15 Best Things to Do in Iowa City

15 Best Things to Do in Iowa City

Each and every city in the US has something to offer – and Iowa City is no exception. Located in Johnson County, it is the county seat and proud home to the University of Iowa. It is, therefore, labelled as fun and artsy college town, where visitors can enjoy fascinating museums, amazing restaurants, great literary spots and entire villages cosying up inside the city’s boundaries. As you can see, Iowa City has more than enough to engage your attention for days – maybe even for weeks!

Coralville Lake

Coralville Lake
Dan Reck / Shutterstock.com

Can a lake be something more than just a beautiful and harmless water body? Iowa says yes to this question. Coralville Lake, located in Johnson Country, is an artificial lake on the Iowa River upstream. It came into being after the Coralville Dam was built and has been playing a key role in flood control for the area. Not only that, but the lake has also been contributing to forest management, fish and wildlife management, along with water quality improvement.

As if this is not enough, Coralville Lake is also one of the best places for recreational activities. It offers a number of picnic areas, group shelters, fishing piers for lake and river fishing, boat ramps and a whole lot of trails for walking, hiking and even biking. As you might have noticed, Coralville Lake is an amazingly complete package!

University of Iowa Museum of Natural History

The University of Iowa is one of the most prestigious universities in the world. The University, apart from the excellent academic record, boasts of having the oldest university museum in the US, west of the Mississippi River. The Museum of Natural History was founded in 1858 and aims to instil respect and a wondering sense of discovery and responsibility for the natural and cultural aspects, not just of Iowa but of the world.

It has impressive exhibits, collections as well as educational resources, programming and research opportunities for the people. An awe-inspiring tribute to nature, the museum should be one of your top places to visit in the Iowa itinerary.

Gaslight Village

Henry Black, a peculiar visionary, worked his charm into Iowa’s vast grounds on Brown Street and turned it into a beautiful and safe haven for writers and artists. This area, named the Gaslight Village, became an instant hit when it was built in the early 1950s. People such as the writer Kurt Vonnegut, actor Gene Wilder, along with Cherry Muhanji, Anthony Swofford, Jessica Anthony have been reported to be living in the village.

The Village was established with the aim of creating an easy and comfortable residential experience and that too at a reasonable cost. The Village has been included in the National Register of Historic Places and still continues to give the visitors an extremely unique, back-in-time experience.

Iowa Old Capitol Building

Iowa Old Capitol Building
Suzanne Tucker / Shutterstock.com

Iowa Old Capitol Building is where the city’s laws and history took shape until a different government building was established. Built in 1842, it served as Iowa’s first state capitol from the years 1846 to 1857. It is now the most important landmark of the University of Iowa’s Campus, having been rebuilt and restored to its former glory.

The capitol building has an educational Discovery Center for kids, the Hanson Family Humanities Gallery, the Keyes’ Gallery for Arts, Sciences & Humanities and not to forget, a well-stocked gift shop. The galleries of the Capitol building display a number of exhibits, all with different kind of themes. A variety of lectures, workshops, films and other educational programs are also conducted frequently – something you shouldn’t definitely miss out on!

A and A Pagliai’s Pizza

Located in Iowa City’s famed Northside Marketplace is the ancient and amazing A & A Pagliai’s Pizza. It was established more than 50 years ago, in 1957. It is a local family-owned business, pouring their generations-old knowledge into their thin-crust pizzas. Every recipe on their menu is made using fresh garden produce and authentic meat products.

A good thing about the place, along with free parking, friendly owners and staff, is how the orders are served in less than 20 minutes, it doesn’t matter if you want to dine in or take-out. One of the best restaurants in the city, once you have Pagliai’s Pizza, you will definitely be coming back for more!

Hickory Hill Park

Located just on the northeastern side of Iowa City, Hickory Hill Park is a beautiful park, well-known for its natural features. It is spread over 723 acres and includes abandoned fields, prairie, wetlands, forests and a unique addition of Paha, which is a Native American word meaning ‘high ground’, along with the fascinating Ralston Creek and the other adjoining streams.

People can use the park for recreational purposes, as there are many picnic tables and shelters, water fountains, grills as well as clean restrooms and a bunch of walking trails. In winter, you can indulge in a lot of winter activities, including sledding and cross-country skiing. Hickory Hill Park is a park for everyone and especially appealing if you are a nature lover.

Amana Colonies

Amana Colonies
Amdizdarevic / Shutterstock.com

It was in 1855 when several religious German groups broke away from Lutheran Church and fled to Iowa City. The people, called the ‘Community of True Inspiration’ settled in colonies, came to be known as Amana Colonies. The colonies, made up of seven villages, now have become a popular tourist spot, filled with restaurants, hotels, B&Bs and shops.

Named as a National Historic Landmark in 1965, Amana Society Inc. and many non-profit organisations have helped a lot to retain the colonies’ original charm. People can learn about the fascinating history of the colonies and get wholesome knowledge on their traditions, arts and agriculture. You can certainly spend days in the colonies – with no thoughts of returning back to your home.

Lake Macbride State Park

Lake Macbride State Park
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Packed with a variety of outdoor activities is the Lake Macbride State Park, Iowa’s beautiful and largest state park. It is spread over 2180 acres and is a popular spot for swimming, boating, fishing as well as camping, picnicking and hiking. Thanks to the dammed Mill and Jordon creeks, the Lake Macbride is uniquely shaped and oh so beautiful to look! Along the banks of this picturesque lake are two massive campgrounds, one of them being filled with modern facilities.

There are also a number of multi-use trails which people can enjoy, all of them beautiful and safe. Lake Macbride State Park is a perfect spot for family and groups to spend quality time at – and a local favourite too.

American Gothic Barn

American Gothic Barn
"American Gothic Barn, Mt Vernon Iowa" (CC BY-SA 2.0) by lewblank

Stay on the Route 30 in eastern Iowa City and you will surely come across a little peculiar barn. It might be something ordinary, but in fact, it is Iowa’s famous American Gothic Barn, painted in Grant Wood’s colours. Wood’s famous painting ‘American Gothic’ is seen surrounding the barn’s façade, painted over the wooden sides. It is the masterpiece of Mark Benesh, a local middle school art teacher, who was allowed by the barn owner to work his artistic charm on his simple-looking structure.

If you can’t see the original, residing in the Art Institute of Chicago, then stop by at this American Gothic Barn – maybe get some amazing pictures of the barn. Do remember that it is someone’s private property and be respectful.

Jimmy Jack’s Rib Shack

Childhood friends Jimmy Adrian and Jack Piper, after a handful of trips to Kansas City, decided to get certified as Kansas City Barbecue Society Judges and started perfecting their recipes of smoking ribs and sauces. Their recipes found their way into a casual sit-down shack, Jimmy Jack’s, which went on to become a local favourite.

The joint is compact but cosy and has helpful staff providing swift service. Most of the people come back again for their fatty brisket, pulled pork and the famous honey butter corn bread. The place has been honoured, by the readers of Iowa City Press-Citizen, with the title of ‘Best in the Iowa City Area for Barbecue’. The title is well-deserved, as you will realize once you visit Jimmy Jack’s Rib Shack.

Iowa City Pedestrian Mall

Iowa City’s downtown area is a fabulous one, filled with many attractions. One of them happens to be the Ped Mall, alternatively known as Iowa City Pedestrian Mall. It stretches from Burlington Street to Washington and from Clinton Street to Linn Street and is quite close to the campus of the University of Iowa. One of the most preferred gathering places for students, locals and tourists, it is filled with restaurants, bars, stores and other businesses - not to forget, a park for children, a beautiful fountain and shaded trees dispersed all over the place.

This lively place gets even livelier at night, as lights, music and the delicious smell of food fill the air. Apart from Old Capital, the Ped Mall is undoubtedly the best gathering area in Iowa.

The Black Angel of Oakland Cemetery

A broad-winged statue of an angel, standing tall at a height of 8 and a half feet, is the most important reason why people love to visit the city cemetery of Iowa. This Black Angel of Oakland Cemetery is designed by Mario Korbel, a renowned Czech-American sculptor and has been around since 1912. It looks over the gravestones of Theresa and Nicholas Feldevert and Theresa’s son, Edward Dolezal. The statue somehow turns darker over the years, which might be the effect of bronze oxidizing, but the legends surrounding this effect and the statue are creepy and haunting. Whatever the legends revolving around the state are, you can totally get some pictures clicked with the Black Angel when in Iowa City.

Iowa Avenue Literary Walk

This is the place where Literature fanatics would go absolutely crazy! Iowa Avenue Literary Walk is a beautiful path, honouring more than 40 writers having connections to Iowa. Right from Kurt Vonnegut to Tennessee Williams, John Irving to David Hamilton, Iowa has been the proud home to a number of renowned authors, poets, playwrights and journalists.

This walk, therefore, celebrates these personalities’ works and lives through a series of outstanding display of quite enjoyable biographical and literary materials. Along with these informative bronze panels, there are quotes written on the sidewalk itself, from the authors’ books and other writings. If you want to read up more on the Literary Walk, there are booklets kept on the Iowa Book & Supply and Prairie Lights Bookstore.

Haunted Bookshop

No one loves to visit a place whose name would consist of the word ‘haunted’. But wait, you would definitely love to visit the Haunted Bookshop, despite its ominous name. Located on Gilbert Street in Iowa, the Haunted Bookshop was founded in 1978 and is named after Christopher Morley’s book of the same name. It is housed in one of the oldest buildings in Iowa City and is subjected to frequent mysterious noises throughout the day; thankfully not made by ghosts, but the shop’s beloved cats.

There are more than 40,000 books, all divided into 80 different categories, right from science fiction to classical studies. As seating are provided in the Haunted Bookshop, you can kick back comfortably with your favourite book!

Iowa City’s Farmer’s Market

One of the exciting things for a tourist to visit in any new place is the farmer’s market! It is one of the only places where one can interact with local people, and not to forget, get exciting and authentic local products. Keeping that in mind, your itinerary should definitely include Iowa City’s Farmer’s Market.

It functions only in summer and is seen operating at two different places in the city. Along with the usual array of seasonal fruits and vegetables, vendors are seen selling delicious home-made baked goods and handmade crafts. The market is also seen organizing unique family-friendly events and activities throughout the year, including kids’ days, live musical performances and tasting events. It is one gem of a place – you only have to visit.

This UNESCO City of Literature comes packing with beautiful places and mesmerizing attractions. The cultural, educational and entrepreneurial opportunities are endless here, not to forget the usual list of tourist spots. It wouldn’t, therefore, come across as a surprise to you when you see that Iowa City has been included in ‘100 Best Places to Live’ for three consecutive years!