Books, bourbon, and bald eagles: Central Iowa is full of pleasant surprises

With no set plans, a trip to Iowa City and Cedar Rapids is fueled by local recommendations and an overwhelming sense of inclusiveness

Photo: Amanda Bungartz

My first impression of Iowa is not so much what I see or hear but what I smell. As I slowly open the front door to The Brown Street Inn, my quaint home for the next two days, I am hit with a buttery, warm smell that can only mean one thing: fresh chocolate chip cookies.

A smiling face appears from around the corner and simultaneously offers me both a cookie and a hand with my bags. The face belongs to Mark Ruggeberg, one of the owners of The Brown Street Inn and the man behind the delicious baked goods. Ruggeberg bakes the cookies fresh every day as a “simple way to treat guests on their way in and out.”

While I immediately recognize the cookies as a thoughtful act of hospitality, what I don’t realize—and won’t until much later—is just how frequently I will experience these types of pure, amiable moments throughout my time in Iowa.

Close up of two chocolate chip cookies on a red napkin from the Brown Street Inn
Different types of cookies are baked fresh every day. | Photo: Amanda Bungartz
Outside the front of the Brown Street Inn building in Iowa City
The Brown Street Inn is located in the historic Brown Street District. | Photo: Amanda Bungartz

The land of literature

I believe that limiting the amount of pre-planning you do for a trip can really force you to be in the moment and take randomness as it comes. I decide to honor that sentiment when I drive out to Iowa for a weekend trip, only knowing the two cities I will explore (Iowa City and Cedar Rapids) and where I will sleep each night (The Brown Street Inn).

After the initial cookie encounter, Ruggeberg becomes my unofficial tour guide to Iowa City. He loads me down with books, essays, and printed maps—all very fitting seeing as Iowa City was the first U.S. city deemed a UNESCO City of Literature

Close up of an open book statue in Iowa City on the Literary Walk
One of the many statues that can be found along the Iowa Avenue Literary Walk. | Photo: Amanda Bungartz

To honor that distinction, Ruggeberg suggests I do the Literary Walk, a mile-long stretch along Iowa Avenue that features plaques and statues dedicated to some of the most talented writers who, at one point, called Iowa City home.

I take him up on his offer, and as I stroll along looking at the various dedications and inscriptions, I can’t help but notice that the Literary Walk seems to be guiding me towards a large, Greek-style building with a golden dome. The whole thing is stunning, especially when the sunlight catches the dome and everything shimmers.

This mirage-like structure turns out to be the Old Capitol Building, the former main government building for the state of Iowa. Nowadays, it sits as a gleaming landmark at the center of the University of Iowa—the same university that has been pioneering creative writing for more than 80 years. 

Iowa City Old Capitol Building walkway and University of Iowa plaque on ground
The Old Capitol sits at the heart of the University of Iowa. | Photo: Amanda Bungartz
Close up of golden dome on the Old Capitol Building in Iowa City
The golden dome gleams in the sunlight. | Photo: Amanda Bungartz

A mighty art scene in a small city

As I make my way back along Iowa Avenue, I run into a couple that is also staying at The Brown Street Inn. Having heard that I was both a writer and from Chicago, they tell me I have to check out Prairie Lights Books and Cafe, as I might appreciate “all of the first edition books and the gallery of pictures from when President Obama visited.” Again, I am struck by the purity of their thoughtfulness.

Upstairs at Prairie Lights, I admire the photos of Obama and grab one of the cafe’s specialty coffees, a cappuccino with caramel and black sea salt. When I mention the Literary Walk to the barista, he suggests I check out another walk not too far from here—the Iowa River Landing Sculpture Walk.

Lining a small portion of the Iowa River Trail, eleven permanent sculptures make up the Sculpture Walk. First installed back in 2013, each piece was done by a local artist and is based on a book or poem from the Iowa Writers’ Library.

While the sculptures themselves are intricate and handsome, I keep getting distracted by the natural beauty surrounding them. In fact, the Iowa River is actually a popular feeding spot for bald eagles, and I end up spotting four as I make my way along the water. Eagles are particularly abundant along this stretch of the river because of the dams from the Iowa River Power Plant; the dams prevent the river from freezing, offering more opportunities for the eagles to catch fish.

The Iowa River Power Plant facility is also located along the Iowa River Trail, about a mile down from the sculptures. The large brick building operated as a power plant for nearly 70 years before it was converted into the Iowa River Power Restaurant  in 1977. I remember Ruggeberg mentioning this was a good place for dinner, so I decide to try it. With a juicy prime rib on my plate and bald eagles flying around outside, I watch the sun set on my first day in Iowa City.

The Cedar Rapids face off

Although I could’ve spent an entire weekend in Iowa City, my short trip only offers me a day in each city. So, after sitting around what truly felt like the family breakfast table, talking with Ruggeberg and enjoying his homemade, stuffed blueberry French toast, I head up to Cedar Rapids.

My first stop is the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art (CRMA), another one of Ruggeberg’s recommendations. Located in the heart of downtown Cedar Rapids, the CRMA building takes up an entire block and houses over 5,000 pieces of art. The special exhibit on display when I visit is titled Across the Atlantic: American Impressionism through the French Lens—as impressive as the airy, intricate paintings are, the museum building itself is just as striking, especially the dark green Carnegie Room. With its tall pillars, deep leather couches, and crackling fire, it makes the museum feel warm and welcoming. 

Outside the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art featuring blue pillars and red and yellow head sculptures
You get to see some fun art before you even step inside the museum. | Photo: Amanda Bungartz

Just across from the CRMA, separated by Greene Square Park, is the Cedar Rapids Public Library. It almost feels like the two buildings are having a permanent face off—the sturdy, columned museum versus the lucid, glass library. Having seen the one, I feel I must do the other justice and check it out.

Once inside the library—which feels very much like the office space of a major tech company with all the glass and artistic furniture—I am greeted by Natalie Strueckern, the library branch manager. Strueckern explains how, after a flood destroyed the original library in 2008, the city decided to rebuild and make it as green as possible. The new library is now a LEED Platinum building and features a 24,000-square-foot green roof to help capture rainwater.

Cedar Rapids Public Library building with snow and geese in front
The museum and the library are separated by a small, grassy (or snowy) park. | Photo: Amanda Bungartz

In addition to being full of helpful library-specific facts, Strueckern suggests I visit NewBo City Market for lunch. And while the word “market” conjures up a very specific image in my mind, it is not at all what I imagined.

A Dixie cup prophecy

Not your typical grocery store with rows of packaged goods and misted produce, NewBo City Market is like an indoor farmer’s market. Similar (albeit much smaller) to that of Pikes Place in Seattle or Grand Central in Los Angeles, NewBo City Market is full of small stands and vendors selling everything from Indian street food to gourmet chocolates to hand-knit scarves.

NewBo City Market signage outside the market
NewBo City Market is not your typical grocery store. | Photo: Amanda Bungartz
Close up of hand holding mint chip ice cream cone
Peppermint ice cream of my dreams. | Photo: Amanda Bungartz

I opt for chicken tacos from La Reyna, followed by ice cream from Nelson’s Homemade Ice Cream (the peppermint fudge patty flavor is a must if you like mint). As I wander around and enjoy my cone, someone at a nearby booth offers me a free wine tasting. I oblige and learn that the wine I’m about to taste is actually grown and produced at a local winery just down the road. And just like that, my next location gets served to me in a small Dixie cup.

Joining the girls trip

The Cedar Ridge Winery and Distillery is located about 15 minutes south of downtown Cedar Rapids. Bordering the Hawkeye Wildlife Management Area, the winery sits on acres of rolling hills and lush forests.

I head inside the barn-style building that acts as the tasting room, only to find it packed full of visitors. With little room to move and no place to go, I stand idle for a bit and wait until a spot opens up. Two women on my left, who seem to be in the same predicament, casually smile in my direction. One of the women asks if I’m here alone. After answering (yes, I am) and explaining my spontaneous weekend trip, they immediately ask if I would like to join their group. And for the rest of the afternoon, I am a welcomed addition to Kat and Jean’s girls trip.

Cedar Ridge Winery and Distillery building near Iowa City and Cedar Rapids
Cedar Ridge Winery and Distillery resembles an old barn, with its red roof and large storage tanks. | Photo: Amanda Bungartz

As we sip a variety of local wines, I learn that the two women have been friends since childhood and make a point to take a few weekend trips together every year. Jean is local to Iowa and Kat lives in Wisconsin, so they’ll often trade back and forth on visiting. The conversation is easy, like I’ve known them way beyond today. We even bond over all having played sports in college and all having torn some sort of knee ligament while doing so. And when the winery announces a complimentary tour is about to begin, we join as a party of three.

It is on this tour that I learn Cedar Ridge was the first licensed distillery in the state of Iowa since Prohibition, and that its claim-to-fame is not so much its wines but rather its bourbons. In order to be classified as a true bourbon whiskey, the spirit needs to be made from at least 51 percent corn, held in a new, charred oak barrel, and aged for at least two years. Iowa is the largest producer of corn in the U.S., so the state knows a thing or two about good corn and, therefore, good bourbon. The bourbon at Cedar Ridge is actually 74 percent corn and distilled to a higher proof, giving it a much cleaner, smoother taste.

Glass of red wine sitting on bar at Cedar Ridge Winery
Cedar Ridge is known for its “hearty” red wines. | Photo: Amanda Bungartz
Oak barrels of wine behind a fence at Cedar Ridge Winery in Iowa
Some aging barrels used are shipped from Italy. | Photo: Amanda Bungartz

As the tour comes to an end, Jean and Kat need to head off to a dinner reservation and I need to make my way back to Chicago. As we say our goodbyes, I’m struck by the feeling that I’m leaving friends. And I realize that I also felt this way when I said goodbye back at The Brown Street Inn—leaving Ruggeberg felt like leaving a distant uncle.

From the simplicity of a free cookie to being welcomed fully by complete strangers, I have never experienced such thoughtfulness on a trip before. For this reason alone, I feel a deep sense of gratitude and a strong desire to come back to Iowa and show my appreciation. That, and maybe to try a few more bourbons.

Take this trip

To explore all the places mentioned above, check out the complete trip below.