Even most folks in the USA rarely give much thought to this quintessential farm state in what’s sometimes dismissively termed “flyover country” (between the more “interesting” East and West Coast) of the Midwest. Yet every four years in late January and early February (and this year, culminating today), this becomes a hotbed of presidential politics as Iowans gather to make their choice for each political party’s presidential candidates, and this first contest of the election year is heavily scrutinised and its tea leaves read exhaustively for signs of potential winners in November. Then after tonight, Iowa will likely go back to its relatively sleepy status until February 2024.
Furthermore, this state is relatively sparsely populated (just 3. 2 million) and doesn’t have any dramatic scenery or huge major landmarks – natural or manmade – to draw heavy tourism. But it does offer a hearty slice of this country’s bucolic heartland and the kind of “Americana” captured by painter Grant Wood, whose American Gothic farm couple became an icon of the 20th century, the same vibe celebrated by movies like Field of Dreams and Bridges of Madison County (and going back to the early 1960s, The Music Man). That includes charming small towns and cities (some of which have grown more sophisticated than you might expect), lovely nature reserves, and even a few attractions you won’t find anywhere else in the world. Welcome, then, to the “Hawkeye State“; here are some of its highlights:
The capital is as good a place to start as any, and this attractive city of around 217,000 (its name pronounced “Day-moyn“, by the way) at the conference of the Raccoon and the Des Moines Rivers is clean, very pleasant, and known for its insurance companies. But for visitors it also boasts some 19th- and early-20th-century historic landmarks as well as a dynamic cultural scene (and getting more so each year). Highlights include the residence of the state governor and her husband, Terrace Hill, an opulent Second Empire pile built for a millionaire in the 1860s and open for tours – as is the gold-domed State Capitol, inaugurated in 1886. You’ll also see some Classical Revival and other historic architecture from that period in and around 139-year-old Drake University.
If you’re interested in learning a bit about the state’s history back to its pre-settlement days, the Iowa Historical Society runs a pretty slick and comprehensive museum. Speaking of museums, the Des Moines Art Center displays art going back to the 19th century but is especially strong on 20th-century and contemporary works, with marquis names including Francis Bacon, Edward Hopper, Jasper Johns, Georgia O’Keeffe, Spain‘s own Jaume Plensa, and of course Iowa’s most famous artist, Grant Wood. And the dining and nightlife (more than 50 bars downtown, for example) are pretty good these days, thanks in part to the few thousand young Bulldogs (Drake U. students).
And more slices of Americana, check out the warm-weather, Saturday-morning Downtown Farmers Market in the historic Courthouse District (top), or one of the biggest annual events in town, summertime’s Iowa State Fair (this year 13-23 August), a cavalcade of rides; beauty queens; livestock and produce competitions; and music from country to rock; and famous food on a stick, from plain old “corn dogs” to the baroque likes of deep-fried pecan pie topped with caramel and bacon bits.
Just under two hours northeast of Des Moines, Iowa’s second largest city (pop. over 131,000) is another nice and highly underrated spot with some surprising achitectural gems such as the 1886 Brucemore estate and the Paramount Theatre, once a 1920s/30s vaudeville/movie palace and now a venue for all manner of performances from symphonic to Broadway to dramatic.
There are a couple of interesting museums here, as well, such as the 115-year-old Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, possibly the best in the state for seeing the works of Iowa’s best fine artists (with a large collection, for example, of Grant Wood) and also hosts great temporary exhibitions such as a current one (through 22 April) of French masters such as Monet, Pisarro, and Renoir. And one that’s unique in the country is the National Czech & Slovak Museum, a Smithsonian Institution affiliate founded in 1974 which explores the heritage of these immigrants (many of whom established a presence not just here – with neighbourhoods like New Bohemia and Czech Village, both now home to fun nightlife – but especially in neighbouring Nebraska, in Texas, and the borough of Queens in New York City) as well as the culture of their homelands. You might also be surprised, in a state that’s though of as famously “white”, to find the quite interesting African American Museum of Iowa, and if you’re a Dan Brown fan, you might want to check out the Iowa Masonic Library & Museum, home to the USA’s largest trove of Masonic writings and artifacts (and the world’s first, founded in 1884).
Nature lovers, meanwhile, will appreciate the Indian Creek Nature Center, comprising more than 96 hectares (238 acres) of forests, prairies, savannahs and wetlands accessed via more than six kilometres (four miles) of trails.
A bit over 3½ hours northeast of Des Moines and just over an hour from Cedar Rapids, on the shores of the Mississippi River at the point where Iowa dovetails with Wisconsin and Illinois, this even smaller, more laid back city of around 58,000 is the state’s oldest, founded in 1833 after local settlement was pioneered by Julien Dubuque, a French-Canadian who got permission to mine lead from the local Meskwaki tribe. You can learn about his story and the rest of local history, culture, geology, and nature at the (also Smithsonian-affiliated) National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium, and check out more Grant Wood and other Iowa and U.S. fine artists at the Dubuque Museum of Art, at 146 years Iowa’s most venerable cultural institution. More uniquely, you’ll find the log cabin of one of the 1833 settlers on the grounds of the Mathias Ham Historic Site, an Italianate villa built in 1856 by a wealthy family. A couple of unique landmarks include the Shot Tower, standing nearly 37 metres (120 feet) near the Missisippi; one of very few left in existence, it was built in 1856 to manufacture round gunshot, formed by dropping molten lead from the top of the tower. And just above the historic business district, you can also hop on the Fenelon Place Elevator (the world’s shortest and steepest funicular railway, built by a former mayor in 1882) for a great view over the city.
On the nature side of things, the 580ha (1,432-ac) Mines of Spain Recreation Area is named for Julien Dubuque’s original mining tract, leased on land owned by the Crown of Spain (to which at the time the vast area known as the Louisiana Purchase had passed from France). In addition to 24km (15 mi.) of trails through forests including burr oak trees more than 250 years old, it’s also home to Julien’s original mining/smelting operation, his gravesite, and a bird/butterfly garden. Nature lovers will also appreciate the Arboretum Botanical Gardens and the dazzling crystalline mineral deposits of Crystal Lake Cave.
Anyone remember this nostalgic 1989 classic starring Kevin Costner, James Earl Jones, and Burt Lancaster? The place where it was filmed is a family farm in the Dubuque suburb of Dyersville (pop. just over 4,200), just over an hour from Cedar Rapids, and the farmhouse and baseball diamond carved out of a cornfield are open to the public for visits and tours. And a new “baeeball lifestyle” shop called Baseballism is due to open on the property this spring. “If you build it, they will come”, indeed.
Just a half hour south of Des Moines, the eponymous county and its bridges, celebrated in the novel and subsequent hit film starring Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood, offer a delightful postcard of the rural Midwest. Starting in the town of St. Charles, you can hit the half dozen covered red wooden bridges – built from 1870 to 1884 – on your own or take a guided tour offered by the county chamber of commerce (there’s even an autumn Covered Bridge Festival, this year 20-23 October).
More info: TravelIowa.com.