Find Your Story in Iowa City

Americans pay attention to Iowa once every four years, in between the Iowa State Fair and the end of the caucuses. But then Iowa falls off the map and becomes a sinkhole of a state to those on the coasts. But those coastal dwellers would do well to keep Iowa City on their radar for a bit longer. It’s a great place to drink things in, from beer to literature.

Iowa City is the first American city to be designated a UNESCO City of Literature. Home to The University of Iowa’s acclaimed Writer’s Workshop, a whole scene has grown up around the program featuring book readings, poetry slams and spoken word nights on the regular. While Prairie Lights Books has weekly readings, visitors can drink in the literary scene elsewhere. One can attend literary events in the public library, the Dey House (home to the Workshop) or Shambaugh House (where the International Writing Program gathers) or stumble across literary events in the least likely of places.

I happened upon a reading in RSVP, a small stationary store that swapped its display tables for foldable chairs and converted its cashier’s station into a stage for an author and a two-piece band. All around the city, restaurants and cafes become homes to literary salons. Should you want to follow in the footsteps of a beloved author, The Writing University’s LitCity app will direct you to their haunts and places referenced in their works.

Word lovers interested in making a pilgrimage to Iowa City are advised to plan their visits around the city’s literature-rich festivals. The Iowa City Book Festival, held in the first week of October, and the Iowa Summer Writing Festival are high profile celebrations of words. But the city also hosts worthy under-the-radar festivals like the Witching Hour Festival in November, which focuses on the creative process across the arts, and April’s Mission Creek Festival, a mini South by Southwest in the Heartland.

While few streets in downtown boast commercial shops, nearly every block has a coffee shop. Even in the outskirts of town, you’ll stumble across a random, seemingly misplaced café. But they’re some of the best places to get a feel of the city. My two favorites were Dash, a brightly lit space that was all windows and wood, and the couldn’t-be-more-different High Ground Café, which attracts an artsier crowd and has a more thrown-together vibe.

For something stronger, try Iowa City’s beer and cider scene. Once a lumberyard, the Big Grove Brewery is now the city’s retreat. In the massive backyard, you’ll find cyclists who’ve just ended some twenty-mile journey gathered around the fire pits, parents watching their children play in the concrete playground and pyramid of tires, college kids tossing beanbags across the lawn, and professors tippling at the tables. Inside, sports fans watch games on movie screens, while the rest enjoy Korean-style hot wings, decent tacos and perfect sours. The space hosts concerts, film festivals and other reasons to gather.

In the farmlands, out on an apple orchard, down—yes—Dingleberry Road, Sunday brunch at the Rapid Creek Cidery is a must. Take a seat in their old barn or on the patio that overlooks acres of orchards. Besides a tractor pulling a hayride, there’s little else but nature here. While the cider and food menus rotate depending on the whims of the trees and the chef, respectively, there’s always something delicious on hand. The Hangtown Fry—an omelet stuffed with fried oysters, Calabrian peppers, chives and capers—was beautiful, and their apple pancakes are not to be missed.

For a third spot, try the Reunion Brewery, where, suspended over the bar, a skeleton is lodged in a capsized kayak. The beers are good and the artwork bizarre. A pugilistic gorilla crossed with a mongoose (or something of the sort) and a purple character that might be cousin to Stimpy from Ren and Stimpy are just a few of the characters appearing on Reunion’s labels and populating their artwork.

Besides the beer, I enjoyed the gossip. After all, how many places can one go to overhear loose-lipped, inebriated campaign managers name-drop Anderson Cooper, Iowa governor Kim Reynolds and their own candidate while an out-of-towner sits at the next table quite obviously taking notes?

Noah Lederman is the author of the memoir A World Erased: A Grandson’s Search for His Family’s Holocaust Secrets. His writing has been featured in The Economist, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, The Miami Herald, The New Republic, Slate, and elsewhere. He writes the travel blog Somewhere Or Bust. He tweets @SomewhereOrBust.