Mason City is a ridiculously creative town in Iowa. From music, to architecture, to puppetry to ‘street’ art, it has it all! It has some pretty big famous connections too! In this guide I share some of the cool things to do in Mason City!
Disclosure: Thanks to Visit Mason City for hosting my stay. As always opinions are 100% my own.
Things To Do In Mason City, Iowa
Museums in Mason City
Charles H. MacNider Art Museum
As a European, I’ll start with the one that relates the most to me! Before I went inside I found myself drawn to the building, why? Because its design is similar to how English Tudor houses look! The inside of the museum feels HUGE, despite the outside looking so small!
There are several different galleries but my favourite was the ‘Bil Baird: World of Puppets’. Bil Baird was a puppeteer that grew up in Mason City. A well known part of his collection are those that appeared in ‘The Lonely Goatherd’ scene in the Sound of Music film (you can find the The Lonely Goatherd on Youtube and see the puppets in action)! Last summer I was filming my Mum running across an Austrian mountain singing ‘the hills are alive with the sound of music’ while dodging cow poop and now I was seeing the puppets in IOWA…I was kinda starstruck!
His puppets are amazing, there are several other ‘groups’ from his Wizard of Oz and Winnie The Pooh productions, along with some others!
Find out more at: macniderart.org
Rancho Deluxe is completely free to visit. The best way to describe it, is an outdoor street art and sculpture garden! It’s made up of lots of random items from Mason City and around North Iowa, from old signs to bicycles. It reminds me a lot of Bottle Tree Ranch on Route 66 in California. You can find concrete blocks that have been painted by local artists as creator, Max Weaver, wanted it to be a place that the community could enjoy too. There is even a small concession stand that is open during the summer on certain days.
River City Sculptures on Parade
Carrying on with sculptures, the River City Sculptures on Parade is a 1.7 mile looped, self guided walk around Downtown, where you can enjoy over 50 sculptures. The sculptures change each year, however a few of the pieces are permanent works of art and the others are actually for sale. A few of my favourites are: Mr Eggwards, Beaver, Circle of Friends and the King of Spades!
You can find the walking tour map here.
Music Man Square
River City…Mason City…The musical ‘The Music Man’ was written by Meredith Willson who was born in Mason City, you can even tour his boyhood home! The Music Man came out in 1957 and in all honesty I hadn’t heard of it, I don’t know if that’s because of my age, or coming from England, but before I visited Mason City, I put in my research and ended up in the black hole that is Youtube. I watched the film version and even found videos of Hugh Jackman singing the opening song…THEN discovered that the real P.T. Barnum (The Greatest Showman) took the circus to Mason City (and Waterloo and Cedar Rapids)…it just gets better and better!
River City is based on Mason City (there’s another connection further down so keep reading!!!). When you visit Music Man Square, you are greeted with a set recreation of a 1912 streetscape INSIDE the building complete with a street made out of wooden blocks. Mason City resident streets were made out of wooden blocks back when horse and carriages were used, as they dampened the noise of the hooves. There’s lots of Meredith Willson and Music Man memorabilia. The film also won the very first Grammy, which is also on display. I then found out that Meredith Willson wrote the Christmas song ‘It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas’, so I had heard of him all along (thanks to my very first full-time job working behind a bar in an American/Italian restaurant)!
Upstairs has real music rooms and a recording studio that can be hired! The Candy Kitchen also has great ice cream…see below 😉
The Visit Mason City website has details on visiting the Music Man Square
Make sure you visit the Meredith Willson ‘The Music Man’ footbridge too. It offers great views of the Willow Creek river!
The Cannonball 457 is the last Minneapolis and St Louis Railway steam locomotive and was built in 1912. It’s free to visit on weekend afternoons between May and October, but you can still see it through the fence ‘out of hours’. I’ve been on steam trains before (including the Hogwarts Express route in Scotland!) but this engine seemed absolutely ginormous!! I don’t know if that’s because there is no platform around it, but it is huge! It’s located in East Park which is a lovely outdoor space with 2 rivers and play areas. In the summer, concerts are held in the band shell.
Kinney Pioneer Museum
I only got to experience a small (but very large!) section of the Kinney Pioneer Museum. It celebrates trade and life in Iowa through the years. Their collection is very impressive and includes cars, replicas of old stores with authentic items and furniture, a collection of cameras, old fashioned clothes and toys and so much more…including a ‘two legged pig that walked like a chicken’! I didn’t even get to see the outdoor ‘living history’ Pioneer Village! I really loved the music box (which sounded like an ice cream van) and was like an even older version of a jukebox that played records! It’s a bargain to visit too. Adults are $3 and child entrance is $1. It’s open during May and September between 1pm – 5pm (closed Mondays).
Frank Lloyd Wright’s Historic Park Inn Hotel
I became a little bit obsessed with architecture when I discovered Antoni Gaudi’s work in Barcelona. Frank Lloyd Wright was alive during the same time period but had a totally different style of design. Gaudi very much has no straight lines anywhere, whereas Wright was all about the lines, everything is very square and rectangular! The Historic Park Inn is the last remaining HOTEL designed by Frank Lloyd Wright (there were 6 altogether including the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, Japan).
The hotel was built in the early 1900’s. Just like the story behind The Music Man, it was popular with sales men that arrived in Mason City looking to stay somewhere cheap to sell their products and then go. The building held a bank, law offices and a hotel that originally had 41 small rooms with shared bathrooms, which sounds similar to some of the hostels I’ve stayed in with private rooms with shared bathrooms, so it’s an idea that still rings true today for budget travellers! However a newer hotel opened up nearby offering more facilities, so the Park Inn began to suffer…the bank also ironically went bankrupt and this part of the building was remodelled for retail shops.
It ended up falling into ruins and then became a subject of controversy. The building even ended up on eBay for something ridiculous like $1 and it was never bought. In 2009 a restoration project began much to the annoyance of some of the locals, saying it was a waste to spend so much money ($18 million) on it. And in 2011, 101 years after it first opened, the Historic Park Inn opened its doors for guests once more.
They did an amazing job at restoring it to its original design. Parts of the hotel had been spread out all over the place, the stained glass roof ended up in someone’s attic, the railings in the bank was someone’s garden fence in Clear Lake. It has a similar history to that of the Hotel Julien in Dubuque, having to piece it back together to its original state after ‘restorations’. The ‘retail end’ was put back to how it looked when it held the bank and now acts as a conference room. There are less rooms, 27, because they now have private bathrooms (with heated floors!). The ‘lounge’ is a lovely place to hang out (complete with a 100 year old billiard table), the 1910 Grille has amazing food and there’s even a fitness room! For $10 you can take a guided tour of the Historic Park Inn Hotel to find out more about the history!
Another building in Mason City designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, is the Stockman House which is also open for tours. The ‘Prairie School’ architectural design can be seen in other buildings in the city.
Food and Ice Cream
Suzie Q Cafe
I absolutely loved my stop at the Suzie Q Cafe! This is a teeny tiny little ‘greasy spoon’ with only 10 seats, which has been in business since 1948! One of their specialities is the ‘Spic N Span’, a giant pork tenderloin deep fried in a peppery PANCAKE batter served on a bun with lettuce, tomatoes, onions and pickles. It was so big I could only fit half of it in the bun! The tiles on the walls have been signed by visitors from all around the world (including me 😉 ) and if you’re lucky you may even see Troy, the owner, performing some magic while you wait for your food!
Location: 3202 14 2nd St NW
The best places for ice cream in Mason City:
Birdsalls is AMAZING and has been in business for over 85 years! They hand make around 30 different flavours of ice cream! One of the most popular flavours is the seasonal peach ice cream, made with real peaches. In 2017, 350 gallons of the flavour was produced and it had all been sold in just 7 WEEKS. The banana fudge is another popular flavour, also made with real bananas.
I tried the current 2 seasonal flavours which were: red raspberry marble and lemon custard in a homemade waffle cone. They were packed with flavour and very creamy! I also sampled a mini ‘hot fudge sundae’, the fudge was thick and creamy and it came topped with chopped pecans!
The menu is huge, offering cones, malts, milkshakes, sundaes and sodas. Birdsalls also caters for a wide range of events.
Candy Kitchen in Music Man Square
The Candy Kitchen is a 1912 style ice cream parlour and is one of the ‘store fronts’ along the street that you can actually go in. I recommend the Amaretto Cherry ice cream, complete with big chunks of cherries!
As mentioned above, the 1910 Grille in the Historic Park Inn Hotel does awesome food (and cucumber water!) but their desserts are amazing too! The gelato comes with 3 scoops of vanilla, mint and chocolate and is topped with white and milk chocolate curls and a white chocolate edible Historic Park Inn logo! The cheesecake is worth a mention too…the slice is HUGE, I swear I’ve never seen a piece of cheesecake THAT big!
Have you visited Mason City? You may also be interested in a visit to Clear Lake, just a few miles down the road! You can find out more in my article: Glamping In Iowa: What It’s Like To Stay In A Yurt!
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