Although I’m from Nebraska, I have a soft spot for Iowa, where I worked for a summer and my younger sister attended college. I put a call-out on Twitter and Facebook for things to do on campus or in Ames, and received tons of ideas from friends and family. (And, awkwardly, a comment from a friend who attended another university in the great cyclone state and questioned whether there were enough attractions in Ames to warrant an entire blog post. Sigh. Um, yes.)
First off, you have to wander around Iowa State’s central campus, which has been recognized by several landscape architecture groups for its beauty. The centerpiece is 20 acres of grassy lawn circled by academic and administrative buildings with grand architecture. “It’s phenomenal,” wrote Doug Hartwell, a longtime family friend who is an ISU graduate research assistant.
The lawn is a gathering spot for students to study, eat lunch and play Frisbee. It’s also where students gathered to rally following the death of Osama bin Laden this spring, freeze in place for two minutes as part of a flash mob last fall and mock global warming with a snowball fight organized by the ISU College Republicans in January.
Other things to see on campus: The campanile, the university’s iconic bell tower; Reiman Gardens,14-acres of indoor and outdoor gardens that attract swarms of butterflies; and Lake LaVerne , a peaceful spot near the student union that is the longtime home to a duo of swans named Sir Lancelot and Elaine.
If you want to pretend you are an ISU student, then you have to hang out in Campustown, the bar and restaurant district directly south of campus that’s home to dozens of college bars with sticky floors, and some great restaurants.
My sister, who graduated from ISU this May, recommends the London Underground, an English pub with a red door, import beers and a slightly more sophisticated crowd (think grad students instead of fake IDs).
And for coffee or a quick lunch, former Iowa State Daily editor Jessica Opoien recommends Stomping Grounds or Cafe Diem, a funky coffeeshop where GOP candidate Rick Santorum(R-Penn.) met with voters this week.
Lauren Peeler, a high school friend from Omaha who graduated from ISU, recommends Great Plains Pizza (129 Main St.) and wrote that “my mouth waters just thinking about it.” Other picks from Lauren near campus: Beer at Olde Main Brewing Company (316 Main Street); legendary barbecue at Hickory Park (1404 S. Duff); and pretty much anything at Fighting Burrito (117 Welch Ave.), Dublin Bay Irish Pub (320 S. 16th St.) or Ge-Angelo’s Italian Restaurant (823 Wheeler St.).
A little bit of a drive from campus is my favorite Ames restaurant, The Cafe (2616 Northridge Pky.), where the menu is loosely set by whatever local farmers and producers are selling that week. I had lunch here a year or so ago with the staff of the Iowa State Daily, and it’s a popular spot for ISU students to take visiting parents for a decadent weekend brunch. The Cafe also has an inventive cocktail list and fabulous desserts.
If you are looking to leave Ames this weekend — not that you have to — my dad recommends that you drive north about 20 miles to the Open Flame steakhouse in Gilbert, where you can (no joke) grill your own meal. About 15 miles west of Ames, you can canoe or kayak on the Des Moines River and check out the Kate Shelley High Bridge, which my dad says is one of the highest double-track railroad bridges in the country.
And if you simply must escape to the big city of Des Moines, here’s a quick list of some of my favorite things to do:
* Visit the Iowa State Fair, which runs through Aug. 21 and features lots of fried food served on a stick. Make sure to take a gondola ride over the fair and snap some hipster pics with your smartphone.
* Buy an ironic T-shirt at RAYGUN, a shop in the East Village that already has printed up a batch of “Corporations are people too” shirts.
* Jog or bike around Gray’s Lake, not far from downtown.
* Drink old-school beers and eat pot roast at High Life Lounge , which is decorated with shag carpet, wood paneling and vintage wallpaper. (This is the only place I have ever been that serves a shot called a “tanger-bomb,” made of orange Tang and Jägermeister.) Another great downtown bar, El Bait Shop , is right next door.
That’s only the tip of the iceberg for things to do in Iowa. So please share your favorite spots in the comments section below!