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Iowa is a low-key travel destination in America’s heartland and has some surprising sights and attractions that you might not expect to encounter. Bordered by the Missouri River and the Mississippi River, this state has two National Scenic Byways, lots of historic landmarks, and some beautiful landscapes. But what many travelers don’t realize is what an awesome road trip destination Iowa makes because of all the quirky stops you can make along the way. Where else can you see the world’s largest corn stalk, the world’s oldest ice cream parlor, and the nation’s widest street?
Iowa is more than just cornfields and has many beautiful trails to explore if you like hiking and cycling. It has some amazing breweries and wineries too if you like to sample local flavors. And since people in Iowa love to read, you can find many book festivals, poetry contests, and writing workshops to channel your inner novelist. These are some of the many great places to visit in Iowa on a road trip.
Located right along the Mississippi, Dubuque is one of the top travel destinations in Iowa and full of interesting history. One of the best ways to get an overview of the landscape is to take a cable elevator to the top of the bluffs and enjoy the lovely views. Head to Main Street to do some shopping or find a good local restaurant. There are plenty of outdoor adventure opportunities just outside of Dubuque if you like water sports. This is a great place to go kayaking, water skiing, boating, canoeing, and jet skiing on the mighty Mississippi River. To learn more about the river’s history and significance, check out the National Mississippi River Museum.
This collection of villages is a prime tourist destination and a must-see spot for anyone traveling through Iowa. Here you can explore one of the oldest communal societies in the U.S. and experience the rich German culture that takes you back to the 1700s. Come here to see local art and furniture and try local foods and wine too.
Iowa City is a wonderful destination for fans of literature because it’s the only UNESCO-designated “City of Literature.” Come here to attend a book festival or join a local writer workshop; you’ll often find flyers posted in public spaces around town. Overall, the city has a very creative and artsy vibe that’s friendly and inviting.
Some of the top things to do in Waterloo are the Isle Casino, the John Deere Tractor and Engine Museum, and the Cedar Valley Trails, which are perfect for biking. There are 106 miles of trails here in a series of loops that pass through wooded areas, along streams, and to the downtown district. There are also water trails for kayaking and cross-country skiing trails if you visit during the winter months. Iowa’s largest waterpark, Lost Island Waterpark, is here and a fun way to spend a day with kids.
The largest city in Iowa is Des Moines, and it’s also the state capital. There is a list of fun attractions to explore, you can visit the capitol building to see the beautiful architecture, visit the Blank Park Zoo, the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden, and the State Historical Museum of Iowa. The Iowa State Fairgrounds is here too, so plan your trip around the Iowa State Fair for a wonderful glimpse into the local culture.
Pella is one of the crown jewels of Iowa and is a very popular destination to visit in the spring. There are some windmills here that you can tour, and a nice Main Street to walk around. This is a great area to come to if you enjoy browsing antiques. Dutch heritage is strong here and so is the local tourism industry. Head to Lake Red Rock to spend some relaxing time on the largest lake in the state, which is just outside Pella. Festivals are also a big deal here, so plan your trip for either July or December. In July, you can attend the Dutch festival called Kermis, and in December, you can check out the Sinterklass Christmas parade. The Pella Historical Village is definitely worth a visit to learn more about the area, perhaps as your starting point when you arrive in Pella.
One of the most surprising areas of Iowa is Okoboji, which is packed with attractions and beautiful lakes. The lakes of Okoboji actually extend across the Iowa border into Minnesota and offer so many great water sports activities. It’s in Northwest Iowa and a resort town that you might not expect to find if you’ve never traveled there before. Come here for kayaking, canoeing, stand-up paddleboarding, boating, and even parasailing. Okoboji is a nature lover’s paradise with lots of trails and parks to set up camp as well. You can also play golf at the courses here and catch live music performances, especially in the summer.
Bentonsport is an Iowa town that’s best known for its steamboat history and culture. This town is on the Des Moines River and a historic and picturesque place to visit. Come to this area to go for a hike, go canoeing, and to explore unique shops. One highlight in Bentonsport is the Tony Sanders Indian Artifact Museum, which is home to thousands of arrowheads and other collector artifacts.
Anyone who has read the book or watched the movie, The Bridges of Madison County, definitely needs to visit the town of Winterset. This is where the movie was filmed, but that’s not its only claim to fame. Winterset was also the birthplace of John Wayne. Make sure to visit the John Wayne Birthplace Museum when you visit here and check out the lovely covered bridges that inspired that famous movie. The courthouse in town was built in 1876, and there’s a charming and historic vibe to this small town square area that’s great for browsing shops.
You’ll feel like you stepped back into history when you visit this town, which is home to the state’s only battlefield from the War of 1812. Highlights are the Iowa State Penitentiary, Old Fort Days, and the Tri-State Rodeo. The Big Buckle Bash, bi-annual Ghost Hunt, and Mistletoe on Main Street are fun events too. Fort Madison is also a great town in Iowa to take an afternoon stroll and enjoy life’s simple pleasures. Stop by the Fort Madison Art Center or take a break in one of the town’s lovely parks.
Another great place to visit in Iowa is McGregor, which is in the northeastern part of the state by the Mississippi River. The key attraction here is Pikes Peak State Park, but the Effigy Mounds and the Driftless Area are certainly worth a visit too. You can enjoy historic architecture and a quaint atmosphere while taking a stroll downtown. If you enjoy tasty local beverages when you travel, don’t miss the Lazy River Beer and Wine Fest, which happens in June each year. You can buy tickets in advance if you know your travel dates and enjoy some live music here as well.
Cedar Falls has a charming Main Street even though it’s not as small of a town as many others on this list. There are more than 30 shops in downtown Cedar Falls to explore. The College Hill area of town is excellent for shopping, browsing books, and sipping coffee. The town hosts outdoor movies and concerts during the summer, and it’s easy to get to the Cedar Valley Water Trails to take a canoe out on the water.
Ames is the home of Iowa State University and the lovely Reiman Gardens. Even if you have no intention of attending any classes, this is a fun place to visit because the world’s largest concrete gnome lives here! Gnome collectors are an eccentric bunch, so embrace this quirky spirit and snap a few photos with this 15-foot-tall gnome in a red, pointy hat and blue shirt. The gardens are peaceful and beautiful to walk through after you’ve had your fill of the gnome.