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12 Top-Rated Weekend Getaways in Iowa

Written by Brad Lane
Updated Jul 26, 2021

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Every weekend in Iowa presents a new opportunity to get away. From the lush Iowa countryside to the urban capital brimming with culture, fun places to visit spread across the state. Common weekend activities in Iowa include exploring a state park, attending the Tulip Festival, or cheering on the Iowa Hawkeyes at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City.

For nature and outdoor enthusiasts, places like Loess Hills and Lake Okoboji make for excellent adventure destinations throughout the year. Other natural landscapes, like the Mississippi River and the elevated terrain surrounding Decorah, also encourage time spent outside. Some Iowa weekend getaways include stepping into different cultures, like the Amana Colonies and Pella.

Find your next best Midwest adventure with our list of the top weekend getaways in Iowa.

Note: Some businesses may be temporarily closed due to recent global health and safety issues.

1. Des Moines

Des Moines State Capitol building
Des Moines State Capitol building | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Des Moines is the state capital of Iowa and a growing city characterized by young professionals, first-class restaurants, and fun things to do in every direction. In downtown proper, tourist attractions include the aesthetically pleasing John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park and the gold-domed State Capitol building. And decadent eateries like Americana, Centro, and the 801 Chophouse also appeal to visiting foodies.

Other downtown Des Moines attractions include the Science Center of Iowa, the Des Moines Civic Center, and Wells Fargo Arena. And on the outskirts of downtown, the world-famous Iowa State Fair is an annual tradition that draws thousands of patrons each year.

Rotary Riverwalk Park
Rotary Riverwalk Park

Part of Des Moines' growing appeal is also the city's access to natural spaces. Rotary Riverwalk Park is one such example of a beautiful downtown public space. Adjacent to the Des Moines River downtown, this landscaped space also lends access to the nearby Robert D. Ray Asian Gardens.

A popular and stylish place to stay within the city is the Des Lux Hotel, which features first-class service and 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
Dunning Spring in Decorah

In the far northeast corner of Iowa, Decorah is well known for its 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 outdoor destinations like Dunning Spring and Ice Cave Hill Park provide easy outdoor entertainment minutes from downtown.

The community of Decorah also encourages a weekend visit. Alongside friendly faces and Midwestern hospitality, the city is infused with several cultural establishments tied to its Norwegian history. Places like the Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum and the Billy Clocks Museum provide plenty of things to do between outdoor adventures.

The Hotel Winneshiek is a recommended place to stay when traveling to Decorah. This historic hotel provides modern accommodations with style, and the location lends easy access to the great outdoors and several nearby cultural attractions.

3. Iowa City

Old Capitol in the University of Iowa Pentacrest
Old Capitol in the University of Iowa Pentacrest

Iowa City is home to the Hawkeyes and the University of Iowa. This collegiate city offers plenty of reasons for a weekend visit whether you're a student or not. Besides catching a Saturday football game and tailgate at Kinnick Stadium, other avenues of enjoyment include Hancher Auditorium, the Stanley Museum of Art, and several reputable breakfast eateries.

The centerpiece of the University of Iowa campus, the Old Capitol within the Pentacrest, is an eye-catching reminder of the city's stately past. And today, the Old Capitol Museum highlights Iowa City's status as the first capital of the Iowa Territory.

Iowa City's culture also draws a crowd. The city is a UNESCO City of Literature thanks to the Iowa Writers' Workshop at the university - the #1 writing program in the nation. This literary reputation is well-represented downtown at places like Prairie Lights Café. And the rest of downtown is filled with a charming pedestrian mall lined with local shops, restaurants, and unique public art installations. Downtown Iowa City is also home to the Englert Theatre.

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.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Iowa City

Read More: Top Things to Do in Iowa City, Iowa

4. Pella

Tulip Time in Pella
Tulip Time in Pella

Pella is near the shore of Lake Red Rock, 40 miles east of Des Moines. It warrants a weekend visit for several reasons, but the city's rich Dutch heritage attracts the most tourism. From the Historical Village and Vermeer Windmill to the Dutch letters found at places like Jaarsma Bakery, the Netherlands is not far from home when visiting Pella.

Perhaps the best example of Pella's cultural celebrations is the annual Tulip Time Festival hosted by the city. This spring event features parades, costumed characters, and bountiful tulip gardens. The Tulip Festival takes place the first full weekend of May, but the flowers typically remain in full bloom a week before and after the event.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Pella

5. Loess Hills

Loess Hills hiking
Loess Hills hiking

The Loess Hills, on the western side of the state, is perhaps one of the most awe-inspiring landscapes of Iowa. The area is comprised of fine soil deposited in large mounds across a prairie environment. It offers a unique environment not only in Iowa but also a photogenic space that's found in few other places of the country.

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. Outdoor adventures are easy to find within the Loess Hills State Forest, including the historically intriguing Preparation Canyon State Park.

6. Dubuque

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. Here, family members of all ages 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. Another popular downtown attraction is the Fenelon Place Elevator, where visitors ride up the world's shortest and steepest railway to a high vantage point of the city.

Visitors to Dubuque also have quick access to the Mines of Spain Recreation Area and Sundown Mountain Resort - two top spots for recreation in Iowa. Eagle Point Park is also a popular spot to explore outdoors near Dubuque. This 164-acre city park has a big overview of the adjacent Mississippi River, perfect for watching resident eagles fly about their business.

A great place to stay near the water, the Hotel Julien Dubuque is a well-regarded historic hotel with an extra touch of class. This centrally located place to stay is in the heart of Dubuque.

7. Cedar Rapids

National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library
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. It is the second most populous city in Iowa and features a thriving downtown district, inspiring museums, and historic theaters.

Throughout the year, visitors can find historical insight at the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library located near the river. This inspiring museum sheds insight on the cultural background of the city. And for the artistically inclined, the Cedar Rapids Art Museum features a great collection of once-resident painter Grant Wood.

A fun family activity in Cedar Rapids is catching a minor league Cedar Rapids Kernels baseball game on a summer evening. The elegant estate of Brucemore is also primed for family vacations, with frequent fireworks, galas, and guided tours on the event calendar.

Shows of every variety can be found at the Paramount Theatre, a historic downtown 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

Read More: Top Things to Do in Cedar Rapids, Iowa

8. Lake Okoboji

Lake Okoboji sunrise
Lake Okoboji sunrise

Lake Okoboji is one of the Great Lakes of Iowa in the northwest region of the state. It attracts countless visitors and families from across the Midwest for water-based activities, including fishing, boating, swimming, and lakeshore dining.

Lake Okoboji also Offers plenty to do for land lovers, too. Other nearby attractions include the Iowa Great Lakes Maritime Museum, Arnold's Park Amusement Park, and the Dickinson County Nature Center. And for wintertime attractions, activities like ice fishing, ice-skating, and cross-country skiing tend to reign supreme.

9. Cedar Falls

Bicycle path in 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. This stylish place to stay is in the perfect location next to downtown and the river. From its ornate lobby, visitors easily access other things to do in Cedar Falls, like Gateway Park and the Ice House Museum.

10. Amana Colonies

Historic home in the 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. When visiting, be sure to stop by The Ronneburg Restaurant for wiener schnitzel and other authentic German fare. Various events at the Amana Colonies range from classic car shows to a Spring Maifest, complete with polka music and authentic garb.

11. Boone

Railway bridges in Boone, Iowa
Railway bridges in Boone, Iowa

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. 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.

Other outdoor landscapes to explore include Ledges State Park and Seven Oaks Recreation.

For an all-inclusive and special place to stay, Hotel Pattee features a historic interior and special amenities like a hot tub and sauna, an in-house restaurant, and a basement bowling alley.

12. Council Bluffs

Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge, 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. The city is also often visited for its 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.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Council Bluffs

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imageMore 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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