In the heart of the Midwest, nestled along the east bank of the Missouri River, lies the vibrant city of Council Bluffs. Steeped in a rich tapestry of history, the city is a testament to the pioneering spirit that has characterized the American narrative. Council Bluffs was not only a significant hub during the great westward expansion but also played a central role in the birth and growth of the American railroad industry. The city proudly embraces its heritage, inviting visitors to see its historic landmarks along with its vibrant cultural scene. From picturesque parks to insightful museums, Council Bluffs’ attractions narrate the tales of pioneers, adventurers, and innovators who once walked its streets.
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Quick history of Council Bluffs, Iowa
In its earliest days, the region witnessed the historic Lewis and Clark expedition, which charted a course through unexplored American territories. Their encounter with the Otoe tribe on the bluffs of the Missouri River in 1804 marked the city’s first claim to fame, sowing the seeds of a rich and diverse cultural lineage.
As pioneers passed through the area, Council Bluffs became a gateway to the western frontier. It was an assembly point for pioneers preparing to embark on their journey across the great plains. This rendezvous point symbolized hope and adventure, attributes that are ingrained in the very fabric of Council Bluffs’ identity even today.
In the mid-19th century, the city further cemented its place in history as a railroad powerhouse. The Union Pacific Railroad, whose museum now stands in downtown Council Bluffs, established its eastern terminus in the city. This monumental development transformed the city into a bustling hub of commerce and innovation, connecting people and places in unprecedented ways.
Top Council Bluffs attractions
The following 12 attractions are just the beginning of all that the city offers.
Union Pacific Railroad Museum
The Union Pacific Railroad Museum features exhibits on the history of the Union Pacific Railroad and its role in the development of the American West. Exhibits cover the construction of the transcontinental railroad through modern times, and there are many interactive elements found throughout. One of the best photo opps is on a life-sized replica of a caboose. The building it’s housed in was originally a Carnegie library. Admission to the museum is free.
Tip: For even more trains, visit the Rails West Railroad Museum on the grounds of a former Chicago Rock Island and Pacific Railroad depot.
- Union Pacific Railroad Museum, 200 Pearl St., Council Bluffs, Iowa
- Rails West Railroad Museum, 1512 S. Main St., Council Bluffs, Iowa
Lake Manawa State Park
Lake Manawa State Park is one of the most popular parks in western Iowa, offering over 1,500 acres of outdoor recreation opportunities, including hiking, boating, fishing, and swimming. The park features several trails that wind through the woods and along the lake’s shoreline, offering stunning views of the water and surrounding countryside.
One of the park’s highlights, without a doubt, is Dream Playground. Nearby, there is a small, sandy beach area inside the park. There is an admission fee for the beach.
The park is free to visit for those with Iowa license plates; it’s $5 for a daily permit for out-of-state visitors. One of the most popular annual events at the park is the Fourth of July fireworks display.
- Lake Manawa State Park, 1100 South Shore Drive, Council Bluffs, Iowa
River’s Edge Park
Tom Hanafan River’s Edge Park is one of the city’s newest parks along the riverfront near the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge, which connects Council Bluffs to Omaha. It’s a busy bridge for walkers and bikers, and has a popular photo opportunity of the state line located at the center of the bridge.
The park’s public art sculptures stand out, but for families, the highlight is the adorable Belles’ Playgarden and spray ground for young kids. There are plans to build an observation tower and an adventure course at River’s Edge Park.
In the summer, the park hosts outdoor movies, comedy nights, and festivals.
- River’s Edge Park, 4200 Ave. B, Council Bluffs, Iowa
Mid-America Center is the city’s big arena and events center, where touring productions perform, and conventions are held. Its proximity to Interstate 80 and Interstate 29 is pretty convenient, to boot. Parking is free.
Near the MAC, as I like to call it, there are a few popular restaurants like Quaker Steak and Lube, a movie theater, hotels, casinos, and the Bass Pro Shop.
- Mid-America Center, 1 Arena Way, Council Bluffs, Iowa
Located in the heart of downtown Council Bluffs, Bayliss Park has a stunning, modern fountain with a small sprayground, a bandstand, and plenty of green space for playing. There is also a veterans memorial nearby.
In the summer, there are free weekly concerts held at the park’s pavilion. In May, Celebrate CB festivities are held in the area, with carnival rides and food stands lining the streets around the park.
Fun fact: The water patterns of the sprayground duplicate the forms of the large central fountain.
- Bayliss Park, 100 Pearl St., Council Bluffs, Iowa
Historic Squirrel Cage Jail Museum
The Historic Squirrel Cage Jail is the only three-story-tall lazy susan jail structure to still be standing, and it’s a museum now making it a fascinating place to visit. It was built in 1885 and was in use until 1969. You can take a tour of it, and hear stories about notorious prisoners and the rumored hauntings.
The museum is open Thursday through Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sundays from 1 to 4 p.m. No reservation is needed for the tours.
- Squirrel Cage Jail Museum, 226 Pearl St., Council Bluff, Iowa
One of Council Bluffs’ most famous couples, the Bregants, built a custom home in the early 1900s to suit their smaller statue. The home was nicknamed “The Doll House.” Inez and Jean Bregant were popular entertainers in their day, though they were best known as the “Candy Kids” in advertisements for John G. Woodward and Co. At 42 inches and 45 inches tall, they were known as “the little people” in Council Bluffs.
Tours last about 30 minutes and cost $5 per person. Tours are not held daily, so check the online calendar here and then reserve a day and time that works for you.
- Bregant House, 517 Fourth St., Council Bluffs, Iowa
Wabash Trace Nature Trail
Wabash Trace Nature Trail is a 63-mile rail-trail that winds through the scenic countryside of southwest Iowa. The trail is open to bikers and walkers/runners. There are numerous trailheads and access points along the route, making it easy to customize your ride to your skill level and interests. On Thursdays nights when the weather permits, hundreds of cyclists gather to bike from Council Bluffs to Mineola for the weekly Taco Ride.
There is a trail fee charged to help with maintenance. It’s only a couple bucks for the day, or $20 for a year-long pass. Purchase the annual pass here, or at a local bike shop.
- Wabash Trace Nature Trail, the northern most access point in Council Bluffs is on the south end of town, not far from Iowa School for the Deaf at 3501 Harry Langdon Blvd., Council Bluffs, Iowa. There’s a park near the trail where you can park your car.
Horseshoe Council Bluffs Casino is the newest casino in the city, featuring more than 1,370 slot machines, and more than 50 table games include Craps, Blackjack, Roulette and Poker. Sports betting allowed at Caesars Sportsbook. The casino has a great, small concert venue called Whiskey Roadhouse that brings in some awesome touring bands.
For dining options, grab a steak dinner at Jack Binion’s Steak House. If that’s a bit too heavy, go to JB’s Cafe.
- Horseshoe Council Bluffs Casino, 2701 23rd Ave., Council Bluffs, Iowa
Harrah’s Council Bluffs Casino & Hotel
Harrah’s Casino and Hotel has more than 500 slot machines, table games, and a luxurious hotel with spa and dining options. Its outdoor Stir Cove is a popular summer concert venue with national touring acts performing throughout the summer bringing in national touring performers.
There are several great restaurant options inside the casino/hotel including the newest one that opened in 2023, Guy Fieri’s Kitchen + Bar. 360 Steakhouse is a great date night restaurant with views of the Missouri River and Omaha cityscape. A casual option is Slice Pizzeria.
As the name suggests, there’s also a hotel. Suites are available, and some rooms are dog-friendly.
- Harrah’s Council Bluffs Hotel and Casino, 1 Harrahs Blvd., Council Bluffs, Iowa
Ameristar Council Bluffs Casino
Ameristar Casino has more than 1,300 slot machines plus 15 stations with five games on the main floor of the casino. Games include Blackjack, Roulette, Baccarat, and Big 6. Sports betting is allowed at The Sportsbook.
For dining options, there’s Bella’s Bakery & Cafe, 2200 Market,; Amerisports Bar, Doubledown Dogs, and Club 38 for loyalty club members. There is an on-site hotel with whirlpool King Spas suites and Octagon luxury suites.
- Ameristar Council Bluffs Casino, 2200 River Road, Council Bluffs, Iowa
For even more casinos in the area, visit this blog post highlighting casinos near Omaha.
Dining in Council Bluffs: Top restaurants and local cuisines
712 Eat + Drink
712 serves legit, scratch-made food. The menu ranges from contemporary American to some more unique flavors, such as crab Rangoon tots or Thai lettuce wraps. This is a good spot for Happy Hour, which is Tuesday through Sunday from 3 to 6 p.m. and all day Thursday.
- 712 Eat + Drink: 1851 Madison Ave., suite 700
You know a barbecue joint is good when the smell makes your stomach growl. The meat at Boxer Barbecue is smoked on-site, with some meats taking as long as 10 hours to reach perfection. The casual eatery is located in the city’s historic Hay Market.
- Boxer Barbeque, 513 S. Main St., Council Bluffs, Iowa
Caddy’s Kitchen & Cocktails
Located on the city’s charming Historic 100 Block, Caddy’s is a popular restaurant that’s making a name for itself with its outrageous cocktails. Seriously, they’re ginormous. They also serve up pretty tasty pub food like tatchos, burgers and sandwiches.
- Caddy’s Kitchen & Cocktails, 103 W. Broadway, Council Bluffs, Iowa
Shopping: Popular spots
The city has a lot of national chain stores, including popular ones located at Metro Crossing Shopping Center at 3626 Metro Drive. But, for more regional and local shops, check out these places:
Historic 100 Block
While just a block long, the 100 Block is an area of Council Bluffs you shouldn’t overlook. It’s got great bars, restaurants, and public art. Plus, the charming women’s clothing and home decor boutique, Dusted Charm, is on this block.
- Dusted Charm, 120 W. Broadway, Council Bluffs, Iowa
Bass Pro Shops
For all of your outdoor needs, Bass Pro Shops is the place to go. The huge retail store carries equipment, clothing, and sporting goods. Families flock to the store to gape at the huge aquarium and big game displays. In the winter, Santa visits the shop for free pictures, and in the spring, the Easter Bunny is there.
Tip: Fish Feeding times are Tuesdays and Thursdays at 12:30 p.m and Saturdays at 3 p.m.
- Bass Pro Shops, 2901 Bass Pro Drive, Council Bluffs, Iowa
The Sugar Makery
The Sugar Makery’s original location is in Glenwood, Iowa, but the Council Bluffs location is just as nice. Whatever your sugar desires are – ice cream, soda, cake, candies, homemade chocolates – you can get it at The Sugar Makery. They also make a huge assortment of gourmet popcorn flavors, too.
- The Sugar Makery, 19278 Conifer Lane, Council Bluffs, Iowa
Cultural experiences: Art galleries, theaters, and museums
While Council Bluffs isn’t the state’s largest city, it remains a top contender for cultural attractions. Here are a few of the city’s highlights in the arts:
Hoff Family Arts & Culture Center
There’s nowhere in Council Bluffs with more going on than Hoff Family Arts & Culture Center, which is home to Pottawattamie Arts, Culture & Entertainment (or PACE, the nonprofit who manages the center), Chanticleer Community Theater, Kanesville Symphony Orchestra, American Midwest Ballet, and Kitchen Council. The calendar is full of events, from live theater and concerts, to gallery openings and guest speakers. The large, renovated historic building has several floors of rehearsal areas, artist studios, classrooms, and a teaching kitchen.
- Hoff Family Arts & Culture Center, 1001 S. Sixth St., Council Bluffs, Iowa
The Arts Center
The Arts Center at Iowa Western Community College offers a mix of student productions as well as nationally touring performers. There are two stages, including an intimate Black Box Theater. Check the calendar for upcoming performances.
Tickets are available for individual performances as well as season tickets.
- The Arts Center, 2700 College Road, Council Bluffs, Iowa
Council Bluffs has a surprising number of public art sites scattered throughout the area ranging from murals to enormous sculptures! Many of the largest pieces were made possible thanks to the Iowa West Foundation. Some of the more notable ones are “Molecule Man” by Jonathan Borofsky and “Rhythm” by Jun Kaneko near the Mid-America Center and “Looking Up” by Thomas Friedman at River’s Edge Park.
- “Molecule Man,” near the entrance of the Mid-America Center
- “Rhythm,” south entrance of the Mid-America Center in Council Bluffs, Iowa
- “Looking Up,” at River’s Edge Park, 4200 Ave. B, Council Bluffs, Iowa
Don’t forget the concert venues I mentioned earlier, including Stir Cove at Harrah’s and Whiskey Roadhouse at Horseshoe Casino.
Accommodation: Recommended places to stay
With two major interstates passing through Council Bluffs, there are a ton of hotel options if you want to stay a night or two. In addition to the hotels connected to, or next to, the three casinos mentioned earlier, here are a few recommendations:
- SpringHill Suites by Marriott, 3216 Plaza View Drive, Council Bluffs. Suites can sleep up to five people, and with some reservations, breakfast is free.
- Holiday Inn Hotel & Suites Council Bluffs, an IHG Hotel, 2202 River Road, Council Bluffs, Iowa. Located close to Ameristar Council Bluffs Casino and Interstate 29, you get the familiar comforts of a Holiday Inn plus a convenient location.
For more hotel recommendations, check out this list of Council Bluffs hotels that offer complimentary breakfast.
FAQs about Council Bluffs
When is the best time to visit Council Bluffs?
For the most outdoor activity options, visit Council Bluffs in the summer. With the watersports and trails at Lake Manawa State Park, and the city’s trail system, you can stay quite active. The city pools are open, including the popular Pirate’s Cove Water Park. Concerts are held throughout the summer at Stir Cove.
What is Council Bluffs known for?
Council Bluffs is known for its rich historical background. It has a connection to the Lewis & Clark expedition and held a high status as a railroad hub in the 19th century. Today, Council Bluffs is known for its vibrant cultural and recreational attractions in southwest Iowa.
What recreational activities are available in Council Bluffs?
Visitors can enjoy a range of recreational activities including biking on the Wabash Trace Trail as well as many paved trails throughout the city. At Lake Manawa, people can boat on the lake, and use the extensive trails there to hike or mountain bike.
Are there any annual events or festivals in Council Bluffs?
Yes, Council Bluffs hosts several annual events. In early May, Celebrate CB festivities include a parade, carnival and community-wide activities. In the summer, Westfair (the West Pottawattamie County Fair) is held at the Westfair Amphitheater. In the fall, several fun festivals are held at Ditmars Orchard and Vineyard, with the most notable being Fields of Flight, a hot air balloon festival. And starting in November, Winterfest activities are planned.
Whether you’re a history enthusiast, a nature lover, or just a curious traveler seeking a charming place to visit, Council Bluffs is a unique city to visit. The city is a modern hub of museums, performing arts, and outdoor adventures.