The main jewel of Eastern Iowa’s heritage is its people, whether they are part of the agricultural backbone in Waterloo, the creativity of Iowa City, the music and culture inspired by the Mississippi River in the Quad Cities and Dubuque, or were on the paths immigrants traveled in Cedar Rapids. Across the region, the history of its people will inspire groups.
As the heart of Eastern Iowa, Cedar Rapids has plenty of history for groups to enjoy, from the work of renowned American artist Grant Wood at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art to Ushers Ferry Historic Village. But three destinations stand out for groups, and these are sites where the diverse history of Iowa comes alive: the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library, African American Museum of Iowa and the historic estate of Brucemore. Making a historic visit come alive is important to the city, according to Julie Stow, director of meetings and conventions at GO Cedar Rapids.
“Cedar Rapids boasts many off-site meeting spaces with rich cultural stories that attendees are able to experience,” Stow said. “For many, just being within the walls of these culturally historic venues is enough of an experience but our community takes the extra step to ensure attendees live the story, if only for a few hours.”
At the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library, groups can explore special exhibits, tour the Sleger Immigrant Home to see how they lived a century ago, or explore their own ancestral ties with a visit to the Skala Bartizal Library. Event space is also available.
“When a group holds an off-site session at the National Czech & Slovak Museum they’ll be treated to authentic Czech kolaches (pastries) as they explore and then wrap up their session with authentic Czech beer at the national award-winning Lion Bridge Brewing Company located across the street,” Stow said.
The African American Museum of Iowa takes visitors on a breathless journey from western Africa to today, with exhibits about slavery, the Underground Railroad, segregation and the struggles of the civil rights movement, communicating a thirst for freedom and the unbreakable spirit of a proud people discovering their own power. The museum also offers event space for groups.
On the other end of the spectrum is Brucemore, a lavish 26-acre estate, home to three families across 100 years and a time capsule of how they built and affected Cedar Rapids. The mansion and gardens are available for tours, and special events are held throughout the year, from garden walks to concerts and outdoor theater.
Venues in the compact city are within close range of major meeting spaces like the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Cedar Rapids Convention Complex.
Northeast of Cedar Rapids is picturesque Dubuque. Located along the banks of the Mississippi River, Dubuque offers historical charm around every corner. Riverboat tours aboard the Celebration Belle are an excellent option for groups, from an onboard meeting followed by a meal to a sightseeing cruise.
Fans of the TV show Game of Thrones and George R.R. Martin’s books will love the Fenelon Place Elevator, the world’s shortest and steepest railcar. When the author lived and taught in Dubuque, he found inspiration at the Elevator and used elements of it in his books. On the short ride visitors can see gorgeous vistas of Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin.
To any town along the Mississippi, the river is life. That intertwined relationship is best explored at the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium, where attendees can learn about the wildlife and natural habitat of the river, including species from low-level marshes to southern bayous, and even feed the stingrays.
Visitors can also ride the William M. Black, a historic steam-powered dredge boat once common on the Mississippi, or go high-tech and watch a film in the museum’s 4D theater.
Follow the river south and discover the Quad Cities, a metro area that stretches across four cities and two states: Davenport and Bettendorf in Iowa, and Rock Island and Moline in Illinois. River heritage is celebrated here as well, with sites dedicated to the people who traveled here and the music born on the river’s edge.
One historic site is the German-American Heritage Center, located in Davenport. The center was once the final stop on immigrants’ journeys to their new home, serving as a busy hotel for thousands seeking a better life. Groups can see exhibits on World War I, life as a new immigrant, and even the history of toys and play through the last 100-plus years. The center also features a banquet hall and can accommodate up to 150 for meetings or events.
Another important site is the Rock Island Arsenal, according to Jessica Waytenick, public relations and marketing manager for the Quad Cities CVB.
“Arsenal Island has been owned by the U.S. government since 1804 and played an important part in developing the West and securing the Mississippi River,” Waytenick said. “It’s a working military facility, and there are attractions for the public, including the Arsenal Museum, the Colonel Davenport House and more.”
The Arsenal has assisted in supplying troops from the Civil War through the Gulf War and still does so today. The Rock Island Arsenal Museum is the U.S. Army’s second-oldest museum and has an amazing collection of small arms along with other artifacts.
Planners can also work with the museum to coordinate a tour of the Colonel Davenport House, built in 1833. Also available for tours are the National and Confederate cemeteries on the island, and the Mississippi River Visitor Center, run by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Groups can watch the largest roller dam in the world, or participate in one of several Bald Eagle Watches during the winter months.
One of the biggest contributions of river culture is music. The River Music Experience (RME) does more than offer two-dimensional exhibits: The facility features concerts throughout the seasons and teaches all generations about the sounds born along the Mississippi, including blues, jazz, zydeco, rock and gospel. Leon Russell, Alejandro Escovedo and John Hammond have all played at the RME, and the facility also offers venue rentals and can work with planners for entertainment and programming.
Another top venue for groups is the Figge Art Museum, which offers a broad range of artworks, from American and European to Asian, Mexican Colonial and one of the first collections of Haitian art shown in the U.S. The museum also offers a variety of spaces for rental, from the Grand Lobby to the Community Gallery, which showcases art by young local artists.
South of Cedar Rapids is the Iowa City/Coralville area, which has a history of embracing literature, curiosity and discourse. From the famed Prairie Lights bookstore to FilmScene, a theater dedicated to showing documentaries and independent films, this area has a relaxed, thoughtful vibe. That resonates with group activities, from touring the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum to heading downtown to see the University of Iowa Old Capitol Museum and the town’s most notable eatery, Hamburg Inn.
“Hamburg Inn is Iowa’s oldest family restaurant,” said Addison Mittelstaedt, digital media coordinator for the Iowa City/Coralville Area CVB. “This is a spot where politicians and candidates stop when visiting Iowa City. People like Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama have been here.”
The restaurant features stick-to-your-ribs American cuisine, from cheese-smothered home fries to the Hawkeye Hog, which is sausage, hash browns and cheese covered in gravy. It’s also been featured in numerous media outlets, from NPR to the Washington Post. While the restaurant isn’t large enough for groups, it’s perfect for a downtime treat, complete with an iconic 1950s setting.
Designated as a City of Literature by UNESCO, Iowa City boasts its own book festival and the famed Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Along with poetry readings and other live events, groups can also enjoy a literature sculpture walk around the Iowa River Landing area, according to Mittelstaedt.
Northwest of Cedar Rapids, the city of Waterloo has a rich heritage in agriculture, and may be best known as the home of John Deere tractors. Several sites are available for tours, including the John Deere Engine Works, John Deere Tractor Cab Assembly Operations and the newest attraction, the John Deere Tractor & Engine Museum.
While Waterloo celebrates its 100-year history with John Deere, the city also has plenty of unusual museums to round out planners’ schedules, including the National Wrestling Hall of Fame Dan Gable Museum, which commemorates the sport’s history and the career of Olympian Dan Gable. The museum also offers a 2,279-square-foot meeting room and small kitchen area.
For military buffs, the Sullivan Brothers Iowa Veterans Museum pays tribute to all Iowans serving their country, from past wars to the present. With 335 interactive exhibits and more than 1,500 recorded interviews with veterans, attendees will find it an incredible and moving experience.
Eastern Iowa CVB Contacts
Cedar Rapids Tourism Office
Dubuque Area CVB
Iowa City/Coralville Area CVB
Quad Cities CVB