I’m always up for a weekend getaway, and Iowa has become my reliable, go-to state. Iowa cities provide an inexpensive vacation, and all within just a few hours from Omaha. Here are a few of my favorite, memorable vacations in Iowa, plus recommendations from Iowa travel bloggers.
Audubon offers great outdoor spots like the T-Bone Bike Trail, which is a paved bike trail that spans from Audubon south through Hamlin, Exira, and under I-80 into Cass County. Littlefield Recreational Area outside Exira offers camping, fishing, swimming at a beach, and more. Nearby you’ll find the “tree in the middle of the road” unique site as well. Downtown you’ll find the John James Audubon bird walk and a beautiful city park.
Restaurants like El Adobe and The Bakery on Broadway will fill up your tummy with delicious foods. Want to try a prize-winning tenderloin? Head to Darrel’s Place in Hamlin!
Nearby in Gray, you’ll find the Heritage Rose Garden, which features more than 200 varieties of roses and flowers. If you need something to do indoors, head to the Audubon Rec Center.
Enjoy a stay at the historic Taylor Hill Lodge. This century-old barn has been renovated into a lodge and it’s a great place to stay and enjoy Iowa countryside!
There is plenty to keep you and your family busy in Audubon County.
Clear Lake is the perfect place to plan a summer getaway! Families will enjoy visiting City Beach where you can take a dip in Clear Lake or have fun in the new splash pad area. We recommend grabbing a sandwich at nearby Starboard Market and having a picnic during your day at the beach.
Nature lovers will enjoy exploring Clear Lake by taking a tour on the Lady of the Lake, or by going on a walk at Central Gardens or either state park (Clear Lake or McIntosh). We also recommend staying in the yurts at McIntosh State Park.
History buffs will enjoy visiting the Surf Ballroom or the Cerro Gordo County Freedom Rock to learn about important stories and people that made an impact both locally and nationwide.
There is something for everyone in Clear Lake and don’t forget to get a black raspberry ice cream cone at the Viking Drive-Inn while you visit!
Read on about the Iowa Ice Cream Road Trip's stop at Viking Drive-Inn in Clear Lake.
Decorah is a small town full of outdoor adventures in northeastern Iowa. Located in the Driftless Area of the Midwest, the landscape is surprising in areas: Waterfall, rocky terrain, and Upper Iowa River, which National Geographic listed as one of the 100 Greatest Adventures in America.
On our visit, we stuck to paved path of Trout Run Trail for a bike ride, but the area is also popular with mountain bikers.
The city is proud of its Norwegian heritage, so get a sample of some of the Nordic delicacies at Ruby’s Restaurant and Catering. My favorite meal, though, was at Luna Valley Farm, which serves wood-fired pizza made from ingredients grown and raised by them. Don't forget to cap off your day with a beer from one of the local microbreweries!
You can easily spend a weekend in Des Moines, the state capital of Iowa, and not see all the highlights. From cultural experiences like the Science Center of Iowa and the Living History Farms to big thrills at Adventureland, the city has enough to keep any family busy.
Des Moines has a great restaurant scene. Among my favorites that I return to again and again are Fong's Pizza and Zombie Burger.
A great place for an Iowa summer getaway is Dubuque! There are plenty of opportunities to enjoy the outdoors.
Some of my favorite things to do during the summer are: Ziplining at Sky Tours Dubuque, hiking at the Mines of Spain, and enjoying the Mississippi River. Several boat companies do river cruises, but if you have your own boat there are lots of sandbars that you can enjoy.
The National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium and the Fenelon Place Elevator are worth a stop too.
The Yardarm has outside riverfront dining which is lovely on a warm day. Along Rhomberg Avenue you’ll find an independently-owned Dairy Queen, the menu is slightly different from the regular locations and it’s walk-up, like a human drive-thru!
The Hotel Julien and the Grand Harbor Resort are popular Downtown lodging options. However, if you are into camping, you’ll find a couple of campgrounds. Miller Riverview Park is very close to Downtown located on Schmitt Island, or just across the river in Wisconsin (a 10-minute drive), is the large Coconut Cove Resort, which is great for families.
Elk Horn is the “capital” of the Danish Villages. Learn about Dutch culture and history by visiting this small town.
The Museum of Danish America & the Danish Windmill Museum are great places to learn about the connection of Elk Horn to Danish culture along with the impact on our society. If you’re a wine fan, we recommend heading outside Elk Horn to Danish Countryside Winery.
Make sure to check out the other Danish Village of Kimballton. This town is home to the Hans Christian Anderson Little Mermaid sculpture park and fountain.
Get a taste for traditional Danish food like frikadellar and Abelskiver at the Danish Table. Award-winning tenderloins are available at Larsen’s Pub or grab delicious pizza at Grace on Main!
Looking for a place to stay? We recommend Blue Grass Inn & Suites in Audubon.
Estherville is most likely one of the most overlooked towns in Iowa. It is nestled along the Des Moines River and Fort Defiance State Park.
The state park has several beautiful hiking trails that challenge hikers, as well as the casual walker. The Des Moines River Water Trail provides more than 20 miles to explore by kayak, boat, or canoe. The outdoor enthusiast will fall in love with this area of the state.
Book an overnight stay at Little Swan Lake Winery/Bed & Breakfast. Here you can enjoy the rolling hills of Iowa, with a jaw-dropping view off of your deck.
Your visit would not be complete without a meal at Woody's Pizza, as it is one of the most recognizable restaurants in the state of Iowa.
A stroll around the town square will remind you how peaceful and beautiful life is in small-town America.
Right in the heart of north Iowa with easy access via US-20 or I-35, Mason City is an ideal summer getaway for families, with music, architecture, art, food, and plenty of greenery.
For fun, stroll or bike the Meredith Wilson footbridge and visit Music Man Square to learn more about the musical Music Man, River City, and how Mason City inspired it all. At the Charles H. MacNider Museum, find the adorable puppets from the Lonely Goatherd scene in Sound of Music, as well as works in a variety of mediums from many different artists, including paintings by Thomas Hart Benton.
Architecture aficionados will love the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Historic Park Inn and Stockman House, and will notice tributes to his style all over town, from century-old leaded glass to contemporary murals and more!
If all this fun makes you hungry, Northwestern Steakhouse and Black Dog BBQ will make sure you don’t stay that way, while Birdsall’s ice cream and Mama Sugar’s Cupcakery will be the icing on your delicious trip!
Want more info? Here’s the full take on visiting Mason City with kids.
Okoboji, and the collection of nearby towns and lakes, are one of the most popular summer destinations in the state. Whatever kind of lake vacation you wish for - quiet, active, or a party - you'll find it in Okoboji.
Boaters flock here, but since we don't own a boat, we cruised the lake with a canoe from our resort.
Make time to visit the historic Arnolds Park Amuseument Park, home to one of the oldest wooden rollercoasters in the U.S. Grab a cold treat at the Nutty Bar Stand after your afternoon at the amusement park.
If you can pull yourself away from the lakes, you'll find museums, bike trails, and a fun nature center in the area.
Just south of Cedar Rapids sits the small, Midwest town of Ottumwa – a city waiting to surprise you with numerous experiences!
Ottumwa’s tagline, “Let Us Surprise You,” was announced in 2016 as part of the city’s rebranding to maintain it’s proud past and cultivate an exciting future. So what does this mean for you? Ottumwa has exactly what families (like mine, and yours) are looking for, all the experiences in one place!
Not only did I find a city that reminded me of the small town I grew up in, but it also offered some of the bigger city vibes I crave as well. Visiting was a whirlwind experience of nostalgia and adventure, as well as anticipation to see even more of what Ottumwa’s future looks like. Ottumwa is growing. I can’t wait to bring my family back!
The Quad Cities - Betterndorf and Davenport in Iowa and Moline and Rock Island in Illinois - feel like one large city with small-town atmospheres. The Mississippi is the natural divider for the states and cities.
We visited on a particularly rainy weekend, so we spent most of our time indoors. There are several excellent museums, including the Putnam Museum (a science center crossed with natural history museum), Figge Art Museum, and the Familly Museum.
There are two free, not-to-miss places to include on your visit. The Fyxell Geology Museum located on the picturesque Augustana College campus, and is home to fossils and rocks and petrified dinosaur poop. (Kids love it)
The John Deere Pavilion is also a free attraction, with hands-on activities and an up-close look at farming equipment.
It's tough to say which city you should stay overnight in. But, they're all near each other so you can't really choose incorrectly.
Indoors and outdoors, Sioux CIty has plenty of activity options to fill a weekend.
Stone State Park and the Dorothy Pecaut Nature Center in the city are two great places to hike. The trails at the nature center connect to the rest of Stone Park if you’re looking for a longer hike. The nature center is a must-visit if you have young kids.
Sioux City has a surprising number of museums for a city of its size. Some that I especially recommend to visitors include the Sioux City Art Center (the Grant Wood corn room is a must-see!), LaunchPAD Children’s Museum for little visitors, and the Sioux City Railroad Museum with its brand new grand-scale railroad now open for rides.
Want some more ideas? Check out this list of 10 of the most charming small towns in Iowa!
Is it a day trip or a weekend trip?
So, good question. How far away are these places from Omaha? And should you plan just a day or a weekend? I almost always plan overnight trips, even to nearby towns in Iowa.
I typically plan overnight stays for anything more than a two-hour, one-way drive from Omaha. But, to help you decide, here are the distances from Omaha:
Elk Horn – 65 miles from Omaha
Audubon – 80 miles from Omaha
Lake Icaria – 85 miles from Omaha
Sioux City – 100 miles from Omaha
Des Moines – 135 miles from Omaha (so much to do, I’d recommend more than a day)
Estherville – 190 miles from Omaha
Okoboji – 200 miles from Omaha (definitely an overnight – but you’ll want a whole weekend there)
Ottumwa – 220 miles from Omaha (definitely an overnight trip)
Clear Lake – 250 miles from Omaha (definitely an overnight trip)
Decorah – 330 miles from Omaha (definitely an overnight trip)
Closer Iowa road trips
Looking for places closer to Omaha for a quick getaway? I recommend exploring southwest Iowa. Here are a few notable places and things to do:
I would offer my hometown area of Villages of Van Buren (county). Bentonsport is especially travel worthy with lots of vintage crafts and a haunted B&B!
Lacey State Park just across the Des Moines river from Keosauqua is also worth a visit. Grew up taking it for granted - now I realize what a gem it was/is!
And you really need to visit Cantril for the Dutchman store. Greatly expanded since I grew up but virtually everything you might need and lots of things you didn't KNOW you needed! We especially love looking through their dried goods (fabric), candy, spices and shoes!!
FInally Milton has a terrific dairy. Makes WONDERFUL cheeses. Samples available (at least usually)
Definitely an overnight and perhaps a laid-back weekend.
We usually leave on a Friday night and stay in Des Moines - cause you're right so much in Des Moines. Then travel southeast to Van Buren then back to Centerville/Moravia for a night at Honey Creek Resort on Rathbun lake.
Monday 15th of June 2020
What a great roundup of cities! I’ve been to about half need to plan for more!
Wednesday 17th of June 2020
I would've guessed you'd have been to more than half!
Sunday 14th of June 2020
I live in La Vista, and enjoyed your post about places to visit in IA. Do you have a similar list for NE? I retired 01012020, and would like to set up a "See Nebraska" travel wish list.
Sunday 14th of June 2020
Thanks! I have a Nebraska Bucket List post that is my travel wish list, but I'd love to write a Nebraska road trip post. Good idea!
Val - Corn, Beans, Pigs & Kids
Friday 12th of June 2020
So many great places to visit! We've actually been thinking of doing a road trip across Iowa for our family vacation this year so this will be a great post to refer back to. Thanks for letting me contribute to this post as well.