Blake Walsh

15 Free Things to Do in Waterloo, IA

  • Published 2023/01/24

The vibrant city of Waterloo is both a fresh and rustic recreation haven for every age group.

Known as a major metropolitan city in the Cedar Valley region in Northeast Iowa, this historic city offers a diverse collection of indoor and outdoor activities.

Its downtown district has many locally operated businesses, world-class art galleries, and a lively nightlife scene.

Its woodlands and forested trails are also a hiker’s paradise.

But before the influx of people and attractions, Waterloo once went by the name Prairie Rapids Crossing.

First settled in 1845, most of the city’s history centered around its railroad heritage and trade center excellence.

From that era until now, you’ll find delight in knowing that exploring this city in Black Hawk County won’t break your budget.

Below are 15 free things to do in Waterloo, Iowa, to prove this:

Watch the Fireworks Display at Waterloo’s 4th of July Celebration

Fireworks at Waterloo’s 4th of July Celebration

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The city of Waterloo has a traditional—and breathtaking—gimmick for its 4th of July Celebration.

Celebrated within industrial Waterloo, this festival comes with a half-day program at the Expo Plaza and Riverpool Amphitheater.

Catch theatrical and dance performances from the Waterloo community’s troupes.

Listen to upbeat music from the WCF symphony as the night descends.

And as a culmination of the festivities at the Day of Independence, prepare to have your breath taken away by the Mayor’s Red, White, and Loo Fireworks Display.

The splash of colors at the skyline of the Cedar River is a notable sight you won’t find elsewhere.

Waterloo’s 4th of July Celebration is one you shouldn’t miss, so mark your calendars ahead!

Admire Haitian Art at Waterloo Center for the Arts

One of Waterloo’s charms is its free arts district, Waterloo Center for the Arts.

Situated along the banks of the Cedar River, this art center comes to life with its wide array of permanent and rotating exhibits.

Be inspired by the variety of art styles and origins within the collections displayed onsite.

From the Midwest and American Decorative Arts to International Folk Art, you have many pieces to explore and observe.

The gallery is also famous for harboring the largest Haitian art collection in the world.

If you love art, include Waterloo Center for the Arts on Commercial Street in your Waterloo itinerary!

Seek Shade from the Sun at Valley View Park

Situated on Maynard Avenue and Letsch Road, Valley View Park is a community park for the whole family.

With outdoor amenities within a forested lawn, this site has everything you might need for rural afternoon fun.

Let your kids have fun at the wide playground area and equipment set.

Try your hand at disc golfing within the slightly hilly terrain at the park.

When the summer heat is intense, sit under the shade of the dotted trees.

Valley View Park also has water fountains and picnic areas to complete your break after a long day of playing and exploring.

Join a Free Guided Tour at John Deere Tractor & Engine Museum

Ever wondered how the transition from horse-drawn engines to advanced technological equipment occurred?

Wonder no more because, at John Deere Tractor & Engine Museum, you get the chance to see historical engines.

Located along Westfield Avenue, this free museum specializes in interactive exhibits centered on agricultural machinery.

Get a glimpse of rare engine artifacts from the distant past that you won’t find elsewhere.

Better yet, try your hand by pushing a steel plow!

John Deere Tractor & Engine Museum is a part of a collection of attractions within the Illinois and Iowa states.

It’s open and accessible to all ages and cost-free!

Enjoy a Free Movie or Concert while at RiverLoop Amphitheatre

When in Waterloo, your outdoor family bonding time takes on a whole other level with free concerts and movies.

RiverLoop Amphitheatre is the community’s preferred venue for various performances, showcases, and shows.

Among these events are Riverloop Rhythms and Cinema on the Cedar—both of which are free to the public.

Known for its large-seating capacity, this amphitheater overlooks the Cedar River with a flat space serving as a stage right by the banks.

It not only offers quality entertainment but also stunning riverfront views.

RiverLoop Amphitheatre is on Commercial Street.

Admire the Plaques and Statues at Soldiers and Sailors Park

A hidden gem within Waterloo, Soldiers and Sailors Park is your best resort for a calm and relaxing stroll.

Boasting a brick walkway that extends to 400 feet, this park is unlike usual because it resembles a memorial.

It features granite monuments retelling the monumental wars of years past.

Its bronze plaques and rustic fountain also serve as a tribute to the fallen soldiers who sacrificed their lives for the country.

Walk along the paved trails that start and end at the 5th and 4th Street bridges, respectively.

You can find Soldiers and Sailors Park behind Veterans Memorial Hall on Cedar Street.

Go on a Peaceful Hike at Katoski Greenbelt

Waterloo’s list of nature preserves is nothing short of astounding, and Katoski Greenbelt is only one among many of them.

Standing at 1,100 acres, this greenbelt on West Ridgeway Avenue allows you to enjoy nature among the urban streets of the city.

With more foliage and greenery than toned-down spaces, this park also has picnic shelters and benches for your respite.

Part of the property is the eight-mile Black Hawk Creek and a colorful bluebell prairie.

Katoski Greenbelt also has multi-use trails you can trudge on to explore more of Waterloo’s natural gems.

Watch the Sidewalk Art at the North End Arts & Music Festival

Celebrate life and art at the North End Arts & Music Festival!

An annual tradition of the Waterloo community, this summer festival seeks to bring diversity to the forefront of the city’s heritage.

This festival goes back to a terminology many locals used when Waterloo’s regions went by the West Side, the East Side, and the North End.

Before the 1970s, the African-American community occupied this “end.”

And before, they were Italians, Greeks, Germans, and other foreigners.

Thus, the North End district became a preparatory stage for immigrants looking for a better life in the States.

The North End Arts & Music Festival is a way to bridge the difference among races, offering live music, arts and crafts, games, and local performances every July.

Bring your whole family to Ferguson Fields Park on Linden Avenue, where the festivities take place.

Take Pictures with the Buffalo Statue at Tibbitts Park

If you’re looking for a tucked-away space to spend time alone or with family and friends, then Tibbitts Park is the place for you.

This park has a soccer field and a baseball diamond for those who want to play sports while on vacation.

Among the vast green expanse, there are picnic tables and a playground area for your energetic little ones.

A buffalo statue stands on site as well, adding a unique flavor to the otherwise usual park amenities.

Tibbitts Park is on Cedar Bend Street.

Enjoy a Picnic at Hope Martin Memorial Park

Along Fletcher Avenue, prepare for a picture-perfect moment at Hope Martin Memorial Park.

This open park offers a play area and well-trimmed grass for memorable picnic arrangements.

With a pond within the vicinity, the park is an ideal place to relax and destress.

When you come by during winter, Hope Martin Memorial Park also offers an ideal site for sledding.

Spot Some Bluebells at Robertson Bird Sanctuary

Robertson Bird Sanctuary is a Waterloo trail that offers the best of nature.

With a trail that extends almost two miles, the nature area is home to clear streams and rare wildflowers.

The trail is a hit among hikers and bikers visiting the city.

But what catches most travelers’ eyes are the sweep of blooming bluebells that meet you when you come by at the peak of spring.

The trail is easy, even for beginners and those with children.

Get lost in the bluebell paradise of Robertson Bird Sanctuary on the south side of Shaulis Road.

Cool Down by the Cedar River at the Riverloop Bike Trail

The riverfront view of the Riverloop Bike Trail is what attracts most bikers and tourists to this scenic route.

Running parallel to the Cedar River, this trail spans over 16 miles.

It also connects the cities of Waterloo and Cedar Falls.

On a peaceful day, bask in the sun’s heat as you pedal along the paved road.

You’ll also enjoy a refreshing breeze as you go along.

Start your biking journey at Riverloop Bike Trail near the Riverloop Amphitheater.

Other Things to Do Nearby

Have enough time to travel past Waterloo’s borders for another kind of adventure?

Here are more free activities you can do in nearby cities:

Pass by Forested Land while on a Bike at the Cedar Valley Nature Trail

Beautiful yellow flower along the Cedar Valley Nature Trail

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If your idea of a vacation involves biking around and marveling at the sights you’ll see along the route, then you might like the Cedar Valley Nature Trail.

This trail, spanning over 60 miles, was an original part of the Waterloo, Cedar Falls & Northern Railway routes.

A fire in 1954 started the downfall of the railroad, and by the 1980s, it stopped working altogether.

With the biking trail in place, most of the railroad’s historical endeavors continue in the present generation.

The Cedar Valley Nature Trail starts as an asphalted road before dwindling down to limestone upon reaching Center Point and ending at Hiawatha.

It cuts across woodlands and farmlands, offering open vistas of the four counties it passes through.

Find one of the trailheads of this route on River Road in Evansdale, which is 11 minutes away from Waterloo.

Stroll along the Scenic Sculpture Garden at Hearst Center for the Arts

Within Cedar Falls, Hearst Center for the Arts is a famous tourist attraction among artists and the like.

Anyone can visit this center for free!

Opened in 1989, the center was once the home of poet James Hearst and his wife, Meryl.

They bequeathed the place to the City of Cedar Falls, hoping the city would transform their home into a community arts center.

Home to two visual arts galleries, an auditorium, and a studio, this center spans almost 12,000 square feet.

It also has a sculpture garden you can admire.

View the permanent art collections on display at the center.

If you have more time, sign up for some of its scheduled art workshops and lectures.

You can find this arts center on West Seerley Boulevard in Cedar Falls, only a 12-minute drive from downtown Waterloo.

Let Your Child Explore the Educational Exhibits at Hartman Reserve Nature Center

Only 11 minutes away from Waterloo, Hartman Reserve Nature Center offers both a recreational and educational adventure for visitors.

Purchased in 1938, this reserve in the city of Cedar Falls once served the community as a residential youth center.

By 1976, the center became an educational site focused on nature and the environment.

This was also the time it was labeled an Iowa Watchable Wildlife Site.

Now, you don’t only get to see native fowl species inhabiting the forest and trails around the center but also join in on educational programs and exhibits at the facility.

Learn more about animals and nature at Hartman Reserve Nature on Reserve Drive.

Final Thoughts

From historical excursions to nature-focused escapades, you can enjoy diverse activities in Waterloo.

Get the most out of the city through this list of free things to do in Waterloo, Iowa.

Start planning your trip today!

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