Blake Walsh

15 Free Things to Do in Iowa City, IA

  • Published 2022/12/29

Iowa City is one of the main tourist hotspots of Iowa state, found just a few miles south of the much larger city, Cedar Rapids.

Although it’s not the biggest city in the state, Iowa City has loads of interesting and diverse destinations that warrant a couple of days to appreciate fully.

The city has an amazing downtown district with loads of free things to do, such as hunting for historic buildings and murals.

Iowa City is also renowned for being a UNESCO City of Literature because of the University of Iowa’s pedigree in literature.

Of course, the Iowa River also runs through the city, allowing it to enjoy various public parks, other recreational areas, and the surrounding wilderness.

There’s a lot more in store for you, so check this list of free things to do in Iowa City, Iowa.

Tour the Old Capitol Museum

Exterior of the Old Capitol Museum

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The Old Capitol Museum is one of the best free things you can do in the busy districts of Iowa.

A gorgeous architectural marvel that serves as one of the leading symbols of Iowa, Old Capitol Museum is a must-see during your visit.

Known for its iconic gold dome, this beautiful building also houses several interesting exhibits on American history, particularly the political events in the state.

Dome of the Old Capitol Museum

IN Dancing Light /

While the vintage interiors are a showstopper, what makes Old Capitol Museum shine is its huge facade that’s accentuated by the beautiful lawn and gardens surrounding it.

Old Capitol Museum is a perfect start to your payment-free itinerary in Iowa City—give it a visit along North Clinton Street.

Take Photos of the Murals and Literary Walk at Iowa Avenue

Iowa Avenue serves as another important part of the urban culture of Iowa City.

It is one of its main thoroughfares connecting most of downtown Iowa City to the Old Capitol Museum.

Here, various murals and art sculptures are scattered throughout, enticing you to explore the avenue.

There’s also a literary walk where you can read up on the plaques depicting the works of various famous authors connected to Iowa.

This literary walk is a great experience, considering Iowa City is a UNESCO City of Literature.

Besides these little hidden gems, Iowa Avenue is also packed with establishments and bustling streets, making it another place for urban exploration.

Take a Stroll along Waterworks Prairie Park

City life isn’t the only area Iowa City is known for, as it has loads of outdoor, rural fun.

Waterworks Prairie Park is easily one of the most scenic places close to the city proper.

Boasting sweeping views of the Iowa River along with majestic cloud formations, Waterworks Prairie Park is an excellent place to just be in tune with nature.

There are plenty of paved walking trails, benches, picnic areas, and even a lake that makes this place one of the most popular relaxation spots in Iowa City.

If you want scenic views close to Iowa City’s heart, check out Waterworks Prairie Park along North Dubuque Street.

See the Large Dioramas at the Museum of Natural History

Diorama in the Museum of Natural History

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

Another museum that doesn’t charge any admission fees is Iowa City’s Museum of Natural History.

Just a few walks from the Old Capitol Museum, the Museum of Natural History is a fantastic place to bring teenagers and younger children to immerse themselves in the sciences.

For a free museum, there’s plenty to see here, particularly its hyper-realistic dioramas displaying the ecology of various animal and plant species.

Interior of the Museum of Natural History

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

They have massive replicas in the Museum of Natural History, such as moose, polar bears, and even prehistoric life.

Besides its exhibits, like the Old Capitol Museum, this place has a gorgeous facade and surrounding lawn that deserves its own photos.

Take Photos of the World’s Largest Wooden Nickel

If you’re keen on adding Waterworks Prairie Park to your itinerary, you may as well visit the neighboring tourist site, the World’s Largest Wooden Nickel.

This giant nickel is a roadside attraction that’s free to visit along the busy Dubuque Street.

While you may think that this tourist site is something on the Guiness Book of World Records because of its name, it was a protest by an Iowa City resident back in 2006.

Built by Jim Glasgow, the World’s Largest Nickel served as a protest sign against a road paving project by the government.

Built by Glasgow and several friends of his, the large wooden nickel now serves as a quirky Iowa City icon after its integral role in the success of their protests.

Hike at Woodpecker Trail

One of the best places to hike for free in Iowa City is at Woodpecker Trail, located just a few miles northwest of Devonian Fossil Gorge.

A secluded area quite far from the city proper, Woodpecker Trail gives you sweeping views of the Iowa River and tons of foliage during the autumn season.

This is also a famous place where locals hike with their dogs, making it an ideal destination for fur parents bringing their pets.

There are plenty of scenic spots here, making this a great place for camping as well.

Full of overgrown vegetation, unpaved nature trails, and plenty of grassy shorelines, this is a go-to place for a rugged experience of Iowa City’s wilderness.

Do Urban Exploration at Pedestrian Mall

A building at Pedestrian Mall

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

While Pedestrian Mall may sound like a shopping center, it’s actually more than that—serving as the urban heart of Iowa City since the 1970s.

The epicenter of the city’s bustling downtown district, Pedestrian Mall spans several blocks packed with paved walkways, shops, restaurants, art sculptures, and buskers.

One of the most popular activities here is people-watching, playground, and water fountain visits, plus listening to live music—all completely free.

There are lots of murals here as well, along with several art installations that change throughout the year.

Easily the best place to just walk around and experience Iowa City’s urban culture, give this one a visit—found along South Dubuque Street across from the Old Capitol Museum.

Enjoy the Iowa River at City Park

If you want to enjoy the iconic Iowa River, going to City Park is the best place to do it without spending a single penny.

You can get sweeping views of the Iowa River here, best enjoyed by either jogging or biking along its many trails.

Besides these activities, City Park also allows boating and picnics and has a large playground—making it a great place for the entire family.

There are also sporting amenities here, particularly tennis and basketball courts and a public swimming pool.

City Park is a vast space for all sorts of free fun, so give it a visit, accessible along Park Road.

See the Hancher Auditorium

Just across City Park along Park Road lies one of the best architectural wonders in Iowa—Hancher Auditorium.

While you need to shell out some money if you want to attend the many events in this performing arts center, you can enjoy it by just seeing its vast facade.

Famous for graduation ceremonies, concerts, and broadway musicals, Hancher Auditorium is a perfect photo opportunity while visiting City Park.

It’s best enjoyed at night when all of its lights emphasize the grand design of the building.

There’s a lot of walking space outside Hancher Auditorium, making it an excellent place for an evening stroll.

Explore the Prehistoric Devonian Fossil Gorge

Welcome sign of Devonian Fossil Gorge

Pamela Brick /

At the northernmost end of Iowa City lies one of the best attractions in the state—Devonian Fossil Gorge.

A free-to-explore area that has tons of archeological remains from prehistoric times, Devonian Fossil Gorge is a must-see in any itinerary.

Once an ocean floor, Devonian Fossil Gorge has various rocks that contain fossils from animals and plants that date back as far as 300 million years ago.

The grounds of Devonian Fossil Gorge

Jacob Boomsma /

There are plenty of information boards here that guide you through the natural history of Devonian Fossil Gorge, making it a great place to learn about prehistoric life.

Overall, it’s a perfect destination for all family members and a haven for the paleontology and archeology buffs visiting the city.

Close view of the fossils at Devonian Fossil Gorge

Jacob Boomsma /

Enjoy a Game of Baseball at Napoleon Park

Napoleon Park is a quaint public sports facility featuring eight baseball and softball fields, making it one of the best places to play or watch the sport.

Besides baseball, there are also playground amenities here for younger kids to enjoy.

Found along South Gilbert Street just a few yards from Terry TrueBlood Recreation Area, Napoleon Park also has riverside views of the Iowa River.

Because of this, it has excellent walking and biking trails where you may stumble upon a few animals along your way.

If you have downtime or a burning passion for baseball or softball, visit Napoleon Park.

Go Fishing at Terry TrueBlood Recreation Area

Terry TrueBlood Recreation Area is a great addition to your plans if you want more outdoor fun, boasting a large lake and several nature trails.

It’s home to Sand Lake, well-known among locals as one of the best places to fish.

Sand Lake is brimming with lots of catfish and other freshwater fish, so try it out if you’re into angling.

You can also go boating here if you have your own.

Besides its lake activities, there are plenty of scenic walking trails here that also feature wildflowers and a bit of wildlife.

You can access Terry TrueBlood Recreation Area along McCollister Boulevard, at the southern end of Iowa City.

Tour the University of Iowa

Aerial view of the University of Iowa

Eduardo Medrano /

The University of Iowa serves as one of the icons of not just Iowa City but the state as a whole.

Found along Hawkins Drive, you can either drive across the sprawling streets and roads within the university’s vicinity, or you can simply park and walk to take photos of its buildings.

The campus is vast, featuring all sorts of amenities the university is known for—particularly research, literature, sports, and healthcare.

A stadium at University of Iowa

Grindstone Media Group /

Because of its well-maintained green spaces, visiting the school during spring or fall is the best place for photo opportunities.

A big part of the culture of the city, the University of Iowa is a must-see during your stay.

Unique building at University of Iowa

Nagel Photography /

Learn Iowa History at Mormon Handcart Park

If you’re passionate about 19th Century American history, Mormon Handcart Park works as a great addition if you have spare time—found in Hawkeye Court.

Known for its several history information boards, Mormon Handcart Park commemorates the immigration of Mormons on foot to Utah during the 1850s.

The information boards, designed as plaques, dive deep into the history of the Mormon experience while they pass through Iowa.

Managed by the University of Iowa, the detail they provide here is substantial, warranting a good 30 minutes of reading.

Besides the historical markers, Mormon Handcart Park also has plenty of scenic trails where you can see tons of flowers and foliage during the spring and autumn seasons, respectively.

Go on a Scenic Trek at Hickory Hill Park

Winter scene at Hickory Hill Park

Billwhittaker, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Hickory Hill Park lies on the eastern end of Iowa City and is one of the largest scenic parks in Iowa.

Spanning almost 200 acres, Hickory Hill Park doubles as a natural preserve because of its rich forested wilderness.

There are plenty of nature trails for you to check out, all leading to unique areas of the park, such as the Ralston Creek that goes through it.

Also connected to the Pappy Dickens Nature Preserve, Hickory Hill Park is home to various wildlife and diverse fauna.

It’s one of the prettiest places to immerse yourself in the local ecology of Iowa City, and exploring it isn’t difficult as its layout and trails are well planned out.

Final Thoughts

Iowa City is a versatile place to do all sorts of activities during your visit to Iowa.

It has a little bit of something for everyone, whether you’re the outdoor adventurer or the urban explorer.

From accessible scenic trails to various free museums and public spaces, the city is a great place to cut down on travel spending.

Some of the best spots to visit here include the Devonian Fossil Gorge, Old Capitol Museum, Pedestrian Mall, and Hickory Hill Park.

For the ultimate budget-friendly trip, use this list of the 15 free things to do in Iowa City, Iowa.

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