From meeting new people to experiencing new sights, sounds, and smells – is there anything more exciting or rejuvenating than a break from the day-to-day mundanity? Traveling is an excellent way to immerse yourself in a new culture, setting, or way-of-life, but the best part is this: you don’t have to venture far from home to enjoy what this world has to offer.
Whether your journey takes you across your own city, to an unexplored part of your state, or even to the other side of the world, there’s no doubt you will still learn a lot about your surroundings – and yourself – along the way.
While the culture an hour away from your home might not be drastically different from what you’re used to, you can still gain a deepened sense of appreciation for where you’ve laid your roots. Plus, traveling locally has a lot of benefits:
More cost-effective. Local travel is certainly a budget-friendly way to explore! Many activities and parks are free or have a low cost of entry. For day trips, you can also pack your own meals to save.
Eco-friendly way to travel. Travel is hard on the environment, but putzing around your area is more sustainable than air travel.
Quick trips. Getting out locally means you can do it more often! Long weekend trips are a lot easier to take when the destination is a short drive away.
Easy to plan. Preparing your itinerary for a local getaway will likely save you some time and stress.
More convenient. Especially if you have little ones, sticking close to home may be much more convenient than far-off destinations. If you forget something, have an emergency, or need to cut the trip short, being closeby definitely has its benefits.
A city known for churning out some of the best writers in American literature — and also for its small-town feel combined with big-city sensibilities — Iowa City, Iowa is truly a destination all its own. Here are some of the best things to see, do, and explore in Iowa City!
*Note: Some of the suggestions may not be doable due to coronavirus closures, but keep this list handy for when things start opening back up more! Be sure to check individual pages for specific operation details.
Those who call Iowa and the states surrounding it “flyover states” are sorely mistaken. Here are some of the coolest state and national parks and preserves in the Iowa City, IA area.
A sprawling state park sitting on over 2,100 acres, more than 800 acres of which is comprised of its namesake lake, Lake Macbride State Park is one of the closest outdoor destinations to Iowa City — and for that reason, no doubt, one of the most popular. Because of its diverse landscapes and ecosystems, this park is a great spot for outdoor recreation enthusiasts of all types, whether you’re looking to fish, swim, boat, hike, camp, or picnic.
A park that’s as majestic as it is mysterious, Maquoketa Caves State Park is home to 13 unique limestone caves which are open to visitors and connected by hiking trails to make them more accessible. Along with the awe-inspiring opportunity of stepping into a cave itself, this park’s mystique is amplified by the fact that these caves provided shelter to ancient native peoples, and many artifacts and remains have been found inside and dedicated to scientific and historical research.
Rolling green hillsides, well-preserved paths, view of the Cedar River and a historic lodge built by the CCC characterize Palisades-Kepler State Park, which is a popular destination for big events such as weddings and gatherings. Offering six miles of hiking trails and boating and fishing access on the river, this is a great spot to head on a sunny Iowa afternoon.
Covering 400 gorgeous acres of Iowa countryside, Wapsipinicon State Park is almost as beautiful as its name is hard to spell. Along with the historical three-span bowstring arch bridge that is considered its biggest attraction, this park is also home to two famous and fascinating caves, hiking trails, riverfront access and more.
From its towering 75-foot cliffs to its unique rock formations, historical structures, and greenways, if there’s one word to describe Wildcat Den State Park, it’s “dramatic.” A unique landscape that will truly make you feel you’ve gotten away from it all even without having to drive very far at all, this park is as popular with hikers as it is history buffs.
Iowa may be flat, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth taking a hike (or three). Here are some of the best hiking trails near Iowa City, for hikers of all fitness, skill, and interest levels.
Short, sweet, and one of the best examples of the plush, beautiful greenery in this part of the country, Ryerson Woods Trail runs about a mile altogether and sees just over 100 feet in elevation gain — which is to say, while there aren’t no hills, it won’t leave you gasping for breath, either. A great beginner hike for someone who wants to stretch their legs and get some exercise, this trail is also popular with local runners, so be sure to give them some room!
The main drag in the park of the same name, Hickory Hill Loop runs just over two-and-a-half miles altogether and sees about 275 feet of elevation gain in that time — who said Iowa’s flat, again? These gently undulating hills put the trail into the easy-to-moderate category, and the beautiful park views will make it well worth the sweat you’ll break as you tackle this trek.
A trail of just under two miles in total length tucked right into the urban portion of Iowa City itself, the Terry Trueblood Recreation Area trail is a great one to tackle if you don’t have time to drive far away. And with less than 20 feet of elevation gain all told, this trail is truly in the “easy” category, making it a great option for those bringing along pups or little ones.
A trail network making up a loop three miles in length, the trek around Waterworks Prairie Park is not one to be missed by local Iowa City denizens. Seeing less than 30 feet in elevation change along the way, this trail is known for its beautiful lakeside views and dense foliage in the springtime, and is equally stunning when graced with freshly-fallen snow in the winter.
A beautiful, wild area close to the heart of Iowa City, the Red Bird Farm Wildlife Area offers a hiking opportunity of about two miles in length and 170 feet in elevation gain, putting it into the easy-to-moderate category. This hike features pond views and wildflowers when they’re in season, but be warned that this area is also used by hunters. Wear bright colors!
There’s so much to see and do in Iowa City… not to mention all the wonderful things to eat! Here are some of the best-loved restaurants in town, whether you’re craving a classic Italian dinner or something spicier, like Mexican or Indian.
Baroncini Ristorante Italiano owes its well-deserved reputation in town to its devotion to fresh, seasonal, local ingredients, which the chef and staff use to whip up delicious and authentic Tuscan dishes with inventive and contemporary twists. From appetizers, soups, and salads to delicious entrees (we recommend the pollo provolone), there’s nothing on the menu that’s going to disappoint you. Just be sure you leave room for a glass or three of noteworthy wine — and, of course, dessert!
A beloved, home-grown Mexican joint that has since expanded into a small local chain, Los Agaves Mexican Grill has earned its beloved status in the Iowa and Illinois communities. The Iowa City location is actually the most recent addition to the family, but that doesn’t mean its menu full of authentic, delicious, spicy favorites is any less satisfying.
Exotic India’s restaurant suggests visitors to “expect the best food in town” — and they live up to that promise. Offering a comprehensive array of Indian eats, including Tandoori dishes, samosas, butter chicken, tikka masala, and more, this is the best spot in town for these spicy and satisfying dishes, and they’re all served up with a side of familial atmosphere and friendliness.
Looking for some plant-based options that won’t leave you wondering, “Where’s the beef?” Trumpet Blossom Cafe is an organic and vegan restaurant whose comforting hot dishes and baked goods will leave even devoted carnivores satisfied… and leave the local vegan and vegetarian crowd saying “I told you so.” They also offer a full bar as well as fresh-squeezed juices and smoothies!
Yes, Iowa City may be landlocked… but that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy some delicious, fresh-from-the-ocean sushi. Oyama is the local go-to for classic and specialty rolls, as well as sashimi and hot dishes such as udon soups, teriyaki, hibachi meals and more. It’s all served up artfully and beautifully, making it a feast for the eyes as well as the stomach!
From family friendly activities to fun after-hours diversions, there is an incredible complexity of things to get into in Iowa City. Here are some of our top picks for this weekend… or whenever the fancy strikes.
Iowa City’s got plenty of options for kids! Here are just a few.
Colorful, fun, and full of imaginative ways to educate and delight kids of all ages, The Iowa Children’s Museum is a great place to get your kids active and involved with the world around them in ways the classroom just can’t match. Along with the everyday exhibits, this museum also regularly hosts fun events and gatherings that the whole family can enjoy!
Among other things, Iowa City is known as the home of the University of Iowa, and luckily for visitors and residents alike, that school is home to one of the coolest museums in the state. The University of Iowa Museum of Natural History offers visitors all kinds of fascinating facts about how we got here, and additionally, it’s the oldest museum west of the Mississippi River!
As much fun as there is to be had in the glowing Iowa sun, there are also some wonderful things to see and do once it goes down! Whether you’re looking for things for couples to do in Iowa City, a friend’s night out, or a solo venture, here are our suggestions.
Known as one of the haunts most beloved by the writers in the Iowa Writers’ Workshops, Dave’s Fox Head Tavern is a local institution that’s a must-visit for anyone who likes a nice pint or well-mixed cocktail. As one of the oldest bars in town, this place has likely been frequented by many of your favorite authors. Turn your evening out into a small piece of literary history!
A small chain of nonprofit cinemas in Iowa City, FilmScene is the perfect place to go when a movie night is exactly what the doctor ordered. Showing both big box hits and noteworthy indie films and throwbacks, this place offers a movie theater experience unlike any other you’ve had.
There are all sorts of low-cost ways to enjoy yourself in Iowa City. Here are some of the best.
If you haven’t been to Prairie LIghts Books & Cafe, you haven’t been to Iowa City. It’s that simple. One of the best indie bookstores not only in town, but in the entire country — or possibly the world — this spot offers a wide range of reads and also hosts literary events on the regular. Plus, there’s a lovely on-site cafe if you need a snack or a coffee!
Another wonderful University of Iowa museum worth visiting, the University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art is renowned for its wide-ranging collection, including a substantial selection of African art as well as art representative of the Americas throughout many eras. Temporary exhibits also regularly make their way through, so be sure to check the calendar to see what’s up next.
Seven villages situated on 26,000 acres of Iowa City, the Amana Colonies offer a completely unique cultural experience: a peek into the life of the German Pietists, who left Germany after facing persecution by their government and the Lutheran church. After settling in New York state, the community moved to Iowa City for a more isolated existence, and today, host wonderful shops, eateries, and other diversions to invite newcomers into their unique way of life.
True story: some of the coolest things to do in Iowa CIty are also the ones you don’t have to pay one thin dime for.
Once upon a time, Iowa City was the end of the railroad… but Mormons still had a long way to go before they reached their western destination. The Mormon Handcart Site commemorates and exhibits the pilgrimage they continued on foot after disembarking the locomotives.
Not many cities can boast having what’s essentially a living outdoor museum in their backyard… but Iowa City can. And better yet, it’s totally free to visit! The Devonian Fossil Gorge dates back to over 375 million years ago, and is actually an ancient ocean floor from when America looked very different than it does today. Along with being a great place to recreate, this spot is also known for its fossils, many of which date back as far as 200 million years before the dinosaurs. Imagine!
When you need a little bit of me time, a day spa is a great place to go. Here are some of the best spas and salons in Iowa City to help you look and feel your best.
An upscale day spa offering a full range of therapeutic and restorative services, Spa Bilancia is trusted by locals whether they’re after massage in a wide range of modalities, skin care, reflexology, microneedling, or certain aesthetic treatments such as eyelash extensions and waxing. All of it’s done in an indulgent atmosphere that will make you feel like royalty.
A full-service salon that also offers select spa treatments, Twin Image Salon Spa is a local go-to for haircuts and coloring for men and women as well as nail care, waxing, professional makeup application and more. Whether you’re getting ready for a big day or just treating yourself to some much-needed relaxation, this place will ensure you leave feeling refreshed and ready to take on whatever comes your way.
Keeping in shape will help you weather midwestern winters as well as getting you prepared for the summer months. Here are the best places for those in Iowa City in need of a sweat session.
While there are many gyms to choose from in Iowa City, including many big box fitness studio chains, theGYM is the iconic and comprehensive fitness center in town, offering a full range of cardio and strength training equipment as well as the personal training you need to make the most of it. From free weights to guided workouts that guarantee you a full-body experience, this spot offers all the basics along with community motivation and comfort.
Yoga is about more than just pausing in fancy positions. It’s about strengthening your heart — both physically and metaphorically. And that’s exactly what the pros at Heartland Yoga will help you do. Offering a wide range of classes suited to a full spectrum of fitness and ability levels, this place is as friendly and nurturing as it is challenging and revitalizing. Enjoy!
One of the best things about Iowa City is how ripe it is with day trip and weekend getaway potential. Here are just a couple of the cool destinations within an easy day’s drive of Iowa City.
Iowa’s capital and its most populous city, Des Moines is a worthy day trip even if you’re just looking to get dinner at one of its many wonderful restaurants. Surrounded by outdoor oases perfect for hiking and exploring as well as stocked with all the city living you could want, Des Moines is just under two hours away from Iowa City… so what are you waiting for?
There’s no place on Earth quite like Chicago… and lucky for those who hang their hats in Iowa City, this windy town is just three hours away, making it the perfect weekend getaway when you’re in need of some urban fun. Enjoy some deep-dish pizza and take advantage of the city’s many art galleries and other cultural exhibits. Then, come on back and enjoy the small-town comforts of home!
As a final reminder, some of these activities may need to wait until businesses fully reopen from coronavirus closures. However, there is still much to see and experience in Iowa City that you can enjoy today! What are your favorite spots in Iowa City? Send them our way to [email protected] or by tagging us on Instagram @rvshare and using the hashtag #rvsharelocal.