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A Chicago Chauvanist Discovers Iowa City's Pleasures

An adventure in a quaint small town -- Populated by readers, writers, activists, churchgoers, and doctors.

I arrived by Greyhound Bus in Iowa City, Iowa at ten in the morning ready for adventure. The map and key to my friends' house hadn't arrived in the mail on time, so I would have to occupy myself and my luggage until they got home from work. No problem -- just stash my stuff in a bus station locker and spend the day (which would turn out to be one of region's first beautiful spring days) exploring. Well, the Greyhound depot, barely comprised of a counter and a bathroom, was not quite outfitted with storage facilities. It occurred to me that I should have expected as much from a small town.

Hauling my bags no where in particular, I soon came across the combined town hall, police station, fire station, and information center. "How quaint," I thought, confirming to myself that this town was definitely as small as I had expected it to be. I went in to ask the crazy question, "Are there by chance any public lockers; there's none at the bus station and...?" "They have lockers at the rec center down the block," the puzzled receptionist offered.

The rec center was the first clue that Iowa City was an enlightened town. I had entered the building hesitantly until discovering that it was free and open to the public daily from 10am-9pm. Trying to be inconspicuous with my bags that were a bit large for a work-out, I wandered past the game room (pool tables, foosball, video games, TV), the state-of-the-art pool, the gymnasium, and a room well-equipped with weight and aerobic machines, until I found the immaculate and spacious locker room. 5 minutes and 25 cents later, I and my orange-capped key were on our way to downtown Iowa City.

Fortuitously, the public library entered my path and I went in for a look. Again, a top-notch public facility...and fully computerized! Was I really a big-city hick that didn't think small town America had such things? From the sizable town info. & tourist resource center, I picked up a copy of the Icon, Iowa City's independent, alternative newspaper. An alternative newspaper?? Surprised and lucky one more time: it was the Best of Iowa City 1997 issue.

Within my 2 block trek towards downtown, I encountered dredlocks, street musicians, and a Seattle-style coffee cart. This certainly wasn't Kansas. My urban provincialism was slapping me at every turn. Martinis. Cigars. Indian food. Refurbished public space. Al fresco lunching. Dads with strollers. Gay-friendly everything. Wheelchair access. A young man approached me reverently asking, "Pardon me, do you like hemp?" Uh, I had some serious misperceptions about where I was spending my weekend.

Iowa City, it turns out, has 60,000 people. 27,000 are students at the University of Iowa. You know it (I didn't)-- a Big 10 school. It's the literary capital of Iowa and the center for those with progressive tendencies. Populated by readers (5 used book stores within walking distance), writers (home to a renowned writer's workshop), activists (evidence of involvement in local, national & international issues abounds), churchgoers (small and friendly midwestern Churches stand on many a corner), and doctors (The U of I Hospital is #1 in Iowa and one of the top 50 in the country). Beautified by hilly streets, bountiful gardens and parks, ample and creative public space, and the Iowa River that cuts the town in two. Flavored with history, antiques, museums, ethnic restaurants, gourmet food marts, art galleries, theater, national music acts, bed and breakfasts, and 2 places for students to sell their plasma. Here, the bad parts of town, if they can even be called that, aren't worthy of a shudder.

Iowa City grew up around the University of Iowa and the two have had a pleasant co-existence ever since. No student vs. townsfolk conflict in these parts. Though the campus' 1,900 acres sprawl across the city, its main buildings are in the heart of downtown. Any citizen can hop on the free Cambus (campus busses) and take it to another part of the university system.

While there's no compelling reason to come from all corners of the country just to visit Iowa City, I'd strongly recommend Iowa City to close-by others. Big city midwesterners can relax here for a weekend of browsing, strolling, and good food and drink. Rural midwesterners can enjoy its cosmopolitan amenities in a cozy environment. Those passing through Iowa on long road trips would be happy to have stopped here for the night or decent meal. Finally, Iowa City would make a great base camp for those wanting to explore eastern Iowa more thoroughly.

Below is some starting information on this wonderful town. For more details, contact the Iowa City Convention & Visitors Bureau at 1-800-283-6592.

LODGING: The most expensive hotels in Iowa City (the $$$$$) are in the $60+ bracket, which isn't a bad ceiling at all. The least expensive run under $35. The five bed & breakfasts in the area range from $50-$75 a night.

FOOD:

Iowa City Classics
The Airliner (22 S. Clinton) One of the oldest restaurants in town (1944), the Airliner keep its menu up-to-date with something for everyone, starting with its signature Medium Thick Pizza. Or, try Chicago-style deep-dish, NY-style thin-crust, a vegetarian Philly, meatloaf, baked brie, filet mignon, BLT, pork chops, quesadillas, stir-fry...

Hamburg Inn #2 (214 N. Linn) Around since 1948, this classic diner (mentioned in a book on American road food) memorializes (with a plaque) the table where Ronald Reagan once ate. Known for its hallmark burgers and voted best affordable restaurant in town, this restaurant also has a fabulous breakfast and an impressive number of vegetarian offerings. For breakfast, choose the ingredients for your omelettes, hash browns, french toast, and pancakes (the pancake "minis" are actually full size). Throw in a grilled cinnamon roll if you have unlimited room in your stomach. Veggies will find meatless versions of breakfast patties, pork tenderloin, chicken, burgers, pattie melts, and BLTs!

Lunch
The Kitchen (215 E. Washington) For $6.95, enjoy a startlingly elegant lunchtime buffet of gourmet dishes.

Sub Shop (Washington & Dubuque?) Serves 34 kinds of subs on the freshest white or wheat bread. Probably the best sub I've ever eaten.

Snacking/Light Meals
New Pioneer Co-op Bake House's Toast & Bread Bar (498 1st Ave., Coralville) Antique toasters hang from the ceiling (some with wings a la Microsoft) at this bakery branch of the town's healthy foods co-op. The low-cost toast bar involves toasting slices of homemade bread and covering with your choice of toppings (hummus, pesto, herbed cream cheese, provolone, chunky preserves, etc.).

The Great Midwestern Ice Cream Company (126 E. Washington) Not only won Best Ice Cream, Best Soup, and Best Study Spot by local voters, but was pronounced "Best Ice Cream in America" by People Magazine. Vegetarian soups from scratch include international specialties like African Ground Nut Stew and Gobhi Matar. All natural baked goods and hot & cold espresso add to the menu.

Caffeintated Beverages
Java House (211-1/2 E. Washington) Funky and serene with piped-in jazz and colorful art. Sink into one of the unique chairs or couches (how about the blue velvet one?) or sit at one of the large wooden tables with Tiffany lamps to do some homework. There's no reason to leave soon.

The Mad Hatter Tea Garden & Shoppe (527 Washington) Feminine, rustic, and Victorian hat shop and tea spot. Tea served Wed.-Fr. 11am-3pm.

Ethnic Restaurants
Iowa City has several good Chinese, Mexican, and Italian restaurants, however residents pick Yen Ching, La Perlita, and Givanni's (109 E. College) for these cuisines. Other ethnic eateries are Aoeshe (624 S. Gilbert) for Korean, Japanese, and Chinese. Devan Thai (21 Storgis Corner) for Thai, Korean, and Chinese. India Cafe (227 E. Washington) for Indian, and MeKong (221 1st St, Coralville) Vietnamese, Thai, and Chinese.

ENTERTAINMENT: Iowa City supports a community theater which puts on 5 productions yearly, a professional theater company which presents 6 new and classic plays annually, and the Eulenspiegel Puppet Theatre, the only professional puppet troupe in Iowa.

University of Iowa Hancher Auditorium (319-335-1160) Place where top touring acts play when in town. The 1996-1997 season included Stomp, Ballet Hispanico, Tibetan Song & Dance Ensemble, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Joffrey Ballet's Nutcracker, Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and Ramsey Lewis. Find upcoming acts at Hancher Auditorium.

For local and national music acts, the favorite is Gunnerz which also does a Monday Night blues jam. At Happy Hour, go to Gabe's for the live music and drink specials, Chauncey's for the outdoor beer garden and Friday snack buffet, and The Vine for a mature crowd that appreciates relaxing jazz and chicken wings. The Mill has nightly live music and the most active open mic nights in town.

SHOPPING:

Alternative
Alternatives (323 E. Market) Household, clothing, and gift items all made from recycled materials.
Grass Roots (13 S. Linn, 319-339-4444) Any product imaginable that can be produced >from hemp.
Peaceful Fool and Third Coast (Downtown, ped mall) Lifestyle accessories for the modern peacenik.
World Market Place (601 Hollywood Blvd., 319-338-2278) Volunteer-staffed import shop promotes fair trade practices.

Books
Haunted Bookshop (520 Washington, 319-337-2996) Voted best used bookstore in Iowa City.
Northside Book Market (Market & Linn, 310-466-9330) The newest used bookstore in town, with the least expensive books. Also sells coffee and used furniture.
Prairie Lights (15 S. Dubuque, 319-337-2681) An amazing 3-level independent bookstore with frequent author events.

Local Art
Iowa Artisans Gallery (117 E. College, 319-351-8686) Fine contemporary handcrafts & selected fine art.

Women's Clothing Boutiques
Catherine's (7 S. Dubuque, 319-338-2210) "The Cutting Edge of Non-fashion."
dulicnea (2 S. Dubuque, 319-339-9468) Contemporary clothing, esp. "pretty dresses."
Textiles (109 S. Dubuque, 319-339-0410) Classy clothes, great textures. Silk, cotton, wool, linen, rayon.

Resale Clothing
Betty's Bad Clothes (112 S. Linn) Also a coffee shop.
The Savvy Boutique (320 E. Benton, 319-354-2565) Better women's clothing for work and play, sold on consignment.

Music
Almost Blue Music (112 E. College) Specializes in jazz, blues, urban, reggae.
Apollo Compact Discs (13 S. Linn) Used CDs. Listen before you buy.
Record Collector (4-1/2 S. Linn) Used funk, punk, pop, psychedelic, surf, ambient, house, and acid jazz.

HISTORY & MUSEUMS: The University of Iowa campus and the U of I Hospital house a number of museums including an art museum, a museum of national history, and a medical museum.

The Old Capitol (Clinton & Iowa) Iowa's first permanent state capitol before westward expansion moved the capital to Des Moines. Now restored, this National Historic Landmark, sits in downtown Iowa City on the university's main campus.

Tree Walk in the Longfellow Neighborhood A walking tour of a residential historic district and 50 noteworthy "heritage" trees located there.

Mormon Handcart Site On the outskirts of town, a marker and brief walking trail designate an area where thousands of Mormons camped in 1856 and 1857 to build their handcarts and secure provisions for their journey west to Salt Lake City.

NEARBY: Cedar Rapids is 1/2 an hour away by car, and the Quad Cities on the Illinois border are 1 hour away. Here are some other good day trips from Iowa City.

Amana Colonies National Historic Landmark
Come see the modern community (along with historic buildings) that grew out of the religious commune began by 2 German immigrants in the early 1700s. Just 18 miles from Iowa City, come for a heavy Old World meal at one of the local restaurants. Special events: Flea Market (Last weekend in June), Bluegrass Festival (mid-July), Woodcrafts Festival (3rd weekend in August), and Oktoberfest (1st weekend in October).

Antiques
Head to nearby Amana, Coralville, Hills, Kalona, Lisbon, Mount Vernon, North Liberty, Solon, Washington, West Amana, West Branch and West Chester for heavy-duty antique browsing.

Dutch Heritage
Enjoy and learn about Dutch culture in America in Pella, Iowa. Dutch architecture, a Dutch museum, and an historical village are among the permanent ways one can do this. Better though, is to come for one of the annual festivals: Tulip Time (early May), Kermis Dutch summer festival (July 12, 1997), Fall Festival (September 26 & 27, 1997), Christmas parade and tour of homes (Mid-Nov. through late December).

Grant Wood Country
The 2nd Sunday in June is the Grant Wood Art Festival in Stone City, IA, the place Wood chose for his art colony the summers of 1932 and 1933. At the Grant Wood Tourism Center and Gallery, view an extensive exhibit of "American Gothic" caricatures.

Kalona
20 miles South of Iowa City is Kalona, "Quilt Capital of Iowa" and the location of the largest Amish settlement west of the Mississippi. Attractions include specialty shops and restaurants (don't miss the award-winning cheese factory) and an historic village.

Norwegian Heritage
Every year 50,000-60,000 people visit Decorah in Iowa's northeastern corner to enjoy its Norwegian heritage festival. This year's dates are July 25-27. If you can't make the festival weekend, come another time for the Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum and a smorgasabord.

Outdoor Recreation
Nearby Coralville Lake provides plenty of opportunities for camping, hiking, boating, swimming, picnicking, skiing, snowmobiling, and frisbee golf.

Outlet Shopping
1/2 way between Des Moines and Iowa City in Williamsburg, the Tanger Outlet Center draws bargain shoppers from surrounding states for the 66 brand name manufacturers' and designers' outlet stores.

Sharon Woodhouse, author of A Native's Guide to Chicago lives in Chicago where she runs Lake Claremont Press, a small publishing company specializing in books about the Chicago area and its history.

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