Iowa Travel Guide
The Hawkeye State is a hidden gem in the Midwestern United States. If you’re into literature, art, food, river culture, and getting around outdoors, you’ll have a great time exploring Iowa.
Iowa is made up of 99 counties – and in those counties, there are all sorts of gems to discover. Central Iowa has cities like Cedar Rapids, Ames, and Des Moines, while the East and West areas of the state are shaped by the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers. Southern Iowa is rural and picturesque, and the driftless region in the Northeast is unlike any other place in the country.
While I could easily write a pages-long list of the best things to do in Iowa, I’ve narrowed it down to my favorite places and experiences throughout the state
Best Things to Do in Iowa
1. Spend Time Outdoors - On Foot, On Bike, Or On The Water
Iowa’s state park system is one of the best I’ve ever explored. Maquoketa Caves State Park showcases enormous underground caverns like Dance Hall Cave, Pikes Peak State Park brings you to an overlook of the Mississippi River, Waubonsie State Park proves that not all of Iowa is flat farmland, and Backbone State Park, the oldest one in Iowa that’s known for the beautifully blue Richmond Spring. You’ll find exciting and scenic hiking trails throughout the state parks, so lace up your hiking boots and get out there.
Iowa’s a big state, and with so much ground to cover, it’s not surprising that cyclists take to the roads and paths to get around. Head to the Wabash Trace Nature Trail on any given Tuesday and join their taco ride – it’s exactly what it sounds like! The High Trestle Trail is another popular spot for peddlers, and the High Trestle Trail Bridge is a manmade wonder you’ve got to see.
Want to go for a paddle? The remarkable landscape around the Driftless region includes bluffs and cliffs cut by the Upper Iowa River. Drop in near Decorah and you’re sure to enjoy the views. The Iowa Great Lakes region includes Big Spirit Lake, which is really fun to kayak or canoe on a hot summer day. Of course, any mention of waterways in Iowa must include the Mississippi River, where you can take dinner cruises or powerboats to see the river that shaped our country’s industrial history.
2. Embrace Your Artsy Side In Iowa City
Iowa City is a UNESCO Heritage City of Literature – the only one in America! The town has hosted American writers for hundreds of years, and the city takes it literary history seriously. Prairie Lights may be the most famous bookshop in the Midwest, but the nearby Haunted Bookshop is a bookworm’s paradise and more of a hidden gem.
Beyond literature, Iowa City is a town that really embraces the arts. There’s an annual arts festival, the historic Englert theatre, Public Space One (which is an artist-run nonprofit that hosts events, galleries, and film screenings), and half a dozen other galleries in town that are open to the public. Iowa City Art Downtown is a non-profit that works to brighten up the city and embrace the culture of art throughout the city.
3. Visit The Ice Cream Captial Of The World
Did you know the ice cream capital of the world is in the tiny town of Le Mars, Iowa? While dairy farmers in Wisconsin like to grumble about it, it’s pretty universally accepted that Iowa’s the best place for ice cream. Le Mars is home to the Blue Bunny Ice Cream Parlor & Museum, which combines the history of sweet treats with an old-fashioned ice cream parlor serving up enormous scoops.
If you’re the type to need a real dinner before indulging in dessert, you’re in luck. Le Mars is also where you’ll find a longstanding family-owned steakhouse that was recognized by the James Beard Foundation with their American Classic Award. Archie’s Waeside has been serving up some of the best dry-aged steaks in Iowa since 1949.
4. Dine Your Way Through Des Moines
Des Moines is the capital city and it’s worth visiting if you love arts and want to explore an amazing foodie scene. Spend the day browsing the works at the Des Moines Art Center or the John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park, visit the Iowa State Capitol, and then enjoy dinner in one of the legendary dining rooms in downtown Des Moines.
Fong’s Pizza is a local favorite for creative pies including their famous crab rangoon pizza or taco pie. The tiki drinks are fun, too, and it’s the kind of place where you’ll enjoy the theme just as much as you’ll enjoy the food.
Iowa Beef Steakhouse is the go-to for fine dining in Des Moines. If you can’t get a table there, try Johnny’s Italian Steakhouse or 801 Chophouse. Since you’re in Des Moines, it’s worth the splurge to head to a great steakhouse and order up the local dish, Steak de Burgo.
5. Spend Some Time Exploring Hollywood In Iowa
Everyone thinks of Iowa as a flyover state, but plenty of Americans don’t realize just how much they’ve seen of the Hawkeye State on the silver screen. If you want to take a Hollywood tour of Iowa, there are a couple of must-see spots.
The most obvious one is the Field of Dreams Movie Site in Dyersville, where Kevin Costner played with Shoeless Joe Jackson. Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep helped showcase the Bridges of Madison County in the film of the same name, and when Hugh Jackman plays the Music Man, he’s swindling a town modeled after Mason City!
For fans of old Westerns, combine your trip across the Bridges of Madison County with the nearby the John Wayne Birthplace and Museum. It’s worth the short drive from Des Moines and it’s a top attraction in South Central Iowa. For music fans, the Buddy Holly Crash Site in Clear Lake is also worth a detour.
6. Embrace Small Town Life
While we can’t cover everything we love to do in this Iowa Travel guide, we’ll give you a couple of other highlights beyond the ones we mentioned above. The charm of Iowa is in its small towns, like Mason City, Decorah, Iowa City, Ames, Clear Lake, and Winterset.
If you love history, visit the Amana Colonies. These seven villages feel like a step back in time, and you’ll love shopping for handcrafted goods around here. The Amana Colonies consist of seven villages: Amana, East Amana, High Amana, Middle Amana, South Amana, West Amana, and Homestead. They’re all particularly magical at Christmastime.
Take a drive along the Great River Road. This National Scenic Byway follows the mighty Mississippi. Stop in Dubuque for the night and enjoy the views no matter what time of year. You’ll find the National Mississippi River Museum in the historic Port of Dubuque district.
In Cedar Rapids, you’ll find the National Czech & Slovak Museum and Library, which is one of the best museums in the country celebrating the culture of the immigrants that brought life to the city starting in the mid 1800s.
Finally, no trip through Iowa is complete without a stop at the breathtaking Grotto of the Redemption. The grotto is the life’s work of Father Paul Dobberstein, a German immigrant who dedicated his life to the shrine. Today, it’s considered by many to be the largest grotto in the world.
Where to stay in Iowa
Most of the cities and towns in Iowa have plenty of safe, clean, and comfortable chain hotels to choose from, but if you’re looking for a unique place to stay in Iowa, we’ve got your back. Below are our picks for the best hotels in Iowa:
- Hotel Julien, Dubuque, Iowa
- Hotel Blackhawk, Davenport, Iowa
- Des Lux, Des Moines, Iowa
- Historic Park Inn Hotel, Mason City, Iowa
- Hotel Savery, Des Moines, Iowa
- Hotel Winneshiek, Decorah, Iowa
- The Warrior Hotel, Sioux City, Iowa
- The Highlander Hotel, Iowa City, Iowa
- The Merrill, Muscatine, Iowa
- Hotel Pattee, Perry, Iowa
How to Get Around in Iowa
Iowa really doesn’t have any useful public transit to get from city to city, so you’ll need to rent a car. That’s good news, though, because driving through Iowa is an adventure by itself! There are 11 Iowa State Scenic Byways and 3 National Scenic Byways, plus the most crooked street in the world (Snake Alley in Burlington).
If you’re flying in to Iowa, you’ll likely land at Des Moines International Airport. Eastern Iowa Airport in Cedar Rapids is another pretty big airport in the state, so there’s a good chance you’ll be able to find a flight if Cedar Rapids is your intended destination. Elsewhere in the state, Sioxu City, Dubuque, and Waterloo offer regional airports.
Travel Tips Iowa
Iowa is a great place to visit if you’re looking for small town charm, an incredible dining scene, beautiful state parks, and tons of culture and history. While you’re here, though, you’ll want to keep a few things in mind:
Keep Your Eyes On The Skies
No Iowa travel guide can truly prepare you for the weather in Iowa, and how quickly it can turn. In the spring and summertime, the plains of Central Iowa whip up thunderstorms and tornadoes. Derecho winds aren’t uncommon, and storms can pop up out of seemingly nowhere.
In the winter, blizzards are common. You’ll usually have more notice if a snowstorm is heading your way, but be prepared for unexpected squalls or storms that are more intense than predicted.
Visit During College Football Season
If you love a rowdy crowd, you can experience the best of Iowa culture at an Iowa State vs University of Iowa college football game. It’s like nothing else I’ve ever seen! The Cyclones and the Hawkeyes battle it out “Iowa Corn Cy-Hawk Series” every year, and it’s one of the best rivalries in the country.
Find A Festival And Go!
Spring and summer in Iowa really highlight that Hawkeyes know how to party. The Iowa State Fair is the best in the country, in my opinion! Tulip Time is held every year in Pella, and it’s the coolest springtime celebration outside of the Netherlands. There’s even a Hobo Festival in the City of Britt! Look around for events and festivals while you’re in Iowa and you’re sure to have the time of your life.