Around 35 miles north of Des Moines, the city of Ames is best known for Iowa State University (ISU), the largest university in the state and the third-largest in the Big 12.
With a sprawling, verdant campus, the university contributes museums, impressive architecture, world-class cultural events and a feast of varsity sports action.
There’s a fun, youthful feel to the city, which comes to the fore in the Campustown district, with its many bars and restaurants.
Meanwhile, downtown Ames to the east has its own independent eateries, shops and cultural institutions, many of which have been around for decades.
1. Iowa State University
With more than 30,000 students enrolled each year, Iowa State University is a massive presence in Ames, comprising half the population, and with a green campus considered one of the most beautiful in the country.
There are no fewer than five university museums here, several of which feature in the list below.
And if you’re visiting ISU for a sports or cultural event, chances are you’ll be heading for the vast Modernist complex, Iowa State Center, with five venues built between 1969 and 1975.
For a grand historical landmark you can’t miss the solemn, Neoclassical Beardshear Hall (1906), which houses many of the university’s administrative offices and replaced the Old Main building, which was lost to fire in 1902.
Southeast of the university is the lively Campustown, with restaurants, stores and nightspots catering to a young population.
2. Reiman Gardens
At the south end of the Iowa State Center is the university’s exquisite, 17-acre botanical garden.
This is a year round attraction, with indoor and outdoor spaces. Inside you’ve got the spacious conservatory complex, housing tropical plants and regularly updated seasonal displays.
To one side is the Christina Reiman Butterfly Wing, another stunning indoor tropical garden home butterflies from six continents, including amazing emergence cases.
Outside there’s a rose garden with 2,000 plants, a herb garden, an Iowa-themed children’s garden, a maze garden and a lot more besides.
3. Jack Trice Stadium
When the new stadium for Iowa State Cyclones football opened in 1975, it was named for the college’s first African-American athlete who had died more than half a century before.
A highly talented tackle, Jack Trice (1902-1923), died due to injuries suffered in his very first game, following a roll block, a move that has long since been banned.
Currently going through a successful spell under coach Matt Campbell, the Cyclones are founding members of the Big 12 Conference, and always fill their 61,500-capacity home, which was given a state-of-the-art renovation in 2015.
Game day is a colorful experience, and when we wrote this article ISU had hosted ESPN’s signature pregame show twice in just three years.
There’s a buzz around the stadium, with one of the best tailgating atmospheres in the country, and win or lose, the fans in the stadium are noisy and positive.
4. Brunnier Art Museum
Also at ISU’s Iowa State Center is the only accredited museum in the state to be dedicated to decorative arts.
Set up in 1975, the Brunner Art Museum is named for Iowa State alumnus Henry J. Brunnier and his wife Ann, who donated an astounding array of glass, ceramics, jade, enamels, dolls and ivory.
At traveling exhibitions and shows drawn from the rich University Art Collection you can view extraordinary painting, sculpture, textiles, furniture, woodwork, silver, prints and much more.
The museum also organizes an exciting program of talks, gallery tours, conferences and panel discussions.
5. Ames History Museum
The local history museum in downtown Ames is a Smithsonian affiliate, and offers an insight into the city’s history through excellent temporary exhibitions.
At the time of writing, the feature exhibit was Black Trailblazers, devoted to nine trailblazing African-American figures for Ames, including Jack Trice, as well as George Washington Carver, prominent attorney Walter Madison and Willa J. Ewing, who became the first African-American woman to graduate from ISU in 1926.
The feature exhibit is accompanied by up to six smaller exhibits, touching on subjects as diverse as Ames’ medical history, electricity generation and the history if immigration in Iowa.
6. Stephens Auditorium
In the same enormous complex as the Jack Trice Stadium is a Modernist, 2,734-seat performing arts venue that opened in 1969 and stands as one of the state’s great cultural centers.
The Stephens Auditorium bolsters Ames’ cultural scene with a sensational program of shows all year.
This might be opera, performances by traveling orchestras, broadway musicals, plays, famous recording artists, ballet companies, world-renowned comedians or family shows.
The acoustics here are some of the best in the business, and all seats have unobstructed views.
7. Christian Petersen Art Museum
When the Danish-born sculptor Christian Petersen moved to ISU in 1934, he became the first artist in residence at a US college or university.
Petersen would remain in Ames for more than 20 years, teaching and producing a massive body of work, and is regarded as the founder of the university’s Art on Campus Collection.
The museum named in his honor opened in 2007, and displays sculpture by Petersen, as well as a rotating lineup of contemporary art exhibitions.
The venue is the impressive Morrill Hall (1891), built in the Romanesque Revival style and renovated in 2005.
8. Furman Aquatic Center
Ames has an exceptional public water park, which has been part of summer life in the city for more than a decade.
On land owned and leased for free by ISU, the Furman Aquatic Center has an Olympic-sized lap pool that merges with a giant recreational pool.
There’s also a play pool for kids aged 6 and younger, tube slides, a drop slide and a long lazy river that feeds a waterfall.
The pool deck has some 200 lounge chairs, and lots of greenery, while the center’s concession stand has four serving windows so you’ll never have to queue for long.
9. Ada Hayden Heritage Park
This new-ish park in the north of Ames was laid out on the site of a flooded former gravel quarry.
The eponymous Ada Hayden (1884-1950) was a respected botanist and curator of the Iowa State University Herbarium.
The lake here is in two sections, and encircled by a multi-use path that crosses a causeway in the middle. That path is a part of a big system that comprises hard-surface and crushed-limestone sections.
Naturally this is all a honeypot for outdoor recreation in the warmer months, whether you’re here for some fishing, hiking, biking or paddling, with kayak, canoe and paddleboard rentals available in the summer.
10. Octagon Center for the Arts
A pillar of Ames’ cultural scene for more than half a century, the Octagon Center for the Arts is set in an historic building downtown.
You can come to sample the city’s abundant creativity at one of the many exhibitions each year, and support local makers purchasing something special at the shop, which represents almost 200 artists from the city and region.
For the community, the center has an important educational role, hosting workshops, classes and camps for a wide range of skills.
The Octagon also has a presence at the Ames Main Street Farmers’ Market every second Saturday morning, and puts on the successful Octagon Art Festival downtown every September.
11. Brookside Park
Next to the ISU campus on Ioway Creek is a family-oriented public park, full of things to do. There’s a beautiful riverside trail here, running down the east side from Furman Aquatic Center.
This is illuminated at night, and crosses the creek on a scenic bridge. The trail leads to a series of covered shelters on the southeast side, as well as the Brookside Park Wading Pool, open for smaller children in the summer.
Among the catalogue of other facilities are ballfields, basketball courts, tennis courts (with pickleball), sand volleyball courts and play areas for wee ones.
12. The Great Plains Sauce & Dough Co.
One of a number of independent businesses lining Main Street in downtown Ames is this pizzeria that has been part of the Amees food scene for more than four decades.
For many, this is the best pizza spot in Central Iowa, using regional ingredients where possible, and baking traditional pies along with less conventional creations.
The dough is made daily, and Monday to Saturday you drop by at lunchtime for pizza by the slice. You can choose from six different crust styles, three thin and three thick.
Something well worth sampling is the unique oat flour crust, while one of the more outlandish specialty pizzas on the menu is the Taco Pizza, with mild taco sauce and crushed tortilla chips.
13. Alluvial Brewing Company
Out in the farmland northwest of Ames is a brewing operation surrounded by hop fields. Alluvian Brewing Company deals in small batches, putting a focus on quality and flavor.
You can come to this quaint corner of rural Iowa for a pint at the spacious taproom, which has a stripped-back style.
Some of the 15 brews on tap when we compiled this list were the Japanese-inspired Chuseki Rice Lager, Mosacious Pale Ale, Lontra IPA, Waitoreke NIPA, Moonbelt Immolator DIPA and the Visitor Imperial Stout, named for Iowa’s famous cryptid.
Thursday to Saturday there’s normally live music on the agenda, jumping genres from soul to cowpunk.
14. Ledges State Park
There’s dramatic natural scenery a short drive west of Ames at this state park on Peas Creek where this watercourse flows into the Des Moines River. The creek has carved a gorge through the sandstone bedrock, as deep as 100 feet in places.
Established in 1924, Ledges State Park is one of the oldest in Iowa and remains one of the most popular thanks to those cliffs.
There’s a four-mile trail system weaving along steep slopes, up to majestic overlooks. In summer, a fabulous way to traverse this landscape is on the Streamwalk, literally walking along the shallow streambed, which rarely gets above ankle height.
15. Perfect Games
Billed as the top family entertainment center in the state, Perfect Games is off U.S. 30 in the southwest of Ames.
Here you’ve got multiple attractions under one roof, including a cutting-edge, 24-lane bowling alley, a gigantic arcade and a laser tag arena set on two stories.
On top of all this you’ve got the full-service Kingpin Pizza, making stonebaked pizza, from scratch every day and with craft beer on tap.
Across the center are some 30 TV screens, 15 of which are giant screens showing the big game as you play, dine or hang out.