Though often thought of as a flyover state, Iowa has more to offer than meets the eye. With numerous state parks, scenic landscapes, and adorable small towns, there are so many Iowa bucket list must-dos. Nicknamed the Hawkeye State, this midwestern spot is known for its funky roadside attractions as well as historical landmarks.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- Iowa Bucket List Trip Destinations
- Spring and Summer Iowa Bucket List Ideas
- Fall and Winter Iowa Bucket List Ideas
- Family-Friendly Iowa Bucket List Ideas
- Bucket List Foods and Restaurants in Iowa
- Des Moines Bucket List Ideas
This fertile farmland is also a great place to explore your own food bucket list, trying some hearty foods you might not find anywhere else. From the Field of Dreams to the Grotto of the Redemption, see for yourself why Iowa is a surprisingly stunning destination.
Iowa Bucket List Trip Destinations
If you want to experience Iowa, the best gateway is through its small towns. Much more than regular fields of corn, you’ll find midsize cities, dramatic bluffs, and yes—the infamous cornfields.
1. Step back in time in Dubuque
For a bit of culture, you absolutely must visit Dubuque, Iowa. This is the oldest city in Iowa, once discovered by early settlers. Today, you can explore the historic district that was once home to a thriving warehouse industry. This is also home to the world’s steeped railway!
2. Join the Amana Colonies
Another way to experience early history is by visiting the Amana Colonies in Amana, Iowa. This place dates back to the 19th century when German Pietists built their own communal lifestyle here. Tourists today can visit these local establishments and experience the slower pace of life.
3. Experience the Field of Dreams in Dyersville
The hit film Field of Dreams starring Kevin Costner was filmed in Dyersville, Iowa, in 1989. You can still visit the movie site today, and there are interactive exhibits and photo opportunities to bring the flick to life.
4. See the Grotto of the Redemption in West Bend
This is one of the most unique attractions in the country. Also known as the West Bend Grotto, these nine separate grottos were created with precious stones and gems. Created by a local pastor, this is an impressive example of human creation.
5. Experience Scandinavian heritage in Decorah
Did you know parts of Iowa have a rich Scandinavian heritage? It’s true, and you can experience this rich history for yourself in Decorah. Home to the Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum, there are 16 historical buildings here. In the summer, you can also experience Decorah’s Nordic Fest.
Spring and Summer Iowa Bucket List Ideas
Next, if your travel bucket list focuses on the summertime, you’re in luck. The spring and summer months in Iowa are some of the best. From local events to outdoor activities, see the state come to life.
6. Venture into caves at Maquoketa Caves State Park
If you’re adventurous, don’t miss stopping at Maquoketa Caves State Park. This is where you’ll find above-ground hiking trails and also world-famous caves. The most famous cave for explorers of all levels is the Dancehall Cave.
7. Cheer for RAGBRAI
This week-long bike race spans the entire state of Iowa, and it takes place each summer. This 60+ year tradition brings people together from all over the state to cheer on cyclists.
8. Swim in Big Spirit Lake
Known as the “Iowa Great Lakes,” a string of lakes covers over 15,000 acres. Home to fishing spots, swimming beaches, and glass-bottom boat tours, this is a must-visit in the summertime.
9. Flock to the Iowa State Fair
Though the state is quickly becoming more cosmopolitan with cities like Des Moines, the Iowa State Fair still relies on old-fashioned charm and family fun. This 11-day event happens at the end of every summer, and its 400 acres of excitement can be overwhelming.
10. See the Tulip Time Festival in Pella, Iowa
Lastly, each May, you can experience the Tulip Time Festival in Pella, Iowa. Pella was founded by Holland refugees in the 1840s. Today, the town is proud of its Dutch heritage, and it celebrates with Dutch-inspired events all May long.
Fall and Winter Iowa Bucket List Ideas
Though most people know the midwest for its chilly winters, this can still be a great time to visit. Watch the seasons change up close, exploring some of the lesser-seen parts of this state.
11. Drive along the Covered Bridges Scenic Byway
Made famous by the blockbuster hit The Bridges of Madison County, these late 19th century bridges still remain across the gorgeous countryside. The best way to experience them is during the Madison County Covered Bridge Festival in October.
12. Window shop in Iowa City
Home to the University of Iowa campus, this is a great place to explore with the whole family. Iowa City has an impressive downtown with quaint shops, cafes, and the infamous Prairie Lights Bookstore. This bookstore was even frequented by impressive writers like Langston Hughes and Robert Frost!
13. Learn about America's wars at the Iowa Veterans Museum
In Waterloo, Iowa, you’ll find a lot of important museums. One of the most interesting is the Sullivan Brothers Iowa Veterans Museum. This museum shares the stories of America’s many wars through the eyes of Iowa’s veterans. Not only is it interesting, but it’s also a great way to escape the chilly weather.
14. Birdwatch in Clinton, Iowa
Each winter, thousands of Bald Eagles flock to Eagle Point Park near the Mississippi River to migrate for the colder weather. This is an incredible sight you won’t forget!
15. Shred the ski slopes at Seven Oaks Recreation
Though Iowa isn’t home to the best skiing in the country, you can still hit the slopes. Located in Boone, Iowa, you can ski, snowboard, and snow tube at Seven Oaks Recreation all winter long.
Family-Friendly Iowa Bucket List Ideas
Anywhere in the midwest is perfect for the quintessential family road trip. These family-friendly Iowa bucket list ideas below will have you coming back again and again.
16. See exhibits at the Mississippi River Discovery Center
In Dubuque, you’ll find the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium. The mighty Mississippi River defined this region, and it makes up the eastern border of Iowa. At this museum, you can see live animals, the 4D theater, and the Discovery Center.
17. Visit the birthplace of Herbert Hoover
The only president from Iowa was Herbert Hoover. In West Branch, you can see his humble beginnings up close at the Herbert Hoover National Historic Site.
18. Walk the Loess Hills
On Iowa’s western edge, you’ll discover the Loess Hills National Scenic Byway. This route connects parks, forests, overlooks, and prairies to Missouri. This is the perfect spot to explore with the whole family.
19. Soar in the National Balloon Classic
Central Iowa has been home to the National Balloon Classic for 40 years. This week-long festival every summer has fireworks, parades, crafts, and balloon flights.
20. Splash in the creeks at Ledges State Park
For some light trails over sandstone cliffs, visit Ledges State Park. This easy day-trip from Des Moines is the best spot to picnic, hike, and even swim along the creeks. Just bring a change of clothes!
Bucket List Foods and Restaurants in Iowa
Though not known for its food scene, Iowa is an up-and-coming oasis for new dishes and cultural favorites. You guessed it: There’s a lot of corn.
21. Feast on breaded pork tenderloin
Did you know Iowa produces the most pork in the entire country? With around 20 million pigs in the state of Iowa at any given time, breaded pork tenderloin is a staple here. The best place to experience this is at the Iowa State Fair each summer.
22. Cool off with a nutty bar
Infamous around Iowa’s lakes during the summertime, you absolutely must try a nutty bar. These are made with Blue Bunny vanilla ice cream dipped in chocolate and covered in nuts. Served on a stick, this is the best way to cool off during the hotter season.
23. Try Iowa’s famous gas-station pizza
While you might not think of gas station food when thinking of bucket list eats, don’t knock it till you try it. Iowa’s gas station chain Casey’s is known for its pizza pies. With breakfast pizzas, taco pizzas, and more, this is a delicious way to experience an Iowan pie.
24. Munch on sweet corn
Of course, this wouldn’t be a list about Iowa without some Iowa corn. Iowa Sweet Corn is all over the state, especially in the summertime. You can find the best corn at farmer’s markets and on street corners.
25. Have a “Maid-Rite” Sandwich
The original “Maid-Rite” sandwich is an Iowa tradition. Created with spices and ground beef, it was once described as “made right,” thus the name was born.
Des Moines Bucket List Ideas
Des Moines is the capital of Iowa, and it’s one of the most exciting destinations. One of the country’s mid-sized cities, Des Moines offers more than you might expect.
26. Explore the State Capital
An icon for the city’s government, the State Capital building in Des Moines is a display of architecture and design. With historical artifacts and a gorgeous interior, take yourself on a self-guided tour.
27. Soak up local art at Des Moines Art Center
Iowa has long been a capital for artists of all backgrounds. The Des Moines Art Center has been open since the 1940s, and it includes constantly changing displays. Entry is free to the public, and you might be surprised by these impressive collections.
28. See the nighttime sculpture park
Created thanks to a donation of more than two dozen sculptures, a downtown green space in Des Moines was transformed into the John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park. While you can visit any time of day, it’s especially stunning at night when lights illuminate the works of art.
29. Wander through the Salisbury House
Though it was built in the 1920s, you might think this home belongs in 16th century England. This manor home houses an original collection of furnishings and artwork, and you can book a guided tour of the property and gardens.
30. Spot uncommon species at the Des Moines Botanical Garden
One of the most beautiful sites in the city, the Des Moines Botanical Garden has exotic species, plant collections, and more. Drawing visitors from near and far, this is not your average botanical garden.
Visit Iowa for Yourself
Now that you know how to make a travel bucket list, you’re ready to plan your trip to the Hawkeye State. If you’re exploring the midwest (and you should), don’t forget about Iowa. Much more than a flyover state, this is a unique glimpse into a simpler version of American culture. Who said simple meant boring? If anything, Iowa proves there is always something to do if you’re willing to think outside the box.
Are you planning a trip to Iowa or the midwest? Make sure your bucket list is ready for anything. When we create bucket list ideas, we prepare ourselves to make exciting new memories for tomorrow.