It is no secret that I love visiting the Midwestern states, and Iowa, the 29th state, is one of my favorites. The 3.1 million people in Iowa have always enjoyed farm-to-fork foods (long before it was a trendy thing), spectacular scenery, a political hot spot, and some surprising attractions that are extra-special. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed these 29 cool things to see and do in Iowa that made it to my list and hopefully 2021 will add even more.
1. See The Duke’s Birthplace
Who doesn’t love John Wayne? I guess since he is my dad’s hero, I have always been familiar with the name. Imagine my surprise when I visited Winterset, Iowa, which was his (Marion Robert Morrison) childhood home. The home is now restored and open for visitors, as well as a John Wayne Museum that attracts visitors from all over the world. These are the only museums dedicated to “The Duke” in the world.
No joke, there were six countries represented (including Australia) at the The Duke’s birthplace and museum on my visit. You’ll see movie memorabilia, customized automobile, artwork, original movie posters, and letters at the museum Admission is $15 for adults. You can also sit in the movie theater and watch a documentary about John Wayne’s life and career.
2. Eat A Tenderloin Sandwich
Tenderloins are all the rage in Iowa and just wait until you sink your teeth into one—you will be hooked! It’s even the state food. Chances are your tenderloin sandwich (pork, in case you wondered) will be way bigger than the bun and even bigger than your palm. The meat is incredibly tender and juicy, with just the right amount of batter, fried perfectly crispy. Pictured here is a tenderloin from Nick’s.
On Friday, the Iowa Pork Producers Association named the winner of its annual “Best Breaded Pork Tenderloin” competition. Judges decided that Nick’s, on Des Moines’ south side at 1106 Army Post Road, reigned supreme over 384 other Iowa businesses. -The Des Moines Register 10/14/2016
3. Explore Music Man Square
Touring Music Man Square is one of the things to do in Mason City that you cannot miss. Music Man Square is an indoor museum that captures the 1912 streetscape from The Music Man and many of its creator, Meredith Willson’s, memorabilia and awards. You can tour Meredith’s boyhood home, too, which has the original piano he learned to play on.
Meredith Willson is an award-winning conductor, playwright, and author from Mason City, Iowa. He went on to write the book, music, and lyrics to The Music Man, first a Broadway musical, then a Warner Brothers motion picture starring Robert Preston and Shirley Jones. Willson also wrote a second musical, The Unsinkable Molly Brown and several songs, one being a favorite Christmas carol,” It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas.” Meredith Willson was the first person to win a Grammy award for Best Original Cast Album (Broadway or TV).
4. Visit A Cool Welcome Center
I love a good welcome center, and the Top of Iowa, in Northwood, one is very unique. This large red barn is actually a welcome center, Barn Boutique gift shop, “The Cow” Pie and Coffee Shop, and is open 24 hours a day. Be sure to venture to the second floor for the shopping. You’ll find everything you need at the Top of Iowa, including maps, travel guides, and a trained staff to answer any questions you might have about your travels through Iowa.
Outside is a patriotic rock with scenes painted to honoring women in the military. You can also picnic there and use the onsite grills.
5. Grill Your Meal
Rube’s Steakhouse is the perfect place to eat a fantastic meal, and have all the fun preparing your meal. Select your cut of beef, side items, and any extras, then help yourself to enormous open-hearth grill where you become master chef with the tools there for sharing. Pair your cooked items with a tasty Rube’s Steakhouse salad bar concoction and all the fixings. There are two locations for Rube’s: Montour and Waukee.
FYI: The Crab-Stuffed Mushroom Skillet is heavenly!
6. Check Out The Pappajohn Sculpture Park
You’ll find 25 of the world’s most celebrated contemporary artists’ works through 31 different pieces in downtown Des Moines. Pappajohn Sculpture Park is a great free urban attraction (4.4 acres) in the heart of the city since 2006. The artwork is stately and so interesting, while the landscape perfectly compliments the scene. My favorite pieces are Thinker on a Rock, by Barry Flanagan, White Ghost, by Yoshitomo Nara, and Nomade, by Jaume Plensa.
7. Ride The Boone & Scenic Valley Railroad
Home of the Boone and Scenic Valley Railroad, the small town of Boone really impressed me. The Boone and Scenic Valley heritage railroad operates for freight and passengers and is a lovely ride through the picturesque Des Moines River Valley. You can move about on the train ride and snacks are permitted and/or provided.
8. Indulge In A Dutch Pastry
Iowa is home to a huge Dutch population and its bakeries are supreme. Try the Dutch letter pastries (I’ve had “S” ones) that are filled with almond paste. OMG, they are such a wonderful treat! Stop by Van Hemert’s Dutch Oven Bakery for scrumptious Dutch letter pastries, an almond paste filled flaky pastry that will satisfy any sweet tooth. There are dozens of other sweet treats to choose from, as well as breakfast and lunch.
9. Tour The Stockman House
Frank Lloyd Wright left his mark in Mason City, home to The George and Eleanor Stockman House, one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s first prairie school style houses. The architectural landmark was built in 1808 and has a cantilevered roof, a dark brick fireplace, and gorgeous windows. It reminded me a lot of the Brady Bunch home.
A nearby interpretive center explains the significance of the Prairie School movement. Unfortunately, pictures are not allowed inside the FLW home. Tours are $10.
10. Drink Local Beer
When an institution boasts over 99 beers on tap, you visit said institution, in this case known as the Iowa Taproom. Centered in downtown Des Moines, the Iowa Taproom is a historic spot for enjoying great beer from all over the state. Choose from wheat, malty, sour, hoppy, darks, and low-alcohol beers, plus a handful of yummy ciders.
11. Stay In A Themed Hotel
Hotel Pattee is a boutique hotel in Perry, Iowa, that is one of the coolest themed hotels in the Midwest. This red brick jewel, opened in 1913, is full of priceless artwork, a gorgeous and welcoming lobby, and an adorable bowling alley in the basement.
A few of the Hotel Pattee rooms include Cream ‘n’ Eggs, Bohemian, Quilting, African, R.M. Harvey, and Marching Band, shown below. Make sure to have a peek in the Willis Library, and enjoy a meal from The Pattee Cafe.
12. See The Windmills
You’ll think you have crossed over to the Denmark when you land in Elk Horn, Iowa, home to the 1848 Dutch Windmill. As a tribute to the Bicentennial, local Harvey Sornson raised money to ship the 60-foot windmill to Iowa. It took over 300 volunteers to reassemble the windmill to its grandeur. Today, it is the only working windmill in the country.
13. Walk The Covered Bridges
The Covered Bridges of Madison County, in Winterset, Iowa are where the award-winning movie, starring Clint Eastwood and Jessica Lange, by the same name was filmed. The location is rustic, charming, and frequented by visitors and bus groups daily.
There are six bridges in Madison County, including Imes, Holliwell, Cedar, Culter-Donahoe, Roseman, and Hogback. Roseman is the most popular bridge (built in 1883) most-likely due to its involvement in the movie.
14. Eat A Beloved Treat
Devour a delicious cone of Birdsall’s Ice Cream, a beloved and iconic treat in Mason City for almost 90 years. Choose from around 20+ flavors as you enjoy homemade ice cream in a retro setting. The peach is divine, but the turtle sundae is pretty hard to say no to.
15. Go Gambling
Enjoy your favorite table games and slots at the lovely and lively Hard Rock Casino Sioux City. Choose from roulette, blackjack, craps, cajun stud, and Texas Hold’em Poker in this gorgeous setting which doubles as a hotel with several restaurants and bars.
Procedures have been put in place for social distancing and extra sanitizing. Admire the rock & roll artifacts and memorabilia on the walls throughout the whole casino. Temperature checks were required on my visit.
16. Awe At The Painted Grain Silos
Fort Dodge Has an incredible painted 110-foot grain silo, which were used in the past to house grains, such as wheat, corn, rye, and soybeans. The grain elevators were spruced up by Australian artist Guido van Helten using acrylic and aerosol paints. The silo murals depict locals and in vivid 3-D like clarity. The details, especially in the hands and faces, is unbelievable.
17. Chow Down On An Amazing Steak
Back on the subject of steak, you’ll taste one of the best of your life at the Northwestern Steakhouse in Mason City. Wow! I’d heard about this steakhouse, which honestly doesn’t appear to have had a facelift in 40 years, but don’t pay that any attention. Come for the delicious steak and fantastic meal they serve, instead.
Pictured here is the melt-in-your-mouth Greek steak, prepared under a broiler oven. Pair it with the Greek spaghetti, which is made with a bunch of butter, cheese, and the juice from these luscious steaks. OMG, this is one meal you will remember for a lifetime!
Read more about this legendary steakhouse in this Best of Mason City post.
18. Shop The I-80 Truck Stop
Whether you need a bathroom, snack, or meal break, please take a break when you reach the Iowa 80 TA Truck Stop, one of the most incredible truck stops in the country. In fact, it is the largest in the world!
Featuring eight restaurants, museum, and a huge gift shop, this massive facility also has three full size semis on display. Truckers can spruce up their rigs with the fabulous selection of fancy horns, lights, steering wheel covers, and much more. The list of facilities that cater to truckers also includes a barber shop, fitness center, truck service, movie theatre, laundry, library, and interstate dental office. The cutest is the Dogomat, a small space for washing your dog.
I’m just saying—Iowa I-80 is one cool road trip stop.
19. Learn About The Surf Ballroom
This iconic music venue in Clear Lake, built 1948, is where Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper, and Ritchie Valens played their last concert in February 1959; hence, the day the music died. It is truly a place where roll & roll music history changed…forever.
A wall of living history offers messages and signatures from hundreds of the artists who have played there. Concerts are still going strong at the Surf, including the Winter Dance Party which pays tribute to the three who lost their lives that fateful night referred to as “the day the music died” per singer Don McLean.
Today, you can tour the facility, take in the historical music memorabilia, and see occasional concerts, including the most famous, the Winter Dance Party. Learn more about the Surf Ballroom in this Clear Lake post.
20. See The World’s Largest Popcorn Ball
Hop off the highway 20 in Sac City, Iowa, to see a fun roadside attraction: World’s Largest Popcorn Ball. Housed in a small building with large windows, come visit the 9370 pound ball of popcorn that measures eight feet in diameter. The record-setting attraction was completed in 2009 by 250 volunteers.
21. Check Out Dream Cars
Des Moines is home to American Dream Machines, a fantastic collection of high styling classic cars, namely Corvettes. It is even one of the biggest full-service shops in the country, when it comes to classic cars. Browsing the showroom is sure to stir up a desire for the wind to whip through your hair as you barrel down the road in one of these picture-perfect dream rides.
22. Get Outdoors
Ledges State Park is one of the beauties of Iowa. This fascinating sandstone gorge was carved by a tributary of the Des Moines River. It became a state park in 1924, Iowa’s first state park. Families frequent Ledges for four miles of hiking trails, camping, picnicking, fishing, and wildlife viewing. Kids love splashing around in the water, too.
23. Visit A Historic Presidential Site
The Herbert Hoover National Historic Site Visitor Center is found in West Branch, Iowa. The two-room cottage home was built in 1871 and is where Herbert Hoover, our 31st President, was born in 1874. It is part of the National Park Service and has a museum and historic home to tour. Don’t forget to get a stamp in your National Park Passport for visiting.
24. Admire The State Capitol
Get a look at Iowa’s lovely State Capitol building in Des Moines, though it is commonly called the Iowa Statehouse. The 23-karat golden shiny domed Renaissance building sits on 17 pristine acres in the heart of downtown. The state capitol building was completed in 1886. Though I haven’t personally been inside, I hear the Law Library is a thing of beauty!
25. Take the Sculpture Walk
Mason City is home to a picturesque sculpture walk, River City Sculptures on Parade, with around 60 displays. Take the 1.7 mile walking tour and see them all…for free. There is a permanent collection, and those who are on loan to Mason City for a year. These pieces are for sale. The city votes for People’s Choice annually to purchase a piece to add to the permanent collection.
Sculptures include 76 Trombones, Maestro, Fish Story, Orbit, Puddle Hunt, and much more. Eggwards is my favorite of them all, with Ralph Moose coming in a close second.
26. Photograph The High Trestle Trail & Bridge
Iowa’s High Trestle Trail & Bridge looks like something out of a movie set. It runs 25-miles from Ankeny to Woodward. Part of the High Trestle Trail is used for recreation and contains a paved trail through the counties of Polk, Story, Boone, and Dallas. It is prevalent for walking and bike riding.
A half-mile long 13-story high bridge spans the Des Moines River Valley, affording beautiful working farms and nature views. The jewel of the attraction is the stunning 43 diamond-shaped LED-lit steel beams that resemble transiting into a mine shaft.
27. Step Into Magazine Covers At Meredith Test Gardens
This lovely oasis in the middle of the bustling city of Des Moines is better known as the Better Homes and Gardens Test Garden. It has a gorgeous prairie, path, and shade gardens, a testing ground for plants, and serves as the photography studio for the BH&G magazine and websites. You may even recognize a part of the Meredith Test Gardens (the parent company) from the glossy magazine pictures at your newsstand.
28. Take In Nature At Whiterock Conservancy
The Whiterock Conservancy is a beautiful 5,500-acre land trust and a Midwest spot for camping and getting in touch with nature. The property balances sustainable agriculture, natural resource protection, and public recreation on the quintessential Midwestern landscape. Come here to see the stars, capture night writing in photography (as seen below), or walk, hike, run, bike, or ride your horse over the 32-mile backcountry soft trail system.
Campsites and cabins are available as well as guest rooms in the historic five-bedroom Garst Farmhouse.
29. Watch The Sun Go Down At Gray’s Lake
Des Moines is home to the Iowa State Capitol and the naturally beautiful Gray’s Lake Park that sits on the south side of town. The park has a five-mile-long paved walking and biking trail that residents flock to for a bit of outdoor adventure. Gray’s illuminated pedestrian bridge makes for an excellent photo opportunity. Kayaking and biking are popular activities here, as well.
Time To Explore Iowa
Iowa is a wonderful place to visit, where the skies are blue, food is fresh, locals are friendly, and prices are affordable. I’ll bet you will be surprised at all there is to see and do in this gorgeous Midwestern destination. Hopefully these 29 things to see in Iowa will get you started.
Thanks to the Iowa State Tourism, Visit Clear Lake, and Visit Mason City for hosting many of my meals, lodging, and attractions on multiple visits. All opinions and reviews are 100% mine and unbiased.
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