I’m always up for a weekend getaway, and Iowa has become my reliable, go-to state. Iowa cities provide an inexpensive vacation, and all within just a few hours from Omaha. Here are a few of my favorite, memorable vacations in Iowa, plus recommendations from Iowa travel bloggers.
Disclosure: This post originally was published on Oh My! Omaha and a portion is republished here with permission.
1. Adventure in Audubon
Audubon offers great outdoor spots like the T-Bone Bike Trail, which is a paved bike trail that spans from Audubon south through Hamlin, Exira, and under I-80 into Cass County. Littlefield Recreational Area outside Exira offers camping, fishing, swimming at a beach, and more.
Nearby you’ll find the “tree in the middle of the road” unique site as well. Downtown you’ll find the John James Audubon bird walk and a beautiful city park.
Restaurants like El Adobe and The Bakery on Broadway will fill up your tummy with delicious foods. Want to try a prize-winning tenderloin? Head to Darrel’s Place in Hamlin!
Nearby in Gray, you’ll find the Heritage Rose Garden, which features more than 200 varieties of roses and flowers. If you need something to do indoors, head to the Audubon Rec Center.
Enjoy a stay at the historic Taylor Hill Lodge. This century-old barn has been renovated into a lodge and it’s a great place to stay and enjoy Iowa countryside!
There is plenty to keep you and your family busy in Audubon County.
2. Life’s a beach in Clear Lake
Clear Lake is the perfect place to plan a summer getaway! Families will enjoy visiting City Beach where you can take a dip in Clear Lake or have fun in the new splash pad area. We recommend grabbing a sandwich at nearby Starboard Market and having a picnic during your day at the beach.
Nature lovers will enjoy exploring Clear Lake by taking a tour on the Lady of the Lake, or by going on a walk at Central Gardens or either state park (Clear Lake or McIntosh).
History buffs will enjoy visiting the Surf Ballroom or the Cerro Gordo County Freedom Rock to learn about important stories and people that made an impact both locally and nationwide.
There is something for everyone in Clear Lake and don’t forget to get a black raspberry ice cream cone at the Viking Drive-Inn while you visit!
Read on about the Iowa Ice Cream Road Trip’s stop at Viking Drive-Inn in Clear Lake.
3. Enjoy the great outdoors in Decorah
Decorah is a small town full of outdoor adventures in northeastern Iowa. Located in the Driftless Area of the Midwest, the landscape is surprising in areas: Waterfall, rocky terrain, and Upper Iowa River, which National Geographic listed as one of the 100 Greatest Adventures in America.
On our visit, we stuck to paved path of Trout Run Trail for a bike ride, but the area is also popular with mountain bikers.
My favorite meal was at Luna Valley Farm, which serves wood-fired pizza made from ingredients grown and raised by them. Don’t forget to cap off your day with a beer from one of the local microbreweries!
4. A weekend of fun in Des Moines
You can easily spend a weekend in Des Moines, the state capital of Iowa, and not see all the highlights. From cultural experiences like the Science Center of Iowa and the Living History Farms to big thrills at Adventureland, the city has enough to keep any family busy.
Des Moines has a great restaurant scene. Among my favorites that I return to again and again are Fong’s Pizza and Zombie Burger. In the summer, don’t miss the massive farms market in downtown Des Moines!
5. Active outdoors in Dubuque
A great place for an Iowa summer getaway is Dubuque! There are plenty of opportunities to enjoy the outdoors.
Some of my favorite things to do during the summer are: Ziplining at Sky Tours Dubuque, hiking at the Mines of Spain, and enjoying the Mississippi River. Several boat companies do river cruises, but if you have your own boat there are lots of sandbars that you can enjoy.
The National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium and the Fenelon Place Elevator are worth a stop too.
The Yardarm has outside riverfront dining which is lovely on a warm day. Along Rhomberg Avenue you’ll find an independently-owned Dairy Queen, the menu is slightly different from the regular locations and it’s walk-up, like a human drive-thru!
The Hotel Julien and the Grand Harbor Resort are popular Downtown lodging options. However, if you are into camping, you’ll find a couple of campgrounds. Miller Riverview Park is very close to Downtown located on Schmitt Island, or just across the river in Wisconsin (a 10-minute drive), is the large Coconut Cove Resort, which is great for families.
6. Danish treasures in Elk Horn
Elk Horn is the “capital” of the Danish Villages. Learn about Dutch culture and history by visiting this small town.
The Museum of Danish America & the Danish Windmill Museum are great places to learn about the connection of Elk Horn to Danish culture along with the impact on our society. If you’re a wine fan, we recommend heading outside Elk Horn to Danish Countryside Winery.
Make sure to check out the other Danish Village of Kimballton. This town is home to the Hans Christian Anderson Little Mermaid sculpture park and fountain.
Get a taste for traditional Danish food like frikadellar and Abelskiver at the Danish Table. Award-winning tenderloins are available at Larsen’s Pub or grab delicious pizza at Grace on Main!
Looking for a place to stay? We recommend Blue Grass Inn & Suites in Audubon.
7. The hidden gem, Estherville
Estherville is most likely one of the most overlooked towns in Iowa. It is nestled along the Des Moines River and Fort Defiance State Park.
The state park has several beautiful hiking trails that challenge hikers, as well as the casual walker. The Des Moines River Water Trail provides more than 20 miles to explore by kayak, boat, or canoe. The outdoor enthusiast will fall in love with this area of the state.
Book an overnight stay at Little Swan Lake Winery/Bed & Breakfast. Here you can enjoy the rolling hills of Iowa, with a jaw-dropping view off of your deck.
Your visit would not be complete without a meal at Woody’s Pizza, as it is one of the most recognizable restaurants in the state of Iowa.
A stroll around the town square will remind you how peaceful and beautiful life is in small-town America.
8. Get away from it all at Lake Icaria
Remote Lake Icaria is a peaceful summer destination for those who want to get away from crowds and noise. Reserve a cabin and enjoy the views. (Or camp, it’s your call)
The lake draws fishing enthusiasts, boaters, and families who like the small beach. On the weekends seasonally, you may find a food truck parked near the beach.
The closest town to Lake Icaria is Corning, which has a few restaurants and there’s a winery outside of town.
9. Frank Lloyd Wright & Mason City
Right in the heart of north Iowa with easy access via US-20 or I-35, Mason City is an ideal summer getaway for families, with music, architecture, art, food, and plenty of greenery.
For fun, stroll or bike the Meredith Wilson footbridge and visit Music Man Square to learn more about the musical Music Man, River City, and how Mason City inspired it all. At the Charles H. MacNider Museum, find the adorable puppets from the Lonely Goatherd scene in Sound of Music, as well as works in a variety of mediums from many different artists, including paintings by Thomas Hart Benton.
Architecture aficionados will love the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Historic Park Inn and Stockman House, and will notice tributes to his style all over town, from century-old leaded glass to contemporary murals and more!
If all this fun makes you hungry, Northwestern Steakhouse and Black Dog BBQ will make sure you don’t stay that way, while Birdsall’s ice cream and Mama Sugar’s Cupcakery will be the icing on your delicious trip!
Want more info? Here’s the full take on visiting Mason City with kids.
10. There’s always Okoboji
Okoboji, and the collection of nearby towns and lakes, are one of the most popular summer destinations in the state. Whatever kind of lake vacation you wish for – quiet, active, or a party – you’ll find it in Okoboji.
Boaters flock here, but since we don’t own a boat, we cruised the lake with a canoe from our resort.
Make time to visit the historic Arnolds Park Amuseument Park, home to one of the oldest wooden rollercoasters in the U.S. Grab a cold treat at the Nutty Bar Stand after your afternoon at the amusement park.
If you can pull yourself away from the lakes, you’ll find museums, bike trails, and a fun nature center in the area.
11. Beyond the tulips in Orange City
If you see small windmills and vibrant tulips, there’s a good chance you’ve arrived in Orange City. This charming little town has Dutch bakeries and shops that celebrate its very Dutch heritage.
You can visit any time, but early spring is a good time to go to see the tulips. We went during the town’s annual Tulip Festival and enjoyed the truly unique parades, artisans, and shows.
In the summer, the tulips are replaced by more seasonal displays.
12. Crossing state lines for the Quad Cities
The Quad Cities – Betterndorf and Davenport in Iowa and Moline and Rock Island in Illinois – feel like one large city with small-town atmospheres. The Mississippi is the natural divider for the states and cities.
We visited on a particularly rainy weekend, so we spent most of our time indoors. There are several excellent museums, including the Putnam Museum (a science center crossed with natural history museum), Figge Art Museum, and the Familly Museum.
There are two free, not-to-miss places to include on your visit. The Fyxell Geology Museum located on the picturesque Augustana College campus, and is home to fossils and rocks and petrified dinosaur poop. (Kids love it)
The John Deere Pavilion is also a free attraction, with hands-on activities and an up-close look at farming equipment.
It’s tough to say which city you should stay overnight in. But, they’re all near each other so you can’t really choose incorrectly.
13. It’s sweet in Sioux City
Indoors and outdoors, Sioux CIty has plenty of activity options to fill a weekend.
Stone State Park and the Dorothy Pecaut Nature Center in the city are two great places to hike. The trails at the nature center connect to the rest of Stone Park if you’re looking for a longer hike. The nature center is a must-visit if you have young kids.
Sioux City has a surprising number of museums for a city of its size. Some that I especially recommend to visitors include the Sioux City Art Center (the Grant Wood corn room is a must-see!), LaunchPAD Children’s Museum for little visitors, and the Sioux City Railroad Museum with its brand new grand-scale railroad now open for rides.