Visiting the United States? There are 50 states in all. Iowa, a largely agricultural state in the Midwest, attracts worldwide attention every four years by hosting the first contest of the presidential election season. The state’s economy is driven by Iowa’s two largest cash crops — corn and soybeans — but farming is only part of the story. Iowa is full of surprises, so if you’re looking for flea-market treasures, quirky roadside attractions and an annual state fair you’ll never forget, make Iowa your destination.
In Iowa, bicycles are everywhere: Iowa communities are linked by some 1,931 kilometers (1,200 miles) of trails for cycling, walking and in-line skating. If you’re a cycling enthusiast, you can sign up for RAGBRAI, a seven-day bicycle ride across the state that takes place in late July.
And be sure to check out Des Moines, Iowa’s capital city and cultural center. It’s often described as a midsize city with big-city amenities: a flourishing arts scene, excellent museums, fine dining and upscale shopping.
First in the nation
Every four years, Iowa holds statewide caucuses that serve as the starting point for choosing the two major-party candidates for president of the United States. The Iowa caucuses are scheduled for January or February of a presidential election year and involve people gathering in about 2,000 designated locations —typically a school or other public building, but sometimes a private home. Caucus-goers make statements in support of their preferred candidates, debate vigorously, and finally cast a vote. Because Iowa’s caucuses take place before the primaries of other states, Iowans have the distinction of being the first voters to help shape the U.S. presidential race.
Des Moines has all kinds of attractive amenities, so there’s bound to be something for everyone. Stop by the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden (a geodesic dome housing free-flying birds and a huge variety of plant species), the Des Moines Art Center (focusing on 20th- and 21st-century modern and contemporary art) and the Blank Park Zoo (home to a wide range of exotic and domestic animal species).
Visit in the summer to enjoy the Iowa State Fair, an annual 11-day celebration of everything that makes Iowa unique. It attracts millions of visitors from around the globe and features a double ferris wheel and other rides, plus fun competitions like the Fiddlers’ Contest, the Marvelous Hat Contest, the Mother-Daughter Look-alike Contest and the Twins, Triplets and More Contest.
The fair’s livestock exhibits are popular, but it’s hard to top the iconic Butter Cow sculpture, carved each year from 600 pounds of butter on a wood, metal, wire and steel-mesh frame. There’s also a companion butter sculpture that varies from year to year: In 1997, it was Elvis Presley; in 2003, it was a Harley-Davidson motorcycle; and in 2007, it was Harry Potter.
The ultimate garage sale
Each August, bargain hunters head for the Highway 141 Garage Sale, which includes vendors and flea markets plus food and beverage booths. The sale route stretches more than 209 kilometers (130 miles) across west central Iowa, from Des Moines in the east to Mapleton in the west.
In Eldon, Iowa, there’s a distinctive house that inspired artist Grant Wood (1891–1942), a native Iowan best known for portraying the rural American Midwest. Wood used the Eldon house as the backdrop for his famous 1930 painting American Gothic, which depicts a gaunt farmer holding a pitchfork, with a stern-faced woman beside him. Visitors can pose for a photo (with borrowed clothes or their own) in front of the house, recreating Wood’s instantly recognizable farmhouse couple.
You can’t leave Iowa without sampling a corndog, which is a hot dog covered in cornmeal batter, fried and served on a stick. This local treat is a favorite at Iowa’s fairgrounds and elsewhere.