This fall’s long-awaited opening of the University of Iowa’s new Hancher Auditorium — eight years after a flood shuttered the previous auditorium — is one more reason to explore Iowa City. Surrounded by rich farmland, this classic college town draws culture vultures and sports fans alike, thanks to Hancher — which has offered top-notch dance, music and theater since 1972 — plus the university’s famous Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the Big Ten Hawkeyes. The lively downtown has eclectic restaurants, bookstores, boutiques, entertainment and made-in-the-Midwest galleries.
About 280 miles southeast of the Twin Cities (midway between St. Paul and St. Louis on the Avenue of the Saints highway corridor), Iowa City has about 74,000 residents, almost half of them students. The narrow, flood-prone Iowa River snakes through the sprawling campus. To the west is the silvery-white, ultramodern new Hancher and the often jam-packed Kinnick Stadium (football) and Carver-Hawkeye Arena (basketball). The campus’ oldest area, known as the Pentacrest, is graced by the Old Capitol, home to territorial and state government from 1842 until 1857. Students and visitors wander in and around “the Ped Mall,” pedestrian-only streets lined with places to eat, shop, drink and have fun. In leafy neighborhoods, ragtag student housing and graceful homes from the late 1800s and early 1900s share streets that are sometimes paved with redbrick.
A new ‘Nutcracker’
A fixture of Iowa’s cultural life, Hancher has long presented and commissioned innovative work by renowned performers. Perched on the Iowa River near its original site, the new $176 million building designed by Cesar Pelli has a flat horizontal roof that juts dramatically outward and floor-to-ceiling glass walls offering glorious views. A season highlight is a preview of the Joffrey Ballet’s new “Nutcracker” (Dec. 1-4), reset during the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, with choreography by Tony-award winning Christopher Wheeldon. The Joffrey’s new “Nutcracker” marks the latest chapter in a fruitful 42-year relationship between the university and the Chicago-based dance company. Hancher also commissioned the 1987 debut of choreographer Robert Joffrey’s “Nutcracker” and the fantastic 1993 Joffrey rock ballet “Billboards,” with music by Prince. On deck at Hancher in 2017: the Cleveland Orchestra (Jan. 20), cellist Yo-Yo Ma (March 5) and East Los Angeles band Las Cafeteras (March 9). (1-800-HANCHER; hancher.uiowa.edu).
Art and architecture: Visit other cool new post-flood architecture on the fine-arts campus near Hancher, including the Visual Arts Building (107 River St.) and Art Building West (141 N. Riverside Dr.), opened in 2006 and renovated after flood damage. The new Voxman Music Building (93 E. Burlington St.) is downtown, south of the Ped Mall.
Cycle through campus and beyond: One way to see the new (and older) buildings on campus is by riding the paved Iowa River Corridor Trail, which winds for about 14 miles through campus, small parks and downtown (iowabikeways.com). The trail can get busy, but not as busy as RAGBRAI, the famous annual July ride across Iowa that draws thousands of cyclists. For bike rentals, try World of Bikes (1-319-351-8337; worldofbikes.com).
Catch a rising literary star: Another landmark on Iowa’s cultural map, Prairie Lights bookstore (1-319-337-2681; prairielights.com) is the place not only to pick up the latest novel or nonfiction tome but to meet the authors, who often give readings, some live-streamed. Many an author is affiliated with the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the famous creative writing program.
To learn about authors with Iowa ties, follow the Iowa Avenue Literary Walk, between Clinton and Gilbert streets, which has bronze relief panels quoting 49 writers, including Flannery O’Connor, Kurt Vonnegut, Tennessee Williams and Marilynne Robinson. “The midwestern land has a softly undulating quality, like concentric circles spreading from a rock tossed into a farm pond,” reads Chris Offutt’s panel. Prairie Lights sells a $3 guide to the walk.
Shop the Ped Mall: Visit Iowa Artisans Gallery (1-319-351-8686; iowa-artisans-gallery.com) for handmade crafts and jewelry; AKAR (1-319-351-1227; akardesign.com) for contemporary art and design goods, Sicily Boutique (1-319-337-4232; sicilyboutique.com) for outside-the-box womenswear, and Active Endeavors (1-319-337-9444; shopactiveendeavors.com) for outdoor gear.
Don’t forget other arts venues; Hancher isn’t the only show in town. In and around the Ped Mall, check out the Englert Theatre, a nonprofit performance venue in an old playhouse offering concerts, lectures and comedy acts (1-319-688-2653; englert.org); the Mill, a small restaurant/club hosting local musicians (1-319-351-9529; icmill.com); and the nonprofit FilmScene, which shows independent and international films (1-319-358-2555; icfilmscene.org).
Where to eat and drink
Bluebird Diner has hearty breakfasts, burgers and sandwiches. Try the Cuban or pulled pork sandwich (1-319-351-1470; thebluebirddiner.com).
Oasis Falafel serves up cheap and tasty Middle Eastern greatest hits. Try the falafel pita or kebab plate, with a lamb skewer and chicken shawarma (1-319-358-7342; oasisfalafel.com).
Pullman Bar & Diner does classy comfort food. Try the fried chicken and decadent kitchen fries, dotted with barbecued pork chunks (1-319-338-1808; pullmandiner.com).
Need a snack? Visit Yotopia Frozen Yogurt (1-319-338-0500), made with fresh yogurt from a local dairy farm, or the New Pioneer Co-op (1-319-338-9441; newpi.coop) for provisions for picnicking along the Iowa River at City Park. Another option from May through October is the farmers market on the 400 block of Washington Street (at the Chauncey Swan parking ramp) on Wednesday nights and Saturday mornings.
Where to sleep
A Bella Vista Bed and Breakfast is a pretty 1920s house on a quiet street in the city’s old north side, with nice views (or, in Italian, “bella vista”). Three suites with private bath, two rooms with shared bath (1-319-338-4129; abellavista.net).
Brown Street Inn is a 1913 Dutch Colonial-style house with a big front porch and pillars on the city’s north side. Five rooms, one suite, all with private baths (1-319-338-0435; brownstreetinn.com).
This being a college town, Airbnb has plenty of affordable options, from couch-surfing to entire homes.
If you go
For more information, contact the Iowa City/Coralville Area Convention & Visitors Bureau (1-800-283-6592; iowacitycoralville.org).
Betsy Rubiner is a Des Moines-based travel writer.