25 incredible experiences in Iowa: A statewide guide

By: Jacqueline Kehoe

  • Northeast
  • Southeast
  • Central
  • Northwest
  • Southwest
Pappajohn Sculpture Park, Des Moines. Photo: Travel Iowa
We all have different feelings about traveling right now. When you’re ready to hit the open road, we hope you feel inspired and excited to join us in Iowa.

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.

This post is proudly produced in partnership with Travel 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.

Northeast

Photo: Travel Iowa
Part of the Driftless Area — where glaciers left high, towering bluffs and river valleys untouched — Northeast Iowa is all about great views, great towns, great trails, and great beer.


1. Spelunking at Maquoketa Caves State Park

Descend the zigzagging wooden staircase into the 1,100-foot Dancehall Cave...

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1. Spelunking at Maquoketa Caves State Park

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


2. Toasting with Iowa sours and other ales

In the state’s far northeastern corner, two craft beer heavyweights have huddled up in Decorah...

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2. Toasting with Iowa sours and other ales

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


3. Climbing above the Mississippi

Atop the limestone bluffs at Pikes Peak State Park, you can see for miles...

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3. Climbing above the Mississippi

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


4. Paying tribute to Indigenous lands

Effigies—burial mounds of Indigenous origin—are found all across the US, but only in Iowa...

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4. Paying tribute to Indigenous lands

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


5. Cycling in the largest bike-touring event in the world

The year 1973 saw the first RAGBRAI, a non-competitive bicycle ride across Iowa...

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5. Cycling in the largest bike-touring event in the world

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

Southeast

Photo: Suzanne Tucker/Shutterstock
Southeast Iowa — home to some of the state’s oldest towns and cities — combines a quiet pioneer past with a booming, high-tech present.


6. Road tripping Highway 34

The 54-mile stretch of US Highway 34 through southeastern Iowa is a classic...

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6. Road tripping Highway 34

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


7. Following Mark Twain through Wildcat Den

In Muscatine, you’ll see what captured Mark Twain’s fancy...

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7. Following Mark Twain through Wildcat Den

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. 

Photo: MikeHardyPhotography/Shutterstock


8. Peeking into villages of the past

Some of Iowa’s first pioneers settled in Van Buren County...

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8. Peeking into villages of the past

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


9. Exploring Iowa’s Creative Corridor

Cedar Rapids to Iowa City is known as Iowa’s Creative Corridor...

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9. Exploring 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.

Photo: Jonathannsegal/Shutterstock


10. Settling into the Amana Colonies

In 1855, a group of German immigrants arrived in Iowa...

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10. Settling into the Amana Colonies

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.

Photo: Amdizdarevic/Shutterstock


Central

Photo: Travel Iowa
Anchored by the hub of Des Moines, the state capital, Central Iowa may have national music festivals and international award ceremonies, but you’ll still end up craving old-school tenderloins bigger than your dinner plate.


11. Trekking up and along sandstone ledges

Iowa has river gorges?! You bet, and in this case, just 45 minutes from Des Moines...

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11. Trekking up and along sandstone ledges

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.

Photo: Wildnerdpix/Shutterstock


12. Catching your next favorite music festival

80 / 35 is one of the Midwest’s premier music festivals...

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12. Catching your next favorite music festival

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


13. Seeing what the Des Moines buzz is all about

It’s projected that Des Moines will have one million residents by 2030. Why?...

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13. Seeing what the Des Moines buzz is all about

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...

Photo: f11photo/Shutterstock


14. Riding the Boone & Scenic Valley Railroad

Originally built in the 1890s, the Boone & Scenic Valley Railroad...

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14. Riding 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.

Photo: BJontzPhoto/Shutterstock


15. Stepping into nostalgia in Mason City

Mason City has a few eclectic claims-to-fame...

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15. Stepping into nostalgia in Mason City

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


16. Finding big-city vibes in Grinnell

Less than an hour east of Des Moines, Grinnell is one of those inexplicable small towns...

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16. Finding big-city vibes in Grinnell

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


Northwest

Photo: Bella Bender/Shutterstock
You can slow down in Northwest Iowa, with itineraries that only worry about ice cream flavors, where to catch the best lake sunsets, and the fastest way to get to Europe (you heard that right).


17. Taste-testing the Ice Cream Capital of the World

Welcome to the sweetest place on Earth...

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17. Taste-testing the Ice Cream Capital of the World

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


18. Getting out on Iowa’s Great Lakes

The six watery gems anchored by the town of Okoboji sparkle in the state’s Northwest...

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18. Getting out on Iowa’s Great Lakes

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


19. Finding a little piece of Holland

Dutch architecture can be spotted throughout Orange City...

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19. Finding a little piece of Holland

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


20. Witnessing redemption

The origins of the Shrine of the Grotto of the Redemption could be called a miracle...

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20. Witnessing redemption

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


Southwest

Photo: Travel Iowa
A trip to Southwest Iowa, home to some of the world’s rarest geology, requires movement. You’ll be climbing hills, crossing bridges, and zooming back in time.


21. Hiking the Loess Hills

You’d have to travel to China to find another place like this...

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21. Hiking the Loess Hills

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


22. Riding the rails of history

President Abraham Lincoln named Council Bluffs the Eastern Terminus of the First Transcontinental Railroad

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22. Riding the rails of history

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.

Photo: Union Pacific Railroad Museum


23. Wandering the Iowa Walk of Fame

Apart from being home to the Everly Brothers...

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23. Wandering the Iowa Walk of Fame

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


24. Crossing the Bridges of Madison County

Many once stood, and the remaining six make for a fun afternoon adventure...

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24. Crossing the Bridges of Madison County

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


25. Catching a world-class rodeo

The Sidney Rodeo has been going strong for 97 years...

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25. Catching a world-class rodeo

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



This post is proudly produced in partnership with Travel Iowa.