These six cities boast entertainment, nightlife and fine dining in historic urban settings
Iowa is world-renowned for its beautiful prairies, plentiful agriculture and charming small towns, but large cities offer just as much adventure. World-class dining, live entertainment and museums await visitors who explore these thriving metropolitan areas that blend urban sophistication with Midwestern hospitality.
1. Des Moines
Iowa’s largest city and state capital is an urban playground teeming with nightlife, dining, live entertainment and shopping for every budget. An evening in the Historic East Village will dispel any notion of Iowa as unadventurous; situated around the gold-domed State Capitol Building, this district is populated with historic facades that house trendy nightclubs like the Lime Lounge, craft brew pubs like Peace Tree Brewery and the retro arcade Up-Down. Group members interested in history can embark on a tour of the State Capitol, explore the State Historical Museum or learn about the first-generation skyscrapers on Locust Street. Admire the entire skyline from Principal Park—home of the AAA Iowa Cubs—and enjoy a comprehensive baseball experience at a generous group rate. Ranked second in the nation, the Downtown Farmers Market consists of over 300 vendors every Saturday from May to October along 4th Street. This free attraction offers live entertainment, free samples from friendly farmers and an opportunity to explore Des Moines’ thriving downtown. One block away is the Science Center of Iowa, one of the state’s premier museums and home to a 50-foot planetarium, six-story IMAX screen and innovative hands-on exhibits that appeal to groups of all ages. Locally sourced food is plentiful in Des Moines’ dining scene, which features creative farm-to-table dishes at HoQ, hearty brunch at Americana and scrumptious desserts at Molly’s Cupcakes.
An innovative college town and thriving culinary community, Ames is the perfect city to enjoy an award-winning meal, catch exceptional theater productions or listen to a world-renowned speaker. Iowa State University—the state’s largest college—attracts scientists, authors and athletes from across the world to make Ames one of the most innovative communities in the Midwest. Admire Memorial Union’s Greek-influenced architecture, watch thrilling Cyclones athletics or embark on a walk to admire one of the largest public art collections in the nation. Sites on campus available for free tours include the Brunnier Art Museum (which houses an extensive collection of American decorative arts), the Farm House Museum (which honors 19th century Iowa history) and the peaceful Anderson Sculpture Garden. Green-thumbed guests will want to explore Reiman Gardens, a 17-acre property that includes a tropical plant conservatory, butterfly garden and perennial displays. East of campus is the Main Street Cultural District: a thoroughfare lined with public sculptures and populated by more than 50 locally owned specialty stores, art galleries and restaurants. Groups can purchase paintings by local artists at the Octagon Center for the Arts, watch Broadway-caliber musicals at the Ames City Auditorium and sample delicious craft beer at Torrent Brewing Company.
3. Council Bluffs
Located on the shores of the Missouri River across from downtown Omaha, Council Bluffs was a crucial transportation hub during America’s westward expansion. Steamboats, locomotives and wagon trains embarking on the Mormon Trail all passed through this pioneer town, which served as the eastern terminus for America’s first transcontinental railroad. That transportation heritage is celebrated at the Union Pacific Railroad Museum, which chronicles the history of the Union Pacific Railroad Company with interactive exhibits and video game technology. Further history abounds at the General Dodge Home, a lavish 14-room Victorian mansion built by Civil War veteran and railway industrialist Grenville Dodge, and the Lewis & Clark Monument Scenic Overlook. The Corps of Discovery’s meeting with the local Otoe and Missouri tribes gave Council Bluffs its name, and you can recreate their view at Narrows River Park. The city was also an important stopping point for Mormon travelers. It was here that Brigham Young was sustained as president by the members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in 1846, and a replica of the Kanesville Tabernacle where that historic vote took place is open for tours.
4. Mason City
Architecture buffs and Broadway fans will want to spend ample time exploring Mason City, home of The Music Man composer Meredith Willson and the largest concentration of Prairie School buildings in Iowa. The Prairie School style—which altered English Arts & Craft design with overhanging eaves and stark geometry—was made famous by Frank Lloyd Wright, and several of his buildings are available to visit. Begin at the Stockman House & Interpretive Center, which offers tours to explain Wright’s career arc and the home’s original Arts & Craft furnishings, and join a Prairie School tour through the Rock CrestRock Glen Historic District. Visitors can also stay at the Historic Park Inn Hotel, a boutique lodging option with 27 rooms and the only remaining hotel designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Hollywood history comes to life at Music Man Square, an indoor 1912 streetscape that includes an ice cream parlor, gift shop and sets that recreate the Warner Bros. film production of The Music Man. An interactive museum highlights Meredith Willson memorabilia, and groups can visit his restored 1895 Queen Anne boyhood home. Another treasured collection can be found at the Charles H. MacNider Art Museum, which houses a collection of over 500 marionettes and puppets created by Mason City native Bil Baird.
Distinct from the prairies that constitute most of the state, northeastern Iowa’s driftless area is a compelling landscape of rocky hills formed by ancient melting glaciers. In the heart of this region along the Mississippi River is Dubuque, a city of Beaux-Arts architecture, diverse dining and stunning river views. Begin with a ride on the Fenelon Place Elevator to admire Iowa’s oldest city. This 296-foot-long cable car has been deemed “the world’s shortest and steepest raildroad” and provides scenic views of the Port of Dubuque. Group members leery of heights can explore the Cable Car Square District, which consists of 16 local shops and boutiques. The riverfront is where visitors will find the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium (a Smithsonian affiliate filled with hands-on exhibits), Dubuques’ American Lady (a riverboat that offers lunch and dinner cruises) and Stone Cliff Winery, which offers tastings and live music in a restored brewery building. Further inland in the shadow of the elaborate Beuax-Arts county courthouse is the Millwork District. This rejuvenated industrial neighborhood is now populated with hip coffee shops, craft breweries and farm-to-table restaurants to satisfy every taste. Highlights include Inspire Café, which hosts authentic English afternoon tea, and 7 Hills Brewing Company, a welcoming taproom and brew pub that serves a “stout float” served with ice cream. Farm-to-table advocates will want to dine at Brazen Open Kitchen & Bar, which features an open kitchen and dishes prepared without freezers.
6. Waterloo-Cedar Falls
Visitors to this riverside city will immediately be drawn to the RiverLoop Amphitheatre and Arts Mall. This steel-framed band shell hosts live music, cultural dance events and film screenings next door to the Waterloo Center for the Arts, which rotates exhibits to spotlight Midwestern artists. Art-lovers will also enjoy Cedar Fall’s Hearst Center for the Arts—a permanent sculpture garden—and the Oster Regent Theatre, a 1910 building that produces musicals and dramas throughout the year. Groups seeking an outdoor adventure should spend time at the Cedar Valley Arboretum & Botanic Gardens, which includes 40 acres of butterfly meadows, rose gardens and fruit orchards. To learn about the bravery and sacrifice of Iowa’s military veterans, pay a visit to Waterloo’s Sullivan Brothers Iowa Veterans Museum, which includes over 35 interactive exhibits and an electronic Wall of Honor. Tours are also available at the Rensselaer Russell House Museum, an 1861 brick structure that allows visitors to step into the Victorian era with authentic family heirlooms and furniture. Also in Waterloo is the John Deere Tractor & Engine Museum, which explores the developments in agricultural technology throughout American history. The museum, which opened in 2014 on the site of the very first John Deere tractor factory, traces the company’s growth over time and engages guests through rare artifacts and interactive features.