Winter Fun At Seven Oaks In Iowa

I wanted a winter ski trip but I didn’t have time to go too far away from Omaha. Plus, my kids were absolute beginners and I didn’t want to spend too much money at some mountain resort where they may not leave the bunny hill. Our best option ended up being in Iowa: Seven Oaks Recreation in Boone. Read on to see what our weekend was like!

Disclosure: We were hosted by Seven Oaks Recreation. All thoughts, opinions and typos are my own.

Iowa winter vacation idea: Skiing at Seven Oaks Recreation in Central Iowa (northwest of Des Moines). This is a great beginner skier destination in the Midwest. #Iowa #ThisIsIowa #wintervacation

What to expect at Seven Oaks Recreation

Seven Oaks Recreation is a few miles outside of Boone, a small town in Central Iowa. It’s right off U.S. Highway 30, so it’s pretty easy to find.

The funny thing about Seven Oaks is that for most of your drive, you are wondering to yourself “How on earth can there be skiing in the middle of these fields?” And then, out of seemingly nowhere, you see the slopes rising.

Ski Iowa - Seven Oaks Recreation in Boone Iowa has 11 trails

It’s not a mountain range by any stretch of the imagination (it is Iowa, after all). But the terrain is hilly enough for 11 ski and snowboard trails.

The trails are short runs, but for the beginners in our group, they were the right length. There are two ski lifts that seat three people, as well as two surface lifts.

The trails are well marked, and like I said, short, so it was difficult to take a wrong turn and end up on a difficult course. I also felt comfortable enough to let the kids ski ahead while I stayed back to help whoever fell the most recently.

One thing I want to point out was that the staff at Seven Oaks Recreation was extremely helpful, for the most part. The kind people running the free beginner ski lessons were patient and alert. And from the first aid skiers on the slopes to the chairlift operators, we encountered the Midwestern attitude of friendliness.

Kim conquering the beginner slope at Seven Oaks Recreation in Iowa

Tip: Seven Oaks offers free beginner ski and snowboard lessons!

Our only hangup was near the end of our day, when we tried to buy tubing passes for the six kids in our group. Snow tubing is very popular at Seven Oaks and they have to regulate how many people are on the tube slope at at time. Unfortunately, that meant they were only going to let five more people on the slope at that time.

After a few minutes of pleading and bargaining, the moms in our group managed to talk the lady into allowing three kids to go for a half-hour and then the other three to go for the second half-hour. So, it all worked out in the end.

When is the ski season at Seven Oaks?

The Seven Oaks Recreation skiing and snowboarding season runs from December to mid-March. Because Midwest weather can be fairly unpredictable, Seven Oaks has snow-making machines to ensure snow is always on the slopes.

How much does it cost

The price is the great thing about Seven Oaks. If you’ve ever skied, you know how things can add up. You need a ski lift ticket, you may need to rent skis and boots, you may need to buy food.

The Seven Oaks room to rent gear like skies and boots has benches and storage lockers.

At Seven Oaks, the price for a kid’s ski lift plus rental gear (skis, poles, boots) was $50. Add a helmet rental for $8 and an hour of tubing for another $5… and the total cost was $63. It’s a bit more for adults, but not too much more.

As with a lot of seasonal attractions, prices can change depending on when you go, and there is a lower rate if you plan on skiing in the evening.

There are small lockers to store personal belongings. Bring quarters for one.

Are there ski lessons?

Yes! Seven Oaks Recreation has free beginner snowboard and ski lessons. They last about 30 minutes or however long it takes for you to feel comfortable on the slope without an instructor in front of you.

Beginner lesson at Seven Oaks Recreation in Boone, Iowa

We took advantage of this and my kiddos learned how to fall and get back up, and how to slow themselves down on the slopes. While they didn’t learn all that they should know before flying down a mountain, they were prepared enough to survive.

I liked how the instructors took the time to help each individual, sometimes skiing backward in front of the beginner to guide them.

There is also the option to purchase private lessons.

What else can you do at Seven Oaks in the winter?

I never mentioned that there is snowboarding at Seven Oaks, but I think that kinda goes without saying, right? I’m not a snowboarder so it’s not even on my radar. But there were a few slick courses just for snowboarders.

I never mentioned that there is snowboarding at Seven Oaks, but I think that kinda goes without saying, right? I’m not a snowboarder so it’s not even on my radar. But there were a few slick courses just for snowboarders.

The snow tubing hill at Boone, Iowa ski resort Seven Oaks Recreation

The other draw to Seven Oaks is the tubing park. It was certainly a big hit with our kids. You pay by the hour and the nice thing about Seven Oaks is that there is a surface lift to drag you and your tube up to the top of the hill.

Tip: Avoid a long wait for the tubes and/or not even getting a chance to tube by opting to snow tube first thing when you arrive to Seven Oaks Recreation.

Is there a restaurant at Seven Oaks?

Inside the lodge, you can find Snow Joe’s, a fast food counter to buy food like  sandwiches, fries, pizza, and cookies, as well as soft drinks and hot chocolate.

Snow Joe's food counter at Seven Oaks lodge

There’s also Coal Creek Lounge, where you can purchase domestic, imported and locally-brewed beers and mixed drinks.

Patrons are allowed to bring in picnic-type food as long as you’re not bringing in crockpots or food from a competing restaurant. We opted to bring our lunch and a cooler of drinks and dined outdoors because it was a wonderfully warm winter day when we were there.

Interior of the lodge at Seven Oaks Recreation in Iowa

At the end of the day, we bought snacks for the kids and hot cocoa at Snow Joe’s.

Off-season at Seven Oaks

There really isn’t an off-season, as there are activities in the summer and fall, as well. I’m looking forward to returning someday (some warm, summer day) and doing one of the river floats on the Des Moines River. From May through October, Seven Oaks offers full-service canoeing, kayaking and river tubing.

There’s also paintball, if that’s your thing.

Where to stay near Boone, Iowa

There are a few lodging options in Boone, including a couple that have partnered with Seven Oaks Recreation for a ski and stay package.

We were traveling with a group and one family had stayed at Hotel Pattee in the past and highly recommended we all stay there for the ski trip. It was a great choice! Hotel Pattee is located in Perry, about a 30-minute drive from Seven Oaks Recreation.

If you go to Boone later in the year, when the weather’s warmer, look into a steam train ride on the Boone & Scenic Valley Railroad.

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Winter fun at Seven Oaks Recreation in Iowa | Ski, snowboard and snow tube at this Central Iowa destination near Boone, Iowa | Here's what you can expect if you plan a family trip in the winter to Seven Oaks. #Iowa #familytravel #skiing #beginnerskiing #Midwest

10 Must-Try Restaurants in Des Moines

Tucked between the rolling cornfields in the center of the state, Des Moines is a fantastic place for a Midwest getaway. There are many reasons to visit Des Moines, from arts and cultural attractions to its unique ways to experience the outdoors. But to top it all off, Iowa’s capital city is home to some truly incredible locally-owned restaurants. 

From steakhouses and traditional American eats to cuisine from across the globe, Des Moines has it all. Whether you’re searching for breakfast, lunch or dinner, you won’t want to miss these 10 must-try restaurants in Des Moines, Iowa. 

Looking for the best restaurant in Des Moines, Iowa for breakfast, lunch or  dinner? Here's a list of 10 must-try Des Moines restaurants! These are a local's recommendations. #DesMoines #Iowa #Midwest #foodie #goodeats

The Cheese Bar

What could be better than a shop dedicated to delicious cheese? The Cheese Bar, an entire restaurant devoted to dairy delicacies. When the Cheese Shop expanded to add a larger restaurant location along Ingersoll Avenue, it brought even more cheesy goodness to the city.

A must-try restaurant in Des Moines, The Cheese Bar
Photo courtesy Megan Bannister

Not only can you build your own cast iron mac and cheese but the restaurant also offers a wide variety of inventive grilled cheese sandwiches in addition to tabletop fondue and truly impressive charcuterie boards. 

Eatery A

Eatery A’s cozy, dimly lit interior and Mediterranean-inspired cuisine makes for incredible brunch or dinner, no matter the occasion. The restaurant’s creative pizzas and savory entrees shine alongside delectable salads and tempting appetizers.

Interior of Eatery A
Photo courtesy Catch Des Moines

Eatery A is also home to one of the best happy hours in Des Moines, which includes half off all pizzas, beer, and wine every day from 3–6 pm. If you’ve saved room for dessert, you can’t go wrong with the Salted Caramel Budino.

Fong’s Pizza

Located in a former Chinese restaurant Fong’s Pizza is a Des Moines staple. With tiki-inspired drinks and specialties like the popular Crab Rangoon Pizza, this fusion restaurant is a must for any lover of unique cuisine.

Slice of crab rangoon pizza and a tiki drink at Fong's Pizza in Des Moines

Plus, their late-night slices are especially popular with the bar crowd along Court Avenue. 

Related post: Fong’s Pizza also made it onto the list of 10+ Best Restaurants in Iowa!

Hagar’s Manhattan Deli 

Every city needs a good classic deli and in Des Moines, that’s Hagar’s Manhattan Deli. This popular lunch spot serves up hearty hoagies alongside an impressive array of pasta salads and homemade desserts.

If you’re lucky enough to visit on a Thursday, you have to order the daily special—the ultimate Italian grinder. 

Jesse’s Embers

Old-school steakhouses are a Des Moines staple, and Jesse’s Embers is a long-standing favorite.

Steak at Jesse's Embers, a steakhouse staple in Des Moines, Iowa
Photo courtesy Megan Bannister

With perfectly grilled steaks, burgers dripping with cheese and onion rings worth filling up on, Jesse’s menu is the definition of Midwest comfort food. 

Kathmandu Restaurant

Des Moines may be in the center of the heartland, but Iowa’s capital city has some truly delicious international food. With strong flavors and an expansive menu, it’s no surprise that the Nepalese Kathmandu Restaurant is a citywide favorite.

Stop in for an impressive lunch buffet or order off-menu for dinner to enjoy the restaurant’s wide variety of specialities including momo, biryani, tandor dishes, and more. 

Lucky Lotus

If you’re looking for southeast Asian cuisine in Des Moines, there’s no better place than Lucky Lotus. Located along Ingersoll Avenue, Lucky Lotus serves a delectable menu of shareable snacks, noodles, curries, and more.

Lucky Lotus  serves southeast Asian cuisine in Des Moines
Photo courtesy Megan Bannister

With pastel interiors and floral paper umbrellas hanging from the ceiling, the atmosphere at Lucky Lotus is just as beautiful as the food being served. 

Proof

Often rated as one of the best fine dining establishments in the city, Proof is known for its inventive cuisine. With a mixture of both small and large plates and an ever-changing menu, diners can expect a meal the kitchen has put thought and talent into.

Interior of Proof, a fine dining restaurant in Des Moines, Iowa
Photo courtesy Catch Des Moines

If you’re dining on an extra special occasion, consider making a reservation for Proof’s Second Saturday 10-course blind tasting menu. 

St. Kilda Cafe & Bakery

Home of the city’s most iconic avocado toast, St. Kilda Cafe & Bakery is the perfect place for brunch. Strong coffee, fresh ingredients and seasonal specials make every meal at St. Kilda special.

Brunch at St. Kilda Cafe & Bakery in Des Moines
Photo courtesy Megan Bannister

Last year the owners of St. Kilda opened a new restaurant, St. Kilda Surf + Turf, which expands on diner’s favorite items to offer a wider variety of meat and fish-based entrees. 

Zombie Burger + Shake Lab

Located in Des Moines’ East Village, Zombie Burger + Shake Lab is quite possibly one of the city’s most unique eateries. Set in a horror movie-inspired dining room that the restaurant’s owners call “post-apocalyptic chic,” this is not your typical burger joint.

Cheeseburger and fries at the popular Des Moines eatery, Zombie Burger + Shake Lab

Unique menu items like the Walking Ched (made with fried mac and cheese patties as buns) and the Undead Elvis (a burger topped with peanut butter, fried bananas and bacon) are fan favorites.

And if you have a sweet tooth, you won’t want to miss this restaurant’s boozy milkshakes. 

Kim’s tip: There are several locations of Zombie Burger in the Des Moines area. East Village is the place with the most ambiance, though the photo used in this post if from the Ankeny location.

About the guest blogger

Megan Bannister is a freelance writer and blogger at Olio in Iowa based in Des Moines, Iowa. When she’s not sampling and writing about food, Megan enjoys visiting unique destinations, roadside attractions, and “world’s largest” things across the Midwest and beyond. 

Planning a trip to Des Moines? I asked a local where's the best place to go for breakfast, lunch & dinner and she shared her favorite locally-owned Des Moines restaurants. Here's her list of the best restaurants in Des Moines, Iowa. #DesMoines #DSM #Iowa #localguide #eatlocal

The Great Iowa Ski Trip

We may have just created a new annual winter tradition: The Iowa ski trip. We went with a group of friends to Seven Oaks Recreation in Central Iowa, staying in the nearby Hotel Pattee, a historic hotel with individually-decorated rooms and suites for families.

Family ski trip to Iowa? You bet! Here's an itinerary and guide to skiing in Central Iowa, including what hotel to stay and where to ski and snow tube. #Iowa #Midwest #skiing #familytravel #wintervacation

Disclosure: I was hosted by The Hotel Pattee and Seven Oaks Recreation. All thoughts, opinions and typos are my own.

What you need to know about skiing in Iowa

Yes, you can ski in Iowa (downhill and cross country). Let’s get that out of the way. There are actually a couple of places to ski in Iowa. What the state lacks in mountain ranges, it makes up for well-groomed and hilly terrain to create solid (if a little short) runs.

Since my kids were completely new to skiing, going skiing in Iowa made more sense than heading to a much more expensive destination in another state. In Iowa, they can learn the basics for a fraction of the cost.

For a kid to ski in where we went in Boone, the price for a ski lift plus rental gear was $50. Add a helmet rental for $8 and an hour of tubing for another $5… and the total cost was $63.

I just compared the price to the first place I learned to ski in Colorado (rhymes with Speckinridge) and a lift ticket for one child is currently $122 for a Sunday. Renting gear? That starts at $40 for a child.

Snowboarders at Seven Oaks Recreation in Iowa

Now, if everyone in your family or group are seasoned skiers or snow boarders, you probably won’t be challenged in Iowa.

But you’ll save a lot of money.

Where you can ski in Iowa

Our destination for skiing in Iowa was Seven Oaks Recreation, a friendly, family-run ski resort in Boone. It has 11 runs, including a beginner hill and a pretty sweet railyard for snowboarders. There are two triple chair lifts and three surface lifts.

Our group consisted of three families with kids ages 10 and under. Most kids were complete beginners, and then there were adults like me who hadn’t skied in 20 years. I was definitely less confident in my skiing abilities than the kids. Who knew I was no longer as fearless as teenage Kim?!

Kim getting ready to ski at Seven Oaks Recreation in Boone, Iowa.

Fortunately, Seven Oaks offers complimentary beginner lessons as well as private lessons if you want more in-depth instructions. For the complimentary lesson, everyone learned the basics like stopping and the correct way to get up after you fall.

Then, the instructors took the time to help each beginner make their first run down the hill. I watched the instructors with my kiddos and they were so patient and kind. I was impressed that it was completely free.

Once we mastered the bunny slope, the kids were eager to try another easy, but longer slope so we went to Abby’s Alley. There were a lot of first aid skiers on the slopes, and patient lift operators, who were quick to help my newbie kids and offer quick instructions throughout the day.

Beginner ski slope at Seven Oaks Recreation.

Was it easy and without falls? Of course not.

But by the end of the day, the kids felt confident enough to try an intermediate slope. I wasn’t confident enough, but I crossed my fingers and followed after them. I made it down in one piece. Victory!

A day at Seven Oaks Recreation

We skied on a Sunday, so our day started a little later than, say, a Saturday start (11 a.m. vs. 10 a.m.) at Seven Oaks Recreation. We skied for a couple of hours and then enjoyed a picnic lunch outside. It was a “warm” 40 degrees.

Seven Oaks has an indoor seating area, too, and you can order food and drinks there.

We skied for a few more hours after lunch before the kids went tubing for an hour.

My friends who’d snow tubed in Colorado remarked that Seven Oaks had a much smoother operation than places like Keystone. Seven Oaks had a lift to get tubers up to the top of the hill and had sectioned-off slopes for tubers to safely make it down to the bottom. The kids loved it.

Snow tubing hill at Seven Oaks Recreation in Iowa

It’s not a huge ski resort, so it’s easy enough to include an hour of tubing into your day. It’s extremely popular, though, so know that they limit how many people can do it at a time.

Tip: We were able to tack the tubing on to the end of the day, but only after a bit of pleading (see, there were only spots for five people to tube that hour and we had six children). I heard that if you want to guarantee time on the tube run, you should plan on doing it first thing in the day.

We ended our day at Seven Oaks at about 4 p.m. The only way we could get the kids to leave was the promise of hot cocoa, cookies and/or other treats (don’t judge).

Where to stay for this Iowa ski weekend

While we could’ve found a hotel closer to the Seven Oaks Recreation (and I know we could’ve gotten a discount package combining the hotel and skiing), our group opted to stay at Hotel Pattee in Perry. It’s about 30 miles from Boone, but well worth the distance.

The gorgeous lobby of Hotel Pattee in Perry, Iowa

The gorgeous boutique hotel with a railroad motif throughout has 40 uniquely decorated rooms. The great thing for families is that they have suites with either bunk beds or trundle beds for kids.

Our room was the Travel Suite (perfect for me, right?), with details throughout from airplanes on the overhead light to maps on the wall and travel quotes on the furniture. Sliding doors can be closed to separate the kids’ area from the main part of the room. The bathroom was large with an oversized jacuzzi tub.

Related post: Want to pair a stay at the hotel and enjoy a train ride? Perry isn’t far from Boone, as I mentioned before, and it’s home to the Boone & Scenic Valley Railroad.

The hotel has a restaurant and bar called Harvey’s. In the basement, you’ll find the Copper Door Spa, with separate spas for men and women consisting of a hot tub, sauna, and steam room.

The moms in my group took advantage of the spa and each booked one-hour massages. While one friend was getting a massage, the rest of us split our time hanging out in the quiet, comfy waiting room and spa area.

Bowling at Hotel Pattee in Central Iowa

Meanwhile, our husbands took all the kids to the hotel’s bowling alley. I think it was a great plan…for us moms.

By the way, this hotel does not have a pool. While this typically is a deal-breaker for my kids, they loved spending time with their friends and bowling magically made up for the lack of splash time.

And, I’d say the hotel had the perfect crowd pleaser to end each day: A tray of chocolate chip cookies placed on a table on each floor at the end of the day. My kids wanted to hoard the entire tray.

Sample itinerary for a ski weekend in Iowa

Our trip was three days and two nights, which meant we arrived in the afternoon of Day 1 and left the morning of Day 3. Feel free to customize the trip length to fit your schedule best.

Girls ready to take the ski lift at Seven Oaks Recreation

Day 1

Arrive in Perry and check in to Hotel Pattee. If you’re traveling with kids, be sure to request one of the themed family suites when making a reservation.

Have dinner at Casa de Oro, a Mexican restaurant within walking distance of the hotel. Don’t miss looking at some of the neat public art near the hotel, as well. The alley next to the Hotel Pattee was our favorite.

Day 2

Breakfast at Harvey’s, the restaurant inside Hotel Pattee. If you’re a large group, let the restaurant know ahead of time or you’ll find yourself waiting quite a while for the tables to be set up. Don’t be surprised if at least half your group orders the breakfast mac and cheese.

Arrive late morning to Boone, and ski and tube Seven Oaks Recreation. Have lunch at Seven Oaks. You can buy a warm lunch at Seven Oaks’ lunch counter or brown bag it.

Return to the hotel. The evening options for activities include bowling at the hotel, seeing a movie in Perry, or if you plan ahead, book a massage for yourself. 

The moms had dinner at Harvey’s in the hotel, while the dads and kids got takeout from Hy-Vee, a grocery store not too far from the hotel.

Day 3

Time to check out and head home. 

In just one weekend, my kids have decided that they love skiing. I foresee another ski trip in our near future!

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A fun winter vacation idea in the Midwest: A ski trip in Iowa! Here's a weekend itinerary pairing downhill skiing at Seven Oaks Recreation and overnight accommodations in family suites at the historic Hotel Pattee.

3 Great Lake Vacations In Iowa

Iowa is home to a variety of lake destinations. Depending on your vacation goal – relaxation or play time or a mix of both – I know a good lake for it. Here are three of my favorite lake vacations in Iowa: Lake Icaria, Clear Lake and Okoboji.

Lake Icaria

Vacation goal: Relaxation and getting away from it all

Consider Lake Icaria your bucolic lake destination. You’ll feel removed from crowds and traffic at this large lake located in rural western Iowa. There are trees and with occasionally rocky shorelines.

Fishing at Lake Icaria in western Iowa

Lake Icaria is a county park, where you can have your pick of RVing, tent cabin, and my favorite, cabins. Even with cabins, you have the option of roughing it (cabin without water) or having all of your creature comforts with a large fully-equipped cabin.

This lake is great for fishing, tubing and water skiing, plus it has a small beach. There are a playground and a trail around the lake, as well.

The small beach at Lake Icaria near Corning, Iowa.

It’s not totally remote, though. In the summer, food trucks park near the beach. We had barbecue one afternoon there, enjoying our lungh to-go in the covered picnic area facing the lake.

The nearest town is Corning, which has a few restaurants if you don’t feel like catching your dinner or grilling. We went to Three C’s Diner, which has the distinction of winning Iowa’s best breaded pork tenderloin sandwich one year.

I’m eager to go back and visit Primrose, which I heard about after our trip to Lake Icaria. Primrose is a creative farm-to-table restaurant. There’s also a winery that’s fairly close to the park.

Clear Lake

Vacation goal: Relaxation with a coffee shop within easy reach

Clear Lake is a hidden gem in Iowa, offering modern conveniences within easy reach of lake relaxation. This is the place to go when you want a getaway that’s relaxing, but you aren’t about to rough it (unless you want to try a yurt).

If you’re looking for live music, a nearby grocery store, art center, or perhaps, a tiki bar on the beach, Clear Lake is your place.

Playing in the water in Clear Lake, Iowa

Our motel was located directly on the shore of the lake. We ate breakfast outdoors and walked on the pier to watch the sunset. It was nothing fancy, but perfect for a family.

Clear Lake is small town of about 8,000 people with plenty of shopping, restaurants (and coffee shops), and cultural attractions. The Surf Ballroom is in Clear Lake, the historic concert venue and museum. Music fans can make the trek to the nearby field where the plane carrying Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper and Richie Valens crashed.

Kim on a speed boat in Clear Lake, Iowa.

When we went to Clear Lake, we did the beach thing (of course…there are THREE beaches), rented a boat to cruise the lake, and explored a community garden. Our visit timed out with the Fourth of July celebration, so we also spent an evening riding rides and overeating cotton candy.

Fourth of July carnival in Clear Lake, Iowa

For restaurants, I highly recommend Starboard Market for great sandwiches and PM Park for a meal with a view – and that tiki bar I mentioned before. We actually went there for breakfast and lunch, and if I had to recommend one thing to try, I’d say go for the french cakes at breakfast.

Since my last visit, a brewery opened in Clear Lake that I’m eager to check out.

Related post: Clear Lake was one of the high points on the Great Iowa Road Trip.

Okoboji

Vacation goal: Lakeside fun and a variety of entertainment options

Okoboji is the place to go in the Midwest when you don’t want to feel like you’re in the Midwest (though, you still can’t escape it). You’ll find a lakeside bar where boaters regularly drive up and park to enjoy lunch, live music, and perhaps, a beer or cocktail.

Ferris wheel at Arnolds Park Amusement Park in Arnolds Park, Iowa, located in the Okoboji region.

It’s home to historic Arnolds Park Amusement Park. And it’s just a bustling place to be all summer long.

There is enough variety of lodging options that place you in the middle of all the fun or far away from it. Our hotel, Crescent Beach Family Resort, was far enough away that we could have quiet nights on the beach, and then in about 10 minutes, be right in the center of all activities.

The view of the lake from the beach at Crescent Beach Family Resort in Okoboji, Iowa.

The towns that make up the resort area of Okoboji has A LOT of dining options. My favorites included the great and quirky coffee shop Arnolds Perk, Tweeters for lunch and Pub 19 Bar and Grill, serving great pizza on a golf course in Spirit Lake. You can’t go to Okoboji in the summer without getting a Nutty Bar.

You’re going for the lakes, obviously, where you can boat, fish, kayak, and splash in the beach. But, if it’s a rainy day, you’ve got options too. We went to the Dickinson County Nature Center, which had a fun climber for the kiddos, as well as the surprisingly great Pearson Lakes Art Center, with the second-largest collection of Russian impressionist art outside of Russia, as well as a swell little art space for kids.

A beehive-themed climber at the Dickinson County Nature Center in Iowa.

There’s just so much to do in Okoboji, it’ll be hard to ignore it all while you sit on a lounge chair with your feet in the sand.

Other Iowa destinations for water adventures

If lakes aren’t your thing…then why are you still reading? Just kidding. If you want some more ideas for a water adventure in Iowa, I shared quite a few of them in this list of 101 Things To Do In Iowa, including white water rafting, waterfalls, and moonlight kayaking on a river.

No matter which place you choose, be it a lake or a river or somewhere all together different, I think you’ll enjoy the Midwestern hospitality that’s common throughout Iowa. Happy travels!

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Looking for a summer vacation idea in Iowa? Consider one of the three great lake vacation destinations in Iowa! Get tips on things to do in Clear Lake, Okoboji and Lake Icaria, including where to eat and whether it's a more relaxing or active lake to stay at. #Iowa #summer #Midwest #lakes #activevacation

10+ Must-Visit Iowa Restaurants

I’ve been planning trips to Iowa (and through Iowa) for years now. And there’s one thing I’m starting to see as a trend: Iowa doesn’t get the love it deserves for having amazing restaurant experiences. Time to set the record straight so you can plan your next road trip accordingly and visit a great restaurant.

I recruited some of my fellow travel bloggers to contribute their favorites to my list of the must-visit Iowa restaurants.

A food lover's guide to the best restaurants in Iowa. Midwest travel writers and locals share their favorite Iowa restaurants, and they offer suggestions on what to try there. #Iowa #Midwest #Restaurants #eatlocal

If you have a favorite restaurant in Iowa, leave a comment and let me know about it!

Eastern Iowa restaurants

The Mississippi River runs along the eastern side of Iowa, and the terrain is more unique (in my opinion) than the rest of the state. After you’re done exploring the outdoors, you’ll want some restaurant suggestions. Here are some eastern Iowa recommendations.

Menu and bread at Brazen, a farm-to-table restaurant in Dubuque, Iowa.
Photo courtesy Gastronom Blog

Brazen Open Kitchen

Where: Dubuque

Why you should go: Brazen Open Kitchen is a farm-to-table restaurant, with a constantly changing menu and a focus on using locally sourced and seasonal ingredients.

From their craft cocktails to their no-freezer focused kitchen, Brazen headed by Kevin Scharpf hits all the points of a top restaurant in Iowa.

Leah and Jay from Gatronom Blog were pleased by everything they ate at the two meals we had there.

They can’t tell you what to order, though, as the menu is constantly changing, but you won’t be unhappy with anything you order! 

Breitbach Restaurant

Where: Balltown

Why you should go: Cindy from Traveling Adventures of a Farm Girl discovered the amazing Brietbach restaurant when visiting the National Farm Toy Show. 

The restaurant is memorable for many reasons, she noted, including, the location. The scenery offers views of the Mississippi River and the Great River Road. 

Breitbach’s is a German restaurant and is said to be the oldest food and drinking establishment in Iowa.  Perched high on a hill in Balltown, the view was breathtaking. 

The Breitbach restaurant was opened by Jacob Breitbach, the great-great-grandfather of the present owner. Jacob worked for the original owner and purchased the tavern in 1862. Ever since this has been a family business and the current owners are the sixth generation.

The original building has suffered from two devastating fires, but the Breitbach family rebuilt both times and although not the original building, it is built on the foundation and the building is filled with old country charm and is decorated in turn of the century furniture. 

Breitbach’s makes everything fresh from scratch.  They are the winner of Iowa Pork Producers’ best breaded Pork Tenderloin 2012. Cindy loved the food and the view and said she celebrated her birthday in style (which ended with an amazing snicker pie)!

Fried Brussels sprouts, roasted ramen salad and miso soup dumplings at the vegetarian-friendly restaurant Dumpling Darling in Iowa City.
Photo courtesy Cadry’s Kitchen

Dumpling Darling

Where: Iowa City

Why you should go: Dumpling Darling is a woman-owned restaurant in Iowa City. They started as a stall at the farmers market, and now they have a standalone restaurant in downtown.

It’s a casual, order-at-the-counter type place with indoor & outdoor seating. Great for people-watching in the summer, according to Cadry at Cadry’s Kitchen.

Over half of their menu is vegan or vegetarian. They’re always introducing new creative vegan specials like buffalo cauliflower dumplings or peach pie dessert dumplings.

On their regular menu, don’t miss the miso soup dumplings, chipotle tofu dumplings, roasted ramen salad, and fried Brussels sprouts in Korean BBQ sauce.

Luna Valley Farm in Decorah, Iowa has an outdoor wood-fire pizza oven.

Luna Valley Farm

Where: Decorah

Why you should go: Dining at Luna Valley Farm was one of the most unique experiences I’ve had in Iowa. This is a working farm, but on the weekends in the summer, the owners serve up pizza, beer and good times (in the form of live music).

I went with my sister and friend, and together we delicious wood-fire pizza alongside some local beer. You can’t go wrong with any of the toppings – a lot of the ingredients are grown or raised on the farm.

Even with a bit of rain, the atmosphere and crowd attitude was joyful. How could you not be with lights strung up and a band playing?

Tip: It’s off the beaten track, and you’ll make a trek from your car to the barn with the food, so wear comfortable shoes!

Ox Yoke Inn, a family favorite restaurant in Amana, Iowa, known for family-style meals.

Ox Yoke Inn

Where: Amana

Why you should go: Amana is the largest town in the famous Amana Colonies and its home to the “Big 3” of popular Amana restaurants. Each is known for large, hearty family-style meals.

Of the three, Ox Yoke Inn was the standout for me for food and service. You’ll want to get the fried chicken. I also recommend not passing on the homemade strawberry jam.

Northern Iowa restaurants

Northern Iowa is home to remarkable small towns and beautiful great lakes. And, lucky you, there are also some great north Iowa restaurants.

Exterior of Central Perk Coffee Shop in Estherville, Iowa
Photo courtesy Thrifty Jinxy

Central Perk Coffee House

Where: Estherville

Why you should go: Central Perk Coffee House is the kind of coffee shop you wished you had in your own town, according to Thrifty Jinxy. Not only do they have amazing coffee, but they also make hand-crafted smoothies, shakes, and Italian sodas.

What really stands out is their fabulous lunch menu with unique sandwiches and delicious salads. You can try both with their “pick two” option. (Try the Berry Salad – you won’t regret it!)

You can enjoy all this in their artfully decorated space with a heavy emphasis on wood and cozy spaces to enjoy your meal and/or chat with friends. 

Greek-style flies mignon at Northwestern Steakhouse in Mason City, Iowa.
Photo courtesy Wherever I May Roam

Northwestern Steakhouse

Where: Mason City

Why you should go: When you are ready to try one of the best steaks of your life, Melody from Wherever I May Roam recommends to go to Mason City, Iowa, and come hungry! Sink your teeth into a delicious Greek-style filet mignon, which is served swimming in its own natural juices.

Pair your perfect piece of meat with a side of Greek spaghetti, flavored by the steak juices, plenty of butter, olive oil, and Parmesan cheese.

The menu is small and the inside is dated, but you’ll never have a better meal than from this 1920 Iowa institution! 

Menu and chips and salsa at Tequila's Mexican Bar & Grill in Northwood, Iowa.
Photo courtesy Flint & Co.

Tequila’s Mexican Bar & Grill

Where: Northwood

Why you should go: Located in a small town in northern Iowa, you’ll find one of the best Mexican restaurants in the whole state: Tequila’s Mexican Bar & Grill. And it’s locally-owned and -operated, to boot.

Mexican food in America is a finicky thing. Some people want TexMex while others want traditional Mexican food. Katy from Flint & Co. said Tequila’s has managed to find a happy balance.

Katy noted that the food is piping hot and fresh with large portions. She recommends going for the chicken nachos.    

While the food is amazingly delicious, the service is just as good, she told me.

Central Iowa restaurants

Central Iowa is home to Iowa’s capital city, Des Moines, as well as quite a few excellent restaurants.

Crab rangoon pizza slice at Fong's Pizza.

Fong’s Pizza

Where: Des Moines

Why you should go: If time allows, Des Moines is always a pit stop for us on any Iowa road trip, and Fong’s Pizza is where we head. There are several locations, but I recommend the downtown Des Moines location for max kitschiness.

When there, I cannot emphasize enough that you need to order a crab rangoon pizza. And if you’re of age, get one of their fun tiki drinks.

Honorable mention for Des Moines: If I don’t feel like eating pizza in Des Moines, my next go-to is Zombie Burger. It’s another favorite of mine.

The decor alone would be reason enough to visit (especially the east end location). The food, though, is superb and creative.

Dessert at the Machine Shed in Urbandale, Iowa.

Machine Shed

Where: Urbandale (there’s also a location in Davenport)

Why you should go: A reader also reminded me of a restaurant near Des Moines that should be on the list (and I agree with him on this): Machine Shed.

We had dinner at this huge restaurant one our Great Iowa Road Trip, and the decor and huge servings were all memorable. Try, try try to save room for dessert.

Good luck with that!

Western Iowa restaurants

Western Iowa is known for the trails through the beautiful Loess Hills and its connection to Lewis & Clark. And now, as you’ll learn, it’s known for some great restaurants, too!

Steak at the Le Mars, Iowa supper club, Archie's Waeside.
Photo courtesy Olio in Iowa

Archie’s Waeside

Where: Le Mars

Why you should go: Located in Le Mars, Iowa—the self-proclaimed “Ice Cream Capital of the World”—Archie’s Waeside is a classic supper club and steakhouse with a cult-like following, according to Megan at Olio in Iowa.

Opened in 1949 by Archie Jackson, the supper club was once just a roadhouse with a carry-out window and two small booths. Today it is a full-service steakhouse complete with classic cocktails, an impressive relish tray, and melt-in-your-mouth steaks.

Be sure to arrive early! On any given weekend night, a crowd begins forming outside of Archie’s Waeside in anticipation of its 4:30 p.m. opening.

Archie’s Waeside isn’t just about comfort food. The restaurant has received some notable culinary honors. In 2015, Archie’s Waeside was awarded the James Beard Foundation’s American Classics Award. 

The pork tenderloin at Larsen's Pub in Elk Horn, Iowa, voted "Best Tenderloin in Iowa."
Photo courtesy HodgePodge Hippie

Larsen’s Pub

Where: Elk Horn

Why you should go: From the moment that you walk into Larsen’s Pub, you know that this is the place to eat, Thena at HodgePodge Hippie tells me. With pork tenderloins the size of your head, there is no way that you’re going home hungry.

Their pork tenderloins huge, and they’ve also been voted “Best Tenderloin in Iowa,” as well. And if you’re a lover of sides, like Thena is, you don’t want to miss out on their fries and potato salad.

This ambiance in this pub is one that will have you coming back time and time again.

Goat milk gelato at Stanley's Snack Shack in Honey Creek, Iowa.

Stanley’s Snack Shack

Where: Honey Creek

Why you should go: Quite literally, Stanley’s is a shack in the middle of a field. And it’s worth a trip to visit!

Stanley’s opened after the success of the goat’s milk gelato the Honey Creek Creamery had been selling at farmer’s markets. Now you can go straight to the source for the gelato. While they sell burgers, I’ve only ever wanted the gelato.

When we visited, they had a few goats nearby to meet. We had quite an experience there – one of the employees came out to greet us and show us how to milk one of them.

Tip: The little goats that wander around the goat yoga mats at Honey Creek Creamery grow up to be the very goats you meet at Stanley’s. The creamery is a stop on the Pottawattamie County trail called What In The World?: On the Trail For Stranger Things.

From steakhouses to snack shacks and supper clubs, this list has the best restaurants in Iowa. Restaurants are include some found in Des Moines, Iowa City, Decorah, Le Mars and many more. #Iowa #USA #restaurants #dinner

Now what?

If this post made you hungry enough to explore the whole state, start planning a trip! Get inspired for some fun between restaurants stops with this post sharing 101 Things To Do In Iowa.

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101 Things To Do In Iowa

Iowa is one of my favorite Midwest states to explore because it is full of wonderful outdoor opportunities, great food, and cultural attractions. Plus, Iowa has its fair share of quirky and strange road side attractions!

Read to explore Iowa? Here’s a list of 101 things to inspire your next Iowa road trip! I’ve divided up the list into sections:

  • -Outdoor adventures in Iowa
  • -Food & drink in Iowa
  • -Only in Iowa experiences
  • -Family-friendly things to do in Iowa

Outdoor adventures in Iowa

Hike interesting terrain in Iowa

A trail in the Loess Hills near Honey Creek, Iowa.

Try trails in the Loess Hills in Western Iowa or head to the interior and explore Ledges State Park. In Eastern Iowa, look into trails at the Mines of Spain Recreation Area near Dubuque.

Explore Iowa caves

Top on my list is Maquoketa Caves State Park in eastern Iowa – it has 16 caves to explore. There’s Spook Cave near McGregor, where you can tour the cave by boat.

Crystal Lake Cave is one not too far from downtown Dubuque. It’s a cave where you can take a 90-minute Wild Cave Tour that takes you deeper into the cave, with some passages requiring belly crawling.

Rock climb in the Midwest

Things to do in Iowa - Rock climbing at Backbone State Park
Photo courtesy Iowa Tourism Office

Head to central and eastern Iowa to find rock climbing opportunities. Chief among them is Palisades-Kepler State Park near Mount Vernon, Backbone State Park near Dundee and Pictured Rocks County Park near Monticello.

Candlight Ski

Don cross country skis or snow shoes for the annual Candlight Ski along Waverly Rail Trail in Waverly. The event, held on the first Saturday of February, is held on a.11-mile portion of the trail.

Catch a harness race

If you’ve never heard of harness racing, head to the Taylor County Fairgrounds in June. Rather than racing on the horse like a jockey, horses race as they pull a small, two-wheel cart and rider.

Kayak and canoe rivers

Moonlight kayaking on the Upper Iowa River near Decorah, Iowa

Voted as one of the most scenic in America, the Upper Iowa River is found in Eastern Iowa. You can launch near Decorah. If you time it right, you can try kayaking by moonlight!

Another option is kayaking the Mississippi River backwaters at Rock Creek Marina at Rock Creek County Park outside Camanche. You can also explore the water trails of Pottawattamie County in southwest Iowa.

Walk across Lover’s Leap

Head to Columbus Junction and seek out the 262-foot Lover’s Leap Swinging Bridge. It’s a doozy. The bridge is eight stories above the ground.

Zip lines

Sky Tours Zip Lining in Dubuque has nine zip lines to attempt over the course of two hours. At Mount Crescent in Honey Creek, there is just one zip line, but it’s a pretty view.

Ride the roller coasters at amusement parks

Photo courtesy Iowa Tourism Office

Iowa is home to one of the oldest wooden roller coasters in America, The Legend. Find it and other rides at Arnolds Park Amusement Park in Arnolds Park.

For newer and even wilder rides, head to Altoona (near Des Moines) to visit Adventureland. It’s home to the only roller coaster in the Western hemisphere with a negative-G loop.

Explore the Driftless Region

My first encounter with the Driftless Region in eastern Iowa included a bike ride and kayaking in Decorah. It’s a beautiful area with surprising terrain. Three parks that could be your base for exploring the Driftless Region are Mines of Spain Recreation Area in Dubuque, Bixby State Preserve in Edgewood and Osborne Park in Elkader.

SUP Yoga

Why just do yoga or standup paddleboard when you can do both? Try it at George Wyth State Park in Waterloo.

Take a train ride

Unique Iowa experiences - Ride a train from the Boone & Scenic Valley Railroad

It’s a bit of a drive to get to, but Boone is home to the Boone & Scenic Valley Railroad. The railroad offers out-and-back rides and many of them are themed (and appeal to families) – imagine something along the lines of Thomas the Tank Engine and “Polar Express.”

Take a mini train ride

Each summer on the weekends, kids can take rides on the miniature steam train at Watson Station in Missouri Valley. The ride includes a bridge and a pass through a 50-foot tunnel.

RAGBRAI

Not for the faint of heart, but definitely a lot of fun, RAGBRAI is an annual bike ride across Iowa that takes several days to complete. Bike all day and enjoy the fun all night. The host cities change each year, so the festivities change.

Scenic bike rides

Scenic bike rides in Iowa include Trout Run Trail in Decorah

If you have a mountain bike or hybrid, try the crushed limestone Wabash Trace Trail that runs north to south in western Iowa. Road bike? Try the Trout Run Trail in Decorah. Another trail I’ve heard is good, even for road bikes, is Cedar Valley Nature Trails.

Do the Taco Ride

Keeping with the bicycle theme, there’s one last item on this list to be done on two wheels – the Thursday night Taco Ride along the Wabash Trace Trail in Western Iowa. Leaving from Council Bluffs, cyclists ride about 10 miles to Mineola for dinner at Tobey Jack’s Mineola Steakhouse, and they pedal their way back. Hundreds of people do it each week and it’s a blast!

Tip: Wear a helmet, bring a bike light, and watch for cyclists on the way back who may have had one too many drinks at the half-way point.

Horseback rides

There are guided horseback trail rides across the state. In western Iowa, consider Shady Lane Ranch in Council Bluffs. For central Iowa, I hear Jester Park trail rides are a great experience.

Meet a bison

Bison were once native to Iowa, and now, there are just a handful of places to see them. In central Iowa, visit the Van Meter farm Bare Bison on a Saturday to meet them. In Western Iowa, Botna Bend Park in Hancock is home to a small herd of bison.

Stay in a yurt

Unique outdoor experience in Iowa - Sleep in a yurt at McKintosh State Park in Clear Lake.

What’s a yurt, you ask? It’s like a more permanent tent, like not quite a glamping experience but definitely a step above camping. Find two yurts at McKintosh State Park in Clear Lake. The view is worth it!

Ski in Iowa

The closest ski resort to my home is in Honey Creek called Mount Crescent Ski Area. You can also find ski slopes in Dubuque and Seven Oaks in Boone.

Attend a maple tree tapping

You might associate maple tree tapping and maple syrup pancake feeds with more northern states, but visit Botna Bend in Hancock at the right time and you can attend an event for each.

Play in the Iowa Great Lakes

Water activities in Iowa - Canoe or kayak in Okoboji

The Okoboji region is a popular summer destination for families. Consisting of six lakes, AKA the Iowa Great Lakes, the region is the place to go for boating, fishing, and my kids’ favorite, playing on the beach.

Find your Christmas tree at a tree farm

It’s like a scene out of a movie: Finding the perfect Christmas tree at a bucolic tree farm. I’m most familiar with the Council Bluffs tree farm, Dappen Tree Farm. Here’s a list of seven other Iowa tree farms where you can find a great fir or pine.  

Waterfalls

If you know me, you know I LOVE waterfalls. Iowa has some pretty ones. An easy one to climb is in Decorah. 

Whitewater raft

Outdoor adventures in Iowa - White water kayaking in Charles City
Photo courtesy Iowa Tourism Office

Iowa is home to whitewater rafting parks, including one in Manchester and another in Charles City.

Splash at a waterpark

Adventureland in Altoona has a large waterpark that’s included with admission to the amusement park. You can also cool off at Lost Island Waterpark in Waterloo.

Pick apples at an orchard

Iowa is home to a lot of apple orchards, but a few that have been vouched for by my travel writing friends include Wilson Orchard near Iowa City and my favorite, Ditmars Orchard and Vineyard in Council Bluffs.

Bike across High Trestle Trail Bridge

The centerpiece of the High Trestle Trail near Madrid, this pedestrian bridge is so unique, it’s was named by the BBC as one of the world’s eight most amazing footbridges Go there by day or night, as it’s lit by mesmerizing blue LED lights.

Watch waterski stunts

I’ve been obseswsed with the idea of water ski stunts ever since I saw a picture of a pyramid of water skiers. The Waterhawks perform stunts on Eagle Lake in Waterloo each summer.

Stroll botanical gardens

Picturesque gardens to visit in Iowa include Reiman Gardens in Ames.
Photo courtesy Iowa Tourism Office

There are gorgeously cultivated gardens around the state of Iowa, including Reiman Gardens in Ames and the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden.

Food & drink in Iowa

Sip some wine

Iowa is home to six wine trails! The wineries I’m most familiar with are on the Western Iowa Wine Trail, including Prairie Crossing Vineyard and Winery and Breezy Hills Winery.  

Take on some food challenges

Not one to shy away from a challenge? Iowa has some gut-busters for you. Head to Des Moines to try the Adam Emmenecker Challenge at Jethro’s BBQ. It involves all of the basketball star’s favorite foods and you have to eat it all in 15 minutes (including but not limited to brisket, pork tenderloin, a cheeseburger, fried cheese curds and a pound of fries).

While you’re in Des Moines, stop at B&B Grocery, Meat & Deli to attempt to put down the Killosal Sandwich.

Other food challenges can be found in Waterloo, home to the 28,890 Challenge at the Screaming Eagle; Carroll, where you can take on the The Carrollton Challenge at Charlie’s Steakhouse; and Ames, where you can try to eat the Triple Double Food Challenge at Brick City Grill.

Eat pizza on a farm

Woodfire pizza at Luna Valley Farm in Decorah, Iowa

One of the most unique dining experiences I’ve had was at Luna Valley Farm near Decorah. The farm offers wood-fire oven pizza on special nights, using ingredients they’ve grown or raised on the farm!

When I went, they also had a band playing and had local beer on tap. It was the perfect Friday night.

Try a pork tenderloin as big as your head

You will not go hungry if you attempt to traverse Iowa’s Tenderloin Trail. There are 14 stops on the trail, and some of ginormous sandwiches. (I’m looking at you, Goldie’s Ice Cream Shoppe in Prairie City)  

Participate in a donut eating contest

Head to Elkader in July for the Sweet Corn Days. Among the many activities planned is the donut hole eating contest, held at Pedretti’s Bakery (home to some of Iowa’s best donuts!).

Enjoy the best apple cider donut ever

donut in Council Bluffs

It’s a bold claim, but I stand by it. I love the freshly made apple cider donuts at Ditmars Orchard in Council Bluffs. Being an apple orchard, they also have u-pick apples, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say I purposely go there just for the donuts.

Drink out of a happy cat

I’m a fan of Fong Pizza in Des Moines and we stop for pizza every time we pass through the city. If we’re not in a rush, we order one of their mixed drinks that come in quirky glasses.

Boat up to the Barefoot Bar

The Barefoot Bar is a bit of the tropics in the middle of the Heartland. Boaters pull up daily to grab a few drinks, hear the live music, and maybe cool off by sliding into the lake. Barefoot Bar is located in Okoboji.

Go for some gourmet food

The chefs from one of my favorite Omaha restaurants, Lot 2, moved to Corning to open Primrose, a restaurant that sources its ingredients from local farms.

Dine family-style in Amana Colonies

Great restaurants in Iowa - Ox Yoke Inn in Amana, Iowa.

There are three restaurants in Amana that come highly recommended for their family-style dining. If I had to pick one for you to try, I would recommend Ox Yoke Inn (and don’t pass on trying the strawberry jam and fried chicken…not together…unless you want to).

Breweries

About five years ago, Iowa ranked 15th in the U.S. for the amount of breweries per capita – 33. There are even more now. A few that I’ve tried (and liked) include Pulpit Rock in Decorah, which is near a biggie among beer nerds (Toppling Goliath Brewery, which sells five beers on the Top Beers of the Year list by RateBeer). 

Get an ice cream headache

Iowa is home to the ice cream capital of the world, so you know they love their ice cream (Le Mars is the place to visit the home of Blue Bunny Ice Cream).

Additionally, I recommend going to Lagomarchino’s in Davenport. Be sure to head to the original location to be tempted by the candy treats as much as the sundaes.

Cave into your inner-chocoholic

Iowa has so many candy stores and sweet shops, it’s hard to narrow down the list.

Some of the more unique destinations include Kalona Chocolates in Kalona, an Amish town in central Iowa where it’s not uncommon to see horse-drawn wagons in transit; The Chocolate Haus in the Amana Colonies; and Palmer’s Candy in Sioux City, which is one of the oldest candy companies in the U.S. (and home to the Cherry Bing).

Eat a Dutch letter

Holding up a Dutch letter from the Dutch Bakery in Orange City, Iowa.

Iowa has its fair share of Dutch communities, and each one (it seems) has a bakery with the best Dutch letter. These “s” shaped pastries are tasty. You can find Dutch letters in Boone County at Van Hemert’s Dutch Oven Bakery or head to Orange City to get one at the Dutch Bakery.

Dine at the Sistine Chapel

OK, full disclosure. It’s not the Sistine Chapel, just an incredible replica of the famous ceiling spray painted on the ceiling of Galleria de Paco, a restaurant in Waterloo.

Ride in the Grapemobile

Iowa has a surprising number of wineries, but few can offering what Tassel Ridge Winery offers at its vineyard in Mahaksa County: The Tassel Ridge Grapemobile. Seasonally, it’s used to take visitors on tours of the vineyard.

Eat a loose meat sandwich

Do you call these things taverns or Maid-Rites? Whatever you want to call them, Iowans have been eating loose meat sandwiches for decades. They’re not quite a hamburger or a sloppy joe. They’re their own thing.

Try the nuns’ candy

Monastery Candy in Dubuque is home to the world-famous caramels made by nuns. Word is, the hazelnut meltaways are the best.

Take a bit of headcheese

For the adventurous eater, head to the Amana Colonies to try headcheese from Amana Meat Shop and Smokehouse in Amana. I’ll admit, when we stopped by that shop, we just stuck to sausage and cheese, though.

Only in Iowa experiences

Visit Captain Kirk’s future birthplace

I know, I know, “Star Trek”’s Capt. Kirk hasn’t even been born yet. That doesn’t stop the town of Riverside from celebrating its most famous fictitious resident. Places to stop include Voyage Home Museum with memorabilia and the photo opp in front of the U.S.S. Riverside out front.

Look for the marker of his official future birthplace behind New Image Salon and if you’re really a fan, look for the plaque commemorating where he was conceived (it’s in Murphy’s Bar & Grille).

Find those famous covered bridges

Photo courtesy Iowa Tourism Office

You’ve heard of the book and movie “The Bridges of Madison County,” right? Madison County is in Iowa and you can go find those bridges. Grab a map from the Winterset Chamber of Commerce office or even book a guided tour.

Marvel at Matchstick Marvels

The Matchstick Marvels museum in Gladbrooke contains matchstick replicas of buildings and pop culture icons like the 1970 Dodge Charger from the “Fast & Furious” movies.

See some of the “World’s Largest”

Iowa is home to a few attractions that can claim “world’s largest” fame, including the world’s largest truck stop in Walcott and Elwood, the world’s largest garden concrete gnome found in Reiman Gardens in Ames. There’s a ton more to name, but a few more that might interest you: The world’s largest ball of popcorn in Sac City and the world’s largest wooden nickel in Iowa City.

Sleep in a Frank Lloyd Wright hotel

Find the Historic Park Inn Hotel in Mason City, the only remaining Frank Lloyd Wright-designed hotel that’s still remains. 

Strike an “American Gothic” pose

Visit the American Gothic House that has been immortalized in Grant Wood’s painting. While there, you can don costumes and pose in front of the house.

Go to popular tulip festivals

The most well-known tulip festival is Tulip Time in Pella. However, I’m most familiar with the delightful Tulip Festival in Orange City, with a parade that includes street sweeping in traditional costumes. 

Run around the bases at the Field of Dreams

Head to Dyersville to see the famous ballpark in the middle of a cornfield made for the movie “Field of Dreams.” In the summer, there are Ghost Sunday events. In 2020, an actual MLB game will be played there.

Stay the night in the Villisca Axe Murder House

If you dare, you can book an overnight stay at the Villisca Axe Murder House. For the rest of us, there’s the option of touring the infamous home in the daylight.

Visit one of the last rotary jails

The historic Squirrel Cage Jail is located in Council Bluffs. It may or may not be haunted.
Photo courtesy Iowa Tourism Office

You can tour Historic Squirrel Cage Jail in Council Bluffs and see one of the oldest rotary jails in the United States (think “lazy Susan”-esque). It’s notoriously haunted, and occasionally there are flashlight tours offered.

Visit the first aronia berry farm in the U.S.

Sawmill Hollow Organic Farm in Missouri Valley was the first farm in the U.S. to grow the superfood called the aronia berry. The farm hosts the North American Aronia Berry Festival each September.

Living Loess Tour

Held on the third Saturday of the month from May to October, the Living Loess Tour offers travelers the opportunity to visit farms and rural attractions in western Iowa. My family has been able to make nature art on a farm, milk a goat, and hike when we did a portion of the tour.

Each stop offers a stamp and if you visit all seven on the Saturday of the tour, you can enter your passport in for a prize.

Attend a quirky festival

The quirky festivals in Iowa are year-round, but some of the most interesting happen in the summer. There’s TrekFest held each June in Riverside, the hometown of the fictional character Capt. James T. Kirk.

August has two great ones to consider: Iowa Tugfest pits two teams in an epic tug-of-war across the Mississippi River each August. Find the Iowa team fighting from the Leclaire side of the river. Britt Hobo Days has started up around the annual National Hobo Convention in Britt each August.

See the Little Mermaid

OK, OK, this is not the Disney Little Mermaid I’m talking about. Kimballton is a small town in western Iowa that’s home to a replica of the famous Danish statue of the Little Mermaid. Find it at Mermaid Park (obviously).

Strike a pose with goat yoga

Honey Creek Creamery in Honey Creek offers goat yoga sessions in the spring. While it’s definitely more goat cuddling and ogling than yoga,  it’s a refreshing experience to try stretches on a farm. 

Milk a goat

Return to Honey Creek a few months later and you might get to milk one of those mama goats. The creamery runs Stanley’s Snack Shack, a tasty restaurant known for their goat’s milk gelatos. Oh, and they have goats located near the restaurant and if you ask nice enough, you can milk one of them.

See a bit of WWII history in Algona

The small town of Algona was once home to a POW camp that housed German, Italian and Japanese prisoners. The story goes that a German POW began constructing a Nativity scene, and in time, he and several others built 65 pieces of a set that’s about half of life-size. It’s on display at the Kossuth County Fairgrounds during the holidays each year.

Reenact a scene out of “The Music Man”

Mason City is the birthplace of Meredith Willson, who wrote the 1962 musical. Head to the Music Man Square to find the 1912 “River City” indoor streetscape, a recreation from the set design of the movie. While there, might as well tour his home and the Meredith Willson Museum, where you can seek out the “76 Trombones” hanging from the ceiling.

Make a music pilgrimage

On Feb. 3, 1959, the airplane carrying Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valence and the Big Bopper crashed in a cornfield in Iowa. A memorial exists at the crash site near Clear Lake that fans visit year-round.

Visit the Surf Ballroom

Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake was the last concert venue where Buddy Holly, Richie Valence and the Big Bopper played.

The concert venue where Buddy Holly, Richie Valence and the Big Bopper played was the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake. Concerts are still held there. You can visit any time, even without a concert ticket – take a self-guided tour of the historic ballroom during regular hours.

Be sure to visit the green room where hundreds of autographs dot the walls (and ceiling).

Des Moines Arts Festival

Every June, thousands of art aficionados take to the streets of Des Moines to view works (and maybe purchase one) in this outdoor juried art show. It’s huge! And, if you’re going with kids, there’s a great area for families you’ll want to visit.

Ride the Fenelon Place Elevator

The Fenelon Place Elevator in Dubuque is the world’s steepest, shortest scenic elevator. You can see two other states while at the top.

See a windmill up close

One of the closest windmills to Omaha is in Elk Horn, a small town heavily influenced by its Dutch roots. However, if you want to go inside a windmill, head to Pella, where you can take a tour of the Vermeer Windmill, the largest working windmill in the U.S.

Visit Effigy Mounds

Unique places to visit in Iowa include Effigy Mounds, a national monument in Harpers Ferry.
Photo courtesy Iowa Tourism Office

Effigy Mounds, a national monument in Harpers Ferry, contains more than 200 mounds, many shaped like animals. It’s an American Indian burial and ceremonial site located in the Upper Mississippi River Valley. 

Snap a photo of the Round Barn

Just north of Bedford, you’ll find the beautifully restored Round Barn. Built in 1907 and placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1998. The barn is exactly what it sounds like. Find it at the Taylor County Museum.

Go on “America’s Racin’ Vacation”

Boone Speedway, AKA “Iowa’s Action Track,” hosts the International Motor Contest Association Super Nationals each September. For one week, champions are crowned in Modified, Stock Car, Late Model, Hobby Stock, Northern SportMod, Southern SportMod, and Sport Compact races. Many race fans make a week-long vacation out of the Super Nationals.

Visit the only ice harvest museum in the U.S.

Learn what ice harvesting at the Ice House Museum, a round building designed to hold millions of pounds of ice harvested from the Cedar River. There are hands-on activities to try in the museum housed in a former ice house.

See a small town lightshow

The Lewis Memorial Fountain in the Town Square of Sigourney is unique in that it has a nightly rotating light show from May through September. The multicolored, three-tiered fountain has been around for nearly 80 years.

Tackle Snake Alley

Only in Iowa can you bike (or walk) the most crooked street in the world, Snake Alley in Burlington.
Photo courtesy Iowa Tourism Office

Ripley’s Believe It or Not named Snake Alley as the “CROOKEDEST Street in the World.” Find this curvy road in Burlington.

See the Hula Hoop Tree

Head to rural Jones County to find the Amber Hula Hoop Tree, a whimsical sight to be certain. Hundreds of brightly colored hula hoops hang from the tree. Note: There is no place to park there, so put on your hazard lights when you stop to take a picture (which you will want to do).

Tour the capitol building

This building is gorgeous, but most importantly, taking a tour of the Iowa State Capitol means you get to see the most magnificent law library ever.

Ride in a hot air balloon during the National Balloon Classic 

If you don’t own a hot air balloon, you can still fly in one during the National Balloon Classic held in Indianola in late July-early August. People can make a reservation for the ride. Of course, you can always just watch from the ground, too. 

On the western side of the state, you can attend a balloon glow every September at Ditmars Orchard and Vineyard in Council Bluffs.

Appreciate the (free) public art

The Pappajohn Sculpture Park in Des Moines is well worth a detour if you’re near the city. The modern art is creative, huge, and Instagrammable. Pottawattamie County in southwest Iowa is also home to a lot of unique public art.

See the Grotto of the Redemption

Here’s a rather unexpected find in West Bend – the Grotto of the Redemption. Taking more than 40 years to complete, this grotto is the largest man-made grotto in the world.

Learn about a Suffragette

Visit the girlhood home of Carrie Chapman Catt, a woman who fought hard for the right to vote throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s. The home is located near Charles City. If you visit with kids, there are a few interactives, including some period costumes to try on.

Admire masterpieces

Impressive art museums in Iowa in the Figge Art Museum in Davenport.

No need to travel to the coasts to find stunning works of art. A few art museums worth a visit include Figge Art Museum in Davenport, Cedar Rapids Museum of Art and the Des Moines Art Center.

Stay in a historic hotel

Iowa is home to several historic hotels that continue to offer unique overnight stays. Some of the longest running hotels include the Hotel Julien in Dubuque, which opened in 1839, and the Black Hawk in Cedar Falls, which is more than 165 years old.

Other hotels include Hotel Winneshiek in Decorah, which opened in 1905, and Hotel Pattee, a hotel in Perry that was built in 1913 and featuring 40 different themed rooms.

Learn hobo history

Britt, Iowa, is home to The Hobo Museum and the National Hobo Convention. The museum contains artifacts to preserve the culture of this small community, including items from Frisco Jack and Connecticut Slim.

Visit the country’s first all-organic city

South of Iowa City is the small town of Maharishi Vedic City, established as a meditation-themed community. The city is designed to promote happiness and balance, and everything is designed right down to which direction the buildings face and with rooms at precise proportions. Also, the city has banned pesticides and non-organic foods.

Dive into wrestling history

The National Wrestling Hall of Fame Dan Gable Museum in Waterloo explores the 5,000+ years of the sport, including regular ol’ wrestling and professional wrestling. 

Find the Volkswagen Beetle Spider

Just what the heck is this? Well, it’s a black Volkswagen Beetle made into a spider sculpture, of course. Find it in Avoca, a little less than 2 miles south of Interstate 80.

See the world’s smallest church

Built in 1885, the world’s smallest church seats eight people and can be found in Festina, near Decorah. In all, the chapel is 14 feet by 20 feet.

Visit Cabbage Patch Fantasy Land Museum

I’m a child of the ‘80s, so I had my fair share of Cabbage Patch dolls. Even so, I could never compete with what’s on display at Cabbage Patch Fantasy Land Museum in Griswold. See more than 3,000 dolls on display, including some that had the dreaded “Cabbage Patch Pox.” 

Family-friendly things to do in Iowa

Visit a pumpkin patch in the fall

Some of the closest pumpkin patches to Omaha include Pioneer Trail Orchard and Pumpkin Patch in Council Bluffs and McCurdy’s Pumpkins in Atlantic. For a list of 10 pumpkin patches in Iowa, click here.

Have fun exploring science

Family-friendly things to do in Iowa - visit the Iowa Science Center in Des Moines

Two of my family’s favorite science centers are located in Iowa. They are the Iowa Science Center in Des Moines and the Putnam Museum in Davenport.

We make sure to visit them whenever we’re nearby, thanks to the free admission we get with the reciprocal membership benefits we get through out Omaha Children’s Museum membership.

Go to the Iowa State Fair

Sure, there are butter cows at the Iowa State Fair, but I suspect there is something bigger and even greater to see there. Why else was it included in the book “1,000 Places To See Before You Die”? Clearly,  the Iowa State Fair stands out over other fairs.

Ride a historic carousel

Things to do with kids in Iowa - Ride the antique carousel in Story City.

Story City is home to a classic antique carousel that’s still in operation. And rides were pretty cheap!

Walk through history

Living History Farms, located in Urbandale near Des Moines, is an outdoor attraction that recreates farm life from various eras. There are hands-on opportunities and the chance to interact with costumed re-enactors.

Visit a dairy farm…with kangaroos

I don’t exactly know why, but Hansen’s Dairy in Hudson is seventh generation family farm. Take a tour and you’ll meet their kangaroos. Because, why not have kangaroos?

Snow shoe in the Loess Hills

Things to do with kids in Iowa - snow shoe in the Loess Hills of Western Iowa

One of my favorite things to try with my kids this past winter was snow shoeing. We rented snow shoes at the visitor center at Hitchcock Nature Center in Honey Creek, and enjoyed the fresh air and views.

Ride on Thomas the Tank Engine

Got a fan of Thomas? Check the calendar to see when the annual Day Out With Thomas is at the Boone & Scenic Valley Railroad in Boone. The engine is the legit Thomas.

Feed a giraffe

Fun things to do in Iowa - Feed giraffes at Blank Park Zoo in Des Moines

For just a couple dollars, you can be amazed at the awkwardness and cuteness of a giraffe up close. Blank Park Zoo in Des Moines offers a giraffe feeding experiences as a little add-on to your zoo visit. I highly recommend it!

Exploring Iowa cities

While this list is epic, I didn’t include everything (because that’s impossible). If you want some more ideas, consider these posts for specific Iowa cities:

And if you want to hit a few Iowa cities, consider the Great Iowa Road Trip.

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The ultimate list of things to do in Iowa! This list includes places to visit, restaurants to add to your list, and only-in-Iowa experiences. #Iowa #ThisisIowa #Guide #USA