If the word “Iowa” conjures up endless fields of corn, fair enough. After all, the Hawkeye State does produce more corn than any other in the United States. And, an Oscar nominated film, Field of Dreams, paired legendary baseball players with an Iowa cornfield. But Iowa has so much more to offer! Here are some of the activities that should be added to your Iowa bucket list when you visit Iowa.
To celebrate visiting all 50 states, an accomplishment that just happens to coincide with a milestone birthday of a similar number — WHAT??? I still feel 30 on the inside!!! — this article is part of a series that will cover all 50 states and Washington, DC, over the next year.
Growing up, most of my time in America’s heartland was clustered along I-70. The interstate that runs horizontally from the Rocky Mountains to the East Coast took us to grandma and grandpa’s house every summer and played a feature role in our many moves across the country. So it’s no surprise that I didn’t visit Iowa for the first time until college when I celebrated Thanksgiving with a classmate’s family near Des Moines.
It’s less than two hours from Kansas City to the Iowa border, and yet I still haven’t spent much time in Iowa. There’s the occasional slip across the border when driving to and visiting Omaha and there was the college visit to Ames with my twins. So a long list of things to do and see remain cemented on my Iowa bucket list. And, the list has only grown longer as I’ve connected with a stable of amazing Midwestern travel bloggers who inspire me to want to explore more of the Hawkeye State.
Here’s a complete Iowa bucket list for when you visit Iowa, the Hawkeye State:
Iowa Bucket List Things to Do and See in Northeastern Iowa
Stay at the Hotel Julien Dubuque
Recommended by Katy from Flint & Co.
Because Dubuque is where Iowa began, it’s the perfect first stop when you visit Iowa. Originally constructed in 1839, Hotel Julien has recently undergone a $33 million renovation to be restored to its original state. A visit to the Hotel Julien will leave you feeling pampered and extra special!
Pro Tip: If you plan on seeing the USA in an RV, be sure to check out the best RV road trips in the US.
Go Kayaking Under the Moonlight on the Upper Iowa River
Recommended by Kim Reiner of Oh My! Omaha
The Upper Iowa River is known for its picturesque setting, drawing kayakers, tubers and outdoor enthusiasts from around the world to the small town of Decorah, Iowa. A unique way to explore the river, though, happens at night when the setting is cast in moonlight. Karst Adventures offers guided tours of the river at night when there is only a full moon to light the way.
It is an unsettling experience, at first, especially if your kayaking abilities are just a smidge above beginner level. However, after a few quiet minutes on the river, your senses sharpen and you see and hear more than you could imagine. Our guide, Amber, invited us to stop on a sandbar, where she built a bonfire for us to gather around. Our small group consisted of my two friends and a musician from Norway. We chatted for a few minutes, munched on snacks, and then continued on our way.
Other Places to See in the Northeast When You Visit Iowa
- Gaze at “Art on the River,” visit the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium, or grab a bite and brew along the Mississippi Riverwalk in Dubuque
- Watch the wildlife at the Mines of Spain in Dubuque
- Sip wine slushies at the Winneshiek Wildberry Winery in Decorah
- Step on the Iowa cornfield where Fields of Dreams starring Kevin Costner was filmed in Dyersville
- Say a prayer at St. Anthony of Padua, one of the smallest churches in the world in Festina
- Learn how Czech and Slovak immigrants helped shape Cedar Rapids
- Explore the history of the green and gold tractor company that got its start in Iowa by stopping by the John Deere Tractor Museum in Waterloo
- Continue your tractor history tour by visiting Froelich, where the tractor was invented
- Go downhill skiing at Sundown Mountain Resort in Dubuque (Yes, you read that right! You can ski in Iowa!)
Iowa Bucket List Things to Do and See in Southeastern Iowa
Take an American Gothic Selfie in Eldon
Recommended by Michelle Marine from SimpifyLiveLove
No trip to Iowa is complete without a stop at the American Gothic House. Located in the tiny town of Eldon in Southeast Iowa, it features the original house that inspired Grant Wood’s iconic painting. Not only can you learn the history behind this inspirational American painter through museum displays and videos, but you can also don free outfits and take an amazing selfie to recreate the painting in your own likeness. The free visitor’s center at the American Gothic House has a large collection of outfits in all sizes, hats, and pitchforks too. They’ll even take the picture for you, if you ask nicely.
After touring the visitor’s center and taking your selfie, stop by Chommy’s Bar and Grill. It’s located just a few blocks from the visitor’s center, and they serve an amazingly delicious (and huge) pork tenderloin. You won’t regret either stop – but you might want to share the sandwich!
Other Places to see in Southeast When You Visit Iowa
- Make a Pit Stop at Iowa 80, the world’s largest truck stop near Walcott.
- Enjoy hands-on learning at the Putnam Museum in Davenport, a Smithsonian affiliate
- Explore Antique Archaeology, the store that inspired the American Pickers show on the History Channel in Le Claire
- Learn about Iowa native, William “Buffalo Bill” Cody in Le Claire at the Buffalo Bill Museum
- Explore the nation’s first UNESCO City of Literature in Iowa City
- Celebrate big moments in Hawkeye sports history at the University of Iowa Athletics Hall of Fame (You can even see Nile Kinnick’s Heisman trophy!)
- See the humble birthplace of the only US president born in Iowa in West Branch and visit the Hoover Presidential Library & Museum
Iowa Bucket List Things to Do and See in Northwestern Iowa
Visit the Ice Cream Capital of the World in LeMars
Headquartered in the small town of LeMars, Iowa, Blue Bunny produces more ice cream than any other company in any other city in the world. So no Iowa bucket list is complete without this sweet stop. Add to the adventure by locating all 55 ice cream cone sculptures sprinkled around town.
Pro Tip: Not sure what flavor to try when you visit? Take this scoop-o-nality quiz from Blue Bunny to select the perfect sweet treat for your tastebuds.
Other Places to See in the Northwest When You Visit Iowa
- Go winter glamping at the Red Cedar Lodge in Charles City
- Climb high on a hill with the lonely goat herd by visiting the marionettes featured in The Sound of Music in Mason City at the MacNider Art Museum
- Explore the Iowa State University campus in Ames
- Visit the childhood home of Carrie Chapman Catt, a suffragette who worked tirelessly to ensure women had the right to vote and founder of the League of Women Voters, in Charles City
Iowa Bucket List Things to Do and See in Southwestern Iowa
Experience the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines
Recommended by Kylie from Between England and Iowa
Occurring over 11 days every August, the Iowa State Fair is so big that it’s impossible to see everything in one day! Believe me, I know. I tried and failed! With a primary purpose of celebrating the state’s agriculture industry, farming families dress in matching shirts and proudly display their animals.
There are also various demonstrations throughout the day (and part of the reason it’s impossible to see everything, as the demonstrations tend to overlap). The chicken washing one was particularly interesting, who knew there were so many steps involved in washing a chicken! You could even have a go yourself!
Moving on from real animals, a must see of the Iowa State Fair is the ‘butter cow’. It’s exactly what it says on the tin…a giant cow sculpted out from butter! The lines to see this State Fair wonder were HUGE.
Of course there is then the State Fair foods. The Iowa State Fair has a wide range of food on sticks, from eggs to deep fried fruit and you can wash it all down with giant cups of classic lemonade!
Hike the Loess Hills
Recommended by Lindsay Hindman from Siouxland Families
Along much of western Iowa, just a few miles from the Missouri River, you find a rare geological formation known as loess — essentially prehistoric windblown silt — and the only example of loess deposits as extensive as Iowa’s Loess Hills is in a remote part of China. To enjoy their unique beauty, you can take the Loess Hills scenic byway instead of I-29 and stop at some of the many state parks and nature centers along the way to learn more about the geology, flora, and fauna (many species aren’t found anywhere else in Iowa, and at least one type of fern is endemic) of the Loess Hills. Some of my personal favorites include Stone State Park and the Dorothy Pecaut Nature Center, both in Sioux City, and Five Ridge State Prairie at the northernmost end of the Loess Hills in Westfield, Iowa. You’ll be blown away by the Loess Hills!
Other Places to See in the Southwest When You Visit Iowa
- Understand the importance of the Underground Railroad with a visit to the Jordan House in West Des Moines
- Explore the wild west, from the original “one horse town” to the site of a shoot out with Bonnie and Clyde, by driving the historic White Pole Road, Iowa’s first certified State Route
- Visit the Iowa Statehouse, the Hawkeye State’s capitol building, in Des Moines
- Or tour Terrace Hill, the Iowa governor’s residence and national historic landmark
- Send a telegraph via Morse Code and take a selfie on a stage coach at the Wells Fargo History Museum in Des Moines
- Stand in the footsteps of photographer Robert Kincaid and Iowa housewife Francesca Johnson (portrayed by Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep) by visiting the covered bridges of Madison County
- Honor an American legend at the John Wayne Birthplace and Museum in Winterset
Add Even More to Your Iowa Bucket List
- Round out your Iowa bucket list by visiting the Hawkeye State’s national parks. National Park Obsessed has a complete list of the national parks of Iowa.
- Test your knowledge with these fun facts about Iowa from my friend Kylie over at Between England and Iowa.
To Plan Your Visit to Iowa
Start with the Travel Iowa website where you can:
- order an Iowa travel guide,
- get trip ideas, from girlfriends’ getaways to family fun, and
- find other tools and tips to plan your trip.
Have You Visited Iowa?
What did you like most about the Hawkeye State? Is there an activity on your Iowa bucket list that you’d add to this article? Share your experiences in the comments section below.
Want to See More of the USA?
Here are the other articles in this See the USA series:
- See the USA: Visit Kansas, the Sunflower State
- See the USA: Visit Nebraska, but It’s Not for Everyone
Please note: Photos not watermarked by me or clearly attributed to a specific photographer or organization are from the community of talented photographers over at Pixabay.