17 Things to Do in Iowa City

iowa welcome center sign

Iowa City is a funny little place: a small city with a major-league cultural side — there’s more than enough to keep you busy while you’re in town, whether it’s for a weekend or a semester. (It’ll help if you like to read.)

Category 1: Activities!

1. Catch an Author Rreading

Iowa City is home to the world-famous Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and as such, it outperforms other mid-sized Midwestern cities (and, to be fair, basically all mid-sized cities, in the world) to an exponential degree in terms of the local literary scene. Big-name writers come through town all the time — whether to teach at the workshop or just to give a reading at the local bookseller, Prairie Lights. Some authors read both at the workshop itself, on campus, and at Prairie Lights — the easiest way to stay up to date on both is their respective Instagram accounts [Prairie Lights Insta // IWW Insta].

2. Go See a Women’s Basketball Game

This will be much, much more exciting the longer No. 22, Caitlin Clark, is in town (at least through the end of the 2023-24 season). Tickets will most likely be sold out, so check your favorite reseller for options. [Iowa Womens’ Basketball Insta]

3. Tailgate a Hawkeyes’ Game.

Saturday afternoons in Iowa City are made for a single thing: watching the beloved Hawkeyes football team. (You’ll know they’re playing because the local Hy-Vee will be silent and downtown will empty out.) Fans set up all around Kinnick Stadium — if you don’t have local friends, just start making your way over there and see who you might meet as you go. You’ll probably also be purchasing from a reseller for Hawkeyes’ home games. [Hawkeyes Football homepage]

4. Read a Book Outside in College Green

Pick up some fruit and a drink at New Pioneer on the way. [New Pioneer Co-op]

5. See the Art at the Stanley

This brand-new art museum, designed by BNIM Iowa, is a credit to Iowa City, as well as the permanent home of a glorious Jackson Pollack, the 1943 “Mural” — its return to the museum, after a nine-year tour of the rest of the world, was sufficiently newsworthy that it was covered by The Wall Street Journal. [Stanley Museum of Art]

6. Catch a Movie at Film Scene

FilmScene is an excellent repertory cinema — as good as any in Paris, and I’ll die on that hill if necessary. Also, the popcorn is excellent (and definitely better than any in Paris). Look for special retrospectives, Q+As or post-film discussions, and visits from filmmakers. Note that there are two locations, one below The Chauncey hotel and the other on the ped mall, about a five minutes’ walk apart. [FilmScene]


7. See a Show at the Englert

Iowa City’s buzziest theater gets most of the bigger names if they come through IC on their tour of the Midwest — and quite good ones too, like Ani Difranco, Rufus Wainwright, Steve Earle, and many others. The biggest book readings often up here, and you’ll find plenty of comics as well.

Category 2: Shopping

8. Iowa-themed Merch at Raygun

Raygun was birthed in a pole barn in Dallas County, Iowa, and now has shops from Chicago to Kansas City to Omaha — as well as this central spot in Iowa City. The local knowledge is evident in most of their products, ranging from tributes to Iowa heroes like Caitlin Clark to in-joke T-shirts about Midwestern weather.

9. The Best Possible Furniture at Ulysses Modern

This cramped shop on South Gilbert Street, near Big Grove, has a super well-curated mix of furniture and clothing, with some real heavyweight design picks — you’ll see a lot of teak/Danish modern; it’s the local go-to for mid-century modern. There’s a huge, and considerably cheaper, vintage clothing collection as well, with lots of locally themed vintage tees.

10. Second-hand Couches, Accessories and More at Crowded Closet

As you’d expect in a college town, Iowa City has tons of huge secondhand shops — Crowded Closet, run by the Mennonites, is generally considered the best of them. It’s certainly the cleanest and best organized, though in my experience it has less large furnishings than some of the others — if you’re looking for a couch, for example, I’d head to the Stuff Etc. in Coralville, which has an interior subterranean floor full of furniture.

11. Some Expensive But Legitimately Good Clothes at Catherine’s

This is a great clothing boutique with the most expensive brands for a 200-mile radius, or exactly however far it is to Chicago. Look for Veja, Alex Mill, Le Jean, and lots of $300 cashmere sweaters.

12. Don’t Forget About the Local Merch!

Don’t leave Iowa City without some local merch. My faves are the T-shirts at George’s (see below) and Film Scene. If you’re looking for Hawkeyes stuff, try the Iowa Book store, on the corner of Clinton and Iowa. Beer lovers may very well be happy with something from Big Grove.

13. Up-and-coming Ceramics Artists at Akar

Akar is very good as a local design shop and exceptional as a ceramics gallery and boutique. Keep an eye on their Instagram for a look at the artists they’re showing. [Akar Insta]

Category 3: The Natural World

central park in johnson county

14. Take a Hike Around Central Park Lake

This was, weirdly, one of my first natural excursions in Iowa — there’s a 25-acre lake, a smaller pond, and five miles of trails through the surrounding countryside. The late-summer wildflowers were very pretty. [County Map]

effigy mounds

15. Go Learn About Effigy Mounds National Monument

One of Iowa’s two National Park sites, this monument is home to more than 200 Indian effigy mounds, of startling distinctiveness, on the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi. About 2.5 hours from Iowa City. [National Park site]

16. Spend the Afternoon at City Pool

OK, so it’s not much more than your average suburban pool, but I’m pretty sure that everyone goes here, and that one of those quiet kids sitting idly on their towel will make a semi-autobiographical film/book/play about all the drama invisible to the adults. [City site]

17. Pick Apples at Wilson’s Orchard

It’s a rite of passage during the fall. [Wilson’s]


18. Watch for Bald Eagles and Pelicans in the Sspring

I wouldn’t have guessed this before I got there, but Iowa City is a wonderland for amateur birders — you know, people who are still easily awed by the majesty of nature, as emblemized by the bald eagles (who soar over the Iowa River) and pelicans (who flap unsteadily over it, and often swim on it). As a product of the Mid-Atlantic states, I’d never seen pelicans in the wild before — they only visit here briefly, on a pitstop between the Gulf Coast and their summer residences in Minnesota and Canada. I love everything about this paragraph from a story on them, from Little Village:

American white pelicans are about 4 feet tall with a wingspan of about 9 feet. Since they’re one of the heaviest flying birds, they rely on their large wingspan to glide long distances. Their feathers are white, except for the black feathers on the edge of their wings. While they’re good swimmers and flyers, they can have clumsy landings.

As for the eagles: You’ll catch them flying above town. You’ll know them when you see them, and you’ll be glad you did.

lake macbride

19. Dodge Bacteria at Lake Macbride

What would a Midwestern town be without a muddy-bottom lake with occasionally worrying levels of farm fertilizer?

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Hi, I'm Diana. I've written about travel for The Wall Street Journal, Buzzfeed, The Cut, Travel + Leisure, Outside, and lots of other places. This is my blog.