While the covered bridges may be the main stars, there’s more to Madison County. Located less than 30 minutes west of Des Moines, Madison County has long been home to the famed covered bridges. But the area’s popularity exploded when the novel Bridges of Madison County was published by an Iowa author. Later, the town was the site of a movie based on the book. And just happened to star two of America’s favorite actors — Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep — so it’s easy to see why people flock to the area for the bridges.
But Madison County — primarily Winterset — has much more to offer. We enjoy visiting the area, which is less than 2 hours from our home in Omaha. It makes for a fun day trip or an even more enjoyable weekend getaway. We also found ourselves primarily interested in the bridges and their scenery. However, during a spring trip to Winterset, we focused on everything not covered bridges.
While the beautiful Madison County Courthouse is centrally located in the downtown square – and worth the visit with its impressive design and history — buildings from the late 1800s and early 20th century are home to unique shops, boutiques, and restaurants. From eclectic shops in downtown Winterset to a museum that explores the story of quilts and one celebrating an American acting icon, you’ll have a great time exploring Madison County beyond the bridges.
Iowa Quilt Museum
My grandmother quilted. Her bed always had a quilt lying on top. It’s one of the great memories I have of visiting her as a child. You can relive your own memories or learn something new with a visit to the Iowa Quilt Museum. Whether you quilt or love art, the museum is home to exhibits showcasing a piece of American history and culture. With exhibits changing every few months, you can view centuries-old or contemporary pieces. You’ll be in awe of the talent and skill required to create beautiful quilts.
The Iowa Theater
There’s nothing like watching a movie at an old-fashioned theater. Originally a grocery store when it opened in 1899, the building was converted into The Iowa Theater in 1914. The theater showed its first movie with sound in 1928. While The Iowa outlasted other rural theaters, it closed its doors in 2015. Reopened in 2017 as a non-profit business, the Iowa Theater shows new movies Thursday-Sunday. Wednesday is reserved for the classics, such as the original The Magnificent Seven or the 1980s hit The Breakfast Club. The theater is also available for live performances. Oh, and the popcorn. Is there anything better than movie theater popcorn?
John Wayne Birthplace And Museum
The iconic movie star was known by Marion Morrison when he played in the streets of Winterset. His father was a pharmacist at a downtown drug store, and his mother raised the children at home. The family eventually moved to Southern California. Finding his way to Hollywood, Marion Morrison became John Wayne, and went on to appear in 180 movie and television productions. One of Hollywood’s most popular film stars, Wayne won an Academy Award for his role in True Grit.
Winterset celebrates its hometown star with the John Wayne Birthplace And Museum. Learn about his personal story and his Hollywood success at the museum, which features costumes and props from some of his movies. You can also see a custom-built station wagon the Wayne family used on family vacations. Tours are hosted at his childhood home, where the house has period-accurate furniture and other items on display.
Pop culture is the name of the game in an alley on the east side of the downtown square. From a Winterset postcard mural and an American flag featuring a bald eagle to Americana art and fairy tales, the Alley Mural Project runs about 100 feet long. The murals are popular attractions for selfies and group photos. A swing is perfectly painted to look like people are sitting on it for photos. The Winterset mural is perfect as a background for group photos, while the American flag has been used as a backdrop for classic car pictures.
Unique Shops And Boutiques
From an old-fashioned Ben Franklin store to eclectic home decor and handmade lamps at Bridge 6 Design, the downtown square is home to shops you may not expect to see in a small town. Mystical figurines and household items highlight a visit to Harvest Creek, where you can find faeries talking to dragons and pet-themed home decor. Custom-designed jewelry is created from just about anything at B. Shannon Designs. Brooke Sulphin enjoys the challenge of taking any piece of everyday use and turning it into a classic necklace, ring, or bracelet. You never know what you’ll find at White Cottage Market, as I walked away with two antique cameras for a lot less than I expected to pay for one. The store’s owners can also help people with home décor by repurposing antique pieces. With so many choices, it’s easy to spend a day browsing downtown.
Wine, Cider, And Beer
When it’s time for an adult beverage break, Winterset has a few options. Using only Iowa-grown grapes for its award-winning wines, Covered Bridges Winery offers an excellent spot for a flight of white or red wines. You can also enjoy a wine slushie during your visit. If you prefer cider, head to Winterset Cidery. With an orchard on-site, Winterset Cidery raises more than 30 varieties of apples. Featuring several flavors each season, you can sample them with a flight of four ciders or enjoy a glass of your favorite. Located downtown, The Drift Taphouse serves Iowa-produced craft beer by the flight or glass. It also offers Iowa wines and liquors.
The Speckled Hen Farm Store
A self-described funky farm store, the Speckled Hen Farm Store calls a converted dog kennel home. Offering Iowa-made goods, such as peach butter, strawberry-rhubarb preserves, kitchen items, accessories and decor, and cute yard decorations, the farm store is open seasonally, from spring to fall. Located on a farm, Speckled Hen celebrates harvest season with its annual Pumpkin Palooza, featuring gourds raised on the farm. The store also hosts outdoor concerts during the summer.
George Washington Carver Park
Located next to a former hotel where he once worked, George Washington Carver Park honors the scientist credited with more than 100 inventions. Once a resident of Winterset before becoming the first African American student at Iowa State University, Carver specialized in inventing products from peanuts, sweet potatoes, and soybeans. The park is a nice spot to enjoy a break, with mosaic art on one wall and flowers along the short pathway.
Guye Woods County Park
Beginning with a 100-foot long suspension bridge over the North River, outdoor enthusiasts enjoy hiking along the river or other areas over 93 acres of natural space at Guye Woods County Park. A “wilderness,” the park features natural trails to maintain its flora and fauna. During your hike, check out the area for wildlife including deer and turkey. The area is also prime for shoreline fishing.
Who needs the big city to take in beautiful art? Featuring contemporary paintings and more, Delirium Gallery offers art aficionados a spot to enjoy fine art. Located on the main floor of the old Madisonian newspaper building, it seemingly combines history with modern art.
Where To Eat
Mi Pueblito offers authentic Mexican dining at its downtown location. From tacos and burritos to sopas for dessert, the menu is outstanding.
Home to appetizers named after Iowa sports legends, such as Hayden Fries, as well as excellent burgers, chicken sandwiches, and wings. You’ll also enjoy the ambiance at Sports Page.
Besides serving craft beer, The Drift also serves lunch and dinner, with a menu featuring appetizers, large salads, and sandwiches, like the Reuben.
Where To Stay
Covered Bridge Inn
The Covered Bridge Inn is a motel located along the road to the Cedar Bridge. With free breakfast, the motel offers an excellent place to stay.
Cobblestone Inn And Suites
Centrally located in Winterset, the Cobblestone Inn and Suites offers excellent accommodations, including a business center and complimentary breakfast.
Located in the former Madisonian newspaper building downtown, Winterset Wonderland is a two-bedroom apartment above the Delirium Gallery. It’s centrally located, just a block from attractions such as the John Wayne Birthplace and Museum and the Iowa Quilt Museum.
Judge Lewis House
Located on the western edge of Winterset, the historic Judge Lewis House features three bedrooms. The entire house is available for reservations.
Bed And Breakfast
A converted church, Heavenly Habitat Bed and Breakfast Inn features three beautifully decorated guest rooms. Enjoy exploring the area and retiring for the night in your comfortable room. Start each day with a homecooked breakfast.
Pro Tip: As with any location you plan to visit, ensure you plan plenty of time to explore Winterset when visiting the Covered Bridges of Madison County. Ask any local and they’ll tell you there’s no reason to leave Winterset. It has everything you need — entertainment, great food, culture, architecture, history, and friendly people.