The youthful, artsy vibe here is courtesy of the University of Iowa 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.
Dubuque makes a great entry to Iowa from Illinois: 19th-century Victorian homes line its narrow and lively streets between the Mississippi River and seven steep limestone hills. The 4th Street Elevator, built in 1882, climbs a steep hill for huge views. Ring the bell to begin the ride.
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.
Waterloo & Around
Home to five John Deere tractor factories, Waterloo is the place to get one of those prized green-and-yellow caps you've seen across middle America. Fun tractor-driven Tractor Assembly Tours show how these vehicles are made. The minimum age is 13 years and reservations are required.