Never been to Iowa before? Not sure where to start? Here are 10 popular destinations guaranteed to entertain all ages with fun activities, outdoor exploration, excellent shopping and delicious dining.
1. Okoboji: A Summertime Staple
Iowa’s resort region features five blue water lakes and more than 70 miles of shoreline ideal for outdoor activities like fishing, boating and camping. Kids delight in the rides and games at Arnolds Park Amusement Park. Families relax together at the beautiful state parks lining the lakes and at full-service resorts. Friends enjoy the nightlife at open-air concerts and lakeside restaurants. Take in a local theatre show at Okoboji Summer Theatre, watch butterflies dance on the lake breeze at Dickinson County Nature Center or take a cruise on the Queen II excursion boat to round out your stay.
2. Des Moines: Urban Adventure
Iowa’s capital city is the crossroads of the state’s culture. Visitors can experience the best of the state's agricultural heritage by attending events like the weekly Des Moines’ Farmers Market (May-October) and the annual Iowa State Fair (August). Pair those events with the urban excitement found at boutique shopping districts like the Historic East Village and Valley Junction. Or, take the kids on an adventure at the Science Center of Iowa, the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden, the Blank Park Zoo or Living History Farms. Immerse yourself in art and culture at the Pappajohn Sculpture Park, Des Moines Art Center or by seeing a show through Des Moines Performing Arts.
3. Winterset: Hollywood in the Heartland
Winterset is steeped in Hollywood history. Take a driving tour of the famed Bridges of Madison County, the inspiration behind the book, movie and Broadway musical. After touring the countryside, visit the John Wayne Birthplace Museum, with an astounding collection of memorabilia from the film legend’s career. Take a stroll around Winterset’s town square for a shopping and dining excursion before heading to the city park that features an authentic English hedge maze and the castle-like Clark Tower.
4. Pella: Delightfully Dutch
The first thing visitors notice about Pella, a town with strong Dutch ancestry, is the plethora of windmills and beautiful European architecture. The most popular time to visit is during the annual Pella Tulip Time (the first weekend in May), but the town is a fun destination year-round. Tour the tallest working windmill in the United States and corresponding grist mill, the Pella Historical Village, the Molengracht canal, the Klokkenspel and town square. Stop in at a bakery for a Dutch letter or a deli for meats and cheeses based on Dutch recipes. Just a few miles away is Iowa’s largest lake, Lake Red Rock, where you can paddle, fish, boat, camp and climb the Cordova Observation Tower for stunning views.
5. Decorah: Outdoor Charm
This charming town in the middle of Iowa’s Driftless Region offers a host of outdoor activities. Explore waterfalls at Dunnings Springs Park and Siewers Springs State Park. See the famous Decorah bald eagles and their nest. Paddle the Upper Iowa River, which winds through town. And bike or walk the 11-mile Trout Run Trail loop, which connects all of these outdoor opportunities. Then, head downtown for boutique shopping, fine dining and to learn about Decorah’s heritage with a visit to the Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum. Make sure to stop at Toppling Goliath Brewing, which has been ranked one of the world’s best.
6. Dubuque: Where Iowa Started
History runs as deep as the Mississippi River in Dubuque, which was founded a full 13 years before Iowa even became a state. Tour the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium to learn about the impact the river had on the history of Dubuque and the whole country. See the wildlife that calls the Mississippi River home. Get a view of three different states from the Fenelon Place Elevator, the shortest and steepest railway in the world. Cruise the river on the American Lady Yacht. Explore the outdoors at Sky Tours zipline course, Four Mounds Ropes Course, or Mines of Spain Recreation Area. Don’t leave without visiting nearby Dyersville to experience the magic of the legendary Field of Dreams movie site.
7. Cedar Rapids: Revitalized River Town
Ten years ago, Cedar Rapids was devastated by flooding. Since that time, restaurants, shops, museums, breweries and more have rebuilt and relocated to Cedar Rapids in the “New Bohemian” spirit. Central to the efforts are the NewBo City Market and Czech Village area, where Lion Bridge Brewing, Sykora Bakery and the National Czech & Slovak Museum showcase the town’s heritage. More culture can be found at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, which has the largest Grant Wood collection in the world. At the Brucemore mansion, you’ll feel like you’ve stepped onto the set of Downton Abbey. Be sure to also head to Uptown Marion for charming shops and restaurants.
8. Amana Colonies: A Handcrafted Escape
The seven villages known as the Amana Colonies were founded by German Pietists in 1855. The people maintained a self-sufficient, communal society until the 1930s. Today, the restaurants, craft shops, wineries and a brewery share the history and culture of those German immigrants. Delight in handcrafted goods at the Amana Woolen Mill and the Amana Furniture and Clock Shop. Dine family-style at the Ox Yoke Inn or Ronneburg Restaurant. Sip on bold flavors at Ackerman Winery, Millstream Brewing or Amana Coffee & Tea. Visit during one of the huge annual festivals like Maifest or Oktoberfest for a truly unique experience.
9. Quad Cities: Marvels on the Mississippi
The Quad Cities (made up of Davenport and Bettendorf on the Iowa side of the river and Moline and Rock Island in Illinois) have marvelous opportunities for all to experience the Mississippi River. Take in the view from the Davenport Skybridge, which lights up at night. Browse museums like the Figge Art Museum, the Putnam Museum, the Family Museum and the Mississippi River Visitors Center on Arsenal Island. Cruise the river on the Channel Cat Water Taxi. Shop the boutiques of the Village of East Davenport and nearby Le Claire, home base of the American Pickers. Don’t leave without tasting an ice cream sundae with homemade fudge at the old-fashioned soda fountain, Lagomarcino’s.
10. The Loess Hills: A Geologic Gem
The Loess Hills are a unique geological formation of quartz silt that creates extraordinary landscapes of steep bluffs, narrow ridges and rolling hills for over 200 miles along Iowa’s western edge. Tour the entire length while driving the Loess Hills National Scenic Byway. Stop in Council Bluffs to take in the area’s history at the Union Pacific Railroad Museum, the Squirrel Cage Jail and the General Dodge House. Experience the true wonder of the Loess Hills by climbing the observation tower at Hitchcock Nature Center, hiking Preparation Canyon State Park or biking the Wabash Trace Nature Trail.