20 Top Things to Do in Iowa
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: The John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park in Des Moines.
- 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. 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
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
John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park
A donation of more than two dozen sculptures worth $40 million instantly transformed a downtown green space in Des Moines. The Des Moines Art Center curates the 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
- 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, music, dancing, tours and more. (800) 382-3378; nordicfest.com
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 the road goes through the creek are kid magnets. (515) 432-1852; iowadnr.gov
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
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.
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 Jaarsma Bakery. (641) 628-2940; jaarsmabakery.com
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
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.
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. madisoncounty.com
Iowa: Maquoketa Caves State Park
Cornfields and combines feel eons away from the lush and strangely exotic landscape at Maquoketa Caves State Park (30 miles south of Dubuque), where a long wood staircase descends from a concrete picnic area into an almost prehistoric world. Towering stone walls, moss-covered rocks and an emerald canopy unfold around the Maquoketa Caves' 16 caves and crawl spaces. Ducking under low-hanging rocks and clambering along a roller coaster of steps, visitors feel like real explorers. Bring a flashlight—and a towel to wipe mud off your shoes.
Check the park website before you go for cave accessibility; Iowa's Department of Natural Resources monitors the bats in the park's caves to help prevent the spread of White Nose Syndrome by humans.
- Photo Courtesy of Waterloo Convention and Visitors Bureau
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 tells the stories of America's wars through the lens of Iowans, such as the five Sullivan brothers who died 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. groutmuseumdistrict.org
Architecture and music at Mason City and Clear Lake
Mason City appeals to architecture buffs and fans of The Music Man. Frank Lloyd Wright's 1908 Stockman House (pictured; stockmanhouse.org) illustrates how Prairie School style suited middle-class homes; the Robert E. McCoy Architectural Interpretive Center next door shows a video on Wright's influence in Mason City. At The Music Man Square (themusicmansquare.org), tour the childhood home of Meredith Willson, who wrote and composed The Music Man, and see a replica of the 1962 movie's streetscape. The best stay in town is Historic Park Inn Hotel (historicparkinn.com), the world's only surviving Wright-designed hotel.
In Clear Lake, big-name concerts pack The Surf Ballroom and Museum (surfballroom.com)—best known for the gig Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper played before all three died in a 1959 plane crash in northern Iowa.
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. amanaheritage.org
Iowa City's education scene
The University of Iowa is a cornerstone of this community; highlights for visitors include the Old Capitol Museum (oldcap.uiowa.edu) and the University of Iowa Museum of Natural History (mnh.uiowa.edu). The Iowa City Pedestrian Mall (pictured) 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 (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 (nps.gov).
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.
Cedar Rapids' art and Czech heritage
Regionalist artist Grant Wood lived in Cedar Rapids (gocedarrapids.com) most of his life, so it's fitting that the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art (crma.org) owns the largest collection of his works as well as the Grant Wood Studio where he worked from 1924 to 1935. Czech heritage also permeates Cedar Rapids (30 miles northwest of Iowa City); in Czech Village (czechvillagecedarrapids.com), the business hub of the Czech community, try a kolache (filled pastry) at Sykora Bakery (sykorabakery.com), and admire elaborate folk costumes at National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library (ncsml.org).
- 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.
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 (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.