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10 Best Things To Do In Iowa City

Trip Ideas Jun 5, 2024

Iowa City, a vibrant and eclectic hub in the heart of the Midwest, is a hidden gem worth discovering. This charming city, known for its rich cultural tapestry and lively arts scene, offers a myriad of attractions that cater to all tastes and preferences. From its historical significance to its modern-day allure, Iowa City is a destination that promises to captivate every visitor.

Stepping into Iowa City feels like diving into a treasure trove of experiences. The city's atmosphere is a delightful blend of small-town charm and big-city amenities. Its streets are alive with a unique blend of college-town energy and cultural sophistication, making it an ideal spot for travelers seeking a mix of relaxation and adventure. The University of Iowa infuses the city with youthful vibrancy, while the historic downtown area brims with quaint shops, eclectic eateries, and art galleries that beckon exploration.

Iowa City
Source: Airbnb

One cannot mention Iowa City without highlighting its rich cultural heritage. The city is home to a thriving arts scene, with numerous festivals, performances, and exhibitions taking place throughout the year. The Iowa City Jazz Festival, for instance, is a must-see event that draws music enthusiasts from near and far. The Englert Theatre, a historic venue, hosts a variety of performances ranging from theater productions to live music, offering a taste of the city's artistic soul.

For those traveling on a budget, there are plenty of free things to do in Iowa City. The city's numerous parks and green spaces are perfect for leisurely strolls and picnics. The Pedestrian Mall, a bustling area in downtown Iowa City, is a great place to people-watch, explore local shops, and enjoy street performances. The University of Iowa's art and cultural events, often free to the public, provide ample opportunities for cultural enrichment without breaking the bank.

1. Explore the University of Iowa Campus

Exploring the University of Iowa Campus offers a blend of history, culture, and natural beauty, making it one of the best things to do in Iowa City. The Pentacrest Museums, located at the heart of the campus, are a must-visit for any Iowa City tourist. These museums house extensive collections that showcase the rich history and diverse natural heritage of Iowa. The Old Capitol Museum, once the state’s first capitol building, stands as an architectural gem. It offers fascinating exhibits on state history, governance, and more, providing a profound sense of the region’s past.

University of Iowa Campus
Source: The Gazette

Adjacent to the Old Capitol is the Iowa City Museum of Natural History, which invites visitors to embark on a journey through time. From ancient fossils to contemporary ecosystems, the museum's displays captivate visitors of all ages. The Laysan Island Cyclorama, a striking exhibit, immerses you in the life of a remote Pacific island. This museum is a fantastic spot for those seeking free things to do in Iowa City, making it an attractive destination for families, history buffs, and curious minds alike.

After indulging in the intellectual treasures of the Pentacrest Museums, a leisurely stroll through the campus grounds is an experience not to be missed. The University of Iowa campus is renowned for its picturesque landscape, featuring lush green spaces, historic buildings, and serene walking paths. As you wander, you’ll discover the iconic Iowa Avenue Literary Walk, celebrating the city’s rich literary tradition with bronze relief panels and quotes from famous authors with ties to the state.

2. Attend a Show at Hancher Auditorium

One of the best things to do in Iowa City is to attend a show at the Hancher Auditorium. This premier venue is renowned for its world-class performances, making it a top attraction in Iowa City. Located in the heart of downtown, Hancher Auditorium offers a diverse range of shows, including Broadway productions, concerts, dance performances, and more. The state-of-the-art facility ensures an immersive experience, with impeccable acoustics and comfortable seating that enhance every performance.

Hancher Auditorium
Source: OPN Architect

Hancher Auditorium has a rich history of hosting some of the most celebrated artists and productions. From legendary musicians to cutting-edge contemporary performances, it offers something for everyone. This makes it a perfect spot for both locals and visitors looking for fun things to do in Iowa City. Attending a show here not only provides entertainment but also an opportunity to appreciate the arts in a sophisticated setting.

 Attending a show at Hancher Auditorium is a great way to spend an evening, especially if you're exploring the attractions in Iowa City. It stands out among the many activities in Iowa City due to its high-quality performances and the cultural enrichment it offers. The venue is also conveniently located near other popular places in Iowa City, making it easy to plan a full day of fun things to do.

3. Visit the Old Capitol Museum

Exploring the Old Capitol Museum in Iowa City is like stepping into a time machine that transports you back to the early days of Iowa’s statehood. Located in the heart of downtown Iowa City, this iconic building stands as a testament to the rich history and cultural heritage of the region. It's one of the best things to do in Iowa City, especially for history enthusiasts and those looking to immerse themselves in the past.

The Old Capitol
Source: Mississippi Department of Archive

The Old Capitol served as the first state capitol of Iowa from 1846 to 1857, before the government moved to Des Moines. It’s not just an architectural gem but also a pivotal site in Iowa’s political history. Visitors can walk through the chambers where early lawmakers made critical decisions that shaped the state. The building itself, with its classic Greek Revival style, is a striking reminder of 19th-century architectural elegance.

4. Enjoy the Iowa River Landing

Iowa River Landing is one of the standout attractions in Iowa City, offering a delightful blend of scenic beauty, outdoor activities, and a vibrant shopping and dining scene. This destination has something for everyone, making it one of the best things to do in Iowa City.

Iowa River
Source: Corridor Business Journal

As you stroll along the Iowa River, you'll be greeted by picturesque views that are perfect for a leisurely walk or a peaceful moment of reflection. The river's tranquil waters provide a calming backdrop, making it a prime spot for those looking to unwind and enjoy nature's serenity. For the more adventurous, there are numerous outdoor activities in Iowa City available here, including kayaking and paddleboarding. These activities offer a unique perspective of the area and a chance to immerse yourself in the natural beauty of the river.

5. Wander Around Downtown Iowa City

Wander around downtown Iowa City and immerse yourself in a vibrant mix of unique shops, cafes, and restaurants that offer an eclectic experience for every visitor. Start your exploration on the pedestrian-friendly Iowa Avenue, a bustling street teeming with local boutiques and quaint stores. One standout is Prairie Lights, a beloved independent bookstore that has been a cornerstone of the community for decades. Browse through its extensive collection of books, and don't miss the upstairs café where you can sip a latte while reading your latest find.

Downtown Iowa City
Source: No contact

As you continue your stroll, you'll discover a variety of cafes perfect for a mid-morning break. Java House, a local favorite, offers a cozy atmosphere and a wide range of coffee and tea options, making it a great spot to relax and people-watch. If you're in the mood for something more unique, try Cortado, known for its artisanal coffee and contemporary design. It's a great place to catch up on some work or simply enjoy the vibe of downtown Iowa City.

When hunger strikes, downtown Iowa City has no shortage of culinary delights. For a taste of local flavor, head to Pullman Bar & Diner, where you can enjoy classic American dishes with a modern twist. Their brunch is particularly popular, drawing both locals and visitors.  

6. Explore Devonian Fossil Gorge

Exploring Devonian Fossil Gorge is an unforgettable journey into Iowa City’s ancient past. This remarkable natural site offers a unique glimpse into geological formations that date back nearly 375 million years, providing a compelling reason to include it in your list of things to do in Iowa City. As you traverse the area, you’ll be captivated by the intricate details of the fossilized sea floor, a testament to an era when this region was submerged under a prehistoric ocean.

Devonian Fossil Gorge
Source: Travel Iowa

The gorge itself was exposed by the floodwaters of 1993 and 2008, revealing an extensive fossil bed that has since become a geological wonder. The rocks are rich with fossils of marine life, including coral, brachiopods, and crinoids, providing a tangible connection to the Devonian period. Each step on the fossil-laden paths feels like a step back in time, making it one of the most fascinating attractions in Iowa City.

7. Experience the Iowa City Farmers Market

Experience the vibrant Iowa City Farmers Market, where the pulse of the community is felt with every step. Held in the heart of downtown Iowa City, this bustling market is a cornerstone of the city's local culture, offering a delightful array of local produce and handmade goods that cater to all tastes and preferences. It's one of the best things to do in Iowa City, providing both residents and visitors with a unique experience that showcases the region's agricultural bounty and artisanal creativity.

Iowa City Farmers Market
Source: The Daily Iowan

As you wander through the market, you'll be greeted by the vibrant colors and fresh scents of locally grown fruits and vegetables. From crisp apples and juicy tomatoes to leafy greens and sweet corn, the variety of produce is astounding. Each vendor proudly displays their harvest, inviting you to sample and purchase the freshest ingredients Iowa City has to offer. It's a food lover's paradise and an ideal place to gather ingredients for a homemade feast.

8. Visit the Iowa Avenue Literary Walk

When you think of Iowa City, literary history might not be the first thing that comes to mind. However, the Iowa Avenue Literary Walk offers an engaging exploration of this city's rich literary past, making it one of the best things to do in Iowa City. This free activity celebrates the profound impact of notable authors who have called Iowa City home, transforming it into a haven for literary enthusiasts.

Iowa Avenue Literary Walk
Source: Souvenir Chronicles

Iowa City’s literary significance is deeply rooted in its association with the prestigious Iowa Writers' Workshop, the nation’s first creative writing degree program established in 1936. This program has been a nurturing ground for many celebrated authors, making Iowa City a hub of literary talent. As you stroll along the Iowa Avenue Literary Walk, you'll encounter a series of bronze relief panels embedded in the sidewalk, each commemorating a different author linked to Iowa City.

One of the most renowned authors celebrated on this walk is Kurt Vonnegut, whose time in Iowa City influenced his distinctive narrative style. The walk also honors Flannery O'Connor, whose Southern Gothic tales have captivated readers for generations. These authors, among many others, have contributed to Iowa City's reputation as a literary beacon, attracting writers and readers alike.

Another significant figure highlighted is John Irving, whose novels, such as "The World According to Garp," have left an indelible mark on American literature. Irving's connection to the Iowa Writers' Workshop is a testament to the program's ability to foster remarkable talent. The walk also features Maxine Hong Kingston, whose work has been pivotal in bringing Chinese-American narratives to the forefront of American literature.

9. Relax in Hickory Hill Park

Hickory Hill Park in Iowa City is a serene retreat that promises an unforgettable escape into nature. The park's expansive landscape boasts a variety of hiking trails, meandering through dense woods, open meadows, and along babbling brooks, offering something for every nature enthusiast.

Hickory Hill Park
Source: Snyder and Associates

The park's natural beauty is captivating, with every season painting the landscape in its unique palette. In spring, wildflowers blanket the ground, creating a colorful mosaic that invites visitors to linger and admire the scenery. Summer brings a lush, green canopy, providing cool shade along the trails. Fall transforms the park into a vibrant tapestry of reds, oranges, and yellows, while winter offers a tranquil, snow-covered wonderland.

Hickory Hill Park is one of the best things to do in Iowa City, offering a slice of tranquility close to the bustling downtown. It's a place where you can unwind, breathe deeply, and reconnect with nature. The park's accessibility makes it a top choice for those looking for free things to do in Iowa City, providing a rich outdoor experience without the need for admission fees.

10. Tour the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum

The Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum, located in West Branch, Iowa, is a must-visit for history enthusiasts exploring the attractions in Iowa City. This iconic destination offers a deep dive into the life and legacy of America's 31st President, Herbert Hoover. Stepping into the museum, visitors are immediately transported back to the early 20th century, exploring exhibits that highlight Hoover's humanitarian efforts, his presidency, and his impact on American history.

Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum
Source: Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum

The museum's exhibits are meticulously curated, featuring a rich array of artifacts, photographs, and documents that tell the story of Hoover's journey from a humble Iowa farm boy to a global humanitarian and President. One of the standout displays includes a recreation of the humble two-room cottage where Hoover was born, providing a poignant glimpse into his modest beginnings. Additionally, the museum houses a vast collection of documents and personal papers, making it a treasure trove for researchers and history buffs.

Adjacent to the Presidential Library and Museum is the Herbert Hoover National Historic Site, a beautifully preserved area that includes Hoover's birthplace cottage, a blacksmith shop, a Quaker meetinghouse, and the gravesites of Herbert and Lou Henry Hoover. Walking through the historic site, visitors can gain a deeper understanding of the environment that shaped Hoover's character and values. The National Historic Site is not only a place of historical significance but also offers a serene setting for reflection and learning.

Conclusion

Iowa City is a treasure trove of activities and attractions, offering a blend of cultural, historical, and natural experiences that cater to all interests. From the vibrant energy of downtown Iowa City to the serene beauty of its parks, there's something for everyone.

A visit to Iowa City wouldn't be complete without exploring the rich tapestry of its arts and culture scene. The Iowa City Museum of Natural History is a must-see, providing an insightful glimpse into the region's natural heritage. For art enthusiasts, the city's numerous galleries and public art installations offer a feast for the eyes, showcasing both local and international talent. Literature lovers can delve into the city's deep literary roots, thanks to its designation as a UNESCO City of Literature, and the array of bookshops and literary events held throughout the year.

Iowa City
Source: ICGOV

Outdoor enthusiasts will find plenty of Iowa City activities to keep them engaged. The city’s parks and trails are perfect for hiking, biking, and picnicking. Hickory Hill Park, with its sprawling green spaces and scenic trails, offers a peaceful retreat from the hustle and bustle. For those looking for more adrenaline-fueled fun, the nearby Coralville Lake provides opportunities for boating, fishing, and camping.

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Emily Carter

With over 10 years of experience, Emily has extensive experience planning bespoke tours across the United States and Canada, specializing in eco-tourism and adventure travel.