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10 Most Exciting Largest Places In Iowa

If you are looking to have fun in Iowa's largest cities, here we present 10 most exciting places in Iowa for exciting lifestyle.

Natalie Grigson

Staff Writer

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The 10 Most Exciting Places In Iowa

When most people think of Iowa, “excitement” isn’t usually the first thing that come to mind. Corn, sure. Flat land, absolutely. But a place that you’re itching to pack up and visit for Spring Break? Not so much.

Luckily, here at the Movoto Real Estate Blog we love to challenge, well, most anything. We’ve proved that suburbs can be sexy, that California is kind of a total snob, and today, we’re going to show you that yes, Iowa can in fact be exciting.

Which place was the most exciting of them all? But before you book you start making your Spring Break plans for next year, there were plenty of other contenders. Here are the 10 most exciting places in Iowa:

1. Iowa City
2. City of Ames
3. City of Dubuque
4. City of Des Moines
5. City of Burlington
6. City of Cedar Rapids
7. City of West Des Moines (tie)
7. City of Cedar Falls (tie)
9. City of Davenport (tie)
9. City of Fort Dodge (tie)

Iowa City, home of UI, nightlife, and, of course, some of the best darn falafels your mouth will ever encounter… well, this city may not come as much of a surprise. But what about the others on our list? Keep reading to find out how we came up with this order, and just what makes each place so exciting, pita aside.

How We Created This Ranking

We started our list by gathering up all of the places in Iowa with populations of 25,000 people or more, which left us with 21 places. We then used business listings and the 2010 Census to research each place for the following criteria:

  • Nightlife per capita (bars, clubs, comedy, etc.)
  • Live music venues per capita
  • Active life options per capita (parks, outdoor activities, etc.)
  • Arts and Entertainment per capita (movie theaters, festivals, galleries, theaters, etc.)
  • Fast Food restaurants per capita (the fewer the better)
  • Percentage of restaurants that are not fast food (the higher the better)
  • Percentage of young residents ages 18 to 34 (the higher the better)
  • Population density (the higher the better)

We ranked each of these places with a score from 1 to 25, with the lowest score being the best. We averaged these rankings into one overall Big Deal Score, again, where the lowest score was the best, most awesome, and all around most exciting place in the state, which in this case was Iowa City.

If you want to see a complete list of the 21 places we looked at, just head on down to the bottom of the post. Otherwise, we’ll take a closer look at each of our winners in the following paragraphs.

1. Iowa City

Iowa City - Exciting Largest Places In Iowa

Source: City of Iowa City

As briefly hinted at in the introduction, this city is… awesome.

Iowa City has more live music, more arts, and more restaurants than anywhere else in the state per capita. It’s also the most densely populated city on our list, so you’re bound to run into somebody exciting while you’re out, and it even has the second most young people in the state, with 49.94 percent of residents being between the ages of 18 and 34.

Not only does its extensive list of restaurants include Oasis Falafel, but it also includes La Michoacana Taqueria, home of some really smokin’ Mexican food… in the middle of Iowa. Viva Iowa City!

2. Ames

Ames - Exciting Largest Places In Iowa

Source: Flickr user Scott McLeod

If you thought Iowa City was a college town, just wait until you visit Ames.

Over half of the residents here are between the ages of 18 and 34 (56.01 percent,  to be exact), which is mostly because of ISU. Which is also the home of the world’s first electronic digital computer, which is awesome.

Young people who are probably more intelligent than you aside, Ames scored well in our analysis for its high number of music venues, restaurants, and a serious lack of fast food per capita, plus its tightly packed population, 2,435 people per square mile.

That may not seem like too many people, compared to say, Chicago, where there are 11,842 people per square mile, but for the wide open spaces of Iowa, where something like 1,000 to 1,500 is more typical, Ames is just buzzing with people.

3. Dubuque

Dubuque - Exciting Largest Places In Iowa

Source: City of Dubuque

This city is one of the only in Iowa with hills, which, let’s be honest, is pretty exciting after so much flat land.

Dubuque also draws in tourists each year because of its unique architecture and beautiful location along the Mississippi River, but there’s also plenty of excitement for year-round residents as well.

In fact, out of all of the places we looked at, Dubuque ranked the best for its number of active life listings per capita, and the 2nd and 3rd best for its music venues and nightlife, respectively. This probably has a little something to do with the relatively young and active population here, 25.73 percent of which are between 18 and 34.

4. Des Moines

Des Moines - Exciting Largest Places In Iowa

Source: Flickr user Phil Roeder

With over 200,000 residents, the capital city of Des Moines is easily the largest city in the state, but unlike West Des Moines or Cedar Falls, two cities in our top 10 which are more spread out, Des Moines is one of the most densely populated in the state.

Apart from the 2,516 people for every square mile, Des Moines is also packed with music venues like Vaudeville Mews and Gas Lamp, and with several colleges and universities around town, students. In fact, 27.21 percent of the population here is between 18 and 34, which is more than 15 other places we looked at.

5. Burlington

Burlington - Exciting Largest Places In Iowa

Source: Flickr user Daniel Holt

Any place home to a street called “Snake Alley,” known as the “crookedest alley in the world,” earns excitement points for that alone, in our book. Unfortunately, we couldn’t exactly take this into account in our analysis. Windy streets aside, Burlington has plenty going on.

Burlington didn’t exactly have the young population or the nightlife and music that some of the others did, but it more than made up for this with its arts, active life, and in particular, its cuisine.

With restaurants like The Drake, Bistro 322, and, of course, Moto’s Public House, Burlington has more restaurants per capita than 19 other places we looked at.

6. Cedar Rapids

Cedar Rapids - Exciting Largest Cities In Iowa

Source: Flickr user Louis

Despite the fact that there was an entire movie based here to point out just how very unexciting a place Cedar Rapids is, according to our analysis, this city is one of the most exciting.

Cedar Rapids had the seventh most music venues, the seventh most non-fast food restaurants, and was the seventh most densely-populated in the state.

Speaking of sevens, if you haven’t been to Zins and had at least seven of their small plates, or just seven orders of their breakfast pizzas, your mouth is missing out on some serious excitement.

7. West Des Moines

West Des Moines - Exciting Largest Cities In Iowa

Source: Flickr user AnneCN

When it comes to a young population and nightlife, West Des Moines is the best Des Moines, at least per capita. Where 27.21 percent of Des Moines’ population are between 18 and 34, there are slightly more in West Des Moines, 27.92 percent.

What comes with young people? Well, in West Des Moines, it’s nightlife—and most likely money, seeing seeing as though it’s one of Iowa’s wealthiest cities. But back to the nightlife. This city is dotted with places like Cooper’s on 5th, Wellman’s Pub and Rooftop, and, of course, Shotgun Bettie’s.

If bars aren’t really your thing, West Des Moines also has a bustling art scene, with the fifth most arts listings per capita.

7. Cedar Falls

Cedar Rapids - Exciting Largest Cities In Iowa

Source: Flickr user wcfsymphony

Another No. 7 for our list, Cedar Falls had the exact same number of points as West Des Moines, but for some different reasons.

Where West Des Moines had a young population, Cedar Falls had, well, a really young population, with 41.64 percent of residents between the ages of 18 and 34.

Unlike Ames or Iowa City, though, where students have nightlife and music venues aplenty, it seems as though the folks at University of Northern Iowa are content with a quieter sort of excitement. Sure, there are still the occasional Octopus, the Pump Haus, and the Library, but where this city really shined was in its cuisine.

Not only did it have the sixth most restaurants per capita, it also had the sixth least fast food restaurants. Not too shabby for a college town.

9. Davenport

Davenport - Exciting Largest Cities In Iowa

Source: Flickr user Alan

Davenport may be home to two major universities, but even so, its young population wasn’t one of the highest on our list at 26.38 percent. That being said, who needs young people, because Davenport still seems to know how to have a good time.

As a matter of fact, with places like Barrel House 211, Mac’s Taverns, and Kilkenny’s Pub, Davenport has the most nightlife listings per capita, out of anywhere we looked at.

Ames may have most of the young people, but it looks like Davenport is the real place to party.

9. Fort Dodge

Fort Dodge - Exciting Largest Cities In Iowa

Source: City of Fort Dodge

What exactly is so exciting about this city—aside from the Blanden Memorial Art Museum, Shellabration, Blues Under the Trees, the Fort Dodge Choral Festival, so much theater your head might explode, and more arts than 14 other places we looked at?

Fort Dodge ranked well for its number of nightlife and active life listings per capita, ranking second in both categories. So whether you’re into art, nightlife, or just going to the gym, this city has something for you.

Iowa’s On Excitement Like A Hawk

Before you know it, Iowans, busloads of tourists, caravans of college students, and hordes of hungry foodies will be sweeping through your state, after having read about all of the arts, restaurants, nightlife, and excitement happening within your borders—in these 10 cities in particular.

Of course, there are plenty of places in the state that really are as boring as corn; and for a look at some of them, check out the table below where we list the 21 places we analyzed. Aw, shucks, Marshalltown. Better luck next time.

Most Exciting Places In Iowa Ranking

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posted on: August 5, 2014
18,619 views, 2 comments


  1. Lynn Hicks

    Des Moines’ ranking of 19 for “active life options” is a surprise, given our extensive trail system and one of the biggest urban parks in the US (1,500-acre Water Works Park). Can you share the data on this measurement? And if you haven’t been to Des Moines, come visit!

  2. Mary Jo

    Glad to see Fort Dodge made the list! I agree with everyone of the choices made – Iowa is a great place to live.


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