The Iowa state flag blowing in the wind in front of a clear blue sky.

12 of the Best Small Towns in Iowa You’ll Wish You Learned About Sooner


by Matt Lyons Posted on July 24, 2023

If you’re on the hunt for a place with a great cost of living, numerous weekend farmers’ markets, and plenty of green spaces to explore, look no further than the best small towns in Iowa. The state’s natural beauty, friendly locals, and low crime rate make it one of the most desirable locations in the Midwest. And whether you’re a student, young professional, retiree, or you’re still raising your family, there’s a small town in the Hawkeye State with your name on it.

Big Cities vs. Small Towns in Iowa

Some of Iowa’s most familiar big cities include Iowa City, Des Moines, and Cedar Rapids. While these cities do offer great amenities like vibrant downtown scenes, many career opportunities, and more places of higher education, the cost of living is a bit higher and instances of crime can be more frequent, as well. That’s where choosing to live in one of the small towns in Iowa comes into play.

One of the biggest things Iowa is known for is its friendly residents, and you’ll definitely get the chance to become friends with neighbors — especially when settling down in a small community. Many of these communities are known for their picturesque landscapes, thriving arts scenes, and surprising dining scenes to explore. That’s not all you’ll gain once you move, though:

  • Quaint populations
  • Unique historic attractions
  • Intimate annual traditions
  • Close-knit and friendly communities overall
  • Beautiful scenic views and secret getaways

Small Towns in Iowa - FAQ

Q: What is the friendliest town in Iowa?
Small Iowa towns such as Waverly are known, in particular, for their friendly residents

Q: What is the nicest town in Iowa?
 University Heights holds the #1 spot on Niche’s list for “Best Places to Live in Iowa.” With great schools, easy access to the University of Iowa, and plenty of chances to get outdoors and explore, it’s a great place to move to, even if you’re a young professional or retiree.

Q: What small towns are near Des Moines?
Pella and Winterset are among the small towns near Des Moines, making them a great option for commuters or those not quite ready to fully escape city living. 

12 of the Best Small Towns in Iowa

When looking for the best small towns in Iowa to put roots down, the options are endless. Luckily, our guide is here to help narrow down your choices. Note: While the U.S. Census designates a small town as one with a population under 5,000, we’ve decided to expand that to include towns with a population of up to 16,000! Here are 12 of our favorites.

Several side-by-side brick storefronts in Pella, Iowa.

1. Pella, IA

Less than an hour outside Des Moines, Pella will have you feeling like you just got off your flight to Europe. This small town was settled in 1847 by immigrants from the Netherlands, and Dutch culture is very present, with windmills and tulips in view all around the town.

The Pella Historical Society has various attractions designed to help visitors explore and for residents to make themselves at home. A popular attraction is the Vermeer Windmill — one of the tallest working windmills in North America. You can also check out Tulip Time — the town’s annual festival to celebrate Dutch heritage and show off vibrant tulip blooms.

If you’re looking for other attractions to explore, you can get a taste for the town at Jaarsma Bakery and The Vander Ploeg Bakery Co. These establishments offer a variety of Dutch food items, such as cream horns and puff pillows.

2. Decorah, IA

Iowa's northeast region has some of the most beautiful scenery in the state. Its rolling hills and rivers defy the stereotype of farmland in the area, and the small town of Decorah is the perfect place to settle if you love to explore both culture and adventure.

There are plenty of outdoor activities in and around Decorah, such as ice cave exploration at the Ice Cave State Preserve and waterfall hiking at Dunning’s Spring Park. People can also bike, jog, and hike along the Trout Run Trail, which passes the town's fish hatchery.

3. McGregor, IA

The town of McGregor offers a beautiful view of the Mississippi. It’s the namesake of its founder — Alexander MacGregor — and was previously known as MacGregor's Landing.

Due to its location and proximity to the Mississippi River, many people living in this area enjoy riverfront views, quaint antique stores, and walks through Pikes Peak State Park. If you want an overnight stay in nature, check out Spook Cave and Campground.

And although it's known for its outdoor appeal, McGregor also has a charming community that draws in residents. 

Late afternoon over Big Spirit Lake in Spirit Lake, Iowa.

4. Spirit Lake, IA

The small town of Spirit Lake is located in northwest Iowa, near the Minnesota border. It's a nice summer vacation spot, as there are several bodies of water around the area, including Spirit Lake (surprised, huh?). Residents love making the most of lake activities — like fishing, boating, and even jet skiing — whenever they get the chance.

5. Winterset, IA

Winterset is a small town in Madison County, Iowa, known for its beautiful hills and covered bridges. Due to its small size and number of residents, Winterset draws in lots of retirees. However, it's only 45 minutes away from Des Moines, making it an easy commute when you want to enjoy the big city.

Winterset is also a great place for outdoor enthusiasts. Whether it’s fishing at Cedar Lake or cycling and hiking in Winterset City Park, there’s something for everyone to enjoy.

6. Fairfield, IA

Known for its vibrant arts and culture scene, Fairfield is a great place for young professionals and retirees alike. The Fairfield First Fridays Art Walk and free summer outdoor concert series both feature local artists and musicians, while making it easy for residents to get to know their community.

The town is also home to Maharishi International University — a non-profit university with a unique approach to education. With programs in computer science, regenerative organic agriculture, and even creative writing or cinematic arts, students have plenty of options for a mindful education. They also don’t have to worry about cramming for three or four exams at once, as each class is a month long and one is taken at a time.

A one-story home in Waverly, Iowa.

7. Waverly, IA

Located on Cedar River is the small town of Waverly. It’s home to Wartburg College and is known for its friendly downtown district and various outdoor attractions. Waverly’s Main Street District comes with waterfront views and plenty of locally owned shops and restaurants. A few local favorites include Wild Carrot and The Other Place.

Waverly also has plenty of outdoor activities, with two 18-hole golf courses and the Waverly Rail Trail, meaning plenty of opportunities for hiking and biking.

8. Algona, IA

The small town of Algona is known for its welcoming residents and abundance of green spaces. Besides its numerous recreational facilities, the town also has a variety of parks ideal for outdoor enthusiasts. Located north of Algona, Smith Lake County Park is a popular spot for locals looking to get out on the water or go fishing.

9. University Heights, IA

University Heights is actually ranked #1 on Niche’s list of “Best Places to Live in Iowa,” making it great for anyone looking for a slow-paced lifestyle that doesn’t take away their access to fun, as you won’t be far from Iowa City. With highly rated public schools and easy access to the University of Iowa, education opportunities are never in shortage. Families, students, and young professionals alike can thrive in this area.

It also features a tranquil atmosphere, friendly neighbors, and plenty of things to do. 

The Field of Dreams movie site in Dyersville, Iowa.

10. Dyersville, IA

The town of Dyersville is located near the Iowa border and has plenty of fun things to do. One of these is visiting the movie site of Field of Dreams. Guided tours are popular to embark on, but access to the entire site is open on a daily basis. One of the most popular events is Ghost Sundays, a comedy event featuring “ghosts” of the Chicago White Sox. Visitors can check it out each week throughout July and August!

And if you’re not a baseball fan, there are plenty of restaurants, bars, and parks to explore throughout this small town.

11. Orange City, IA

Situated in northwest Iowa's Loess Hills region, Orange City is known for its beautiful countryside and rolling hills. This area offers residents a variety of outdoor activities, such as fishing, cycling, and camping at places like Windmill Park and Puddle Jumper Trail. Its welcoming atmosphere and sense of community make it a great place to call home.

12. Elk Horn, IA

Situated in northwest Iowa's Loess Hills region, Orange City is known for its beautiful countryside and rolling hills. This area offers residents a variety of outdoor activities, such as fishing, cycling, and camping at places like Windmill Park and Puddle Jumper Trail. Its welcoming atmosphere and sense of community make it a great place to call home.

Use PODS to Make Your Move an Easy One

When you’ve found your Iowa dream home, let PODS assist you with getting there! You can have a portable storage container delivered right to your doorstep for easy loading on your own time. Once you’re ready, you can have it picked up and transported to your new residence. The best part? One month’s worth of storage is included with every move, so there’s no need to rush once you’re getting settled in.

Editor’s note: For ease of reading, monthly rental prices were rounded to the nearest $25 and home values were rounded to the nearest $100.
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