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20 Top Things to Do in Iowa

Uncover new surprises in the capital city of Des Moines and other reasons to explore the Hawkeye State.
  • Photo Courtesy of Cameron Campbell

    Top attractions in Iowa

    Pastures and fields of corn cover much of the heart of the Heartland, but there's much more to Iowa than its famously green fields: dramatic bluffs along the Mississippi River, quintessential small towns, and vibrant midsize cities like Des Moines.

    Click ahead to find out about 20 of our favorite experiences in Iowa, from the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium in Dubuque to the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines.

    Pictured at left: The John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park in Des Moines reflects the way that Iowa's unassuming capital has taken a turn for the hip.

    Iowa Tourism Office

  • National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium
    Photo Courtesy of The Iowa Tourism Office

    National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium

    History flows through the state's oldest city, Dubuque (population: 57,000), which has reinvented its Mississippi River waterfront as a lively destination. Riverboats and excursion vessels cruise the water, but the cornerstone of the waterfront is the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium, where you can experience touch tanks, tour a 1934 steamer and view six big aquariums full of river creatures. Watch for special events (ice sculpture, log rolling) throughout the year. (800) 226-3369; rivermuseum.com

    Dubuque Convention and Visitors Bureau

  • Amana Colonies
    Photo Courtesy of Amanacolonies.com

    Amana Colonies

    In the green east-central Iowa River Valley along Interstate-80 (100 miles east of Des Moines), the seven Amana Colonies have clung to their roots with German steadfastness since 1855. Almost half the residents are descendants of the original German colonists; inns, restaurants and shops draw heavily on traditional foods and handicrafts. At the Amana Heritage Society, ask about custom tours in addition to the five museum sites. (319) 622-3567; amanaheritage.org

    Shop for beautiful, classic quilts at Heritage Designs, (319) 622-3887; heritagedesignsquiltshop.com, or find local ham, bacon, sausage and cheese at Amana Meat Shop and Smokehouse. (800) 373-6328; amanameatshop.com

    Amana Colonies Convention and Visitors Bureau

  • Boone and Scenic Valley Railroad
    Photo Courtesy of The Iowa Tourism Office

    Boone and Scenic Valley Railroad

    The railroad town of Boone (population 12,600; 50 miles northwest of Des Moines) is home of one of the state's favorite attractions: Boone and Scenic Valley Railroad, which offers one-hour-and-45-minute excursions, 15-mile dinner and dessert rides, two old-time trestles and a 12-mph maximum speed. (800) 626-0319; scenic-valleyrr.com

    Trips start at a reconstructed depot near downtown. Guests can also visit the Iowa Railway Museum to learn about the state's railroading history.

    Boone Area Chamber of Commerce

  • John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park
    Photo by Cameron Campbell

    John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park

    A donation of 25 sculptures worth $40 million instantly transformed a downtown green space in Des Moines (the state's capital, metro population 565,000). The Des Moines Art Center curates the new collection at the John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park, which looks especially fabulous at night, when lights illuminate the oversize sculptures. Enjoy walking through the sculptures, but don't miss the Art Center either (about 5 miles west). It houses an outstanding contemporary collection. (515) 277-4405; desmoinesartcenter.org

    Greater Des Moines Convention and Visitors Bureau

  • Iowa Great Lakes

    The "Iowa Great Lakes"

    Some people might be surprised by this classic vacation spot 210 miles northwest of Des Moines. A string of glacial lakes covers about 15,000 acres, forming the "Iowa Great Lakes." Families return to places such as Big Spirit Lake (population 4,700) and Okoboji (population 850) year after year, fishing off docks and hopping on carnival rides at Arnolds Park, a turn-of-the-last-century theme park that's as retro as they come. (800) 599-6995; arnoldspark.com 

    Okoboji Boat Works, a popular stop between the west and east lakes, offers a swimming beach, a playground and glass-bottom boat tours. (712) 332-9904; parksmarina.com

    Okoboji Tourism

  • Photo Courtesy of The Iowa Tourism Office

    Decorah's Scandinavian heritage

    Tucked among the bluffs of northeast Iowa, charming small-town Decorah (population 7,900) shares its Scandinavian heritage everyday in quaint downtown shops and at history-rich spots such as the Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum. (563) 382-9681; vesterheim.org

    With more than 24,000 artifacts and 16 historical buildings, the Vesterheim is the most comprehensive museum in the United States dedicated to a single immigrant group. Decorah also celebrates its Scandinavian heritage each summer during Nordic Fest, with a parade (left), music, dancing, tours and more. (800) 382-3378; nordicfest.com

     

  • Ledges State Park

    Ledges State Park

    A web of steep trails loops over the sandstone cliffs along Pease Creek as it winds through Ledges State Park. The campground is pleasant (and a few walk-in sites are very cool), but most visitors are day-trippers from Des Moines (40 miles southeast) who come to picnic, hike and wade along the Canyon Road. Parents: Pack extra clothes. The splashy spots where cars drive through the creek are kid magnets. (515) 432-1852; iowadnr.gov

  • Iowa State Fair

    Iowa State Fair

    This end-of-summer pilgrimage celebrates Iowa's farm heritage within an increasingly cosmopolitan Des Moines. The Iowa State Fair is 11 days of farm animals (the Big Boar!), midway rides, blue-ribbon prizes, a butter cow, crazy contests, live music and fried food on a stick (deep-fried Snickers bars!). The fair's 400 acres can be overwhelming; navigate the sprawl by using free downloadable walking tours from the fair website. For a view above the crowds, relax for a few minutes on the Sky Glider ride. (515) 262-3111; iowastatefair.org

  • Loess Hills National Scenic Byway
    Photo Courtesy of The Iowa Tourism Office

    Loess Hills

    The rolling hills on Iowa's western edge host a surprising variety of plants and animals. Enjoy the area from the Loess Hills National Scenic Byway, a 220-mile route that links prairies, parks, forests and overlooks stretching to the Missouri. (888) 623-4232; visitloesshills.com

    The Loess Hills Visitors Center in Moorhead (55 miles north of Council Bluffs) offers maps and brochures to help plan your trip. While in Moorhead, try the juicy cheeseburgers at Ada J's Feed Bunk. (712) 886-5111

    Loess Hills Hospitality Association

  • Pella Historical Village and Vermeer Windmill

    Pella's Dutch history

    Founded by refugees from Holland in 1847, the pretty town of Pella (population: 10,200; about 40 miles southeast of Des Moines) proudly displays its tidy Dutch heritage. The town is home to the tallest working windmill in the nation and the annual Tulip Time festival in May, with a variety of Dutch-inspired events. Tour more than 20 historical buildings and a windmill at Pella Historical Village and Vermeer Windmill. (641) 628-4311; pellahistorical.org

    And don't miss the almond-paste-filled Dutch letters at the iconic Jaarsma Bakery. (641) 628-2940; jaarsmabakery.com

    Pella Tourism

  • Barn Quilts of Grundy County

    Grundy County barn quilts

    About 30 miles west of Waterloo, the Barn Quilts of Grundy County adorn more than 60 barns and corncribs. You can traverse over 65 miles of trail and visit the towns of Wellsburg, Conrad and Grundy City–all of which have shops and restaurants to complete your day trip. More barn quilts are added every year.

    Grundy County Quilts

    More barn quilt tours in the Midwest

  • Suchi from Miyabi 9

    Des Moines' food scene

    Des Moines has undergone a dining transformation, the kind that happens one kitchen at a time, until residents look up and say, "Wow! Things have changed." More than 850 restaurants across the city cater to every taste, including Thai, Japanese, French and authentic Mexican cuisine. Popular spots include Centro for contemporary Italian cuisine (515) 248-1780; centrodesmoines.com; Bistro Montage with classic French dishes (515) 557-1924; bistromontage.com; and, in downtown's ever-hipper East Village, Miyabi 9, with some of the city's best sushi. (515) 288-8885; miyabi9.com

  • Great River Road National Scenic Byway

    Great River Road National Scenic Byway

    A journey along Iowa's 325 miles of the Great River Road National Scenic Byway blasts away stereotypical images of a flat Hawkeye State. The massive river eases around a parade of communities–from tiny towns to busy midsize cities–and spectacular vistas fill the spaces in between.

    In southern Iowa, eagles soar above the lock at Keokuk (population 10,400), where wealth made from the river created fine homes and public buildings. Heading north, the river weaves through communities such as Bellevue (population 2,300), where watercraft negotiate the lock near galleries and antiques shops; the river port of Dubuque (population 57,200), with its thriving waterfront activities; and Guttenberg (population 1,900), where street names such as Goethe and Schiller reflect the German roots.

    Pictured at left: A view of the Mississippi from Pikes Peak, near McGregor.

    Great River Road National Scenic Byway

  • Hogback bridge Madison County
    Photo Courtesy of Madison County Chamber of Commerce

    The bridges of Madison County

    Six of Madison County's original 19 covered bridges remain–enough to have inspired a best-selling novel and movie. A covered bridge festival in October features music, a quilt show, local artists, a parade and guided bus tours of the covered bridges. Winterset (population 4,800), the county seat, is about 40 miles southwest of Des Moines. Pictured at left is the Hogback bridge, built in 1884. (800) 298-6119; madisoncounty.com

  • Backbone State Park
    Photo Courtesy of Iowa Department of Natural Resources

    Backbone State Park

    Elevation-starved Iowans love Backbone Trail, a rocky ridge high above Backbone Lake with a string of knee-knocking overlooks. The trail alone is worth a visit, but Backbone State Park is actually a nice all-around park (55 miles northwest of Dubuque), with canoe rentals, a popular trout stream and a handful of pleasant cabins. (563) 924-2000; iowadnr.gov

  • Sullivan Brothers Iowa Veterans Museum
    Photo Courtesy of Waterloo Convention and Visitors Bureau

    Waterloo museums

    A burgeoning museum campus is turning this former manufacturing town (population: 66,600) into an overnight destination for history buffs. Sullivan Brothers Iowa Veterans Museum, opened in late 2008, tells the stories of America's wars through the lens of five brothers from Iowa who perished in World War II. Bluedorn Science Imaginarium makes science fun for kids with optical illusions, plasma gloves and more. Rensselaer Russell House Museum, built in 1861, has been restored to 1890s Victorian splendor. All are part of Grout Museum District. (319) 234-6357; groutmuseumdistrict.org

    Waterloo Convention and Visitors Bureau

  • Lacey-Keosauqua State Park

    Villages of Van Buren County

    Tiny and quaint, 1800s ports line the Des Moines River in southeast Iowa. Hike or canoe in Lacey-Keosauqua State Park, (319) 293-3502; iowadnr.gov; pictured at left, or take a leisurely journey through the area on the 85-mile Historic Hills Scenic Byway; byways.org. Most weekends find the county fairly quiet, but the annual Scenic Drive Festival in October swells towns such as Bentonsport, Keosauqua and Bonaparte (each with populations of 1,000 or fewer) with crafters, pancake feeds, pedal tractor races and old-time medicine shows.

    Villages of Van Buren County

    Read about 12 Midwest Backroad Scenic Drives

  • Iowa City Pedestrian Mall

    Iowa City's education scene

    The University of Iowa is a cornerstone of this community (population: 68,000), which enjoys a vibrant culture. The Iowa City Pedestrian Mall is an approximately 12-block area downtown that houses many of the city's best shops, college clubs and restaurants; downtowniowacity.com. Prairie Lights Books, a downtown icon, features three-and-a-half stories of books plus a coffee house where writers Robert Frost, Carl Sandburg and Langston Hughes visited. (800) 295-2665; prairielights.com

    About 12 miles east of Iowa City, you can learn about Herbert Hoover's boyhood in Iowa and wander through 81 acres of tallgrass prairie at the Herbert Hoover National Historic Site. (319) 643-2541; nps.gov

    Iowa City/Coralville Area Convention and Visitors Bureau

  • National Balloon Classic

    Twenty miles south of Des Moines, Indianola (population 14,400) hosts the annual National Balloon Classic, a week-long festival that has graced the summer skies of central Iowa for more than 40 years. Balloon flights, music performances, a 5K road race, fireworks, a parade and an arts and crafts show are all part of the fun. (515) 961-8415

    National Balloon Classic

  • Dyersville Field of Dreams

    Field of Dreams Movie Set

    This century-old farm in Dyersville (28 miles west of Dubuque, population 4,200) made movie history when it became the set of the 1989 baseball film starring Kevin Costner. Sit in the bleachers, run the bases or bat a few balls. The place still looks exactly like you remember from the film. Free. (888) 875-8404; fieldofdreamsmoviesite.com

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