15 Best Things to Do in Iowa City (Iowa)

The first thing to mention about Iowa City is the prestigious university that has been part of daily life here since 1847.

The University of Iowa imbues the city with culture, style and a sense of fun, unmistakable in the pedestrian-friendly downtown area.

This institution has high-ranking programs for law, the fine arts and healthcare, and for visitors has some monuments and attractions that are not to be missed.

The graduate-level Iowa Writers’ Workshop here is widely celebrated, with 17 Pulitzer Prize winners among its alumni. That literary connection saw Iowa City designated as a UNESCO City of Literature in 2008.

Iowa City was the state capital until 1857, and the historic capitol building is preserved at the center of the campus.

1. University of Iowa

Carver-Hawkeye Arena at the University of IowaSource: Ken Wolter / shutterstock
Carver-Hawkeye Arena at the University of Iowa

With more than 30,000 students and a 1,900-acre campus that mingles with downtown, daily life in Iowa City revolves around the University of Iowa.

The 75-minute guided tour is aimed mainly at prospective students, but still gives an insight into the history and day-to-day of this august institution.

Many of the items in this article are on the campus, like the Old Capitol and the new Stanley Museum of Art, while game day Kinnick Stadium is an experience no sports fan will want to miss.

The Iowa flood of 2008 was a big blow to the campus, but over a decade later many of the buildings affected have been rebuilt or relocated.

This includes the marvelous Hancher Auditorium, housing a 1,800-seat proscenium, bringing cutting-edge culture to the campus, with opera, music, dance and theatrical performances.

2. Old Capitol Museum

Old Capitol MuseumSource: David Harmantas / shutterstock
Old Capitol Museum

In the heart of the University of Iowa Campus is the building that served as the seat of government for the state of Iowa from 1846 to 1857.

A U.S. National Historic Landmark, the Old Capitol has a Greek Revival design with a signature dome that appears on the University of Iowa’s logo.

Since 1976, this landmark has housed a museum, which was updated in the early 2000s following a fire in 2001.

The galleries are on the ground floor, with immersive hands-free exhibits going into a wide variety of topics relating to the humanities, sciences, the history of the building, the university and Iowa.

When we compiled this list there were exhibits on Anne Frank, the history of campaign buttons, the hydroscience of Iowa and the history of suffragism in the United States.

You can also tour the old Senate and Supreme Court chambers, and the reverse spiral staircase beneath the dome.

3. Downtown Iowa City

Downtown Iowa CitySource: Kevin McGovern / shutterstock
Downtown Iowa City

One of Iowa City’s big strong points is its downtown area, with scores of independent shops, restaurants and bars, as well as top-notch entertainment venues, hotels and offices.

Some spots, like The Airliner bar and pizzeria, have been around for 80 years or more. Across Iowa this town is known as something of a culinary capital, and this status is reinforced by a flourishing farmers’ market, taking place on Wednesdays and Saturdays, May through October.

One unique feature downtown is the Pedestrian Mall, which was laid out during the city’s urban renewal project in 1979.

Furnished with public art, this is a sociable place to be in the summer when there are free concerts on Friday nights, as well as events like the Iowa City Jazz Festival in July and the Iowa Arts Festival in August.

4. Stanley Museum of Art

Art GallerySource: guruXOX / shutterstock
Art Gallery

Swelled by major donations by the likes of Peggy Guggenheim, the University of Iowa’s art collection is nothing short of dazzling.

Among the important artists represented are Jackson Pollock, Picasso, Braque, Chagall, Kandinsky, Matisse, Mark Rothko, Joan Miró and Max Beckmann.

The museum was founded in 1969 and has always been regarded as one of the best university art museums in the country. Disaster struck with the Iowa flood of 2008.

Although evacuation efforts before and after this event rescued the collection, the building was unusable. So while a new museum was being constructed, the large inventory was moved into storage, and temporarily shown at the Iowa Memorial Union.

5. Devonian Fossil Gorge

Devonian Fossil GorgeSource: Jacob Boomsma / shutterstock
Devonian Fossil Gorge

In the north of Iowa City the Iowa River was dammed in the 1950s to create Coralville Lake. This is a prime recreation hotspot in the summer, with three campgrounds, four swimming beaches, 19 boat ramps, 29 miles of trails and 11 distinct recreation areas.

Flooding in 1993 and 2008 caused water to roar over the spillway and into the valley, washing away many tons of vegetation, silt and sand to reveal an ocean floor dating back to the Devonian Period 375 million years ago.

Under your feet in the limestone are thousands of easily identified fossils. At the entrance is a plaza with six imposing monoliths, carved from Silurian Anamosa dolomite and clad with interactive panels about this unique setting.

The gorge is a damp environment teeming with life, and it’s not unusual to see frogs, snakes and beavers as you go.

6. Museum of Natural History

Museum of Natural History, Iowa CitySource: Tehhen / Flickr | CC BY-ND
Museum of Natural History

Established in 1858, the Museum of Natural History at UI is officially the oldest university museum west of the Mississippi River.

Starting out as a cabinet in the Old Capitol, the museum’s collections have grown to more than 140,000 items and are particularly rich for ornithology and entomology.

The William and Eleanor Hageboeck Hall of Birds for instance, has specimens of nearly every bird that lives in or visits Iowa, along with the historic Laysan Island Cyclorama, detailing the birdlife of Laysan Island, Hawaii in the early 20th century.

Elsewhere, the Iowa Hall delves into the natural history of this state with impressive dioramas, while the Biosphere Discovery Hub studies human impact on habitats.

7. Antique Car Museum of Iowa

Antique Car Museum of IowaSource: Antique Car Museum of Iowa / Facebook
Antique Car Museum of Iowa

Not far north of the UI campus is something obligatory for any car enthusiast. Waiting for you at the Antique Car Museum of Iowa are more than eighty vehicles dating from 1899 to 1965.

The museum specializes in cars from the beginning of the 20th century, and a few standout models from this era include a 1908 Cadillac, a 1912 Sears Motorbuggy, a 1915 Milburn, a 1916 Haynes Cloverleaf Coupe and a 1920 Velie Touring Car.

Also noteworthy is an intact, original Skelly Oil gas station, as well as a comprehensive collection of antique Iowa license plates.

8. Englert Theatre

Englert TheatreSource: Tony Webster / Flickr | CC BY
Englert Theatre

Downtown Iowa City features one of the region’s top performing arts centers. The Englert Theater goes all the way back to 1912 when it opened as a vaudeville stage, welcoming the likes of Sarah Bernhardt, Ethel Barrymore and Lynn Fontanne.

In the modern era, the Englert has been restored and runs as a non-profit venue, hosting live events on more than 220 nights a year. There’s something happening all year, be it comedy, dance, plays, live music or community events.

In April this is the anchor for the Mission Creek Festival, combining live music and literature, and in November The Witching Hour is a festival devoted to cutting-edge culture and discourse about the creative process.

9. Kinnick Stadium

Kinnick StadiumSource: Grindstone Media Group / shutterstock
Kinnick Stadium

At the time of writing, home field for University of Iowa Hawkeyes football had a capacity of 69,250, making it one of the 20 largest university-owned stadiums in the nation.

The Hawkeyes are a member of the Big Ten Conference and are always competitive, producing a fresh patch of NFL players every season and dozens of first draft picks in their history.

For a team going back to 1889 the Hawkeyes have many long-held traditions. But the most heartwarming is a recent one.

The new UI Children’s Hospital overlooks the stadium, and has a special top-floor lounge and viewing area. Since 2017 it has become a custom for the crowd, referees and players to wave in the direction of the hospital for the patients and families at the end of the first quarter.

On game day the city is awash with black and gold, with tailgating and food vendors on Melrose Avenue.

10. Plum Grove Historical Site

Plum Grove Historical SiteSource: Iowa Culture / Facebook
Plum Grove Historical Site

Tucked into a residential neighborhood in the south of Iowa City is a thrilling piece of state history.

Built in the Greek Revival style in 1844, Plum Grove was the retirement home of Robert Lucas (1781-1853), who from 1838 to 1841 served as the first governor of the Iowa Territory. When the Lucas family lived here in the mid-19th century, the Plum Grove estate covered 360 acres.

The family sold the property in 1866, and it passed through numerous owners before being purchased by the state, restored and opened to the public in the 1940s.

July through Labor Day you can pay a visit on weekends to find out more about Lucas, and admire the restored interiors furnished with authentic items from the 1840s and 1850s.

11. Iowa Avenue Literary Walk

Iowa Avenue Literary WalkSource: Faisal Oddang / Facebook
Iowa Avenue Literary Walk

One way to get to know Iowa City’s literary heritage is simply by strolling along Iowa Avenue.

Embedded in the concrete sidewalk since 2001 are a series of 49 bronze relief panels, each devoted to a different author born in Iowa or involved in the internationally acclaimed Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

Some of the many household names are Kurt Vonnegut, Josephine Herbst, Tennessee Williams, Mildred Benson and Bill Bryson.

The decorative panels, running from Clinton Street to Gilbert Street, are connected by a series of quotations about books, and text stamped into the sidewalk.

The Iowa City of Literature website has an interactive map displaying each panel with a photo and description of the featured author.

12. City Park

PoolSource: Benoit Daoust / shutterstock
Pool

Iowa City’s largest park is on a bend in the Iowa River, and covers more than 100 acres. City Park also adjoins the UI campus and can be accessed without a car via the Iowa River Corridor Trails, which extend for 13 miles through the city.

Understandably, City Park is a popular spot for outdoor gatherings and, as well as numerous shelters, is home to the remarkable Riverside Festival Stage, which we’ll talk about below.

Also here is the City Park Pool, open Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day, as well as a wealth of recreation amenities like basketball courts, tennis courts, baseball/softball fields, horseshoes, a boat ramp, bocce courts and lots of play equipment for kids.

13. Riverside Festival Stage

Riverside Festival StageSource: Riverside Theatre / Facebook
Riverside Festival Stage

Iowa City is an appropriate place for some Shakespeare in the park, and at Lower City Park there’s a spectacular venue designed specifically for this.

Able to seat 470, the Riverside Festival Stage has a wood-framed design inspired by London’s Globe Theatre.

Every summer the professional Riverside Theatre company, founded in 1981, puts on a program of performances here.

These are free to all, and are accompanied by lawn activities and food trucks. When we wrote this article the festival’s plays were The Winter’s Tale and The Comedy of Errors.

14. Terry Trueblood Recreation Area

KayakingSource: G-Stock Studio / shutterstock
Kayaking

Just down the Iowa River, in the south of Iowa City, is more than 200 acres of scenic riverfront, enclosing the large Sand Lake.

The lake is encircled by a paved trail, which also continues along the riverbank, and is a magnet for recreation in the warmer months.

You can head to the marina to rent kayaks, paddleboards or paddle boats. Also bordering the lake is a stunning wood and copper lodge that has a patio over the lake and can be rented for events.

In addition, there’s a playground with an engineered wood-fiber surface, several picnic shelters and a concession stand.

15. Hickory Hill Park

Hickory Hill ParkSource: Images Alight / Flickr | CC BY
Hickory Hill Park

Within a mile northeast of downtown Iowa City is a sprawling natural space, and a peaceful place to hike so close to the center of the city.

Just shy of 200 acres and centered on Ralston Creek, Hickory Hill Park has been acquired in stages since the 1960s.

On sloping terrain, there’s a mosaic of habitats here, from woodlands to wetlands, restored prairie and abandoned agricultural fields, all speckled with wildflowers in spring and summer.

These environments can all be encountered on a tangle of trails, perfect for some rigorous cross-country skiing in the winter.

 

Where to stay: Best Hotels in Iowa City, Iowa (IA)
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15 Best Things to Do in Iowa City (Iowa):

  • University of Iowa
  • Old Capitol Museum
  • Downtown Iowa City
  • Stanley Museum of Art
  • Devonian Fossil Gorge
  • Museum of Natural History
  • Antique Car Museum of Iowa
  • Englert Theatre
  • Kinnick Stadium
  • Plum Grove Historical Site
  • Iowa Avenue Literary Walk
  • City Park
  • Riverside Festival Stage
  • Terry Trueblood Recreation Area
  • Hickory Hill Park