1. Effigy Mounds National Park
The only National Park in Iowa! Effigy Mounds is a fantastic place for some relatively easy hiking, a place to stretch your legs, and to learn a little history. I loved the tomb mounds in Gyeongju, South Korea – so it was a total surprise to realize the US is home to some fascinating tomb mounds as well.
The tombs at Effigy Mounds are just that – effigies. The tombs form some fascinating natural shapes such as birds, bears, turtles, and more. They are found throughout the US but one of the largest concentrations is found here, at Effigy Mounds National Park.
2. Herbert Hoover Presidential Library
While there aren’t any other National Parks in Iowa, there is a presidential library. Not many presidents have a presidential library – and perhaps you will also be surprised to hear that Herbert Hoover is one of the few to have such an honor. For a president that was pretty universally hated, I actually loved this library.
I learned a lot about Herbert Hoover and his life growing up in Iowa. He was a fascinating person who lived a life around the globe and did a lot of great humanitarian things. But, even the museum can’t shy away from the fact that while he did great things outside his presidency, his actual time in office was pretty bad!
The coolest thing is they employ an actual blacksmith who can demonstrate all the different activities Hoover’s father would have been involved in as the town blacksmith.
3. Iowa City
While it often seems to get overshadowed by Des Moines, the former capital of Iowa is my favorite city in Iowa. The charm of the old buildings, now used by the University of Iowa, is hard to overstate. The entire city is full of lovely architecture, food, and book-ish pursuits.
You can tour the Old Capital building for free and learn a little bit about Iowa’s early history as a state! There are many lovely state parks in the area such as Lake MacBride, Palisades-Kepler, and the Densovian Fossil Gorge. The latter is not a state park, but it’s pretty interesting!
The towns along the Mississippi River are some of my absolute favorite in Iowa. But, I’ll be honest, Dubuque is not necessarily my favorite. To each their own, the 100 year old theater is still operating, and the city is very pretty. Personally, I preferred Galena in Illinois just across the river.
Despite my personally not like it, don’t be deterred. Dubuque’s surroundings have some of the coolest nature on offer in Iowa. Bellevue State Park has stunning views of the Mississippi River. Crystal Lake Caves offers tours of their very cool cave system. And the Mines of Spain has gorgeous orange bluffs (cliffs) and a lazy tributary to the Mississippi perfect for kayaking.
5. Loess Hills
Home to one of the rarest geological features in the world, the Loess Hills are a lovely way to escape the bright lights that keep your eyes from the stars. For real, this a great location to stargaze!
But the Loess Hills are more than just a lack of night-time lighting. These soft, rolling hills that look like their made of the softest sand are actually made of “Loess.” And Iowa has the largest collection of loess hills outside of China.
They run the length of the Iowa-Nebraska border, making them a convenient place to linger on any American roadtrip. Camping here is my top recommendation!
6. Bridges of Madison County
The star of a great movie (The Bridges of Madison County), you can actually visit all six covered bridges on a fantastic day trip. These bridges are seriously so idyllic and most are well over a hundred years old.
It’s a really relaxing trip with beautiful views of the Iowa countryside. If you manage to get one of those rare Iowa days where the weather is weird but not terrible, you’ll get some amazing sunsets and moody dark skies for your photos.
They can easily be visited in a single day at a leisurely pace. I also recommend camping right near one in Winterset’s camp ground. Winterset itself is a fantastic little town with a great cafe.
7. State Parks of Iowa
Those who know me know that I rave about Iowa’s state parks. For one, they’re completely free to all! And because of that, it means they don’t have a ton of money to spend on advertising. They’re quite literally hidden gems.
Some of my absolute favorites are: Maquoketa Caves State Park, Backbone State Park, Lake MacBride State Park, and Bellevue State Park. Make sure to add at least a few whenever you’re in the Hawkeye State!
8. Mississippi River Cruise – Things to do in Iowa
For those that dream of cruises down the Nile or the Danube, you might be shocked by how majestic the Mississippi River truly is. It’s expected that Mississippi River Cruises might soon be in vogue given the hints that Viking is currently building new boats and working with local business like Wildlife Lakes Elk Farm to create fun excursions and lift up the Mississippi River towns.
If you’re not interested in a long river cruise, there are a few options for day and 2-day cruise options from Riverboat Twilight that give you the added bonus of existing on a stunning authentic reproduction Victorian style steamboat.
9. Frank Lloyd Wright Houses and Hotel
Frank Lloyd Wright, the most famous architect of the modern age, is most well-known for his “Prairie-style.” So, it shouldn’t come as much of a shock as it does that there are many Frank Lloyd Wright houses scattered across Iowa. Some are even abandoned!
His only remaining US hotel is the Park Inn in Mason City Iowa. It’s a surprisingly reasonably-priced treat to sleep in one of these beautiful rooms – the rooms can start as low as $140 a night. The Stockman House is also available for tours in Mason City, and the City National Bank building was also built by him.
In nearby Charles City you can find the abandoned Alvin Miller House, and in Independence you can find the Cedar Rock State Park Estate – so you can go to a state park and an architectural marvel all at the same time!
10. 99 Bottles Winery
This one might be a surprise to most denizens of Iowa – it’s not the most well-known spot. However, it is one of my personal favorite spots in Iowa. Nestled just enough above the rolling countryside to afford some world-class views lies 99 Bottles Winery.
They offer free tastings in the summer and some of the best wine I have ever had the fortune to sample. I’ve been to France, Italy, and several other local wineries throughout the US. So, I know something about what I’m talking about. This is no ordinary wine, it’s crafted with love and care by someone who used to work on a large winery out in California. So you could say they know what their doing.
Do yourself a favor and spend the night, which you can do in one of their several camping or RV spots. They do weddings and other parties. Sound like I’m overselling? These are genuinely some of the nicest people I’ve met in Iowa and the Oldest Child wine is one of my absolute favorites – I drive two hours just to restock!