Best Things to Do in Iowa

Iowa was the 29th state to be granted statehood back in 1846. Its capital is Des Moines, which is also the largest city in Iowa

The Midwest state was heavily influenced by European settlers, and this is still evident today in the architecture and festivals celebrated in the state from the Netherlands, Germany, and other European countries

Iowa has a prominent agricultural scene, and has made a name for itself as a big corn producer. In fact, one of the most popular things to do in Iowa is attending the Iowa State Fair which began in 1855 in Fairfield and is mostly agriculture themed. Another curious fact is that Iowa is the home of Otto Rohwedder, who invented sliced bread

Pappajohn Sculpture Park

This outdoor park is riddled with fascinating sculptures that belong to the Des Moines Art Center. There are pieces by more than two dozen well-known artists around the park, and it’s free!

The park is on route to downtown Des Moines so you can stroll through on your way to somewhere in the city center or head there after a visit to the Des Moines Art Center. If you want to know about the sculptures, you can listen to the online audio guide along the way

This way of experiencing art is great for all ages, as the kids can run around whilst you appreciate the fine details of each sculpture. There’s a range of styles and materials on exhibit – it’ll be hard to pick a favorite

Boone and Scenic Valley Railroad

Pieces of this railroad were built back in 1893 to connect Fraser (a mining town) to Wolf, a junction four miles away. It continued to expand until it reached Des Moines in 1907. The trains ran, and some still do, on steam engines until they were modernized and the railroad lines were electrified.

Lucky for you, you can ride one of these old trains. There are lots of different rides, so you’ll be able to fit it in no matter your schedule. There’s also the option to have dinner or dessert on board.

The most popular rides pass over the 156 foot tall Bass Point Creek steel bridge; the views of the woodlands below are spectacular. Once you’ve jumped off the train, check out the old and modern artifacts in the H. Andrew Railroad Museum on-site

National Balloon Classic

The National Balloon Classic is a unique and colorful event. Come along and watch hundreds of hot air balloons drifting up into the sky at the National Balloon Classic Memorial Balloon Field in Indianola.

The sky comes to life with the colors and peculiar shapes of the balloons, and there’s a sense of thrill in the air as the pilots compete for various prizes. If you want to be a part of the action you can go on a hot air balloon ride too.

It’s not often that hot air balloons fly in the dark, but at the National Balloon Classic you can watch them take to the air in pitch black. You will have to get there by 5 am though

American Gothic House

Come and see the home that inspired Grant Wood’s masterpiece, American Gothic. It all began when he visited the small town of Eldon in 1930 and was charmed by the little white house with the big gothic window.

The property was built by Catherine and Charles Dibble in 1881 in the Carpenter Gothic style; charming and quaint. On his visit Grant Wood sketched the house. He then took the drawing home where he began working on his master painting.

The visitor center is just across from the house and has exhibits and a quaint gift shop. You’d have to check the dates but the house does occasionally open its interior (though just the bottom floor) to the public

Effigy Mounds National Monument

The Effigy Mounds are animal shaped humps that were constructed along the Upper Mississippi River Valley. It’s a place considered sacred by many, particularly Native Americans. The mounds are culturally associated with more than 20 American Indian tribes.

There are more than 200 mounds, each constructed by Effigy Moundbuilders during the Late Woodland Period. They are often shaped like bears, birds, deer, turtles, panthers, or spirits

There’s still a lot of mystery surrounding the mounds, and their purpose remains unknown. They were possibly built as territorial boundaries or to commemorate different seasonal and celestial events. The visitor center is nearby in Harpers Ferry

Brucemore

The Brucemore mansion in Cedar Rapids was built by Caroline Sinclair in 1884 as a family home. It’s rather on the grand side, with 21 bedrooms and countless rooms spread across three stories. The house is just two miles away from downtown Cedar Rapids, although it has a real country feel to it.

When Caroline and her family lived there it had a different name, but in 1906 the Douglas family moved in and named the property the Brucemore estate. The property itself is stunning and decorated with expensive antiques.

On your visit, you’ll explore the house and estate, and learn about the peculiar inhabitants who have lived here. Did you know that three lions have called Brucemore home?

Pella

The quaint and charming town of Pella is less than an hour’s drive away from Des Moines. It’s got a reputation for being somewhat like a miniature Amsterdam.

The town’s story began in 1847 when a group of Dutch settlers fleeing religious persecution set up their homes here. Their legacy lives on in the town’s Dutch architecture, cuisine, quaint windmills, and well-kept tulip gardens.

You can’t leave the town without getting a pastry from Jaarsma Bakery, and make sure you go for a stroll through the Fair Haven Memorial Garden too. Pella is enchanting year-round, but if you want to get the most out of your visit come for the Tulip Time festival.

Buffalo Bill Museum

Located in Le Claire, the Buffalo Bill Museum was set up in 1957. Back then it showcased artifacts from local river pilots, had exhibits of anything Buffalo Bill related, and plenty of information about the local Indian history. Whilst the museum has changed a lot since then, the themes of their exhibits are still very much the same.

The museum was named after Frederick Cody, nicknamed Buffalo Bill, who was a soldier, bison hunter, and loved showman from Le Claire.

There’s lots to see at the museum, but the real star of the show is the wooden-hulled vessel named the Lone Star, which is the last river boat left of this design

Grotto of the Redemption

The Grotto of the Redemption in West Bend is not like anything else you’ve ever seen. The religious grottos are unique, mystical, and peculiar. It’s all the more impressive when you realize it was built by two men and designed by one.

The ingenious artist behind this masterpiece is Father Paul Matthias Dobberstein, who was a pastor, counselor, and prominent figure in West Bend for more than five decades. The Grotto is built from rocks and stone as a shrine to Mother Mary who Dobberstein prayed to when he fell ill with pneumonia.

There are semi-precious stones like malachite, azurite, agates, geodes, jasper, quartz, and topaz built into the wall. Seriously, you can’t leave Iowa without seeing the Grotto of the Redemption.

Herbert Hoover National Historic Site

Found in West Branch, the Herbert Hoover National Historic Site is a collection of buildings and sites that were influential in the life of Herbert Hoover. Orphaned at age 11, the young boy came from humble beginnings.

He then made a name for himself as a humanitarian, mining engineer, and the 31st president of the USA. You can visit his place of birth, the Birthplace Cottage, the Schoolhouse where he received his early education, and visit the Blacksmith Shop where his father Jesse worked.

You can also pay your respects at his burial site and learn about how the Quaker way of life shaped this man into the leader he became at the Visitor Center.

Des Moines Art Center

If you’re in Moine on a rainy, gray day and you want to do something peaceful and stimulating, then come to the Des Moines Art Center. They showcase pieces by international and national artists, through a range of periods.

They exhibit a range of artistic styles, from photography and prints to video art and painting. If the sun is shining when you come, be sure to head to the Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park afterwards. You can also buy cute souvenirs from the gift shop to take back home

Iowa Great Lakes

The Iowa Great Lakes region is also known as Okoboji and nicknamed the land of lakes. There are six stunning natural lakes within its boundaries. The lakes themselves are known for their crystal clear water and being the perfect setting for some family fun.

The largest of the six lakes is the Big Spirit Lake. Another popular lake is West Lake Okoboji which has the clearest water.

Bring your fishing rod and head out onto the lake for a day fishing or take the kids sailing. If you want to go biking, walking, running, or even skiing (in winter, of course), head to the Iowa Great Lakes Trail.

National Czech & Slovak Museum

The museum was opened by a group of second and third-generation Czech and Slovak immigrants back in 1974. They showcase the culture and influence of Czech and Slovak customs in the area and celebrate their heritage as both Czechs and Americans.

You’ll see their traditional costumes, and learn about classic (and delicious) dishes like dumplings and goulash. The museum is especially great in December when they have a Christmas market. Did you know they celebrate Christmas on the night of Christmas Eve?

You can find the museum by the river in the Czech Village in Cedar Rapids

Pikes Peak State Park

The park has incredible views of the Mississippi River and sights of the spot where it joins up with the Wisconsin River. There are lots of camping options in the park, and it’s just seven miles away from the Effigy Mounds National Monument.

If you fancy doing some walking you have options for short hikes, like the half-mile trail up to Bridal Veil Falls, or longer trails like the four mile hike to Point Ann where there are views of McGregor and the Mississippi River.

Make sure you go and explore the Bear Mound when you’re there; this traditional effigy was built during the Woodland Period by Native Americans

Field of Dreams Movie Site

This is the site where the classic 1989 movie Field of Dreams was filmed. You’ll get to see the old family farmhouse where the Kinsella family lived and the famous baseball field.

There’s the option to take a tour of the house and find out about the Lasing family who lived there in the early 20th century too. And you won’t want to leave without a stop at the Field of Dreams inspired gift shop.

The site is located in rural Dyersville, just a 30 minute drive away from Dubuque.

Iowa State Fair

The Iowa State Fair is hosted annually in Des Moines. Agriculture, music, live entertainment, and industry come together and create this unique and laid back fair that is loved by locals and visitors alike.

There’s plenty to do, like spending some bucks at the Flea Market, having fun onboard the fair rides, or visiting the adorable animals at the Animal Learning Center. If you’ve come with little ones they can try out farming for a day at the Little Hands barn at the Farm exhibit.

In between events, eat a corn dog and enjoy a cold Budweiser in the sun. Don’t leave the fair without a visit to the life-size Butter Cow (yes, it is made of Iowa butter) in the Agriculture Building.

Blank Park Zoo

Zoos are a family favorite, and the Blank Park Zoo will be no exception. The zoo has more than 800 different species within its walls, from furry mammals to feathered friends from near and far

You’ll get to meet ancient tortoises that can live for 100 years or more, rare Amur tigers, and little known animals like red pandas and red river hogs. The kids are sure to giggle at the comical penguins splashing around, and they’ll likely get a fright from the roaring African lions that are the kings of the zoo.
There’s enough to keep everyone busy for the afternoon, and if the weather is good, an ice cream is a perfect way to end the day. The zoo is along SW 9th Street in Des Moines, right by the Des Moines River.

Figge Art Museum

The history of Figge Art Museum in Davenport began in 1925 when 334 paintings were donated by Charles August Ficke. Since then their collection has continued to grow and diversify. They now have pieces that date back to the 15th century and span every century since.

Spend some time lost in your thoughts and contemplate the peculiar sculptures and bright oil paintings on display. This is the perfect place to come if you need a few peaceful hours.

There are pieces from around the globe, like Mexican colonial, Haitian, and Asian art. Compare the exhibits and reflect on how each culture’s customs and landscape shapes their artistic style and themes.

Greater Des Moines Botanical Center

The Botanical Center in Des Moines is riddled with floral gems. They have numerous indoor and outdoor spaces to explore, each decorated with a unique set of blooming flowers and exotic flora that transport you to faraway landscapes.

They have water gardens, grand greenhouses, and quiet areas designed for reflection. You can escape the city noise on a gentle stroll around the gardens, the peace and quiet will restore you.

If you get hungry you can have a light lunch at the Trellis Cafe before leaving. Bear in mind the center also runs guided tours and events for kids.

Bridges of Madison County

Madison County in Iowa is known for its covered bridges. There are more in the area than anywhere else in the western half of the Mississippi Valley. These iconic covered bridges were also the inspiration behind the Bridges of Madison County book, written by Robert James Waller.

Later, the bridges became the setting for the Bridges of Madison County movie that was released in 1995. The bridges are best explored with a car, though not all the bridges have paved roads leading up to them, so you might find yourself driving on dirt and gravel.

There’s countless bridges you can explore, but Cedar, Cutler-Donahoe, Hogback, Holliwell, and Imes are amongst the most popular. If you want a map or you want to find out about guided tours, head to the Welcome Center in Winterset

Maquoketa Caves State Park

There are some 13 caves scattered around the Maquoketa Caves State Park, all connected by six miles worth of hiking trails.

Along the way, you’ll walk over the Natural Bridge that is 50 feet high and built over the Raccoon Creek, then arrive at the famous 17-ton Balanced Rock. There are lots of spots with scenic views too, so bring your camera.

You can walk into some of the caves and explore them without too much difficulty, the most well known is the 1,100 foot Dancehall Cave. Others should be left to the experts though. If you want to stay overnight, bring your tent and pitch up at the camping ground in the woods

Iowa State Capitol

Built between 1871 and 1886, the Iowa State Capitol building cost a total of $2.9 million to erect. No expense was spared, and a large chunk of the money was likely spent on the gold dome in the center that is covered in 23K gold.

The building’s interior has a grand marble staircase and fine wall paintings that follow you through every floor of the property. Be sure to visit the enchanting law library; the white, winding staircases dotted around the room give it an elegant feel.

One fascinating thing you’ll see on exhibit is the capitol’s doll collection; one doll was made of each governor’s wife. It’s curious to see how fashion has changed over the years. Designed by Alfred Piquenard, the Iowa State Capitol is one of the gems of Des Moines.

Amana Colonies

The Amana Colonies are a collection of seven small villages in Iowa County. The villages are famous for being, well, very German. And it makes sense; the colonies were founded in 1855 by German immigrants.

The villages are rustic and quaint. Visitors come from all over to get hold of the locally crafted beers and wines, traditionally woven baskets, and pretty antiques. They also attract tourists thanks to their unique art, like the chainsaw sculptures made at Colony Carvers.

But perhaps what has most put the colonies on the map is their German festivals. There’s Wurst Festival, which is all about the best sausages, and Oktoberfest, which is all about the beer. Come and find your gemuetlichkeit (sense of warmth and cheer) at the Amana Colonies

National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium

The National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium has a bit of everything. It’s a museum, aquarium, and science center all at once, and this mix is evident in the range of exhibits on display.

Spend some time admiring the artifacts conserved from the first river people in the area and find out about their costumes and way of life. Next, head to the blacksmith shop, or the boat making studio, or the conservation lab – there’s just so many options.

Once you’re done in the museum, visit the stingrays, turtles, and otters (and many more animals) at the aquarium. It’s located in Dubuque, by the Dubuque Harbor.

 

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