Thanks to Clear Lake CVB for hosting my travels. As always, opinions and reviews are 100% mine and unbiased.
A Guide to Visiting Clear Lake, Iowa
Clear Lake, Iowa is situated on a lake in the Northern part of the state. It has beaches and a beautiful waterfront area that is swarming with visitors during season (late May through early September). Not only does Clear Lake celebrate a major Color the Wind kite festival in February and harvest festival in October, but it is a huge attraction for Independence Day in the Midwest. Though I was at Clear Lake in the off-season, here is what I recommend for visiting Clear Lake, Iowa.
What to Do
You can’t mention Clear Lake, Iowa and not talk about the Surf Ballroom. Originally famous for hosting big band leaders and built to resemble a beach club, this popular music venue was where Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and The Big Bopper played their last concert before their plane crashed in Northern Iowa back in February 1959. A wall of living history offers messages and signatures from hundreds of the artists who have played there. Concerts are still going strong at the Surf, including the Winter Dance Party which pays tribute to the three who lost their lives that fateful night referred to as “the day the music died” per singer Don McLean.
Fun Facts: The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (in Cleveland) has named the Surf Ballroom a Rock and Roll Landmark. Buddy Holly (and others) were on a Winter Dance Party tour to 24 Midwest cities at the time of their deaths. They ended up chartering a plane at the last minute rather than taking the tour bus as previously scheduled. Today, a huge pair of Buddy Holly trademark black glasses marks the area where you will find the crash site. A stainless steel guitar and three records mark the exact spot of the crash, which is about a mile’s walk from the road.
One of Iowa’s awesome breweries, Lake Time Brewery, should not be missed on your Clear Lake, Iowa visit. With ten brews on tap, including seasonal favorites, the beer flavors are awesome. My faves are the Peanut Butter Porter and One Tough Cookie.
Shopping is pretty great in Clear Lake, Iowa. A few of the shops I made a purchase in were Lake Lifestyle, Ralphene’s, Eva Marie’s on 8th, and Unique Boutique. You’ll feel as if you have “fallen down a rabbit hole” when you enter Larson’s Mercantile, a fantastic place to browse and wish for everything you see. Ralphene’s was my stop for souvenirs, Lake Lifestyle for gourmet food, and Weathered Elements for antiques and home decor.
Lake activities are plentiful, with several places to rent boats of all types for use on the seven-mile long lake. Another favorite in Clear Lake, Iowa is to ride on the Lady of the Lake paddlewheel boat. It wasn’t running during my trip, but the pictures around town showed a fantastic time.
Nature lovers will adore Central Gardens of North Iowa. It’s a great place to capture amazing pictures of beautiful blooms.
Catch a movie at the Lake Theatre, playing only one movie at at time in a historic setting. Where else can you see current running movies for around $5 per person? The theater was originally home to the Clear Lake Opera House, circa 1890. It has been operating as a movie house since 1935 and remains a little slice of Americana.
Where to Eat in Clear Lake
Delicious restaurants are scattered throughout Clear Lake, but the mainstays and more upscale ones are within the heart of the town square. Bread and Buttercrème is a delightful breakfast spot with a brunch menu on weekends. Dishes include Avocado Toast (with two poached eggs), Eggs Benny, and Belgian waffles. Not that hungry? How about a couple of mini-cake donuts from the South Shore Donut Company. These little babies are sure to satisfy your hunger and sweet tooth. I recommend the Sweet Caroline (maple buttercream and bacon) and Go Shorty It’s Your Birthday (birthday cake batter buttercream and sprinkles) flavors.
Lunch is lip-smacking good at K&B Emporium, an odd sort of business that not only has a gourmet restaurant, but also a wine bar, shopping, and other goodies. Choose from homemade quiche, soup, sandwiches, and salads, then finish off your meal with an adorable decorated sugar cookie, ice cream, or gluten-free cupcake. If you need upscale food products, this is where you will find them. I couldn’t leave the market without the jarred Iowa White Cheese Dip and the stuffed peppers. Yum! Cookies, Etc. is another local favorite for satisfying your sweet tooth.
Ge-Jo’s By the Lake is a family-friendly Italian restaurant that has amazing Garlic Cheese Bread (try it with the hot oil!) and yummy pizza. I opted for the Italian Grinder Sandwich, a sandwich made of loose meat, green and hot peppers, covered with melted white cheese. It’s definitely a knife and fork sandwich with a great flavor profile. Outdoor courtyard seating is available weather permitting. Ge-Jo’s also serves craft beer and cocktails.
I would have loved to try Starboard Market, a place I’ve heard so many awesome things about from friends, but they weren’t open at the time. My friend Sara of Travel with Sara says “It is a rare sandwich shop… Her hours on the door say 11 ish to 2 ish……. With dozens (literally) of sandwiches to choose from and homemade desserts and soups, this is a one of a kind mouthwatering experience.” Sara’s favorite is the chicken Enchilada Soup, pictured below.
Where to Stay
Larch Pine Inn is the premier destination for those longing for relaxing lake life. This 1875 Victorian bed and breakfast is the perfect escape for a weekend in Clear Lake, Iowa. Featuring a three-course breakfast, jacuzzi tubs, and wrap-around porches, this gem is only one block from the beach and three blocks to downtown.
Another great choice, especially for bigger families, is the White House on the Hill, an Airbnb/VRBO property. The house comfortably sleeps 16 with two and one half bathrooms. A fire pit, three picnic tables, and several seating groups make it a great place to congregate in the evening. Breakfast is included as well as free WiFi. The owner is wonderful to work with and the beds are very comfortable. I loved the living room with oodles of windows and thriving house plants. I felt like I was in a tropical destination rather than the Midwest.
Clear Lake: A Town Worth Savoring
As you can probably tell, I thoroughly enjoyed visiting Clear Lake, Iowa. I’d recommend it to anyone wanting to experience a great Midwestern destination or lake property during the spring and summer months. Clear Lake has plenty of unique offerings and a delightful selection of restaurants. This is Iowa.
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