Home to the University of Northern Iowa (UNI), Cedar Falls shares a metropolitan area with its neighbor Waterloo.
The two cities are linked by the Cedar River, as well as a massive network of trails, adding up to more than 100 miles and making this a convenient place to discover on foot or by bike.
You can get started in Cedar Falls’ fabulous downtown area, with a directory of locally-owned stores and restaurants behind vintage storefronts.
UNI packs a big cultural and sporting punch, with concerts, Broadway and live comedy at the state-of-the-art Gallagher Bluedorn Performing Arts Center, and athletics action under the iconic UNI-Dome.
1. Downtown Cedar Falls
Pedestrian-friendly, picturesque and full of inviting shops and restaurants, Main Street Cedar Falls is most people’s idea of an ideal downtown district.
The organization preserving the architecture and helping to revitalize the local economy was formed back in 1987 and has won awards for its efforts.
There are more than 30 one-of-a-kind stores and boutiques and over 20 restaurants that you simply won’t find in any other town.
Cedar Falls’ heart and soul thrums with life, morning till night, and features widened sidewalks to encourage foot traffic. The food scene is all-embracing, running the gamut from crêpes to pub grub to wood-fired pizza.
2. Cedar Valley Trails
The Waterloo-Cedar Falls metropolitan area is traversed by an ever-growing network of multi-use trails.
The Cedar Valley Trails system is now more than 100 miles long, extending to all corners of the metro area, and with more than 140 wayfinding signs to make it even easier to get around. On the website you’ll find details of the many loops, letting you explore the area without a car.
A popular route is the Cedar Valley Loop, just over 16 miles long and linking Cedar Falls’ and Waterloo’s downtown areas, with restorative river views as you go.
You could also follow the UNI Loop, for a little tour of the university campus, taking in local institutions like the Hearst Center for the Arts.
3. Ice House Museum
The curious brick rotunda on the riverfront at Sturgis Park is an ice house, built in 1921 for the Cedar Falls Ice and Fuel Company.
On the National Register of Historic Places, this replaced an earlier ice house, built on the present site in 1858 but lost to a fire in 1921.
The current ice house measures 100 feet in diameter and in its time was able to hold 16 million pounds of ice, cut from Cedar River.
Today it’s a museum for the Cedar Falls HIstorical Society, and documents the city’s now forgotten ice industry.
The society also manages the Victorian House Museum, presenting a refined Italianate home from 1863.
4. George Wyth Memorial State Park
On the city’s east side is a big expanse of riverside nature, covering 1,200 acres of floodplain and connected to the vast trail network in Cedar Falls and Waterloo.
Just in from the riverbank is a mosaic of lakes, making the George Wyth State Park a haven for birdlife (200 recorded species), fishing and boating.
You can spend a carefree summer’s day relaxing at George Wyth beach, with kayaks, paddle boards, canoes, tubes and pedal boats all available for rental from the beach.
The park also has a sizable campground, with close to 70 electric and non-electric sites, as well as modern restrooms and showers.
5. Hartman Reserve Nature Center
Across the Cedar River from George Wyth State Park is another valuable space containing the largest single parcel of woodland in Black Hawk County.
The preserve covers more than 300 acres and is spread across the bluff line, with scenic views in higher parts. Between the bluffs and the riverbank are a meadow, prairie, gravel pits and vernal pools, all encompassed by deep forest.
Posted on high ground at a nexus point in the trail network is the Hartman Interpretive Center, which has exhibits about the various habitats along the Cedar River.
The reserve has a large stand of sugar maple, and syrup is collected from the sap in February and March. On the first weekend of March you can also attend the Maple Syrup Festival, a pancake breakfast raising funds for the preserve.
Hard to miss on the west side of the UNI campus is an indoor, multipurpose venue for varsity sports and big live events.
The UNI-Dome opened in 1974, and is the home of the UNI Panthers football and basketball teams, selling out for pretty much every game. UNI may be a smaller sibling to the likes of ISU and UI, but the Panthers are notoriously competitive.
The football team is in the NCAA Division I Football Championship Subdivision, the second-highest level, and has an 80% win record in the dome.
Meanwhile the basketball team plays in the Missouri Valley Conference and has made seven NCAA Tournament appearances in the last 20 years.
One ritual for football games is that the announcer will read out the (often freezing) weather conditions in the visitors’ city, before saying, “Inside – 72 degrees, no wind, welcome to the Dome!”.
7. Gallagher Bluedorn Performing Arts Center
In 2000, the University of Northern Iowa entered a new era with the unveiling of a magnificent performing arts center.
Costing $25 million and covering more than 100,000 square feet, this was the first venue of this scale to open in Iowa for more than two decades.
The airy glass-walled lobby gives way to three state-of-the-art auditoriums, complemented by practice rooms and classrooms. The largest auditorium is the Great Hall, seating 1,620 and equipped with the latest audio, lighting and rigging systems.
The center hosts more than 300 performances a year, enriching the region’s arts scene with Broadway shows, famous comedians and classical music from the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Symphony.
8. Black Hawk Park
As with the surrounding county, this riverside park is named for Black Hawk (1767-1838), the famous Sauk leader.
At almost 1,500 acres it’s one of the largest county parks in the state, and forms a lengthy greenbelt along the Cedar River as far as Washington Union bridge, some four miles to the north. A restorative dose of nature so close to the city,
Black Hawk Park has two campgrounds (Fogdall and Cedar Campground), with a combined 197 campsites. There are also boat ramps, cabins for rent, trails for hiking and biking, picnic areas with fire grills and four open shelters.
9. Overman Park
Taking up a single city block just west of downtown, Overman Park is the oldest public park in Cedar Falls, acquired in 1853.
With City Hall on the east side, the park is enclosed by the elegant 19th-century houses of the Vintage Home District, and is a venue for events in summer like the Cedar Falls Farmers’ Market, held on Saturday mornings, May through October.
The Cedar Falls Municipal Band, one of the oldest concert bands in the state, performs here at the Municipal Bandshell every Tuesday evening in June and July, while there are also movies under the stars on Friday nights.
10. Hearst Center for the Arts
Sometimes described as the “Robert Frost of the Midwest”, the poet James Hearst (1900-1983) was born on the family farm in Cedar Falls.
He had a long career on the faculty at UNI from 1941 to 1975, taking classes in the basement of his home.
Hearst bequeathed his house to the City of Cedar Falls to be used as a community arts center, and this opened in 1989 after an expansion and redesign.
The Hearst Center for the Arts has two galleries, three classrooms, a performing arts facility and an outdoor sculpture garden.
A cherished gathering place for Cedar Falls, the center hosts exhibitions for local and regional artists, studio classes for all ages and cultural events, from music, to poetry to film.
11. Big Woods Lake Recreation Area
One of the joys of Cedar Falls is that you hop on a bike or set off on foot, and within minutes of downtown will find yourself in tranquil nature.
The Big Lake Loop leads you to this 320-acre recreation area on the shores of a 65-acre body of water. Big Lake is one of the area’s best fishing spots, and has two boat ramps and a kayak launch.
The trail is wide and paved, and passes through mature woodland and prairie along the shore. On the south side is an 18-hole disc golf course, and on the north shore there’s a campground with 55 RV sites, tent camping and a permanent cabin.
12. UNI Gallery of Art
The Postmodern Kamerick Art Building, opened in 1983, houses the University of Northern Iowa’s art museum.
Dedicated to modern and contemporary art, the UNI Gallery of Art has diverse programming, supporting the curriculum but also contributing to the university as an inclusive educational environment.
Exhibitions here usually have a crossover appeal, intersecting with fields like design and history, and are often embedded in campus-wide and community-oriented programs in Cedar Falls.
Many shows are sourced from the gallery’s extensive art collection, with pieces by Picasso, George Grosz and Philip Guston, and important photography by the likes of Berenice Abbott, Eugène Atget and Jerry Uelsmann.
13. The Falls Aquatic Center
Cedar Falls has a public aquatic complex that would put a major resort to shame. The Falls Aquatic Center opened in 2006 and has recently extended its competition pool to 50 meters (Olympic size).
Open Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day, the Falls has a tube slide, raft slide and a drop slide, along with a lazy river and Safari Falls, a fantastic zero-depth play area with a gigantic dump bucket.
The whole park is couched in greenery on the edge of the UNI campus, and both the competitive pool and pay structure are surrounded by sun bathing areas with plenty of shade.
14. SingleSpeed Brewing
This flourishing craft brewery has two locations, in Cedar Falls and next door in Waterloo. Production has moved to a 20 BBL BrewHouse in a renovated old building in Waterloo, while the original brewery/taproom is in downtown Cedar Falls’ historic Main Street district.
SingleSpeed has made a name for its experimentation, and that first 3 BBL brewhouse in Cedar Falls is now known as The Laboratory, focussing on research and development.
When we made this list there were ten beers on tap and three bottle pours, with picks like Don’t Call it a Cocktail (mimosa-inspired Sour), Evan the Great (Czech Dark Lager), Tip the Cow (cocoa-espresso Milk Stout), Perestroika (Stout) and American Telegraph (Kettle Sour).
There’s a revolving food menu, designed to be paired with beer, and featuring shared plates like shrimp and red pepper flatbread, mac and cheese with fried summer sausage and chicken chorizo nachos.
15. John Deere Tractor and Engine Museum
Waterloo has been a manufacturing base for John Deere since it acquired the Waterloo Gasoline Engine Company 1918.
This marked John Deere’s entry into the tractor market, and to this day Waterloo is home to the company’s tractor works, along with facilities manufacturing engines and components.
Presenting the past, present and future of these operations, the John Deere Tractor and Engine Museum is on the site of that old tractor factory in downtown Waterloo.
This attraction is loaded with vintage and modern machinery, and gives you a wonderful chronology of John Deere, from the simple steel plows of the mid-19th century to the high-tech working machines of today.