Skip to Content

Iowa’s 10 Largest Cities – A Visitor’s Guide

Iowa is one of my favorite Midwest states to explore because its variety of cities. Iowa does small towns right. But Iowa’s largest cities also offer a surprising amount of attractions and things to do. So let’s dive into the 10 largest cities in Iowa and see what’s special about each.

People walking on the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge connecting Council Bluffs, Iowa to Omaha, Nebraska
Photo courtesy Unleash CB

How big is Iowa?

Iowa is the 26th largest state in the United States, making it, well, average. It’s 56,272 square miles. And throughout the state, there are 3,193,079 people living in Iowa, according to estimates by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2021.

Using that same data source, I used population estimates to get the 10 largest — or most populated — cities. Attractions and restaurant rankings are according to TripAdvisor ratings and my opinions, and I’ll acknowledge that neither are definitive. For example, I excluded chain restaurants if they happen to be ranked in the Top 3 of TripAdvisor.

I’d love to hear your favorite things found in each of the cities below.

Des Moines

Population: 212,031

Top 3 Des Moines attractions

As Iowa’s most populous city and the state capitol, there’s plenty to see and do in Des Moines to fill an entire weekend. Here are three things to do first:

Feeding a giraffe at Blank Park Zoo in Des Moines
  • The Iowa Capitol Building is the best-rated attraction in Des Moines on TripAdvisor. And for good reason. Visit if only to see the dreamy law library (yes, I wrote dreamy – wait until you see the staircase). Guided tours are free, and a great way to see all the unique architecture and artwork that make this a must-see. 1007 E. Grand Ave., Des Moines
  • Blank Park Zoo is home to more than 800 animals, and one of the highlights are the opportunities to feed animals, like giraffes. The Des Moines zoo is the only AZA-accredited zoo in the state of Iowa. 7401 SW Ninth St., Des Moines
  • Des Moines has a thriving arts scene and one place that’s completely free for all to enjoy is Pappajohn Sculpture Park. Huge, impressive sculptures by renowned artists are found in this downtown park, making it one of the most photographed places in the city. 1330 Grand Ave., Des Moines

Note: For those wondering, no the theme park Adventureland isn’t on the list because, technically, it’s not in Des Moines. It’s in Altoona.

A sculpture at Pappajohn Sculpture Garden

Top 3 Des Moines restaurants

  • Is it Caribbean food or barbecue? Does it even matter? Flying Mango is a quirky restaurant with solid reviews across the board for its mix of Caribbean, Cajun and barbecue cuisine. 4345 Hickman Road, Des Moines
  • Centro is an elegant but comfortable contemporary Italian eatery. Its popularity is well-deserved. 1003 Locust St., Des Moines
  • The original location of Fong’s Pizza in downtown Des Moines was once a Chinese restaurant, and that ambiance remains making it part-tiki bar, part-pizza shop. Try the crab rangoon pizza. 223 Fourth St., Des Moines

Cedar Rapids

Population: 136,467

Top 3 Cedar Rapids attractions

Cedar Rapids has a vibrant art scene, rich culture, and plenty of outdoor activities to choose from. One of its most notable draws is the city’s embrace of its Czech heritage.

A mural in Czech Village in Cedar Rapids
Photo courtesy John Floyd via Flickr
  • National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library explore the history and impact of the area’s Czech immigrants. 1400 Inspiration Pl SW, Cedar Rapids
  • Brucemore is a 26-acre estate in the heart of the city that includes sprawling gardens and a Queen Anne-style mansion. 2160 Linden Drive SE, Cedar Rapids
  • Czech Village and New Bohemia are vibrant historic neighborhoods full of restaurants, small businesses, street art, festivals, and more. 

Top 3 Cedar Rapids restaurants

  • The Class Act Restaurant is located inside The Hotel at Kirkwood Center. It’s the teaching ground for Kirkwood’s culinary arts program, and the food typically highly creative with seasonal ingredients. 7725 Kirkwood Blvd. SW, Cedar Rapids
  • Bar and grill grub at its best, Emil’s Hideaway is a dimly lit restaurant that has its loyal fans who love their burgers, fries and pizza. 222 Glenbrook Drive SE, Cedar Rapids
  • Zeppelins is a high-end casual eatery with an extensive menu of modern American food. 5300 Edgewood Road NE, Cedar Rapids

Discover more great things to do in Cedar Rapids!

Davenport

Population: 101,009

Top 3 Davenport attractions

Davenport has plenty of cultural attractions and since it’s part of the Quad Cities, it’s near plenty more.

The Egyptian exhibit at the Putnam Museum & Science Center in Davenport
  • The massive Figge Art Museum has one of the largest collections of Mexican Colonial artwork outside of Mexico City and is one of the first U.S. museums to have a Haitian art collection. The museum also hosts traveling exhibits. 225 W. Second St., Davenport
  • A mix between science center and natural history museum, Putnam Museum is a gem for all ages to visit. 1717 W. 12th St., Davenport
  • The Davenport Skybridge is about a block away from the Figge Art Museum. It’s a cable-stayed walkway from a parking garage that leads to a neat lookout over the Mississippi River. The view during the day is nice enough, but at night, the Skybridge’s interior is lit up with colorful lights. 400 Beiderbecke Drive, Davenport
Inside the Davenport Skybridge

Top 3 Davenport restaurants

  • For a comforting lunch, head to Cafe d’Marie. Menu includes paninis, quiche, and several delectable dessert. 614 W. Fifth St., Davenport
  • While QC Coffee and Pancake House is technically not in Davenport, it’s within the Quad Cities boundary and is so so good. Get the cinnamon roll pancake at this popular spot. 1831 Third Ave., Rock Island
  • Duck City Bistro is a date night spot with cloth-covered, candle-lit tables. 115 E. Third St., Davenport

Discover more things to do in Davenport and the Quad Cities!

Sioux City

Population: 85,617

Top 3 Sioux City attractions

Sioux City manages to keep its connection with its history while developing into a fun weekend getaway spot with museums, a casino, and great hiking trails.

A car on display at the Sioux City Public Museum
  • To learn more about Sioux City’s and the surrounding area’s connection to the explores Lewis & Clark, visit Sioux City Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center. It has hands-on exhibits, making it a good place for history buffs and families to visit. 900 Larsen Park Road, Sioux City
  • Sioux City Public Museum explores the history of Sioux City, and as far as free museums go, this one is top-tier. Exhibits are colorful and interactive. 607 Fourth St., Sioux City
  • Home of the Twin Bing candy, Palmer’s Olde Tyme Candy Shoppe is an iconic part of the city since 1878. Satisfy your sweet tooth with a visit – it’s a mix of nostalgic goodies and modern treats. 405 Wesley Parkway, Sioux City
A flight of beer and cider at Marto Brewing Co.

Top 3 Sioux City restaurants

  • Located in the Hard Rock Casino & Hotel, Main + Abbey is a great spot to go to if you want to impress someone. They have a great beer list, poutine and locally-sourced steaks. 111 Third St., Sioux City
  • Marto Brewing Co. makes delicious beers and has a great menu to pair with them. Try a flight! 930 Fourth St., Sioux City
  • Try a tavern (AKA loose meat sandwich) at the iconic Miles Inn. It’s nothing fancy, but it’s all good. 2622 Leach Ave., Sioux City

Discover more things to do in Sioux City!

Iowa City

Population: 74,596

Top 3 attractions

As a college town, Iowa City is full of fun things to do and many great places to eat and drink. 

The Devonian Fossil Gorge in Iowa City
Photo courtesy Think Iowa City
  • Devonian Fossil Gorge is a great place to hike and experience the remains of an ocean floor from 375 million years ago. 2850 Prairie Du Chien Road NE, Iowa City
  • Catch an Iowa Hawkeye football game at Nile Kinnick Stadium, which is routinely filled on Saturdays each fall. 825 Stadium Drive, Iowa City
  • While the state capital was moved to Des Moines in 1857, the Old Capitol Museum chronicles the roughly 20-year period where Iowa City held the title. 21 Old Capitol, The University of Iowa, Iowa City
The exterior of the Old Capitol Museum in Iowa City
Photo courtesy Travel Iowa

Top 3 restaurants

  • Get your fill of barbecue at Jimmy Jack’s Rib Shack Iowa City. The restaurant has earned a number of awards and recognition over the years. 1940 Lower Muscatine Road, Iowa City
  • Pullman Bar & Diner is a chef-driven restaurant with locally-sourced ingredients and craft cocktails served in a hip, refurbished diner. 17 S. Dubuque St.
  • The pizza at Wig & Pen Pizza Pub is so good, it’s built more locations around the state. And if the name sounds familiar, yes, it is inspired by the London club of the same name (members were lawyers and journalists). 1220 US-6, Iowa City

Discover more fun things to see and do in Iowa City!

Ankeny

Population: 70,287

Considered a suburb to Des Moines, Ankeny is a town with top entertainment and reasons to visit.

A tiki drink at Fong's Pizza

Top 3 attractions

  • Stop by for a pint or flight at the Ankeny brewery, Firetrucker Brewery. There’s usually live music on Saturday nights. 716 SW Third St., Ankeny
  • Iowa Culinary Institute could technically fall under the restaurant category, but some of the theme dinners make this place a true night out experience. 2006 S. Ankeny Blvd., Building 7, Ankeny
  • View art made by local artists or take a class yourself at Ankeny Art Center1520 SW Ordnance Road, Ankeny

Top 3 restaurants

  • The family-owned Waterfront Seafood Market is, obviously, a seafood restaurant but also is next to a market where you can buy your own seafood to prepare at home. 2414 SE Tones Drive, Ankeny
  • What? Yes, of course I put Fong’s Pizza on here twice. It’s a great restaurant, and if you’re Ankeny, you just gotta go. The funky vibe isn’t as strong in Ankeny as it is at the original DSM location. 1450 SW Vintage Parkway, suite 120, Ankeny
  • It’s barbecue and then some at Jethro’s BBQ n’ LakeHouse. Perhaps you remember seeing The Jethro Sandwich on the Discover Channel Show “The United States of Bacon.” 1425 SW Vintage Parkway, Ankeny

West Des Moines

Population: 69,792

Shops in Historic Valley Junction
Photo courtesy Catch Des Moines

Top 3 attractions

  • Valley Junction is a historic area of West Des Moines filled with locally-owned shops, restaurants and bars. Special events are often held in the area, including a few popular seasonal events. Between Fourth and Seventh blocks of Railroad Avenue and Locust Street, West Des Moines
  • If you’re going to have a list of the largest places in Iowa, having the state’s largest mall on it seems like a given. Jordan Creek Town Center is huge, with more than 100 stores, more than two-dozen eateries, and a 20-screen movie theater. 101 Jordan Creek Parkway, West Des Moines
  • For the outdoorsy crowd, Raccoon River Park is a must-visit, with a lake for no-wake boating and a swimming beach, as well as a trail, playground, a dog park, and seasonally, an outdoor ice skating rink. 2500 Grand Ave., West Des Moines

Top 3 restaurants

  • Located in a strip mall, Mi Patria Ecuadorian Restaurant is a hidden culinary gem. This Ecuadorian restaurant has delectable Latin classics like empanadas, ceviche, plantains and more. 1410 22nd St., West Des Moines
  • For a hearty meal of comfort food, go to the farm-themed restaurant, The Machine Shed Restaurant. 1151 Hickman Road, Urbandale
  • The ‘90s hip hop inspired eatery, Eggs and Jam, has walls covered in graffiti-style murals alongside dozens of cleverly named dishes like the You Can Touch This and Yo Homes to Bel Air. 1907 EP True Parkway, suite 102, West Des Moines

Waterloo

Population: 66,941

Lost Island Water Park in Waterloo

Top 3 attractions

  • The first John Deere factory has been turned into a museum, John Deere Tractor & Engine Museum. See antique tractors and enjoy hands-on exhibits, plus free tours. 500 Westfield Ave., Waterloo
  • For thrill seekers, head to Lost Island Water Park & Theme Park. The water park has been a popular destination for years, while the theme park just opened in 2022. Both are seasonal attractions. 2225 E. Shaulis Road, Waterloo
  • Phelps Youth Pavilion is a children’s museum that’s pretty inexpensive to visit and includes a lot of educational play opportunities. 225 Commercial St., Waterloo
Two types of pizza at Basal Pizza in Waterloo

Top 3 restaurants

  • Be prepared for a wait at the old school diner Morg’s. It’s worth it, though, especially for the filling breakfast plates. 520 Mulberry St., Waterloo
  • Newton’s Paradise Cafe is a downtown eatery housed in the historic Newton’s Jewelry building. Expect fresh food in a hip atmosphere. 128 E. Fourth St., Waterloo
  • Basal Pizza was a surprising restaurant find for my family during our visit in the summer. It’s a quirky restaurant that dishes up Detroit-style and Neapolitan-style pizza. 225 W. Fourth St., Waterloo

Fun fact: Look up when you’re in Rudy’s Tacos. There are dozens of (fairly creepy) puppets hanging from the ceiling. 2401 Falls Ave., Waterloo

Discover more fun things to do in Waterloo!

Ames

Population: 66,424

Top 3 attractions

Reiman Gardens in Ames
Photo courtesy Travel Iowa
  • Reiman Gardens is public garden on the campus of the University of Iowa that holds regular events, programs, lectures, and tours. The conservatory has seasonal displays. 1407 University Blvd., Ames
  • Alluvial Brewing Co. is a microbrewery with an extensive beer list, including rotating seasonal brews like Irish S’mores Stout and Raspberry Cat Paw Seltzer. 3715 W. 190th St., Ames
  • Founded in 1975, Brunnier Art Museum is Iowa’s only accredited museum emphasizing a decorative arts collection. The collection includes prints, paintings, sculptures, textiles, carpets, wood, lacquered objects, silver, and furniture. Scheman Building 295 on the University of Iowa campus, 1800 Center Drive, Ames
Sliders at The Cafe in Ames
Photo courtesy The Cafe

Top 3 restaurants

  • The Café is a farm-to-table restaurant emphasizing seasonal ingredients grown locally. 2616 Northridge Parkway, Ames
  • Known for its hickory-smoked meats and generous portions, Hickory Park Restaurant almost always has a wait. 1404 S. Duff Ave., Ames
  • With a wide variety of salads and sandwiches as well as more upscale bistro fare, Aunt Maude’s makes comfort food modern. 547 Main St., Ames

Discover more great things to do in Ames!

Council Bluffs

Population: 62,415

Top 3 attractions

Kids on a tour of Squirrel Cage Jail in Council Bluffs
  • Union Pacific Railroad Museum is free to visit, and features exhibits of railroad artifacts, as well as some hands-on experiences in a gorgeous historic building. 200 Pearl St., Council Bluffs
  • Pottawattamie County Squirrel Cage Jail and Museum is one of the few remaining three-story lazy susan jails in the U.S. They offer daytime tours, as well as occasional overnight stays. Since the jail is rumored to be haunted, the overnights are popular. 226 Pearl St., Council Bluffs
  • Tom Hanafan River’s Edge Park is the place for great outdoor concerts and events, and is also home to the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge. The bridge spans the Missouri River, connecting Iowa to Nebraska. The photo opp of all photo opps is straddling the state line. 4200 Ave. B, Council Bluffs

Top 3 restaurants

  • Pizza King is an old-school Italian steakhouse with an emphasis on pizza. They’ve been serving families since 1965 and regularly win the Reader’s Choice awards for best steaks, pizza and service. 1101 N. Broadway, Council Bluffs
  • If you want a meal with a view, 360 Steakhouse is the place in Council Bluffs. Consider this a date night destination, with fine dining options far beyond steaks. 12th floor of Harrah’s Council Bluffs, 1 Harrah’s Blvd., Council Bluffs
  • Boxer BBQ serves up traditional barbecue meats that are fall-off-the-bone tender. For something a little different, try the BBQ Nachos. 513 S. Main St., Council Bluffs

Discover more fun things to do in Council Bluffs – many of them are free!

A visitor's guide to 10 largest cities in Iowa, with tips on the top attractions and best restaurants in each city. Cities include Des Moines, Cedar Rapids, Davenport, Ames, Waterloo, Iowa City, West Des Moines, Ankeny, and Council Bluffs.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.