Mason City, Iowa has lots of charm, local color, and even a few places to get vegan eats. Plan your getaway with this round-up of things to do in the original River City.
Thank you to Visit Mason City for hosting my stay in your fair city!
Mason City is the quintessential small Iowa town. It’s no wonder that native Meredith Willson went on to write about his hometown in The Music Man.
That’s right, that trouble in River City? It’s actually in Mason City.
Mason City, Iowa has a population of around 27,000. It’s almost perfectly situated halfway between Des Moines and Minneapolis, making it an ideal stopover.
I visited Mason City last week in partnership with Visit Mason City to highlight the many things to see, do, and of course, eat in River City.
Also, my husband’s film was chosen as a selection in the Iowa Independent Film Festival, which was happening that weekend. (More on that in a bit!)
The Decker House Bed & Breakfast
For our overnight in Mason City, we stayed at the Decker House Bed & Breakfast.
The Decker House is a Victorian Neoclassical house that was built in the 1894. This classic home has plenty of modern amenities like Wi-Fi, cable, and even a Jacuzzi bath in one of the rooms.
In the back of the Decker House, there’s a ramp for wheelchairs. The guest room on the main floor has an accessible bathroom and shower.
A number of luminaries have stayed at the Decker House over the years including Bill & Hillary Clinton, Shirley Jones who played Marion in The Music Man, and Rosemary Willson, Meredith Willson’s widow.
The Decker House is not a vegan bed & breakfast. However, vegan meals are available with advance notice.
(Update: The ownership has changed hands since I visited. But the new owner, Cynthia, said she can also accommodate vegan & gluten free visitors!)
For breakfast, we started with a fruit salad with berries and melon.
Next up, was a warm blueberry cobbler with a crisp oatmeal topping.
Finally, we finished with a potato hash made with farro and topped with sprouts and an edible flower.
I had mine with salsa and dashes of hot sauce. It made for a filling & savory breakfast.
Over our meal, we chatted with another guest, who works in the film business. He’s headquartered out of London.
We had a wonderful time hearing the inside scoop about working on the Doctor Who set. As rabid Whovians, getting an inside peek into the behind-the-scenes was an unexpected highlight of the visit.
For lunch, we visited Z’Mariks, an Iowa-based fast food chain. It’s similar to Noodles & Company.
There are several Z’Mariks locations – in Iowa City, Des Moines, Ankeny, and Mason City in Iowa. They also have one location outside of Iowa in Rapid City, South Dakota.
But this was my first time visiting one.
Right off the bat, I was impressed, because they make it so easy to order vegan!
There’s a laminated sheet at the register and online with a graph of their menu items. One of the rows explicitly shows how to make dishes vegan with statements like, “remove feta cheese” or “remove croutons.”
I love it when restaurants do the heavy lifting for you, so you can easily get what you want without a lot of back and forth.
I ordered udon noodles with added tofu.
It comes stir-fried with broccoli, mushrooms, and carrots in a chili-garlic sauce. It’s finished with a few sprigs of cilantro.
David had the Thai stir-fry with tofu, broccoli, carrots, and snap peas in peanut sauce over cilantro-lime rice.
Weirdly, you have to leave the peanuts off the Thai stir-fry to make it vegetarian or vegan. You’d think they could source vegan peanuts? I’m guessing they’re coated in gelatin.
We were really impressed with the freshness of the vegetables and flavor. We both ordered a small size, and barely put a dent it. We could have easily shared a bowl!
Thai Bistro & Sushi Bar
Just a couple blocks from the Decker House is Thai Bistro & Sushi Bar.
The restaurant was hopping on the Friday night we were there. It seemed to be popular for dates & groups.
I had contacted Thai Bistro & Sushi Bar ahead of our visit to ask about vegan options. They let me know that all dishes offer the option of vegetables or tofu. They said to ask your server for recommendations, and that fish sauce isn’t a huge concern because they usually use salt.
When we placed our order, I let our server know that we are vegan. And he assured us that he passed that on to the chef.
We started with an order of fried spring rolls (above).
These crisp rolls were filled with cabbage, carrots, shiitake mushrooms, celery, and onions. The filling could have been a little warmer in temperature, but the flavor was nice.
For my entrée, I had pad kee mao, also known as drunken noodles with tofu.
Wide rice noodles were stir fried with onions, green beans, carrots, bell peppers, and basil. It reminded me of one of my favorite dishes at Exotic Thai in the Quad Cities.
The vegetables still had a lot of their crunch.
The portion was huge. It would definitely be big enough to split, or provide leftovers for a couple days.
David had yellow curry with peas and bell peppers.
This warming & fragrant stew had lots of round flavors.
Reliving the past at Music Man Square
Meredith Willson is one of Mason City’s most famous native sons.
He is best known for writing the script, lyrics, and music to The Music Man. He also wrote The Unsinkable Molly Brown, and Here’s Love.
I have a huge soft spot for The Music Man. I played Zaneeta Shinn in a dinner theatre production in Des Moines in 1989. It was my first mainstage production and one of my first paying jobs.
We had 42 performances, and I spent that summer living & breathing The Music Man. When I wasn’t at rehearsal or performing, I was watching and re-watching the movie. I was just a little obsessed.
Even now, I’ll occasionally have a recurring dream that I’m back at the Ingersoll Dinner Theatre, and we are reprising our roles. The audience is sitting in the theatre, the curtain is going up, and I’m trying to remember the dance steps to Shipoopi from 30 years ago.
So I was really excited to re-visit Music Man Square. (I’d been there one other time in 2011.)
The museum is open in the afternoons on Fridays & Saturdays.
At the museum, there’s a 1912 streetscape that very much puts you to the mind of Disneyland’s Main Street. The streetscape is a studio replica from the Warner Brothers movie, The Music Man.
You can wander into some of the storefronts to look around, while others are just facades.
At the end of the street stands Mrs. Paroo’s house, where you can get your tickets & buy souvenirs. And of course, there’s a pool table, if you feel like warning people about the perils of playing…
There is an area to watch a short film about the making of the Music Man, mementos, and pictures.
The small museum is transportive to lovers of the Broadway musical. It’s also available for reunions, meetings, and wedding receptions.
There were tables set up for a wedding reception while we were there, and I was so jealous! If I’d realized it was an option, David and I would have 100% been up for getting married there.
Next door to the museum is Meredith Willson’s boyhood home. It is usually available for tours. However, it’s currently undergoing restoration.
The volunteer that I spoke to said they were hoping it would be open in October.
Charles H. MacNider Art Museum
Do you remember that scene in the Sound of Music when Maria and the children put on a puppet show?
Well, the puppets from that scene are on display at the Charles H. MacNider Art Museum.
They were created by Bil Baird, a puppeteer who was born in Grand Island, Nebraska and grew up in Mason City. He was also a fellow graduate of the University of Iowa.
The museum has a large collection of his puppets and marionettes on display, including Wizard of Oz puppets from the Bil Baird Marionette Theater of the 60’s and 70’s in Greenwich Village.
At the museum, they also have works by Andy Warhol and Grant Wood that are worth seeking out!
By the way, entrance to the museum is free, but donations are gladly accepted.
Sculptures, murals, and shopping
Public art abounds in Mason City. While you are exploring the town, check out the copious amounts of brightly colored murals.
Then wander the 1.7 mile loop downtown to see the many sculptures on display.
Iowa Independent Film Festival
And finally, as I mentioned at the beginning of this post, a film of David’s was accepted as an official selection in the Iowa Independent Film Festival.
This year there were 174 submissions to the festival from around the world, and David was delighted to have made one of the 50 films accepted.
His short film, Blake, is a time travel story about a man and his cat. The man, played by David, is able to go back in time to share one more week with his beloved cat.
Avon co-stars with David in the film, and he’s really a natural. We would have a diva on our hands, if only he realized that all of that playing we did for a year was actually acting work.
Also, we already give him all of the cuddles, toys, and food he could want rent-free… So I don’t know how much more of a diva he could be.
I have a small role as the cat sitter in the film, and I produced it.
You can see the 12-minute short film for yourself on YouTube.
For more vegan options in Iowa, check out these posts on:
Thank you to Visit Mason City for hosting my stay at the Decker House Bed & Breakfast, providing meals at Z’Mariks and Thai Bistro & Sushi Bar, and providing a ticket to Music Man Square.