The youthful, artsy vibe here is courtesy of the University of Iowa (www.uiowa.edu) campus, home to good art and natural history museums. It spills across both sides of the Iowa River (which has good walks on the banks); to the east it mingles with the charming downtown. In summer (when the student-to-townie ratio evens out) the city mellows somewhat.
These seven villages, just northwest of Iowa City, are stretched along a 17-mile loop. All were established as German religious communes between 1855 and 1861 by inspirationists who, until the Great Depression, lived a utopian life with no wages paid and all assets communally owned.
This scenic county, about 30 miles southwest of Des Moines, slumbered for half a century until Robert James Waller's blockbuster, tear-jerking novel The Bridges of Madison County and its 1995 Clint Eastwood/Meryl Streep movie version brought in scores of fans to check out the covered bridges where Robert and Francesca fueled their affair.
Along US 30
Like a clichéd needlepoint come to life, US 30 passes through fertile fields dotted with whitewashed farmhouses and red-hued barns. It parallels I-80 an average of 20 to 30 miles to the north before dropping down to Nebraska near Omaha. The real attraction here is just enjoying the succession of small towns.
Iowa Great River Road
Iowa's Great River Road mostly hugs the Mississippi along the state's eastern edge. It combines numerous roads and passes through some beautifully isolated riverfront towns such as Guttenberg. Along an especially scenic stretch of US 56, Bellevue is a gem and lives up to its name with good river views and some verdant, rural scenery.