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29 Cool Things to See in Iowa

29 Cool Things to See in Iowa

It is no secret that I love visiting the Midwestern states, and Iowa, the 29th state, is one of my favorites. Iowa’s 3.1 million people relish farm-to-fork cuisine (long before it was a trend), breathtaking scenery, a prominent political landscape, and unique attractions. Here are 29 cool things to see in Iowa that I’ve enjoyed over the years, and here’s hoping I add more in 2024.


1. See The Duke’s Birthplace 

John Wayne is adored by many, including my father, so I’ve always recognized his name. My astonishment peaked when I visited Winterset, Iowa, where he, known as Marion Robert Morrison, spent his childhood.

Now fully restored and open to visitors, this remarkable house serves as a museum dedicated to John Wayne, The Duke, attracting people from around the globe. These outstanding establishments are the only museums in the world solely dedicated to this legendary figure.

I was amazed to find people from six countries, including Australia, at the John Wayne Birthplace and Museum on my visit. The museum showcases priceless movie memorabilia, a unique vehicle, captivating artwork, original movie posters, and personal letters. 

Additionally, visitors can enjoy a fascinating documentary about the life and career of John Wayne in a state-of-the-art theater. Both locations are fully accessible for individuals with disabilities. The museum entry fee is $20 for adults, with discounted rates for veterans, children, and seniors.


2. Explore Music Man Square

Touring Music Man Square in Mason City is an absolute must. This indoor museum showcases the 1912 streetscape from The Music Man, featuring Meredith Willson’s memorable memorabilia and awards. Don’t miss the chance to visit Meredith’s childhood home, where you’ll find the original piano he mastered.


Meredith Willson, the esteemed conductor, playwright, and author from Mason City, Iowa, penned the book, music, and lyrics for The Music Man. It premiered on Broadway and was later adapted into a Warner Brothers motion picture starring Robert Preston and Shirley Jones. Willson’s impressive repertoire also includes The Unsinkable Molly Brown and the beloved Christmas carol, “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas.” 

Wilson was the inaugural recipient of the Grammy Award for Best Original Cast Album in the Broadway and TV category.


3. Eat A Tenderloin Sandwich

Tenderloins are hugely popular in Iowa; it’s the official state food. Once you experience the delectable taste, you’ll be instantly captivated. Your tenderloin sandwich (pork, in case you were wondering) will likely surpass the size of the bun and even your palm. The meat is incredibly tender and juicy, with a perfectly crispy batter.

Consider splitting a tenderloin with a friend.


4. Visit The Coolest Welcome Center

The Top of Iowa’s unique welcome center in Northwood is a large red barn housing a Barn Boutique gift shop, “The Cow” Pie and Coffee Shop, open 24/7. On the second floor, shop for all your needs, including maps and travel guides, with a helpful and knowledgeable staff to assist you on your Iowa journey. 


Outside, a patriotic rock pays tribute to women in the military and provides a pleasant picnic spot with onsite grilling facilities.


5. Grill Your Own Meal

Rube’s Steakhouse offers a delightful dining experience, allowing you to customize your meal. Choose your cut of beef, sides, and extras, then showcase your culinary skills on the open-hearth grill. Complement your creation with a delectable Rube’s Salad Bar and fixings. Find Rube’s at two locations: Montour and Waukee.

Pro tip: Try the divine Crab-Stuffed Mushroom Skillet!


6. Stroll The Amazing Pappajohn Sculpture Park

Downtown Des Moines showcases the works of 30+ celebrated contemporary artists across 31 distinct pieces. Pappajohn Sculpture Park, a magnificent 4.4-acre urban attraction since 2006, is situated in the heart of the city. Its captivating artwork and complementary landscape create a stately and intriguing setting.

Notable pieces include “Thinker on a Rock” by Barry Flanagan, “White Ghost” by Yoshitomo Nara, and “Nomade” by Jaume Plensa. Take advantage of the Sculpture Park Audio Tour by clicking this link. 


7. Ride The Boone & Scenic Valley Railroad

Boone, with its renowned Boone and Scenic Valley Railroad, captivated me. This heritage railroad operates for freight and passengers, offering a delightful journey through the picturesque Des Moines River Valley. Passengers can freely move about, and snacks are available onboard.

Look for the Santa Express during the Christmas holiday, which sells out early. In the regular season, climate-controlled Fraser Train tickets run around $35 and $18 for children 3 to 18.


8. Indulge In A Dutch Pastry

Iowa boasts a large Dutch population and has exquisite bakeries. Don’t miss the delightful Dutch letter puff pastries filled with almond paste, which are seriously some of the best sweet treats I’ve ever eaten.

Visit Van Hemert’s Dutch Oven Bakery or Jaarsma Bakery for these and a variety of other pastries — perfect for breakfast, lunch, or any occasion.


9. Tour A Frank Lloyd Wright Fireproof House

Frank Lloyd Wright’s influence in Mason City is evident through The George and Eleanor Stockman House, one of his initial prairie school-style residences. This architectural landmark boasts a cantilevered roof, a dark brick fireplace, and stunning windows. Its resemblance to the iconic Brady Bunch home is striking.


Proximate to the premises, an interpretive center elucidates the importance of the Prairie School movement. However, photography is prohibited inside the FLW home. Tours are $15 and start at the Architectural Interpretive Center. This tour is not for children under 6.

Photo from Stockman House social site.

10. Drink Iowa’s 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, low-alcohol beers, and a handful of yummy ciders. 


11. Get Outdoors

Ledges State Park in Iowa is a captivating sandstone gorge carved by a Des Moines River tributary. Established in 1924, it is Iowa’s first state park and a cherished destination for families. With four miles of hiking trails, camping, picnicking, fishing, and wildlife viewing, there is something for everyone.

The park’s rich history and unique natural features, including towering 100-foot sandstone ledges, make it a paradise for hikers and outdoor enthusiasts. Streamwalking is a popular family activity.

12. Stay In A Themed Hotel

Hotel Pattee, a boutique hotel in Perry, Iowa, stands out as one of the Midwest’s most sophisticated themed hotels. Opened in 1913, this red brick jewel showcases priceless artwork and a stunning, inviting lobby, complete with the stylish Arthur “Oley” Olson Bowling Alley.

The hotel offers 40 rooms with unique themes like Cream ‘n’ Eggs, Bohemian, Quilting, African, R.M. Harvey, and Marching Band. Don’t miss the precious artworks in the Willis Library and indulge in a meal at The Pattee Café, featuring three distinct dining areas.


13. See Iowa’s Dutch Windmills

Upon arrival in Elk Horn, Iowa, one may feel transported to Denmark, as the quaint town houses the historic 1848 Dutch Windmill. As a tribute to the Bicentennial, resident Harvey Sornson successfully raised funds to relocate the majestic 60-foot windmill to Iowa. The dedicated efforts of over 300 volunteers meticulously reassembled the windmill to its former grandeur.

Notably, it stands as the sole operational windmill in the nation.


14. See The Famous Covered Bridges

The Covered Bridges of Madison County in Winterset, Iowa, served as the rustic, charming filming location for the acclaimed movie The Bridges of Madison County, featuring Clint Eastwood and Jessica Lange. These six bridges — Imes, Holliwell, Cedar, Culter-Donahoe, Roseman, and Hogback— attract daily visitors and bus groups. 

Among them, the renowned Roseman Bridge, constructed in 1883, enjoys the highest popularity due to its appearance in the film.


15. Eat A Beloved Treat

Experience the exquisite delight of Birdsall’s Ice Cream. This iconic ice cream shop has captivated Mason City locals and visitors for nearly a century. Indulge in homemade ice cream amidst a nostalgic ambiance with a plethora of 20+ flavors. 

The divine peach and irresistible turtle sundae are but two tempting options. For a truly distinctive experience, order the Panther – a harmonious combination of lemon custard and black raspberry ice cream drizzled with black raspberry topping.

Here are some tasty eats in nearby Clear Lake.


16. Go Gambling At The Hard Rock

Experience a captivating selection of table games, slots, and Sportsbook at the esteemed Hard Rock Casino Sioux City. Delight in the array of options, including roulette, blackjack, craps, cajun stud, and Texas Hold’em Poker, in this remarkable venue that also offers luxurious accommodations and two renowned restaurants (Main + Abbey and Fuel American Grill). 

Indulge in your preferred beverages at any of the three bars while appreciating the rock & roll artifacts and memorabilia displayed throughout the Hard Rock property. Stay informed about upcoming concerts and shows by checking the schedule.


17. Awe At The Painted Grain Silos

Fort Dodge, Iowa, boasts an impressive 110-foot grain silo adorned by Australian artist Guido van Helten. These silo murals depict local residents in stunning 3-D clarity, brought to life with acrylic and aerosol paints. The level of detail, particularly in the hands and faces, is truly remarkable.


18. Chow Down On An Amazing Steak Dinner

The award-winning Northwestern Steakhouse in Mason City offers an unforgettable dining experience. Despite its unchanged appearance in the over 100-year-old property, the steakhouse shines with its mouthwatering steak and delectable menu. 

The melt-in-your-mouth Greek steak is expertly broiled and complemented by the flavorful Greek spaghetti made with butter, cheese, and steak juice. This legendary establishment guarantees a memorable meal that you’ll cherish. Note that Northwestern Steakhouse is closed on Sundays.


19. Shop The I-80 Truck Stop

The Iowa 80 TA Truck Stop is an extraordinary road trip find. As the world’s largest truck stop, it offers many amenities catering to truckers. This remarkable facility has everything from eight restaurants to a museum, a sprawling gift shop, and three full-size semis on display. 

Enhancing the look of their rigs is made possible with a fabulous selection of fancy horns, lights, and steering wheel covers. Other offerings include a barber shop, fitness center, truck service, movie theatre, laundry, library, and even an interstate dental office, not to mention the Dogomat, a quaint space designed for dog washing.

The Iowa 80 TA Truck Stop is the perfect place for any traveler to take a break, whether for a bathroom or a quick snack.


20. Learn About The Surf Ballroom

The iconic 1948 music venue in Clear Lake hosted the historic final concert of Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper, and Ritchie Valens. The year was 1959. This event is famously known as “the day the music died.”


The Surf Ballroom serves as a living testament to the rich history of rock & roll, featuring messages and signatures from countless artists. Concerts continue to thrive at the Surf, with the renowned Winter Dance Party paying homage to those who tragically lost their lives on that fateful night mentioned above.

Visitors can explore the facility, marvel at the music memorabilia, and enjoy occasional concerts. And by the way, did you know Iowa had beaches? Clear Lake does.


22. See The World’s Largest Popcorn Ball

Exit Highway 20 in Sac City, Iowa, to witness the captivating World’s Largest Popcorn Ball. This 9370-pound, eight-foot diameter wonder was crafted in 2009 by 250 dedicated volunteers and is now encased in a charming building.


22. Check Out Dream Cars

Des Moines, Iowa, boasts American Dream Machines, a premier collection of stylish classic cars. This vast full-service shop is one of the country’s largest for classics. Gazing upon the showroom fuels an irresistible yearning to experience the wind in your hair as you cruise the open road in one of these immaculate dream rides.


23. Visit A Historic Presidential Site

The Herbert Hoover National Historic Site Visitor Center is located in West Branch, Iowa. This two-room cottage, built in 1871, is the birthplace of our 31st President, Herbert Hoover, who was born in 1874. It is a National Park Service site featuring a museum and historic home for guided tours. 

Remember to stamp your National Park Passport during your visit.


24. Admire The Iowa State Capitol

Behold Iowa’s picturesque State Capitol, also known as the Iowa Statehouse. This 23-karat golden domed Renaissance marvel graces 17 acres in downtown Des Moines. The state capitol, finished in 1886, boasts an exquisite Law Library.


25. Take the Sculpture Walk

Mason City hosts a charming sculpture walk, River City Sculptures on Parade, featuring about 60 displays. Embark on a 1.7-mile walking tour to view them all at no cost. The collection comprises permanent and on-loan pieces, some available for purchase. The city votes for a People’s Choice artwork each year to expand the permanent collection. 

Sculptures include 76 Trombones, Maestro, Fish Story, Puddle Hunt, and more. My favorite is Eggwards, closely followed by Ralph Moose.


Pro Tip: After strolling downtown Mason City to see the sculptures, pop into the Quarry Restaurant for a tasty lunch or Fat Hill Brewing for a cold one.

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 Polk, Story, Boone, and Dallas counties. 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

The Better Homes and Gardens Test Garden in Des Moines is an enchanting oasis amidst the busy city. With picturesque prairie, path, and shade gardens, it serves as a testing ground and photography studio for BH&G’s publications. The Meredith Test Gardens, also featured in glossy magazine pictures, are part of this exceptional destination.


28. Take In Nature At Whiterock Conservancy

Whiterock Conservancy is a sprawling 5,500-acre land trust in the Midwest. It offers a serene camping getaway amidst nature’s beauty. It seamlessly integrates sustainable agriculture, natural resource conservation, and public recreation on the quintessential Midwestern landscape. 

Immerse yourself in stargazing, capture mesmerizing nightscapes, or explore the expansive 32-mile backcountry trail system on foot, bike, or horseback. Accommodations include campsites, cabins, and guest rooms in the historic Garst Farmhouse.


29. Watch The Sun Go Down At Gray’s Lake

Des Moines houses the Iowa State Capitol and Gray’s Lake Park, a naturally scenic gem in the city’s southern part. The park features a five-mile paved trail for walking and biking, attracting residents seeking outdoor exploration. The illuminated pedestrian bridge at Gray’s Lake offers an excellent photo opportunity.

Kayaking and biking are popular activities in this area.


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. You will be surprised at how much there is to see and do in this gorgeous Midwestern destination. 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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Carole Gieseke

Monday 26th of February 2018

Great write-up about the state of Iowa. Other highlights of the state include: Loess Hills (western Iowa), Pella (a lovely Dutch community), and Decorah (in northeast Iowa). Decorah is in the stunning Driftless Area of the state; the whole eastern border along the Mississippi River is worth exploring. College towns -- Ames (Iowa State U), Iowa City (U of I), and Cedar Falls (U of Northern Iowa) -- are definitely worth visiting, too. And don't forget to join the 10,000+ bicyclists who descend on the state each year for RAGBRAI (the Register's Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa). I've lived here for 20 years and have been happily writing about my travels (in and outside of Iowa).


Wednesday 28th of February 2018

Awesome suggestions! I have some friends in Iowa who will maybe take me to those places next time. ;) I've actually heard marvelous things about Decorah! I actually stayed at Hotel Pattee, where several bikers spend the night on their ride.

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