12 Top-Rated Things to Do in Iowa City, IA

Written by Brad Lane
Jan 13, 2021

Home to the Iowa Hawkeyes and the University of Iowa, Iowa City is brimming with academic and cultural appeal. Alongside a significant student body, the community comprises scholars, artists, and local business owners.

Iowa City exudes many different flavors, some of which tie to the University of Iowa, established in 1847. The city has a vibrant literary reputation. Live music and other performances also grace several stages throughout the town, and the whole community transforms during Hawkeye Football games with all the excitement surging from Kinnick Stadium.

It's not all Hawkeye attraction in Iowa City, however. Stunning outdoor spaces surround the town and range from massive reservoirs to nearby caves to explore. The bustling downtown district of Iowa City is also a popular place to visit, including a great collection of places to grab breakfast.

Whether you are visiting for academic pursuits at the university, or you're interested in experiencing one of the best cities in Iowa, enjoy your time sightseeing with our list of the top things to do in Iowa City.

1. Explore the University of Iowa Campus

University of Iowa Campus
University of Iowa Campus

Founded in 1847, the University of Iowa has grown to influence the Iowa City community for over 170 years. Today, this acclaimed Big Ten university draws in over 30,000 students to campus every year. This influx of students infuses the surrounding city with academic and cultural offerings.

The university's esteemed Writers Workshop – #1 in the nation – has helped Iowa City earn the unique designation as a UNESCO City of Literature. And the university's medical centers make Iowa City home to some of the most sought-after hospitals and clinics in the country. Other leading programs at the University include nursing, communication sciences, and pharmacy studies.

The university also infuses school spirit into Iowa City with popular sporting events. Other open-to-the-public facilities on campus include the Iowa Museum of Art, the Museum of Natural History, and a massive Campus Recreation and Wellness Center.

The campus covers over 1,700 acres, spanning both sides of the Iowa River. Wandering about campus between the halls of academia offers a lovely way to spend the day. Next to the Iowa River, the Iowa River Trail provides an excellent path to start exploring campus.

Official site: https://uiowa.edu/

2. Spend the Day at the Coralville Reservoir

Coralville Reservoir
Coralville Reservoir | Alan Light / photo modified

The Coralville Reservoir is a massive impoundment of the Iowa River, north of Iowa City, within a 15-minute drive. The reservoir's primary purpose is flood control, but the area is better known for its abundant recreation.

For Iowa City residents and visitors, the Coralville Reservoir, or "the Res," is the top spot to get outside. Lake activities include boating, fishing, and swimming at designated beaches. Hiking, mountain biking, camping, and disc golf are a few of the fun things to do on the forested shoreline.

The closest area to explore from Iowa City is the Turkey Creek Day Use Area. The drive to Turkey Creek on Prairie Du Chien Road from the north side of the city offers a scenic backroads route. Turkey Creek features a sandy beach area, a popular disc golf course, and the unique Devonian Fossil Gorge beneath the Coralville Dam.

Farther north, another popular area to explore is Lake MacBride State Park. In conjunction with the adjacent Sugar Bottom Recreation Area, this expansive public space features excellent mountain biking, campgrounds, and a professional disc golf course. This area is also popular in the winter for cross-country skiing.

3. Cheer on a Hawkeye Football Game (or Any Sporting Event)

Iowa Hawkeye Football at Kinnick Stadium
Iowa Hawkeye Football at Kinnick Stadium | Phil Roeder / photo modified

The streets of Iowa City come alive every home game during the Hawkeye football season. Expanding in a wide circle around the iconic Kinnick Stadium on the west side of the river, tailgating events always lead up to kick-off. The celebrations spill out onto the streets and into downtown, often lasting throughout the day.

The real excitement of Hawkeye Football is within Kinnick Stadium, however. With a capacity of nearly 70,000 screaming football fans, this raucous stadium registers on the Richter scale during any good season. Alongside the gridiron action, special events at home games include jet flyovers and fireworks.

Football isn't the only sports venue that gets Iowa City energized. Men and women's basketball at Carver-Hawkeye Arena also brings in thousands of screaming fans. Carver-Hawkeye Arena is also home to Iowa Hawking Wrestling – arguably the biggest powerhouse program in the nation.

4. Tour the Old Capitol

Old Capitol building, at the center of the University’s Pentacrest on campus
Old Capitol building, at the center of the University's Pentacrest on campus

When Iowa became a state in 1846, Iowa City, the territorial capital, swiftly became the first state capital. It remained that way for over a decade until the capital moved to a more central location in Des Moines in 1857. The Old Capitol building left behind soon became the core administration building for the burgeoning University of Iowa.

Today, the restored Old Capitol is the centerpiece of the Pentacrest on campus and a testament to the city's stately history. This area of campus is gorgeous and filled with students, green spaces, and civic activity. This manicured area is also home to the annual Fourth of July fireworks celebration.

Within the Old Capitol, the Old Capital Museum offers a look into Iowa City's legislative past. An antiquated supreme court chamber and a second-floor rotunda are a few historic rooms available to tour. Rotating exhibits at the museum highlight the state's history and culture. The museum is open every day, excluding Mondays and national holidays, and always with free admission.

Official site: https://oldcap.uiowa.edu/

5. Attend a Show at the Englert Theatre

The Englert Theatre
The Englert Theatre | Photo Copyright: Think Iowa City

The Englert Theatre, Iowa City's last historic theater, began as a vaudeville performance space in 1912. The venue evolved into a movie house and was almost renovated into a night club in the early 2000s. Thanks to community efforts, however, today's Englert Theatre is still a premier stage for live art and entertainment.

Live performances at the Englert range from intimate musical acts to laugh riot comedy showcases. Renovations returned the theater to its 1920s heyday, and part of the experience of any show is enjoying the aesthetic auditorium.

Other spots to catch live music in Iowa City include The Mill, Yacht Club, Blue Moose, and Gabe's. The university's re-built Hancher Auditorium also puts on quite the live show with state-of-the-art lighting and sound.

Official site: https://englert.org/

6. Find a New Story at Prairie Lights Bookstore

Prairie Lights Bookstore
Prairie Lights Bookstore | Photo Copyright: Think Iowa City

Iowa City holds the unique title as a UNESCO City of Literature. This prestigious designation is much in thanks to the internationally recognized Iowa Writers' Workshop on campus. Adding to this designation, and now spurred by the title, the city is absolutely abuzz with a storytelling spirit.

To get a look at Iowa City's literary legacy, head to the downtown Prairie Lights bookstore. The curated selection of classic and contemporary writings span three floors at Prairie Lights, and a staff member is always available to assist in finding something new. The bookstore also features a top-floor café that's perfect for crafting personal works.

Prairie Lights is also a top spot to catch live readings from local, national, and international authors. The bookstore's Live at Prairie Lights series occurs throughout the academic school year and streams worldwide.

Official site: https://www.prairielights.com/

7. Enjoy Downtown Iowa City

Autumn in downtown Iowa City
Autumn in downtown Iowa City

On the east side of the river, across from the Old Capitol and Iowa Pentacrest, the downtown district is alive with the community's pulse. The downtown area offers new tastes and experiences throughout every season. Local boutiques, restaurants, and creatively decorated benches line the entire pedestrian mall.

For one of the best burgers in downtown Iowa City, Short's Burger & Shine offers an exclusively patty-filled menu. The quintessential downtown college coffee shop is Java House, with High Grounds and The Encounter Cafe offering other caffeinated places of interest. For dessert, Yotopia offers the best frozen yogurt in Iowa City.

Alongside the abundant cultural and local outlets, downtown is also home to some of Iowa City's best events. Festivals like Jazz Fest and Taste of Iowa City make for a highly anticipated summer season.

8. Go Out to Breakfast

Breakfast at Hamburg Inn No. 2
Breakfast at Hamburg Inn No. 2 | Photo Copyright: Think Iowa City

Like any reputable college town, Iowa City has several local diners that serve a classic breakfast. Two of the best spots for breakfast in Iowa City are within a few blocks of each other in The Northside downtown district.

The first, Hamburg Inn No. 2, is a legendary diner established in 1935 with its history plastered across the walls. Presidents, candidates, and other political figures often make Hamburg a stop on their campaign trail, as evidenced by the many newspaper clippings framed in the dining room. Outside of its significant cultural history, Hamburg serves up fantastic fare for all three meals of the day.

One block to the east, Bluebird Diner is another iconic breakfast joint that is popular with students and the community alike. This atmospheric diner is subtly charming and serves up hearty breakfast entrees with fresh fruit. Hamburg and Bluebird almost always have lines waiting out the door on the weekend, and both are well worth the wait.

9. Stand Up Paddleboard at Terry Trueblood

Sand Lake at Terry Trueblood Recreation Area
Sand Lake at Terry Trueblood Recreation Area | Photo Copyright: Think Iowa City

On the south side of Iowa City, past the Iowa City Municipal Airport, Terry Trueblood is one of the city's newest recreation areas. The 185 acres of this public space surround the banks of Sand Lake near the Iowa River. The lake makes up the southern end of the paved Iowa River Trail.

This manicured outdoor area caters to several activities like hiking, geocaching, bicycling, and enjoying the nice weather. The recreation area also enables adventures on the water with a boat launch. In the winter, the frozen lake is popular for ice fishing and ice-skating.

A local gear and outdoor shop in Iowa City, Fin & Feather, operates the Fin & Feather H20 rental shop at Terry Trueblood. Here, visitors can rent canoes, stand up paddleboards, and kayaks by the hour or for the day.

10. Hike at Hickory Hill Park

Hickory Hill Park
Hickory Hill Park | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Hickory Hill Park encompasses over 180 acres on Iowa City's northside. The main entrance on Bloomington Street lends access to a sprawling network of trails throughout. Hickory Hill is a passive nature area popular with hikers, photographers, and general nature lovers.

Another entrance to Hickory Hill Park is accessible by walking through the historic Oakland Cemetery. This 40-acre cemetery, established in 1843, is the final resting place for hundreds of influential past Iowa City residents. Within the cemetery, an iconic Black Angel monument attracts visitors with supernatural myths and legends.

Official site: http://www.hickoryhillpark.org/home/history

11. Take a Weekend Trip to Maquoketa Caves

Maquoketa Caves entrance
Maquoketa Caves entrance

Maquoketa Caves State Park offers a popular place to explore, 90 minutes from Iowa City. This state park is home to several open-to-the-public caves connected by a linear trail system next to Raccoon Creek.

Caves range from crawlspaces to the magnificent Dancehall Cave with a cement walkway and 1,100-foot ceilings. The Dancehall Cave also features electric lights. Flashlights are recommended for exploring other caves in the park, and so are clothes that can get dirty.

A campground at Maquoketa Caves enables easy weekend trips. The campground caters to tent and RV camping with 24 standard electric sites and six walk-in sites. Camping reservations are available at Maquoketa Caves and can be made at iowastateparks.reserveamerica.com.

12. Visit the Amana Colonies

Amana Colonies Visitor Center
Amana Colonies Visitor Center | Photo Copyright: Think Iowa City

Established by German Pietists fleeing religious persecution in 1855, the Amana Colonies began as a communal society thriving in the Iowa landscape. Today, this heritage is still on full display 30 minutes west of Iowa City. With unique shopping, events, and architectural tours, Amana Colonies is one of Iowa's best weekend getaways.

The Amana Heritage Center is an excellent first place to visit. Here, a museum sheds light on the Amana Colonies' unique history and provides context for the rest of a visit. The Amana Heritage Center is where many guided tours of the Seven Villages begin.

Shopping, dining, and festivals are big draws to the Amana Colonies. The culture and traditions of the community emphasize handmade artisan wares and meals. The Ox Yoke German Restaurant, seen from Interstate-80, is one specialty spot that serves family-size portions.

The spring Maifest is one event not to be missed in the Amana Colonies. Winterfest also tends to draw a cold-weather crowd to enjoy activities like ice carving and a Snowball Dance. For German sausage enthusiasts, mark a calendar for the annual Wurst Festival in August.

Official site: https://amanacolonies.com/

Discover destinations, find outdoor adventures, follow the journeys of our travel writers around the world, and be inspired.

More on Iowa