I may be biased being a University of Iowa Alum, but there are few places you can go for a family day trip from Des Moines and see and do so much more than Iowa City.
How to Get There
Getting to Iowa City is a breeze. Just hop on I-80E and within an hour and a half you will be there. Newton or Williamsburg are good places to stop for snacks and gas. There are a few rest stops along the way as well. When you get into town head toward the U of I campus. You will easily be able to spend a day on campus exploring, shopping, and dining before the easy drive back home.
Things to Do
The University of Iowa has a beautiful campus that is fun to explore. In addition there are three museums affiliated with the University. Two of these are located in the Pentacrest area of Iowa City along Clinton Street. The Old Capitol Museum shares the history of what was once the capital city of Iowa. You will learn about the Capitol’s building, historic events that took place there as well as information about the fire of 2001 that destroyed the beautiful gold dome and all that it took to rebuild.
Just a few buildings over is the University of Iowa Natural History Museum. It’s located in the historic McBride Hall, which is still in use for classes today. The University of Iowa Natural History Museum opened in 1858 and is the oldest museum West of the Mississippi. With exhibits on a variety of topics from the Ice Age to Archeology there is so much to learn. The best part is both of these museums are free!
My favorite museum in Iowa City is the Stanley Museum of Art. The Stanley Museum is a bit off the beaten path, but trust me, it is worth it. If you haven’t been to the museum since the flood of 2008 you will be in for a brand new state-of-the-art site. In fact, the museum just reopened in 2022. Even though they are still working on getting the entire collection back (many works had been relocated to other museums during the rebuild) there is still much to see. One of the most famous paintings housed in the museum is simply titled “Mural” by the renowned Jackson Pollock. It is a sight to behold. One of the best parts about the Stanley Museum is that admission is free!
Maybe your family is not the museum type, fear not, there is plenty to see along campus including the Ped(estrian) Mall. Local shops and restaurants surround campus, from boutique clothes to locally brewed coffee there is something for everyone. For your littles, the Ped Mall has a great playground located right next to the Iowa City Public Library. Once mid-spring hits, the splash fountains are great for kids. In the evenings during spring and summer, there are often free concerts as well. There are also rotating public art exhibits to enjoy. Right now you can see two giant illuminated bunnies!
As you are walking downtown, stop to look down. Scattered throughout downtown Iowa City is the Lit Walk. Installed between 2000-2001 this walk highlights over 40 well-known writers with ties to the University of Iowa, many of whom attended the Iowa Writers Workshop.
There are also family-friendly things to do just down the road from Iowa City in Coralville. Head to Coral Ridge Mall for some shopping and family fun. The stores at Coral Ridge are basically the same that you will see at Jordan Creek, what sets the mall apart are the other activities. The Iowa Children’s Museum is a fun destination for the younger kids in your life. Admission is $10/person with those 1 and younger free. While your littles are enjoying that, older kids can ice skate on the indoor rink that is open year-round. For around $10 for open skate this is an affordable option. There is also a movie theater if you need a little downtime. Once all the family fun is done, everyone can hop on the beautiful carousel and go for a spin.
Where to Eat
There are plenty of food options in downtown Iowa City. From fancy to informal, you will be covered. You will see everything from burgers and fries to falafel and sushi. In fact, most of the places that turn into adult-only bars at night serve food during the day.
A few of my favorites:
- The Airliner is the place to go for pizza, burgers, and beers. Enjoy your meal with a view of the Pentacrest.
- Speaking of pizza, Pagliai’s is an Iowa City favorite with its delicious thin crust.
- In town for breakfast or just love a good diner? Hamburg Inn No. 2 on North Linn Street is always a hit. With classic diner vibes and tables dedicated to the Presidents and other notable figures who dined there it is a true experience.
- Want a more laid-back option? Try the Bread Garden for soup, sandwiches, and salads.
- Quinton’s Bar and Deli is also a classic Iowa City option with a decent kid’s menu items.