Tucked in the southeastern corner of Iowa is the quirky and creative town of Fairfield. Prior to my first visit, I knew Maharishi International University — where students practiced Transcendental Meditation — was located in Fairfield, Iowa, but beyond that, I knew very little about the area. So, a visit was necessary. Being a family travel blogger, I’m recapping my adventures through the lens of the things kids will like to do in Fairfield.
Disclosure: My visit was hosted by Visit Fairfield as part of a travel writer familiarization trip. All thoughts, opinions and typos are my own. This post may contain affiliate links.
Things to know about Fairfield
Fairfield, Iowa, is a charming small town known for its strong sense of community, vibrant cultural scene, and rich history. It’s located in southeastern Iowa, with the closest large cities being Ottumwa (about 25 miles west), Iowa City (about 60 miles northeast), and Pella (about 70 miles northwest).
Established in the early 19th century, modern day Fairfield blends its historic roots with a progressive spirit. It’s got a definite Midwestern feel to it, like many other Iowa cities I’ve visited, with one unexpected twist: It’s distinctly international there. For a town of about 9,700 people, there are A LOT of international food options, with restaurants varying from Thai and sushi, to Turkish, Indian, and Mexican.
This unique international flair is mostly due to the presence of the Maharishi International University. This institution attracts students from around the world, contributing diverse cultures that enrich the local community. Many graduates choose to stay in Fairfield post-graduation.
Fairfield is renowned for several other areas, including its commitment to sustainability and health — most notably in health-conscious food options — as well as its thriving arts scene. And history is big here, as well.
Visitors will notice well-preserved architecture, with structures dating back to the 1800s. I loved walking around Fairfield’s downtown area. Many of the facades are charming shares of pastels. And just off the town square, the Carnegie Historical Museum is a treasure trove of local history and a fantastic spot for families to learn about the area’s development.
The town also has an abundance of parks and outdoor activities. This blog post will explore some of the parks, trails and other outdoor adventures waiting for families in Fairfield.
In essence, Fairfield, with its welcoming community, rich cultural experiences, and emphasis on healthy, sustainable living, presents an ideal destination for families looking for a day trip or overnight stay.
Outdoor adventures near Fairfield
If you haven’t been to eastern Iowa yet, you’re missing out on some spectacular Midwestern scenery. My visit to the Fairfield was in mid-October, which turned out to be a prime time to take in the fall colors outdoors. While my kids aren’t nearly as interested in the changing colors of leaves as me (understandably), I discovered plenty of outdoor activities for them that also allowed me to appreciate the views.
Jefferson County Park is a great spot for camping, hikes, and stargazing since it’s just far enough from city lights. I made two trips to Jefferson County Park in Fairfield, once in the morning and once in the evening. The trails are pretty easy to navigate and I learned they’re great for bird watching, as well.
Tip: The park has two cabins, in addition to plenty of RV and tent camping spots.
If your family enjoys bike riding, be sure to check out the Fairfield Loop Trail. The 16-mile path encircles the town, as well as connects visitors to nearby parks around Jefferson County, Iowa. It’s not just a city bike trail though. The trail takes you through prairies, woodlands, wetlands, old railroad corridors, over bridges, and more.
Waterworks Park is one of the parks that the Fairfield Loop Trail passes through. You’ll find Bonnifield Lake at the park, which has a small sandy beach. Kayaking is popular on the lake, though there isn’t an outfitter there so you’ll need to bring your own. There’s also a playground at the park.
Tip: If you’re into history, Waterworks Park is also home to Bonnifield Cabin, the oldest two-story log cabin in Iowa. It was built in 1838. It wasn’t open when I was there, but I’m told it does occasionally open for tours.
- Jefferson County Park, Jefferson County Park Drive, Fairfield, Iowa
- Waterworks Park, North B Street, Fairfield, Iowa
Arts, culture and quirky experiences in Fairfield
The local arts scene is thriving in Fairfield. Two places I visited highlight how depth of the creative community there: ICON Gallery and the hidden gem, the Fairfield Art Immersion House. ICON Gallery is a contemporary art gallery showcasing local and regional artists. It’s a fine place to immerse yourself in art, though for kids, I’d place bets that they’d be more fascinated with a visit to the Fairfield Art Immersion House.
The Fairfield Art Immersion House is a bit of an enigma. Artist Tom Lassota spent 20 years creating this bright, neon explosion of art..in his home! As best as I can describe it, it’s like a room in a Meow Wolf installation in a small town residential street. Looking closely, you’ll see pop culture references, religious references, and a handful of unicorn stuffed animals. Visits are by appointment, and there is no fee to explore it. Best I can say for setting up the appointment is to try connecting with Lassota on Facebook. Like I said, it’s an enigma and there’s no website for more information.
Tip: The city’s popular Fairfield First Fridays is a free monthly event held on the first Friday of every month. There’s entertainment for all ages!
Let’s say art isn’t your thing and you think your family is more of a history-loving kind of family. Carnegie Library Museum is for you. The museum has a few things going for it:
- It’s the first Carnegie Library built west of the Mississippi
- It’s home to one the most intriguing Cabinet of Curiosities I’ve ever seen
- And it has a scavenger hunt that makes exploring the museum fun for kids
A lot of the pieces inside the museum were donated from the Smithsonian, including a lot of 19th century taxidermy animals. Those are probably going to be the most interesting to kids… some are a little odd looking after so many years. There are also areas in the museum exploring the region’s connection to Abraham Lincoln, the Underground Railroad, and significant residents of Fairfield over the years.
For a blend of history and quirky, tour the James A. Beck House. The family that has been restoring this beautiful 1896 home goes over-the-top with decorations for Halloween, both inside and out. It’s really astonishing to see. I heard they also have an amazing Christmas display, as well. Guess I’ll need to return in the winter!
I can’t write about a visit to Fairfield without explaining Maharishi International University. It’s an accredited four-year university that combines academic study with the practice of Transcendental Meditation technique (described as “an effortless procedure that directly enhances the brain function and creativity.”).
During a drive-by tour of the campus, I saw the very recognizable Golden Domes. They’re used for meditation (one for men, one for women), and while they’re often touted as a “don’t miss” attraction in Fairfield, it’s not common to go inside them as a tourist. Interior tours are limited and only available through special arrangement with the university.
What you can explore near the campus is the Maharishi Vedic Observatory. It’s an open-air observatory with stone sundials sundials, tracking all the movements of the sun, the planets, and the stars. As a casual on-looker, nothing made sense to me there, but it was fascinating to walk around.
It’s located in Maharishi Vedic City, a town created outside of Fairfield by people connected to the university. You’ll notice all the homes and buildings have a lot of windows, each following a very intentional architectural design.
- ICON Gallery, 58 N. Main St., Fairfield, Iowa
- Fairfield Art Immersion House, Fifth Street in Fairfield, Iowa
- Carnegie Library Museum, 112 S. Court, Fairfield, Iowa
- James A. Beck House, 401 E. Burlington, Fairfield, Iowa
- Maharishi International University, 1000 Fourth St., Fairfield, Iowa
- Maharishi Vedic Observatory, Observatory Drive, Vedic City
Dining in Fairfield
Fairfield is a great place for dining with kids, especially if you have adventurous eaters. I don’t, so I’ll focus on the places that I’m pretty sure would appeal to even the pickiest kids.
For breakfast, my favorite spot was the Fairfield Food Cooperative. Taco Dreams is one of the restaurants operating at the co-op and they had a surprisingly great breakfast menu. I got the Sunshine Bowl, which was a colorful dish (with a little spicy kick to it) of veggies on a bed of hash browns and topped with an egg. There’s also a breakfast burrito, and for the fans of a traditionally American breakfast, there’s an egg and toast plate.
Local small businesses sell items at the Food Cooperative or work out of the kitchen, so if you go at another time of day, you can order ice cream, kombucha, maple syrups, vinegar and more.
For a less hearty but equally tasty breakfast, head to Bountiful Bakery for a pastry along with some great coffee. It’s located in an old home, and maintains a nice, homey feel to it. I had a savory butternut squash and goat cheese hand pie.
For lunch, I recommend going to the Lunchbox. It was a busy place when we went. We had a few people recommend this restaurant, and they all suggested getting the chicken sandwich there. However, while we were there, we noticed that someone at EVERY table at the restaurant had ordered the flatbread, so I’m venturing to say that it’s also a popular dish. I was in the mood for something a little lighter than a chicken sandwich, so I had the Cobb salad. It was huge, and perfectly balanced with the dressing. They also have a kid’s menu there.
A few other places I tried while in Fairfield: Sweet ‘n Saucy BBQ & Catering (try the Cheezy Taters), Asian Pho Bistro (the crab rangoon was the best), and Fishback & Stephenson Cider House (this place has a lot of amazing burgers to choose from, as well as grilled cheese for the picky child).
- Fairfield Food Cooperative, 400 N. Second St. Fairfield, Iowa
- Bountiful Bakery, 303 S. Main St., Fairfield Iowa
- Lunchbox, 403 N. Fourth St., Fairfield, Iowa
- Sweet ‘n Saucy BBQ & Catering, 117 N. Court St, Fairfield, Iowa
- Asian Pho Bistro, 110 W. Burlington Ave., Fairfield, Iowa
- Fishback & Stephenson Cider House, 1949 Pleasant Plain Road, Fairfield, Iowa
Tips for visiting Fairfield
Here are a few recommendations I have following my visit to Fairfield, Iowa:
- Fall is a lovely time to visit! The weather is mild and the fall foliage is picture-perfect. The average temperature in the fall is 64 degrees.
- Overnight accommodations are limited. For families, I recommend staying at the AmericInn by Wyndham Fairfield, which has an indoor pool and hot tub. Some rooms even have an in-room jacuzzi tub. A complimentary breakfast is also included.
- Some restaurants and shops have shortened hours due to staffing shortages and among other reasons. Be sure to call ahead, especially if you’ve got your heart set on a particular place for a meal.
- Fairfield is not far from Eldon, Iowa, home to the American Gothic House made famous for being the backdrop to the famous Grant Wood painting of the same name. There’s a small visitors center with a lot of interactive elements for kids. The highlight is getting to dress up in costume to take your own “American Gothic” photo in front of the famed house. It’s about 20 miles from Fairfield.
- AmericInn by Wyndham Fairfield, 2104 S. Main St., Fairfield, Iowa
- American Gothic House Center, 300 American Gothic St., Eldon, Iowa
Fairfield is more than just a picturesque small town — it’s a vibrant community where tradition meets innovation. For families seeking a blend of cultural enrichment, outdoor adventure, and a touch of the unexpected, Fairfield is a delightful getaway. Whether you’re exploring its rich history, indulging in its diverse culinary delights, or simply soaking in the town’s unique ambiance, Fairfield awaits!