Blake Walsh

20 Best Things to Do in Iowa City, IA

  • Published 2022/07/28

Every city in the US has something to offer—and Iowa City is no exception.

It is located in Johnson County and is the county seat and proud home to the University of Iowa.

It is therefore labeled a fun and artsy college town, where visitors can enjoy fascinating museums, excellent restaurants, great literary spots, and entire villages cozying up inside the city’s boundaries.

As you can see, Iowa City has more than enough to engage your attention for days—maybe even weeks.

This UNESCO City of Literature comes packed with beautiful places and mesmerizing attractions.

The cultural, educational, and entrepreneurial opportunities are endless here, not to forget the usual list of tourist spots.

That said, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to you when you see that Iowa City has been named one of the 100 Best Places to Live for three consecutive years!

These are the best things to do in Iowa City, Iowa:

Go Fishing at Coralville Lake

Sunset over Coralville Lake

Dan Reck /

Coralville Lake, located in Johnson County, is an artificial lake on the Iowa River upstream.

It came into being after the Coralville Dam was built and has played a vital role in flood control for the area.

The lake has also contributed to forest, fish, and wildlife management and water quality improvement.

As if all this wasn’t enough, Coralville Lake is also one of the best places for recreational activities.

It offers several picnic areas, group shelters, fishing piers for lake and river fishing, boat ramps, and a whole lot of trails for walking, hiking, and biking.

As you might have noticed, Coralville Lake offers the complete package.

Learn Something New at the University of Iowa Museum of Natural History

Paleoindian display in University of Iowa Museum of Natural History

Jonathan Chen, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The University of Iowa is one of the most prestigious universities in the world.

Apart from its excellent academic record, it is known to be the home of the oldest university museum in the US, west of the Mississippi River.

The University of Iowa Museum of Natural History was founded in 1858 and aims to instill respect and a wondering sense of discovery and responsibility for the natural and cultural aspects, not just of Iowa but of the world.

Gigantopithecus jaw in University of Iowa Museum of Natural History

Jonathan Chen, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

It has impressive exhibits, collections, educational resources, and programming and research opportunities for the people.

An awe-inspiring tribute to nature, the University of Iowa Museum of Natural History should be one of the top places on your Iowa itinerary.

Pennsylvanian Diorama in University of Iowa Museum of Natural History

Jonathan Chen, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Glimpse into Literary History at the 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, called 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, Cherry Muhanji, Anthony Swofford, and Jessica Anthony have been reported to be living in the village.

It was established to create an easy and comfortable residential experience, and that too at a reasonable cost.

The Gaslight Village has been included in the National Register of Historic Places and continues to give visitors an incredibly unique, back-in-time experience.

Go Back in Time at the Old Capitol Museum

Exterior of Iowa Old Capitol Building

Suzanne Tucker /

The Old Capitol Museum 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 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.

Gold dome of Old Capitol Museum

IN Dancing Light /

The Old Capitol Museum has an educational discovery center for kids, the Hanson Family Humanities Gallery, the Keyes’ Gallery for Arts, Sciences & Humanities, and a well-stocked gift shop.

The galleries display many exhibits, all with different kinds of themes.

Various lectures, workshops, films, and other educational programs are frequently conducted at the Old Capitol Museum—something you shouldn’t miss out on!

Bite into the Best Pizza in Iowa City at Pagliai’s Pizza

Exterior of Pagliai's Pizza

Crcjfly, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Located in Iowa City’s famed Northside Marketplace on Bloomington Street is the ancient and amazing Pagliai’s Pizza.

It was established more than 50 years ago, in 1957.

The local family-owned business pours its generations-old knowledge into its thin-crust pizzas.

Every recipe on their menu uses fresh garden produce and authentic meat products.

At this pizza restaurant, orders are served in less than 20 minutes; it doesn’t matter if you want to dine in or take out.

Once you dine at Pagliai’s Pizza, one of the best restaurants in Iowa City, you will be coming back for more!

Bask in the Beauty of Nature at Hickory Hill Park

Snow-covered bridge of Hickory Hill Park

Billwhittaker, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Located on East Bloomington Street, 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, 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, clean restrooms, and a bunch of walking trails.

You can indulge in many 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.

Have a Satisfying Meal at Jimmy Jack’s Rib Shack

After a handful of trips to Kansas City, childhood friends Jimmy Adrian and Jack Piper decided to get certified as Kansas City Barbecue Society Judges.

They started perfecting their recipes of smoking ribs and sauces.

Their recipes found their way into a casual sit-down shack, Jimmy Jack’s Rib Shack, which grew to become became a local favorite.

Most diners return to this cozy joint on Lower Muscatine Road for their fatty brisket, pulled pork, and famous honey butter cornbread.

Jimmy Jack’s Rib Shack has received the title of “Best in the Iowa City Area for Barbecue.”

The title is well-deserved, as you will realize once you dine here.

Shop and Dine to Your Heart’s Content at the Ped Mall

Iowa City’s downtown area is fabulous, filled with many attractions.

One of them happens to be the Ped Mall, also 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 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 more vibrant at night, as lights, music, and the delicious smell of food fill the air.

Apart from Old Capital Museum, the Ped Mall is undoubtedly the best gathering area in Iowa.

See the Black Angel of Oakland Cemetery

Daytime view of Black Angel of Oakland Cemetery

IN Dancing Light /

A broad-winged statue of an angel, standing tall at eight and a half feet, is the most important reason why people love to visit Iowa City’s cemetery.

The Black Angel of Oakland Cemetery was 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.

Close view of Black Angel of Oakland Cemetery

Billwhittaker at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The statue somehow turns darker over the years, which might be the effect of bronze oxidizing, but the legends surrounding this effect and the figure are creepy and haunting.

Head to Oakland Cemetery and see the Black Angel for yourself when visiting Iowa City.

Stroll along the Famous Iowa Avenue Literary Walk

This is the place where literature fanatics would go crazy.

The Iowa Avenue Literary Walk is a beautiful path, honoring more than 40 writers having connections to Iowa.

From Kurt Vonnegut and Tennessee Williams to John Irving and David Hamilton, Iowa has been the proud home to many renowned authors, poets, playwrights, and journalists.

This walk, therefore, celebrates these personalities’ works and lives through a series of outstanding displays of quite enjoyable biographical and literary materials.

Along with these informative bronze panels, there are quotes from the authors’ books and other writings written on the sidewalk.

If you want to read up more on the Iowa Avenue Literary Walk, there are booklets kept at the Iowa Book & Supply and Prairie Lights Bookstore.

Browse through the Selection at The Haunted Bookshop

Signage of The Haunted Bookshop

Crcjfly, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

No one loves to visit a place whose name would consist of the word “haunted.”

However, you will want to visit The Haunted Bookshop despite its ominous name.

Located on North Gilbert Street, 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 by the shop’s beloved cats.

There are more than 40,000 books, all divided into 80 different categories, from science fiction to classical studies.

As seating is provided in The Haunted Bookshop, you can kick back comfortably with your favorite book!

Shop for Fresh Produce at the Iowa City Farmers Market

One of the exciting things for a tourist to visit in any new place is the farmers’ market.

It is one of the only places where one can interact with local people and get authentic local products.

That said, your itinerary should include the Iowa City Farmers Market.

It functions only from May to October and operates at the Chauncey Swan parking ramp, Chauncey Swan Park, and on East Washington Street.

Along with the usual array of seasonal fruits and vegetables, vendors sell delicious homemade baked goods and handmade crafts.

The Iowa City Farmers Market also organizes unique family-friendly events and activities, including kids’ days, live musical performances, and tasting events.

Watch a Live Event at Englert Theatre

Exterior of Englert Theatre

Zachary Roper, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

A rebuilt theater from the vaudeville period, Englert Theatre is a 725-seat performance space and community arts center.

Located on East Washington Street, the theater is one of Iowa City’s top venues for live performance and entertainment.

It hosts various live events, from intimate musical acts to laugh-out-loud comedy presentations.

Englert Theatre’s goal is to use the arts to encourage and spark constructive community development.

There’s always something going on, whether it’s a comedy, dancing, plays, live music, or neighborhood gatherings.

Explore the Trails at Terry Trueblood Recreation Area

Located on McCollister Boulevard, the 152-acre Terry Trueblood Recreation Area is a park featuring a range of facilities and recreational opportunities.

This venue can be rented for private events like weddings and celebrations.

The Park Lodge at Terry Trueblood Recreation Area is an approximately 6,000-square-foot space with 150 seating options.

The park offers several walking and running trails and birdwatching, fishing, and trekking opportunities.

Several picnic shelters are accessible at the park, and ice skates, canoes, kayaks, and other rentals are offered seasonally.

Check Out the Gardens at Plum Grove Historic Home

An exciting chapter in state history is hidden in Plum Grove Historic Home on Carroll Street.

Robert Lucas, Iowa’s first governor, formerly lived at this historic house.

Eleanor Hoyt Brainerd, a writer, was born and raised there.

The name Plum Grove may come from the fact that the Lucas family used to dwell next to a sizable orchard with many plum trees.

Plum Grove Historic Home, which is presently situated on four acres of the original land, is decorated in a manner typical of the 1840s and 1850s, the period in which the Lucas family lived there.

The ancient vegetable and flower gardens and the mansion are accessible to tourists for free tours.

Catch a Football Game at Kinnick Stadium

Exterior of the Kinnick Stadium

Ken Wolter /

Located along Stadium Drive, Kinnick Stadium was built to replace Iowa Field in 1929

It was constructed in under seven months, between 1928 and 1929.

Kinnick Stadium can accommodate up to 69,000 spectators, ranking it the seventh- biggest stadium in the Big Ten.

Aerial view of the Kinnick Stadium

Grindstone Media Group /

It is one of the 20 largest stadiums owned by universities in the country.

The stadium serves as the home field of the Iowa Hawkeyes, the University of Iowa’s football team.

Every time the team plays at home during the football season, the city of Iowa City comes to life.

People inside the Kinnick Stadium

GassDaddy69, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Tour the Devonian Fossil Gorge

Welcome sign of Devonian Fossil Gorge

Pamela Brick /

Travelers to the Devonian Fossil Gorge may discover a prehistoric seabed from around 375 million years ago.

A warm, shallow sea formerly covered this area of Iowa, and numerous fossils from that era are proof of this history.

The Devonian Fossil Gorge has several interesting elements, such as the plaza at the entrance, which explores the location and exhibits the neighboring dam, the fossils, and the floods.

Daytime view of Devonian Fossil Gorge

Jacob Boomsma /

Six massive monoliths made of Silurian Anamosa dolomite and interactive displays describing this particular environment make up the plaza at the entry.

With campsites, swimming beaches, boat ramps, miles of trails, and separate recreation zones, this region is a favorite summertime recreation destination.

The Devonian Fossil Gorge is located along Prairie Du Chien Road Northeast.

Closeup view of fossils in Devonian Fossil Gorge

Jacob Boomsma /

Other Things to Do Nearby

Take a Day Trip to the Amana Colonies

Exterior of a house at Amana Colonies

Amdizdarevic /

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 and came to be known as the Amana Colonies.

Made up of seven villages, the Amana Colonies have become popular tourist spots filled with restaurants, hotels, B&Bs, and shops.

It was named a National Historic Landmark in 1965.

Welcome sign of Amana Colonies

David Harmantas /

Amana Society Inc. and many non-profit organizations have helped a lot to retain the colonies’ original charm.

People can learn about the fascinating history of the colonies and get wholesome knowledge of their traditions, arts, and agriculture.

You can certainly spend days in the colonies—with no thoughts of returning home.

The Amana Colonies are located 30 minutes outside Iowa City.

Shops along Amana Colonies

dustin77a /

Head to Lake Macbride State Park for a Nature Retreat

A waterfall at Lake Macbride State Park

Aria_RJWarren /

Twenty-five minutes from Iowa City, the beautiful Lake Macbride State Park is Iowa’s largest state park.

It is spread over 2,180 acres and is a popular spot for swimming, boating, fishing, camping, picnicking, and hiking.

Thanks to the dammed Mill and Jordon creeks, Lake Macbride is uniquely shaped and beautiful to look at.

Along the banks of this picturesque lake are two massive campgrounds, one of them being filled with modern facilities.

There are also several multi-use trails that people can enjoy, all beautiful and safe.

Lake Macbride State Park is a local favorite and a perfect spot for groups to spend quality time.

Snap Photos of the Iconic American Gothic Barn

Exterior of the American Gothic Barn

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

Stay on Route 30 in eastern Iowa City, and you will surely come across a peculiar little barn.

It might be something ordinary, but it is Iowa’s famous American Gothic Barn, painted in Grant Wood’s colors.

Wood’s famous American Gothic painting 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 piece in the Art Institute of Chicago, stop by this American Gothic Barn 30 minutes away from Iowa City—and maybe snap some fantastic pictures.

Do remember that it is someone’s private property and be respectful.

Final Thoughts

Iowa City has a plethora of academic and cultural attractions.

It has an artistic feel found on Iowa’s eastern border.

The city was recognized as a UNESCO City of Literature and has been home to several notable authors.

When in Iowa City, make sure to visit the museums of art and natural history and go on a beautiful literary stroll for some cultural experiences.

Start planning your trip and be guided by this list of the best things to do in Iowa City, Iowa!

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