The Best Iowa Attractions – Things To Do
Iowa is a state known for its productive agricultural economy, the Great River Road communities, interesting natural attractions, and bustling nightlife. It appeals to all kinds of demographics, from activities for the whole family to getaways for young people looking to have the time of their life.
Iowa’s landscape also holds some exciting sights for individuals who want to take the time to explore it, like the Maquoketa Caves State Park or the beautiful scenery of the Pikes Peak State Park.
Best Iowa Attractions and Activities
Things To Do in Iowa by City
We’ve compiled a list of the most fun things to do in Iowa so you can get the most out of your trip!
Pikes Peak State Park
Pikes Peak State Park is Iowa’s offbeat attraction that you should visit with friends, family, or simply on your own. Its most popular attraction is the 500-foot bluff overlooking the scenic Mississippi River with some of the most Instagrammable viewing platforms. But that’s not all though!
The state park offers thousands of acres of outdoor recreational opportunities including endless hiking trails, scenic overlooks, and stellar views of the state. You can choose from beginner, intermediate, or advanced hiking trails when starting a hiking journey. Or rent a campsite with several outdoor amenities including swimming pools and food trucks.
Finally, the park offers playgrounds for children and pets, fully equipped restrooms, and a dump station.
National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium
The National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium is part aquarium, part science center, and part museum. It features exhibits, exotic animals, and collections that bring the Mississippi River’s rich geological history to life and so much more. The Mississippi River is one of the world’s biggest rivers and an important commercial waterway that offers migration routes for birds and fishes.
This is why the Mississippi River Discovery Center was established to underscore the river’s importance. The museum includes a combination of permanent and rotating exhibits that will provide amazing educational insights to adults and children alike.
The museum and aquarium are also home to many animals that naturally dwell in and around the river banks. These include alligators, sturgeon, and otters. Other interesting exhibits include a stingray touch pool where visitors get to pet stingrays in a shallow pool and the iconic Logsdon Sand & Gravel Barge.
You can cap off the trip by heading over to the theatre to watch some of their interesting showings.
National Czech & Slovak Museum and Library
The National Czech & Slovak Museum and Library (NCSML) is frequented by tens of thousands of tourists from around the country and the world every year. The museum and library celebrate the culture and history of the Czech and Slovak by providing interesting experiences and exhibits.
Permanent exhibits include Faces of Freedom and an immigrant home from the 1890s. Many rotating exhibits change depending on the seasons and time of year.
Maquoketa Caves State Park, Maquoketa
Iowa is home to some 1000 caves, mostly accessible through underground tunnels. Among the most popular of these are the Maquoketa Caves, a collection of interlinked cave systems. Visitors can hike through a six-mile trail system to visit different caves and scenic overlooks throughout the park. Major highlights of the park include the 17-ton Balancing rock for cool photo ops and the Dancehall Cave.
Pro tip: Even though it doesn’t usually rain in the summer, the trains can get a little muddy. This is why it is recommended to wear old clothes that you don’t mind getting dirty. Besides, some caves are only accessible by crawling on hands and knees. You don’t want to bring your designer dresses here!
Elmwood, the World’s Largest Concrete Gnome — Ames
A fascinating thing to do in Iowa is to drop by Elwood – the world’s largest concrete genome. It’s a unique sight to spot the giant gnome standing guard and makes for great photo opportunities. The ornament stands at 15 feet tall from the sides of his boots and is hard to miss due to the tip of his pointy hat that you can spot from miles away.
The sculpture was designed by Andy and Connie Kautza, who worked as artists at the National Rock & Sculpture in Wausau, Wisconsin. Other sights to the year-round attraction include distinct gardens for both indoors and outdoors, as well as a conservatory with seasonal displays, and a 2,500 square foot Butterfly Wing.
Don’t forget to visit the nearby gift shop to take some souvenirs home!
Des Moines Art Center
Your visit to Iowa is not complete without visiting the Des Moines Art Center. It was established in 1948 and currently hosts unique collections, sculptures, workshops and media from around the world. Visitors can check out educational exhibits and unique artwork that provides immersive opportunities to everyone.
Popular exhibits include Latin American art, Central American sculptures, and many more exhibits. Permanent collections on display include manuscripts. Books, videos, papers, photographs, and print materials.
The best part is that admission to the museum is free to all visitors. You can end your trip to the museum by visiting the local gift shop to take some souvenirs home.
The Amana Colonies span seven villages and comprise over 20,000 acres of land. German settlers in the early 1700s founded the villages. There are several opportunities for vacationers including sightseeing attractions and famous places to visit. The Amana Colonies are home to the Amana Heritage Museum, which preserves the area’s history.
While you’re here, keep an eye out for special events and festivals that occur throughout the year. These festivals shed more light on the unique culture and heritage of the villages. Don’t forget to visit the dozens of small shops that specialize in a wide range of artwork and industries. With tons of entertainment opportunities, the Amana Colonies are a must-visit during your trip to Iowa.
The Bridges of Madison County
With a blockbuster movie dedicated to the bridges and an award-selling book, the Bridges of Madison County warrant a visit. The stunning bridges provide a unique opportunity for adventure in Winterset, located just 30 miles southwest of Des Moines. There are plenty of opportunities for photographs and getting a glimpse of the 19th century.
It is worth noting that only six of the original 19 covered bridges remain. Five of these are on the National Historic Register.
You can cover the bridges via the 82-mile scenic byway, and you’ll get to see the stunning natural landscapes. It is possible to take self-guided tours of the covered bridges, but we recommend taking a group tour offered by the Madison County Chamber of Commerce. Make sure to book your reservation in advance.
Once you’re done checking out the bridges, explore the Historic Town Square with a variety of antique shops, clothing boutiques, and restaurants.
Herbert Hoover National Historic Site
Did you know that Hebert Hoover, the 31st President of the United States, was the only president born in Iowa? His birthplace is now a National Historic Site and celebrates his life, work, and influence on the United States and the world.
The park also contains the gravesite of Herbert Hoover and his wife, Lou Henry Hoover. Most visitors would be stunned at the buildings that seem frozen in time. The majority of your time will be spent at the Presidential Library and Museum. The museum contains permanent and rotating exhibits tailored around Hoover’s life and influence.
Blank Park Zoo
Although zoos are rarely the most exciting thing to do in Iowa, the Blank Park Zoo in Des Moines is an exception. This unique 49-acre zoological park is home to about 2,800 animals from around the world, including snow leopards, otters, and Japanese macaques.
A dedicated children’s area called the Kids Kingdom provides young ones with a hands-on opportunity to interact with farm animals and even go on a camel ride.
The park is usually open every day from 10 AM.
Des Moines Farmers Market
The Farmers Market in Des Moines Is a terrific spot to buy new things, try new cuisine, and experience a glimpse of what Iowa looked like in its early days. The market is said to support 300 small businesses, including artists, bakers, crafts, and farmers.
It is important to note that the market is only open from early May to late October, and is open every weekend. Housed in this interesting market area is a diverse set of retail establishments ranging from fine finding establishments to coffee shops and galleries.
Brunnier Art Museum
Another interesting place to visit in Iowa is the Brunnier Art Museum. It has a memorable collection of decorative artwork and provides one of the best sightseeing destinations in Iowa.
The museum was founded in 1975 and is located near other historical suites. Some of the decorative art exhibits include doll collections, carpets, enameled metals, and ceramics collections. The Brunnier Art Museum is truly a sight to behold.
Entry to the museum is free of charge, but it is recommended to spend a few dollars as a donation. The museum is open throughout the year except for one month in the summer.
Iowa Capitol Building
The Iowa Capitol building is one of the largest in the country and a defining landmark of Des Moines’s cityscape. It is located conveniently nearby a range of other interesting sites you will want to stop by during your visit. The building is a perfect example of American architecture, common with many of America’s grand governmental structures.
You can take a self-guided tour at no cost or participate in group tours to learn more about the capital. There is a gift shop that features Iowa-themed gifts and souvenirs.
High Trestle Trail Bridge
Adventure buffs and outdoor enthusiasts should check out the High Trestle Trail. It is a 25-mile trail that runs from Woodward to Ankeny. It takes you through five rural towns and gives you a view of the stunning Iowan landscape. Trestle Bridge is half a mile in length and is said to be the fifth-longest pedestrian bridge in the country.
It also gives you a glimpse of the unique architecture that looks enchanting at night when everything is lit up.
Greater Des Moines Botanical Center
Treat yourself to a peaceful stroll around the Greater Des Moines Botanical Center. This 14-acre botanical garden is one of the top attractions in Iowa. It is a popular tourist spot to visit and explore in Des Moines, filled with flora, including many flowers native to the area. If you need a spot to unwind and relax during your travels to Iowa, then the Greater Des Moines Botanical Center is a good place to visit.
You can also stroll through seven acres of outdoor gardens, with a lot of beauty to see in one picture. Each garden provides a different ambiance and features unique decorations as a peaceful environment.
The Botanical Center serves as an educational resource for learning about plants and flowers in the region. It has plenty of exhibits and materials about the region’s unique horticulture.
Dubuque is a small historical town at an intersection of rural, urban, and classical Iowan architecture. It showcases new innovations while maintaining the traditional way of life. Dubuque is said to be the first official town in the state, having been found in 1833. It was founded by Julien Dubuque well before Iowa became a state.
Guests can dine at delicious restaurants or unwind in quaint cafes, where they can check out unique ambient music.
Pro tip: Make sure to check out Vinny Vanucchi’s to try some of the best chicken parmesan in Iowa. This establishment is unique because it used to be a local jail. So you can dine in from an old jail cell – a creepy but unique memory.
Boone & Scenic Valley Railroad
If you have children who have a love for trains, then it is hard to miss Boone & Scenic Valley Railroad. The Boone & Scenic Valley Railroad offers many different train rides that you can book from the official website at scenic-valleyrr.com. Most train rides are about 90 minutes, which is long for most children.
Make sure to bring some drinks and snacks to binge on during your ride. You are advised to arrive at least 30 minutes before your trip starts so that you can find your seats and get comfortable before the train departs.
It is important to book early because tickets tend to sell out fast! The helpful train conductor will walk you through the car several times and answer any curious questions you have. Finish the train ride by visiting the local gift shop and the museum and check out unique exhibits. You are bound to learn something new at the railroad.
City of Davenport
Davenport is located along the Mississippi River and literally and figuratively serves as the nation’s crossroads. Davenport has a population of just 100,000 people and is part of the Quad Cities.
The city served as a manufacturing powerhouse of the nation with several industries, but has since undergone a transition into a more service-oriented city. Today, it serves as a regional cultural hub and the third-largest city in Iowa.
A must-visit place in Davenport is the Great River Brewery, which two college friends founded for their passion for all things beer. You can also visit the Putnam Museum and Science Center to learn more about the city’s history and natural sciences. The museum has been around since 1867, so you will be bound to find artifacts of cultural importance.
In fact, there are over 160,000 art collections in this museum, including a theatre where you can see movies related to history and natural sciences.
Arnolds Park Amusement Park
This highly entertaining park is ideal for taking your entire family out for fun amusement rides. Arnolds Park Amusement Park is also home to the Maritime Museum and Arnolds Park Museum. Visits to these museums are included in your entry fee to the park.
Besides the exhilarating rides that are bound to give you goosebumps, there are delicious foods to eat, cafes to explore, ice creams to try, and much more fun activities to participate in in Iowa.
You can also play engaging games at the parks’ Midway Games with a chance to win exciting prizes. The park also hosts special events throughout the year, including Movies at the Park. With so many fun activities in one small area, it’s no wonder that the amusement park is a priority for local and international tourists.
If you ever decide to visit Iowa, you can count on finding a lot of fun activities to do and warm and convivial hosts. The state is known for being hospitable and continues to be great today.
Use our list to plan your travel itinerary if you want to have an authentic vacation experience – whether outdoor fun or unique indoor attractions.