Top Free Things To Do In Iowa
History and art in Des Moines
Iowa State Capitol (pictured) Take a free guided tour of the gold-capped capitol to get the full story of this Renaissance-style structure, built between 1871 and 1886. Don’t forget to stop by the grounds’ stunning outdoor monuments overlooking downtown.
Des Moines Art Center The 5,000-piece collection includes works by Andy Warhol, Henri Matisse, Edward Hopper and Georgia O’Keeffe. Large, airy galleries reflect the styles of architects Eliel Saarinen, I.M. Pei and Richard Meier.
Pappajohn Sculpture Park Twenty-eight modern sculptures valued at more than $40 million scatter across a two-block downtown park. View on your own or request a tour from The Des Moines Art Center, which curates the collection. Snap a photo from inside the popular Nomade sculpture.
State Historical Museum of Iowa Listen to tapes of coal miners at work, learn about Iowa’s prominent role in Hollywood filmmaking and carry pioneer-era water buckets with a shoulder yoke at this museum in the trendy East Village neighborhood.
High Trestle Trail The 25-mile trail starting in Ankeny, 12 miles north of Des Moines, stars a ½-mile-long, 13-story bridge over the Des Moines River Valley. To evoke the sense of traveling through one of Iowa’s historical coal mines, 43 steel frames spiral along the bridge. Blue LED lights on these “cribs” glow at night.
Field of Dreams, Dyersville (pictured) The site of the 1989 film Field of Dreams, this century-old farm (26 miles west of Dubuque) still attracts visitors that come to hit balls, play a game of catch and run the bases. On some summer Sundays, “ghost” players return to the field to continue spreading the joy of baseball.
Mines of Spain State Recreation Area, Dubuque A 1,387-acre national historic landmark encompasses soaring limestone canyons, dense old timber and the Mississippi River backwater of Catfish Creek. Visit the interpretive center for an introduction to the park and its 12 miles of trails.
Dubuque Arboretum and Botanical Gardens, Dubuque English, Japanese, herb, rose, hosta and perennial gardens thrive at the 52-acre site, the largest all-volunteer arboretum in the country.
University of Iowa sites
Old Capitol Museum (pictured) Retrace the footsteps of the state’s founding fathers in Iowa’s original capitol. Lectures and concerts entertain in the Senate Chamber.
The Museum of Natural History Learn about Iowa’s 500-million-year ecological history through collections of insects, bird and mammal specimens.
Grant Wood and American Gothic
American Gothic House Center, Eldon (pictured) The subject of Grant Wood’s American Gothic painting stands next to a small but informative center with exhibits on the iconic painting and its many parodies. A 30-minute film explores Grant’s life and works. A well-stocked wardrobe of American Gothic-style clothing puts visitors in their own parodies.
Grant Wood Studio, Cedar Rapids Take a volunteer-led tour of the small Cedar Rapids studio where Wood lived and worked from 1924 to 1934. The studio’s on the second floor of a late 19th-century carriage house; on the first floor, see a half-hour video about Wood’s life and art.
Iowa parks and forests
Loess Hills State Forest Windblown silt piled up during the last ice age to form these hills near the Missouri River. A 220-mile scenic byway links towns, prairies, parks and overlooks.
Iowa’s 85 state parks are free. Two of our favorites:
Pikes Peak State Park (pictured) The ½-mile-long Bridal Veil Falls trail crosses a boardwalk over a ravine to reach views of the (small) falls and a crow’s nest overlooking the river; it’s part of the 11½-mile network near McGregor.
Maquoketa Caves State Park Hike amid dramatic limestone formations like Natural Bridge to more than a dozen caves, 30 miles south of Dubuque.
Muscatine's pearl-button history
Muscatine History and Industry Center Hands-on exhibits bring the community’s once-booming pearl-button industry to life. Peek into a barrel used to steam mussels, sew buttons onto cards, and feel the difference between true pearl buttons and pearl-looking plastic buttons.
More in Iowa
Maytag Dairy Farms At the home of one of the country’s most famous blue cheeses, learn about production during a video and a walking tour of the farm before sampling creamy Maytag Blue. In Newton, 35 miles east of Des Moines.
Amana Colonies These seven villages, settled in 1885 by a German religious society, now are a National Historic Landmark. Most buildings house shops or restaurants; the Amana Woolen Mill and the Amana Furniture & Clock Shop include free history exhibits. About 25 miles northwest of Iowa City.
Western Historic Trails Center, Council Bluffs Hands-on exhibits and videos show visitors about the region's major pioneer trails, including the Lewis and Clark Trail and the Oregon, Mormon and California trails.