Iowa City, a UNESCO City of Literature

The Old Capital Museum in Iowa City, a renowned literary center of the US.
The Old Capital Museum in Iowa City, a renowned literary center of the US.

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.

Prairie Lights Bookstore is a famous shop known throughout the midwest and the world for its great selection.
Prairie Lights Bookstore is a famous shop known throughout the midwest and the world for its great selection.

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

Old Capitol

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 Iowa City Literature Walk is marked by this brass plaque in the sidewalk.
The Iowa City Literature Walk is marked by this brass plaque in the sidewalk.

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 outside of the Prairie Lights Bookstore, in Iowa City.
The outside of the Prairie Lights Bookstore, in Iowa City.

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

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

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.

White Rabbit  

Reflecting Iowa City’s penchant for offering local products, White Rabbit is an arts and clothing store selling locally-made products on

The cozy Brown Street Inn is another good choice for lodging in Iowa City, IA.
The cozy Brown Street Inn is another good choice for lodging in Iowa City, IA.

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

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

Artifacts is a fun place to shop for unusual things in Iowa City.
Artifacts is a fun place to shop for unusual things in Iowa City.

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.

Masala

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

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  

Masala is a local favorite for Indian cuisine in Iowa City.
Masala is a local favorite for Indian cuisine in Iowa City.

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.

Practical Information:

Old Capitol Museum

21 Old Capitol (on Clinton Street at Iowa Avenue)

The Mission House BnB in Iowa City.
The Mission House BnB in Iowa City.

University of Iowa
(319) 335-0548

www.uiowa.edu/oldcap

Free Admission

Iowa Avenue Literary Walk

On Iowa Avenue between from Clinton Street to Gilbert Street

Free and Public

www.icgov.org/literarywalk

Prairie Lights Bookstore

15 South Dubuque St.
(319) 337-2681

www.prairielights.com

Artifacts

331 East Market St.
(319) 358-9617

www.artifacts-iowacity.com

White Rabbit is a fun shop in downtown Iowa City.
White Rabbit is a fun shop in downtown Iowa City.

White Rabbit

112 South Linn St.
(319) 358-9557

whiterabbitgallery.com

RSVP

140 North Linn St.

Iowa City, IA 52245

319-337-4400

www.rsvp-asap.com

El Bandito’s

327 East Market St.
(319) 358-2836

http://elbanditosiowacity.com

Masala

9 South Dubuque Street

A locally owned coffee bar in Iowa City, IA.
Wake Up City!

(319) 338-6199

www.masalaiowacity.com

Formosa

221 East College Street
(319) 338-8880

formosadowntown.com

Brown Street Inn
430 Brown Street
(319) 338-0435

brownstreetinn.com

info@brownstreetinn.com

Rooms $95- $165 per night

Mission House Bed and Breakfast

228 Brown Street
(319) 358-2854

Shirley@MissionHouseBB.com

missionhousebedandbreakfast.com

The Plum Grove Inn, a nice choice for a small local hotel in Iowa City.
The Plum Grove Inn, a nice choice for a small local hotel in Iowa City.

Rooms $89- $125 per night

Plum Grove Inn

1208 Marcy Street
(319) 351 – 2433

www.thomasarchitect.com/

Rooms $130- $199 per night

Other Resources:

Iowa City/ Coralville Area Convention & Visitors Bureau

900 First Ave.
Coralville, IA 52241

(319) 337-6592
website

Karina Schroeder

 

Karina Schroeder is a University of Iowa alumni now working as a freelance arts, culture, and travel writer in New York City.

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