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12 Top-Rated Weekend Getaways in Iowa

Written by Brad Lane
Mar 3, 2019

Every weekend in Iowa presents a new opportunity to get away. From the university offerings of Iowa City and Cedar Falls to the capital attractions in Des Moines, fun things to do can be found across the state.

For nature and outdoor enthusiasts, places like Loess Hills, Lake Okoboji, and the rich scenery surrounding Decorah make for excellent adventures throughout the year, and a chance to take a step back from the digital world can be found within the seven villages of the Amana Colonies. Whether it's a family break or romantic trip for couples, you can find weekend fun only a short drive away. Discover the best places to visit with our list of the top weekend getaways in Iowa.

1. Des Moines

Des Moines State Capitol building | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

The state capital of Iowa, Des Moines is a growing city characterized by young professionals, first-class restaurants, and fun things to do in every direction. In downtown proper, popular attractions include the aesthetically pleasing John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park; the gold-domed State Capitol building; and decadent eateries like Americana, Centro, and the 801 Chophouse. Also downtown, the Science Center of Iowa is a nationally recognized education space, and the Des Moines Civic Center brings big names in Broadway and musical acts to the stage.

Whether it's for the Iowa State Fair on the outskirts of the city or a sporting event at Wells Fargo Arena, Des Moines attracts tourists and residents of the state for weekend visits throughout the year. A popular and stylish place to stay within the city is the Des Lux Hotel, which features first-class service and a decor that reflects the finer things in life. For breakfast connoisseurs, the Waveland Cafe on University Avenue is well reputed for serving the best hash browns in the universe.

2. Decorah

Dunning Spring in Decorah

Located in the far northeast corner of Iowa, Decorah is well known for its surrounding scenic beauty and authentic Norwegian heritage. The Trout Run Trail is a great non-motorized passageway to discover the natural appeal of Decorah, including some of the best trout fishing in the state, and other destinations like Dunning Spring and Ice Cave Hill Park provide easy outdoor entertainment minutes from downtown.

A good place to stay in Decorah to access the great outdoors and many nearby cultural attractions, Hotel Winneshiek provides historical grounds and modern accommodations.

3. Iowa City Editor's Pick

Old Capitol in the University of Iowa Pentacrest

Home to the Hawkeyes and University of Iowa, this collegiate city offers plenty of fun things to do for students and the community. Besides catching a Saturday football game and tailgate at Kinnick Stadium, other avenues of enjoyment offered by the university include Hancher Auditorium, the Stanley Museum of Art, and the Old Capitol Museum centered in the historic Pentacrest. Other sporting events popular to check out in Iowa City include men's and women's basketball at Carver Hawkeye Arena.

Downtown Iowa City is home to the Englert Theatre and a pedestrian mall filled with local shops, restaurants, and unique public art installations. Outside of the city, Coralville Lake is a popular recreation area, with a great network of mountain biking trails and a disc golf course at Sugar Bottom Recreation Area. Just outside of the city in West Branch, the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum pays tribute to the work and accomplishments of the Iowa-born 31st President of the United States.

4. Pella

Tulip Time in Pella

Near the shore of Lake Red Rock, forty miles east of Des Moines, Pella's rich heritage can be seen all over the streets. From the Historic Village and Vermeer Windmill to the Dutch letters found at places like Jaarsma Bakery, the Netherlands are not far from home when visiting Pella. Perhaps the best example of Pella's cultural celebrations can be found each year at the Tulip Time Festival hosted by the city, featuring parades, costumed characters, and bountiful tulip gardens.

5. Loess Hills

Loess Hills hiking

One of the most awe-inspiring landscapes of Iowa, the area known as Loess Hills is comprised of fine soil deposited in large mounds across a prairie environment. One of the best ways to enjoy this scenic western side of the state is by taking a trip down the Loess Hills National Scenic Byway. Along the route, areas like Hitchcock Nature Center and Loess Hills Lavender Farm are fun for the whole family, and outdoor adventures are easy to find within the Loess Hills State Forest, including the historically intriguing Preparation Canyon State Park.

6. Dubuque

Dubuque | SD Dirk / photo modified

Adjacent to the Mississippi River and Illinois border, Dubuque is a riverfront city filled with scenic and cultural appeal. A great destination for any weekend getaway is the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium along the charming waterfront, where family members of all ages can learn about the cultural influence and critters of the nearby waterway. Not far from the river museum, the Dubuque Arboretum and Botanical Gardens provide even more educational interest with aesthetic appeal.

A top spot for recreation in Iowa, visitors to Dubuque also have quick access to the Mines of Spain Recreation Area and Sundown Mountain Resort. A great place to stay near the water, the Hotel Julien Dubuque is a well-regarded historical hotel with an extra touch of class. For a unique Iowa experience, Dubuque is also home to Fenelon Place Elevator Company, also known as the world's steepest and shortest railroad, which delivers elevated views of the entire river corridor.

7. Cedar Rapids

National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

A half hour north of Iowa City in eastern Iowa, Cedar Rapids is built by the banks of the Cedar River and features a thriving downtown district, inspiring museums, and historic theaters. It is the second most populous city in Iowa, and a fun family activity in Cedar Rapids is catching a minor league Cedar Rapids Kernels baseball game on a summer evening. Throughout the year, visitors can find historical insight at the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library located near the river.

For the artistically inclined, the Cedar Rapids Art Museum features a great collection of once-resident painter Grant Wood, and the elegant estate of Brucemore frequently hosts fireworks, galas, and guided tours. Shows of every variety can be found at the Paramount Theatre, a historic venue with state-of-the-art stage and lighting. On the outskirts of the city, Indian Creek Nature Center provides interpretive hiking paths and hands-on learning.

Accommodation: Top-Rated Hotels in Cedar Rapids

8. Lake Okoboji

Lake Okoboji sunrise

One of the Great Lakes of Iowa in the northwest region of the state, Lake Okoboji attracts visitors and families from across Iowa for water-based activities, including fishing, boating, swimming, and lakeshore dining. Offering plenty to do for land lovers, too, Lake Okoboji also includes other popular attractions like the Iowa Great Lakes Maritime Museum, Arnold's Park Amusement Park, and the Dickinson County Nature Center. For wintertime attraction, activities like ice fishing, ice-skating, and cross-country skiing tend to reign supreme.

9. Cedar Falls

Bicycle path in Cedar Falls

With a charming downtown district adjacent to the University of Northern Iowa campus, Cedar Falls provides a small-town feel with an abundance of fun things to do. The outdoor environment is easy to explore in Cedar Falls with places like George Wyth State Park and Hartman Reserve Nature Center, and a plethora of cycling trails and pedestrian paths make this university city one of the most bike-friendly in the state. For a hip and historic place to stay in Cedar Falls, The Black Hawk Hotel on Historic Main Street provides modern amenities with stylish décor.

10. Amana Colonies

Historic home in the Amana Colonies

Thirty minutes west of Iowa City and the University of Iowa, the seven villages of the Amana Colonies encourage a step back from the usual fast-paced routine. Established by German Pietist in 1855, this now-National Historic Landmark and community still displays the lifestyles of communal living and a time long past. Popular attractions at the Amana Colonies include the various museums, historical sites, restaurants, and shopping opportunities featuring handmade goods. Various events range from classic car shows to a Spring Maifest, complete with polka music and authentic garb.

11. Boone

Located less than an hour north of the state capital of Des Moines, this charming city is well known for its scenic landscapes. It's home to the Boone & Scenic Valley Railroad and James H. Andrews Railroad Museum, and visitors to this historic rail line can learn more about the industry's history in the area and hop aboard a passenger car for a scenic ride. For an all-inclusive and special place to stay, Hotel Pattee features a historic interior and special amenities like a hot tub and sauna, in-house restaurant, and a basement bowling alley.

12. Council Bluffs

Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge, Council Bluffs

On the opposite bank of the Missouri River from Omaha, Nebraska, weekend getaways in Council Bluffs range from outdoor excursions to educational experiences and include local spots for dining and shopping. Many of the things to do in Council Bluff are close to the Missouri River and include riverfront parks; golf courses; and paved paths, including the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge, which spans the river. Closer to downtown, the Union Pacific Railroad Museum attracts locomotive enthusiasts and the Squirrel Cage Jail offers a unique glimpse into a storied past.

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More to Explore in Iowa: The many top attractions of Iowa span the entire state, including a plethora of cultural attractions found in the state capital of Des Moines. For even more fun things to do, the attractions of Cedar Rapids appeal to the whole family, and the best resorts in Iowa provide a luxurious stay.

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