Mason City, Iowa – Forget trouble, there’s fun in the River City

Bicycle on a fence covered in twigs
Rancho Deluxe: Original Bicycle Garden is a unique outdoor sculpture attraction in Mason City.

Did you know that Mason City, Iowa, is the home of Jell-O pudding cups? The delicious sweet treats, along with flavored Jell-O cups, are produced at a plant located on the outskirts of the North Iowa city of 28,000 people. What you may not know is the city is also home to the only existing hotel in the world designed by famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright. The Historic Park Inn was renovated to meet modern hotel requirements but remains intact in the building Wright designed in the early 1900s. However, a visit to Mason City is more than Frank Lloyd Wright and Jell-O.

Disclaimer: Thank you to Visit Abilene KS for the complimentary accommodations. However, all opinions are ours.
Disclaimer: Thank you to Visit Mason City for the complimentary accommodations, meals and admissions. However, all opinions are ours.

Home to a unique public art display, as well as being the hometown of Grammy Award-winning songwriter Meredith Willson, Mason City provides a bevy of reasons to visit River City. From art and history to an impressive culinary scene, I enjoyed three fantastic days in Mason City and wish I had stayed for one or two more days.

Public art

Nothing may top my visit to Rancho Deluxe: The Original Bicycle Garden. I’m not sure how to describe it. It’s a mix of one person’s junk and another’s art? Or, is it a political statement about Earth and the need to recycle and repurpose to extend life? Or, is it just one man’s vision of what could be? Situated on half an acre, the outdoor sculpture garden features bicycles and tricycles of all sizes and shapes high above the ground, seemingly acting as sentries along the fence line. With concrete blocks from places such as an old courthouse scattered about the park acting as a foundation for the signs, hubcaps and other unique items are used to create art pieces. A large Hollywood sign runs along one wall. You must visit Mason City just to see this park.

Old gas station signs are among hub caps and store signs attached to concrete blocks in the park
An eclectic art theme is the focus of Rancho Deluxe: The Original Bicycle Garden park in Mason City.

Mason City is heavily involved with a public art Sculpture Walk. With more than 50 pieces located around the downtown area, the sculpture walk includes temporary statues created for display each year, as well as others that have been purchased by the city or businesses and are permanently displayed. Lisa and I are fans of sculpture walks; really, any art project that encourages people to visit downtown areas. But, Mason City is home to a couple of my all-time favorites -Mr. Eggwards, a Humpty Dumpty-looking piece by Kimber Fiebiger of Minneapolis. The egg statue is located a couple of blocks from the Historic Park Inn. Another favorite is The Farmer, located near a downtown bank. The piece resembles a Midwestern farmer and was created by Lawrence Starck from Loveland, Colorado.

A statue that looks like humpty dumpty dressed in a hat and suit sitting on a fence
Mr. Eggwards on the Mason City sculpture walk.

Inside a former mansion, the Charles H. MacNider Art Museum is home to a collection of puppets from famed puppeteer Bill Baird, who hailed from Mason City. Baird, who created puppets for commercials, television and movies, may be best known for creating the puppets used in the musical “The Sound of Music.” His puppets are also on display at the Kinney Pioneer Museum.

A brick mansion used as an art museum
The MacNider Art Museum.

Frank Lloyd Wright influence

Frank Lloyd Wright is known for designing more than 1,000 buildings around the world, including two in Mason City. His influence – famous for the Prairie School style of architecture – resonated among locals, who had Wright associates and acquaintances design another dozen or more houses in the city.

The Historic Park Inn, which opened in 1910, has 27 rooms. Initially, the hotel was designed with the idea that people from Chicago would visit Mason City, helping the city grow from a small agriculture-based community to a major business hub. A bank and law office also shared space in the building. The hotel operated for several years but eventually closed. With some wanting to demolish it to make way for “progress,”  group of locals fought the idea and saved the hotel. Raising money to renovate it, the Historic Park Inn eventually reopened, with some original parts in place. The Wright on the Park foundation worked with the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation to ensure designs to the hotel met the architect’s style in an effort to have the hotel resemble the original one. Today, however, each room has its own bath facilities, whereas originally guests shared those facilities.

The Historic Park Inn is a beige building with a flat roof
The Historic Park Inn.

While Wright visited Mason City to design the Park Inn hotel, a local physician asked him to design his home, too. The Stockman House – named for Dr. George Stockman and his wife Eleanor – is located near the city’s main park. It was moved from its original location several years ago. The Stockman House used the Prairie School design, which features broad overhanging eaves, horizontal lines and a hipped roof (slopes downward). Wright favored straight lines that matched up regardless where you stood in a room, and the Stockman House reflects that vision.

The Stockman House is a beige house built from concrete with slanted roof
The Stockman House was moved from its original location.

The Stockman House was the only other Wright-designed building in Mason City. However, wanting their homes to look like a Wright design, other businessmen and socialites hired Wright-associated or -familiarized architects to design their homes. With another dozen or so prairie school designs in hand, Mason City is considered to have the largest concentration of such styles in the country.

Reaching beyond building designs, Mason City incorporated the Prairie School design in its public art. With three downtown buildings embracing murals using the style, passers-by can look up and see the beautiful art as they go about their business or grab a meal or drink.

A mural resembling an arrow on the side of 7-story building.
Frank Lloyd Wright-influenced downtown art mural.

Craft Brewing

Mason City is home to two distinctly different craft breweries. Fat Hill Brewing is a seven-barrel brewery that opened in 2016. With a German bier hall vibe, Fat Hill Brewing offers ample space to sit back, relax and enjoy a beer or two. Flights feature four beers, with the customer choosing which to sample from its seasonal menu. With a seating capacity of 130 people, Fat Hill Brewing is open evenings Wednesday-Saturday. The brewery doesn’t have a kitchen, so outside food is permitted.

Four beers in small glasses lined up as part of a flight
A flight of beers at Fat Hill Brewing was quite tasty.

The first brewery to open in the city in nearly 130 years, six-year-old Mason City Brewing describes itself as being similar to a British pub. With a seating capacity of about 75, regulars describe the brewery as more like the television series “Cheers,” where everyone knows your name. On trivia night (of which I was invited to participate in by regulars), everyone tries to do their best Cliff Clavin impression in order to answer the questions correctly or sound correct when wrong (not naming any names – me). I had a blast with my gang, as we entered the last question in second place. We got it wrong, and I won’t say where we finished since we wagered so many points on it. It wasn’t anywhere near second. Or third. Or fourth. Or…

Five people lined up for a picture who were on my trivia team
My fellow trivia team members at Mason City Brewing. A great group of people who warmly accepted me into their fold.

Food Scene

From deli sandwiches to Thai to the best club sandwich in North Iowa, Mason City has an impressive culinary scene. Foodies may not think Mason is the city to visit to satisfy their palate, but maybe they should. I fell in love with the club sandwich at Lorados near the Historic Park Inn. It looks like a dive from the outside, which tells you they have great food, because what dive doesn’t end up having the best food? State Street Deli is home to some great cold and hot sandwiches. I am partial to cold sandwiches and enjoyed my lunch combo, which included a macaroni salad. The deli is popular with lunchtime diners, so make sure you get there early for the best seating.

A turkey sandwich with lettuce and tomato and a side of macaroni salad in a small plastic bowl
My lunch at State Street Deli was delicious.

Thai Bistro is home to great Thai food, as well as sushi. I’m not a fan of sushi (that’s Lisa’s culinary responsibility when we travel together). I enjoyed an excellent beef and Thai noodles dinner. I ordered it Thai hot, which packs quite the heat. If you’re not a fan of heat, order it American hot. You may get laughed at (by me. Only kidding), but you’ll enjoy the meal. 

a plate with beef and Thai noodles
Thai Bistro has an outstanding menu.

Pasta Bella features an Italian menu with a unique marinara sauce. I enjoyed a chicken parmesan dish and thought the marinara sauce tasted slightly different than others I’ve had. Not quite sweet, it had a unique flavor that added to the meal’s enjoyment.

Chicken parmesan with cheese on top and spaghetti on the side
The chicken parmesan provided an excellent meal at Pasta Bella.

If you have a sweet tooth, then a visit to Grandma Sugar’s Cupcakery at Market 124 is a must. Handmade cupcakes are topped mile high with frosting. Each cupcake features its own unique flavor, from confetti to wedding cake and chocolate. Grandma also sells cupcakes at Breadeaux Pizza.

Cupcake with paper packaging and purple sprinkles on top
Grandma Sugars Cupcakery creates delicious sweet treats.


Home to “The Music Man” himself, Mason City recognizes its hometown star with The Music Man Square. The museum is designed to look like the town center of River City from Meredith Willson’s “The Music Man” musical. The museum features exhibits highlighting the award-winning musical composer and writer, including the first-ever Grammy Award that was given to Willson for the musical. He wrote several musicals and songs during his career, and never forgot where he came from. Willson based the town in “The Music Man” on Mason City. Willson’s childhood home is located adjacent to the museum.

A hallway with decorated storefronts
The Music Man Square celebrates the legacy of hometown star Meredith Willson.

Exploring the area’s history and culture drives the Kinney Pioneer Museum. Located between Mason City and neighbor Clear Lake, the museum traces the area’s history to prehistoric days, including fossils discovered in farm fields and waterways. The Kinney Pioneer Museum’s exhibits include a look at early transportation, military life, as well as life on the plains, including an outdoor display featuring a log cabin, one-room schoolhouse and blacksmith shop. One of the city’s claims to fame is that a local bank was robbed by the infamous John Dillinger.

A piece of glass with a bullet hole from when gangster John Dillinger robbed a local bank.
A piece of glass with a bullet hole from when gangster John Dillinger robbed a local bank.

Mason City was once central to the railroad industry. Its history is celebrated with the Cannonball 457 locomotive on display at East Park. The steam engine is the last remaining Cannonball from the Minneapolis and St. Louis Railway. The locomotive display incudes fact boards about Mason City and its rail history.

The black Cannonball 457 steam locomotive on display.
Mason City’s rail history is recognized with a steam engine display at East Park.

Holiday Inn Express

The Holiday Inn Express was my host hotel. The mid-scale hotel is part of a reliable chain, so you know you can rely on a clean room, great service and an enjoyable complimentary breakfast daily. The hotel’s features include a heated indoor swimming pool, as well as a 24-hour fitness center. I enjoy using an elliptical machine or treadmill when we travel, so that’s an important amenity. The room featured a comfortable bed and spacious work area. There were more than enough outlets to charge my phone and other devices. Breakfast was excellent. With a small buffet featuring scrambled eggs, sausage/bacon and potatoes, the menu changed slightly during my stay. If you prefer, oatmeal, cold cereal, fruit and bread/pastries are available.

Two double beds in a hotel room
The Holiday Inn Express in Mason City was a great spot to use for my base camp.

Mason City is home to a nice mixture of history and culture. With plenty of entertainment options available, as well, the North Iowa city is a great fit for every type of traveler – family, couples, individual, sports enthusiast, etc. I enjoyed my visit to the home of the “Music Man” and more, and heartily recommend planning a stay.