With a population of 34,768, Marion is right in that sweet spot. Marion has plenty of historic charm, with coffee shops, restaurants and community activities, like the annual art fair. The Campbell Steele Gallery is also a local treasure, with art, crafts, live music events and more.
2. Cedar Falls
Cedar Falls has a population of 39,260, and it’s home to the University of Northern Iowa. With the Hearst Center for the Arts and sculpture garden, the UNI art gallery, theaters, great shopping and more, Cedar Falls offers that college town charm with plenty of entertainment to keep you busy.
3. Iowa City
Iowa City has a population of 74,220, and it’s home to the University of Iowa. While the population is a little on the higher side, Iowa City really has a relaxed atmosphere that makes it seem smaller than it is. Iowa City is a literary hub, since it’s home to the prestigious Iowa Writer’s Workshop. Pair that with plenty of museums, sporting events, art theaters, a brand new performing arts auditorium, Hancher, and a bustling pedestrian mall downtown, Iowa City has it all.
Bettendorf is a town on the Mississippi River with a population of 35,505. It is the smallest of the Quad Cities, with all of the charm and benefits of being located on the river. There’s plenty to do here, like visit the Bettendorf Family Museum, Devil’s Glen Park, a wooded area with plenty of scenic trails, and Lock and Dam No. 14, a great place to enjoy the river and watch for eagles and other river wildlife.
Marshalltown is on the smaller side, with a population of 27,552, but there’s still plenty to do and see. You can sample some locally brewed beer at the Iowa River Brewing Company, visit the big treehouse, a 12-level, 55-foot high treehouse, or just go downtown and wander through the shops.
Burlington is another Mississippi River town, and it’s as interesting as it is charming. With a population of 25,663, it’s sleepy, but not too sleepy. Whether you want to explore the historic downtown, sample some of the amazing local cuisine or visit Snake Alley, the crookedest street in the world, you definitely won’t be bored.
Ottumwa has a population of 25,023 and is located in southeastern Iowa along the Des Moines River. Ottumwa is called the city of bridges because it is split into northern and southern halves by the river. There are many things to do in Ottumwa, like see a live performance at the Bridge View Center, take a stroll on the trail along the river, visit the Freedom Rock and have lunch at Canteen Lunch in the Alley, an iconic lunch counter that serves the best loose meat sandwich you’ll have in your life.
8. Fort Dodge
Fort Dodge has a population of 25,206. It’s a major commercial center for North Central and Northwest Iowa. There are many interesting things to do in Fort Dodge, like visiting the Fort Museum and Frontier Village, going to the Blanden Memorial Art Museum or checking out some live theater. The downtown area is also great for shopping and dining, and there’s even a winery called Soldier Creek Winery.
Ames has a population of 58,965, and it’s home to Iowa State University. Iowa State is known for its Agriculture, Design, Engineering and Veterinary colleges. There’s so much to do in Ames, including art centers and museums, the Ames Historical Society and Reiman Gardens, a 17-acre public garden, just to name a few.
Located on the Mississippi River, Muscatine has a population of 22,887. Interesting things to do include visiting the Riverfront, which includes Pearl City Station, Riverview Center, Riverside Park, and "Mississippi Harvest" sculpture by Erik Blome, checking out the view at the Mark Twain Scenic Overlook and paying a visit to the Muscatine Art Center.
11. Council Bluffs
Council Bluffs is an interesting town located in Western Iowa. The population is 62,230, and it is located on the east bank of the Missouri River, across from Omaha, Nebraska. There are many things to keep people occupied, like the Union Pacific Railroad Museum, the historic Pottawattamie County Squirrel Cage Jail and Museum and the Hitchcock Nature Center in the beautiful and unique terrain of Iowa’s Loess Hills.