Iowa City Must List
There are many places in the world I have yet to travel to and many places that I will be traveling to soon. I have a huge list of things to do and see in Los Angeles and I know they are just the tip of the iceberg. What few people have however are functioning lists of things to do and places to visit in Iowa City, Iowa. This is where I come in. Below lies a large embodiment of Iowa City (although certainly not all of it- it took me all of 5 years to find some of my favorite places here). I hope it helps and encourages those who may be planning to travel through the area or maybe attend the University of Iowa that it is a great place to live, or at least convince you it is more than corn fields.
I’ll break them into categories: Breakfast, Coffee, Lunch/Dinner, Shopping, Late Night.
You’ll hear frequently that the Hamburg Inn is Iowa City’s breakfast staple. This may be true but I’ll journey off the beaten path with you for a bit to the corner of Market and Gilbert (just a block away from Hamburg) where the Bluebird Diner lies. Not only is this the official ‘farewell’ spot for everyone I love but it is also the home to some of the nicest wait staff in the city as well as the tastiest breakfast dishes, atmosphere, and of course coffee. I’d recommend Hamburg for the tradition and pie shakes but the Cinnamon Roll French Toast and Blue Bird Eggs are to die for at the Bluebird and everything is reasonably priced (3 Pancakes for $3.50!)
Wake Up Iowa City! is next on my list. I just recently found this cozy coffeeshop in Iowa City. Not long ago it was a food truck that served coffee in the ped mall (more on that later) but now it has partnered with the White Rabbit (see below) to have a formal home. Locally roasted and featuring delicious local ingredients and donuts on Wednesdays and Saturdays from the Farmers Market, it is the best cup of black coffee you can find in Iowa City. That atmosphere of a intimacy along with the local art and mismatched mugs is enough to make me stay for an hour or so every time. The New Orleans Iced Coffee is high on my favorites list here too.
Tspoons on the corner of Market and Linn was my home away from home for the past four years. Its atmosphere and coffee kept me coming back. While I wish they would have free internet their Kona coffee and spinach and feta scones were enough to keep me there nearly every day for a long time. Its the perfect spot to relax and catch up with old friends or read while listening to some music. Its also part of the north side of Iowa City, one of the most beautiful areas worth simply walking. Many people will argue for Java House as Iowa City’s finest but the atmosphere is a bit crowded with studious students most of time and I find Tspoons to be more relaxing.
Last but certainly not least is Times Club. This gem is located in the upstairs of Prairie Lights, one of America’s most well known independent booksellers. They brew Stumptown espresso and coffee which is one of my favorites. The atmosphere and large windows looking down on Dubuque Street make it one of my favorite places for homework (they do have free wifi). The iced coffee and straight espresso drinks are amazing and they are one of the only places in Iowa City that makes a Cortado (think 3-5 oz latte). I frequently spend hours at a time here working on homework and enjoying the parade of regulars that pass through every day.
Shorts. This is the beginning and the end of the list for burgers in Iowa City. Its selection and options (burgers, veggie burgers, and chicken) will blow you away. All of the potatoes are cut on site and nearly all of the ingredients are from within thirty miles of Iowa City (you’ve never tasted meat until you’ve had Iowa meat frankly). It is smashed on Clinton street between other bustling businesses in what used to be a shoeshine so its theme reflects shoeshining and it is done so tastefully and wonderfully. Their burger with cheese bacon and a fried egg is a cholesterol watcher’s nightmare but is worth having at least once in your life.
The Pit is the barbecue place that I frequented with my pal Tim. They had some of the best and greasiest pulled pork, chicken, and tater tots. Grab some to go and catch a football game on TV some Monday night and you’ll be happy that you did.
Pagliai’s is Iowa City’s answer to pizza. This place has a number of phenomenal options that are too numerous to really report on but the pizza is delicious and unique and less greasy than most places. Certainly worth checking out although its always busy since they are only open in the evening and night.
The Wedge and Capana are connected in downtown Iowa City’s ped mall giving your choice of pizza or other food options while also giving killer, in house roasted coffee and gelato. The perfect place to hang out and enjoy a meal and a cup of coffee with friends or maybe host an event in their small but nice conference room.
Fairgrounds. Vegan and vegetarian friendly to the max (although rumor has it the vegan pastry items are beginning to dwindle). I’ve spent too much time and money here to count but the Sweet Popeye sandwich (cheese and apples) is to die for. Also worth trying is the Vegan Red Velvet Cupcakes. They will rock your world with flavor. The coffee and atmosphere rock too. Too bad it closes early
Heirloom is a new connection with Java House featuring pasta and salads tossed and made right in front of you. Only got to go once and it was expensive but tasty!
Z’mariks is Iowa City’s answer to Noodles and Company…until Noodles moved in too. Z’mariks is super tasty and a great local spot to grab some pasta or a salad and hang out with some friends. The mac n cheese is a local favorite.
The Coral Ridge Mall is great for general shopping. The Barnes and Noble there obviously rocks since I worked there. I won’t say much about the mall since its easiest to find and isn’t all that unique but it is worth checking out!
The White Rabbit is both thrift and local artists. It is a great place to get something for your artsy friend or for yourself. I have several items from there that pay homage to my midwestern and Iowa roots. It also features Wake Up Iowa City! as part of its culture which makes it all the more fantastic.
Raygun is imported from Des Moines and in the Ped Mall. It features clever shirts (made with love in Los Angeles by American Apparel) and is a great and quirky place to at least explore as they print and make their shirts in the store and occasionally have live music.
Artifacts is another north side staple if you’re looking for a pretty quality thrift store. They have everything from suitcases to moose heads and the staff is friendly and it is right next to Bluebird.
John’s Grocery is really the best place to go for late night groceries. It is right across from Artifacts and Bluebird and it is has one of the largest wine and beer selections in Iowa too. Definitely good for the late night cravings or for a quick pick me up on the walk home or downtown.
Record Collector is Iowa City’s local record store. It has great deals on Record Store day and has a nice selection of vinyls as well as CDs and cassettes. Worth checking out if you’re a music lover!
The Ped Mall is alive with action at night. There is so much to see and do in Iowa City and all of it is found within the Ped Mall (College Street and Dubuque Street). There is people watching, coffee, food, vendors, shops, slides, water fountains, and of course numerous bars where college students young (eek) and old (eek) come and go as they please. A stop in Iowa City is not complete without the Ped Mall.
The Old Capitol and the Coralville Reservoir are not late night but worth seeing if you enjoy beaches that aren’t near oceans and some good old fashion Iowa history!
The Englert is Iowa City’s beautiful theater where many traveling artists perform on different nights. It is also used for some university events as well. For a more local flair check out Public Space One and Riverside Theater.
The Blue Moose Taphouse is Iowa City’s live music staple now (stolen from Gabes which is now much more local music focused- but also awesome. The Yacht Club (below) also focuses more on local music). The Blue Moose features endless touring acts and hundreds of great shows each year. My band made a lot of great memories and had great experiences opening for bigger bands touring through the Blue Moose and it certainly is a great place to catch a show so be sure to check the schedule before you head out.
At the end of the day, Iowa City is not just a farm town but it is a cozy city where people of all sorts of backgrounds live together in relative harmony. From the hundreds of locally owned shops and boutiques to the larger chains that move in to kill them, there is plenty to do in Iowa City (especially if you like food, beer, or coffee). Cedar Rapids is also worth checking out if you’re end the area as well as small towns in the surrounding area.
Remember: if you’re visiting to decide if the University of Iowa is right for you or just passing through, going to a football game at Kinnick Stadium to see the Hawkeyes play will surely change your life. Carver Hawkeye Arena is also a great place to watch Iowa basketball and wrestling teams, among others. I hope this helped at least one person get a glimpse of what Iowa is like and all of the great places I’m leaving behind here.