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Great Iowa Destinations for the Socially Conscious Traveler
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Great Iowa Destinations for the Socially Conscious Traveler

About six years ago, my college roommate and I went on a road trip from Portland, Oregon to Kalamazoo Michigan, taking a detour to Manhattan, Kansas along the way. This was the second long road trip we’d taken together, and while we used the first to see all sorts of kitschy tourist attractions, we decided to use the second to learn more about social issues we cared about. Since we had some extra time when going through Iowa, we stopped at the following places

The Old Iowa Penitentiary

The Historic Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison offers a chance to see over 175 years of Iowa’s history with incarceration. From learning about prominent figures involved with the penitentiary, to seeing how laws and incarceration rates and conditions have changed, this is an informative, educational visit.

With today’s conversations around private prisons and sentencing reform, it’s important to learn about how state-run facilities work and get more connected to the reality behind this political issue. Having attended college in Portland, it was interesting to compare the incarcerations stats between Iowa and Oregon, and speculate as to the reasons for the differences and similarities.

The State Capitol

Most state capitols have historical information available for tourists, and Iowa is no exception! In addition to self-guided and guided tours, the Iowa State Capitol also offers virtual tours online for those who don’t have time to stop in during business hours! If you’re traveling with kids, a trip to the state capitol can be a great way to expose them to how legislation works. We took a self-guided tour, and definitely plan on returning one day for the full guided experience!

Historical Treasure Troves

History is so important because we can’t build a better future without learning from the past. History can also be fun, learning about past events that seem surreal compared to today’s reality. Iowa has several instances of stolen and missing treasure that has never been recovered. We took a hike in the bluffs above Dubuque after having read information about Tom Kelly’s buried treasure. We didn’t find any coins, but we had some great weather and learned some more about Iowa history!

Just remember, if you decide to join the search for lost treasure, follow this treasure hunting code of ethics. If you get lucky, you could get your own page in a history book someday! Even if you don’t find anything of historical value, the experience is one worth having!

Other Socially Conscious Travel Tips

Of course, being socially conscious is not just about politics and history. It’s about supporting local economies and being intentional in your behavior. It’s trying to have a positive impact on the events around you. Here are some actionable ways we tried to be intentional through our Iowa travels.

1.) Stay in a rental, not a hotel. Vacation rentals are often owned and/or managed by locals, meaning more of your money stays in the local economy. But there are other reasons vacation rentals are better than hotels, including cost, experience, and flexibility in scheduling. We had friends we were staying with, but read about some awesome rentals that we might hit up if we ever go when our friends’ schedules are less accommodating.

2.) Eat at local restaurants, not national chains. Even regional chains offer more of a benefit to the local economy than national ones. But searching out mom and pop establishments usually results in a more unique experience and fun stories. It also increases your chances of learning more about the area and getting recommendations on other places to visit! We stopped by Mad Meatball in Des Moines and L. May Eatery when we were in Dubuque! Both were delicious and had tons of Iowa character.

3.) Take a Hike. Iowa has beautiful recreational areas for hiking and biking. Spend some time in the great outdoors. And remember, any parking fees or donations will go toward further conservation efforts and maintenance of important public lands!

What are your favorite ways to be socially conscious while traveling? Discuss in the comments!


Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons

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  1. Travel Iowa Team
    Travel Iowa Team
    Thanks for the thoughtful recommendations!
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