Iowa Holiday Planning Guide
Part of America's heartland, Iowa is marked by a strong agricultural heritage, with farmland encompassing around 90 percent of the state's land. However, a holiday in Iowa offers more than corn and cows: you'll also discover charming towns, beautiful lakes, and a handful of vibrant cities. Iowa City, a university town, provides a healthy dose of culture and nightlife, with a youthful and artistic vibe fueled by a sizable student population. Meanwhile, a trip to some of Iowa's small towns presents something of an iconic American experience. Fortunately, the welcoming residents bear very little resemblance to the dour Iowans portrayed in Grant Wood's famous painting, "American Gothic."
Places to Visit in IowaDes Moines
: Your holiday in Iowa may well start in this "big city with a small-town heart." The capital and cultural center of Iowa, Des Moines offers a wide range of activities for individuals and families alike, including museum-hopping, contemporary art shows, Broadway-caliber performances, and events ranging from car shows and flea markets to concerts and antique shows.Dubuque
: At the junction of three states, this thriving town built by lumber barons on the mighty Mississippi serves as the main commercial, industrial, educational, and cultural center for the area, rich with historical sites, scenic trails, country inns, wineries, and posh spas. Davenport
: The largest city located along the Mississippi River and the site of several annual music and art festivals, Davenport also boasts 27 parks and over 19.3 km (12 mi) of recreational paths, acclaimed museums, theatres, educational centers, casual bars and eateries, and high-end restaurants.Council Bluffs
: With over 25 parks, scenic paths, recreational trails, historical buildings, public art, a railroad heritage, greyhound dog tracks, and three distinct casinos, Council Bluffs makes a great destination for an active and exciting Iowa vacation.Iowa City
: Rightfully called the Athens of the Midwest and "city of literature," Iowa City offers plenty of culture and historical attractions, including the home of the first Governor of Iowa and the Old Capitol building.Sioux City
: Once a major manufacturing center, Sioux City remade itself into an entertainment hub featuring casinos, restaurants, a bar district, and some of the best authentic Mexican food in the region.Cedar Rapids
: A flourishing center for arts and culture and the true heart of Eastern Iowa, Cedar Rapids is home to many museums and theatres (including the renovated historical Paramount Theatre), family-friendly festivals, award-winning wineries and breweries, and top restaurants.
Things to Do in Iowa
Popular Iowa Tourist AttractionsNational Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium
: One of the most popular places to visit in Iowa, National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium includes a tour of a large steamboat, dozens of species of birds, turtles, and fish, plus animals and local habitats along the river presented through dynamic exhibits designed for older children or adults. Adventureland Park
: Ride a wooden classic Tornado and the looping dragon at this amusement park, which boasts a number of roller coasters for thrill-seekers, a water park, train rides, games, live shows, and restaurants.Fenelon Place Elevator Co.
: Claiming to be the shortest and steepest scenic railway in the world, this funicular is listed in the National Register of Historic Places and whisks you up to two observation decks overlooking Dubuque and the Mississippi River. Iowa State Fairgrounds
: Surrounded by woods and hills, Iowa State Fairgrounds hosts a variety of different exhibits and festivals, ranging from car shows and flea markets to concerts and antique shows, including one of the largest state fairs in the United States.Antique Archaeology
: Tucked away in a historical Mississippi River town, this two-story former manufacturer's shop now serves as home base for the History Channel's "American Pickers Show," where it displays and sells some of their best picks.Blank Park Zoo
: Home to more than 800 animals, including red pandas, this diverse zoo features a free-range aviary, cave exhibit with nocturnal animals and reptiles, aquarium, African boardwalk, Australian adventure area, big cat section, harbor pavilion, and simulated prairie dog tunnels children can crawl through.Capitol Building
: Representing the prodigious spirit of Iowa--strength and dignity combined with utility--this rectangular Renaissance-style 19th-century building features stately windows, high ceilings, and a 23-karat golden dome that can be seen from miles away.Amana Colonies National Historic Landmark
: While sightseeing in Iowa, step back in time at the eight villages of the Amana Colonies, which lure visitors with homemade German food, handmade chocolate, wineries, oxcart rides, excellent woodcarvings, knitted garments, and quaint bed and breakfasts.Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum
: At this informative museum nestled in the prairie, learn the story of an orphan boy who grew up to be a multi-millionaire, a worldwide humanitarian, and the 31st president of the United States.Pappajohn Sculpture Park
: Featuring work by 22 of the world's most celebrated artists complemented by skilled landscape design, this park is a necessary stop for art enthusiasts touring Iowa.
Planning an Iowa Vacation with Kids
Places to Visit in Iowa with Kids
Iowans have long been proud of their home as a great place to raise a family. With more than 100 state parks and over 1,000 county parks, Iowa offers families with children a wide range of outdoor opportunities all year round. Many parks mark historically important locations, including gathering places of Native Americans, army forts, and some of the first log cabins that pioneers built in Iowa. Balance your Iowa vacation with some time in one or two of its major cities as well. Des Moines
and Cedar Rapids
provide child-friendly entertainment options, such as science centers, open-air museums, a zoo, botanical gardens, amusement parks, and gaming centers. Dubuque
features the steepest and shortest railway in the world, which takes you to a vantage point from which you can show your kids the town built by lumber barons. Arnolds Park
, with its water park and one of the world's oldest amusement parks, also deserves a place on your Iowa itinerary when traveling with kids.
Things to Do in Iowa with Kids
Iowa is an excellent place for adults to get "back to nature" while teaching kids that outdoor activities can be as much fun as video games. At Blank Park Zoo
, your children can pet, feed, and ride various animals, and then get a different perspective on the prairie with a crawl through the artificial prairie dog tunnels. If your family wants to have a real caving experience, head to Maquoketa Caves State Park
. National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium
features many hands-on activities for children to learn about the ecosystems along the Mississippi River. Everyone in your group can learn about natural history at Putnam Museum & Science Center
, with its excellent selection of fun and engaging exhibits for adults and children alike.
Don't miss the opportunity to teach your kids about rustic living during your family's holiday in Iowa. Show them what it was like to be a pioneer settler at Amana Colonies
and Living History Farms
. Your children will love National Farm Toy Museum
with its scale models, replicas, and toys based on farm equipment. For some old-fashioned country diversion, ride a wooden roller coaster at Arnolds Park Amusement Park
, or check out the number of rides purposely designed for children at Adventureland Park
Tips for a Family Vacation in Iowa
When touring Iowa with children, you won't have to worry about their diet, since food across the state is always fresh and tasty. Your kids may also find it extra enticing that almost any food can be put on a stick. Note that the legendary Iowa State Fair--with its butter cow sculptures, trailers pulled by soy diesel-powered tractors, and gondolas gliding over treetops--is perfect for family outings.
Dining and Shopping on Holiday in Iowa
Cuisine of Iowa
Iowans think of their land as the breadbasket of the world. Locally grown crops used in the preparation of signature dishes evoke Iowa's rolling green hills, scenic river valleys, and welcoming small towns. Spring berries, sweet morels, tomatoes, and melons grow in virtually every kitchen garden across the state, but corn remains the region's main product. Most towns have a fastfood restaurant, but traditional rural diners offer a chance to eat in the company of friendly locals. Meat-lovers will particularly enjoy Iowa's cuisine, which is strongly influenced by European culinary traditions. The people of Iowa love their sausages, pork chops, and other pork-based recipes of German origin, which go best with a glass of draught beer at places such as 515 Brewing Company
. Of the many specialities to try during your Iowa holiday, the local favorite is probably the pork tenderloin. This breaded, deep-fried Iowa icon comes in a hamburger bun and is topped off with fixins like ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise, and dill pickle slices. Leek and pig-tail soup appears on many menus as a main dish rather than a starter. Bread dumplings made with stale bread and soda water is another regional specialty. Those who have a sweet tooth should try a combination of candy bar and ice cream called Eskimo pies, or crispy Dutch letters filled with almond paste.
Shopping in Iowa
Apart from over 80 malls and shopping centers where you can get all the usual retail therapy, you'll find lots of other more intriguing opportunities for shopping during your Iowa vacation. Amana Furniture Shop
sells pricey wooden clocks and furniture of superb craftsmanship, and you should not leave Amana Colonies
without at least browsing the selection of beautiful, traditionally designed quilts. If looking for a perfect gift to bring home for children, stop at Betty Jane HomeMade Candies
, famous for its pecans, caramels, and chocolate gremlins. Bookworms will appreciate Prairie Lights
, considered the beating heart of the city of literature, Iowa City. Finally, take in the glorious produce from "the breadbasket of the world" at one of the local farmers markets (try Farmers Market
in Des Moines), where you can pick up fresh vegetables, flowers, cheese, and baked goods.
Know Before You Go on a Trip to Iowa
History of Iowa
Even though Native Americans have resided in what is now Iowa for 13,000 years, the written history of the state begins in the summer of 1673. Two French explorers, Louis Joliet and Father Jacques Marquette, came ashore near where the Iowa River flows into the Mississippi--reportedly the first white people to visit the region. Iowa became part of the United States of America after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, but it wasn't until 1851, when the last of the Native Americans, the Santee Band of the Sioux, negotiated a treaty with the federal government, that uncontested U.S. control over the state was exercised. Today, Iowa is home to one Native American group, the Mesquakie, who reside in Tama County. Buffalo Bill Museum
exhibits Sauk and Fox tribe artifacts, alongside displays about pioneer life in the region.
The first official white settlement in Iowa began in June 1833, in the Black Hawk Purchase. Amana Heritage Museum
details life in the pioneer days and is a must-see on any history buff's tour of Iowa. You'll get a sense of the isolation, loneliness, and many hardships pioneer families faced in their early years in Iowa. These early settlers built their homes, furniture, and farmsteads from wood, which burnt easily in prairie fires. They shipped their agricultural goods on stagecoaches and steamboats down the Mississippi River to New Orleans, as you can see at National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium
. By the late 1860s, most of Iowa had been settled and the newly built railroads enabled year-round transportation for farmers. Include Living History Farms
on your Iowa itinerary to take a look at what rural life was like here during this period.
After 30 years of peaceful growth, the lives of the people of Iowa were shaken by the Civil War. At State Historical Museum of Iowa
learn how scores of Iowan men earnestly responded to the call for Union volunteers, and how hundreds of Iowan women sewed uniforms, knitted sweaters, rolled bandages, and collected money for military supplies. Following the Civil War, Iowa's population continued to grow with the increasing number of immigrants. A booklet entitled "Iowa: The Home of Immigrants" attracted Northern and Western Europeans to the state. Delve into this multicultural heritage during your Iowa vacation with an educational stop at German American Heritage Center
, where you'll learn how many of the immigrants--the "good stock" Germans--became farmers, craftspeople, and shopkeepers.
In 1917, the United States entered World War I and the change of economy, especially for farmers, was significant. They had experienced economic prosperity since the beginning of the war thanks to the wartime farm subsidies. After the war, however, many were unable to pay off the debts they had incurred. A time of hardship for Iowa's farm families carried over into the 1930s and the Great Depression. The second economic boom occurred in World War II. Iowa Gold Star Military Museum
houses an extensive collection of weapons, uniforms, and vehicles from the Civil War, World Wars I and II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. Today, Iowa's once-rural population is now predominantly urban, due to a series of economic shocks, including the 1980s farm crisis.
Landscape of Iowa
Gently rolling green hills, flat plains, and picturesque river valleys are the characteristic features of Iowa's landscape. In the northeast's dry upland, tributaries of the Mississippi cut deeply into the underlying bedrock, and the Mississippi bluffs offer panoramic views of the scenic river valley. Take in the scenery at Effigy Mounds National Monument
, which provides different hiking trails with overlooks of the Mississippi River. Farther south, elongated ridges and "pahas," isolated rectangular hills, dominate the terrain. Shallow wetland basins, or "prairie potholes," and a few deep natural lakes appear in the Des Moines Lobe. On the Paleozoic Plateau, the prairie transitions to hardwood forest, exhibiting the most distinctive of Iowa's landforms: numerous gorges and ravines, deep narrow valleys with seeps and springs along its sides, and heavily wooded uplands, as well as ice caves and cold-air slopes unique to this area. For true nature lovers interested in exploring underground rivers, small tunnels, and pristine hiking trails, Maquoketa Caves State Park
is a must for your Iowa holiday.
Holidays & Festivals in Iowa
When planning an Iowa vacation, note that banks, public offices, and some private businesses close on national public holidays, including Christmas, New Year's, Independence Day, and Thanksgiving.
Most festivals in Iowa are inspired by local arts and crafts, with some set in historical landmarks. Locals bring their wares and antiques to sell in a playful, friendly market atmosphere. These types of events, which happen all year round and sometimes include garage sales and food tastings, are great for family outings. If you time your trip to Iowa right, don't miss the Iowa State Fair in August, where thousands of visitors flock to Des Moines. Davenport is home to several annual music festivals.
Iowa Travel Tips
Climate of Iowa
Positioned deep in the interior of North America, Iowa has a continental climate with harsh winters and warm humid summers. The four seasons gradually change; the coldest month is January, and July is the hottest with the highest temperatures reaching 38 C (100 F). Snowfall is common, but snow cover rarely remains throughout the winter months. However, heavy snowfalls have occurred in Iowa in late autumn and early spring and, as a result of rapid snow melt, the state can experience severe flooding. If touring Iowa in summer, be aware that heavy showers may occur, so make back-up plans for rainy days. In additional to its 50 days of thunderstorms per year, Iowa also averages 47 tornadoes annually, generally between April and August. Keep updated on weather reports during your Iowa holiday and observe any extreme weather advisories.
Transportation in Iowa
Bus and train services in Iowa are not as extensive as in Europe. Amtrak train lines stop in some small towns (with plans in the works for stations in Des Moines and Iowa City), while the national MegaBus company stops in Iowa City and Des Moines, providing an affordable and comfortable way to get to Iowa--but not to explore the state. Certainly the best way to get around on your Iowa vacation is by car. The rural region is laid out on a grid pattern, so even if you end up lost on a gravel road, you can quickly find your way back to the highway by driving just a few miles in any direction. However, you might consider avoiding Interstate 80, which runs right through the middle of the state and as such experiences frequent traffic from giant 18-wheeler trucks. Instead, try some of the smaller routes, such as Highway 30. Europeans renting a car will be surprised with the vehicle sizes--they might find even the smallest American cars too big for their taste. Drive carefully in the winter because of the snow and icy roads.