At one point, Iowa may have been the land many still imagine: small towns set amongst the farm fields, locals gathering at mom-and-pop diners and county fairs, tractors sharing the roads with cars and buggies. True, you can still find such scenes in every part of the state…but you might have to go looking.
What you won’t have to try too hard to find are sprawling stretches of hardwoods and high limestone bluffs, quiet rivers for paddling and paths for wandering, mazes of bike trails and breweries, towns that defy the stereotypes, and cities bursting at the edges with music, food, and bang-for-your-buck experiences. Keep it closer to home this season and discover all that will surprise you in Iowa.
Note: Some of the businesses and organizations listed below may not currently be operating as described due to safety guidelines. Please contact all locations prior to visiting.
Descend the zigzagging wooden staircase into the 1,100-foot Dancehall Cave...
Descend the zigzagging wooden staircase into the 1,100-foot-deep Dancehall Cave, and slink away into the darkness. You’ll feel tiny in this grand limestone cavern—but in a few of its neighbors, you’ll be crawling on your hands and knees.
Six miles of hiking trails link the 13 caves at Maquoketa Caves State Park, making for moderate treks broken up by natural rock arches, flowing streams, towering limestone bluffs, and groves of pine. Bring a flashlight and test your spelunking mettle, no experience required.
Photo: Glen Gardner/Shutterstock
In the state’s far northeastern corner, two craft beer heavyweights have huddled up in Decorah...
In the state’s far northeastern corner, two craft beer heavyweights have huddled up in Decorah: Toppling Goliath hit national heights with their Pseudo Sue pale ale, their gigantic taproom something you might not expect to find in a town of 8,000; Pulpit Rock is now the local “David,” and their kettle sours (raspberry and sugar cookie?!) are innovative beyond compare.
You’ll also find SingleSpeed Brewing 90 minutes south in Waterloo, a bike-themed brewery housed in a former Wonder Bread factory. The scent of fresh bread isn’t entirely gone, though—pair their Don’t Call It a Cocktail sour with the Baked Orange-Cinnamon French Toast, and you’ve got a brunch made in heaven.
Photo: Hanna Tulgren/Pulpit Rock Brewing Company
Atop the limestone bluffs at Pikes Peak State Park, you can see for miles...
Atop the limestone bluffs at Pikes Peak State Park, you can see for miles over the Mississippi and Wisconsin rivers. Once you’re done gazing, follow the half-mile boardwalk to Bridal Veil Falls, counting Indigenous effigy mounds along the way.
If you have time, it’s certainly worth the eight-mile round-trip hike to Point Ann, another limestone outcrop that peeks out of old-growth forests of oak-hickory and maple-basswood stands. Believe it or not, you can mountain bike up here, too.
Photo: Travel Iowa
Effigies—burial mounds of Indigenous origin—are found all across the US, but only in Iowa...
Effigies—burial mounds of Indigenous origin—are found all across the US, but only in Iowa will you encounter such a concentration of mounds in animal form. Wander the trails at Effigy Mounds National Monument and you’ll see birds, bears, and reptiles emerging from the ground, sacred sites constructed by Woodland tribes some 1,000 years ago.
Perhaps not coincidentally, you’ll also be traipsing quietly through one of the most beautiful sections of the Upper Mississippi River Valley.
Photo: Zack Frank/Shutterstock
The year 1973 saw the first RAGBRAI, a non-competitive bicycle ride across Iowa...
In 1973, The Des Moines Register organized the first RAGBRAI, a non-competitive bicycle ride across the entire state of Iowa (nearly 500 miles). Several thousand riders have gathered here for a week every summer since, and now RAGBRAI is the largest bike-touring event in the world.
If you’re looking for a more leisurely pedal party, check out the Cedar Valley bike trails—one of which is an eight-mile brewery-to-brewery ride along the Cedar River.
Photo: Travel Iowa
The 54-mile stretch of US Highway 34 through southeastern Iowa is a classic...
US Highway 34 runs from central Colorado to Chicago; the 54-mile stretch through southeastern Iowa is a road-trip classic. It’s somehow both unassuming and yet hard-to-believe.
You’ll start in Fairfield, the “transcendental meditation capital of the world” thanks to Maharishi University; from there, head east to true-to-its-name Mount Pleasant for Thai food and a stroll in Central Park; and you’ll finish in Burlington on the world’s “crookedest street,” right next to the Mississippi River. Definitely bring your camera for this one!
Photo: Travel Iowa
In Muscatine, you’ll see what captured Mark Twain’s fancy...
Mark Twain wrote, in Life on the Mississippi, “And I remember Muscatine—still more pleasantly—for its summer sunsets. I have never seen any, on either side of the ocean, that equaled them.”
You’ll see some of those unequaled sunsets—and more—in Muscatine’s Wildcat Den State Park. Hikers can trek past bluff formations like “Devil’s Punch Bowl” and “Fat Man’s Squeeze,” along with notable structures like the Pine Creek Grist Mill, one of the few 19th-century mills left in the entire country.
Some of Iowa’s first pioneers settled in Van Buren County...
Some of Iowa’s first pioneers settled in Van Buren County—38 settlements are “forgotten,” but 12 villages remain in this quiet river valley, frozen in time and place.
History runs the show here—haunted hotels, an Underground Railroad stop, antique bridges, Amish communities—but it’s the fall festivals that really draw the crowds. Head here in September for some serious fall color, and weave your way between the villages for crafts, food, art shows, music, and scenic views.
Photo: Geoffrey Michael/Shutterstock
Cedar Rapids to Iowa City is known as Iowa’s Creative Corridor...
Cedar Rapids to Iowa City is known as Iowa’s Creative Corridor, a seven-county stretch home to nearly 30 Fortune 500 companies as well as world-class museums, events, and institutions.
For starters, Iowa City is a UNESCO City of Literature, one of only two in the US. You may not be able to enroll in the ultra-elite University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, but you can certainly catch a reading, attend a festival, wander the sidewalks decorated with cement poetry, or while away a day in a bookshop with a cortado in hand.
In 1855, a group of German immigrants arrived in Iowa...
In 1855, a group of German immigrants arrived in Iowa, looking for more land for their communal society. They ultimately constructed seven villages, with many of the residents becoming skilled craftspeople in the process. They ate together, prayed together, built together—no one receiving any wages.
The villages remain today as the Amana Colonies, a National Historic Landmark. Come here, stroll past the old brick storefronts, grab a lager, and definitely sit down to a German family-style meal, just like Amana’s founders would’ve offered you 150 years ago.
Iowa has river gorges?! You bet, and in this case, just 45 minutes from Des Moines...
Iowa has river gorges?! You bet, and in this case, just 45 minutes from Des Moines. Ledges State Park is so named for the 100-foot sandstone ledges that tower above Pea Creek, a tributary of the Des Moines River.
The park is riddled with beautiful CCC-era structures, along with surprisingly steep trails, a “streamwalk,” and plenty of color come fall. This was one of Iowa’s first established state parks, and for good reason.
80 / 35 is one of the Midwest’s premier music festivals...
80 / 35—named for the intersecting interstates that carve through Des Moines, where this event takes place—is one of the Midwest’s premier music festivals. For two days in July, acts like The Flaming Lips and Wu-Tang Clan take to the stage (there’s plenty of interactive art, food, and beer, too).
Hinterland Music Festival, in tiny St. Charles, is the prairie version of your favorite summer music fest. International acts—in 2021, Of Monsters and Men, KALEO, Shura, and a dozen others—gather for three August days for the kind of magic that can only happen in the middle of nowhere.
Photo: Antonio Lara/80 / 35
It’s projected that Des Moines will have one million residents by 2030. Why?...
It’s projected that Des Moines—note: the s’s are silent—will have one million residents by 2030. Why? It’s topping lists for millennials, entrepreneurs, and families.
Consider it the “Goldilocks Zone”: The East Village and downtown neighborhoods claim eclectic shops and James Beard-nominated restaurants; lakes, bike trails, and nearby state parks provide four-season outdoor opportunities; and its tech scene has earned the nickname “Silicon Prairie.” Come experience it for yourself, and you just might end up staying...
Originally built in the 1890s, the Boone & Scenic Valley Railroad...
Originally built in the 1890s, the Boone & Scenic Valley Railroad—formerly known as the Fort Dodge, Des Moines and Southern Railroad—was all but abandoned for nearly 100 years. In 1983, a group of volunteers took it upon themselves to preserve a particularly scenic stretch, and now visitors can take a two-hour ride through and above the Des Moines River Valley.
One highlight is the super-scenic 156-foot-tall bridge spanning Bass Point Creek. It’s the tallest single-track interurban railroad bridge in the country.
Mason City has a few eclectic claims-to-fame...
Mason City has a few eclectic claims-to-fame: It’s home to the only remaining Frank Lloyd Wright-designed hotel; Music Man Square, a 1912 streetscape, commemorates Meredith Willson, local celebrity and the musical’s composer; and the Suzie Q Cafe is one of few surviving “Valentine”-style diners in the country (definitely order a tenderloin!).
You’ll also find new-school breweries, museums, festivals, and that famous Iowa beef at Northwestern Steakhouse, an institution since 1920.
Photo: Travel Iowa
Less than an hour east of Des Moines, Grinnell is one of those inexplicable small towns...
Less than an hour east of Des Moines, population-9,000 Grinnell is one of those inexplicable small towns doused in big-city culture. Nicknamed the “Jewel of the Prairie,” it’s a place where subversive art galleries and world-class architecture line up alongside New York Times-reviewed restaurants, wine bars, and breweries.
When you’re here, stay in the thick of downtown at Hotel Grinnell, a renovated junior high school from the turn of the century—but now with a huge patio for drinks from the onsite Periodic Table). You’ll need a few days for this one—save Grinnell for a long weekend.
Photo: Jacqueline Kehoe
Welcome to the sweetest place on Earth...
Welcome to the sweetest place on Earth. The town of Le Mars is home to Blue Bunny Ice Cream, and more ice cream is made here by a single purveyor than anywhere else in the world.
Some 50 ice cream cone sculptures dot the town, and the gigantic Wells Visitor Center and Ice Cream Parlor—Blue Bunny was founded by Fred H. Wells—is where all your childhood dreams will finally come true. Between interactive, ice cream-devoted displays and virtual soda fountains, get this: You’re welcome to sample as many of their 40+ flavors as you like.
Photo: Travel Iowa
The six watery gems anchored by the town of Okoboji sparkle in the state’s Northwest...
Minnesota’s “10,000 lakes” don’t politely stop at the border. Iowa’s Great Lakes—six watery gems anchored by the town of Okoboji—sparkle in the state’s Northwest.
While you’re here, ride the vintage roller coasters at Arnolds Park, scope out the swimmers and kite flyers, get out on the water, party into the morning on West Okoboji Lake, and don’t leave without making a stop at the Nutty Bar Stand, a sweet tradition and local landmark since 1945.
Photo: Travel Iowa
Dutch architecture can be spotted throughout Orange City...
You may have heard of Pella, Iowa, and its connection to the Netherlands. Well, Orange City was founded by the same Dutch descendants. (They originally named the town Holland!)
A century and a half later, the town still holds on dearly to its Dutch roots. Dutch architecture can be spotted everywhere, and the annual Orange City Tulip Festival goes to the nines. Every May, the windmills go up, the wooden shoes come out, and the flowers put on one heck of a show.
Photo: Travel Iowa
The origins of the Shrine of the Grotto of the Redemption could be called a miracle...
The origins of West Bend’s Shrine of the Grotto of the Redemption could be called a miracle: When Father Paul Dobberstein became critically ill, he promised the Virgin Mary he would build a shrine in her honor if the illness passed.
It did. Dobberstein proceeded to spend years accumulating rocks, minerals, stones, and fossils—now valued at about $4 million—and built nine separate grottos depicting scenes from the life of Jesus. Completed in 1912, today it’s the largest grotto in the world (and certainly an experience you won’t find anywhere else).
Photo: Tom Roberston/Shutterstock
You’d have to travel to China to find another place like this...
You’d have to travel to China to find another place where loess—windblown glacial dust—has formed an extensive range of hills like these. If you thought Iowa was flat, well, you have your new answer.
Sixty miles of trails crisscross the Loess Hills State Forest, though Hitchcock Nature Center and Waubonsie State Park are also great stops, especially for families. When your legs are tired, pay a visit to Honey Creek Creamery for fresh artisan goat cheese—and a chance to meet the 20 or so goat mamas.
Photo: Eric Doll/Shutterstock
President Abraham Lincoln named Council Bluffs the Eastern Terminus of the First Transcontinental Railroad
In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln named Council Bluffs the Eastern Terminus of what would soon become the First Transcontinental Railroad. Before the end of the decade, trains would begin running from this spot along the Missouri River to the western frontier.
A stunning Beaux Arts-style building, the Union Pacific Railroad Museum commemorates the 150+ years of epic rail history that followed, including advancements that completely changed the face of the country—and the fates of tiny frontier towns like Council Bluffs.
Apart from being home to the Everly Brothers...
Apart from being home to the Everly Brothers (their shockingly tiny house still stands), Shenandoah is also where you’ll find the Iowa Walk of Fame. Stroll the sidewalks, watch the pavement, and prepare to be surprised—from Johnny Carson and John Wayne to Ashton Kutcher and Elijah Wood, Iowa’s roots run far and wide.
Photo: Shelly Warner/Shenandoah Chamber & Industry Association
Many once stood, and the remaining six make for a fun afternoon adventure...
Walk into the Roseman Covered Bridge gift shop, and you’ll be able to watch Meryl Streep on loop all day. That would be a great experience in itself, but outside lies the Roseman Covered Bridge, one of the six Bridges of Madison County made famous in the eponymous book and film.
The film may be decades old now, but the magic of the bridges remains romantic, serene, secretive, and simple. Many once stood, and the remaining six make for a fun afternoon adventure scouting out the past.
Photo: Travel Iowa
The Sidney Rodeo has been going strong for 97 years...
Iowa doesn’t have a lot of cowboy history, but what it has it holds dear: The Sidney Rodeo—south of Omaha, not far from the Missouri River—has been going strong for 97 years, and the population-1,100 town balloons to nearly 40,000 every August. This is one of the country’s premier rodeos, and tickets go fast.
Photo: Custom Photography Designs/Shutterstock