Iowa: An Outsider's Guide to the Hawkeye State

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Despite the descending flock of journalists, there's no Let's Go, Iowa, or Time Out Des Moines. Help us crowd-source one.

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Updated 12/14/11

DES MOINES -- In August 2007, while spending some weeks in Iowa, I discovered that despite the quadrennial pilgrimage of political consultants and members of the press across its flat fields, there was no decent up-to-date statewide guide for outsiders looking to take advantage of what the state had to offer, or at least find some place that was not a fast-food chain to grab a bite while traveling its expanse.

And so I compiled, Wiki style, a crowd-sourced resource for campaign reporters heading to the Hawkeye State, with an eye toward places that would make coastal types feel at home. Some of the text came verbatim from others (as should be apparent from the tone in the Ames "drinks" section); some reviews were edited takes from friends in Iowa, D.C.-area former Iowans, and traveling campaign staffers and reporters; and some were based on personal observation. Overall, I tried to restrict the focus to places that would appeal to non-Iowans for reasons of quality, and also included some with a high camp or local cultural interest factor. In the smaller towns, where the options are limited, the listed places were described as local favorites.

I've done one major update of this guide already in 2011, removing a slew of places that have gone under and adding loads of new material for Pella, Ottumwa, Davenport, Cedar Rapids, Marshalltown and Iowa City -- thank you, contributors! -- but I'm still going to need your help to get and keep this up to date.

Know what's new and hot in Des Moines (especially) or Dubuque? Which of the below places have gone down hill or shuttered? Email gfrankeruta@theatlantic.com with tips and reports, or leave your updates in the comment threads, and I'll update the text on an ongoing basis for as long as this guide seems relevant.

***

DES MOINES.

FOOD.

Jim Duncan of CityView said it best: "Des Moines was designed to service the obesity of Iowa agriculture. The state leads the nation in corn, soybeans and hogs, while the city maintains the world's largest water filtration system to cope with Big Ag's poisonous run-off. Restaurants here mostly cater abundance with garish décor, gargantuan portions and Styrofoam containers for leftovers." Here are the exceptions:

Centro. The Cafe Milano of Des Moines (political and media hub), an Italian restaurant and bar where you're sure to run into someone you know. 1011 Locust St.

801 Grand Steak and Chophouse. High-end Iowa steakhouse, located inside the Principle Financial Tower. #200 at this address.

Django. French brasserie that promises "no attitude" despite that. A collaboration from the Hotel Fort Des Moines and the chef at Centro, entrance through the hotel lobby. 210 10th St.

Lucca. Excellent contemporary Italian restaurant in the East Village with lovely wine list, minimalist servings. Modern decor, heirloom tomatoes. 420 E. Locust St.

Bistro Montage. Neighborhood bistro on a street thick with little shops and restaurants. Good wine list and a fresh menu. 2724 Ingersoll Ave.

Proof. Probably the best lunch in town, according to one. Delicious contemporary take on Mediterranean food. Amazing desserts. 1301 Locust St.

Jesse's Embers. A neighborhood classic old-time steakhouse -- "the original" -- with great character (a.k.a. few recent renovations). Fancy? No. And you'll smell like steak for a day or so, but that's a good thing. 3301 Ingersoll Ave.

Splash Seafood Bar & Grill. Fresh seafood flown in daily. 303 Locust St.

Café di Scala. Cozy little Calabrian place in a neatly painted Victorian house, a few blocks north of downtown in the Sherman Hill neighborhood. Winner of a 2007 Wine Spectator award of excellence. 644 18th St.

Court Avenue Restaurant & Brewing Company. Excellent local micro-brews, and a largely local crowd. Early evening Happy Hour specials. 300 Court Avenue.

Raccoon River Brewing Company. Right next to the Hotel Fort Des Moines. Outdoor seating. 10th and Walnut.

Los Laureles. Authentic Mexican food on an incredibly cool Mexican block where you can also get paletas y dulces. 1518 E. Grand Ave.

Tacos Mariana's has even better Mexican food, say some. 2225 University Ave.

El Salvador del Mundo. Authentic-seeming Salvadorean place with an extraordinarily cheap menu and tasty pupusas. 2901 6th Ave.

Nut Pob. "Great Loatian" in South Des Moines. 3322 Indianola Ave.

Zombieburger is the hot new upscale-y burger joint in town, boasting quite the assortment of creative, overkill toppings. Best veggieburgers in town, too. 300 E. Grand.

Big Daddy's Barbecue. Fancy? Not even close. Tasty? You bet. This is a dive, but the BBQ is memorable. Open Fridays and Saturdays ONLY; drive-thru option. 1000 E. 14th St.

Big Tomato Pizza Co. Said to be the best pizza in town by some, best pizza "if you're drunk" by others. Served by the slice after 10 p.m. and by full pizzas anytime, including delivery. Open until 4 a.m. 2613 Ingersoll Ave. (515)288-7227.

Gusto Pizza Co. For when you're not drunk. 1905 Ingersoll Ave.

La Mie Bakery. French bakery/cafe with v. good lunches and Saturday brunch. Also: macarons! 841 42nd St., just north of I-235.

The Machine Shed Restaurant. Get yer meat and don't forget the bowl of cottage cheese. A "restaurant honoring the American farmer." In Urbandale at the Living History Farms. 11151 Hickman Road (I-80/35 - Exit 125). Multiple branches elsewhere in the state.

Panera Bread. Across the street from the Fort Des Moines. Sometimes you just need a sandwich.

DRINK.

Star Bar. Surprisingly good food. Often used for events by local Democrats, and for after-event drinks by younger campaign staffers. Martinis and tapas. 2811 Ingersoll Ave

Wellman's Pub and Rooftop. Serves three shifts a night: locals; early bird-dinner elderly; and students/campaign staffers. Where field staff go to drink. Outdoor patio. 2920 Ingersoll Ave.

Royal Mile. Okay, the food's not spectacular, but it's not bad either, and it's a great English pub hangout if you're into that kind of thing. On 4th St. between Court and Walnut.

The Continental. Live music, also a restaurant. 428 E. Locust

Hessen Haus. If you want to polka. 101 4th Street.

CAFFEINE.

Starbucks. This is the main one -- a convenient place for your daily dose. 10th & Locust.

Amici Espresso. Free wi-fi & great coffee in a quiet, upscale downtown setting across from the Courthouse. 6th Ave and Mulberry.

Mars Cafe. Great coffee shop by Drake University. Free wi-fi. 2318 University Ave.

The Village Bean Co. Cool little coffee shop in the "East Village" of Des Moines. 305 E. 5th.

Ritual Cafe. A hipster-hippie vegetarian coffee joint (every small city has one), for an escape from the rythms of politics. On 13th St. between Grand & Locust.

Gateway Market. New foodie haven, the local version of Whole Foods/Dean & Deluca. Attached cafe has tasty offerings for breakfast/lunch/dinner and there's a take-out deli. On the corner of MLK and Woodland Ave.

Java Joes. A bit grungier, free wi-fi. 214 4th Street, between Walnut and Court Ave.

Zanzibar's Coffee Adventure. 28th and Ingersoll.

WHERE TO STAY.

Hotel Fort Des Moines. The journalists' hotel. Also popular with campaigns, though some fixtures have a bit of an accidental mid-century modern look because of the lack of recent renovation. 1000 Walnut St.

Hampton Inn Des Moines Airport. Some people love them a Hampton Inn. If you're among them, this one won't disappoint. The exact same cheap, no frills hotel with complimentary WiFi, breakfast and late night snacks you'll find anywhere in America. 5001 Fleur Drive.

See also the Des Moines WikiTravel Guide for more (Marriott, Hilton, Renaissance Savery etc.).

TECH SUPPORT.

Apple Store. 101 Jordan Creek Parkway, West Des Moines. (515) 440-6860

Staples. Open until 9 p.m. every day but Sunday, when it closes at 6. 906 E 1st St, Ankeny. (515) 964-0338. Also in Des Moines at 3800 Merle Hay Road.

OfficeMax. 2700 Ingersoll Ave., so pretty convenient to downtown. (515) 280-6992


OTTUMWA.FOOD.

El Rancho Grande. Local favorite for authentic Mexican food. It's also ridiculously cheap. Try the queso dip. 206 S Jefferson.

Graham's Milk & Ice Cream Co. Perfect place for ice cream or a Krunchie Kone. Lines in summer/early fall can be up to 40 minutes. 627 W Second Street

Canteen Lunch in the Alley. Legendary loosemeat burger joint. So popular that when the City Council decided to build a parking lot on its lot, the entire town protested. Now the Canteen is located INSIDE the parking garage. Nobody orders the fries. 112 E Second Street

BAB's Deli (Big Apple Bagels). Bagels and unusual bagels (like red velvet ones) but no lox. 1137 N. Quincy Ave.

DRINK.

Appanoose Rapids Brewing Company. New restaurant and the nicest local joint you'll get in town. They do actually sell the beer they've brewed. 332 E Main

Tom Tom Tap. Bar downtown in the Hotel Ottumwa, where the older locals hang out. 107 E 2nd Street.

Courtside Bar & Grill. Northside bar where recent OHS classes hang out. 2511 North Court Street. Cheap cheap cheap.

CAFFEINE.

The Lucky Rooster Coffee House. Ottumwa's one real place to get caffeinated. 207 E. Second Street

PELLA.
 
Jaarsma Bakery. If you are within 100 miles of Pella, go here. The town is legitimately famous in both the Netherlands and the U.S. for its Dutch heritage. Jaarsma sells Dutch letters, which are near impossible to find outside of Iowa or Holland, apparently. They also do other fabulous pastries, such as almond cakes, and have good coffee. 727 Franklin Street (on the square)

Vander Ploeg Bakery. Also does Dutch pastries but is even better at the American ones. 711 Franklin Street

Kaldera Inc. Nicer restaurant for when you're craving Greek food, which is pretty scarce in this region. 1205 Washington St. 

Smokey Row Coffee Co. Sandwich cafe/ice cream shop/coffee shop. They actually serve espresso, which is a plus. And -- it's not that bad! 639 Franklin Street

IOWA CITY.

FOOD.

Hamburg Inn No. 2 Inc. If you're in Iowa City, your trip probably started here. Home of the Coffee Bean Caucus. Since 1948. 214 N. Linn St.

Devotay. Fabulous small plates and tapas right across the street from the Hamburg Inn; excellent wines. Great for lunches, too. Chef Kurt Friese is "a leading member of the international 'Slow Food' movement," according to a UI dining site. 117 North Linn St.

Linn Street Cafe. Best high-brow restaurant in Iowa City. 121 N. Linn St.

Givanni's. Semi-upscale Italian-American food in a casual setting on the Ped Mall, for when you want some simple fish or pasta and wine without the fanfare of the Linn Street Cafe. A bit deficient in the charm department. 109 E. College St.

One Twenty Six. "Midwestern nouvelle cuisine," a.k.a. contemporary American. Excellent grilled cheese sandwiches -- "the highest-brow grilled cheese I've ever had," says one University of Iowa professor. 126 E. Washington St. Sister restaurant Hearth is right next door: small plates and wood-fired oven pizzas.

Motley Cow Cafe. More bohemian (but only slightly). 160 North Linn St.

A & A Pagliai's Pizza. Mediocre New York pizza, which is a small miracle for the Midwest. Half a block away from the Hamburg. 302 E. Bloomington St.

Takanami. Sushi and high-end Asian-American fusion near the university. A competitor -- one of maybe three such places -- for the title of best sushi in Iowa. 219 Iowa Ave.

Leaf Kitchen. Recently voted Best Chef / Restaurant by the readers of Edible Iowa River Valley magazine. Uniformly delicious eclectic offerings in an eclectic setting. 301 Kirkwood Ave

Red Avocado.Tasty organic vegan and vegetarian. 521 E. Washington 

New Pioneer Coop. The sort of place Whole Foods wants to be, but with the college town volunteer authenticity Whole Foods can't have. Tasty deli sandwiches and rotating hot-table menu, plus all the stuff you expect in a crunchy but expensive grocery store. 22 South Van Buren Street

Shorts Burgers and Shine. Offers a menu of interesting burgers and a excellent selection of craft beers from small Iowa breweries. 18 S. Clinton St

DRINK.

George's Buffet Bar. An Iowa Writer's Workshop hangout/townie bar. 312 E. Market St.

Dave's Fox Head Tavern. Also draws a huge chunk of its clientele from the Writer's Workshop program. 402 E. Market St.

The Sanctuary Restaurant & Pub. Has a wide beer selection, pizza, and -- critical come winter -- a warm fireplace. 405 South Gilbert Street

The Mill. A bar around the corner from the Sheraton on Burlington whose major selling point for campaign staff and fellow travelers is the convenient location and relatively cheap pitchers. Outdoor patio. 120 E. Burlington Street.

These are among the few places where there will be no table dancing; UI is a big party school.

CAFFEINE.

The Java House. Free WiFi, good coffee, younger crowd. Seven locations, the main being at 211 1/2 E. Washington St.

Starbucks. The usual. 228 S. Clinton St. at Burlington, just around the corner from the Sheraton.

Prairie Lights Bookstore. Independent bookstore that's the it destination for out-of-town authors. Also has coffee. 15 South Dubuque Street.

Capanna Coffee and Gelato. Spacious coffee house on the Ped Mall with lots of light, reliable free WiFi, plenty of power outlets, and good gelato. 136 S. Dubuque St

The Tobacco Bowl. The place for smokers: Coffee bar in addition to selection of cigarettes and cigars, and you can smoke inside. Good free WiFi.

WHERE TO STAY.

Sheraton Iowa City Hotel. Surprisingly inexpensive, clean and nice, with free WiFi if you use the signal from the Iowa Public Libraries nearby. Tip: You can get the library signal in many of the restaurants in the pedestrian mall adjacent to the Sheraton, as well. Also: Starwoods Points! 201 S. Dubuque St.

The Hotel Vetro. If you're working for Conde Nast. Iowa City's only boutique hotel. 201 S. Linn St.

MARSHALLTOWN.

Tremont on Main. Maybe the only good restaurant in town. Standard American fare done passably well. Go for a pork or beef dish; it's central Iowa. 22 W. Main St.

Zeno's Pizza. What pizza was like when pizza was a mid-century novelty in places like Iowa. You'll like it less than the locals, but it's interesting to eat what they like. 109 E Main St.

Cecil's Cafe. A dive diner on the edge of town. Solid breakfast joint with a farming, truck-driving clientele. Cecil's keeps it real. A large chicken with a top hat and a sign reading "FOOD" graces the roof. Junction of highways 30 & 14.

MONTOUR.

Rube's Steakhouse. A steakhouse that's well worth the trip. The closest thing most folks may be familiar with is the restaurant in The Great Outdoors where John Candy eats a 96-oz steak. Or perhaps they've paused on a road trip at the "Big Texas Steakhouse" with the giant neon cowboy off the highway near Amarillo, Texas. Recipient of a Travelocity "Local Secrets, Big Finds" award. Specialty cuts from Rube's Steakhouse and Meat Company can also be shipped nationwide. 118 Elm Street.

Also in WAUKEE at 3309 Ute Ave.

Montour is 15 miles east of Marshalltown, 18 miles north of Grinnell, 53 miles south of Cedar Falls/Waterloo, and a quick 8 miles to the Meskwaki Bingo Casino.

WATERLOO

Highway 63 Diner Steakhouse. Better than average classic Iowa diner serving burgers, pork loin, and steak. 3030 Marnie Avenue.

AMES.

FOOD.

Great Plains Sauce & Dough Company. Pizza, Denver- and Idaho-style. Unlike most pizza you've had before. 129 Main Street.

Hickory Park BBQ and Ice Cream. Great burgers. Milkshakes and sundaes and things. Very popular. 1404 South Duff Avenue.

Battle's Bar-B-Q. Texas-style BBQ and homemade lemonade. 218 Welch Ave.

Le's Vietnamese. Delicious Vietnamese. 113 Colorado Ave., off Lincolnway on the West side.

The Spice. Thai food in a contemporary setting. Closed Sundays. 402 Main Street.

Aunt Maude's. One of the few upscale restaurants in Ames that's been able to thrive and last in the town's spaghetti-friendly market. 547 Main St.

Cyclone Truck Stop. Long-haul truckers from all over the U.S. stop in here for meals 24 hours a day, and it's always interesting to be a fly on the wall. Good corned beef hash, too. I-35 Exit 111 B (US 30, - 1 Mi W).

Cafe Beaudelaire. "The soul of Brazil in the heart of Iowa." The Spanish burger there is celebrated by some as the best burger in Ames. Wi-fi. 2504 Lincoln Way.

Pita, Pita. Falafel and hummus make for a healthy fast-food alternative. 2508 Lincoln Way.

See also the Ames Travel Wiki.

CAFFEINE.

The two Starbucks in Ames are embedded inside the HyVees at 3800 and 640 Lincoln Way.

Local options: Stomping Grounds, which features indoor and outdoor seating and Wifi (303 Welch Ave); Cafe Diem on Main Street; Burgie's on Airport Rd.; Santa Fe Espresso on Welch; and Gregory's on S. Duff.

Or try one of Ames' coffee-shops-cum-bars: Beaudelaire (above) and the multi-culti Boheme Bistro (2900 West St.).

DRINK.

There are literally thousands of people with world-class educations stuck in Ames from all over the world. If you're overeducated or have done interesting things and are angry about being temporarily stuck in a small town in the Midwest, come to Ames, find a bar and be visibly grouchy. Someone will surely share your angst. Just remember: only Iowans get to really complain about Iowa.

The granddaddy of dive bars in Ames is Whiskey River on Main St., though some say Thumb's is better. You can karaoke with locals at the Fox (111 S 5th). Aside from these selections, prime target-rich environments when seeking a frothy beverage include the intersection of Lincolnway and Welch Ave., and Main St. downtown.

GRINNELL.

The Phoenix Cafe and Market. A cafe-gallery-bookstore-wineshop-market. Mediterranean-inflected food in an old Victorian. Inn has three very inexpensive rooms. 834 Park Avenue. (641)236-3657

Kelsey's Fine Foods. For the prime rib. 812 6th Ave.

CEDAR RAPIDS.

The Blue Strawberry Coffee Company. Upscale coffee shop that also serves wraps, sandwiches, and pastries. Popular site for candidate appearances. 118 Second Street SE, with a second location at 5741 C Street SW.

Croissant Du Jour. Patisserie and cafe. 3531 Vernon Road SE

Zins. Small plates modern. 227 Second Ave. SE

La Salsita. Has some of the best authentic Mexican in town (the lengua comes highly recommended). on 1st Ave. NW, just off 380

Al & Irene's Bar-B-Q House. A local institution. 2020 North Town Lane.

Emil's Deli. Since 1954. Try the Reuben. 7073 C Ave. NW

CLINTON.

Candlelight Inn. Right on the Mississippi, close to its widest. Beautiful views, especially toward sunset, and Friday night all-you-can-drink $1.99 margaritas. Farther up the river, there's Eagle Point Park, which should be resplendent through early fall.

The Wide Rivery Winery. Fun, though Iowan wines tend to be like natives: deeply, weirdly sweet.

LECLAIRE.

The Faithful Pilot Cafe & Spirits. A nice pub with Mississippi views, voted among the best in the Quad Cities.

BURLINGTON.

The Drake on the Riverfront. Stunning views of the Mississippi River from this contemporary American restaurant in historic downtown Burlington. 106 Washington.

DUBUQUE.

FOOD.

The Pepper Sprout. Gourmet "Midwest Cuisine" that wins rave reviews from locals, served in a pleasing dark-wood and exposed brick setting. Solid wine list, but (alas) somewhat irregular lunch hours. 378 Main Street.

Cafe Manna Java. Wood-fired pizza, paninis, pastries, coffee and wifi. Great for lunch. 269 Main Street.

Asian Gourmet. Totally passable pad thai. 115 West 11th St., downtown.

Beecher's Ice Cream and Yogurt. "OMG, delicious," says one frequent Dubuque visitor. Waffle cones made on the premises. Only open during the summer. 1691 Asbury Rd., near University.

Betty Jane Homemade Candies & Ice Cream. This will do if Beecher's is closed. 3049 Asbury Road.

CAFFEINE.

In addition to Manna Java:

Moo Java Espresso. For your drive-through latte, chai, green tea, and coffee needs. Two locations at: 4120 Dodge St. & 245 W 2nd St.

One Mean Bean. Free wi-fi, decent coffee, not that much room to sit. 2728 Asbury Rd.

Aroma. Free wi-fi. 806 Wacker Plaza, Ste. 116.

DRINK.

The Lift. A good little bar on lower Main that's part of the 180 Main entertainment complex, which itself is a key part of the Old Main District revival that's been taking place since 2000. Also has good food. 180 Main Street.

DAVENPORT.

FOOD.

Woodfire Grill. Where the other Centro used to be. "Midwestern fare." 131 W. 2nd Street.

Duck City Bistro. East of Woodfire, at 115 East 3rd St. "Small but expensive and upscale by Iowa standards, it is where a lot of PGA golfers eat during the John Deere Classic."

DRINK.

Front Street Brewery. A local brew pub, which means they make their own. 208 East River Drive.

WHERE TO STAY.

Hotel Blackhawk. Has a good coffee/breakfast place, as well as an upscale restaurant (by Iowa standards) and a martini bar/bowling alley in the basement. Advertises itself as "hip and historic." Stay there or at the Radisson if you are overnighting.

ANAMOSA.

Daly Creek Winery & Bistro. Classy, with a great upscale-ish menu. The wine is, well, not Sonoma or Bordeaux, but it's still fun and maybe a little oasis for a yuppie in nowheresville. 106 North Ford Street. (319)462-2525

MAQUOKETA.

Decker Hotel. A super-weird, super-cool spooky old mansion. One 2007 guest says, "If I were a ghost, this is exactly the kind of place I would hang out: creaky floorboards, lots of weird ornate flourishes, a large gramophone inexplicably placed in the middle of a third floor hallway, etc. Paradoxically, perhaps, for just $100 you can get a king bed and a whirlpool tub, and there's a place with coffee and fresh pastries about a block down Main Street." 128 North Main Street.

FORT MADISON.

The Ivy Bake Shoppe & Cafe. It's downtown -- not hard to find because downtown is tiny. A bakery/café run by the Martha Stewart of Southern Iowa. Good stuff, including lunches. Monday-Saturday, 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. 6th Street & Avenue G.

STORM LAKE.

Plaza Mexico. "The waitstaff barely speaks English and the food is great," says one local reporter. 1501 N. Lake Ave.

The Pantry. A lunch spot downtown where people won't mind if you strike up a conversation at the counter. 505 Lake Ave.

The Regatta Grill at King's Pointe Lodge. Offers a good sampling of Iowa fare, including pork and walleye. 1520 E Lakeshore Dr.

The Embers. The place to go for a steak and a stiff drink. 723 Lake Ave.

Smokey's Tavern. If you want some beer and to meet blue-collars and/or try out "northwest Iowa's only snooker table." 707 Lake Ave.

Nota bene: Buena Vista University in Storm Lake is believed to be the only college in Iowa where one can tailgate *on the field* before the game. If one is so inclined.

MASON CITY.

Northwestern Steak House. For a spectacular experience of a slab of Iowa beef...with a Greek twist. This is a down-home spot that you'd never find if you weren't looking for it. It's been there for decades; it used to be the place that the cement plant workers on the north end would go. Plan on a wait for a table -- there are no reservations unless you've got a group of six or more. 304 16th St. NW, 641-423-5075

Birdsall Ice Cream Co. Cranking out home-made ice cream since the '50s. 518 N. Federal Ave, 641-423-5365

Jitters Coffee Bar. Southbridge Mall, 100 S. Federal, 641-424-4880 (next to B. Dalton Books)

The Quarry. "Pretty darn sophisticated cooking," says one former resident. 10 S. Federal Ave., 641-421-0075

COUNCIL BLUFFS.

Try OMAHA, across the river in Nebraska. Seriously -- it's the largest, most sophisticated city in Nebraska, houses a major regional university, and has a population nearly seven times the size of Council Bluffs (390K vs. 58K).

THINGS LOCALS ENJOY & POINTS OF INTEREST.

The Iowa Speedway. NASCAR in Newton.

Boone Speedway. Dirt-track races.

Downtown Farmer's Market. Court Avenue, 7 a.m. to noon, Saturdays in Des Moines.

Iowa Cubs. AAA Minor League Baseball.

The Amana Colonies. Stick to the foodstuffs and avoid the tchotchkes. Known for their baked goods and legendary ham, also purveyors of fine 19th century delicacies like dandelion wine. One of America's longest-lived and largest religious communal societies, founded in 1855 in Iowa, and transformed into a corporation in 1932. Seven villages. German origins. Off I-80 about 15 minutes from Cedar Rapids or half an hour from Iowa City. Small hotels and motel in Amana (the main Amana) provide a cute, cheap alternative to staying in unattractive downtown Cedar Rapids.

Big Creek Lake. Boats and kayaks for rent by the hour or day.

Meskwaki Bingo Casino. Had a rough week? Go crazy and blow some dough at this Indian casino in the middle of Iowa. Just make sure you've got a sober driver, because it's unlikely you've got housing anywhere within 50 miles. Other important places to gamble in Iowa: Prairie Meadows Racetrack and various riverboats along the Missouri and Mississippi rivers.

Friday Night Lights. High school football games are (mainly) free* anywhere in the state from August to November. The high schools are broken up into divisions by school-size. The 4A division is for the larger schools, with games that are played in the largest stadiums and which draw the biggest crowds, making it easier to blend into them as an outsider. *Some large schools do charge a small admissions fee.

Maid Rite. A local fast-food chain, founded in 1926. Home of the Loose Meat Sandwich. "Honestly delicious, even though it may look a little weird," says one Iowan. "Also do not forget that salt, pepper, and ketchup are your friends." Others disagree; one calls the loose meat specialty "disgusting...like a sloppy Joe but with broth instead of tomato sauce." Multiple locations.

Culver's custard. Culver's is a Midwestern chain, not an Iowa-specific thing, but you can find a bunch of their frozen custard outlets in Iowa. Like fro-yo, but eggier. Multiple locations.

The Bridges of Madison County. The Covered Bridge Festival is October 7th-9th, 2011. Madison county is just outside of Des Moines.

John Wayne's Birthplace. Museum & Learning Center. 216 S. 2nd St. Winterset, Iowa

The World's Largest Truck-Stop. "Back in 1964 when we began operations at Interstate 80's exit 284, who would have thought we would grow to be the World's Largest Truckstop? After all, we were just a small, white enamel building with two diesel pumps, one lube bay and a tiny restaurant, located in the middle of Iowa cornfields." Fuel, food, and dentistry, open 24-7. Also a truck museum. Exit 284, I-80.

The Music Man Square. Childhood home of Mason City's favorite son, Meredith Willson, and a celebration of "the original River City." 308 S. Pennsylvania Avenue, Mason City.

Image credit: REUTERS/Brian Frank

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Garance Franke-Ruta is a former senior editor covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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