Located in the heart of the country and serving as the nation’s top corn producer, the state of Iowa has many things to be proud of. From the state capital of Des Moines to the second-largest city, Cedar Rapids, Iowa welcomes visitors with a distinct Midwestern charm that can’t be beaten. While exploring Iowa, you can find attractions like the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium to enrich your knowledge; numerous state parks, like Maquoketa Caves, for an adventure; and plenty of scenic landscapes, such as The Bridges of Madison County, to inspire your more creative side. Those who visit Iowa, and those who call it home, agree that there is something special about the state that keeps people coming back.
1 National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium
pirated by the Dubuque Historical Society, the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium features collections, exhibits, and live animals that reflect the cultural and geological importance of the mighty Mississippi River and all national rivers that define the country. The Mississippi River makes up the eastern border of the state of Iowa and it defines much of the livelihood of surrounding communities. The National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium strives to showcase the important role this river and its watershed play on the environment and people.
Featuring permanent exhibits like the Mississippi River Discovery Center and an immersive 4D Theater, the museum also features constantly rotating displays that are bound to catch the attention of adults and children alike. The museum and aquarium also house several live animals that represent the wildlife found in and around river banks, including alligators, otters, and sturgeon.
2 National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library
The National Czech & Slovak Museum and Library in Cedar Rapids is a large institute dedicated to sharing the stories and culture of Czech & Slovak people. It also strives to help the public better understand their own freedoms and how history has led to our present point as a society. The National Czech & Slovak Museum and Library meets these goals through its permanent exhibits, educational traveling displays, and plenty of special events for the whole family.
3 State Capitol
The Iowa State Capitol building in Des Moines is much more than just a gold-domed symbol of the city, it’s a portal into Iowa’s history. Located on Grand Avenue atop a hill, the State Capitol has an excellent view of downtown Des Moines and houses the Iowa Senate; the Iowa House of Representatives; the Iowa Supreme Court; and many offices of the state’s top elected officials, including the governor. Besides being the central location for much of Iowa’s government, the State Capitol also stands as an impressive display of architecture and design and features many historical artifacts and interesting Iowa exhibits that you can explore on a self-guided tour.
4 Maquoketa Caves State Park
For a unique natural side of Iowa, Maquoketa Caves State Park offers a look into the world beneath your feet. This popular state park has numerous above-ground hiking trails that explore bluffs, woodlands, and an interesting natural wonder known as Balanced Rock. But the main attraction is the caves. For claustrophobes, the Dancehall Cave is a lighted cave with high ceilings and a walkway, and for those that don’t mind squeezing into tight spaces, Maquoketa Caves State Park also lends access to more than a dozen other caves that require a flashlight to explore and probably a change of clothes. A large campsite in the park is set up for RVs and tents.
5 Amana Colonies
The Amana Colonies of Eastern Iowa comprises seven villages that take visitors into the past and away from the hustle and bustle. The history of the Amana Colonies dates to the mid-19th century when German Pietists first broke soil in this isolated Iowa location, and for many years, no outside influences interfered with their communal lifestyle. Today, the Amana Colonies is listed as a National Historic Landmark, and the community encourages tourists to experience this slower pace of life by visiting their historical structures; shopping and dining in their local establishments; and exploring the scenic surroundings on bike paths, walkways, and at annual festivals.
For a full experience of the Amana Colonies, it’s worth spending a night or two in the area. Zuber’s Homestead Hotel is one of the numerous bed-and-breakfast options nearby.
Perhaps one of the most quintessential things to do in Iowa, RAGBRAI is a week-long bike race that spans the entire state, from east to west, and showcases its midwestern culture through its friendly people, small towns, and open landscapes. An acronym for the Register’s Annual Bike Race Across Iowa, RAGBRAI has been taking place for more than 60 years, and this annual summer event attracts thousands of cyclists, support vehicle drivers, and racing enthusiasts every year. Competitiveness isn’t a big factor, and the live music, events, and celebratory mood of RAGBRAI make this a must-do Iowa experience.
7 The Bridges of Madison County
The bridges of Madison County provide the opportunity for a scenic adventure in Winterset and have inspired countless photographs, numerous visits, and even a best-selling novel turned movie. Before The Bridges of Madison County became a blockbuster, the bridges were simply a part of life for people living in this area in the late 19th century. Today, six of the original nineteen covered bridges that once stood here remain, five of which are on the National Historic Register and all of which attract national attention throughout the year. Even without the scenic covered bridges, Madison County and the city of Winterset are worth a visit. After you’ve spent a sunny afternoon exploring and photographing the covered bridges, it’s well worth your time to check out Winterset’s historic town square, or the birthplace of John Wayne and adjoining museum for a fun-filled time learning about America’s most recognized cowboy, The Duke.
8 Des Moines Art Center
The Des Moines Art Center has been providing a venue for locals and visitors to enjoy art since 1948. It features rotating works of photography, sculpture, and painting, plus mixed-media displays and permanent collections ranging from Georgia O’Keefe to Edward Hopper. It’s easy to see why it will remain a vital attraction in Iowa for years to come. Entry to the Des Moines Art Center is free.
9 Herbert Hoover National Historic Site
The 31st President of the United States, Herbert Hoover is currently the only president to come from Iowa. Surrounding his birthplace in the small town of West Branch, a commemorative National Historic Site celebrates his life, history, and influence on the nation and beyond. During your visit to West Branch, it’s worth checking out his humble beginnings and the birthplace of Herbert Hoover, as well as other preserved landscapes and buildings that helped shape the young president-to-be. While it’s fascinating to see these buildings seemingly stuck in time, most of your visit to the Herbert Hoover National Historic Site will be taken up by the Presidential Library and Museum, which features rotating exhibits and a permanent exhibit focusing on Hoover’s life and legacy.
10 American Gothic House
Arguably one of the most culturally significant artists of the 20th century, Grant Wood was an Iowa native, and many of his most celebrated works use his Midwest roots as inspiration. Of particular note, Wood’s American Gothic, which depicts a farmer and his wife outside of their single-story white home, has already cemented itself as one of the most significant works of art on display in the United States, and the house that serves as the backdrop of this masterpiece is open for anyone to explore or photograph. Not only can you get your picture taken as you pose as the frowning farmer or his wife in front of the house, but with the adjacent American Gothic House Center, you can better understand the artist himself and the history of the house he famously painted.
11 Field of Dreams Movie Site
Field of Dreams, starring Kevin Costner, was filmed here in 1989. While visiting this Movie Site in Dyersville, you may find yourself asking, “Is this heaven?” Rest assured though, it’s Iowa, and with all movie quotes aside, the Field of Dreams Movie Site is a fun location for fans of the film, with interactive exhibits, plenty of photo opportunities, and a scenic backdrop. If you happen to visit on select Sundays throughout the year, the Field of Dreams also hosts a Ghost Sunday Show, where baseball players from the last step out of the cornstalks to put on a family-fun show that is sure to entertain visitors, young and old alike.
12 Grotto of the Redemption
The Grotto of the Redemption in West Bend is truly a unique attraction in Iowa. Also called the West Bend Grotto, it is comprised of nine separate grottos all built from precious stones and gems and handcrafted by a local pastor and a few other helping hands to immortalize the story of Jesus Christ. No matter your denomination or religion, the West Bend Grotto is an impressive example of what one man with a mission can accomplish in a lifetime.