The second-largest city in Iowa, Cedar Rapids lies in eastern Iowa and straddles the Cedar River. While it was once primarily known as an industrial area, burgeoning art and cultural scenes make it an increasingly attractive place to visit.
Despite being struck by devastating floods in 2008, 2016 and 2020, the city’s people remain upbeat and display that welcoming Midwestern hospitality. Its cultural institutions are just as resilient. Its excellent museums and theaters always seem to bounce back bigger and better than before. This can-do attitude is on show in both the New Bohemia and Czech Village districts too where you can find countless bustling businesses and local shops.
Besides seeing collections of iconic artist Grant Wood’s works and visiting the National Czech & Slovak Museum, you can also enjoy the area’s pristine scenery and nature. With a constant stream of shows and spectacles also taking place, there are always new and interesting things to do in Cedar Rapids and its surroundings.
In this post, we'll cover:
12. African American Museum of Iowa
A fascinating place to visit, the African American Museum of Iowa lies just south of the center and Newbo City Market, alongside the Cedar River. Its enthralling artifacts and exhibits look at African American history and culture both in the United States and abroad.
Established in 1994, the sizeable collection of some 2,000 or so objects and artworks now occupies a massive modern building. Innumerable exhibitions and multimedia installations cover everything from slavery and the Underground Railroad to the American Civil War and Civil Rights Movement.
While some sections of the museum trace Iowa’s African American heritage back to Western Africa, others celebrate sporting heroes and members of the military. A packed schedule of cultural events and community classes also keeps people involved and invested in the museum’s important work.
11. Cedar Rapids Public Library
Located just across Greene Square from the city’s Museum of Art is another of its main cultural institutions: the Cedar Rapids Public Library. Showcasing a sleek and stylish design, it was completed in 2013 after the Iowa flood of 2008 destroyed the previous one.
The library’s origins date back much further, however, to an 1896 public vote that decreed a small room be set aside for one in the Granby building. It soon outgrew its premises, however, with various buildings and even bookmobiles being used in later years.
The current one is a lovely place to spend some time thanks to its light and airy open spaces while a rooftop sitting area offers great views over the rest of downtown. Besides a massive book collection and online resources, the library often has live music and art exhibits by local artists to enjoy.
10. Palisades-Kepler State Park
Boasting stunning scenery and nature, Palisades-Kepler State Park lies just to the southeast of the city, not far from Mount Vernon. Here you can hike and camp amidst forested ravines or canoe along the Cedar River and rock climb up dramatic-looking bluffs.
Created in 1922 to protect the area’s pristine habitat, the scenic park was expanded over the decades with the Civilian Conservation Corps building a rustic stone lodge. Other cabins and campsites can be found dotted about while shady trails wind their way through the woods and down by the river.
There are several spots where you can swim and fish while taking in divine views of the resplendent nature all around you. The park is also conveniently located right by the original house that inspired Grant Wood’s iconic American Gothic painting.
9. Grant Wood Studio
If you want to see the exact place he painted his most famous masterpiece, make sure to stop by the Grant Wood Studio back in the center of town. For over a decade, he lived in a modest apartment with his mother and sister, creating many of his most well-regarded works in this time.
Between 1924 and 1935, the renowned American artist resided and worked in the light-filled loft of the otherwise unremarkable old carriage house. He even modified its interior which still retains the rough textured white walls, crude wooden floors and exposed beams of his design.
On tours, you’ll learn all about his life and legacy and hear how his rural Iowa upbringing inspired works like Daughters of the Revolution and Dinner for Threshers, both painted in the loft.
8. Indian Creek Nature Center
Protecting a vast swathe of lush woodlands, wetlands and prairies is the idyllic Indian Creek Nature Center. Lying alongside both the winding Cedar River and a small creek of the same name, it has lots of educational exhibits and outdoor activities for people to enjoy.
The only privately owned nature preserve in the state, it was founded back in the seventies on what had previously been farmland. Over the years, the superb center has greatly expanded its programs with nature walks, beekeeping classes and summer camps now all taking place.
Other than learning about Iowa’s fauna and flora in its small museum, you can hike or cross-country ski around its landscapes in winter. Yoga classes and concerts are also sometimes held while fishing and birdwatching count among its other popular pastimes.
7. Paramount Theater
The best spot to catch a show in Cedar Rapids though has to be the phenomenal Paramount Theater in downtown. At the decadently decorated movie palace, you can enjoy top-class dance acts, opera performances and stand-up comedy nights in a sumptuous setting.
First opened to the public in 1928, the ornate old performing arts venue is named for the Paramount Pictures movie studio which purchased it just a year later. Following the 2008 flood, the interior was thankfully restored to its original grandeur with elegant balconies and a wonderful Wurlitzer organ overlooking the hallowed stage.
Now recognized as a National Historic Landmark, the theater makes for a memorable place to watch a fantastic play or concert performed by both local and international acts.
6. Cedar Valley Nature Trail
A wonderful way to see yet more of the city and its surroundings is to walk, run, jog or cycle along the Cedar Valley Nature Trail. As well as connecting various communities and historic sights, the route has a wealth of picturesque nature spots and views of the river for outdoor lovers.
Stretching just under seventy miles in length, the main part of the multipurpose path takes you from Hiawatha to Evansdale while an offshoot also connects it to Cedar Rapids. The mostly flat trail was built atop an abandoned railroad line and has extended significantly since the early eighties.
While some sections weave their way alongside the tranquil river, others pass through verdant fields and woodlands or small cities like Brandon and Urbana.
5. NewBo City Market
If you want to shop until you drop, the huge NewBo City Market is the place to go. Located in the New Bohemia neighborhood from which it takes its name, the shopping center has countless unique stores and eateries to try out.
An interesting initiative, it was established in 2012 to revitalize the flood-devastated district and bring back businesses by supporting local entrepreneurs and artists. It has certainly succeeded. The former warehouse site now acts as a community hub where people come to shop, eat and enjoy arts events and entertainment.
Perusing the pop-up stands and established shops selling locally-sourced food and products is lots of fun and the restaurants and cafes are just diverse. Hundreds of events such as farmers’ markets and Oktoberfest are also held in Rotary Hall each year.
4. Czech Village
Just across the river is another happening area to hit up: the cool and cultured Czech Village. One of the most popular parts of the city to explore, it is full of specialty shops and lovely little restaurants with the National Czech & Slovak Museum being the standout sight.
Around the turn of the century, thousands of Czech, Slovak and Moravian immigrants settled farms and small towns surrounding Cedar Rapids. These communities are still thriving today with the old artsy district both preserving and promoting their rich history and heritage.
Aside from learning about their culture and customs in the museum, you can stop by all the Czech-themed shops and restaurants that line its vibrant streets. Numerous fun cultural events and festivals also take place in the neighborhood throughout the year.
3. Cedar Rapids Museum of Art
Packed with fabulous paintings, photos and prints, the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art has long been one of the city’s top tourist attractions. Set right in the heart of downtown alongside Greene Square, it displays loads of arresting works by important Iowa artists such as Grant Wood and Marvin Cone.
Since being founded in 1905, the museum’s collection has grown with 7,000 or so art pieces now occupying what once was the Carnegie Library. While it mostly focuses on twentieth-century American art, some ancient Roman busts and contemporary Japanese ceramics can also be seen in its galleries.
The highlight though is of course Wood’s striking Woman with Plants and Young Corn while Cone’s Midwest landscapes and abstracts also attract lots of plaudits.
Lying towards the northeastern outskirts of the city is the enormous park-like estate of Brucemore. Besides taking tours around the massive and majestic mansion, guests can amble peacefully about its gorgeous landscaped grounds or catch outdoor concerts and plays.
Once considered the ‘grandest house west of Chicago’, the pretty property was built in 1884 with it now exhibiting an attractive mix of Queen Anne and Craftsman-style architecture. While rearing turrets and chimneys already make for a fine sight, the twenty-one rooms are decorated with refined furnishings, period pieces and artworks.
After having learnt about the three prominent local families who lived at Brucemore, you can stroll around the endless garden’s picture-perfect ponds and prairies. Other than seeing the servants’ village and greenhouse, there are great events and shows to attend at the amphitheater in the estate grounds.
1. National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library
As the two communities have helped shape the history of both the city and state, the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library is a must when in town. At the sprawling site, you can take in fine art and folklore artifacts while exhibits explain various aspects of their customs and culture.
Established in 1974, its innumerable exhibits and artworks now occupy a huge brick building along the Cedar River’s south bank in Czech Village. While some displays focus on Czechoslovakia under communist rule or the World Wars, others highlight the experience of Czech and Slovak immigrants to Iowa in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
As well as traditional puppets and ethnic costumes, its galleries present moving historic photos and oral testimonies. The museum and library are very much a living part of the community, however, as there are countless classes and concerts for everyone to enjoy.