By the Numbers
AVERAGE COMMUTE 18 minutes
MEDIAN AGE 25
MEDIAN INCOME $44,000
MEDIAN HOME PRICE $174,000
BIGGEST EMPLOYERS University of Iowa (17,993), University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics (7,683), American College Testing Program (1,426)
TELLING STATISTICIowa City's 11-block downtown is home to 28 bars
WHEN THE PRESIDENTIAL hopefuls flock to Iowa City this fall, they'll find more than political rallies. Surrounded by hills and bisected by the Iowa River, the liberal college town is or has been home to notable writers like 1978 Pulitzer Prize winner James Alan McPherson and the late Kurt Vonnegut, who penned part of the seminal Slaughterhouse-Five here. The University of Iowa's nearly 30,000 students keep this oak-lined Pleasantville real, with six yoga studios, the famed Prairie Lights independent bookstore, and everything from Ethiopian cafés to grilled-cheese stands. Developer Marc Moen is giving the town's squat red-brick buildings an injection of minimalism with his latest creation, Plaza Towers, 14-story glass high-rises occupied by businesses, hotel rooms, and loft condos. The town's buzzword is "alternative energy," and investors are pouring in millions to build ethanol refineries across Iowa in hopes of making the corn-fed Midwest a kind of sustainable Middle East. Athletes pride themselves on their ingenuity: Climbers pilgrimage northwest to Cedar Falls in the winter to ascend ice-covered grain silos, and mountain bikers have built singletrack networks through prairie lands in 200-acre Sugar Bottom Recreation Area.That wins our vote.
The Perfect 48 Hours
From subscriber Aaron Howard, 31, a security analyst for the University of Iowa:
Start with a trail run through Hickory Hill Park, then chow on sweet-potato cakes at the Hamburg Inn (hamburginn.com). Grab trail mix at the New Pioneer Co-Op (newpi.com), then drive to Pictured Rocks to climb Bird in Hand, a 5.11b route on a limestone cliff along the sleepy Maquoketa River. Head back to town for tapas and sangria at the eclectic Devotay (devotay.net). Early the next day, have French toast at Lou Henri (319-351-3637), then gear up at World of Bikes (worldofbikes.com) for an 11-mile mountain-bike ride in the Sugar Bottom Recreation Area. After refueling at Oasis Falafel (oasisfalafel.com), take a kayak on Lake MacBride (rent from Lake MacBride Boat Rental; lakemacbrideboatrental.com), then check out an indie band at the Picador (thepicador.com).
Want more urbanity? Head across the Mississippi River to Madison. The city has more than 100 miles of on- and off-road bike lanes, vast glacial lakes, and the Midwest's most popular climbing spot, Devil's Lake State Park, just 45 minutes away. Madison's progressive flavor with its thriving farmers' market, Laotian restaurants, and more than a dozen fair-trade-coffee shops is like a small-town Iowa City with a more metro vibe.
"One of the Midwest's outdoor-sports meccas." Jason Heaton