze relief panels featuring famous literary quotes.
The quotes commemorate 49 writers with ties to Iowa and Iowa City. The reliefs are also connected by general literary quotes stamped into the concrete sidewalk.
The artwork is by Gregg LeFevre, and some of the featured writers include Bess Streeter Aldrich, Kurt Vonnegut, Flannery O’Connor, and Rita Dove.
Prairie Lights Bookstore is yet another city landmark: established in 1978, it continues to be a flourishing independent bookstore with national and international recognition.
Prairie Lights offers poetry and other short readings in their Live From Prairie Lights radio series, occurring several nights a week on the store’s second floor.
Nationally and internationally-known writers often make stops here to promote their newest work, as Prairie Lights has a very large following.
You can see the Live From Prairie Lights schedule on their website. All readings are free and open to the public, so come experience a local Iowa City tradition.
Where To Shop
Artifacts is a little odds and ends thrift store with a great collection of vintage accessories, jewelry, clothing, and furniture. Tucked in a corner storefront, it is perfect for art, design, and fashion lovers. Owner Todd Thelen, an avid “artifact” collector from childhood, puts his heart and soul into this cluttered yet organized store, and can tell you the story behind almost any piece you’re interested in.
Reflecting Iowa City’s penchant for offering local products, White Rabbit is an arts and clothing store selling locally-made products on
consignment. They have custom-screened t-shirts, handmade jewelry and greeting cards, purses, wallets, vintage clothing, shoes, books, screen-printed posters, and more for all genders and ages.
They are one of the most popular clothing stores in downtown Iowa City. Beginning in 2009, the store is also home to Wake Up Iowa City, a small coffee bar with the best-tasting coffee in town.
RSVP is a small, independent greeting card and stationary store. They offer one-of-a-kind, creative handmade cards made by local artists. They also sell invitations, note cards, wrapping paper, tissue paper, and ribbon.
With a diverse collection of greeting cards for every holiday and season, you will be sure to find something new and unique you wouldn’t find in a Hallmark store.
Where To Eat
El Bandito’s Mexican Restaurant is a great representative of Iowa City culinary culture: owned and operated by a husband-wife team for the past two years, all food is made fresh on the premises and most is purchased locally at area farmers markets.
They serve big portions so you might want to share a dish and save room for dessert. Their grilled bananas with rum sauce and ice cream are amazing. So is their $5 sangria.
Iowa City has several Indian restaurants, but Masala is by far the best. Offering a largely vegetarian/vegan menu with all the regular Indian fare, this place is great for lunch or dinner. At lunch they have a delicious buffet for only $8.99- including naan, pakoras, rice, and curries. Everything on the menu is good, so the buffet is a great way to try a little of it all.
Formosa is an authentic sushi and Asian cuisine bar in Iowa City’s Pedestrian Mall. A large seating area inside and some great outside seating as well, this is a hot place to be on summer nights. Thursday nights are especially popular, when the restaurant offers $3 martinis and $3 basic sushi rolls. The sushi is fresh and well prepared, and the martinis come in many unique flavors, including mango and Skittles.
Where to Stay
Brown Street Inn
The Brown Street Inn is about a 15-20 min. walk away from downtown Iowa City. Located in the Brown Street Historical District, this home is a 1913 Gambrel Cottage Style Mansion. With luxurious and cozy amenities, including a library, a full dining room and a full porch, it is a wonderful place to come back to after a long day exploring the city.
The Mission House Bed and Breakfast
This house was built in 1908 under the Mission Revival era, and it looks like a transplant from the Southwest. It is also located on Brown Street.
The home maintains its Southwestern theme indoors: rooms are decorated with images of cowboys and bucking horses, and they are adorned with lamps and wall hangings purchased in Arizona. While not so reflective of the traditional Midwest, this interesting and friendly abode allows you to see Iowa City’s great diversity.
Plum Grove Inn
Situated within a 25-minute walk or a 7-min. drive southwest of downtown, Plum Grove Inn is an amazing architectural find. A 100-year-old mansion fitted with modern amenities and antique furnishings, architect Thomas McInerney remodeled the house into its present state.
Each room includes a private bath with claw-foot tubs and a shower. You can also enjoy a rooftop terrace on the second floor and use of the home’s laundry facilities.
Old Capitol Museum
21 Old Capitol (on Clinton Street at Iowa Avenue)
University of Iowa
Iowa Avenue Literary Walk
On Iowa Avenue between from Clinton Street to Gilbert Street
Free and Public
Prairie Lights Bookstore
15 South Dubuque St.
331 East Market St.
112 South Linn St.
140 North Linn St.
Iowa City, IA 52245
327 East Market St.
9 South Dubuque Street
221 East College Street
Brown Street Inn
430 Brown Street
Rooms $95- $165 per night
Mission House Bed and Breakfast
228 Brown Street
Rooms $89- $125 per night
Plum Grove Inn
1208 Marcy Street
(319) 351 - 2433
Rooms $130- $199 per night
Iowa City/ Coralville Area Convention & Visitors Bureau
900 First Ave.
Coralville, IA 52241
Karina Schroeder is a University of Iowa alumni now working as a freelance arts, culture, and travel writer in New York City.