21 Best Things to Do In and Near Clear Lake Iowa

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21 Best Things to Do In and Near Clear Lake Iowa

Clear Lake, Iowa, is a picturesque little town that perfectly reflects America!  From its down-home summer celebrations to its annual Winter Dance Party, this town speaks to my soul in a way only small-town America can.  And there is no lack of fun things to do in Clear Lake, Iowa.

If you find yourself road-tripping through the Hawkeye State like I was, you must stop and experience Clear Lake, take home a little slice of nature and history, and enjoy some great eats along the way.  Without further ado, here are 21 things to do in Clear Lake, Iowa!

Best Places to Eat

When I’m vacationing, traveling, or just plain living, I sure do love to eat!  So if you are hungry for a munchie or a meal, rest assured that you will find plenty of options here.  Here are a few of my faves.

1 – The Other Place Restaurant

We stopped for a quick lunch in town, and The Other Place did not disappoint.  They have a daily special, and I went for the pizza and salad.  Both were delicious, and I almost had too much to eat.  But the best part of the experience was most definitely the amazing Ranch dressing served with my salad.

I could tell that chefs had prepared the food from scratch, which is one of their pride points, and yes, even that Ranch was house-made!  Deelish!  Service was fast and friendly, and my water glass never got below half full before they were back to top it off.  Now, that’s what I call service!  Finally, The Other Place is a great place to catch your favorite team at play with one of the many TVs stationed all around the dining area.

2 – Starboard Market

You better come hungry if you’re stopping at the Starboard Market on Main Avenue in Clear Lake.  Their sandwiches are delicious and packed full of great flavor!  Starboard proudly serves homemade soup, salads, and desserts.  The dessert choices left me in a pickle – what to try?  And great news if you’re choosing gluten-free.  There are almost as many G/F options as not.  And they even have my husband Dan’s favorites, Scotcheroos!  Like I said – come hungry to this popular place!

3 – Cookies, Etc.

Cookies!  I mean, really?  Need I say more?  No need, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention this sweet little gem on Main Street.  I stopped in because I saw the sign outside the Cookies, Etc. Shop on Main Street that said “We Ship Cookies!” and I left with a pile of cookies in my bag, a bowl of ice cream in my hand, and a smile on my face!

What’s even better than the service with a smile?  The cookie ATM sits right outside the shop.  These people take their cookie emergencies very seriously!  I wish there were a cookie ATM on every street corner, so this level of deliciousness was always just a push-button away!

The Cookie ATM at Cookies Etc in Clear Lake Iowa

4 – Cabin Coffee Co

The Cabin Coffee Company is a quaint little coffee house located right on Main Street in Clear Lake.  The décor is unique and fits in the feel of a cabin with its dark colors and plenty of wood.  One of the best things I found during my visit was the high table with stools and saddles for those who like to play cowboy while visiting!

The interior of Cabin Coffee Co with rustic colors and woo counters

Stop in and grab a sandwich, a snack (g/f and vegetarian options are available), and a cup of coffee or tea.  When I dropped in, they made me a delightful cup of iced Chai Tea with Almond Milk.  It only took about 5 minutes to slam it; it was so good!  I’ll have to work on slowing that down some for next time.

A high top table with two barstools and two seats with horse saddles inside of Cabin Coffee Co in Clear Lake Iowa

5 – Avion Azul Fresh Mexican Restaurant

You would think I’d have been stuffed full with all of these delicious places that I stopped in at, but I managed to save a sliver of stomach space for the very delicious offerings of Avion Azul.  This delightful restaurant inside the Mason City Municipal Airport offers fresh Mexican Fare.  Although the airport is in the neighboring town, it holds a significance of its own in the city of Clear Lake, as you’ll see a bit later in the post.

Brothers Catarino and David Martinez, veterans in the food industry, are the proud owners of Avion Azul.  They are excited to share their expertise with the Northern Iowa Community and those who stop on their way to and from the area.

The interior bar area of Avion Azul with blue patterned tile along a bar with stools

Before dinner, our server treated us to a dish of fresh guacamole, made tableside!  I have to say – this Midwestern girl was dazzled!  I’ve never had my guac so fresh, but I think I always want it that way now! 

Next up, a cocktail.  Or four.  Don’t worry – I shared my flight of Margaritas with one of my dining partners.  There were too many choices, but I decided on Coconut and Mango.  Both were delicious, and I may or may not have tasted the other two.  I’ll leave that to your imagination.

Finally, the food!  I always love an excellent fajita when I eat Mexican food, and this dish did not disappoint!  As we finished our meals, the sun was setting beautifully behind the airport building, and we had the perfect view from which to enjoy our churros.

A Flight of Margaritas at Avion Azul in Clear Lake Iowa
A woman with pink hair tastes a coconut margarita
A lovely Latina woman makes a bowl of fresh guacamole next to a restaurant table at Avion Azul in Clear Lake IA

After all my eating in just one day in Clear Lake, I can assure you that a visit here will not leave you hungry!

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Shopping Options in Clear Lake

Now that we’ve filled our bellies with all the best eats, it’s time to walk some of that goodness off with some shopping.  I had a great time wandering up and down Main Avenue and cruising through the many shops in the downtown area of Clear Lake. 

6 – The Red Geranium

I stopped into this sweet shop just because the outside was so darned welcoming.  Once inside, the sights and smells kept me in.  A cheerful hello from the owner let me know she was available if I needed anything, and then she let me poke around.  The plants in this floral shop looked so gorgeous I wondered if they were silk.  I found myself touching them randomly to test them out.  Beautiful!

If you know me, you know I can start a conversation with just about anyone.  So it was no surprise that I spent a reasonable amount of time chit-chatting with another patron, who raved about the excellent service and fine florals offered here.  Stop in and treat yourself!  It’ll be worth it!

7 – Larson’s Mercantile

As I made my way through my packed day of fun, I realized I had forgotten my extra charger for my phone (oh no!).  I was tickled to find this old-fashioned variety store in downtown Clear Lake with just what I needed – a single-use portable charger to zap my phone back to life for the second half of the day.

But a warning if you shop here – you may get lost in the vast selection of quirky, fun, and practical items offered.  I spent more time than I should have wandering through the trinkets finding just the right things to bring home to the family and the grandkids.  You’ve been warned!

8 – The Basic Birder Store

Since we moved out to the country, I have enjoyed watching and photographing my backyard birds.   It made perfect sense then to be drawn to the Basic Birder Store on my way around the block.  This little shop has big offerings for bird lovers.  Bird baths, bird feeders, bird food, you name it – they’ve got it! 

These are just a few shops I enjoyed while finding things to do in Clear Lake, Iowa.  Be sure and check out the Collectors Wonderland, Brin & Lew, and the Unique Boutique, among the other great stores while you’re downtown!  You can even check out the local movie theater, Lake Theatre, for a movie break!  And if your husband needs to sit and sip while you’re shopping, send him to Lake Time Brewery!  They’ll take great care of him there!

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Take in some History

As I travel around the U.S., I’ve noticed that every city has a unique history that makes it special.  Clear Lake is no exception.  Check out all of these unique historical sights while you’re in town!

9 – Tour the Historic Surf Ballroom

I could not love this place more!  America’s musical roots ooze out of the walls of this old building!  You’ll see musical artifacts from decades of the Surf Ballroom’s extensive history. Initially built in 1933, the historic ballroom has stories to tell!  All I could think as I wandered through was, “if these walls could talk, the stories they would tell.”  Everyone you can imagine has performed here, from Lawrence Welk in the Big Band Era through Jimmie Allen, scheduled during my visit.  Many of these performers have left gifts that are on display.

The outside of the SURF Ballroom - yellow brick with bright blue letters

One of the most prominent stories of the Surf Ballroom is the part it played in musical history’s “day the music died.”  Buddy Holly, along with Ritchie Valens (La Bamba) and J.P. “The Big Bopper ” Richardson  (Chantilly Lace), performed here for their very last concert before dying in a tragic small plane crash only miles after taking off from the nearby Mason City Municipal Airport.  Yes – that’s the very same airport that now houses Avion Azul and is so important to Clear Lake’s history.

Be sure to ask about the Green Room at the Surf.  And make a quick stop at the Three Stars Plaza, a short walking distance away from the Surf. Get a closer look at the Surf Ballroom HERE.

Explore Music History at the Surf Ballroom and Museum in Clear Lake IA

10 – Attend a Winter Dance Party – or Any Live Performance at the Surf

In 1959, Buddy Holly and company were touring the Midwest on the Winter Dance Party tour.  In memory of these rock-n-roll legends, the Surf Ballroom has held a Winter Dance Party event every year since the original tragedy.  You can still attend one of these fun events.  You can find information about the annual event and sign up for updates HERE.    I can’t think of a better reason to visit Iowa in mid-winter than to celebrate with the Surf Ballroom!

A framed explanation of the 1962 Winter Dance tour located in the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake Iowa

11 – Tour the Fox House     

Once you’ve seen and heard all about the Surf Ballroom, you will enjoy the Fox House tour across the street.  Carl J. Fox was the original owner and builder of the Surf Ballroom and resided here.  Now restored to its original vintage appearance, a walk through the Fox House is truly a step back in time.  The deluxe tour package of the Surf Ballroom includes the Fox House tour.

The exterior of the Fox House, which sits directly across the street from the Surf Ballroom.  Shown are very symetrical corner steps up to the front door.

12 – Visit the Plane Crash Site of Buddy Holly

As a final stop on your historical tour of Clear Lake, take a moment to reflect on America’s musical history by making a trip to the Buddy Holly Crash Site.  Located a short distance of around 6 miles from the Surf Ballroom, this is the exact location of the plane crash that took the lives of 3 rising stars and one young pilot.

You will find a giant pair of Buddy’s trademark glasses marking the trailhead.  The actual site sits in the middle of a cornfield about ¼ mile from the trailhead.  Even if you can’t make the long walk, the trailhead is worth a viewing. 

Experience Nature & Discover Clear Lake

To enjoy the lake life of Clear Lake, you will want to take an up-close look at this town’s namesake!  Clear Lake is a natural spring-fed lake with a whopping 3600 acres and is 14 miles around.  The Lake is busy all year with typical summer fun activities such as boating, swimming, skiing, and fishing and has plenty to offer in the winter months.

If you come in February for the winter dance party, check out the Wind Kite Festival on the frozen lake and stay for some ice fishing.  The Lake is chock full of Striped Bass, Walleye, and Crappie, among other fish species.  If you are super interested in the lake’s underwater life, be sure to stop at the DNR Fish Hatchery and take a look at the aquariums!

13 – Lady of the Lake Boat Cruise

For an even closer look at the Lake, you need to get out on it!  Luckily, the Lady of the Lake Boat Cruise makes it easy to do just that.  Set sail on a 90-minute cruise aboard the authentic paddlewheel excursion boat that launches daily and is open seasonally from around Memorial Day to around Labor Day. 

The loading dock is within walking distance of the downtown shopping area and has a cash bar available dockside.  This cruise is the perfect way to treat yourself after a fun afternoon of shopping.  Even better?  The captain will narrate your cruise with various points of interest around the Lake, and you’ll get an up-close lakefront look at the beautiful residences from the water.

The Lady of the Lake is one of the things to do in Clear Lake Iowa - here the boat is pictured in dock

14 – Rent a Pontoon Boat

If an organized boat tour isn’t your gig, consider renting a boat for an afternoon.  When we visited, we secured a spur-of-the-moment pontoon rental from Clear Lake Boat Rental, which was quick and easy!

There are multiple options available for private rentals, such as:

  1. Muskie Rentals 
  2. Movement Solutions also has kayaks and all kinds of watersports toys
  3. Lake Dream Rentals 

15 – Visit Clear Lake State Park

Clear Lake State Park is one of the two, yes, TWO State Parks in Iowa!  This park covers 55 acres and includes the Clear Lake Public Beach area.  Stop in at the picnic grounds and enjoy the hiking and biking trails for a day in the sun.  Or spend a night camping in the Camping Grounds on site.

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16 – Sleep in a Yurt in McIntosh Woods State Park 

Since we’re talking about camping, now is the perfect time to talk about a unique camping experience that doesn’t happen every day.  You can rent a Yurt in McIntosh Woods State Park, Iowa’s other State Park!  Now that doesn’t happen every day.  Check out more details HERE!    Dare I call this glamping?  You decide!

17 – Visit the Central Gardens of North Iowa

The Central Gardens of North Iowa is a public garden of around 3 acres with all kinds of opportunities to explore and enjoy the beauty of nature.  Take a line dancing class, learn about gardening or sit and sip a cup of tea in the shade while you rest and recharge.  Take a look at my visit to the Central Gardens HERE

a pathway winds through a well-tended public garden

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Rest, Relax, and Recharge

Now that we’re talking about resting and recharging, here is the perfect time to mention a few other ways you can find your inner peace while visiting Clear Lake.

18 – Holistic Harmony

Stop in and say hi to Darcee Johanns, owner of Holistic Harmony, an herb store that also serves tea!  Darcee has roots in Arizona and moved to Iowa to raise her young daughter.  She found an old laundromat in 2019, moved in, remodeled it, and began making her dream business a reality.

You may remember that COVID 19 struck pandemonium on retail businesses everywhere in early 2020, but Holistic Harmony powered through and even grew during the pandemic.  While traditional drug stores, grocery stores, and big-box stores struggled to keep their shelves full of over-the-counter meds, people began searching for alternate daily health and wellness solutions.  Holistic Harmony had just that in abundance!

Darcee herself is a wealth of walking knowledge and will undoubtedly share with you the best way to use the herbs and tonics.  She also offers classes for those who want to learn more about these products, yoga classes, astronomy classes, essential oils, and all manner of holistic remedies.  Her business is thriving, friendly, informational, and growing!  In fact, when we were there, Darcee let us in on a little secret that she would be opening a hub inside the Simply Nourished shop in Mason City in the upcoming months!  Be sure and tell Darcee the Hip Grandma says Hi when you stop in!

The exterior of Holistic Harmony - an herb and tea shop in Clear Lake Iowa
Photo Credit – Amy Piper

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19 – 173̊ Craft Distillery

If you love some good science and maybe a good Mule, you’ll want to make a stop at the 173̊ Distillery a part of your itinerary.  John, Doug, and Darrell Summerfield share a love for chemistry and good spirits.  The three have come together to create this destination distillery that serves drinks as unique as their founders.  Check out the drink menu HERE

While visiting, I had the opportunity to try a Moscovian Mule, hand-mixed by 1/3 owner John Summerfield.  John and his wife Lori showed us up to the rooftop patio, which offers sturdy, long tables, bench seating, and a fantastic view of the City Park and Clear Lake.  Come on up.  Sip a cocktail and enjoy the sounds and sights of summer in the park and on the Lake.  It all happens when ethanol reaches its boiling point of 173 degrees!

A man's hand pours Ginger Beer into one of several glasses lined up along a bartop
An exterior shot of the 173 Distillery Building - very modern looking
A woman with pink hair smiles and holds a glass with a Mule (the drink, not the animal) in it.

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20 – Attend Church on Sunday Morning At the Bandshell

If your visit to Clear Lake finds you here on a Sunday, come to Worship in the Park, held each Sunday throughout the summer at 10 am.  Zion Lutheran Church hosts the weekly service, featuring live music and relevant messages.  Bring a blanket, a chair, a cup of coffee, or a pastry, and settle in at City Park near the Bandshell for a Sunday morning time of worship and connection with God. 

21 – Clear Lake Farmers Market 

Finally, every Saturday morning during the summer months, you can shop locally and support the local market at the Clear Lake Farmers Market.  The Market is open from 9-12 in the Surf Ballroom Parking Lot, and features live music each week.

This farmer’s market isn’t just for food, either.  You can pick up a treat for your pet, a new piece of jewelry, a candle, or many other goodies for your tummy or home. 

Wrapping it all up

After spending a fun-filled day in Clear Lake, Iowa, one of the top things I learned is that there is no lack of exciting things to see and do in this town!  You can be as active as you like and feed your mind, body, and spirit any time of the year while visiting.

Clear Lake is more than a stop along the way, it’s a destination place, and I will be heading back.  The Surf Ballroom is now at the top of my list of places to come back to see again!  I will be keeping an eye on the schedule of events, so I’m ready when it’s time to plan my next getaway!

Have you been to Clear Lake?  I’d love to hear what your favorite part was!  Leave a comment or jump into my Facebook Group and tell me about it!

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