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The Ultimate Holiday Shopping Experience: Explore Iowa’s Vibrant Holiday Markets

Towns across Iowa love the holiday season, decorating storefronts and streets in lights and garland. All across the state, towns and cities plan elaborate festivals to celebrate Christmas, and one of my favorite events is the annual Christmas market. From large markets like Christkindlmarket Des Moines to smaller celebrations, there’s something special about browsing an outdoor market, talking to local artisans, and purchasing gifts for loved ones. This blog post explores some of the most charming Christmas markets in Iowa.

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A shopper holds two small nutcrackers at a stall at a holiday market

Charming Iowa holiday markets

Holidays markets date back to the Middle Ages in Europe, with some pointing to the 14-day fairs in Vienna held in December in the late 1290s among the first Christmas markets. They weren’t necessarily religious in nature to begin with.

In Iowa, there’s no doubt that the Christmas markets are planned in the weeks leading up to Christmas. “Christkindlesmarkt,” after all, means Christ child market. Below are a few of the more popular Christmas markets held annually in Iowa.

Christkindlmarket Des Moines

Christkindlmarket Des Moines is inspired by centuries of similar holiday markets held throughout Europe. The event seems to grow in popularity, attracting hundreds of shoppers seeking out old-world, artisanal, and hand-crafted products representing various European cultures. There’s also live entertainment and a KinderKorner for kids to hear stories and songs. 

It wouldn’t be a market without treats and German food, as well as warm Glühwein. Be sure to get the commemorative, keepsake mug when you order your mulled wine!

Christkindlmarket Des Moines is held Nov. 30 through Dec. 3, 2023, at Principal Park, 1 Line Drive, Des Moines, Iowa. Hours are: Nov. 30 from 5 to 9 p.m., Dec. 1 & 2 from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., and Dec. 3 from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Tip: Free parking for Christkindlmarket Des Moines visitors is available in Lot 3 west of Principal Park (between SW Second Street and SW Third Street and south of West Martin Luther King Jr Parkway).

Colorful holiday ornaments hang on display

Prelude to Christmas

Amana Colonies exudes old world German charm year-round, thanks to the area’s architecture and delightful shops. But, when Prelude to Christmas rolls around on the first weekend in December each year, things get truly magical. 

In the town of Amana, decorations abound on storefronts and fences, and Christmas music fills the air. The weekend includes the Holiday Bazaar and Amana Church Christmas Cookie Walk, as well as Tannenbaum Forest, featuring more than 60 uniquely decorated Christmas trees. 

Don’t miss visiting all the shops. There will be food and beverage samples throughout. Prelude to Christmas is Dec. 1-3, 2023.

Kerstmarkt: Pella’s Dutch Christmas Market

While Amana Colonies is reminiscent of Germany, Pella is more like a visit to the Netherlands. The town’s annual Dutch Christmas Market is held over three days in Molengracht Plaza. The outdoor market will be held from Nov. 30 to Dec. 2.

The hours for the Kerstmarkt: Pella’s Dutch Christmas Market are Thursday, Nov. 30, from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Friday, Dec. 1, from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.; and Saturday, Dec. 2, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. It coincides with another holiday tradition, Christmas Tour of Homes. A ticket to the tour is a must for anyone who loves architecture or lavish holiday decorations.

Old World Christmas Market

Old World Christmas Market is held the first Saturday and Sunday in December at the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library in Cedar Rapids. Shop for local handcrafted items and delicious treats, plus enjoy entertainment and activities for people of all ages. The event is free, and includes free admission into the museum all weekend.

Exterior of the Old Danish Workshop in Elk Horn, Iowa, with an OPEN sign
Old Danish Workshop in Elk Horn

For more European influenced holiday festivities, don’t skip visiting Decorah and the Danish Villages of Elk Horn-Kimballton. On the first Saturday of December, head to the Vesterheim in Decorah to take part in the Norwegian Christmas Celebration. There’s live music, crafts, and a visit from julenisse (Santa). 

In Elk Horn and Kimballton, festivities start a week earlier on the Friday and Saturday after Thanksgiving. Julefest includes music and decorations at the Museum of Danish America in Elk Horn, and elsewhere in town, look for more holiday decor at The Danish Windmill and Bedstemor’s Hus. In Kimballton, seek out the famous “Little Mermaid” fountain and see how it’s decked for the holidays.

Related post: 11 things to do in the Danish Villages

A knit sign in Danish with the American flag and Danish flag

More shopping experiences & holiday events in Iowa

Des Moines

Top spots for holiday shopping in Des Moines include East Village Promenade and Jordan Creek Town Center in West Des Moines. There are several annual events in the area. Jingle in the Junction held on Thursday nights in Valley Junction in West Des Moines starting Nov. 16 and running through Dec. 14, 2023. Local businesses stay open late, and you’ll find three blocks of free entertainment on Fifth Street – including an ice sculptor – enhanced by the glow of over 100,000 holiday lights. Head to Railroad Park to enjoy free horse-drawn carriage rides. Look for Santa and Mrs. Claus at the Historic Valley Junction Foundation office next to the Theatrical Shop.

Of course, as mentioned earlier, Christkindlmarket Des Moines is held annually at Principal Park. It runs Nov. 30 through Dec. 3, 2023. 

There are also several holiday performances, including the annual production of Ballet Des Moines’ “The Nutcracker.” Hoyt Sherman Place hosts traveling productions each holiday season and in 2023, those include “A Motown Christmas” on Nov. 14, Girl Named Tom “One More Christmas Tour” on Nov. 30, “Christmas with Lorie Line” on Dec. 14, “Shaun Johnson Big Band Experience: Holly Jolly Holiday Tour” on Dec. 16, and “Michael W. Smith Christmas” on Dec. 17.

Related post: 13 fun things to do in Des Moines in the winter

Cedar Falls

Holiday Hoopla is a month-long celebration in downtown Cedar Falls. Festivities start the day after Thanksgiving with the arrival of Santa Claus. The events will run Nov. 24 through Dec. 23, 2023, and includes Eat, Drink & Be Merry from Dec. 8-10. You get a bingo card of all the drinks and/or specials at each participating bar and restaurant.

Santa’s Workshop is set up at River Place Plaza, and kids can visit Santa and elves on Thursdays and Saturdays. There’s a trolley on Thursday nights traveling in a loop from Cedar Falls Community Center and the River Place Plaza. The ride is a good chance to check out all the holiday lights.

Additional activities with dates still to be announced: Jingle & Mingle, Baby It’s Cold Outside featuring ice sculptors, a free screening of “Santa Clause” in the Oster Regent Theatre in the Cedar Falls Downtown District, and Reindeer Games.

Several stuffed reindeers in flannel patterns

Cedar Rapids

Deck the District is a festive shopping weekend in Cedar Rapids’ Czech Village & New Bohemia. Typically held the first Friday, Saturday and Sunday in December, Deck the District includes a tree lighting ceremony on Friday night, retail promotions all weekend long, and performances. In addition to the Old World Christmas Market mentioned earlier in this post, Irish Christmas is held at the CSPS Hall.

There are chances to see Santa all month long in December. Santa at the Market is held every Sunday in December at NewBo City Market.

Quad Cities

The Quad Cities Arts’ Festival of Trees includes the Midwest’s largest helium parade in downtown Davenport. This year, it’s going to be held on Nov. 18. Head to RiverCenter for more family-friendly excitement, like seeing Santa, Reindeer Games, Tree of Lights, and more. Additional holiday events held throughout November include the Teddy Bear Tea, Sugar Plum Ball, Celebrity Lunch, and a Silent Disco Party for ages 18+. 

Clear Lake

Clear Lake celebrates annually with Christmas by the Lake, held the first weekend in December. Festivities in 2023 include a 5K run on Thursday, Nov. 30, and a concert on Friday, Dec. 1, at the Surf Ballroom. “Christmas with The Nelsons” is a heart-warming multi-media live concert starring the third generation of No. 1 Nelson family hitmakers, Matthew and Gunnar Nelson.

On Saturday, Dec. 2, a lot of activities are planned, including horse-drawn carriage rides, a craft show, the crowning of prince and princess, a petting zoo, a visit with Santa, family matinees at the Lake Theatre, special entertainment at the Clear Lake Arts Center, strolling Dickens characters, a lighted parade, and fireworks over the frozen lake. On Sunday, there’s the annual Polar Bear Plunge, plus another chance to meet Santa and Mrs. Claus.

Related post: 11 ways to enjoy winter in Clear Lake

Rustic, farmhouse style Christmas decorations like wreaths and mini trees

More Iowa towns with holiday events

  • Holiday Hullabaloo runs Nov. 24 through Dec. 31, 2023, at 10320 Hickman Road in Clive. The indoor experience includes mini golf, snowball fight arena, and an indoor sock skating rink. The event also includes the Merry Merchant Main Street Market. There is a general admission fee, as well as ticketed events like Breakfast with Santa, Noon Year’s Eve and the Silver Bell NYE Soirée.
  • Gutenberg has a German Christmas Market on the Saturday after Thanksgiving at River Park Drive. Santa and the Grinch make an appearance at the market, and there will be a craft show. Free craft activities are planned for kids.
  • The Boone Valley Railroad’s Santa Express might not go all the way to the North Pole, but everyone will enjoy a little holiday magic.
  • ‘Tis the Season is a month-long series of events around Iowa City each year. The dates for 2023 events are yet to be announced, but usually there’s a Downtown Holiday Kid’s Market, Santa Saturdays at FilmScene at the Chauncey, Holiday Pop-Up Markets, and several other fun shopping events and open houses.
  • Christmas in a Small Town is held the first Saturday in December in Coon Rapids, Iowa. There’s usually live reindeer, carriage rides, lighted Christmas parade and holiday concert in addition to local shopping, dining and other family-friendly activities on Main Street.
  • DeWitt’s Hometown Christmas and Parade is Dec. 2, 2023, featuring a Children’s Christmas Carnival, the Lighted Parade, Live Window Walk, and a Family Holiday Movie at the DeWitt Operahouse Theater.
  • The Winter Snowcial is planned for Dec. 2, 2023 in Denison. In addition to the popular horse-drawn carriage rides, browse local shops and food vendors, warm up by a fire pit, listen to Christmas music, and meet Santa. A lighted parade ends the festivities.
  • Uptown Creston’s Merry Marketplace will take place on Dec. 2, 2023. Browse local shops, enjoy carriage rides, and delight in the town’s holiday atmosphere.
  • The Annual Winter Solstice Market is Dec. 8 and 9, 2023, in Winterset. It’s an indoor market with 26 curated arts, crafts and food vendors Winterset Livery building on the Winterset Courthouse Square. Hours are Friday, Dec. 8, from 6 to 9 p.m., and Saturday, Dec. 9, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Iowa’s holiday markets are the epicenter of festive shopping experiences. Each market in cities like Des Moines, Cedar Rapids, and Clear Lake offers a warm haven of unique finds, artisan gifts, and tasty treats. Bustling markets not only provide an array of gifts but also maintain each community’s traditions. Let the holiday shopping adventure in Iowa fill your season with merriment and wonder.

Explore the festive shopping experience of an Iowa holiday market! List includes the popular Christkindlmarket Des Moines, Amana Colonies' Holiday Bazaar during Prelude to Christmas, and Kerstmarkt: Pella's Dutch Christmas Market.

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