Ames, Iowa, is a hidden gem that offers an easy weekend getaway for families looking for a combination of fun and relaxation. This college town has a variety of attractions, ranging from local eateries to beautiful botanical gardens and charming downtown shops. In this blog post, I’ll share our experience spending a spring weekend in Ames, including some of our family’s favorite things to do there. Whether you’re local or a visitor, Ames is a great destination for a fun family vacation.
Disclosure: My stay was hosted by Discover Ames and Rail Explorers USA. All thoughts, opinions and typos are my own. This post may contain affiliate links.
What to do in Ames
Iowa State University has a big presence in Ames, and without a date, quite a few visitors are in town for a game. You can check the university athletics’ page for schedules for any upcoming game. I was not one of those visitors, though. I have a hard enough time getting my kids to stay for their own sporting events.
Anyway, the plan was to enjoy wonderful springtime weather in Ames and do mostly outdoor activities. Well, in the Midwest, the weather is never predictable. So, we did do outdoor activities, you’ll see that we’re bundled in winter gear as we walked along the tulips. Surprisingly, we weren’t too bothered by the weather and found it reason enough to laugh.
Reiman Gardens mostly has outdoor gardens, and if you visit in late April, you’ll be treated to early spring blooms of tulips, daffodils and various trees. The exhibit “Glass in Flight” opened earlier in April, so it was nice to walk through the gardens and spot the colorful artwork by Alex Heveri. The exhibit will be open through Oct. 15, 2023, and is included with gardens admission.
There is a children’s garden there, and it looks like in another month or so, it will be a super fun place to visit with a stream, outdoor mud kitchen, and other fun areas. Reiman is also home to Elwood, the world’s largest concrete garden gnome. It’s an unexpected find, but if you like quirky things, you’ll like finding Elwood.
Reiman has two indoor areas we really enjoyed visiting. I could’ve spent an hour just sitting in the Butterfly Wing. About 800 butterflies can be found there. In the lobby, you’ll see various types of pupa or cocoons that are very near becoming butterflies. It’s fascinating.
There’s also the conservatory, which is filled with tropical plants and the sound of running water. It’s peaceful. It’s somewhat smaller than I expected, but it is packed full of lush foliage and pretty plants. I could’ve happily lounged on a chair there and pretended I was on an island somewhere.
Depending on your family’s interests (maybe you guys are a sports family), you may or may not want to spend a ton of time in downtown Ames. I love browsing boutiques and can’t resist an independent bookstore, so I really wanted to spend some time along Main Street.
Among the shops I enjoyed most was Nook & Nest, which had a variety of paper goods, as well as home decor and clothing. My kids and I both spent quite a bit of time in Dog Eared Books, too. This well-known bookshop has a resident dog lounging around, as well as a ton of awesome book displays.
Next door to Dog Eared Books is a homemade ice cream shop, Marmalade Moon. There’s a small gift boutique inside it, and you can find some cute kids gifts, candy, as well as some ISU Cyclones gear. You can also find Cyclones gear, as well as home decor at Everts Flowers Home & Gifts.
Boone is a town about 20 minutes from Ames, and the attractions there I tend to tack on to when visiting a different city (sorry, Boone). For this Ames trip, we planned an outing with Rail Explorers USA, which is fairly new to the area and incredibly unique. They’ve fitted unique two-person and four-person pedal carts to ride on the railroad tracks. These carts also have a motor, so it’s not a super strenuous experience.
We crossed two bridges, which I’d say were the highlights of the out-and-back-trip. It’s very well-run, with a lot of safety measures in place. Our worry about crossing streets — as well as crossing the tall bridge — were eased significantly.
Tip: Pack water for everyone, for sure, as well as a snack for the halfway point. If it times out well, you may want to pack a whole picnic and a cooler of beverages since you do spend a good chunk of time at the halfway point (also the point where they turn around all the carts).
Boone is also home to a couple other fun places that you may want to add on to your weekend itinerary, depending on the time of year you’re there. Rail Explorers USA shares the rails with Boone & Scenic Valley Railroad, which offers tours throughout the year, as well as some fun themed ones like a holiday one.
Seven Oaks Recreation is also nearby, and while I’ve been there in the winter for skiing, they also offer several warm weather/summer activities like paddling, tubing and paintball.
Ames attractions on our to-visit list we didn’t make it to
- Perfect Games, a family-friendly entertainment center with bowling, laser tag, food and more
Where to eat in Ames
There’s a little of everything when it comes to food in Ames. The city has a few long-time favorites that any local will tell you is a must-visit (like Hickory Park), as well as some new and inventive restaurants.
Since I mentioned Hickory Park, let’s start with them. This huge establishment was packed on the Saturday night we went (it was ISU’s Spring Game and prom season, after all). I’d describe this place as “giant everything,” as in a giant menu, giant ice cream list, giant servings.
Barbecue and all the hickory-smoked stuff are the favorites. I ordered the Saucy Southerner, which is the restaurant’s take on pulled pork using hickory-smoked pork; my side was mashed potatoes and gravy. It was the perfect size for me (where as my husband and son seemed to have ordered a tray full of food each!). I also had a taste of the barbecue chicken and the buns that accompanied the ribs and both were excellent.
As busy as they were, the staff was efficient. The whole restaurant operation was a well-oiled machine. They also have a kid’s menu.
We had brunch at Provisions Lot F, and we were all pretty happy with the orders. They have a kid’s menu, which was great for us since it included pretty reasonably priced hot cocoa for ours ($1.50). It was topped with whipped cream and sprinkles. I ordered the Lemon bar french toast, and it was delicious and surprisingly light. Provisions has a very tempting bakery case and a large coffee menu.
If you’re in downtown Ames, besides getting a scoop or two of ice cream at Marmalade Moon, you can get pizza at Great Plains Sauce & Dough Co. It’s a pretty eclectic pizza shop with a fun interior and an expansive menu featuring several types of crusts. I’d recommend thin crust if you’re unsure. We tried one of the thick, pretzel-like crusts and it was just too filling. The kids were definitely happy with their thin crust and wouldn’t touch our Denver crust.
It’s a little tricky knowing what to do your first time at Great Plains. You need to order at the window in the back of the restaurant, then grab a table and wait for your number to be called. There are a few Iowa beers on tap.
Ames restaurants on our to-visit list we didn’t make it to
- Cornbred, award-winning barbecue and housed in the Historic Train Depot
- The Cafe, a farm-to-table restaurant with Sunday brunch
- Chocolaterie Stam, a Belgian chocolate shop in downtown Ames
Where to stay in Ames
Like any college town, there is an abundance of hotels in Ames. Since I was working with Discover Ames, they asked what kind of hotel I was looking for. Well, since I was traveling with kids, a pool was a must. We stayed at SpringHill Suites by Marriott, which indeed have a pool. It’s not a very large pool, so don’t get your kids’ too excited about it.
The hotel had a spacious room for us, larger than most typical hotel rooms. Another feature of the hotel I liked was the complimentary hot breakfast. There was the standard eggs and biscuits with gravy, but also an impressive oatmeal and yogurt bar with various nuts and seeds, as well as dried fruit. Fresh fruit was also available.
The location of SpringHill Suites in Ames was convenient. Hickory Park was nearby, and we weren’t far from the Interstate. Downtown Ames was a short drive away.
Two-day itinerary for Ames
Inspired to plan a weekend getaway to Ames for your family? Here’s the itinerary I planned for our weekend trip this spring.
Things to do on Friday
Since Ames is so near Boone, I opted to take advantage of enjoying Rail Explorers’ opening day there. Rail Explorers is a fun outing for for groups and families with older kids. You pedal the railroad tracks, and there are two epic bridges to cross! It sounds tougher than it is, since I should’ve mentioned the carts have a motor that kicks in when the back right person pedals.
Boone is about 20 miles northwest of Ames, so we were able to arrive at our weekend destination rather quickly afterward. We were hungry, so we opted for a pizza night at Great Plains Sauce & Dough Co. in downtown Ames.
We stayed overnight at the SpringHill Suites by Marriott in Ames. Its location is pretty convenient for getting around the college town.
Things to do on Saturday
Our hotel had a complimentary hot breakfast, but we wanted to try one of the city’s popular brunch spots. Provisions Lot F hit the spot. I ordered Lemon Bar French Toast, and it was delicious. The kids enjoyed their hot cocoa (which was only $1.50 for kids) with their food, and I got myself a mocha.
After brunch, we drove to Reiman Gardens, located nearby on the Iowa State University campus. The original inspiration for the trip was to see the just-opened special exhibit, “Glass In Flight,” which is open through Oct. 8, 2023, as well as to see Elwood, the world’s largest concrete gnome (because that’s just the sort of thing I like).
As it turned out, though, the highlight for the whole family was the butterfly garden. I also loved seeing all the tulips and daffodils in bloom.
Brunch was filling enough, so we didn’t need a full meal just yet, but a snack was in order. We drove to downtown Ames for some ice cream. Marmalade Moon makes homemade ice cream, so we were set.
I really wanted to spend more time in downtown Ames, exploring shops and stopping by Octagon Center for the Arts, but the kids were a little tired and not at all in the mood for boutique shopping with me. We did, however, all enjoyed Dog Eared Books, which was right next door to Marmalade Moon. The resident dog was a hit with the kids.
While the kids read their new books, I was able to stop in a few amazing local shops. My favorite was Nook & Nest.
After a little downtime, we were ready for dinner. Hickory Park has been an institution in Ames since 1970, and nearly everyone I spoke to said I needed to go there. So we did. And apparently so did half of Ames – it was so busy! Most of the family ordered variations of barbecue, and of course, we had to pick something off the ice cream menu. The ice cream is all Blue Bunny (which is headquartered in Le Mars, Iowa).
My original plan was for us to cap our evening with an outing to Perfect Games, to bowl or maybe play in the arcade. I was overruled. My youngest wanted to go to the hotel pool and my oldest wanted to watch a movie. Guess we’ll need to plan a return visit.
We learned that Ames is a fantastic destination for families looking for a fun and educational weekend getaway. From exploring the wonders of science at the Reiman Gardens and the Iowa State University campus to strolling through the charming downtown area and enjoying a tasty treat at one of the local ice cream shops, there’s something for everyone in Ames