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A Guide to Visiting Clear Lake, Iowa

Looking for a fun place to visit? Pack your bags and go to Clear Lake, Iowa for great scenery, shopping, food, & the legendary Surf Ballroom.

(UPDATED OCTOBER 2020) A beautiful Midwestern town you’ll want to visit and revisit time and time again is Clear Lake. Situated on a lake in the Northern part Iowa, Clear Lake has awesome beaches, a gorgeous waterfront area for sunbathing or enjoying lake activities, and a popular boating crowd. Here is a guide to visiting Clear Lake, Iowa, to see and do the best things in town.

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Thanks to Clear Lake CVB for hosting my travels. As always, opinions and reviews are 100% mine and unbiased. 

The Surf Ballroom

Clear Lake’s Surf Ballroom is 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. The accident took place in February 1959.

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A wall of living history offers messages and signatures from hundreds of the artists who have played at the Surf Ballroom. 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. 

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Fun Fact: The Cleveland Rock & Roll Hall of Fame 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.

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Today, a huge pair of Buddy Holly trademark black glasses mark the area where you will find the crash site. A stainless steel guitar and three records mark the crash’s exact spot, which is about a mile’s walk from the road. 

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A Delicious Brewery

One of Iowa’s best breweries, Lake Time Brewery, should not be missed on your Clear Lake visit. Seriously, if you drink anything but IPA (that’s me!), this is THE brewery for you. Sit on the porch and enjoy the weather with a good cold beer, or grab a seat at the cozy couch setting indoors.

With ten brews on tap at Lake Time Brewery, including seasonal brews, the flavors are incredible. My favorites are the Peanut Butter Porter, Chocolate Cherry, That’s My Jam Berry Ale, and One Tough Cookie.

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A Fun Festival

Not only does Clear Lake celebrate a prominent Color the Wind Kite Festival in February and Harvest Festival in October, but it is a massive attraction for Independence Day in the Midwest. 

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Photo from Iowa DNR.

Shopping Downtown Clear Lake

There is some noteworthy shopping in Clear Lake, Iowa. A few of the shops I made purchases in were:

  • Lake Lifestyle
  • Ralphene’s
  • Eva Marie’s on 8th
  • Unique Boutique
  • Larson’s Mercantile
  • Weathered Elements

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. 

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A Paddlewheeler Experience

Clear Lake State Park activities are plentiful, and visitors and locals love getting on the water. There are several places to rent boats and jet skis of all types for use on the gorgeous seven-mile-long lake. You might be inclined to wet a line while you are there, or even take a swim in the 3684-acre natural lake. Sailing is another top option at Clear Lake,and it is known as one of the best places to do so in the Midwest region. Windsurfing is another.

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Or, you can opt for a beloved Clear Lake experience, a ride on the Lady of the Lake paddlewheel boat. Though I didn’t have a chance to do it myself, my Iowa friends love it.

Try to catch a spectacular Clear Lake sunset—they are magical. During certain times of the year, you can also see the Aurora Borealis from here.

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Other Attractions

Nature lovers will adore Central Gardens of North Iowa, 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. 

Clear Lake is a perfect place for bike riding.

McIntosh Woods State Park

One of the cool features of Mcintosh Woods State Park, on Clear Lake’s Northwest Shore, is the yurts. If you’ve never done this, it is great fun staying in what some people mistake for a teepee. They are extremely popular so book early for your unique lakefront accommodations.

Other popular things to do at the park are snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, and ice fishing in winter, which are all foreign to this Southern gal. Or, hike the 1.5-mile boardwalk trail which leads to a wildlife viewing blind. Clear Lake is a great place for bird watching.

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Photo from Iowa DNR.

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. Great for lunch are Starboard Market (try the Reuben, don’t miss the dessert bars), K&B Emporium (the soup and quiche are off-the-hook), or GeJo’s by the Lake for garlic cheese bread (add hot oil) and salad.

Satisfy your sweet tooth with mini-cake donuts from South Shore Donut Company or a calories-don’t-count cookie from Cookies, Etc. Dang delicious donut flavors include Sweet Caroline (maple buttercream and bacon) and Go Shorty It’s Your Birthday (birthday cake buttercream with sprinkles). You can’t go wrong with any cookie choices, but the Monster Cookies and Oatmeal Raisin are popular ones.

To read more bout Clear Lake’s restaurant scene, check out our guide.

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Where to Stay in Clear Lake

A great choice, especially for bigger families, is 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 terrific 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. 

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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. This gem is only one block from the beach and three blocks to downtown, featuring a three-course breakfast, jacuzzi tubs, and wrap-around porches,

Clear Lake: A Town Worth Savoring

I really 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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Read more about great places to travel:

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Midwestern Cities You Must Visit

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