The Highlander Hotel in Iowa City: A Revamped Stay on Memory Lane

A road trip to Iowa offers a great opportunity to explore the Midwestern US. I reached The Highlander Hotel, on a hilltop near Interstate 80 in Iowa City, in the late afternoon. Large peace signs decorated indoor walls as Janis Joplin sang through the sound system. A bright-hued hand-painted ceiling overlooked the horseshoe-shaped bar. I knew I was in for a retro hotel experience.

Here in the heart of the Midwest US, you'll discover a retro hotel experience right out of the 1960s complete with vinyl records in your room. But…this is also a green hotel where you can feel good about your visit down memory lane. These are my favorite moments during my stay at The Highlander Hotel in Iowa City, Iowa.

History in the Making

The Highlander opened as a supper club in 1967. It quickly became one of Iowa’s most famous supper clubs. A hotel and pool followed, six years later. After two decades, The Highlander had hosted half a million guests—including many celebrities. Plenty of special events took place here, too.

As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with accommodations, meals, and tours for the purpose of review. While it has not influenced this review, we believe in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest. Wander With Wonder contains affiliate links. If you click through and make a purchase, we may earn a commission, at no additional cost to you. We thank you for your help — it is what keeps Wander With Wonder bringing you great content.

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From the late 1980s through the early 2000s, The Highlander was associated with seven different franchise brands. Each relationship included different owners and redesign. By 2019, the hotel had deteriorated significantly. Until Angela Harrington and Catalyst Project Management purchased the building and renovated it again.

 

The retro hotel reopened during July 2020, in the heart of the pandemic. The next month, hundred-mile-per-hour winds from a devastating derecho destroyed the original supper club space. After full damage repair, this portion of the building may house a private spa.

It’s been a challenging time. But as travel upticks across the nation, the staff remains optimistic.

King Pool Suite at The Highlander Hotel

The hall floor that led to my King Pool Suite was full of bright, colorful swirls. Inside, my sliding glass door accessed the indoor pool and hot tub area. A floor-to-ceiling psychedelic mural added design and color in true retro hotel style. Beyond massive glass garage doors, comfortable outdoor seating awaited.  There were also firepits, and yard games available.

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A massive psychedelic mural near the indoor pool. Photo by Lisa Waterman Gray

A massive psychedelic mural near the indoor pool. Photo by Lisa Waterman Gray

For complete privacy, I shut the curtains. More 60s-inspired art adorned the suite in this retro hotel. Blue velour chairs flanked a round, brass table and tall, cylindrical floor lamp. A black and white mosaic, high-top table stood beneath the thoroughly modern TV.

Green Operations

Today, this unusual hotel reflects the property’s 1960s heyday, in every way. It also echoes the eco-friendly focus of its Grinnell, Iowa sister property, Hotel Grinnell, which I had stayed in on a previous road trip to Iowa.

Eco-conscious guests appreciate the absence of plastic straws and bottles, paper cups, and Styrofoam. Separate in-room trash cans are designated for recycling and regular trash, and the toilet paper is made from bamboo.

Groovy Sounds and Tastes

Loud 60s music often plays in public spaces through the evening. Guests may also check out a small record player and choose vinyl selections from a lending library of hundreds for a more intimate retro hotel feel. Then rock out in your room.

Borrow a turntable and some classic vinyl, then rock out in your room. Photo by Lisa Waterman Gray

Borrow a turntable and some classic vinyl, then rock out in your room. Photo by Lisa Waterman Gray

I perused 1960s album covers and musician photos in the retro hotel lounge. After about 10 minutes, I selected Best of the Doobies, The Very Best of Roy Orbison, and Rolling Stones Beggars Banquet. They immediately transported me back in time.

As the evening began, I ordered from food truck-inspired fare that included pizzas, tacos, desserts, and bowls. My huge Japanese Noodles bowl arrived at my room, piping hot and delicious. The aroma was intoxicating. The sweet/spicy entrée included corn, carrot sticks, mushroom slices, and green onion bits.

This Japanese noodle bowl tasted fantastic. Photo by Lisa Waterman Gray

This Japanese noodle bowl tasted fantastic. Photo by Lisa Waterman Gray

At around 9, I grabbed a Classic Cocktail in the Highlander Lounge. I was the only person sitting at the bar. A couple sat in the nearby lounge. I watched as one staff person taught another how to make my delicious and decadent chocolate martini.

Out-of-Sight Amenities

There’s no need for individual coffee makers when complimentary coffee is available 24/7. The same with soft drinks.

The hotel also offers complimentary yogurt parfaits, fresh fruit and juice, and foil-wrapped egg burritos at breakfast. A Snack Shack in the pool area allows guests to order food and drinks.

Game lovers can enjoy three sports TVs in the lounge and a giant Pictionary wall.

There’s a long list of amenities in a guestroom pamphlet. Visitors can request everything from alarm clocks, curling irons, and refrigerators to luxury robes, umbrellas, and board games. There’s even a selection of pillows available if you don’t love the ones you’re with. And pets are welcome at this retro hotel in designated rooms for a $30 fee.

In the fitness room, equipment sat at six-foot intervals and yoga mats are sterilized after each use.

Finding The Highlander Hotel

Locating the hotel may be a little tricky. At publication time, the website listed its address as 2525 Highlander Place. But SIRI directed me to a similar address in a residential neighborhood.

That’s when I called the hotel. Although The Highlander website had recently changed its street name from 2525 N. Dodge St., navigation tools hadn’t caught up yet. So, I would use the original address for the foreseeable future to find this retro hotel.

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Borrow a record player, and then choose vinyl from a massive lobby collection. Photo by Lisa Waterman Gray

Borrow a record player, and then choose vinyl from a massive lobby collection. Photo by Lisa Waterman Gray

It's worth the effort to navigate your way to The Highlander Hotel. Step back in time as you step into this one-of-a-kind Midwestern hotel. Be sure to check out what our other Wander writers recommend for you to do during your visit to Iowa. We also have suggestions for more green hotels during your travels.

Looking for a fun retro stay in the midwest? Travel to Iowa City Iowa for a stay at The Highlander Hotel. Here in the heart of the Midwest US, you'll discover a retro hotel experience right out of the 1960s complete with vinyl records in your room. But...this is also a green hotel where you can feel back about your visit down memory lane.

Written by Lisa Waterman Gray

A Kansas City-area resident, Lisa Waterman Gray has savored Quebec’s finest cuisine, ridden in a pickup before a Kansas buffalo herd, and toured natural Arizona landmarks with Native American guides. In June 2011, 18 months of driving, research, and writing ended with national publication of Lisa’s book, An Explorer’s Guide: Kansas. During October 2014, she was a U.S. delegate for Terre Madre and Salone del Gusto in Turin, Italy – a conference for Slow Food International. Lisa has written for Dreamscapes Travel & Lifestyle (a Canadian magazine), USA Today.com, Midwest Living, four AAA magazines, and other clients. Visit her online at http://www.lisawatermangray.com/.

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