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15 Best Things to do in Iowa City, Iowa

15 Best Things to do in Iowa City, Iowa

Surrounded by farmland with some of the friendliest people you’ll ever meet, there are lots of things to do in Iowa City, Iowa.

Influenced by the energy from the University of Iowa, Iowa City offers great shopping from local shop owners and large retailers.

The recreational opportunities here rival any Midwest city and there are exciting arts events year-round.

Iowa City also has a range of tantalizing restaurants serving traditional comfort food and other dishes with fresh, local ingredients.

The closest airport to Iowa City is Cedar Rapids, which is about 18-miles away, and probably the one with the best options. For fares and availability, check Skyscanner.

You’ll also need a car if you want to have the most freedom to explore all the stuff in Iowa City there is to do. Try RentalCars.com for their great selection of vehicles.

After you make your plans to come to Iowa City, you should protect them with travel insurance by World Nomads.

TLDR

Best & Fun Things to do in Iowa City, Iowa

Old Capitol Building

Front of the Old Capitol Building of stone.

Address: Old Capitol Building, 21 N. Clinton Street, Iowa City IA 52242

An icon in Iowa City, the Old Capitol Building has stood for 175 years and has been the home of state legislatures, served the University of Iowa, and survived a major fire in 2001.

You’ll find this famous building in the center of the University of Iowa. You can’t miss it as it has a huge gold dome!

Now, it’s a National Historic Building welcoming visitors from around the country. There’s no admission to enter.

The old supreme court chamber and a second-floor rotunda are a few historic rooms you can tour. Rotating exhibits at the museum details Iowa’s history and culture.

Another area to explore is the Hansen Humanities Gallery. Bus stops are less than a block away and bike racks are close at north Macbride Hall and south of Schaeffer Hall.

There is no parking lot, but there are options, including ramps, metered street parking, and garages close by. The museum is open every day, excluding Mondays and national holidays,

Iowa Avenue Literary Walk

Iowa Avenue Literary Walk in Iowa City

The Iowa Avenue Literary Walk includes Iowa Avenue and Linn Street. Iowa City is proud of its role as a home for distinguished authors, poets, playwrights, and journalists.

For a commemoration, the Iowa City Public Art Advisory Committee commissioned the Iowa Avenue Literary Walk to celebrate 49 writers with connections to Iowa.

Along the Literary Walk, you’ll find bronze relief panels with their words and an attribution. The panels are connected by quotes about writing and books embedded in the sidewalks.

Visitors can learn more about their favorite authors and how they are connected to Iowa City and Iowa in the brief biographical information in the author section.

Many authors are connected to Iowa City through the University of Iowa which offered its first creative writing class in the spring of 1897.

The works were created by artist Gregg LeFevre and is viewable in the concrete pavement along Iowa Avenue from Clinton Street to Gilbert Street.

If you’d like to explore Iowa City’s literary legacy further, try the photo Iowa City Scavenger Hunt: City of Literature which starts at the Old Capitol Building.

Take this fascinating tour around Iowa City looking for art, culture, and history, including the Old Capitol Building, Englert Theatre, and the Johnson County Courthouse.

This is a great activity for small groups of friends or families. It’s also wheelchair and stroller accessible.

See Related: Fun & Best Things to Do in Muscatine, Iowa

Hickory Hill Park

Yellow coneflowers at Hickory Hill Park in Iowa City.

Address: The north entrance to Hickory Hill Park is at 800 Conklin Street and has a parking lot with handicapped spaces. The south entrance is 1439 Bloomington Street.

Out of all the parks in Iowa City, Hickory Hill Park is the most beloved.

It features walking trails of dirt, limestone, and wood chips, as well as picnic shelters, grills, paved sidewalks to restrooms at either entrance in 185 acres of open space.

The park consists of forests, prairies, fields, wetlands, and tributaries. Many people love the park for hiking, dog-walking (if they’re on a leash), and for picnics, as well as cross-country skiing and sledding in the winter.

The Hickory Hill Park Loop is a 2.6 mile trail. It’s easy to complete and takes an average of one hour. It’s popular but can be solitary during the day. It’s best visited between April and November.

Wilson’s Orchard and Nature Park

Basket of apples picked at Wilson Orchard & Farm

Address: Wilson’s Orchard & Farm, 4823 Dingleberry Road NE #1, Iowa City IA 52240

For outdoor activities, Iowa City offers the very special Wilson’s Orchard & Farm. The farm and park is a pick-your-own fruit and vegetable farm, bakery, and market established in 1980.

Every summer and fall, families come to pick their own strawberries, apples, corn, and pumpkins.

Situated at both ends of the Rapid Creek Valley, the orchard grows a variety of apple trees and pumpkins.

The farm’s market carries locally grown produce, home-baked goods, and delicious fresh apple cider.

The farm is three miles north of Iowa City, off Highway 1, and is open from February to December.

See Related: Historical Landmarks in Iowa You’ll Want to Know

Natural History Museum

Address: University of Iowa Museum of Natural History, 11 Macbride Hall, The University of Iowa, Iowa City IA 52242

This Iowa museum is the second oldest in the United States, west of the Mississippi River.

In 1858, the Iowa General Assembly directed the University of Iowa to establish housing for specimens from the State Natural and Geographical Surveys.

Space was made for the specimens in the Old Capitol building. Eventually, the collection grew as did the need for a more modern, larger facility.

A new fire-proof Natural Sciences Building was approved in 1904. In 1934, it was renamed Macbride Hall.

These days, visitors can see approximately 140,000 specimens and artifacts in ornithology, mammalogy, entomology, archaeology, thousands of vertebrates and invertebrates, and archives, photographs, and slides.

There are many significant and named collections of stone tools, bird skins and eggs, mounted birds, and ethnographic materials.

Exhibits include:

  • The Iowa Hall; is a 500-million-year walk through geological, ecological, and historical Iowa.
  • William and Eleanor Hageboeck Hall of Birds;”Taking Flight: The World of Birds” is an exhibit of birdlife, evolution, and ecology. You’ll find close to every species recorded as residents or season residents to Iowa and more than 1,000 on display. Don’t miss the life-sized Wandering Albatross model with an illuminated skeleton!
  • Biosphere Discovery Hub; The hub explores Iowa from ancient rock drawings through 10,000 years of changing landscape and how the traces of human beings affects the environment.
  • Laysan Island Cyclorama; At a century old, the cyclorama shows a 360-degree view of Laysan, a Hawaiian atoll and bird sanctuary that was home to 8 million birds of 22 species in 1.5 square miles.
  • Mammal Hall; On display are a rare giant panda, a 46-foot Atlantic right whale, musk oxen, and everything else from aardvark to zebra.
  • Diversity of Life Exhibits; See the historic exhibits of ecology, geology, taxidermy, and biodiversity.

Finally, for great interactive stuff in Iowa City to do, guests can enjoy Art & Write Nights, Tree Tours, speakers, and Game Nights.

Admission to the museum is free, but donations are appreciated. You can’t park at the museum, but you can find lots in downtown Iowa City or the east campus. The cost to park ranges from $0.75 to $1.50 per hour.

Street parking in downtown Iowa City is metered and is limited to no more than two hours. You can park on the street for free in central downtown Iowa City, but spots are hard to find.

You can find bike racks on the Jefferson Street side of Macbride Hall at the northeast corner. There is also a passenger drop-off on Jefferson Street north of the museum.

The museum is close to many bus stops on the Bongo system. The Downtown Interchange is a little more than one block away on the south side of Pentacrest.

Less than one block are the stops for Macbride Hall, Clinton Street & Iowa, Clinton Street & Jefferson, and Pappajohn.

The museum is handicapped accessible if you enter through the entrance of the east side of Macbride Hall, close to the stairs that take you to the main entrance.

An elevator can take you to all the galleries. Pick up a gallery map from the front desk, located with the gift shop in the Iowa Hall gallery (just inside the east doors) or racks inside the building doors.

The museum shares space in Macbride Hall with other departments and classrooms, so the galleries are not connected.

Iowa Hall is on the first floor, Hagebroeck Hall of Birds, including the Laysan Island Cyclorama, Biosphere Discovery Hub, Mammal Hall is on the third floor, and the Diversity of Life is on the ground floor.

University of Iowa Campus

University of Iowa, Iowa City, Iowa
Image by USNews.com

Address: University of Iowa, Iowa City IA 52242

One of the fun things to do in Iowa is to visit the University of Iowa, a Big 10 school located over 1,900 acres in downtown Iowa City.

A school? Really?! Yes!

The beauty of the campus has made Iowa City one of the Midwest’s most iconic college towns.

The sprawling campus with sweeping green lawns gives the university a rural feel even though it’s in the heart of Iowa City. It offers great arts and cultural programs throughout the year too.

The famous Big Ten university attracts over 30,000 new students each year infusing the city with academic and cultural energy.

The university’s renowned Writers Workshop has earned Iowa City the designation as a UNESCO City of Literature.

Its medical centers make Iowa City home to some of the most sought-after hospitals and clinics in the U.S.

Other programs at the University include nursing, pharmacy studies, communication sciences. The architecture is a delightful mix of classical and modern.

Iowa City Farmer’s Market

Address: Iowa City Farmer’s Market, 415 E. Washington Street, Iowa City IA 52240

Managed by the Iowa City Parks and Recreation Department, the Iowa City Farmer’s Market is an open-air market in the Chauncey Swan parking ramp of Chauncey Swan Park.

Put visiting the fun farmers market on your “Iowa City things to do list” if you’re into fresh produce and locally made crafts.

The Iowa City Farmer’s Market also hosts events throughout the year like tasting events, live musical performances, and kids’ days. During holiday time, they host indoor holiday markets.

You can also find handmade crafts and other goods. Sadly, dogs are not allowed. The market runs from May through October, from 7:30 am until noon.

See Related: Best Day Trips from Des Moines, Iowa

Iowa Stanley Museum of Art

Address: Stanley Museum of Art, 160 W. Burlington St., Iowa City IA 52242

One of the most fascinating and free Iowa City attractions is the Iowa Stanley Museum of Art.

The museum will open in August, 2022. Days of admission are Tuesday through Saturday, 10:00 am to 4:30 pm, and on Sundays, from noon to 4:30 pm.

Paid and accessible parking is available below the museum in the Stanley Art Ramp. You will find the entrance at the rear off Front Street. Access the museum via the elevator. Parking is limited to two hours.

Visitors to the museum can see exciting collections such as:

  • The Modern Art Collection; Early acquisitions include works of art by Max Beckmann, Jackson Pollock, Joan Miro, Marsden Hartley, and many more.
  • Contemporary Art Collection; As home to one of the first MFA programs in the world, it has relationships with the International Dada Archives and the Alternative Traditions in Contemporary Art Collections. UI has been able to host major exhibitions and cooperative acquisitions.
  • Ceramics Collection; This international collection highlights include terra cotta figures from the Inland Niger Delta from the mid-13th and early 16th Centuries, Zulu and Bamana-style beer and water pots, ancient West Mexico figural objects, and many Chinese, Japanese, and Korean pieces created between the Neolithic period and the late 2oth Century.
  • Drawings Collection; The Drawing Collection includes works by Guercino, Charles Le Brun, Francois Boucher, and other old masters.
  • Prints Collection; This collection ranges from woodcuts from the 15th century by Martin Schongauer and Albrecht Durer to engravings and etchings by Rembrandt, Jacques Callot, William Hogarth, and other famous names.
  • Photography Collection; This collection includes documentary and street photography from the 1960s and 1970s by Robert Frank, Helen Levitt, Garry Winogrand, and many more.
  • African Art Collection; This collection is primarily wooden masks and figures and was bequeathed to the museum by Claude and Elizabeth Stanley.
  • Oceanic Art Collection; Included in this small collection are Melanesian objects from Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, New Caledonia, and the Samoan Islands.
  • Indigenous Art of the Americas; The Native North American collection contains Comala, Nayarit, and Jalisco-style ceramics from West Mexico, among other objects.
  • Asian Art Collection; This collection includes objects from China, Japan, South Korea, Tibet, Turkey, and Iran. You’ll also see jade and ivory works.
  • Textiles Collection; This fiber art collection includes a wide range of objects from Africa, Native North America, Peru, and the South Pacific. You’ll see many examples beyond typical woven garments.

Plum Grove Historic House

Address: Plum Grove Historic House, 1030 Carroll Street, Iowa City IA 52240

The Plum Grove Historic House and the home of Robert and Friendly Lucas is one of the best Iowa City attractions.

The family was originally from Ohio where Robert Lucas came up through the Ohio Legislature and served two terms as Ohio Governor from 1832 to 1836.

In 1838, President Van Buren appointed Robert as the first governor of the Territory of Iowa where he served until 1841.

After a brief return to Ohio and a failed attempted run for Congress, the family built Plum Grove in 1844 on 360 acres of land southeast of Iowa City.

Robert lived there until he died in 1853. Friendly sold the homestead in 1866. The house was owned by several families until the state of Iowa purchased it in the 1940s.

It was restored and opened as a historical site in 1946. Free public tours let people see what life was like as a Lucas in the 1840s and 1850s.

Visitors can also see the historic gardens that are part of the Smithsonian Archives of American Gardens.

The home is available to tour from the end of May to the end of October on Saturdays and Sundays, from 1:00 pm until 5:00 pm.

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Downtown Iowa City

The Englert Theater Marquis in Downtown Iowa City
Image by Englert Theatre

Discover the downtown pedestrian mall with locally-owned shops and restaurants, plus tons of entertainment options and Iowa City attractions.

Throughout the year, you’ll find arts and culture including Taste of Iowa City, Downtown Saturday Night, Friday Night Concert Series, Iowa Arts Festival, Sand in the City, Iowa Jazz Festival, and Oktoberfest.

To get a look at Iowa City’s literary legacy, find the downtown Prairie Lights bookstore.

The curated selection encompasses three floors, and staff is always available to assist in finding what you need. It also offers a café.

Visit FilmScene, a compact movie theater located at the downtown pedestrian mall that shows classic movies, first-run films, movie series, and workshops.

This darling theatre offers a rooftop patio and a cafe. The non-profit business shows over 200 feature films on its small, single-screen every year.

Lake Macbride State Park

Overlooking Lake Macbride close to Iowa City

Address: Lake Macbride State Park, 3525 Highway 382 NE, Solon IA 52333

Lake Macbride State Park is one of the prettiest attractions in Iowa City. It’s a popular recreation area and the lake is named after Thomas Macbride, a notable Iowa conservationist.

The park features many outdoor activities for the whole family. The park is split into two units with the northern unit located at the end of County Road F-16, four miles west of Solon.

It has the “modern” campground, beach, boat rentals and ramps, picnic area, and the park office. The southern unit is located off County Road F-28 by Fifth Street in Solon.

The unit has the “non-modern” campground, picnic areas, boat ramps, and prairies.

Multi-use trails rim the lake and, in the summer, kayaking and swimming are popular. The hiking trails run for more than 7-miles through oak and hickory forests.

Many native birds can be found here, including waterfowl and ospreys. In the winter, the trails are a favorite for cross country skiing and snowmobiling.

There are also boat rentals, including pontoons, motorboats, kayaks, canoes, and paddleboards. The beach has a concession stand too. Picnic shelters can be reserved.

From the fishing pier or one of the jetties, catch Kentucky spotted bass, walleyes, channel catfish, and muskie.

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Terry Trueblood Recreation Area

Pergola, sand, and playground at Terry Trueblood Recreation Area.

Address: Terry Trueblood Recreation Area, 579 McCollister Blvd., Iowa City IA

You’ll find wonderful outdoor things to do near Iowa City as well. You can find an additional entry and parking at the south end.

Follow Gilbert Street/Sand Road south to the intersection with Sycamore and make a right.

The park is on 152 acres and features a playground, picnic shelters, grills, drinking fountains, restrooms, paved trails, and a lake.

Rentals for kayaks, paddleboats, and paddleboards are available. The paved trail around the lake, picnic shelters, and playground is accessible.

Herbert Hoover Presidential Library

The front of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library in Iowa

Address: Herbert Hoover Presidential Library, 210 Parkside Drive, West Branch IA 52358

The Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum is on the grounds of the Herbert Hoover National Historic Site outside of Iowa City in West Branch.

It’s also the burial place of the 31st president and his presidential library. It’s open daily, from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm.

You’ll find the Hoover Library and Museum 1/4 mile north of I-80 at Exit 254 in West Branch, Iowa, which is 10-miles east of Iowa City.

Admission for adults, ages 16 to 61 is $10. For senior citizens that are 62 and over, active or retired military with military ID, and college students with their school IDs, admission is $5. Children that are 6 years old to 15 years old are $3, while children 5 and under are free. All Hoover Presidential Foundation members are also free.

The Hoover Library and Museum is also fully wheelchair accessible and free wheelchairs are available on a first-come, first-served basis. Motorized scooters are also permitted.

Close-captioning is featured on all videos for the hearing impaired. Handicapped parking is available next to the entrance. While ADA service animals are permitted, pets are prohibited.

The Presidential Library and Museum offers an app with videos and a guided tour of the life of Herbert Hoover. The galleries offer self-guided tours too.

Children will enjoy a Scavenger Hunt you can pick up at the sales desk. All kids under 14 must be accompanied by an adult.

Photographs are permitted without flash. No photographs are permitted in the temporary gallery. Food is not available at the facility, but restaurants are close by.

Visitors will start their tour of the permanent galleries in the rotunda containing a 16-foot red granite world map with 57 sheaves of wheat made from brass. These sheaves represent each country where Herbert Hoover’s efforts provided food for hungry mouths.

Eight-foot portraits of Hoover etched in glass and mounted on the rotunda walls depict “the Great Humanitarian” from his start in West Branch through his next 50 years of public service.

Each of the galleries shows the life of Hoover from birth, his engineering career, as Secretary of Commerce, as President of the United States, and his work after his presidency.

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Coral Ridge Mall

Address: Coral Ridge Mall, 1451 Coral Ridge Avenue, Coralville IA 52241

Coral Ridge Mall is an enormous, popular mall in the Iowa City area. The mall offers a seasonal carousel, a regulation-size ice rink, and a 10-screen cinema.

Plus, it has more than 100 specialty stores and a wide variety of restaurants for you to refuel at!

World’s Largest Wooden Nickel

The quirky road-side attraction of the world's largest wooden nickel.
Image by TripAdvisor

Address: World’s Largest Wooden Nickel, 3246 Iowa River Corridor Trail, Iowa City IA

Find this quirky roadside attraction and one of the weird things to do in Iowa City on the east side of Dubuque Street NE/Hwy W66, north of the river crossing.

No parking is available, but the spot is at an easy place where you can pull off the road and take a quick picture.

See Related: Best Travel Blazers for Comfort, Style, and Practicality

Where to Stay?

Best All-Around Accommodation

Hyatt Place Downtown Iowa City
Image by Booking.com

Its convenient downtown location is 1.2 miles from Kinnick Stadium and offers private parking, a fitness center, an indoor pool, free WiFi, and a lounge.

Continental and buffet breakfasts are available daily. The mid-range Hyatt Place is also pet friendly and highly rated for couples.

Best Budget Hotels

Hilton Garden Inn Downtown Iowa City University of Iowa
Image by Booking.com

Located a 20-minute walk from Kinnick Stadium, Hilton Garden Inn Iowa City Downtown University has air-conditioned accommodations and a lounge.

It also has a restaurant, a 24-hour front desk, and room service, along with free WiFi. All guest rooms come with a desk and a microwave. Guests can enjoy an American breakfast.

Double double guest rooom at the Travelodge
Image by Booking.com

Offering an indoor pool and free WiFi, the Travelodge by Wyndham is only three miles from the University of Iowa.

The Coral Ridge Mall is 3 miles away and Coralville Lake-State Park is 6 miles away. Each guest room comes with a seating area, a flat-screen TV, and a coffee maker.

A microwave and refrigerator are available on request. Select rooms have balconies. Free on-site parking is available. Guests have access to the business center and meeting room.

The hotel provides a 24-hour reception desk.

Best Mid Range Hotel

Guest room interior of the Hotel Chauncey
Image by Booking.com

Located 1.2 miles from Kinnick Stadium. Free WiFi and a fitness center are available. Private parking is available for an extra charge.

Guest rooms have a fridge, TV, and air conditioning, and some rooms offer a balcony.

Best Luxury Hotel

Luxury room with cozy coach
Image by Booking.com

The charming Graduate Hotel is on the University of Iowa campus, only 5 minutes from Carver-Hawkeye Arena. The hotel features a restaurant and rooms with a flat-screen TV.

Stylishly appointed with wood furniture and warm colors, each guest room features a coffee maker, a work desk, and a lounge chair.

Guests enjoy the fitness center, free WiFi, and a 24-hour front desk are available. For meals, Graduate Food Hall is located on-site offering a wide variety of food choices for guests.

Englert Civic Theater and the University of Iowa Museum of Natural History are only a 10-minute walk from this hotel.

FAQ

What is Iowa City known for?

Iowa City is known as for many things like Hawkeyes sports and the iconic old Capitol. But they’re also renowned for being the arts.

The performing arts thrive at the historic Englert Theatre of downtown Iowa City, Hancher Auditorium, and its music scene.

Where do the University of Iowa Hawkeyes play football?

Nile Kinnick Stadium opened in 1929 and is the 7th largest stadium in the Big Ten with a capacity of 69,250.

Where can you learn more about University of Iowa athletics?

Since October 2002, the University of Iowa Athletics Hall of Fame, located in the Roy G. Karro Building celebrates Iowa Hawkeye sports heroes.

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