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Free Things To Do in Iowa City, IA

Updated on January 19, 2016
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Rose is a full-time freelance writer who frequently writes about education, special education, DIY projects, food, Milwaukee, and more.

the old Iowa Capitol in Iowa City, IA
the old Iowa Capitol in Iowa City, IA | Source
What can you do for free in Iowa City?
Summer of the Arts festivals and events
Iowa City Downtown District events
Iowa River Landing
Celebrate the Season
Museums and historic sites
Iowa Avenue Literary Walk

No matter where you live and what kind of budget you have, free things to do are always appreciated. Iowa City offers an extensive selection of free activities and attractions from festivals to movie nights to carriage rides. With a wide range of family-friendly options, you're sure to find something that fits the bill to stay busy with your loved ones all year round.

[Please note that I verified all information in this article during August 2015. Dates, times, and locations are subject to change at any time without notice.]

Iowa City, IA:
Iowa City, IA, USA

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Dr. Lonnie Smith Trio at the 2013 Iowa City Jazz Festival | Jazz 88.3 KCCK

Summer of the Arts

The Iowa City arts and cultural organization is responsible for several of the biggest free summer events in Iowa City, including the following:

  • Free Movie Series. Mid-June to mid-August. Movies screen on the UI Pentacrest outside of Macbride Hall on Saturday evenings from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. They show a mix of classic and new films with lots of kid-friendly selections. Bring your own lawn chairs and blankets.
  • Friday Night Concert Series. Mid-May to mid-September. The Friday Night concerts take place on the Pedestrian Mall right outside of the Sheraton Iowa City Hotel on Friday nights from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. and feature a wide range of bands and singers.
  • Iowa Arts Festival. Early June. The Iowa Arts Festival showcases 125 local and national artists as well as live music, a "Culinary Row" with regional and ethnic food, and an extensive selection of creative and educational activities for kids.
  • Iowa City Jazz Festival. Early July. One of the top jazz festivals in the country, the Iowa City Jazz Festival is a great place to check out established jazz artists as well as up and coming acts.
  • Iowa Soul Festival. Late August. The Iowa Soul Festival features dance, music, food, and art of the African and African-American cultures. The event includes live music, soul food, art exhibits, and a kids' zone.
  • MusicIC. Mid-June. MusicIC consists of four nights of chamber music in downtown Iowa City with concerts at Trinity Episcopal Church, the Englert Theater, and the Iowa City Public Library.

The iconic Englert theater in downtown Iowa City.
The iconic Englert theater in downtown Iowa City. | Source

Iowa City Downtown District events

  • Gallery Walk. Iowa City offers periodic Gallery Walks throughout the year. These walks are the perfect chance to check out the many galleries in the downtown area. You'll be able to view works from local artists as well as nationally recognized figures. Maps are available for each Gallery Walk.
  • Landlocked Film Festival. The Landlocked Film Festival takes place in mid-August. While tickets are required for most showings, all screenings and other events at the Iowa City Public Library are free and open to the public.
  • Sunset Salsa. Saturday evenings from 6:00 to 10:00 p.m. all year round. Meet at the Weatherdance Fountain on the Pedmall. Sunset Salsa is a great opportunity to enjoy salsa music and dancing on the beautiful Pedmall. Dancing will take place indoors during the cooler months of the year.
  • Tuesday Jazz. The Scott Barnum Trio performs at the Motley Cow Cafe each Tuesday from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. The band plays original jazz tunes as well as standard jazz numbers. The Motley Cow menu includes vegetarian and vegan selections. Sparkling wine and champagne is half priced on Tuesdays.

Scenic wetlands trails at the Iowa River Landing behind the Marriott Coralville Hotel and Conference Center in Coralville, IA.
Scenic wetlands trails at the Iowa River Landing behind the Marriott Coralville Hotel and Conference Center in Coralville, IA. | Source

Iowa River Landing

The Iowa River Landing is situated along a bend in the Iowa River just south of I-80 at exit 242. The Marriott Coralville Hotel and Conference Center anchors the 180-acre, mixed-use development, offering some of the finest lodging in the area. The landing also features a Homewood Suites by Hilton, a fitness center, a spa, several restaurants, and a mix of national and local retail.

Among other free attractions, the Iowa River Landing boasts a Wetland Park and Sculpture Park. The wetland park is housed between the Marriott and the Iowa River. Five acres of wetlands surrounds a two-acre pond. Take the elevated walks to circle the pond and explore the park, enjoying nature, bird watching, and other wildlife sightings. The Sculpture Park showcases 11 permanent sculptures, each of which was created by an Iowa artist and is based off an Iowa Writers Library text. The library is located in the Marriott. Download a sculpture map from

During the summer, you can also enjoy free horse drawn carriage rides and outdoor movies at the Iowa River landing. Carriage rides are offered Thursdays in June from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m., and the movies start shortly afterward.

The Johnson County Historical Society and Antique Car Museum of Iowa are located at the Iowa River Landing. While not free, both museums have an admission rate of just $5. They are open 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m Tuesday through Saturday and noon to 5:00 p.m. Sunday.

MacBride Hall on the University of Iowa campus in the winter.
MacBride Hall on the University of Iowa campus in the winter. | Source

Community Highlights: Celebrate the Season 2012 | citychannel4

Celebrate the Season

Celebrate the Season runs from the day after Thanksgiving through Christmas Day in downtown Iowa City. Among other happenings, two of the most popular free events during Celebrate the Season are horse drawn trolley rides from Country Gentleman's Horse Drawn Carriage and photos with Santa at FilmScene. Trolley rides and photos take place each Saturday from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Celebrate the Season also includes a free Downtown Hunt for the Elves Scavenger Hunt with elves hiding in 45 different downtown businesses. Participants that collect all of their elf cards will win a price and be entered to win a grand prize. Other Celebrate the Season happenings include Small Business Saturday, a Parents' Night Out, a Retail Open House, and 'Twas the Night with extended store hours. The first hour of parking is free in all downtown parking ramps during Celebrate the Season.


The following Iowa City establishments boast no cover and no drink minimum for their karaoke nights.

The Natural History Museum at the University of Iowa.
The Natural History Museum at the University of Iowa. | Source

Museums and historic sites

  • Mormon Handcart Historic Site. The Mormon Handcart Historic Site takes visitors through a handcart trek similar to the pioneers' trek from 150 years ago. The exhibits detail the unfortunate circumstances of two handcart companies. Having left late in the summer, they endured treacherous weather, resulting in much hardship and the deaths of many before reuniting with the main faction of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Salt Lake Valley.
  • University of Iowa Museum of Art. The University of Iowa Museum of Art boasts collections that are free and open to the public at the Iowa Memorial Union and the Blackbox Theater. Make sure to explore the Legacies for Iowa: A University of Iowa Collections Sharing Project and UIMA@IMU Visual Collection. Tours are available upon request.
  • University of Iowa Museum of Natural History. Founded in 1858, the museum is part of the University of Iowa campus. It's best known for its comprehensive collections of mammals, birds, and Native American artifacts. Other permanent exhibits include the Biosphere Discovery Hub, Laysan Island Cyclorama, Diversity of Life, and Iowa Hall, which takes you through 500 million years of geological, cultural, and ecological history in Iowa.

Iowa Avenue Literary Walk - Conroy
Iowa Avenue Literary Walk - Conroy | Source

Iowa Avenue Literary Walk

The Iowa Avenue Literary Walk celebrates nearly 50 writers, all of whom have ties to Iowa City and/or the University of Iowa. The walk features bronze relief panels stamped into the sidewalk along Iowa Avenue with quotes about books and passages from the authors' works as well as illustrations by artist Gregg LeFevre. The walk spans children's books to memoirs to plays to short stories. It is located on Iowa Avenue in between Clinton Street and Gilbert Street. Prairie Lights Bookstore and Iowa Book & Supply both sell reasonably priced guides to the Literary Walk.

[Source: Iowa Book]

Iowa City Public Library
Iowa City Public Library | Source

The Iowa City Public Library is another must visit destination for literary enthusiasts.

An integral part of downtown Iowa City, you must pay a visit to the Iowa City Public Library after you complete the Iowa Avenue Literary Walk.

Hickory Hill Park in Iowa City, IA
Hickory Hill Park in Iowa City, IA | Source


The greater Iowa City area is home to numerous parks of all sizes, offering ample opportunities for a wide range of outdoor recreation. The following are just a few of the notable parks.

  • Hickory Hill Park. Hickory Hill is ideal for hiking, biking, picnicking, and dog walking. It also features a nature study.
  • Iowa Firefighters Memorial. The memorial celebrates all firefighters who have given their lives serving Iowa. It is intended to honor, celebrate, and inspire the courage, spirit, and service of firefighters in the state who have served, are currently serving, and will serve in the future.
  • Kent Park. Located three miles west of Tiffin on Highway 6, this picturesque park spans 1,052 acres. Kent is popular for camping, fishing, hiking, biking, and swimming. Explore prairies, forests, wetlands, and more.
  • Lake Macbride State Park. Located just 10 miles north of Iowa City, Lake Macbride is home to open picnic shelters, one day use lodges, multi-use trails, two campgrounds, and seven boat ramps. You can camp, hike, bike, swim, boat, fish, picnic, cross-country ski, and snowboard at Lake Macbride.
  • Thornberry Off-Leash Dog Park. Thornberry is a large, well-maintained park with ample room for dogs to run around and play. The entire area is fenced in, ensuring that you can rest easy while your dog enjoys himself. The park features a pond, a special area for small breeds, and an agility training area. All dogs must have a park permit tag.

© 2015 Rose Clearfield


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    • FlourishAnyway profile image


      4 years ago from USA

      I've traveled through the state but don't recall stopping. You make me wish I had.

    • randomcreative profile imageAUTHOR

      Rose Clearfield 

      4 years ago from Milwaukee, Wisconsin

      Deb, I agree about the Iowa River Landing! Thanks for the recommendations about the Coralville Reservoir trails, including Woodpecker Hill trail.

      MsDora, I know to many people Iowa is just flyover country, but like all of the Midwest, it has so much to offer.

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Weithers 

      4 years ago from The Caribbean

      So there's more to Iowa than the Caucuses? Thanks for showing us the fun place it can be. I'd go for the museums and the parks.

    • DeborahNeyens profile image

      Deborah Neyens 

      4 years ago from Iowa

      Great round-up of things to do in Iowa City, Rose. Iowa River Landing has been a great addition to the area, and Kent Park is one of my favorite places to take my dogs for a hike. There also are some good hiking trails around the Coralville Reservoir. I like the Woodpecker Hill trail.


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