Perched between the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, there are a huge number of things to see and do in the Midwestern state of Iowa.
An alluring mix of scenic rural landscapes and bucolic charm interspersed by historic urban centres dotted with monuments that speak to the nation’s past, Iowa’s sheer variety captivates all who visit. Whether it’s exploring the abundance of rolling plains and cornfields or immersing yourself in the state’s rich heritage, there’s something for everyone. Here’s our pick of 20 unique things to enjoy in Iowa.
Look around the prestigious Iowa Statehouse
Perched atop a hill and boasting a striking gold-domed exterior, the Iowa State Capitol building in the state capital city of Des Moines is not just an eye-catching beacon on the local landscape – it also offers an absorbing portal into Iowa’s rich political history. Opened in 1886, the edifice is a sight to behold both inside and out. On entering, visitors will find some of Iowa’s most important political chambers and offices, plus a number of fascinating historical artefacts, all of which can be seen during self-guided tours.
1007 East Grand Avenue, Des Moines / Mon-Fri 6.30am-5pm Sat 8am-4pm Closed Sun
Explore a top-class museum
The cultural and geological importance of the Mississippi River cannot be overstated. Through a diverse range of permanent and temporary exhibits spread across a 14-acre campus, the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium works to educate visitors on the river’s impact on the local environment and people. The venue also houses an immersive 4D theatre, and several live animals, such as a petting area with stingrays, that represent the wildlife found in and around the river banks, as well as the William M. Black, steam dredge boat that guests can tour outside in the harbour during the summer months.
350 East 3rd Street, Dubuque / Mon-Fri 9am-4pm Sat-Sun 9am-5pm during Summer & Fall (hours change seasonally)
Located in the heart of downtown, the Sioux City Public Museum features large, colourful exhibits, interactive displays, and much more. Visitors will discover the “Spirit of Sioux City,” through a lively 12-minute orientation film. Temporary displays feature local history and traveling exhibits. Among the hands-on experiences are the award-winning “Innovation I-Wall” and “The Big Dig,” which replicates an active fossil dig site. Coming soon: A new Sioux City Sports exhibit featuring Sioux City’s favourite pastimes and premier local athletes. Admission is free.
607 4th Street, Sioux City / Tuesday-Sat 10am–5pm Sun 1pm–5pm
Housing a wide collection of animal, plant, fossil and anthropological items on display, the University of Iowa Museum of Natural History is one of the state’s most distinguished cultural institutions. The main focal points of the museum are the Mammal Hall and the Bird Hall, both of which are packed full of taxidermy creatures of all shapes and sizes. Other notable exhibits include a Biosphere Discovery Hub which explores the relationship between people and the natural environment, beginning with ancient rock drawings, through 10,000 years of Iowa’s changing natural and cultural landscape, up to today’s threats to our health and environment.
17 North Clinton Street, Macbride Hall, Iowa City / Weds-Sat 10am-5pm Closed Sun-Tues
Navigate a remarkable network of caves
In a state teeming with state parks, Maquoketa Caves is perhaps the most unique of all. Its caves, limestone formations and rugged bluffs offer a window back into a geological time thousands of years ago. But it is the incredible abundance of caves here that really make the park stand out from the crowd. Coming in all different sizes and shapes, some are navigable by walking and others best seen by crawling on all fours. A beautiful trail system links this vast network of caves, formations, and overlooks while providing an enthralling hiking experience for all who visit.
Admire world-class outdoor sculptures
Opened back in 2009, Pappajohn Sculpture Park features artwork by almost two-dozen of the world’s most celebrated artists. A popular gathering place and lunch hour spot for downtown office workers, the east end of the park is dotted with realistic works of human and animal forms, then as you progress westward you encounter figurative abstract and conceptual minimalist sculptures. Among the park’s signature pieces is a 27-foot-tall human form made of a latticework of steel letters, and primitive heads that bear resemblance to the ancient sculptures of Easter Island.
Pappajohn Higher Education Center, 1330 Grand Ave, Des Moines / Mon-Sun 6am-12am
Visit a charming small town
If you’re spending any length of time in Iowa then you should certainly plan a trip to one of the state’s charming small towns and villages. One of the most enchanting is Bentonsport, a former bustling 19th-century steamboat port that has barely changed over the years, retaining much of its original character and charm. The large historic district is a delight to explore and there’s even a preserved blacksmith shop that harks back to a bygone era. In short, if you’ve ever wanted to step into a time machine, here’s your chance.
Check out a local festival
Iowa’s annual cultural calendar is jam-packed full of top-notch festivals – and among the very best is the award-winning Des Moines Arts Festival, a three-day celebration of the arts in downtown Des Moines that’s been held for over 25 years. Frequently drawing more than 200,000 art enthusiasts each year, the event features a busy programme of visual and performing arts, live music, interactive arts activities, a Jazz and Wine Pavilion and plenty of eclectic food and beverage booths.
Western Gateway Park, Des Moines / June each year
“A tradition that hails from the Han dynasty in China, representing our desire to send away the problems of life and welcome peace and happiness instead, a Water Lantern Festival is today held in over 100 venues across the US. The event based in Utah has three venues in Iowa – Cedar Rapids, Des Moines (July 15), and Dubuque – with the river and other waterways in each transformed into a canvass of colour and light for the occasion. Visitors are encouraged to write down some of their hopes and dreams, or letters to a loved one, before sending them out into the water aboard a floating lantern.”
Take a calming walk around a botanical garden
A haven of tranquility in the heart of downtown Des Moines, the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden is spread across 12 acres of indoor and outdoor garden space and makes for a delightful afternoon’s exploration for horticulture fans. Among the main attractions are a water garden, a conifer and gravel garden, and a rose garden, while a geodesic conservatory houses an array of tropical and desert plants. The venue also hosts regular education programmes and special events.
909 Robert D. Ray Drive, Des Moines / Tues-Thurs & Sat-Sun 10am-5pm Fri 10am-5pm & 6pm-10pm Closed Mon
Attend a magical state fair
Dating back to the mid-19th century, the Iowa State Fair has grown into one of the largest agricultural events anywhere in America. Held over 11 days each August, the fair draws more than a million visitors from across the globe with its showcasing of Iowa’s most impressive endeavours in the fields of agriculture, industry and entertainment. There’s livestock judging, live stage music, games and activities for all ages, and enough food and drink to shake a stick at.
Iowa State Fairgrounds, 3000 East Grand Avenue, Des Moines / August each year
Book onto a brewery tour
The city of Des Moines has a thriving beer brewing scene and visitors can discover it for themselves on a brewery tour. City Brew Tours offer beer-focused excursions and experiences across the city that blend history, beer knowledge and great food with unrivalled access to some of the region’s top breweries and their beer. Guests can taste up to 16 different local craft brews and gain VIP access to four breweries before sitting down to a hearty meal complete with beer tastings. Tours run for 4-5 hours.
Discover bridges made famous by the silver screen
Officially designated on the National Register of Historic Places), the bridges of Madison County aren’t just a major Iowa landmark – they were also the inspiration behind the acclaimed novel and Hollywood film of the same name. To get to know the bridges—and follow in the footsteps of the likes of Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood – visitors can join a private guided tour of the covered bridges of Madison County. Picking from multiple daily departure times, and setting off from the Madison County Chamber of Commerce, you’ll visit several of the covered bridges, dropping by former film sets, and more. As the tour is private, itineraries can be customised to suit your interests and time constraints.
Marvel at matchstick creativity at a quirky museum
It’s always an exciting childhood moment when your parents let you play with matchsticks for the first time. But not all of us grasp the opportunity with such enthusiasm as Pat Acton, who has gone on to glue 7 million wooden matchsticks into 70 detailed scale models of life-like sculptures, machines, and architectural landmarks. Exhibits from his collection are regularly displayed at museums around the world, including as many as twenty on permanent show at the Matchstick Marvels Museum at any given time. Look out for a 13-foot-long, true-to-scale model of the battleship USS Iowa, and a 12-foot recreation of the US Capitol.
319 2nd Street, Gladbrook / Mon-Sun 1pm-5pm
Go kayaking on gentle waters
East of bustling Des Moines hides a little slice of nature away from the crowds called Quarry Springs. Home to some 240 acres of clear, spring-fed water, the area attracts huge numbers of kayakers throughout the year. Kayaks can be rented from Quarry Springs Outfitters for both single and multi-passenger who are then free to hit the waters for an off-grid adventure in central Iowa. The waters are beautifully gentle, making this a great experience for families and beginning paddlers, as well as more experienced kayakers. All kayak rentals include paddles and life vests
Cool off at a fun-packed waterpark
Iowa’s largest waterpark, Lost Island features an exhilarating assortment of adrenaline-fuelling rides and attractions including large water slides, swimming pools, and multiple activities suitable for all ages. Park highlights include a state-of-the-art hydromagnetic watercoaster and, for something more sedate, a gentle cruise down a lazy river aboard an inflatable raft. Visitors can also enter Adventure Golf, Go-Karting and the Mermaid Experience for an additional fee.
2225 East Shaulis Road, Waterloo
Climb a fully functional 1850s-style windmill
In 1847, four ships left Holland carrying 800 immigrants ready to start a new life in Iowa, and their legacy lives on in the city of Pella where the Vermeer Windmill remains the tallest working Dutch windmill in North America. Standing some 124 feet tall, the windmill is perhaps the city’s most recognisable landmark and continues to serve local restaurants thanks to the wind power it harnesses to grind flour used for baking. The second and third floors are given over to museum displays that chart the windmill’s history.
714 East 1st Street, Pella / Mon-Fri 10am-5pm Sat 10am-4pm Closed Sun
Pay homage at the birthplace of an American icon
From the outside, it couldn’t be less conspicuous, but within the confines of this simple white-panelled home a journey to true American greatness began. Back in 1907, the house was the birthplace of John Wayne (aka ‘the Duke’) who would go on to become one of the most iconic Western film stars of all time. Today visitors can tour the John Wayne Birthplace Museum, which is full of photos and memorabilia that chronicle the Duke’s life and career.
205 South John Wayne Drive, Winterset / Mon-Sun 10am-4pm
Immerse yourself in the exciting history of sprint car racing.
Fans of sprint car racing visiting Iowa are in for a treat thanks to the presence of the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame & Museum. The world’s only museum dedicated to preserving the history of these iconic high-powered race cars, on display are a variety of sprint cars as well as other exhibits that honour the sport’s most eminent stars down the years. There’s also a movie theatre screening legendary races, as well as a simulator that invites thrill-seekers to experience the sensations of driving in an actual sprint car.
1 Sprint Capital Place, Knoxville / Mon-Fri 9am-5pm Sat 10am-5pm Sun 12pm-5pm
Watch a winter games extravaganza
For one weekend each year, when the temperature drops and West Lake Okoboji freezes over, a fictional University plays host to a real life Winter Games. Called the University of Okoboji Winter Games, the event attracts tens of thousands of revellers who come to witness a fun-packed programme of outdoor and indoor activities. Highlights include a snowman-building contest, ice skating, sledding, and a Polar Plunge into the icy lake waters. Chilli-making and live music help to warm the cockles.
Iowa Great Lakes Area Chamber, Arnolds Park / January each year
Embark on a scenic Fall roadtrip
Dotted with beautiful state parks and atmospheric wooded areas, Iowa truly comes into its own during Fall. A popular activity at this time of year is to traverse the Iowa Fall Foliage Route, a scenic road trip that covers 285 miles and roughly six hours of driving. Starting at Wildcat Den State Park, with its 75-foot cliffs and rock formations, the route treats you to a canopy of rich Autumnal colours as you pass through seemingly endless reds, yellows, oranges, and browns. The drive ends just outside the city of Decorah, where rugged limestone bluffs make for a perfect photo opportunity to round off your adventure.