By Lori Erickson
Whether you’re on a girlfriends' getaway, shopping for a special gift, or just wanting to sample some local color, you’ll find that these shopping districts are tourist destinations in their own right:
This retail district was once a bustling railroad center. Today Valley Junction's historic buildings house antique stores, art galleries, gift shops, fashion boutiques and restaurants. Here you can find a well-worn treasure to upcycle, pick out a new craft project or buy the perfect dress for a special occasion. Before you leave, sample the fare at one of the district’s many dining establishments.
Home to the University of Iowa, this classic college town has a laid-back, hipster vibe. Its downtown, anchored by a busy pedestrian mall often filled with students, features many independently owned businesses. Outfit your next outdoor adventure at Active Endeavors, shop for comfortable-but-chic clothing at Textiles, and learn how to create a pair of earrings at Beadology. You can also shop at Daydreams Comics and OM Gifts for Body & Soul. And don’t leave town without stopping at Prairie Lights, one of the nation’s finest bookstores (be sure to visit its cozy upstairs café).
This charming district overlooks the Mississippi River in the Quad Cities. Its historic buildings date back to the nineteenth century when East Davenport was a logging town. Many of the structures now house shops, restaurants, and small businesses, including Winborn’s Bed & Breakfast. Visit Calla for furniture and home furnishings. At Lagomarcino’s, sample the gourmet chocolates they’ve been making for more than a century. The village also hosts many special events, including the Quad Cities Criterium in May and Riverssance Art Fair in September.
Set amid a scenic landscape of rolling hills and wooded bluffs, Decorah’s star is rising as a national tourist destination. Its downtown includes many independently owned businesses, which range from Dragonfly Books and Blue Heron Knittery to the Cardboard Robot, which sells art supplies and STEM kits for either your kids or your own inner geek. The Vesterheim Museum Store, meanwhile, stocks gorgeous Scandinavian-themed gifts. For lunch, have a hearty sandwich and cup of homemade soup at the Oneota Food Co-op, then shop its aisles for sustainably raised, locally sourced produce.
Founded as a communal society in the nineteenth century, the seven villages that comprise the Amana Colonies preserve their German heritage with good food, warm hospitality and fine craftsmanship. While the majority of the shops are in the main village of Amana, you’ll also find stores in several of the other villages. The Amana Colonies are particularly known for their locally made furniture and handmade textiles, but their stores sell a wide array of gift items, household wares and useful-but-decorative crafts. If you can, time your visit to coincide with one of the Amana Colonies many festivals such as Maifest or Oktoberfest.
6. Le Claire
The charming Mississippi River town of Le Claire, which bustled during the Steamboat Era, is thriving once again. The town’s rebirth is due in part to the popular History Channel show American Pickers. Its co-host Mike Wolfe owns Antique Archaeology, a store just off the main street. Aunt Hattie’s Fanciful Emporium, which is full of pop culture-themed gifts, has a similarly off-beat character. Before leaving town, indulge yourself with a cocktail at the Mississippi River Distilling Company, which produces spirits from local grains, and a sweet treat from the Shameless Chocoholic.
Located between the gold-domed Iowa State Capitol and the east bank of the Des Moines River, the lively area known as the East Village is one of the most historic parts of Des Moines. Loft-style housing, quirky boutiques and trendy eateries make it a magnet for locals and visitors alike. Shop places like Domestica for locally made gifts, Raygun for sassy t-shirts, Raccoon Forks Trading Company for antiques, and Sticks for home décor. Then browse the shelves while sipping a latte at Plain Talk Books.
Lauded in 2010 as one of the National Historic Trust’s Dozen Distinctive Destinations, Cedar Falls has more than 30 stores lining the brick streets of its downtown. The Vintage Iron Co. sells handcrafted iron décor. Hatchlings & Hens is the place to go if you have a baby shower in your future. And Singlespeed Brewing offers libations to sooth the worn-out shopper.
Sioux City’s downtown, which is known for its stately Romanesque Revival architecture, is undergoing a revitalization. Stores in the Historic 4th Street District include Beth’s Flowers on Fourth, a gift, home décor, and floral shop, and Studio 427, an interior design firm that also sells home accessories. You’ll find many more items at Antiques on Historic Fourth, which has 6,000 square feet of merchandise offered by multiple dealers.
The Iowa Great Lakes have been a popular resort area since the early 1900s. While the rest of the family swims, soaks, fishes, or boats, you can browse the shops in Queen's Court, which is located next to Arnolds Park Amusement Park. Many of the stores here, not surprisingly, have a nautical theme, from Boat House Apparel to the gift shop at the Maritime Museum. You can also shop for clothing at Pink in the Park, then buy an “Iowa Rocks” T-shirt at the nearby Iowa Rock ‘n Roll Museum. Continue your shopping excursion at the Central Emporium, just down the street.
Lori Erickson is the author of Iowa: Off the Beaten Path.