Iowa’s Czech Village is a Trip to the Olde World

A visit to the National Czech and Slovak Museum in Cedar Rapids Iowa is a marvelous opportunity to better understand the complex history and culture of these central European countries. Spend the day here and at the adjacent Czech Village and you’ll have better understanding of why immigrants from these countries came to Iowa.

Czech & Slovak Heritage Museum, Cedar Rapids Iowa

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Where Is Czechia and Slovakia

The people who settled in east central Iowa in what is now Cedar Rapids in the mid-1800s came from what was once Czechoslovakia. It’s bordered by Austria, Germany and Hungary. Before WWI, this region was simply known as Bohemia or Moravia. After the break up of the Soviet Union and the Velvet Revolution in the early 1990s, Czechia and Slovakia emerged.

It’s a region with centuries of history, much of it quite turbulent and oppressive. Forced labor of peasants was the rule. Punishment for the most minor of offenses was brutal and without judge or jury. For decades, it was illegal to own a typewriter. The aristocratic powers of government recognized that a typewriter and the written word can be as dangerous as a gun.

An estimated two million people in the U.S. claim Czech or Slovak heritage. About a fourth of the 125,000 residents of Cedar Rapids claim such ancestry. The museum does a great job of helping make sense of it all. Visitors hear stories from real immigrants who suffered oppression, but found a way to escape to America.

Exhibits include a Jawa motorcycle, a company founded in Prague in the 1920s. You’ll also see a Tatra, a vehicle manufactured in Czechoslovakia and used by the secret police. But there are fun exhibits showing the costumes and folk dance of Bohemia and an actual cottage where Czech immigrants lived on the banks of the Cedar River.

Shopping at the Czech Museum Store in Cedar Rapids

Anyone who has ever visited a museum knows that these gift shops are the best places ever. They curate and highlight skilled artists and their products that showcase a culture or region. So you know this says something when I tell you that the Museum Store at the National Czech and Slovak Heritage Museum was recognized as the best museum store out of more than 500 museum stores in the U.S.

If you are into shiny objects and Christmas decorations, you can’t miss the wall filled with handblown glass ornaments from artists in the Czech Republic and Slovakia. The detail is remarkable. And here’s a fun thing – hedgehogs are considered good luck in the Czech culture, so you can find hedgehog glass Christmas ornaments here. I’ve never seen that anywhere before.

What To Do in the Czech Village in Cedar Rapids

The Czech Village and New Bohemia are about 40 blocks of mostly original buildings and businesses from the early days of immigration to Cedar Rapids. You’ll find a number of meat markets offering authentic sausages, cheeses and specialty items. The Sykora Bakery has been in operation here since 1928, keeping the community well supplied in kolaches and mushroom tarts. Grab some goodies and sit on the banks of the Cedar River for a little picnic.

For an authentic meal of goulash, sauerkraut and potatoes and other eastern European foods, visit Little Bohemia. Even if you’re not hungry, stop in because this place has so much character. The building dates to 1888 and the bar has been in business since 1923. It’s said that Iowa artist Grant Wood used to hang out here.

About once a month, the Czech and Slovak Museum leads walking tours of the neighborhood, pointing out the history of buildings and significance of imagery. For example, lions are a symbol of Bohemia. That’s the name of a brewing company and the bridge that crosses the Cedar River.

Where to Eat and Sleep in Cedar Rapids

While there are several great restaurants in the Czech Village and throughout Cedar Rapids, we enjoyed a fun meal at The Map Room downtown. It’s this funky little building filled with old travel maps.

Our recommendation for an overnight accommodation is The Hotel at Kirkwood Center. This luxury hotel that is part of the hospitality program at adjacent Kirkwood Community College.

So while we are waiting for Covid to subside and allow us to travel the world more freely, we were delighted to spend some time in Cedar Rapids. No, it’s not Prague, it’s not Bratislava, but it’s still a nice couple of days that improved our understanding of the world.

Some goodies you may not find at the Museum Store


 

Czech Village Mural, Cedar Rapids Iowa