12 Best Things to Do in Iowa City

Downtown Iowa City, Iowa.
harmantasdc / Getty Images

Home to the internationally acclaimed Iowa Writers Workshop, one of the largest universities in the country, and its very own UNESCO designation as a City of Literature, Iowa City has long served as a hub for creative minds from around the globe. Couple those details with world-class culture, dozens of eating and drinking options, and some of the nation’s highest-ranking hospitals, and it’s no wonder the town draws more than a million visitors each year.

01 of 12

Eat Sunday Brunch at Deluxe

Deluxe Cake and Pastries

Courtesy of Deluxe 

812 S Summit St, Iowa City, IA 52240-3336, USA
Phone +1 319-338-5000

This Longfellow cafe has gained a loyal following over the past 16 years for its quaint environs, on-point service, and mastery of all things baked—from croissants and cakes to baguettes and brioche. Expect over-the-top hunger fixes any day of the week here, but for a particularly indulgent quest, it’s all about Sunday brunch. Spring for brioche waffles with Nutella and maple syrup, Pullman toast with avocado, bacon, and tomato, or house-made bagels topped with cream cheese and lox.

02 of 12

Explore the Ped Mall

Iowa City ped mall

Alan Light / Flickr / Creative Commons

210 S Dubuque St, Iowa City, IA 52240, USA
Phone +1 319-354-0863

Iowa City’s pedestrian mall is brimming with popular stores, restaurants, and cafes. Start things off with a latte at The Java House, then shop for locally made artisan goods at The Maker’s Loft. When happy hour rolls around later in the day, swing into One Twenty Six for a wine flight and light bites before heading to dinner at Basta, a restaurant serving modern Italian fare (think lobster pizza or butternut squash ravioli). End the evening in peace and quiet with a relaxing stay at Hyatt Place, a recently opened property that’s a few blocks from the heart of downtown—but close enough to do it all again the next day.

03 of 12

Write Up a Storm at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival

Adult learners looking for a taste of what’s offered at the University’s celebrated Writers’ Workshop can find it at this festival, an annual literary extravaganza that started in 1987. Each June and July, writers from around the globe gather in Iowa City for more than 130 weeklong and weekend workshops across multiple genres, including fiction, poetry, nonfiction, and playwriting. Given the school’s reputation for all things literary, expect an A-lister lineup of instructors, from Hope Edelman and Robyn Schiff to Beau O’Reilly and Elizabeth McCracken.

04 of 12

Visit Walker Homestead on Sundays

Walker Homestead

Travel Iowa

3867 James Ave SW, Iowa City, IA 52246, USA
Phone +1 319-351-4791

This 85-acre destination functions as a farm and vineyard, featuring organically growing vegetables, flower and herb gardens to walk, and a pasture of goats, chickens, and turkeys to visit. While their specialty remains in private farm-to-table experiences, the team opens its doors to the public on Sundays, when guests can sample through an array of small plates from chef Chris Grebner, paired up with any of the property’s wines. Come with a group—the venue also offers plenty of en plein air comforts, from bocce ball courts to fire pits.

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05 of 12

Visit Lake Macbride State Park

Lake MacBride State Park Waterfall
AriasPhotos / Getty Images
3525 Hwy 382 NE, Solon, IA 52333, USA
Phone +1 319-624-2200

For a peaceful break away from the hustle and bustle of downtown Iowa City, drive 20 minutes north to this idyllic State Park, which is named after botany professor and former University of Iowa president Thomas Macbride. Pack a picnic for a leisurely lunch, or get on the water with any number of activities, including canoeing, kayaking, and paddleboarding.

06 of 12

Attend a Reading at Prairie Lights

15 S Dubuque St, Iowa City, IA 52240, USA
Phone +1 319-337-2681

This bookshop has a storied history, dating back to 1978 when it opened on South Linn Street—and 1982 when it moved to South Dubuque Street, in the same three-story space that hosted literary gatherings throughout the 1930s (including writers like Carl Sandburg, Robert Frost, and Langston Hughes). Today that community is as vibrant as ever, thanks to regularly scheduled readings that shine a light on emerging voices from the school’s Writers’ Workshop —along with plenty of established authors, from Stephen King and Annie Proulx to Michael Ondaatje and Jane Smiley.

07 of 12

Check Out Mission Creek Festival

Mission Creek Festival

Courtesy of Mission Creek Festival 

This annual fest features diverse programming in the arts and culture realm, including music performances, readings, and community happenings—while also serving as the Midwest’s premier indie book fair. Expect several notable talents throughout the week-long gathering—last year's lineup included the likes of R.O. Kwon, Jenny Lewis, Mesha Maren, and Maxwell Neely-Cohen.

08 of 12

Go Apple Picking at Wilson’s—Then Sample the Cider at Rapid Creek Cidery

Wilsons Orchard

 Courtesy of Wilson's Orchard

4823 Dingleberry Rd NE #1, Iowa City, IA 52240, USA
Phone +1 319-354-5651

Opened in 1985, this farm features 40 acres of apples and pumpkins—i.e., you-pick bliss. Take some time in gathering your fill, and be sure to work up an appetite in the process—onsite restaurant Rapid Creek Cidery awaits afterward with a handful of seasonal small plates. Start with flavor-forward options like Turkish lamb meatballs or dim sum shrimp toast, and try them alongside any of the venue’s house-made ciders—especially favorites like the Goldfinch Dry or Cherry Crush. Post-meal, swing by the farm market, a must for homemade souvenirs like pies, turnovers, and cider doughnuts.

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09 of 12

Sample Pizzas at Geyer’s Oven

1259 Rohret Rd SW, Oxford, IA 52322-9157, USA
Phone +1 319-325-6609

What started as an outdoor masonry oven project on the farm of Dave and Anna Geyer has become one of Iowa City’s favorite destinations for pizzas. Visit on the second and last Thursday of the month, when the Geyers bake off pies throughout the evening to a group of pizza enthusiasts eager to dine al fresco. Those looking to try out their own agrarian skills can check out the farm’s Land Alliance Folk School, where a variety of workshops, classes, and retreats specialize in land cultivation topics.

10 of 12

Experience a Show at Hancher Auditorium

Hancher Auditorium

 Courtesy of Hancher Auditorium

141 Park Rd, Iowa City, IA 52242-1132, USA
Phone +1 319-335-1160

This venue has been heralded as an institution for the performing arts community since it originally opened doors in 1972, bringing to the stage world-famous talents like the Joffrey Ballet, Yo-Yo Ma, and the Philadelphia Orchestra. Visit this season for a full line-up of dance, theater, and musical programming, including performances by Audra McDonald, Chick Corea, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, and The Actors’ Gang. Check it out in Aug. 2020, too, when they’ll be hosting The Big Splash!, a free, outdoor fest celebrating the Iowa River.

11 of 12

Attend a Basketball Game

Indiana v Iowa
Matthew Holst / Getty Images

Join Iowa fans in rooting for the men’s basketball team at the Carver-Hawkeye Arena, which kicks off its annual season each November. If the game action itself isn’t grabbing your attention, the surroundings surely will—the arena, which underwent a recent multi-million-dollar overhaul, is ranked as one of the 25 largest university-owned facilities in the nation. While here, don’t miss a stop to the concession stand—the raspberry soft serve is praised as being some of the best in the city.

12 of 12

Catch a Show at the Englert Theatre

Englert Theater

 Courtesy of the Englert

221 E Washington St, Iowa City, IA 52240-3952, USA
Phone +1 319-688-2653

William and Etta Englert built this theatre in 1912 as a way of bringing attention to the local performing arts scene. Since then, the venue’s core mission—to inspire community growth through the arts—has remained unchanged, carried out by a wide array of programming, from local fundraisers to big-name concerts (e.g., John Hiatt, Wilco, Mandolin Orange). 

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12 Best Things to Do in Iowa City