United States

20 Unique Things to do in Iowa

by Paul Joseph  |  Published November 4, 2020

Perched between the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, the Midwestern state of Iowa is that enticing American combination of scenic rural landscapes and bucolic charm interspersed by historic urban centres dotted with monuments that speak to the nation’s past. So whether it’s exploring its abundance of rolling plains and cornfields or immersing yourself in the state’s rich heritage, Iowa’s sheer variety captivates all who visit.

A small pasture located East of Cambridge in Iowa (Photo: Carl Wycoff via Flickr / CC BY 2.0)

There are a huge number of things to see and do in Iowa, with a well-trodden tourist path taking in both its natural and man-made attractions. But it’s also a state that’s peppered with lesser known sights and landmarks, as well as the chance to embark on some truly memorable adventures that are indelibly linked to the region. Here’s our pick of 20 unique things to enjoy in Iowa.

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, of which there are plenty. 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 fascinating 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.

For somewhere a little more bustling, The Amana Colonies – comprising seven individual colonies – is just the ticket. Not short of its own historic charms, it also has a distinctly contemporary flavour, evident in the smattering of independent shops, boutiques, art galleries and restaurants, all of which help draw sizeable crowds of tourists here each year. A traditional Woollen Mill and fully operational winery add to the harmonious blend of old and new.

Bentonsport

Quaint shop fronts in Bentonsport (Photo: David Wilson via Flickr / CC BY 2.0)

Check out a local festival

Iowa’s annual cultural calendar is jam-packed full of festivals and among the very best is the Des Moines Arts Festival, a three-day celebration of the arts in downtown Des Moines. Frequently drawing more than 200,000 art enthusiasts, the event features visual and performing arts, live music, interactive arts activities, a Jazz and Wine Pavilion and plenty of eclectic food and beverage booths.

Or for a flavour of America’s enduringly popular country music scene, you can head to the Iowa edition of the Country Thunder Music Festival. Taking place in Forest Hill in central Iowa each year, the festival consistently attracts a stellar line up of musical acts in the country genre, bringing hundreds of thousands of music lovers together to celebrate the sounds they love.

LOCATION Western Gateway Park, Des Moines DATES 25-27 June 2021

Des Moines Arts Festival

Eccentric outdoor exhibits at Des Moines Arts Festival (Photo: Richard Swearinger via Flickr / CC BY-ND 2.0)

Explore a fascinating natural history museum

Housing a fabulously diverse 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 giant replica of a sloth.

LOCATION 17 North Clinton Street, Macbride Hall, Iowa City HOURS Tues-Sat 10am-5pm Sun 1pm-5pm Closed Mon

University of Iowa Museum of Natural History

A whale skeleton hanging from the ceiling of the Museum of Natural History (Photo: Phil Roeder via Flickr / CC BY 2.0)

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.

LOCATION Iowa State Fairgrounds, 3000 East Grand Avenue, Des Moines DATES 12-22 August 2021

Iowa State Fair

Farm animals provide musical entertainment at the Iowa State Fair (Photo: Carol VanHook via Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Traverse the mighty Mississippi aboard a kayak

With its easily navigable backwaters, the Mississippi River is one of Iowa’s most popular areas for kayaking. As well as its gentle waters, the river is also home to an assortment of exotic wildlife as well as other attractions such as beaches. Kayakers of all skill levels can join an organised Mississippi kayak tour, with all of the required gear provided by the tour company. Participants can ether paddle a solo kayak or a tandem if they are less experienced. Tours can be booked through Viator.com.

Kayak Tours

Kayaker traverse the backwaters of the Mississippi river (Photo: Viator.com)

Look around the prestigious Iowa Statehouse

Perched atop a hill and boasting a striking gold-domed exterior, the Iowa State Capitol building is not just an eye-catching beacon on the local landscape – it also offers an absorbing portal into Iowa’s rich political history. Inside are some of Iowa’s most important political chambers and offices, plus a number of important historical artefacts that can be perused during self-guided tours.

LOCATION 1007 East Grand Avenue, Des Moines HOURS Mon-Fri 8am-4pm Sat 9am-4pm

Iowa State Capitol

An illuminated Iowa State Capitol (Photo: Tony Webster via Flickr / CC BY 2.0)

Marvel at matchstick creativity at a quirky museum

It’s always an exciting moment as a child when your parents trust you to 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 stunning collection are regularly displayed at museums around the world, including as many as twenty on permanent show at the Matchstick Marvels Museum in the city of Gladbrook at any given time. Look out for a 13-foot long true-to-scale model of the battleship USS Iowa, and a 12-foot wooden recreation of the United States Capitol.

LOCATION 319 2nd Street, Gladbrook HOURS Mon-Sun 1pm-5pm

Matchstick Marvels Museum

An eye-catching exhibit at the Matchstick Marvels Museum (Photo: Scott Fiddelke via Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Cool off at a fun-packed waterpark

Iowa’s largest waterpark, Lost Island features an exhilarating assortment of rides and attractions including water slides, swimming pools, and activities for all ages. Highlights include an adrenaline-fuelling hydromagnetic watercoaster and, for something more sedate, a cruise down a lazy river. Visitors can also enter Adventure Golf, Go-Karting and the Mermaid Experience for an additional fee. Tickets to the park can be purchased in advance through Viator.com.

LOCATION 2225 East Shaulis Road, Waterloo

Lost Island Waterpark

A giant waterslide overlooks a swimming pool at Lost Island Waterpark (Photo: Viator.com)

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. Tours run every day except Sundays.

LOCATION 714 East 1st Street, Pella HOURS Mon-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 house, which is full of photos and memorabilia that chronicle the Duke’s life and career.

LOCATION 205 South John Wayne Drive, Winterset HOURS Mon-Sun 10am-5pm

John Wayne's Birthplace

The humble birthplace of John Wayne (Photo: cometstarmoon via Flickr / CC BY 2.0)

Immerse yourself in the exciting history of sprint car racing.

Fans of sprint car racing 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, the venue displays a wide 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.

LOCATION 1 Sprint Capital Place, Knoxville Mon-Fri 9am-5pm Sat 10am-5pm Sun 12pm-5pm

Learn about the heritage of the American Hobo

Most prominent during the Great Depression, the community of travelling workers known as hoboes have diminished from view in recent decades, but their role in America’s rich tapestry continues to be remembered at the National Hobo Museum. Housed in an old town theatre that was converted into a celebration of the hobo lifestyle, the museum features a permanent display of artefacts and memorabilia, including crafts, photographs, videos and documentaries, all donated by real life hoboes in an effort to honour and preserve their unique way of life.

LOCATION 51 Main Avenue South, Britt HOURS Mon-Fri 10am-4pm Closed Sat-Sun

Delve into the history, culture & ecosystems of the Mississippi River

The cultural and geological importance of the Mississippi River cannot be overstated. Through a range of permanent exhibits, the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium works to educate visitors on the river’s impact on the environment and people. The venue also houses an immersive 4D theatre, as well as several live animals that represent the wildlife found in and around the river banks.

LOCATION 350 East 3rd Street, Dubuque HOURS Mon-Sun 9am-4pm

Visit a top class museum

A recreation of an ancient scene at the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium (Photo: EarlRShumaker via Flickr / CC BY 2.0)

Look around a house with a macabre past

Several gruesome, unresolved murders have turned a simple Iowa home into a morbid tourist attraction. Dubbed the Villisca Axe Murder House, the property’s dark past dates back to 1912 when six children and two adults were found here bludgeoned to death with an axe. Investigations into the crime failed to turn up any hard evidence, leaving amateur detectives to form their own theories about that happened that fateful day. Such curiosity endures and today the house is open to visitors who can tour the historic crime scene for themselves.

LOCATION 508 East 2nd Street, Villisca HOURS Tues-Sun 1pm-3.30pm Closed Mon

Join a craft brewery tour

Iowa has a vibrant craft beer scene and visitors can get a flavour of it by joining an organised brewery tour. Taking in 4 breweries spread across three cities and two states in just one day, you’ll get fascinating behind-the-scenes access where you’ll learn about the brewing process courtesy of a member of each brewery’s staff. Across the day there’ll also be plenty of opportunities to sample some of the home-grown speciality produce. Tours can be booked through Viator.com.

Brewery tour

Brewery tour guests listen to their guide in a production facility (Photo: Viator.com)

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.

LOCATION Iowa Great Lakes Area Chamber, Arnolds Park

Embark on a scenic Fall roadtrip

Dotted with beautiful state parks and atmospheric wooded areas, the state of Iowa truly comes into its own during Fall. A popular activity at this time of year is to jump in the car and traverse The Iowa Fall Foliage Route, a scenic road trip that covers 285 miles and roughly six hours of driving time, meaning you can even do it in a day. Starting at Wildcat Den State Park in the city of Muscatine, with its 75-foot cliffs and rock formations, the route treats you to a veritable canopy of rich Autumnal colours and smells as you pass through a seemingly endless palette of 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.

Take a ride on the world’s shortest & steepest railway

Said to be the shortest and steepest railroad in the world, the Fenelon Place Elevator was built in 1882 as an indulgent form of transport for a wealthy businessman who lived at the top of the hill and worked in a bank at the bottom. The original version burned down but was later rebuilt and, upon noticing significant local interest, was opened to the public who can board the train and enjoy the short 296-foot trip (for a small fee) to this day.

LOCATION 512 Fenelon Place, Dubuque HOURS Mon-Sun 8am-10pm

Fenelon Place Elevator

Fenelon Place Elevator makes its short routine ascent (Photo: minnemom via Flickr / CC BY-ND 2.0)

Take snaps of a 200ft waterfall

Visitors to Decorah in northweatern Iowa don’t have to go far to get a flavour of the area’s impressive natural surroundings. Just minutes from the city’s downtown district is Dunnings Springs, a verdant wooded park where a captivating 200ft waterfall is the centrepiece attraction, drawing wide-eyed sightseers from all around. The park also features extensive hiking trails and picnic spots.

LOCATION Ice Cave Road, Decorah

Get a taste of a local food scene

Iowa has a burgeoning foodie landscape and nowhere is this more evident than in the town of Oskaloosa, where you’ll also find beautiful architecture and a lively cultural scene. Oskaloosa food tours is a local company that takes guests on foodie-themed adventures around the downtown district, stopping off at acclaimed culinary hotspots as well as lesser known gems, with plenty of opportunities to sample some local treats along the way. There’s a choice of 1.5-hour tours and more extensive 3-hour tours.