Located between the great rivers of Missouri and Mississippi, Iowa contains much more than meets the eye. This landlocked state in the Upper Midwest features natural wonders, exciting modern attractions, and fascinating historical sites.
The 15 Best Sights in Iowa in 2023
Consider an Iowa vacation this year for an All-American visit that will astound you. Many thrilling attractions fill this underrated state. Ever considered seeing an elaborate religious shrine?
Or would you want to see the place that inspired the phrase, “the day the music died?” Come to Iowa! As a state, Iowa leads the United States in the production of corn, eggs, and pork.
Much of it is flat and sprawling, as the western portion of the state merges into the Great Plains region of the country. However, the eastern border of Iowa more closely resembles the Driftless Area terrain of southwestern Wisconsin.
Caves, rocky bluffs, and natural springs abound in this region. In addition to the sights, the people of Iowa have a reputation for being welcoming and friendly.
The state is predominantly rural, but thriving urban centers are sprinkled throughout it. Read on to learn more about the top 15 things to see in Iowa and plan your next vacation in the Hawkeye State.
1. Iowa State Fair
Like any local fair, the Iowa State Fair places agriculture front and center. Several barns dot the fairgrounds, with kids showing cattle, pigs, horses, rabbits, chickens, and other livestock.
These youth work for months and must qualify at local fairs for the honor to show their animal at the Iowa State Fair. As Iowa is an agricultural powerhouse, much of the fair celebrates this heritage.
In addition to showing animals, fairgoers munch on locally-sourced delicacies like a pork chop on a stick and corn on the cob. More than one million visitors attend the Iowa State Fair each year.
One of the most popular aspects of the Iowa State Fair is the legendary butter cow. Every year, a prominent sculptor carves a cow out of a block of butter. This carving is done live, as fairgoers quietly file past the artist who is on the other side of a glass-front, temperature-controlled wall.
Keep in mind this often draws a crowd of hundreds looking to take pictures of the impressive cow sculpture once it is finished. If agriculture isn’t your thing, the Iowa State Fair also has a full line-up of musical performances and political appearances.
For many years, presidential hopefuls attended the fair for a wholesome photo-op. There are usually late-night concerts featuring some of the finest rock and country bands around.
2. Amana Colonies
Another family-friendly excursion is the Amana Colonies. This historical site preserves the culture of a German religious group who settled in this region of Iowa in the 1840s.
Fleeing religious persecution, these people established several connected colonies or small towns, so they could live and worship in peace. Visually, the Amana Colonies seek to maintain that early period and the ethos of their religion.
The original Amana Church still stands, with no stained glass or elaborate architecture. Likewise, businesses, homes, and roads also stay true to this unadorned, humble appearance that was so important to their beliefs.
Tourists today will feel like they are stepping back in time as they walk down historic roads and view the original clapboard or stone houses. Communal flower and vegetable gardens thrive here, providing the fresh produce enjoyed by visitors to local restaurants, shops, and wineries.
Food is a big part of the Amana Colonies, with the original bakery that sustained the settlers continuing to flourish. Elsewhere, you can sample a taste of the old world at the Amana Meat Shop and Smokehouse or the High Amana General Store.
3. Lake Okoboji
Called “Iowa’s Great Lakes” Lake Okoboji provides a premium spot for a summer getaway. If you love boating, waterskiing, fishing, or other outdoor recreation, Lake Okoboji is the ideal Iowa location for you.
These glacier-carved lakes span about 15,000 acres along the Minnesota border in north-western Iowa. The Okobojis encompasses a chain of lakes, including Spirit Lake, West Okoboji, Upper Gar, Minnewashta, Lower Gar, and East Okoboji.
Besides the fantastic scenery, tons of outdoor recreation and beach fun await in the Lake Okoboji area. In particular, you can rent bicycles, play golf, set up camp, or visit the amusement and water park at nearby Arnold’s Park.
4. Grotto of the Redemption
The Grotto of the Redemption, situated in West Bend, was built by Father Paul Matthias Dobberstein. This German priest suffered pneumonia while studying for the priesthood.
He prayed fervently to the Virgin Mary to save his life and promised to build her a shrine if he survived. Dobberstein recovered and preached in West Bend for his entire career.
Soon after arriving, he started an enormous collection of rocks and precious stones that he used to show a tremendous artistic ability. The Grotto would become his masterpiece. After more than ten years of collecting, Dobberstein started his creation in 1912.
The Grotto of the Redemption is not only a large and imposing structure, its mosaics portray numerous Biblical stories. The Grotto of the Redemption is a must-see for a few reasons.
Even if the religious imagery does not move you, the story of the relentless human spirit and what can be achieved with deep faith and artistic inspiration will. The Grotto of the Redemption is often called the Eighth Wonder of the World.
5. National Hobo Museum
This quirky attraction, located in the tiny town of Britt, provides background for a unique part of American history. The National Hobo Museum collects artifacts and cultural objects illustrating a lifestyle that has been practiced in the United States for centuries.
If your trip coincides with early August, stop by for the National Hobo Convention. Everyone is invited to this town festival, which celebrates their connection to hobo culture.
This convention features themed poetry recited in the hobo jungle, and sometimes even a wedding. A street dance, carnival food, and games for all ages make for a charming community gathering.
Some participants in the convention still ride the rails to attend. Hobos honor their lifestyle, adopt special names, and maintain a dedicated cemetery in the town. While quite uncommon, this one-of-a-kind community festival preserves the way of life of these Americans.
6. National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium
Located on the banks of the Mississippi in Dubuque, Iowa, the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium boasts an impressive assortment of local wildlife.
This attraction does a fantastic job with its interactive exhibits and dynamic wildlife viewing opportunities. One of the best exhibits at the aquarium houses river otters. Rain or shine, these animals flip, play, and dive for your viewing pleasure.
Elsewhere, check out the elusive barn owl or view their many species of lizards, amphibians, fish, and insects. While this aquarium is, of course, located in Iowa, this attraction celebrates the entire Mississippi River.
You can pet a stingray or head outside and see the museum’s protected wetland area. This outdoor space maintains a healthy habitat for many marsh-dwelling creatures like beavers, blue herons, frogs, and Canada geese.
7. Field of Dreams
“If you build it, they will come.” While this phrase was supposed to allude to the premise of the movie, it rings true today as you can see the original baseball field and surrounding farmland made famous in the 1989 movie Field of Dreams.
Today, visitors attend to tour the famous movie set, or even catch a baseball game on the iconic field. Major League Baseball often holds special exhibition games at the field, with athletes emerging from the cornfields just like in the movie.
8. Surf Ballroom
On February 2, 1959, Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson tragically perished in a plane crash. These artists were last seen alive onstage at the Surf Ballroom, a tropical-themed dancehall in the small north-central community of North Lake.
As part of the iconic Winter Dance Party, these rising artists performed an unforgettable show in the early days of rock and roll. The Surf Ballroom maintains its remarkable legacy.
In addition to several streets around the ballroom holding the names of Holly, Valens, and Richardson, this venue continues to celebrate the Winter Dance Party every February. Poodle skirts are encouraged!
Today, famous artists line up to perform on this historic stage. Diverse artists like Latin guitarist Santana, rock groups REO Speedwagon and Kansas, country star Martina McBride and blues legend BB King have all performed at the Surf Ballroom.
9. American Gothic House
The scene of the famous painting American Gothic ranks as the ninth-best site in Iowa. While seemingly nondescript, this farmhouse features prominently in the background of Grant Wood’s memorable 1930 painting.
This painting depicts a stern farmer and his equally serious daughter, standing with a pitchfork in front of a simple white home.
As one of the most famous homes in American art history, this attraction is a must for art lovers. If dessert is more your speed, stop for a slice of apple pie made and sold from the kitchen of this quintessentially American home.
10. Maquoketa Caves State Park
As parts of Iowa were never flattened by glaciers, amazing underground worlds still thrive in the state. Located in the east, Maquoketa Caves State Park is one of the most popular parks in Iowa.
While many caves are not open to the public, this state park welcomes everyone to see these thrilling landscapes. Since 1921, visitors have explored caves, hiked the interconnected trails, and even camped on top of these amazing formations.
This park is a collection of several stunning caves. The best caves within the park include Dancehall Cave, Shinbone Cave, Twin Arch Cave, and Ice Cave. Every cave boasts unique arches, tunnels, and other natural formations.
11. Blank Park Zoo
There’s nothing better than visiting a zoo! Blank Park Zoo, located in the capital city of Des Moines, offers plentiful exhibits with giraffes and an interactive Australia exhibit. During the summer, an adults-only event combines cocktails with wildlife for an unforgettable night out.
12. Pappajohn Sculpture Park
After a visit to the Des Moines Art Center, explore the Pappajohn Sculpture Park. This park sits on 4.4 acres, making it one of the largest parks dedicated to public art and sculpture in the United States.
The 28 sculptures exist to encourage visitors to explore and interpret each piece. They live in Western Gateway Park, a free public park open 24 hours a day in central Des Moines.
Famous artists like Louise Bourgeois, Keith Haring, and Ai Weiwei have contributed to the park. Art depicting human forms, archways, and kinetic displays enhance this public space.
13. Villisca Axe Murder House
If a spooky stop on your trip intrigues you, the Villisca Axe Murder House will fit the bill. In 1912, eight people were brutally murdered in this house in a case that has never been solved.
Needless to say, this murder shocked Villisca and managed to knock the recent sinking of the Titanic from front-page news.
During the 1990s, restorers completed a total overhaul of this property. Now considered a place of historical significance and morbid curiosity, visitors can take a tour of the home. If you’re feeling really brave, you can even spend the night in this supposedly haunted house
14. High Trestle Trail
Ride along the Des Moines River Valley on the spectacular High Trestle Trail bridge. Day or night, this trail offers spectacular views. During the day, you can peer 25-miles beneath to marvel at the beauty of the rugged Iowa landscape below.
However, nightfall is what makes this trail truly one-of-a-kind. The trail features a signature design made to resemble a typical mine shaft. Its perfectly assembled squares spiral with precision to give the rider the surreal feeling of falling while biking along the bridge.
Biking is a major pastime in Iowa, and competitors are routinely organized, such as the iconic RAGBRAI race. Thousands of bikers from around the world come in July to bike across the entire state.
15. Pella, Iowa
Step into Holland with a visit to Pella. This charming community embraces Dutch culture in every corner of this small town. Taste authentic meats and cheeses or snacks on a Dutch letter, one of the delicacies available at local bakeries.
As you stroll through this cute town, listen for the unpredictable musical clock to ring throughout downtown. And, be on the lookout for exquisite Dutch-inspired architecture like the iconic Vermeer windmill.
If you’re considering a trip to Pella, you might want to come during Tulip Time! This festival showcases the best of Pella, with residents dressed in traditional Dutch clothing, public performances, parades, and performances.
Things to Consider
Weather in Iowa can be unforgiving, no matter what season you visit. For instance, winter weather brings brutal temperatures and whipping wind. Pack warm layers and don’t forget a hat, gloves, and scarf to keep every part of you and your family toasty and free of frostbite.
Summertime represents a significant shift in the opposite direction. Be prepared for very humid weather as well as frequent thunderstorms. Pack an umbrella or lightweight raincoat along with plenty of sunscreen, sunglasses, and a wide-brimmed hat.
In addition to unrelenting heat, summer bugs reign in Iowa. Consider bringing bug spray or ventilated, long-sleeved clothing to protect yourself from mosquito bites or ticks.
If you decide to drive throughout Iowa, be prepared for a range of weather. Blizzards, severe thunderstorms, and gusting wind are common in Iowa.
Frequently Asked Questions
Read on for answers to the most common questions from others planning trips to Iowa!
What is the best time of year to visit Iowa?
To avoid extreme weather in Iowa, it is best to visit in the early fall. Plan a trip just after Labor Day through the end of October for pleasant conditions, beautiful fall colors, and more.
Are there any Native American reservations in Iowa?
There is one federally-recognized Native American reservation in Iowa. Located in the central part of the state, the Meskwaki Nation lives on more than 8,600 acres.
What food is Iowa known for?
Iowa’s cultural heritage includes many Western European and Scandinavian settlers. This, combined with rich agriculture, results in notable foods like pork chops, sweet corn, and rhubarb pie.
Are there waterfalls in Iowa?
Yes! The unique topography includes waterfalls throughout the eastern part of the state. In particular, Pikes Peak State Park in McGregor and Lake MacBride State Park in Solon are perfect to explore for water features.
Is there a monument dedicated to Captain Kirk?
Absolutely! It’s located in Riverside and declares the city to be the future birthplace of the iconic Star Trek captain (22 March, 2228, to be exact).
What to See in Iowa: Final Thoughts
Like the waterfalls or cornfields within this great state, Iowa flows with spectacular attractions year-round. Take in unique adventures like a baseball game or stroll through an aquarium.
Or honor Iowa’s unique heritage by exploring its extraordinary caves and historic landmarks. Iowa truly has something for everyone.