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30 Places to Visit in Iowa for the Ultimate Travel Bucket List

Hopkinton June 14, 2024

Hey there, fellow adventurers! You know, I’ve been roaming this incredible state for years, and let me tell you, Iowa is a treasure trove waiting to be discovered. I’m talking about hidden gems that’ll make your jaw drop, and your camera roll fill up faster than you can say “corn on the cob.” Trust me, I’ve seen my fair share of quirky, charming, and downright awe-inspiring spots, and I’m here to spill the beans.

Picture this: you’re cruising down a winding road, windows down, the smell of fresh farmland filling your lungs. Suddenly, you stumble upon a tiny town with a larger-than-life personality. That’s the magic of Iowa, my friends. It’s where you’ll find a museum dedicated entirely to matchsticks (yes, you read that right) or a bridge that’ll make you feel like you’re in a fairy tale.

But here’s the thing – Iowa isn’t just about the offbeat attractions. It’s about the warmth of the people, the mouthwatering food (ever tried a “walking taco”?), and the stories that’ll stick with you long after you’ve left. I remember chatting with a local artist in Dubuque who painted the most stunning riverscapes I’ve ever seen. Or the time I got lost in the Maquoketa Caves and emerged with a newfound appreciation for the power of nature.

We’ll dive into the most captivating, lesser-known spots that make you fall head over heels for the Hawkeye State. From the quirky to the breathtaking, the delicious to the downright bizarre, get ready to experience Iowa like never before.

Fenelon Place Elevator, Dubuque

Fenelon Place Elevator, Dubuque
Fenelon Place Elevator

You have to check out the Fenelon Place Elevator in Dubuque. This quirky little cable car feels like a ride back in time. The best part? The stunning view at the top. On a clear day, you can see Iowa, Illinois, and Wisconsin all at once. The ride is fun for everyone – kids love it, and adults get that nostalgic feeling. And honestly, don’t forget your camera. There’s something magical about capturing those panoramic views. Go early to avoid crowds and enjoy the peace!

Matchstick Marvels Museum, Gladbrook

Iconic monuments and landmarks in matchsticks sculptures
Matchstick Marvels Museum

This place is wild! Imagine this: jaw-dropping masterpieces made entirely out of matchsticks. Yep, we’re talking about the Matchstick Marvels Museum in Gladbrook. It’s like stepping into a miniature world, where everything from the International Space Station to famous landmarks is crafted with stunning detail. You’ll be amazed at the patience and skill that goes into each piece. I couldn’t stop marveling at the tiny, intricate details when I visited. You’ll leave with a new appreciation for this unique art form. And don’t forget to bring your curiosity, it’s a true one-of-a-kind experience!

Snake Alley, Burlington

Snake Alley in a street in Burlington

Oh, you have to see this place! Snake Alley in Burlington is like something straight out of a quirky travel show. Officially called the “Crookedest Street in the World,” it’s even got Lombard Street in San Francisco beat! The twists and turns are mind-boggling. If you’re feeling brave, you can actually drive down it. I chickened out, but watching others navigate those curves was just as thrilling. At the bottom, there’s this neat little corner with photos from back in the 1890s. Honestly, it’s one of those unique spots that make road trips in Iowa so memorable. You’ll love it!

American Gothic Barn, Mount Vernon

Barn house with mural in American Gothic Barn, Mount Vernon
American Gothic Barn

You definitely gotta check out this hidden gem! The American Gothic Barn in Mount Vernon is like stepping into a giant 3D version of Grant Wood’s famous painting. It’s quirky and so Midwest. Drive by and you can’t miss it—those iconic pitchfork-wielding figures painted right on the side. When I first saw it, I had to pull over and snap a pic. It’s worth every second if you’re into unique roadside attractions. Plus, it’s a fun little history lesson for the kids. Total selfie material!

Pottawattamie Squirrel Cage Jail, Council Bluffs

Pottawattamie Squirrel Cage Jail

Hands down, you won’t find anything quite like this place in your typical list of tourist attractions in Iowa. Built in 1885, this rotating jail is unlike any other. Yeah, you heard that right—a revolving jail! It’s creepy and cool all at once. Wander through the cells, picture the old days, and taste local history with a twist. And hey, don’t forget to snap a few pics; your friends won’t believe it unless they see it! If you love quirky destinations in Iowa, this spot has to be on your travel bucket list.

Zombie Burger + Drink Lab, Des Moines

Zombie Burger + Drink Lab, Des Moines
Zombie Burger

Oh boy, Zombie Burger + Drink Lab is an absolute must when you’re in Des Moines! This place is more than just a restaurant—it’s an experience. The quirky zombie-themed décor gives you all the fun, creepy vibes. And the food? Mouth-wateringly good. You gotta try the Undead Elvis burger—trust me on this one. Plus, the crazy milkshakes are outta this world! It’s the perfect spot for a casual hangout or even a late-night bite. Make sure you snap some pics; your Insta feed will thank you!

Villisca Axe Murder House, Villisca

Villisca Axe Murder House, Villisca

Imagine stepping into a real-life horror story. The Villisca Axe Murder House is not your average tourist stop. Nope, this place is where eight people, including six children, were brutally murdered back in 1912. Spooky, right? You can actually tour the house and get an eerie feel of the past. And if you’re brave enough, they offer overnight stays. I did it once—couldn’t sleep a wink! But it’s worth bragging rights. Trust me, it’s one of those places to visit in Iowa that you’ll never forget. Would you dare to visit?

Iowa 80 Trucking Museum, Walcott

Exterior of the Iowa 80 Trucking Museum, Walcott

You’ve never seen anything like the Iowa 80 Trucking Museum. It’s packed with rare and one-of-a-kind trucks—some real beauties! Whether you’re a truck enthusiast or not, you’ll find the exhibit fascinating. The museum is the brainchild of Bill Moon, founder of the nearby Iowa 80 Truckstop, the world’s largest truck stop. It’s free to get in, which is always a bonus. How cool is that? If you’ve got kids, they’ll love the hands-on exhibits, and you’ll learn a ton about trucking history. Go ahead, make a pit stop here!

Clark Tower, Winterset

Ruins of the Clark Tower, Winterset
Clark Tower

Nestled in Winterset City Park, Clark Tower is a hidden gem you just can’t miss. This 25-foot limestone marvel, built in 1926, offers sweeping views that make the climb worth every step. You’ll feel like you’ve stepped into a fairy tale as you explore the trails leading up to it. Don’t forget your camera; the panoramic vistas are breathtaking! And hey, if you’ve got kids in tow, they’ll love pretending it’s their castle. Trust me, it’s a memory-maker!

Castles of Ida Grove, Ida Grove

Castles of Ida Grove facade in Ida Grove
Iowa Roadtrip Facebook

Oh boy, you’re in for a treat in Ida Grove! Imagine stumbling across actual castles in the middle of Iowa. Yep, not kidding. These castles are the brainchild of Byron Godbersen, an eccentric genius with a knack for whimsical architecture. Each one is quirky and utterly charming from the Airport Hangar Castle to Lake LaJune Chalet. Personally, I was floored driving past knights in armor and castle gates along Highway 175. And trust me—you’ll leave with stories to tell and photos that scream fairy tale!

Field of Dreams Movie Site, Dyersville

Field of Dreams Movie Site in Dyersville
Field of Dreams Movie Site

If you’re a movie buff or baseball fan, you’ve got to visit this iconic site in Dyersville. Remember the magical cornfields from the ‘Field of Dreams’ movie? They’re real, and you can walk through them! I once brought my sons here, and we spent the whole day just soaking up the nostalgia. You can even have a catch on the field—how cool is that? Plus, don’t miss the gift shop packed with quirky memorabilia. It’s more than a place; it’s an American dream come true.

Boone & Scenic Valley Railroad, Boone

Boone & Scenic Valley Railroad, Boone

Choo-choo! All aboard for a trip back in time. Seriously, you won’t believe how gorgeous the Des Moines River Valley looks from a vintage train car. I took my family there last fall, and let me tell you, the kids couldn’t stop grinning. Pack some snacks, bring your camera, and get ready to snap those picture-perfect moments. Regardless you’re a train enthusiast or just love a good ride, this one’s unforgettable. Trust me, tickets go fast—so snag yours early!

Dunnings Springs Waterfall, Decorah

Water cascading down from Dunnings Springs Waterfall, Decorah

You gotta check out Dunnings Springs Waterfall if you find yourself in Decorah. It’s this gorgeous, 200-foot cascade just minutes from downtown. The sound of the water crashing down is like nature’s own lullaby. I remember my last trip there; I stumbled upon it during a morning hike, and let me tell you, it’s a stunning sight. You’ll want to have your camera ready. Oh, and good walking shoes are a must—the trails can get a bit uneven. This is one of those places to visit in Iowa that you’ll rave about for years!

Lake McBride State Park, Solon

Serene looking lake at Lake McBride State Park, Solon

If you’re craving some time in nature, Lake McBride State Park is the ideal escape. Just west of Solon, this spot is a gem for outdoor lovers. Picture yourself picnicking by the lake or hitting the trails for a scenic hike. I remember renting a kayak there last summer—it was pure bliss paddling over the serene waters. And let’s not forget, the fishing here is top-notch! Pack some snacks, grab your gear, and make a day of it. You won’t regret it!

Reiman Gardens, Ames

Blooms at Reiman Gardens, Ames

You’re gonna love Reiman Gardens in Ames. It’s a lush oasis with 17 acres of outdoor gardens—perfect for a leisurely stroll. The indoor tropical plant conservatory? Absolutely stunning. Last time I visited, the Butterfly Wing took my breath away with hundreds of colorful butterflies fluttering around. Don’t forget your camera—every corner is Instagram-worthy. And keep an eye out for their seasonal displays; they switch things up often. A tip from me: visit in the morning for a peaceful experience before it gets too busy. Trust me, it’s worth it!

American Gothic House, Eldon

American Gothic House, Eldon

You’ve gotta check out the American Gothic House in Eldon. Remember that iconic painting by Grant Wood? Yup, this is the spot! It’s so cool to see it up close, and there’s even a little visitor center where you can play dress-up with pitchforks and old-timey clothes for photos. I had a blast pretending to be in the painting myself! The town’s small but charming, perfect for a day trip. Pro tip: visit early to avoid crowds and get great lighting for your pics. Enjoy!

Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden, Des Moines

Dome at the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden, Des Moines

You’ve got to visit the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden. It’s a real gem in the heart of Iowa! Imagine strolling through lush gardens filled with beautiful flowers and exotic plants. The conservatory is something else—warm and tropical, even in the middle of winter. I remember losing track of time just wandering around, captivated by all the different species. Don’t skip the waterfall feature; it’s so calming. If you’re into photography, this place is heaven. Trust me, your Instagram will thank you!

Effigy Mounds National Monument, Harpers Ferry

Effigy Mounds National Monument, Harpers Ferry

You have to check out Effigy Mounds National Monument in Harpers Ferry. It’s like stepping back in time. Picture this: Over 200 prehistoric mounds built by Native American tribes, some shaped like bears and birds. It’s both eerie and awe-inspiring. Take the time to do the hikes—trust me, the view from the overlooks is worth it. I remember standing there, soaking it all in and thinking about how ancient communities once lived here. If you’re into history or nature, this place is a must-visit. Wear good shoes!

Grotto of the Redemption, West Bend

Grotto of the Redemption, West Bend

You’ve gotta see this! The Grotto of the Redemption in West Bend is mind-blowing. Imagine the world’s largest man-made grotto, packed with gemstones and minerals. It tells the story of Christ’s life, one intricate scene at a time. Honestly, photos don’t do it justice. I remember feeling tiny next to its towering sculptures. Plus, it’s often called the “Eighth Wonder of the World.” Sneak in some time for meditation or just marvel at its beauty. You’ll leave feeling inspired!

Pappajohn Sculpture Park, Des Moines

Pappajohn Sculpture Park, Des Moines

You’ve got to check out Pappajohn Sculpture Park in downtown Des Moines. Seriously, it’s like an open-air museum with giant sculptures scattered around. I remember wandering through the park and feeling like I was in a contemporary art book come to life. The setting is perfect for photos—think Instagram gold. And the best part? It’s open from sunrise to midnight, so you’ve got plenty of time to soak it all in. Don’t rush; pack a picnic and enjoy the creative vibes.

National Czech & Slovak Museum and Library, Cedar Rapids

National Czech & Slovak Museum and Library, Cedar Rapids

You’ve got to swing by this gem in Cedar Rapids. It’s a treasure trove of culture and history. I remember walking in and instantly feeling that warm, community vibe. You’ll find captivating exhibits showcasing Czech and Slovak heritage—think beautiful folk art, traditional costumes, and fascinating stories. There’s even a brilliant section on immigration. Trust me, don’t rush your visit. Take your time to soak it all in. And, if you can, catch one of their engaging events or workshops. They’re a blast!

Herbert Hoover National Historic Site, West Branch

Herbert Hoover National Historic Site, West Branch

You’ve got to visit this spot, especially if you’re a history buff. It’s not just a museum; it’s where you get to peek into the life of the 31st president. The vibe here is calm and reflective, perfect for soaking in some serious American history. And, oh, the birthplace cottage—it’s so quaint! You’ll feel like you’ve stepped back in time. Don’t forget to wander around the beautiful grounds. It almost feels like Hoover could walk out the door and greet you any moment. So cool!

The Bridges of Madison County, Winterset

The Bridges of Madison County, Winterset
The Bridges of Madison County

You absolutely have to check out the famous covered bridges of Madison County. They’re not just bridges; they’re like stepping into a romantic novel! Remember that movie with Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep? Yup, filmed right here. Each bridge has its own story, and the views are stunning, especially in the fall. Take the guided tour through the Chamber; it’s totally worth it. Plus, Winterset itself is super cute and charming. Trust me, you’ll get some killer Instagram shots!

Pikes Peak State Park, McGregor

Pikes Peak State Park signage, McGregor
Pikes Peak State Park

If you’re hunting for breathtaking views, Pikes Peak State Park is your go-to spot. Nestled along the bluffs of the Mississippi River, this place will blow your mind. The vistas are something out of a painting. Seriously, bring your camera! Take the scenic trail to Point Ann for a jaw-dropping overlook. And hey, don’t miss the Bridal Veil Falls – it’s a hidden gem. Perfect for a picnic or just unwinding in nature’s lap. Trust me, it’s a must-see on your list of destinations in Iowa.

Amana Colonies, Amana

Vintage chocolate house in Amana Colonies, Amana
Amana Colonies

You absolutely have to visit the Amana Colonies. This place is all about charm and history, with a dash of adventure. Seriously, you’ll step back in time with those quaint little shops and historic buildings. Don’t skip the bakery; it’s got the best pastries. And if you’re into crafts, the artisans here are top-notch. Take a leisurely bike ride on the nature trails – the scenery is simply gorgeous. Oh, and they’ve got celebrations year-round! You’ll feel right at home with their warm hospitality. Trust me, you’ll love it.

Maquoketa Caves State Park, Maquoketa

Maquoketa Caves State Park, Maquoketa

Are you up for an adventure? Head to Maquoketa Caves State Park. It’s got more caves than you’ll find in any other Iowa state park. Imagine exploring Dancehall Cave, with its long corridor that feels like a secret passage. The trail system is fab too – six miles of hiking paradise through lush forests and rugged bluffs. Wear sturdy shoes; it gets pretty slippery in spots. Bring a flashlight, you’ll thank me when you’re deep inside Hernando’s Hideaway. Absolutely mesmerizing views await! Trust me, you won’t regret it.

National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium, Dubuque

Aquarium inside the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium, Dubuque

You’ve just gotta check out this gem! Imagine getting face-to-face with creatures you’ve only seen in documentaries. It’s a blast for kids and, let’s be honest, grown-ups too. The Tidepool Touch Tank? Total highlight. Feeling the spiny texture of sea stars – unforgettable. The museum’s right on the water, perfect for those scenic river views. Plus, they’ve got some cool historical exhibits if you’re into that sort of thing. You might even bump into a paddlewheeler docked nearby. Totally worth the visit!

Des Moines Art Center, Des Moines

Des Moines Art Center, Des Moines
Des Moines Art Center

Forget stuffy art museums. At the Des Moines Art Center, you’ll find a delightful mix of modern and contemporary art that’s anything but boring. Wander through the galleries at your own pace – no one’s judging you for skipping that one room. My favorite spot? The Sculpture Garden. Grab a coffee from their café and enjoy the outdoor installations. It’s so relaxing. Feels like a mini-vacation right in the city. And hey, don’t miss their rotating exhibits – they’re always on point!

Iowa State Fair, Des Moines

Iowa State Fair, Des Moines
Steve Pope Photography / Iowa State Fair

Oh, you have to check out the Iowa State Fair! Seriously, it’s a whole vibe. You can’t miss the iconic Butter Cow – it’s pure art, trust me. Grab a corn dog, hop on the Sky Glider, and just soak in the view. Ever cuddled with baby animals? You totally can here! And the art exhibits? Super inspiring. Plus, there’s this Discovery Garden that’s perfect for a chill break. It’s like all the best things about summer, wrapped up in one spot. Enjoy!

Iowa State Capitol, Des Moines

Iowa State Capitol, Des Moines

You can’t visit Des Moines without stopping at the Iowa State Capitol. Seriously, this place is packed with history and stunning architecture. Walking through its halls, you’ll feel like you’ve stepped back in time. And those golden domes? Insta-worthy for sure! Take a guided tour if you can; the guides always have juicy stories and tidbits about past governors. You’ll even find mosaics and unique art pieces scattered around. Grab a coffee nearby and spend a relaxed morning exploring – you won’t regret it.

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