Wedged between the Missouri River to the west and the Mississippi River to the east, Iowa is the beating heart of the Midwest. Although often overlooked by travelers, the Hawkeye State offers everything you’d want in an all-American road trip, from bucolic country roads to quaint towns to big-city urban charms.
Many visitors start their visit in Iowa’s capital city, Des Moines. Its location at a major north-south and east-west crossroads puts Des Moines within quick reach of several major Midwestern destinations, making it the perfect spot to launch your journey.
For many travelers, though, Iowa’s charms grow even deeper outside its urban centers. Just 45 minutes from the Iowan capital, slide into idyllic Madison County, whose covered bridges garnered international fame with the popular novel and movie The Bridges of Madison County. Or match even more popular culture with reality by saving time to visit the Field of Dreams in Dyersville, made famous by the eponymous movie starring Kevin Costner.
In between exploring its cities, small towns, and countryside, don’t miss a chance to kick up the adrenaline by adding adventure activities to your itinerary, from whitewater rafting to amusement parks to ziplining.
Ready to plan the ultimate trip to Iowa? Craft the perfect itinerary with help from our quick & easy Iowa travel guide, including tips for where to go, what to do, and when to visit!
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Where to go in Iowa
With less than a quarter million people, Des Moines barely cracks the top 20 biggest cities in the Midwestern USA. But what Iowa’s capital lacks in size, it more than makes up for in historic and natural charms.
Start exploring the surprisingly artsy Des Moines in the East Village. The city’s main historic district, wedged between downtown and the Iowa State Capitol, is jam-packed with cool boutique shops and trendy restaurants, cafes, bars, and cocktail lounges.
The historic charms continue unabated in Valley Junction. Located in modern-day West Des Moines, the historic railroad district captures the spirit of 1890s Iowa, with over 150 art galleries, boutiques, antique shops, and restaurants dotting its streets.
Need a counterweight to your historical sightseeing? Lace up your hiking shoes and tackle Des Moines’ plentiful outdoor activities. Take to Gray’s Lake Park or Des Moines Water Works Park to explore the parklands perched on the banks of the Raccoon River. Afterward, enjoy less “wild” outdoor fun by roaming around the majestic Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden.
After a long day of sightseeing, carve out time to unwind at one of Des Moines’ many trendy restaurants or craft breweries.
Ready to plan your Des Moines trip? Get started with these travel resources…
Huddled along the Cedar River, Iowa’s second-biggest city, Cedar Rapids, promises a fantastic Midwest urban experience fused with small-town friendliness. Established in 1849, the city holds dear to its historic roots.
Shortly after its founding, Cedar Rapids attracted an influx of Czech and Slovak immigrants. See their impact on the city at Cedar Rapids’ most unique attraction: The DISTRICT: Czech Village & New Bohemia. Enjoy the neighborhood’s historic architecture before digging into the massive collection at the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library.
History buffs will also love exploring Usher’s Ferry Historic Village. Located just northwest of the city, the open-air museum recreates the look and feel of small-town Iowa living in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Closer to the city, don’t miss out on the incomparable Brucemore. Built in 1836, the estate is well worth a gander to explore its beautiful Queen Anne-style mansion and gardens.
Top off a day of sightseeing by settling down at one of Cedar Rapids’ delicious restaurants. Savor upscale Italian in a historic setting at Popoli Ristorante or seasonal local favorites at Cobble Hill Eatery & Dispensary.
To wash it all down, Cedar Rapids is home to some of the best craft breweries in Iowa, including Lion Bridge Brewing Company and Cedar Ridge Winery & Distillery.
Ready to plan your Cedar Rapids trip? Get started with these travel resources…
Billed as “Where Iowa Started,” Dubuque is a worthwhile destination for any travelers keen on exploring Iowa’s early history. The small city sits on the western banks of the Mississippi River, just over the river from where Iowa, Wisconsin, and Illinois all meet.
If you can only fit in one stop in Dubuque, make it the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium. Located on the edge of downtown, the popular attraction explores the Mississippi’s marine life through hands-on exhibits, interactive activities, and animal encounters.
Explore Iowa’s wilderness at the Mines of Spain State Recreation Area. Located along the banks of the Mississippi River, the 1,437-acre National Historic Landmark offers 15.1 miles of hiking trails that lead to beautiful views of limestone bluffs.
Home to the University of Iowa, Iowa City is a must-see for any Iowa itinerary. The lively university town was once the capital of the Hawkeye State. Iowa City still shows plenty of vestiges of its long history in its architectural palette, including the Old Capitol Museum.
Although it’s home to less than a hundred thousand, Iowa City punches well above its weight in culture. The city was designated as North America’s first UNESCO City of Literature, thanks to its famed college writing programs. The university’s cultural influence goes well beyond literature, too, offering up superb museums like the University of Iowa Museum of Art and the Museum of Natural History.
Fans of American history should also be sure to check out the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum. Located just east of the city in West Branch, the National Historic Site celebrates the life and legacy of the 31st President.
The largest city in the Quad Cities region between Illinois and Iowa, Davenport is a great spot for a quick stopover while passing through Eastern Iowa. The riverfront city offers a surprising collection of superb museums, historic sites, and cultural venues.
Nature lovers will find plenty to love in Davenport, from the natural history exhibits at the Putnam Museum and Science Center to the majestic history rose garden at Vander Veer Botanical Park.
And, of course, no visit to Davenport is complete without soaking up its riverside charms. Book yourself on a riverboat cruise, chugging along the mighty Mississippi as the lights of the Quad Cities twinkle.
Other destinations in Iowa
- Sioux City
- Council Bluffs
- Effigy Mounds National Monument
- Maquoketa Caves State Park
- Pikes Peak State Park
- Amana Colonies
- Madison County
When to visit Iowa
The best time to visit Iowa is from early September to late October. In the fall months, you’ll enjoy pleasant temperatures, smaller crowds, and cheaper prices. Under a blanket of red, yellow, and orange autumn colors, Iowa is also at its prettiest in the fall season.
Like other destinations in the Midwest, Iowa is at its hottest and busiest during the summer months. Although you’ll enjoy plenty of sunny days, the humidity during the summer can be unpleasant at times, leading to frequent rainfall.
Winter in Iowa can get quite chilly, with most days falling below freezing. Although things begin to warm up into late March, springtime is the most unpredictable season of the year. The spring months see frequent thunderstorms and even tornadoes roll through Iowa.
How to get to Iowa
Iowa is home to eight commercial airports. Most travelers flying into Iowa will likely arrive via Des Moines International Airport (DSM). Several major airlines fly into DSM from other U.S domestic gateways, including:
- Allegiant Air
- American Airlines
- Delta Air Lines
- Southwest Airlines
- United Airlines
- Kansas City, MO (2h43m)
- Omaha, NE (1h57m)
- Sioux Falls, SD (3h58m)
- Chicago, IL (4h44m)
- Madison, WI (4h30m)
- Minneapolis, MN (3h25m)