How to Spend a Perfect Day in Clear Lake, Iowa

Midwest Travel, USA Travel

Clear Lake, Iowa, sits on a natural spring-fed lake in Northern Iowa. Situated halfway between Minneapolis and Des Moines, the lake town is a significant stop on Interstate-35. While it’s a lake town with beaches and boating, you’ll also find a place known worldwide for its spot in rock ‘n roll history. With so many things to do in Clear Lake, Iowa, here’s how I spent a perfect day there.

Thank you to Clear Lake, Iowa for hosting my stay.

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Entrance to Central Gardens North Iowa in Clear Lake, Iowa
Entrance to Central Gardens North Iowa

9:30 a.m.

Central Gardens of North Iowa

To start off our morning, we went to one of the best things to do in Clear Lake, Iowa, Central Gardens of North Iowa. We found a lot going on during a midweek morning. Line dancing was in progress, so we got energized for the day and exercised early. The dance lessons and country music made a fun kick-off to the day.

Central Gardens is almost three acres and features more than 20 themed gardens. The only free public garden within 90 miles of Clear Lake has over 18,000 visitors annually. I particularly enjoyed the water features, where they had a waterfall in one area and a bubbling brook in another. The garden became a multi-sensory experience with places to sit nearby: sit and listen to the water.

The kids love the Bee Happy Discovery Garden offering vegetables, herbs, and flowers. Families were coming to visit the three resident chickens at the Happy Hen House when we were there. For some families coming to the garden was a weekly event.

After dancing in Central Gardens, we worked up a thirst, so it was off to Holistic Harmony for a bit of sustenance for the rest of our day.

Bulk Herbs at Holistic Harmony in Clear Lake, Iowa
Bulk Herbs at Holistic Harmony

10:30 a.m.

Holistic Harmony

Iced tea is my go-to drink, so I was excited to see the variety available at Holistic Harmony. They sell brewed tea and bulk custom blends you can take home and brew yourself. They also offer herbs for brewing herbal tea. Essential oils are another one of their product lines. They provide products and services that promote beneficial responses for the mind, body, and soul using alternative therapies, tea, and education.

Celebrity Signatures in the Green Room at the Surf Ballroom

11:30 a.m.

Surf Ballroom and Museum Tour, One of the Best Things to Do in Clear Lake, Iowa

Then we were off to the Surf Ballroom and Museum, where Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson made their last performance at the annual Winter Dance Party. Plan to spend at least an hour learning a bit about music history.

First, they have a museum with a short video discussing the site’s history and the events leading up to the crash.

You’ll find a lot to do here. We had a great time in the green room, looking for our favorite stars’ signatures on the wall. You could spend hours just doing that. Then, of course, you’ll want to view the Surf Ballroom from the stage, just like Buddy saw it. I particularly enjoyed the detailed architecture with a Caribbean flair in this historic dance hall. Again, I highly recommend taking the guided tour to understand everything you see. The Surf Ballroom still features live music concerts and other live performances.

Fox House, Owner of the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake Iowa
Fox House, Owner of the Surf Ballroom

The Fox House

If you take the Deluxe Tour, it includes a tour of the Carl J. Fox home across the street from the ballroom. Fox built the Surf Ballroom, and his former home is still a beautiful mid-century modern lake house on Clear Lake. It offers a great view of Clear Lake.

Three Stars Plaza, a memorial to Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson
Three Stars Plaza

Three Stars Plaza

At the end of our tour, we make a quick stop a nice park at Three Stars Plaza, located just down the block from the Surf Ballroom. While the sculpture looks a bit like a UFO, closer examination reveals a 15-feet tall stack of records on the spindle of an old-fashioned turntable. The plaza is a tribute to the three fallen stars, Buddy Holly, Ritchie Vallie, and J.P “The Big Bopper” Richardson. Standing under the stack, you’ll see their names inscribed in the records. You can push a button on this interactive exhibit, hear excerpts from their songs, and learn about these pop icons.

12:45 p.m.

Lunch at The Other Place

We had lunch at The Other Place, a regional original with 11 locations throughout Iowa and Kansas. They offer a made-from-scratch menu, and you can taste the difference. You’ll want to try the house-made ranch. You can tell they make it in-house from scratch.

We visited on Tuesday when they had a pepperoni pizza and salad special. Other local favorites are the hot tuna sub and the pork tenderloin; however, check out their menus for daily lunch specials or the main menu.

The countryside to visit the Buddy Holly crash site in an Iowa corn field, the entrance marked by a gigantic pair of Holly-style glasses.
Buddy Holly Memorial Crash Site

1:45 p.m.

Memorial Crash Site Visit

After lunch, we drove into the countryside to visit the plane crash site of Buddy Holly in an Iowa corn field, the entrance marked by a gigantic pair of Holly-style glasses. You’ll have a one-way walk of about a quarter mile into the corn field to the memorial site and actual crash site. If you do not wish to make the walk, there is a great photo opportunity at the trailhead, so still worth the visit. For a map to the Memorial Crash Site, click here.

2:45 p.m.

The interior of the original Cabin Coffee
The Original Cabin Coffee Co.

Shopping in Downtown Clear Lake

After some serious shopping in the quaint shops in downtown Clear Lake and a stop at the original Cabin Coffee Co. for a midafternoon pick-me-up, we walked a few blocks to the Lady of the Lake boat docks, where we got out on the lake.

Lady of the Lake on Clear Lake in Clear Lake, Iowa
Lady of the Lake

4:00 p.m.

Lady of the Lake Cruise

We sat back and enjoyed a 90-minute public cruise on the Lady of the Lake Cruises around Clear Lake, a natural, spring-fed lake. The Lady of the Lake is a double-decker boat with an open view on the top deck. The view from the top deck made the Lady of the Lake Cruise one of the best things to do in Clear Lake, Iowa. You can sit at tables, enjoy the view, and some snacks or a cocktail from the cash bar onboard.

The captain narrated about the boat and the lake for a fun time on the water. At 14 miles around, I found Clear Lake is more expansive than I expected. If you want to get out on the lake and do some fishing, walleye fishing is a top sport here. You can rent a fishing boat at Clear Lake Boats to try local water activities. Being on the water provides a whole new perspective on the town.

Clear Lake State Park is a few miles from downtown Clear Lake, you’ll find another popular place for water sports. The park features 50 acres of green space and one of the most popular campgrounds in the area. It is a great place to spend some time outdoors.  

Piper’s Pro Planning: The Lady of the Lake Cruise happens almost daily except Wednesdays. Wednesday evenings, they offer dockside entertainment. Check their cruise schedule as you plan your day in Clear Lake.

Interior at Craft 173 Degree Distillery in Clear Lake, Iowa
Craft 173 Degree Distillery

5:40 p.m.

173° Craft Distillery

The backstory on 173 Degree Craft Distillery starts like one of those bar jokes. “What do you get when a physician, chemist, and engineer start a distillery?” But the result is not a joke but rather a unique experience. 

Uncle John and his nephew Doug are both trained chemists. In addition, the family patriarch Darrell taught high school chemistry. So knowledge passed down through three generations of chemists brings a one-of-a-kind experience to 173° Craft Distillery, named because the boiling point of ethanol is 173 degrees. This fun fact will come in handy at your next cocktail party. In the meantime, try the Molecular Martini.

Looking for some off-the-beaten path Iowa destinations? Check out Megan Bannister’s book “Secret Iowa: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure.”

Secret Iowa Cover

While the drinks were tasty and pretty, the beautiful interior struck me. They featured murals detailing the distilling process, and the lights cast a lovely shade of blue. In addition, the rooftop patio is perfect for hanging out at the lake on a summer evening.

They produce their spirits on-site and offer large viewing windows so you can peek at the equipment and their process. Most production activities happen when the bar isn’t open; however, you might catch a glimpse of them working on one of the processes.

After cooling off with an adult beverage at 173 Degree Craft Distillery, we headed to Avion Azul for dinner.

Carnitas at Avion Azul
Carnitas at Avion Azul

6:45 p.m.

Dinner at Avion Azul

Avion Azul, Spanish for Blue Airplane, is appropriately located at the Mason City Municipal Airport, just a few miles from Clear Lake. I wondered where the blue came from in the name, and it turns out blue is the owner’s favorite color. As a result, you’ll find blue throughout the décor making the restaurant upbeat and happy.

I love Mexican food, so I was particularly excited about trying this restaurant and wasn’t disappointed. Fodor’s featured Avion Azul in this article, which they listed in the fourth category, Cockpit-Worthy Airport Cafes. Watching the airplanes is a lot of fun, and their patio is the perfect spot to see the activity. To me, this was one of the best things to do in Clear Lake, Iowa.

Our meal kicked off with guacamole made tableside. I love anything made tableside, to learn the secrets of preparing a dish. Check out the video to see how they make it at Avion Azul.

I happened to be in Clear Lake, Iowa, for Taco Tuesday, so I had to choose the tacos at Avion Azul. For those who aren’t taco aficionados, carnitas are shredded pork tacos topped with cilantro and onions. I always ask for extra cilantro. The meat in these tacos was extra flavorful and tender. It was the perfect way to celebrate Taco Tuesday! Fun for the entire family!

Margarita Flight at Avion Azul in Clear Lake, Iowa
Margarita Flight at Avion Azul

Of course, to honor the location, my end of the table shared a margarita “flight,” which made it extra fun. You have a choice of four out of six flavors in your flight, mango, strawberry, peach, raspberry, passion fruit, watermelon, or prickly pear. No matter your selection, they’re delicious.


While you’re in the area, take another day to visit Mason City, Iowa. While you’re there, you may want to stay at Frank Lloyd Wright’s only remaining hotel, the Historic Park Inn.

For more ideas about things to do in Iowa, check out Sara Broers’ book, 100 Things to Do in Iowa Before You Die.

Cover of the book 100 Things to Do in Iowa Before You Die.

Have you ever been to Iowa? Where have you gone? What have you seen?

This trip was my first visit to Iowa, and I know I’ll need to come back!

Pin this to your favorite Iowa travel board!

A composition of photos from Clear Lake, Iowa - the Lady of the Lake, carnitas at Avion Azul, 173 Degree Craft Distillery, and Central Gardens
Amy Piper
Amy Piper

While Piper is a lifelong Michigander, she’s had adventures worldwide. Bomb-sniffing dogs chased her in the middle of the night in Bogota (working late), gate agents refused her boarding to Paraguay (wrong visa), and US Marshals announced her seat number on a plane while looking for a murder suspect (she’d traded seats). It’s always an adventure! She even finds exciting activities in her home state of Michigan, where she lives in Lansing with her husband, Ross Dingman, her daughter, Alexis, and two granddaughters.


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  1. Darla

    What a nice community! I’d love to visit the gardens and do the museum tour.

  2. Ossama Alnuwaiser

    Fascinating place. Indeed. I would not mind a day in lake Clear.

  3. Paige

    The cruise on the Lady of the Lake sounds lovely! And I would love to try that margarita flight at Avion Azul, looks delish!

  4. Dania

    Clear Lake looks like a fun place to visit. The cruise and distillery are fun stops we would enjoy! Thanks for a great list!

  5. Kavita Favelle

    This seems like the kind of destination to really enjoy some of classic American lifestyle. Love the combination of the lake itself and attractions such as the distillery.

  6. Lisa

    What a busy day! I’m going to mark all of these on my things to do when I’m in the Clear Lake area.

  7. Sage Scott

    This looks like a great way to spend the day in Clear Lake. I think I’d love being on the water most, but it would also be fun to visit the Other Place to see how it compares with the one up the street from me here in Kansas.

  8. KF

    I lived in Clear Lake til i was 13 n then moved…you have to be here during the 4th of July celebration…doesnt matter how many yrs in a row you go, it’s never boring…tons of things to do during the summer and even a few fun things to do in the winter, like the winter dance party and Christmas by the lake…love my hometown!!…

    • Piper

      When I was there I learned that a good place to see the 4th of July fireworks is from the rooftop deck of the distillery. You need to purchase a table I think, but it would be so worth it!


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Welcome to Follow the Piper! Discover interesting destinations, and practical planning tips for packing more travel into your everyday life.

Our founder and author, Amy Piper, is a freelance travel writer, blogger, photographer, and author specializing in luxury and multi-generational travel. She is a native Michigander who travels through the lens of a food lover and has been to 41 countries and 45 states.


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