Fun Things to Do in Iowa with Kids

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Things to do in Iowa with kids include the 750 feet long, panoramic view in Boone, 156 feet high atop the Bass Point Creek High Trestle during the Rail Explorers Experience (family on rail bike on trestle bridge over green hills).
Who knew that this show-stopping, 750 feet long, panoramic view was in Boone, Iowa, 156 feet high atop the Bass Point Creek High Trestle during the Rail Explorers Experience? Photo credit: Travel Iowa

From beautiful scenery to its rich history and culture, there are plenty of fun things to do in Iowa with kids. The family-friendly Hawkeye State offers state parks, outdoor activities, rolling hills and cornfields, small towns, the famous Iowa State Fair, the Field of Dreams movie set and so much more!

I called Iowa my home through my early 20s until I relocated to Colorado. My parents and their parents and dozens of cousins were also born and lived in this state – and many still do!

Our family lived on the outskirts of the small-town Missouri Valley – aptly named as it was near the Missouri River. Our home was on the same block where my parents grew up – literally, both sets of grandparents lived across the street. Then my dad accepted another job in eastern Iowa near the Mississippi, and we moved to a small “farm” near Burlington.

As a family, we road-tripped often across the state, but we didn’t really dig into its beauty, nor stop at its tourist attractions. My dad was one of those hurry-up-and-get-there travelers, while I didn’t appreciate how beautiful my home state was when l lived there. As an adult, I’ve visited to discover and rediscover Iowa tourist attractions.

And now I can admit – I miss those rolling hills, wide open spaces dotted with cattle, pigs, cornfields, and the fresh Midwestern air.

SheBuysTravel Tip: Iowa’s visitors centers are amazing! Stop at them, get brochures, ask questions, and sometimes you’ll even score discounts on tourist attractions for the whole family!

Things to do in Iowa with kids include the Dream Playground at Lake Manawa State Park near Council Bluffs (overhead view of playground).
Lake Manawa State Park near Council Bluffs is home to the Dream Playground, the largest accessible playground in Iowa. Photo credit: Iowa Department of Natural Resources

Things to Do with Kids in Council Bluffs, Iowa

Located on the east bank of the Missouri River in Southwest Iowa, Council Bluffs is across the river from Omaha, Nebraska. It is the 10th largest Iowa city by population and the largest southwest Iowa city. As part of the Omaha metropolitan region, the Bluffs (as we called it) is the 58th largest in the United States and the perfect start to your family vacation. With its variety of attractions and activities, Council Bluffs is a great place to start your Iowa road trip.

Here are some of the things you can do in Council Bluffs, Iowa with kids:

  • Visit the Union Pacific Railroad Museum, located in the former Union Pacific Railroad Depot, featuring exhibits on the history of the railroad. Kids will love learning about the history of the railroad and seeing the trains up close.
  • Explore the Pottawattamie County Historical Society Museum, dedicated to the history of Pottawattamie County. It features exhibits on the area’s Native American heritage, as well as its settlement and development. Kids will love learning about the history of the area and seeing the artifacts from the past.
  • Play at the Tom Hanafan River’s Edge Park, featuring a variety of playground equipment, as well as a splash pad and a carousel. Add this visit after a museum visit to allow kids to play and get some exercise.
  • Visit the Lewis and Clark Landing, located on the Missouri River and features exhibits on the Lewis and Clark Expedition.
  • Get outdoors. Located 2.5 miles south of Interstate 80 (Exit 3) at Council Bluffs, Lake Manawa State Park is the perfect destination for camping, boating, hiking, biking, picnic, swimming, or just relax at Lake Manawa State Park, an outdoor recreation center with more than 1,500 acres surrounding the 753-acre natural lake. Kids can play at the 18,000 square feet Dream Playground, the largest accessible playground in Iowa.
  • Feeling adventurous? Rent a paddle board, canoe or kayak at Lake Manawa and paddle your way to the Missouri River.

READ MORE: Things to Do in Council Bluffs With Kids 

Things to do in Iowa with kids include the Hitchcock Nature Center, located in Honey Creek (view of people in large room looking at nature exhibits).
The Hitchcock Nature Center, located in Honey Creek, is a short drive from Council Bluffs, showcasing Iowa’s natural habitat. Photo credit: Travel Iowa

Day Trips from Council Bluffs

  • Just 20 minutes north of Council Bluffs is the Hitchcock Nature Center (10 minutes south of my hometown). Located on the Loess Hill Scenic Byway, this nearly 1,500 acre center offers visitors an opportunity to learn more about Iowa with its interpretive exhibits, programs, trails, boardwalk and observation tower.
  • For those road warriors, continue an hour north to Sioux City to play at the LaunchPAD Children’s Museum. This indoor educational center features hands-on play areas including a farm, supermarket and fishing pond.
Things to do in Iowa with kids include exploring the murals in downtown Des Moines (view of family walking past 'Cheers from Des Moines' mural).
Downtown Des Moines offers family fun, including this colorful mural. Photo credit: Travel Iowa

Things to Do in Des Moines, Iowa

Located in the heart of the Corn Belt of Iowa, Des Moines is the capital city. Downtown Des Moines features the impressive historic, gold-domed Iowa State Capitol building in the East Village area. As one of the state’s most populous urban areas, the metropolitan area consists of West Des Moines, Altoona, Ankeny, Urbandale and Pleasant Hill.

Because of its variety of family-friendly activities and attractions, Des Moines is one of the best places to visit with kids. Here are a few ideas:

  • Who doesn’t love a zoo? Visit the Blank Park Zoo featuring over 2,100 animals from around the world.
YouTube video
  • Explore the Science Center of Iowa. It features interactive exhibits on a variety of science topics encouraging kids to explore the exhibits and learn about science in a fun and engaging way.
  • Play at the John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park with a variety of sculptures by world-renowned artists.
  • Visit the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden with outdoor plant displays, a geodesic dome, and educational programs.
  • See a variety of family-friendly shows throughout the year at the Des Moines Performing Arts Center.
  • Go to a sporting event. Des Moines is home to several professional sports teams, including the Iowa Cubs (Minor League Baseball), the Iowa Wild (Minor League Hockey), and the Iowa Energy (NBA G League).
  • Among the best Des Moines museums are the State Historical Museum of Iowa and the Des Moines Art Center.
  • Go to the park. Des Moines has many parks, including Gray’s Lake Park, Water Works Park, and East High Park.
  • Des Moines has many unique and family-friendly restaurants, including Zombie Burger & Drink Lab, Django, Smash Park, and The Hall.
Things to do in Iowa with kids include the annual State Fair (view through horse's legs of kids sitting on curb watching parade).
Get ready for an experience like no other, 11 days of fun things to do with the whole family at the annual Iowa State Fair. Photo credit: Travel Iowa

More Des Moines Adventures

  • Calling all adventurers! Get ready for a 25-mile, five-town, and four-county trail ride through Iowa on the High Trestle Trail, a former railroad line turned trail. The star of this trail is the half-mile, 13-story trail bridge, one of the largest in the world.
  • A popular outdoor activity is biking or hiking on the Des Moines River Trail. This trail runs along the Des Moines River and offers beautiful views of the city.
  • Get your thrills at an amusement park in Altoona. Adventureland Resort features more than 100 rides, shows and attractions including two new rides this summer: Flying Viking, a family-friendly rollercoaster, and Draken Falls, a plunging river log ride. Escape the sticky summer heat and humidity at Adventure Way water park.
  • If you’re lucky enough to visit in August, nothing compares to attending the Iowa State Fair; I’m disappointed that I never got the chance to go when I lived there. An Iowa tradition since 1854, the agricultural and industrial fair attracts more than 1 million people from all over the world. So much Midwest family fun for 11 days, in one place, from live music to shows, parades and rides, splash pad, play areas, food (and most definitely ice cream!) and so much more.

READ MORE: 10 Free Things to do in Des Moines

Day Trips From Des Moines

Des Moines is also a perfect home base for day trips to surrounding Iowa small towns including Indianola, Winterset, Ames, and Boone.

When visiting the small town of Winterset, be sure to take time to explore its City Park to discover one of Iowa’s iconic covered bridges, the Cutler-Donahue.
When visiting the small town of Winterset, be sure to take time to explore its City Park to discover one of Iowa’s iconic covered bridges, the Cutler-Donahue. Photo Credit: Diana Rowe

Things to do in Winterset with Kids

Just 40 minutes southwest of Des Moines, Winterset is an all-American small town, right down to its historic downtown square but with lots of things to do.

  • Start by browsing the historic square lined with quirky shops, galleries, restaurants, local businesses – and even an Iowa Quilt Museum.
  • Instead of a Wal-Mart, shop at an old-fashioned five-and-dime store, Ben Franklin, for souvenirs and toys.
  • As the birthplace of the legendary John Wayne, it’s only fitting that there is also a bigger-than-life statue of the man, in front of the John Wayne Birthplace & Museum.
  • Make your way to City Park, on the edge of town, for a glimpse of the Cutler-Donahue, one of Madison County’s iconic cedar-covered bridges, which inspired the love story novel and movie, Bridges of Madison County.
  • On the edge of town in its City Park discover one of Iowa’s iconic covered bridges, the Cutler-Donahue and read the names and years inked on its walls

Indianola with Kids

Just 30 minutes south of Des Moines, Indianola is another fun small town family vacation destination. Here are a few ideas:

  • Visit the National Balloon Museum & U.S. Ballooning Hall of Fame, dedicated to the history of hot air ballooning. Check out exhibits on the science of ballooning, learn about hot air balloons and see the different types of balloons that have been used over the years.
  • Explore the Buxton Park Arboretum, home to a variety of trees and plants, playground and picnic area.
  • Splish-splash away at the Indianola Aquatic Center with its variety of water slides, lazy river and a wave pool.
  • Go on a hike at Lake Ahquabi State Park, just six miles south of Indianola. It features a variety of hiking trails, as well as camping and fishing.

Visit the College Town of Ames, Iowa

Less than a 40-minute northwest road trip, discover Ames, home to Iowa University and the Cyclones, and these family-friendly things to do:

  • College fans will want to take time to explore the Iowa State University campus, home to a variety of museums, exhibits, and the Jack Trice Stadium. Plan ahead and take in a Cyclone college football game or other sports..
  • Also part of Iowa State University is the Reiman Gardens, a beautiful 17-acre botanical garden with something for everyone, from a children’s garden to a Japanese garden.
  • Ames Main Street welcomes visitors with its more than 50 locally-owned shops, art galleries and restaurants – and live music and events.
  • The Aimes Main Street Farmers Market is the place to be on Saturdays in the summer and fall. Find fresh produce, flowers, and other locally-made goods.

Things to do in Boone, Iowa, with Kids

Here are some of the things you can do in Boone with kids:

  • Visit the historic Boone and Scenic Valley Railroad, and all aboard for family fun as the scenic train rides through the countryside. Learn about railroad history at the museum. Chat with a conductor along the way.
  • Add a different train ride adventure with Rail Explorers Experience, partnering with Boone & Scenic Valley Railroad. Soak in the panoramic views of the Des Moines River Valley. Look down along the riverbank for a bald eagle sighting. This thrilling showstopper crosses the 750-foot-long, 156-foot-high Bass Point Creek High Trestle.
  • Take a break at Seven Oaks Recreation. This park features a variety of picnic areas, playgrounds and swimming pool. Summer season, visitors can rent a canoe, kayak, and river tubes! In the winter, this is the destination for skiing, snowboarding and snow tubing!
  • Go on a hike at Ledges State Park to experience hiking trails, camping and fishing in Madrid, 4 miles south of Boone.
Things to do in Iowa with kids include the main channel aquarium at the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium, Dubuque. (view of family looking at fish in giant aquarium)
The main channel aquarium at the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium, Dubuque Photo credit: Travel Iowa

Things to do in Dubuque with Kids

Continuing exploring Iowa with a visit to Dubuque, a city in northeastern Iowa located on the Mississippi River. The second-largest city in Iowa, Dubuque is known for its beautiful scenery, its historic architecture, and its many attractions.

Here are some of the things you can do in Dubuque:

  • Visit the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium located on the Mississippi riverfront featuring exhibits on the history of the Mississippi River and its ecosystem. The museum also has an aquarium that features fish and other animals from the river. Highlights in 2023, including the reimagination of the Rivers to the Sea Gallery, highlighting 100 new animal species and welcoming “POPnology,” a fantastic interactive blend of science fiction and science fact from pop culture — featuring icons like R2D2, the DeLorean and more.
  • Ride the Fenelon Place Elevator Co., the world’s “shortest and steepest scenic railway.” This 1882 historic elevator is located in downtown Dubuque, with stunning views of the city and the river. It is the oldest continuously operating passenger elevator in the United States.
  • Tour the Julien Dubuque Monument in downtown Dubuque, commemorating the life of Julien Dubuque, the first European settler in the area. The monument is a 56-foot-tall limestone obelisk dedicated in 1908.
  • Explore the 100-acre Dubuque Arboretum and Botanical Gardens. Located in northeast Dubuque, it showcases a variety of gardens, including a rose garden, an herb garden, and a Japanese garden. The garden also has a nature trail and a children’s garden.
  • Visit the Mines of Spain State Recreation Area. Located south of Dubuque, it features a variety of hiking trails, fishing, and camping. Check out its visitor center with exhibits on the history of the area.
  • Go shopping in downtown Dubuque and browse its shops, boutiques, and restaurants. The downtown area is also home to a number of historic buildings, including the Dubuque Carnegie Public Library and the Dubuque County Historical Society Museum.
Experience Iowa's most astonishing natural wonders-- The Maquoketa Caves
Entrance to Dancehall, from the inside out. Photo credit: Alexandra Olsen
  • Experience Iowa’s most astonishing natural wonders: The Maquoketa Caves State Park, located 40 minutes from Dubuque.

Things to do in Iowa City With Kids

When I moved to the eastern part of the state, the University of Iowa in Iowa City was one of the top college choices for my fellow students. Visiting the college is just one of the fun things to see and do in Iowa City:

  • Go to a sporting event. Iowa City is home to the University of Iowa Hawkeyes, who compete in Division I athletics.
  • Visit the University of Iowa Museum of Natural History, the second oldest museum west of the Mississippi River. This museum features a variety of exhibits on natural history, including dinosaurs, animals, and plants.
  • Take a walk or bike ride on the 16-mile Iowa River Trail. This multi-use trail runs along the Iowa River and offers beautiful views of the city.
  • Stop in at the Big Grove Brewery & Taproom. Order a brew, enjoy the food, chill on the patio, and play backyard cornhole. Say hello to the owner, my cousin-in-law Doug – tell him Diana and Flint sent you!
Things to do in Iowa with kids include the Main Street of the Amana Colonies, a National Historic Landmark founded by German immigrants in 1885 (family pushing child in stroller past the Chocolate Haus).
Walk the Main Street of the Amana Colonies, a National Historic Landmark founded by German immigrants in 1885. Photo credit: Travel Iowa

More Things to Do in Iowa

Here are a few more things to do in Iowa with kids (in no particular order):

  • Want more history? Iowa’s got that too. Check out the Effigy Mounds National Monument in Harpers Ferry, located 90 minutes north of Dubuque. This monument memorializes more than 200 prehistoric mounds dating back to the first millennium CE. Many of these mounds are shaped like animals.
  • Located about 20 miles from Iowa City, visit the Amana Colonies, a collection of seven villages including recreation options such as trails and golf courses. (Guided tours are available!) Bring your credit card as there is so much shopping: antiques, handmade baskets, furniture, and local wine and beer. Dine at the family-friendly Ox Yoke Inn, yummy heart good ol’ traditional German fare – and save room for pie! I visited for the first time about 5 years ago, and it was a unique experience.

Where in the World is Iowa?

Iowa is a Midwestern state in the United States that is bordered by six other states: Wisconsin to the northeast, Illinois to the east and southeast, Missouri to the south, Nebraska to the west, South Dakota to the northwest, and Minnesota to the north.

With a population of more than 3 million people, Iowa is a major agricultural state, producer of corn and soybeans, and known for its rolling hills, cornfields, and small towns.

While you won’t find oceans here, Iowa’s lakes and rivers are perfect for boating, fishing, canoeing, kayaking, paddleboard, and swimming.

The capital of Iowa is Des Moines, the largest city with a population of just over 212,000. Other major cities in Iowa include Cedar Rapids, Dubuque, Iowa City, and Davenport.

A popular tourist destination, Iowa offers a variety of attractions, including state parks, museums, and historical sites. The state is also home to a few well-known colleges and universities, including the University of Iowa, Iowa State University, and Drake.

Iowa has fun things to offer everyone, from its beautiful scenery to its rich history and culture.

So, what are you waiting for? Start planning your trip to family-fun Iowa today!

For more than 20 years, Denver-based freelance writer Diana Rowe has specialized in travel, family, and multigenerational family travel — and rightly so, with 10 grandchildren and 2 great-grandchildren. She writes for multiple publications including and, and her own blogs: &
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