There are plenty of things to do in central Iowa along I-80. Indulge in chocolate, wine, historic architecture, and incredible museums!
*A big thank you to Travel Iowa for helping us plan this fantastic itinerary and for hosting our hotel stays. As always, all opinions are our own.*
As we continued east on our Iowa road trip, we found a few more fun stops along I-80. We discovered that central Iowa has a lot of great history but is also modern and chic. Oh, and the food and wine… 😀
Our first stop in central Iowa was definitely one of the yummiest! Drew’s Chocolates is an Iowa institution and has been creating delicious chocolates since 1927. To this day, they still use original recipes and equipment and fork-dip each piece of chocolate.
When we stopped in, Jason was behind the counter and he kindly told us about the shop and its sweets. He also explained that he’s been helping at the shop since he was eight years old. He definitely know his stuff! We ended up purchasing some chocolates for the road, but we will admit they were all gone by the end of the day…
Also in Dexter is the architectural marvel known as The Roundhouse. It was built in 1916 and although it looks round, it’s actually elliptical. The fascinating part of this structure is that its domed roof is only supported by the walls. People were so skeptical about the dome’s strength when it was being built, that the architects had cars driven up board ramps onto the roof to prove that it was strong!
The Roundhouse has always been an important part of the Dexter community. Before schools in the area had gyms, sports were played in The Roundhouse. Because of the great acoustics, plays and musicals have been performed there as well. Nowadays, the building is still used for various events like parties, farmers markets, weddings, and festivals.
It really is an incredible building and is so much bigger than you think it is once you walk inside. We were lucky to get a peek inside thanks to Emily and her mom Barb. We had met Emily at Drew’s Chocolates and she told us about the fascinating building. She also called her mom, who had keys to the building and gave us a private tour. Besides the building, the Iowa hospitality and kindness we received is something we will never forget.
Another must-see in Dexter is the Dexter Museum. Inside are a plethora of items that chronicle the history of the area. Visitors will find old posters of movies that were filmed in Dexter, photos of Harry S. Truman from when he visited Dexter, uniforms of local military members, and much more. It’s certainly not a large building, but they do have a lot of interesting items.
The museum is best known, however, for its Bonnie & Clyde collection. The museum has photos, newspaper articles, maps, and other artifacts about the notorious couple. Additionally, Bonnie, Clyde, and the rest of their gang were involved in a shootout just outside of Dexter in nearby Dexfield Park. You can drive there and read a placard that describes the shootout.
Continuing east along I-80, definitely stop in Winterset. We recommend your first stop be the Northside Cafe. Their signature pork tenderloin sandwich has won awards including being named one of Iowa’s “99 Restaurants to Try” and voted runner-up for the 2017 Best Tenderloin. The restaurant itself is fun to explore as well since they have a lot of cool memorabilia.
Fun Fact: A scene from the 1995 film “The Bridges of Madison County” was filmed inside the restaurant.
Speaking of bridges, we recommend taking a drive to see the actual bridges of Madison County. Yes, it’s not just a book/movie. Six of the original 19 covered bridges in Madison County have been preserved. You can’t drive through them, but you can walk through. They are easy to get to since they’re just outside of town. We thought the bridges were really cool on the inside and loved how the beams crisscrossed in some of them.
Back in the historic town square of Winterset is the Iowa Quilt Museum. We will say that we are not avid quilt enthusiasts, but even so we found the museum to be very interesting. Some of the patterns were incredible!
Just down the street is another Winterset must-see, the John Wayne Birthplace Museum. Inside, fans of “The Duke” will find artifacts like original movie posters, letters, film wardrobe, and even one of his customized cars!
Next door to the museum is the restored four-room house where John Wayne was born. It appears as it would have in 1907, the year the actor was born.
As you leave the museum, make sure to look out for the Madison County Freedom Rock. The original Freedom Rock is in Menlo, Iowa but in order to continue to honor veterans, creator and artist Ray “Bubba” Sorensen is painting smaller Freedom Rocks and putting one in each Iowa county.
Before you leave Winterset and continue along I-80, make sure you stop by Madison County Winery. We fell in love with the setting: rolling hills and a cozy tasting room that overlooks the vineyards. And of course, the wine itself was exceptional with vibrant and bold flavors.
Fun Fact: There are over 100 wineries in Iowa!
There are so many fun things to do in Des Moines! It’s a very artsy city, so there is an amazing sculpture park, great street art, and a free art museum. Des Moines is also the location of the gorgeous State Capitol building and a restaurant with the most interesting pizza we’ve ever had. All of these Des Moines attractions warranted their own post, so make sure to check that out for more information on each.
A short drive from Des Moines is the city of Grinnell. One place we recommend visiting is the Faulconer Gallery on the Grinnell College campus. It is a small but impressive art museum, with exhibits constantly rotating.
Another “gem” of Grinnell is the Merchants National Bank building. Whether you’re an architecture buff or not, this building will leave you breathless. It was built by legendary architect Louis Sullivan, the father of modern American architecture and mentor to Frank Lloyd Wright.
The Merchants National Bank building is one of eight “jewel-box” banks; it looks like a jewelry box and hold valuables inside. It was built in 1914 and has been a National Historic Landmark since 1976. There are impressive griffins guarding the entrance, monumental stained-glass windows, pink Tennessee marble floors, and so much more!
If you need a place to stay overnight while road tripping through Central Iowa, we highly recommend staying in Grinnell. We consider the Hotel Grinnell an attraction in and of itself; it’s definitely not just any other hotel. It was once the city’s junior high school and has been converted into a unique hotel experience. Every room is different and they’ve kept the school theme throughout.
You can read more about our stay at the Hotel Grinnell and see why we consider it the best hotel in Iowa.
Iowa continued to surprise us as we continued east on our Midwest road trip. We loved its history but also its modern flare. Iowa is a state that we grew to love and can’t wait to visit again!