Wondering if there are any cool things to do in Iowa? Is it really just a bunch of cornfields? Well, yes mostly… but there is more to Iowa then just corn. In between the crop fields lie cute towns filled with character, interesting history, and some unique geologic places to visit too.
See our Iowa bucket list below to organize your travels through the state and get some idea’s on best things to see and do on your road trip.
Iowa Bucket List
Maquoketa Caves State Park
Maquoketa Caves is Iowa’s most unique state park and contains more caves than any other state park in Iowa. The park’s interesting features allow visitors to step back in geological time by viewing thousand year-old caverns, limestone formations, and rugged bluffs.
The caves range from very large with walkways inside them for visitors to enter and explore, and other caves that are so small that access is only possible by crawling into them.
The most popular cave is called Dancehall Cave which has a lighting system installed to help with viewing but you may want to bring a flashlight with you to explore some of the other caves.
There are interpreters onsite that provide guided tours as well as an informative Visitors Center with detailed information on the area’s geology, history and background on the early inhabitants.
The Amana Colonies are a cluster of seven villages located in Iowa County found in the eastern half of the state. The colony and villages which are listed as a National Historic Landmark were built and settled by German Pietists who migrated to the United States in 1842.
Today, the Amana Colonies is a tourist attraction famous for its unique history but most popular for its German craft stores and restaurants.
The best place to start your visit is at the Amana Heritage Museum to learn a little bit about their past. Then explore German culture by stopping by a few of the local craft shops and obviously don’t miss any of the authentic restaurants and bakeries.
Some of the eateries not to miss include the Hahn Bakery which features an original hearth oven that remains from the communal era. This is where you’ll find delicious coffee and fruit cakes along with fresh baked bread. Another specialty food shop not to miss is the Amana Meat Shop which offers a variety of German sausages, bratwursts, and jerky.
While you’re visiting the Amana Colony, be sure to stop by the Ackerman Winery especially if you have a sweet tooth!
Ackerman Winery has been specializing in handcrafted fruit wines since 1956. Their fruity wines consist of flavors that include blackberry, raspberry, and more exotic kinds such as mango and rhubarb.
These wines are on the very sweet side so if you prefer a dry wine of the grape variety this may not be the place for you, however the store is super cute and there are a range of fine cheeses, tasty jams, and a retail store selling unique home decor here which are still worth the visit.
This winery is open daily and complimentary free wine tasting is on offer and unlimited. The outside patio is a good place to enjoy your refreshment.
Fireside Winery is an award winning winery located less than five miles from the Amana Colony. The grapes grown here have been carefully selected to endure the extremely cold Iowa winters and have more of a sweeter note than California varieties.
The winery itself is quite beautiful with row upon row of rolling vineyards which are a nice change to the surrounding corn fields. Even the fences and posts follow the pattern of the rolling hills here making it even more aesthetically pleasing.
One of the best things about visiting this winery is the great job they have done with the outdoor seating arrangement. You can sit out on the sunny patio or cozy up by the outdoor fireplace. You can even borrow a picnic rug and enjoy your wine and snacks on the lawn or down by the vineyards.
So whether you’re traveling through Iowa or are a local looking for a fun weekend activity, be sure to consider stopping in at Fireside not only for their great wine selection but the lovely atmosphere too.
Iowa State Capitol
The Iowa State Capitol in Des Moines is the only five-domed capitol building in the USA. Constructed between 1871 and 1886, the building not only serves as the house of legislative branch of Iowa government but serves as a living museum too.
The architecture follows the traditional pattern of 19th century planning for public buildings and is designed in a renaissance style. The buildings exterior is made entirely out of stone, brick, and limestone from Iowa, Missouri, Ohio, and Illinois. Granite cut from glacial boulders near the Iowa prairie were used for the buildings substructure. A total of 12 Corinthian columns support the front and back porticoes but the most prominent feature is the central towering dome constructed of iron and brick covered with thin sheets of pure 23-carat gold. A protective layer seals the gold from weathering.
The Iowa State Capitol’s location atop a hill offers panoramic views of the downtown area. Free self-guided and guided tours are available six days a week between Monday and Saturday.
Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden
The Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden is teeming with thousands of plants and gardens that celebrate horticulture in the Midwest. The outdoor garden showcases the ritual of the seasons from the first winter snow to autumns colors and spring bloom with an adventurous palette.
Inside the conservatory you will find a tropical atmosphere complete with exotic orchids, flowers, and palm trees.
No matter what the weather, the Botanical Gardens are a great place to visit for all ages where visitors can appreciate plants and learn more about horticulture.
Living History Farms
Living History Farms is an interactive outdoor museum which educates and connects visitors to Midwestern rural life experiences.
At the museum guests learn about how Iowans transformed the fertile prairies of the Midwest into the most productive farmland in the world. While at the 500 acre open-air museum visitors travel at their own pace through historical time periods spanning 300 years. On-site interpreters provide seasonal activities and demonstrations.
Other learning opportunities at Living History Farms include seeing how the Ioway Indians farmed in the 1700’s which varied from European methods. At the Ioway Indian Farm, you will be able to view the tools used, food processing methods, and other fascinating aspects of their way of living.
The farming techniques practiced by the Ioway Indians in 1700 pre-dated written history and varied somewhat from European methods. Ioway farmers raised corn, beans and squash.
Shrine Of The Grotto Of Redemption
The Grotto Of Redemption is a conglomeration of nine separate grotto’s depicting scenes in the life of Jesus Christ.
Located in West Bend, Iowa, and listed on the National Register of Historical Places, it is the largest man-made Grotto in the world. It also contains the largest collection of precious stones and gems found anywhere else in one location apparently valued at over four million dollars.
The Grotto also contains a museum that features the large gem collection along with tools used in the construction of the Grotto.
Father Paul Dobberstein who is behind the construction of the Grotto wished that no one be excluded from being able to see the Shrine due to finances therefore there is no admission fee.
A minimum of three hours is recommended for visiting to allow for enough time to tour the Grotto, visit the museum, church, and gift shop. A campground is located nearby with 53 available sites.
Lost Island Water Park
If you’re looking to cool off from the Iowa heat you might want to think about heading to Lost Island Water Park in Waterloo
This water park which was listed as the second best water park in the nation offers multiple slides and swimming pools including an arcade, go-kart track, and mini golf course once you’ve had enough of being wet.
If you want to stay nearby, check out the KOA campground which offers cabins in addition to their campsites. The island-themed campground is located directly behind Lost Island and even includes discounted admission tickets into the water park.
National Czech & Slovak Museum
The National Czech & Slovak Museum is a museum and library of Czech and Slovakian history and culture which was established in 1974 by a group of second and third generation descendants of Czech immigrants with the purpose of preserving their heritage and culture.
The museum which is located in Cedar Rapids presents cultural artifacts and other temporary and permanent exhibits such as an ‘Immigrant Home’ where visitors can step back in time to the 1800’s to imagine what life was like back then.
The NCSML is designated a Smithsonian affiliate that shares the resources of the Smithsonian Institution.
Arnolds Park Amusement Park
Arnolds Park Amusement Park is located in the center of the Iowa Great Lakes resort region. This historic amusement park is believed to have the 13th oldest wooden roller coaster in the USA and carried it first riders back in 1927.
While the amusement park is not huge, its location is not only beautiful but boasts loads of on-water activities such as jet skiing, parasailing, paddle boarding, boating and more.
American Gothic House
The American Gothic House, also known as the Dribble house, is the backdrop for the second most recognized painting in the world. The 1930 artwork entitled ‘American Gothic’ by artist Grant Wood is located in Eldon, Iowa which he came across during his travels through the state. The twentieth century art piece is arguably his most famous work and was intended to be a satire on rural small-town life.
The home was originally built in 1881-82 by Charles Dribble, a Civil War veteran and his wife Catherine who lived in the house with their eight children. The house was built in the Carpenter Gothic-style farmhouse with an arched window in the gables of each end of its steeply pitched roof.
After a thirty year preservation effort the house was donated to the State Historical Society of Iowa and now includes the original house in its 1930 form and a visitor center. Tourists love stopping by to replicate the original painting in their own humorous version.
Snake Alley in Burlington, Iowa has been listed as the number one odd spot across America by Ripley’s Believe It Or Not and recognized as “unbelievably crooked”.
The road which was constructed in 1894 to connect the residential district at the top of the bluff with the commercial district below consists of five half curves and two quarter curves dropping 58 feet over a distance of 275 feet.
The Burlington landmark located between Columbia and Washington Street is composed of limestone and blue clay bricks somewhat resembling San Francisco’s ‘Crookedest Street’.
John Wayne Birthplace Museum
The John Wayne Birthplace Museum is a mecca for fans of movie legend John Wayne. Since the museum’s establishment in 1982, more than a million visitors have made the pilgrimage to historic Madison County to tour the actors birthplace home including guests such as Ronald Reagan and Maureen O’Hara.
The museum which is adjacent to Wayne’s childhood home features artifacts, original movie posters, film wardrobe, scripts, film contracts, and other movie memorabilia. There is even a movie theater complete with original seats from Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood showing a documentary on the ‘Duke’s’ film career.
John Wayne was born in the small central Iowa town of Winterset on May 26, 1907. His family later moved to Palmdale and then eventually to Glendale in California. The actor most famous for his roles in western films was among the top box office draws for three decades and starred in over 142 films over his career. In his final screen performance in 1976 he starred as an aging gunfighter battling cancer in ‘The Shootist’. He died in 1979 due to stomach cancer.
The museum is open seven days a week from 10am to 5pm. Admission is $15. All tours are self guided but staff are available to answer question.
John Deere Tractor & Engine Museum
Learn all about the American company that grew to become a global leader in agricultural equipment at the John Deere Tractor & Engine Museum.
At the museum you can explore interactive displays, see classic machines, and experience the evolution from horse-drawn power to horsepower. Visitors can discover how innovations from the past have helped shape future designs in farming machinery.
The museum is located at the site of the very first John Deere tractor factory in Waterloo, Iowa.
Villisca Axe Murder House
In the early 1900’s, Villisca, a small mid-western town of 2,500 people was flourishing. Businesses lined the streets and several dozen trains pulled into the depot on a daily basis. Little did the community know that the name Villisca was named after the native American word Wallisca, which means evil spirit.
On June 10, 1912 the close-knit community learned of the horrific murder of eight people under the one roof. The Moore family including their six children who were well-liked were all found dead in their beds. The killer to this day is unknown.
A documentary has been made about the brutal murders and the house now serves as a creepy tourist attraction known as the Villisca Axe Murder House. A weather-beaten sign hangs from the decrepit front porch warning visitors they are entering the ‘murder house’.
The walls still protect the identity of the murderer or murderers who bludgeoned to death the entire family of Josiah Moore over and over.
Pottawattamie Squirrel Cage Jail
The Pottawattamie Squirrel Jail is one of the only three remaining three-story rotary jail’s in the world which now serves as a museum. The jail which was built in 1885 and was in operation until 1969 is located in Council Bluffs, Iowa.
The design and size of the Historic Pottawattamie County Squirrel Cage Jail is a one-of-a-kind structure. It was one of 18 revolving jails built and the only three-story one ever built.
The design was constructed to minimize the interaction between the jailer and criminals. However, the design was prone to becoming frequently stuck so the design was eventually phased out.
After the closure of this particular jail the Historical Society of Pottawattamie County took it over and declared it a museum site. Today, visitors can tour the old jail but unfortunately the cages no longer turn.
Bridges Of Madison County
The Bridges of Madison County was the inspiration behind the beloved film of the same name. Originally there were nineteen bridges in total however today, only six of them remain and have been placed on the National Historic Register.
The best way to see these 19th century structures is to take a road trip along the 82 mile Covered Bridges Scenic Byway which travels through Winterset allowing travelers to explore a little bit of Iowa’s countryside.
Iowa State University
The Campanile is located on Iowa State University’s central campus which is just outside of Des Moines. The historic bell tower was completed in 1898 and is widely seen as a symbol of the university and even features on the university’s official ring.
Campanile folklore states that an ISU student is not a “true Iowa Stater” until having been kissed underneath the Campanile at the stroke of midnight. This rite of passage lives on during “Mass Campaniling” at Homecoming and other occasions during which time hundreds or even thousands of students gather near the campanile to continue this tradition.
The building itself is very handsome and worth a visit on your travels through Iowa.
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