Visiting Midwestern college towns
Hanging out in a college town as a nonstudent can be a blast, especially when you're not on that ramen budget anymore.
Iowa City, Iowa
Distance 222 miles
Travel time 3 hours, 45 minutes
Don’t miss Breakfast at Ronald Reagan’s table at Hamburg Inn No. 2
The pancake-flat prairie gets a sudden jolt in Iowa City, home to the University of Iowa, set among the eastern part of the state’s rolling hills.
The pedestrian-friendly downtown, smoky bars, funky coffeehouses, mix of liberal townies and diligent undergrads, and the bendy Iowa River that neatly divides the city and campus give the city an undeniably good vibe year round. But during the colder months it’s more geared toward indoor activities (like heavy drinking).
Inexpensive lodging options include the Iowa House (121 Iowa Memorial Union, Madison at Jefferson Sts, 319-335-3513, imu.uiowa.edu/iowahouse; $85-$120/night), a university-run hotel that occupies a chunk of the student union. The rooms are comfortable, and it’s the perfect place to stay if you want striking views of the river and stone’s-throw proximity to the art-house Bijou Theater (IMU, Madison at Jefferson Sts, 319-335-3041, www.bijou.uiowa.edu/), the performing-arts venue Hancher Auditorium (231 Hancher Auditorium, 319-335-1160, www.hancher.uiowa.edu) and the Museum of Art (150 N Riverside Dr, 319-335-1727, www.uiowa.uIowa.edu/).
Home cooking isn’t hard to come by in Iowa, and it reigns supreme at the Hamburg Inn No. 2 (214 N Linn St, 319-337-5512, hamburginn.com), an Iowa City tradition where on any given weekend you’ll find sleepy undergrads stumbling in wearing baggy sweatpants with IOWA emblazoned on their butts. Try an omelette stuffed with farm-raised veggies and sausage ($7) and ask for the corner booth, where President Reagan once sat. For lunch, head to The Bread Garden Market (225 S Linn St, 319-354.4246, breadgardenmarket.com) and keep winter in check with a big bowl of hearty soup and varieties of housemade breads and pastries. Don’t miss coffee afterward at the always-frenetic Java House (150 Stevens Dr, 319-341-0012, thejavahouse.com). But your best meal may be had at Formosa (241 E College St, 310-338-8880, formosadowntown.com), an impressive pan-Asian newcomer where the key lime martini ($3 specials on Tuesdays and Thursdays) is smooth and tangy and you’ll tear into the spicy Las Vegas roll ($12) as if it were candy.
The real benefit of visiting Iowa City in winter is that its dive bars are that much cozier. You can find a grad student penning the next great American novel on a cocktail napkin while clutching an American Spirit at The Sanctuary Restaurant and Pub (405 S Gilbert St, 319-351-5692, sanctuarypub.com), a dimly lit off-campus bar. But the quintessential hangout has to be The Deadwood (6 S Dubuque St, 319-351-9417, deadwoodic.com), with cheap beer, $1 cups of coffee, arcade games, pool tables and no annoying frat boys.
—Jason A. Heidemann