Many people think that my home state of Iowa is flat. It is not. Rolling hills, prairies, limestone bluffs, and scenic views along the Mississippi and Missouri rivers offer spectacular viewing. There are many places in Iowa that you should discover, and I’m going to introduce you to 12 places that you need to visit in Iowa and probably haven’t heard of.
1. Horsfall’s Lansing Variety Store
Horsfall’s Lansing Variety Store in Lansing, Iowa, will win you over on your first visit. As you drive down the charming Main Street in Lansing, you will see Horsfall’s storefront. Find a place to park and let your adventure begin. The locals say, “If you can’t find it at Horsfall’s, you won’t find it anywhere.” You will find coloring books, cookware, pens, greeting cards, shirts, maps, and just about anything you can think of. Your time strolling the aisles in Horsfall’s will be time well spent. Before you leave town, make the drive up Mt. Hosmer for a fantastic view of the Mississippi River.
2. Bloom And Bark
Bloom and Bark is located in the heart of the Villages of Van Buren in Southeast Iowa. You can discover the magic of glass blowing in a natural setting. A local artisan market is also on-site featuring fiber, fused glass, leatherwork, woodwork, and more art produced by locals. If you are interested in creating some magic in the world of glass blowing, register for a class. You will appreciate your time spent here, as you will enjoy every moment. This area of Iowa is relatively quiet, as you will not find many stoplights. It’s the perfect opportunity to slow down and connect with others through the arts in a natural setting.
3. Yesterday’s Memories And Truck Museum
Yesterday’s Memories & Truck Museum is an Iowa treasure many Iowans don’t even know exists. Close to 80 years ago, the Vander Haag family began to collect trucks and cars. Today, you can view these prized possessions, including children’s toys, fuel pumps, historic trucks, cars, and much more. Sanborn, Iowa, is lucky to be the home of this incredible museum.
Pro Tip: Plan to spend a minimum of 3 hours in the museum.
4. World’s Largest Popcorn Ball
Sac City, Iowa
Sac City, Iowa, is home to the world’s largest popcorn ball. You can view this magnificent masterpiece through a window here. The unofficial weight of this piece of art is 9,370 pounds. Several small buildings surround the world’s largest popcorn ball, depicting life in Sac City during an earlier time.
5. Iowa 80 Truck Stop
The Iowa 80 Truck Stop (I-80) at exit 284 is the world’s largest truck stop. You can view hundreds of trucks in the parking lot and enjoy a meal. With a laundromat, barber, and dentist on site, you can make the I-80 truck stop your one-stop shop. If you are looking for a gift for someone, I can speak from experience, as I have purchased several Iowa-themed gifts at the I-80 truck stop over the years.
Pro Tip: Arrive hungry as there are several fantastic restaurants to choose from.
6. Historic Park Inn Hotel
Mason City, Iowa
Calling all Frank Lloyd Wright enthusiasts. Mason City, Iowa, is home to the last known hotel in the world designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Book a stay at the Historic Park Inn Hotel and experience some of this architect’s best work. After a cozy night’s stay, visit the architectural mastery of Frank Lloyd Wright at the Stockman House. Both of these properties are open year-round, making Mason City your prime destination when it comes to experiencing architecture.
Pro Tip: Enjoy a steak at Northwestern Steakhouse, an award-winning Iowa steakhouse.
7. John Wayne Museum And Birthplace
The John Wayne Museum & Birthplace can be experienced in Winterset, Iowa. You can view the largest diversified exhibit of John Wayne artifacts in existence, including movie posters, film wardrobe, and my personal favorite, one of his last customized automobiles. The small home that he was born in sits behind the museum and is included in your tour of the John Wayne Museum. The grounds are handicap accessible, making it easy for everyone to visit.
Pro Tip: Sit down in the movie theater to learn more about John Wayne’s film career before you enter the museum.
If time permits, drive one of Iowa’s top scenic byways, The Covered Bridges Scenic Byway. The world-famous bridges of Madison County are a short drive in and around Winterset. You can easily spend a full day or weekend exploring John Wayne’s home stomping grounds.
8. Fenelon Place Elevator
The Fenelon Place Elevator is the world’s shortest and steepest railroad. It has also been called “the world’s steepest, shortest scenic railway.” You will board the car at 4th Street and exit the car at the top, Fenelon Place. Once the railroad car makes the climb, you will be able to step out and take in the magnificent view of Dubuque, Iowa. Fall is an incredible time of year to make the climb, as the fall colors are shining. This historic attraction in Dubuque is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Pro Tip: Bring cash to pay for the ride.
9. World’s Largest Concrete Gnome
You can find the world’s largest concrete gnome in Ames, Iowa. As you stroll through beautiful Reiman Gardens, you will come to the world’s largest concrete gnome. There is a small fee to visit the gardens and to see the gnome, but it is money well spent. With several gardens to view, you will see something colorful around every bend. Wheelchairs and motorized scooters are available, free of charge, for guests with mobility issues. You can check them out at the front desk.
10. Buddy Holly Crash Site
Clear Lake, Iowa
Spend time in Clear Lake, Iowa, and visit the Buddy Holly crash site. Travel approximately five miles north of Clear Lake to visit the historic crash site. It was in 1959 when Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and The Big Bopper perished in a plane crash. They had wrapped up a fun night of music at the legendary Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake. Today, more than 60 years later, visitors make the quarter-of-a-mile trek out to the crash site. You will know you have arrived at the site when you see the iconic black glasses at the trailhead.
Pro Tip: Be weather prepared, bring a coat, boots, and an umbrella to hike to the crash site.
If you visit during the warmer months, take a cruise on the Lady of the Lake. A 1.5 hour public cruise around the lake will introduce you to the area. You will be able to see Clear Lake State Park and have a fantastic view of one of Iowa’s top outdoor recreation lakes.
11. National Pearl Button Museum
The National Pearl Button Museum showcases the early 1900s, during the time Muscatine was known as, “the Pearl Button Capital of the World.” It was during this time that the town of Muscatine manufactured more than 1.5 mother-of-pearl buttons each year. This museum is easy to navigate and the displays are magnificent. Immigrants, entrepreneurs, laborers, and the buttons are all showcased in this beautifully done museum.
Visitors can expect to spend a minimum of two hours exploring one of Iowa’s best-kept secrets. The museum and gift shop are wheelchair accessible and there are seating areas throughout the museum. Stop into Maxwell’s On The River for one of my favorite desserts, the mouth-watering bread pudding. This restaurant sits inside the Merrill Hotel, the Pearl of the Mississippi, two blocks from the National Pearl Button Museum.
12. The Danish Windmill
Elk Horn, Iowa
You can become a Dane for a day or two when you visit Elk Horn, Iowa. Elk Horn is home to the largest rural Danish settlement in the United States. Visit the 1848 Danish Windmill, the only authentic and working Danish windmill in America today. The Danish heritage runs deep in Elk Horn. Tivoli Fest and Julefest are two popular festivals that attract thousands of people annually. An easy way to experience the Danish way of life is to visit the Museum of Danish America. Journey a couple of miles from Elk Horn to Danish Countryside Vines & Wines and enjoy a glass of wine while overlooking the beautiful vineyards that are home in Iowa.
Pro Tip: Visit the vineyards in early fall and there’s a good chance the vines will be ripe for harvest.
Iowa will surprise you as you will find something beautiful around every corner. I have lived in Iowa all of my life and there is something to be said about, “Iowa nice.” You will enjoy the people and the places you find as you explore the heart of America. These 12 places should be high on your list of places to see in Iowa. You won’t regret the time that you made to explore Iowa.
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