Summer Fun in Iowa’s Old Capitol City!

Eating is fun in its own right, but it can also be a chore.  Last time we talked about food while you happen to be in Iowa City, and before that, where to stay when you visit.  Finally, today, we actually talk about some of the fun events and attractions in the old capitol city.  To  be clear: it gets cold during the winter in Iowa.  They may put on a wonderful Christmas festival or something. I wouldn’t know.

Friday Night Concert and Outdoor Movie Series
I group these two events as they’re both all-summer, weekly entertainment.  The shows must go on–all have alternate indoor locations in the event of bad weather.  Put on by the Summer of the Arts organization that also hosts the Arts, Jazz, and Soul Festivals, these series present a great opportunity to take in casual entertainment downtown.  Movies are a mix of new and old titles, and musicians encompass a wide range of genres.  Bring your own chair and relax!

Arts Festival
Summer of the Arts also organizes the Iowa City Arts Festival, held downtown the first weekend in June.

Most of the events in downtown Iowa City are pretty pet friendly. They’re not so crowded that Milo gets in the way, but crowded enough he makes new furry friends.

It covers a good portion of the downtown area, but is still easy to get to and explore, attracting enough people and artists to be worthwhile, without being so big you’re fighting crowds.  Like a lot of the events downtown, there’s plenty of food to go with the entertainment, with a section of Iowa Avenue reserved for food vendors and a beer and wine garden.

Jazz Festival/Independence Day Fireworks
Held in the first weekend in July, the Jazz Festival makes use of the Old Capitol grounds to set up a stage and a large, open-air amphitheater.  If you like jazz, or the kind of food that can be sold from truck/trailer, you’ll enjoy it.  Even if that isn’t your thing, show up on Sunday for a Jazz finale that rolls into the Independence Day fireworks display.

Block Party
On one hand, this event sounds like just another excuse to close off a few streets downtown and set up a bunch of funnel cake vendors.  Admittedly, I kind of had that thought.  But its purpose and feel is quite different.  If you’ve ever visited the central business district of a college town, or the strip of businesses who serve the student population, you quickly notice how slow things can be during the summer.  Summer was always when the mom-and-pops served a final meal.  Summer was when a seemingly healthy business was replaced by a boarded-up storefront.

The Iowa City Block Party is a relatively new event, with 2018 just its second year.  Unlike many of the weekend festivals, the block party opens and closes in the same evening.  The first year drew more than 30,000 people to downtown, and this summer counted more than 42,000.  You can bet it’ll be back, with one seasoned restaurant owner telling us it was already her best day ever, with her second-best day being the 2017 event.

Downtown Block Party looking north on Dubuque at Washington. Silent Disco ahead, dueling pianos just to the left, and sand volleyball to the right.

The block party is an event put on by a private organization, the Iowa City Downtown District, whose members are businesses in the downtown area.  The purpose of the block party, besides having fun, is to draw people to those local businesses present year-round.  It’s primarily an evening event, with lots of entertainment spread over the downtown area.  Unlike some of the other events that have a designated beer garden (fenced in), the block party has a special accommodation allowing you to wander the streets cup-in-hand.

Admission is free, but buying a $10 event ticket gets you a cup that allows you to drop in to a bar or restaurant for a drink, and walk out the front door and enjoy it out on the street.  Similarly, all of the events were completely free (sponsored by local businesses)–if you want to spend money, step into a shop or grab a bite to eat (many of the restaurants set up extra tents with partial menus so you didn’t have to step away from the fun).  Here’s some of what was going on:

  • Sand Volleyball Court — Dump trucks line up in advance of the block party to convert a section of Washington into a sand volleyball court.  It ends up serving as a focal point of the event, with a volleyball tournament kicking off the festivities, and lasting until the tug-of-war competitions that mark the official end around 11pm.

    Look closely and you can see tug-of-war on the sand court.
  • Dueling Pianos — Just over on the next block, dueling pianos sit on a small stage, ringed with an enthusiastic yet low-key crowd filling the street.  Patrons of the restaurants on the north side of the street watched from patios and tents set up to handle the crowds.  Lots of singing along to popular tunes (including Piano Man of course!!), with lots participating but enough room to easily move around.
  • Video Game Tournament and Light Painting at the Library — I didn’t get to see these, but it sounded like fun.
  • Mini Golf, Ping Pong Tables — Just like it sounds, they set up right on Linn Street.
  • Fashion show and circus aerial performance
  • Live music stage — Three bands gathered a crowd on Linn near the mini golf
  • Outdoor movie — What? You didn’t think they’d skip just because there was other stuff going on, did you?  While they’re different groups, they’ve clearly worked together.
  • Silent Disco — Wait…what???  This was something I’d really never seen or heard of.  On Dubuque Street (the third approach to the intersection of volleyball and dueling pianos), you find a few hundred people all wearing big over-the-ear headphones, with colored lights on each of the earpieces.
    Silent Disco. The three behind the table (foreground, left) are controlling 3 channels of music on the wireless headphones.

    Three DJs controlled three sets of music, with participants able to switch between them.  All occupied the space, and because the music was only on the headphones, it wasn’t disruptive to the conversations or atmosphere around them.  It was certainly entertaining to watch, wondering what people might be dancing to, and catching a chorus every so often where instead of recorded music, you simply heard the crowd belting it out a capella.

Iowa City Pride
Yes, Iowa City leans left politically, so far in fact that the only thing keeping it from falling over is all of the leaning right in surrounding counties.  Iowa City’s event traces its roots to 1970, and the first anniversary of the raid at the Stonewall Inn in New York City.  You could certainly say it has historical significance in that regard, as one of the oldest events of its type in the Midwest.

Iowa City Pride Festival

But it is still the Midwest, with all of the small-town camaraderie you’d expect.  It isn’t where you’ll find people shouting at each other over differing political views, suggestive gestures, or anything less than weather-appropriate clothing.  It’s like a lot of the other Iowa City events–friendly crowds who visit, chat, and try to figure out what sounds good for lunch.  Expect a fair number of exhibitor booths and food vendors, but don’t think it’s the kind of event showing graphic images or selling sex toys.  Most of the exhibitors that aren’t selling food are local charities of one form or another.  The parade is the main event, and you’ll see many (if not most) major employers, chuches, and civic groups participating.  Think banners with people following behind, not Macy’s Thanksgiving Day floats.

Coralville 4th Fest
Where Iowa City celebrates Independence Day in conjunction with the Jazz Festival weekend, Coralville celebrates on the fourth, even when it’s in the middle of the week.  Coralville is essentially a contiguous suburb of Iowa City, and is home to most of the big-box shopping centers.  Its festivities take place primarily north of U.S. 6, on 8th and 9th streets.  The parade is incredibly well attended, directly following a pancake breakfast at the middle school.  Various carnival festivities take place during the day, with a fireworks display at dusk.


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