Iowa has more to offer than many visitors might think, from unique beach towns filled with waterside amusement parks to towns with a deep history and inspired by a rich Dutch heritage. No matter what the season, visitors to Iowa will be entertained in a variety of ways, from wintertime snowmobile excursions to summertime festivals and flea markets, springtime golf sessions to delightful walks along the river in the autumn. Visitors to Iowa will find pleasure and enjoyment in many regions but are encouraged to explore many of its destinations to get a solid grasp of all that Iowa has to offer.
1. Des Moines
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Originally named after the river on which it sits, Des Moines was first established as Fort Des Moines in 1843 and eventually grew into the city that it is today. Des Moines has come a long way from its U.S. Army base roots, so much so that in modern Des Moines guests and locals can see a Broadway show many nights throughout the year, purchase locally grown produce and locally raised meat from the Downtown Farmers Market, and even visit extensive art galleries showcasing local and national artists. Des Moines also features many family-friendly attractions, ranging from outdoor hikes along the river to child-centric museums and restaurants.
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City of bluffs, craft beer, Mississippi River adventures, intricate history, and Loras College, Dubuque finds itself as a bridge between rural and urban Iowa, classic architecture and new innovations, and maintaining the old way of doing things while pushing forward into the future. Officially the first established town in Iowa, settled in 1833, Dubuque was founded by Julien Dubuque before Iowa was officially a state. Depending on the season, guests are often enthralled with eagle watching on Lock & Dam #11, enjoying free family and individual programs through the Multicultural Family Center, or enjoying a tri-city view from the Fenelon City Elevator.
3. Places to Visit in Iowa: Sioux City
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Sioux City, located in northwest Iowa, is locally renowned for its art and history museums, the most significant being the Sioux City Art Center and the Sioux City Public Museum. Families may enjoy a visit to the Children's Museum, which has many interactive attractions, or a trip to the Sergeant Floyd River Museum, which tells of the town's industrial history surrounding the Missouri River. Visitors to Sioux City may also enjoy the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center, a family-oriented museum covering the early 1800s expedition that helped expand the early United States.
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Geographically located along the Mississippi river and symbolically recognized as being part of the crossroads of America, Davenport has a population of nearly 100,000 and is part of the Quad Cities. Once a city that existed primarily for manufacturing and other Mississippi-based industries, Davenport has recently undergone a heavy rejuvenation, helping to reshape the school systems, neighborhoods, public services, and more to levels that haven't been seen in this region in over 80 years. Being a regional cultural hub and third largest city in Iowa, this city offers unique and diverse art, recreation, and music for all to enjoy while spending time in the Quad Cities.
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5. Cedar Rapids
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Regionally renowned for being one of the best cities for children, Cedar Rapids has an extensive list of attractions, restaurants, and entertainment geared towards families. From indoor entertainment for children at the Play Station to interactive exhibits and puppet shows at the Cedar Rapids Public Library, children will be endlessly entertained while parents are given a chance to relax. For a more engaging family experience, the indoor Newbo City Market may pique everyone's interests, while Speedeezz Indoor Karting will playfully bring out the competitive side in everyone. For the young learning mind, the Iowa Children's Museum is heavily recommended as it features a 28,000-square-foot playground for children to investigate and learn in while having a lot of fun.
6. Iowa City
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Iowa City, a self-proclaimed collection of communities, rests in the central-southeastern part of the state and is home to the University of Iowa. Filled with plenty of craft breweries, wineries, and local restaurants, visitors to Iowa City will not go hungry or thirsty while looking for something special to please their palate. However, the real charm of Iowa City isn't just its museums, local concert halls, delicious restaurants, or universities. When it comes to pleasing visitors the most, Iowa City strives with its seemingly endless list of events and festivals that take place throughout the year, providing travelers with ample opportunities to plan their trip around a special event they will enjoy.
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Ever proud of their heritage, the Amana Colonies were founded as a group of settlements in 1855 by German Pietists. There were seven original villages, all of which now comprise the Amana Colonies. For nearly 80 years after their founding in Iowa, the colonies were completely self-sufficient, an isolated local economy that allowed their heritage and traditions to maintain intact. The modern day Amana Colonies are an enormous tourist attraction known primarily for its restaurants and custom traditional shops. Reflecting their German heritage to this day, the Amana Colonies have been on the list of National Historic Landmarks since 1965.
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Home to Iowa State University and much more, Ames is a desirable tourist destination in Iowa that deserves a spot on any itinerary. Whether passing through Ames or deciding to stay for an extended period of time, Ames has a variety of accommodations to satisfy the needs of guests, from quaint bed and breakfasts to luxury hotels and everything between. The city itself is dotted with delicious restaurants, craft breweries, wineries, and cozy coffee shops where travelers can rest while taking in scenic views of downtown. When the weather is pleasant, there are numerous outdoor activities to partake in, such as golfing at the Ames Golf and Country Club or renting a bike to explore the town on two wheels.
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Quietly residing along the Des Moines River is Bentonsport, a once vibrant town of nearly 1,000 individuals that has since shrunk to a population of merely 40 residents. Even with the shrinking population, Bentonsport has not lost its spirit, and has maintained its atmosphere of an historical village along the water, with many of its shops located and residents still living in numerous buildings from the 1840s. The once crucial bridge to the town, the old truss bridge, still stands as a landmark to be explored and has been converted to a pedestrian bridge across the Des Moines River. Visitors who are history buffs will find great joy in Bentonsport, and also in the fact that the town is on the National Register of Historic Places.
10. Places to Visit in Iowa: Burlington
The entire state of Iowa owes credit of its nickname, the Hawkeye State, to Burlington after a newspaper founded in the city was renamed from the Iowa Patriot to The Hawk-eye. Given that Burlington is situated on the powerful Mississippi River, many of its former industries were based around the river itself, and modern day Burlington still incorporates the Mississippi into many of its daily leisure activities. The greater Burlington area is also steeped in history and enables guests to experience exciting events, such as minor league baseball games or the chance to explore what was once called "The Crookedest Street in the World," Snake Alley.
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11. Places to Visit in Iowa: Cedar Falls
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Featuring a wide assortment of year-round events, Cedar Falls is an ideal destination for travelers who like to experience new and interesting things. A town that puts an emphasis on physical activity, it is common to find various races being hosted in Cedar Falls, both on foot and by bike. For families visiting that don't want to have to plan too far in advance, the many amusement parks and water parks in Cedar Falls are the perfect solution to a simple yet exhilarating family experience. Family fun isn't all that Cedar Falls has to offer, however, as it is also home to the Isle of Capri Casino and Hotel.
12. Clear Lake
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For those who love the water, Clear Lake in Iowa is a community built on a 3,684-acre natural lake that has an average depth of 10 feet, providing entertainment for visitors and locals alike throughout all seasons of the year. Fishing, swimming, sailing, boating/water sports, and relaxing on the beach are all viable options when the weather is pleasant, and in the colder parts of the year guests can enjoy shopping in the retail district, attending a local concert, or catching a movie at the historical theater. Clear Lake also holds various special events throughout the year, so potential travelers are always encouraged to peruse the calendar of events before planning their trip.
13. Council Bluffs
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Situated directly on the Iowa/Nebraska border and a very short commute from Omaha, Council Bluffs maintains that authentic small midwestern town charm while also providing access to many amenities, attractions, and large town features. From the Council Bluffs Farmers Market to the various golf courses, Harrah's Casino and Hotel to the Great Plains Wing Museum, Council Bluffs has something for every type of visitor, whether they are solo travelling history buffs or a family travelling on a relaxing vacation. All guests, however, are encouraged to visit the Union Pacific Railroad Museum as it paints a clear picture of the development of many midwestern cities.
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For each of the four seasons, Decorah has a special set of entertainment, events, restaurant menus, and festivals for guests to enjoy. During the coldest months guests can enjoy ice fishing, cozy cabin camping, snowmobile adventures, cross-country skiing, and warming up by the fire in one of many restaurants featuring seasonal menus. When warmth finds its way to Decorah, the golf courses open and there are many scheduled festivals, while families and individuals can cool off by swimming in local rivers and mountain bike rental opens up many miles of trails to be explored and enjoyed.
15. Effigy Mounds National Monument
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The Effigy Mounds National Monument was founded primarily thanks to Ellison Orr, a local man born in 1857 whose work was the primary spearhead that lead to the eventual preservation of the mounds. The near 200 mounds showcased at the Effigy Mounds National Monument are set along the stunning Upper Mississippi River Valley, a region known for lush greens and immersive forests. Animals represented range from buffalo to eagles, foxes to horses, and all of them can be viewed by taking one of the many hiking trails throughout the park. Opening hours are year round, excluding major holidays, and the park is sometimes closed during extreme weather events.
16. Places to Visit in Iowa: Elk Horn
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In conjunction with Kimballton, Elk Horn represents one half of the Danish Villages, the two largest Danish settlements outside of urban areas in the U.S. Elk Horn is home to the only authentic Danish windmill in the entirety of the United States, which was shipped from Norre Snede, Denmark, and assembled by over 300 volunteers in 1976. Visitors to the area are invited to try authentic Danish cuisine at one of the many local restaurants, learn the history of the area and its founders from interpretive centers, or partake in one of the many festivals that occur year round, celebrating Danish culture and way of life.
17. Herbert Hoover National Historic Site
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Birthplace of 31st President of the United States Herbert Hoover, the Herbert Hoover National Historic Site preserved and educates on the upbringing of President Hoover and his career after leaving this small town. Home to the actual building where Herbert Hoover grew up - a small two-room cottage - this National Historic Site is a treat for history buffs and curious visitors alike, providing many hands-on exhibits supplemented with interesting facts and highlights of Hoover's career. There is also a Presidential Library and Museum on site as well as the burial place of Herbert Hoover, all of which are open to the public during operating hours.
18. Le Claire
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Situated slightly up the Mississippi River from the Quad Cities, Le Claire has often been voted the best city to take an out of town guest by the Quad City Times Readers' Choice Awards. A town originally founded thanks in part to industry located along the river, Le Claire has grown and changed over the years but still manages to hold onto its Old World charm. Guests are invited to experience an era long since past by visiting one of the many interactive museums in town, such as the Buffalo Bill Museum, or peruse one of the many historical buildings built in the late 1800s.
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Nearly equidistant between Dubuque and Davenport, Maquoketa is often the stopping point for locals driving between these two larger cities. Given its desirable location, it is easy to understand why locals would chose to stop here when passing through, and given a few special attractions, it is easy to understand why tourists would want to make this a stop on their itinerary. Maquoketa Caves State Park, Iowa's largest collection of caves, will fill almost any visitor with a sense of adventure, and the Hurstville Lime Kilns are a must-see for any local history enthusiasts. For the family-focused trip, 61 Drive-in Theater is one of the last few remaining outdoor theaters in the United States. More Iowa parks
20. Places to Visit in Iowa: Mason City
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When it comes to Mason City, there are a few specific attractions that are sure to keep guests coming back time and time again. Home to a museum filled with over 500 marionettes and puppets, this exhibit showcases a large majority of Bil Baird's work as a puppet master. After a visit to the museum or Music Man Square, a tribute to musician Meredith Willson, guests can head to Northwestern Steakhouse for an award-winning dinner and then to Birdsall's Ice Cream for a scrumptious dessert of hand-made ice cream, a local favorite in Mason City since the 1930s.
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Founded by European fur traders and maintained by soldiers, Muscatine eventually bloomed and boomed thanks to the lumber harvesting and transporting industry. Many years passed with lumber as Muscatine's primary industry, that is until 1887, when German immigrant John F. Boepple came to the area in search of a suitable material for high quality buttons. After discovering that mussel shells from deep in the Mississippi made the perfect blank button forms, Muscatine quickly became the highest producer of buttons in the entire world, providing at its peak nearly 40% of the total buttons worldwide. Modern day Muscatine is no longer focused on lumber or buttons but has moved onto to tourism to draw in guests travelling for business and pleasure alike.
22. Places to Visit Near Me: Okoboji
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Beachside lake adventures can be found in Iowa when the weather is right, and one of the best places to enjoy the sunshine and waves is in Okoboji, located on the Iowa Great Lakes. When it comes to waterside entertainment, Arnolds Park is the go-to destination, often renowned as the Okoboji version of Coney Island. There are plenty of quirky and fun restaurants located on the water to serve guests any fashion of food or alcohol they could crave, and there are even dinner boating tours than can be enjoyed on the open water. When the weather turns cold, Okoboji hosts its own version of the Winter Olympics and spectators are always welcome.
23. Orange City
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Ever since holding its first Tulip Festival in the 1930s, Orange City has been inspiring and entertaining guests with its Dutch heritage and other unique amenities. With over 100,000 visitors every year to celebrate the Tulip Festival, Orange City is no stranger to entertaining tourists. When it isn't tulip season, Orange City still celebrates its heritage, with its Dutch-style businesses, restaurants, and museums filled with exhibits on local history and culture. Guests interested in learning about specific events and entertainment options are encouraged to visit the Orange City website for more details.
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Home to the Tulip Time Festival, held in late spring, Pella often draws crowds of over 150,000 visitors during the three-day celebration. With many gardens spread throughout a town that is filled with blooming tulips, visitors to the Tulip Time Festival are entertained by two parades each day, traditional Dutch food, elaborate floats, and many of the local residents dressed in Dutch clothing and wooden shoes. Pella is also home to the biggest functioning grain windmill in the U.S., a fully restored windmill from the 1900s. Visitors can find Dutch-style restaurants and entertainment year round, even when the Iowa weather turns cold.
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For visitors who seek unique cultural experiences in Iowa, Waterloo should be on the top of their list, especially when considering that this city has many museums in downtown, all within a 1-mile radius of each other. The Ice House museum was built in 1921, originally erected to store ice that had been cut from the Cedar River, and since repurposed and filled with interactive displays telling the story of how ice harvesting helped shape Waterloo. In a wider history stance, the Grout Museum of History and Science tends to showcase exhibits from around the world, giving visitors a taste of travel without ever having to leave Waterloo.
The 25 Best Places to Visit in Iowa near me today according to local experts: