Iowa/Omaha over Fourth of July
June 24, 2011 9:04 AM   Subscribe

Road trip filter: Three friends in Iowa and Omaha over Fourth of July long weekend. What to see, where to eat (Omaha steak and otherwise) and how to celebrate Independence Day?

Three Californians now living in Chicago are planning to head out to Iowa and the Omaha/Council Bluffs region for the first time over the Fourth of July weekend. General outline of the trip so far (we welcome advice!):

Friday: leave Chicago in late afternoon/early evening for southeast Iowa
Saturday: Eldon, IA (for American Gothic) in the morning, get to Omaha by dinnertime
Sunday: Day in Omaha, leave by afternoon/evening
Monday: Fourth of July festivities, back to Chicago; we're fine with a very late night/early Tuesday morning return

We sort of have three broad questions:

(1) What to see? We'd like to stop in at least one of the cities -- it seems to me the consensus online is that Iowa City is a better place to spend a couple of hours than Des Moines. Outside of the cities, kitschy attractions, the more ridiculous the better. (I already have the world's largest truck stop and James Kirk's future birthplace, as well as the aforementioned American Gothic house in Eldon.)

Random sampling of interests: local history, architecture/urban stuff/old buildings, literary/art-related, Trekkie, trains, Americana. But really, anything absurd and roadside is welcomed. We're easily entertained.

(2) Where to eat and drink? In particular, we'd like to splurge at an Omaha steakhouse for dinner Saturday night dinner (say up to $80 or $90 per person). For the other meals, we'd like to hit up local specialties as much as possible. We're pretty adventurous eaters with no dietary restrictions. And we're all of legal drinking age, so are there any particular bars/drinking holes to hit up?

(3) Finally, we'd love to be able to hit up a small town Independence Day parade and then fireworks in the evening on Monday. Where should we go/how do we go about planning this? We're fine with arriving back in Chicago very late, e.g. 2 or 3 am would be OK.

I've seen this and this thread, which help a lot to answer what to see, but I was wondering if anybody else had interesting answers to our other questions (Omaha steakhouse? Fourth of July?) as well as any general itinerary advice, i.e. which roads to take and how to route things.

Thanks so much!
posted by andrewesque to Travel & Transportation (16 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
As far as small town celebrations go, I would recommend, if its not too far out of the way, to go to Independence IA. A really good cover band is playing from 6:30 to 10, if you like mainstream country and top 40 crap. They are fun to watch anyways, and big on bringing people from the crowd up to sing.
posted by wheelieman at 9:11 AM on June 24, 2011

If you're planning to go to Omaha Monday, sorry!
posted by wheelieman at 9:12 AM on June 24, 2011

I live in Iowa City and there's a good thread on what to do there (the Bloom County house is actually at the corner of College and Summit--my bad earlier). Also, the Iowa City Jazz Fest will be going on that weekend. And there are a gazillion bars.

I have always heard good things about the Des Moines Botanical Center, although I have never been there.

If you happen to go through Burlington, Iowa, you should check out Snake Alley, although it's probably not enough of a destination to go out of your way to see.

I no longer stop at the world's largest truck stop because it's a major center of human trafficking -- a priest my mom knows keeps getting harassed by the cops for trying to do work there -- but that is my own political thing and may or may not be relevant to anyone else.

Have fun! And stop in lots of small towns. They're all pretty quirky and wonderful.
posted by newrambler at 9:15 AM on June 24, 2011

I think I have plugged this blog here before, but Des Loines is a blog devoted to reviewing the pork tenderloin sandwiches of (mostly) small-town and rural Iowa. Definitely worth a stop for lunch if you have a big appetite and don't mind some serious deep-fryage.
posted by craichead at 9:15 AM on June 24, 2011

The Happy Joe's Taco Pizza, cited in the other thread, is indeed an Iowa specialty and especially of Happy Joe's. It is an Iowa/Illinois chain so you can probably turn one up along your path.

Iowa City is cool, but if you are going in the summer it'll be a hell of a lot calmer than it was a couple weeks ago. The city is 50/50 university/normal people, and empties out. I went over the Christmas break and we could have filmed a very snowy zombie movie. But it remains cute, with lots of quirky independent stores - used bookstores and couple knitting stores come to mind.
posted by whatzit at 10:30 AM on June 24, 2011

Omaha native here!

Too bad you're not staying later in the evening in Omaha on Sunday--Omaha's Shakespeare on the Green is running that weekend and it is a fantastic way to spend an evening. (sprawled on the grass, drinking wine, soaking up a play) They take a long intermission to let people check out fireworks.

For steak, most of the upper class steak houses in town will be serving the good stuff and will do right by you. Gorat's is famous for being Warren Buffett's favorite, but it tends to the older, grey-haired stodgy crowd. The Drover on 72nd or Johnny's are the classic steakhouses in town. We <3 our steak and it's easy to get the good stuff here. Truth is, most natives just throw their steaks on the bbq at home. ;)

For other restaurants, Ahmad's (tiny, casual family-run persian cafe) in the Old Market is one of my favorite little-known joints. Up-scale/foodie: Flat Iron Cafe or The Grey Plume. Sushi: Blue. Beer: Upstream Brewery. Wine & munchies: Urban Wine Company. Breakfast/brunch/desserts: Wheatfield's.

Enjoy your trip!
posted by ninjakins at 11:11 AM on June 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

Do NOT miss the Bily clock museum in Spillville.

Get a loosemeat at Canteen Lunch in Ottumwa.

A Laura Ingalls Wilder site is in Burr Oak.

The Jasper County Historical museum in Newton has a maytag exhibit.
posted by brujita at 11:13 AM on June 24, 2011

Be sure to research the Iowa and Nebraska road closures as a result of the flooding. As I understand it, I-80 between Omaha and Council Bluffs is open and likely to remain so, but there aren't many other places left to cross the river. Large chunks of I-29 are closed as well.
posted by zachlipton at 11:59 AM on June 24, 2011

To expand on Ninjakins, the Johnny's I hope they're referring to is on 30th and L, roughly. There's another Johnny's out west. It's okay, but it's a chain.

There are a ton of authentic Mexican joints on south 24th St from L to Q. El Dorado, at the end near Q, specializes in seafood and is always reliable. Other recs: wine & munchies - La Buvette in the Old Market. Beer: Beer Corner at 36th and Farnam. Crescent Moon features microbrews, Huber Haus features German food & beer and Max and Joe's offers Belgian beers. For dim sum, go to Canton House. Roasted duck, etc. Guy's got a light hand with spices and it's superb.

For cocktails, go to the Side Door, which is on 38th and Leavenworth. It's next to the dollar store. Blink and you'll miss it, but they make excellent cocktails.

One thing -- make sure you call ahead to these places if you can. Lots of locally-owned restaurants close up on Sundays in Omaha. Feel free to memail me too.
posted by Atom12 at 12:01 PM on June 24, 2011

Response by poster: Thank you so much for all the answer so far! A few things in particular:

- I also definitely welcome any suggestions on stuff to do in Omaha/Council Bluffs as we plan to spend most of Sunday there. We're hitting up the Golden Spike Monument in Council Bluffs because we have a train buff (and again, kitschy ridiculousness) and I've heard good things about a couple of the museums (is the Durham worth visiting?)
- Thanks for the heads up on the flooding; I've been somewhat following it but didn't realize that major interstate bridges had been closed.
- And as for stuff in Iowa, essentially anywhere in the state is fair game. We haven't really mapped out our routes through the state yet, so those'll be determined by what we decide to stop at.

I will almost definitely have some questions about the stuff upthread but I'll look through it first!
posted by andrewesque at 12:43 PM on June 24, 2011

For Omaha activities: It's what you hear from everyone, but it's true--the Omaha Henry Doorly Zoo and it's accompanying ginormous rainforest/aquarium/desert dome is not to be missed! At one point, it was touted as the largest indoor rainforest in the world.

The zoo could take a day in itself, but if you have more time, the Old Market and the Joslyn Art Museum are also neat trips.
posted by ninjakins at 1:44 PM on June 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

Depending on your music tastes you might want to hit 80-35 in Des Moines - it's a music festival Saturday and Sunday, and this year Girl Talk and Of Montreal are headlining.

I don't have specific recommendations for small towns to go to parades and fireworks, but the TV stations should have lists like this one for the Des Moines area. I'd probably just pick one at random that's convenient with your route.
posted by solipsism at 7:26 PM on June 24, 2011

The Amana Colonies are worth a stop, too- not far from Iowa City, north of I-80. See here. The Colony Inn has been my favorite eatin' place there and the woolen mill, just across the street, is DEFINITELY worth a visit. colony inn, mill
Antique shops, winerys, the smoke house/meat shop (yum!) a map...

And Omaha. If you're into airyplanes, the Strategic Air and Space Museum is a wonderful side trip, just outside Omaha.
posted by drhydro at 7:30 PM on June 24, 2011

Since it is sort of on the way, I suggest stopping at The Big Pump. Old gas station, shaped like, well you get it right? No other reason, than to take a pic, chuckle and think "Heh! Damn thing looks like a gas pump."
posted by timsteil at 11:52 AM on June 25, 2011

Go to the Carrie Catt house in Charles City. She took over the suffrage movement from Susan B Anthony.
posted by brujita at 12:26 PM on June 25, 2011

My mom is from Iowa City and I went to college there, plus I've lived in Omaha for the past 12 years. I think that might qualify me to answer this question! ;)

For excellent steak in Omaha, go to Omaha Prime. It's in the Old Market area, which is where you'll want to concentrate your time anyway. The Zoo is definitely a good idea, since it is truly awesome. Also stop at Ted & Wally's for great ice cream (in the Old Market).

If you do stop in Iowa City and are as interested in Grant Wood as you say, you can see the house he lived in while a professor at Iowa. The address is 1142 East Court Street. It's a private residence right now, so you can't go in, but you can at least get some photos. How do I know all of this? It's the house my mom grew up in! The current owner has bequeathed it to the U of I, so upon his death you may be able to take a tour sometime.

Prairie Lights bookstore in Iowa City is a must-see for the literary type. One of THE BEST independent bookstores in the country. Once you're in that downtown vicinity, just start walking around and you'll find great food and shops.

The Herbert Hoover Presidential Museum is in West Branch, just east of Iowa City and not too far off I-80. Kitsch factor? I dunno. Could be totally lame.

Mt. Vernon, Iowa (north of Iowa City via Highway 1) is an awesome small town. There are really good antique stores and they have a good 4th of July fireworks display. Cornell College is there, and has a beautiful campus.

The Des Loines link that someone posted is awesome! You really do need to have a pork tenderloin sandwich in Iowa somewhere. Ketchup, mustard, pickles and possibly onion.
posted by wwartorff at 7:53 PM on June 25, 2011

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