We love our football in this country. Baseball may be America’s game, but football is America’s way of life. While that holds true in the NFL, nothing quite compares to a college football gameday in your traditional college town. And nowhere is that more true than in Iowa City, Iowa.
A bustling town of fewer than 100,000 inhabitants, inclusive of the 30,000 students, Iowa City is the essence of a college town. If not for the students and the staff, there would be no town at all. And unlike your traditional land-grant university, the University of Iowa is fully integrated with the city of Iowa City with university buildings sprinkled throughout downtown, amidst the bars, restaurants and small businesses that make small town America great.
But on game day, the population in Iowa City doubles. The usual 100,000 or so inhabitants are joined by another 70,000-100,000 visitors from near and far - all there to cheer on the Iowa Hawkeyes. The result is an incredible atmosphere not just in the stadium, but across the entire town for hours before and after the game.
Whether you’ve been coming to Kinnick for years or planning to make your first trip, there’s lots to know before you go. So here’s a look at how to make the most of your game day experience in Iowa City.
The best way to have a great time in Iowa City is to have a longer time in Iowa City. That starts by getting there with time to spare. Nothing is worse than arriving after all the parking is gone, walking forever on an empty stomach and then being hustled to the game without any of the pre-game experience.
Start by knowing your kickoff time. Traditionally, Iowa fans have grown accustomed to that 11am CT kick off for the majority of games. In recent years as the TV contracts have changed, that rhythm has been altered and we’re seeing more and more afternoon games, regardless of the opponent. So check the schedule at HawkeyeSports.com and work backwards from kickoff.
A good starting point is at least three hours before kickoff, depending on your group makeup and what you hope to accomplish.
On game day itself, there are two absolute must-do items: get to the game and get to a tailgate beforehand. There’s a lot to do that’s ancillary to the game, but those are the reason you’re here and it’s important to not forget that when mapping things out.
And by that, I mean literally mapping things out, which is worth doing if this is your first go-around. For the unacquainted, Iowa City has a core downtown that abuts the Iowa River to the west. The river splits the town in half with most of main campus intertwined with the town on the east side while all the athletics and university hospital campuses sit on the west side of the river. From downtown to Kinnick Stadium, you’re looking at roughly a mile walk across the river and through a sea of black and gold.
The tailgating scene spreads far and wide. Unlike those land-grant schools or universities with massive parking lots surrounding their stadiums, Kinnick is tucked right between University Heights residential neighborhoods and the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics main campus. It’s a snug, quaint environment on a normal day and packed to the brim with fans on game day.
There are open lots east of the river on the walk from the downtown bars and restaurants to Melrose Avenue, where you’ll find tailgates in every yard, driveway, parking ramp and open lot until you hit Kinnick and for about a mile beyond.
Here’s a look at the University of Iowa’s official policy on tailgating:
Alcohol Policy: On Iowa football game days only, beer and wine are allowed in UI parking areas. State law prohibits hard liquor consumption or possession of an open bottle of liquor in UI parking lots and ramps. Possession of an open container (including beer, wine, and hard liquor) while walking/driving to University property on the public sidewalks and roads are subject to citation, and the beverage will be confiscated.
Bands / Amplified Sound: Live musical bands and other live performances are not allowed at tailgating sites or on campus without prior approval from Iowa Athletics. Amplified music must be confined to your tailgate area and speakers must be directed into your tailgate party. This policy is intended to protect the enjoyment of other fans. Musical tastes and tolerable noise levels vary greatly from tailgate party to tailgate party.
Grills / Wood Fires: Liquid Propane (LP) and charcoal grills and LP heaters are permitted in parking lots when temperature warrants, but are prohibited in parking ramps. Please do not place used charcoal, embers, or ash in trash cans, under trees, or leave it in the parking areas. LP grills or heaters are limited to one 20# LP cylinder per device; no spare or additional cylinders will be allowed. Open wood fires or wood fires enclosed in a portable fire pit are not permitted.
For the best experience, identify your start time, determine where you plan to tailgate and how long is right for your group and then account for parking, walking and anything else you plan to do with your trip.
Iowa City, like most college towns, has a parking problem. On a normal day with students in town, there is very limited parking. On game day, those options expand to accommodate tailgaters, but continue to come at a premium.
The best locations, close to the stadium, are reserved for contributors to the I-Club. But there are eight publicly available lots that come at a cost, as well as three lots that are further out and offer free parking plus a complimentary shuttle to the stadium.
Here’s a look at those options.
Note that in addition to the lots identified by the university above, there are myriad options for street parking on side streets throughout University Heights or across the river in Iowa City. Additionally, there are dozens of entrepreneurial locals who are willing to rent part of their driveway or lawn for a small fee.
The earlier you can get to this area, the better luck you’ll have avoiding a long walk from your tailgate to the stadium.
Tips for the Game
Going to a game should seem pretty self-explanatory, but there are a few helpful tips and reminders that are worth mentioning.
Kinnick Stadium has a no re-entry policy. While some school may permit anyone with a ticket to exit and return, Kinnick is not one of them so be sure you’re ready to go in before you enter the facility and truly done for the day before you leave.
Cash Isn’t King
Kinnick is officially a cashless stadium as of 2021. While cash may be king elsewhere, it’s worthless inside Kinnick. That goes for UI parking facilities as well on game day. You’ll need a credit card or mobile wallet to make payments both at stadium vendors and for parking on game day.
It’s not just your cash that’s gone digital, the ticketing system followed suit in 2021. That means you’ll need the digital ticket downloaded to your mobile device to enter the stadium. Cell service in and around Kinnick is notoriously spotty, especially as game time approaches and thousands of people congregate close together, so be sure to download your tickets in advance.
Don’t Bring Much With You
As with most stadiums, Kinnick’s policies on what can and cannot come into the stadium are pretty strict. Notably, most bags are prohibited. And by most, I mean almost all bags. The only thing allowed in is a 6.5”x4.5” clutch a 12”x12” clear tote or a clear 1 gallon bag.
In terms of what can be in there, it’s worth checking for the updated list here, but a general rule of thumb is no alcohol, tobacco or liquid unless it’s a sealed bottle of water.
One pre-game thing to call out is the Hawk Walk. Roughly two hours prior to kickoff, the Iowa players and coaches arrive at the stadium on Melrose Avenue to the south of the stadium. Fans will pack the Krause Family Plaza and greet the players as they walk into the stadium.
As they enter through the South Entrance, each player passes through the sea of fans and touches the the base of the Nile Kinnick Statue which sits at the stadium’s south entrance for good luck.
Don’t Forget to WAVE
While the game is the main attraction, the Iowa Wave has become an attraction of its own.
Between the first and second quarter, the PA announcer will ask the fans to turn and wave to the UI Stead Family Children’s Hospital, which is housed in a 12-story tower overlooking the east stands behind the visiting bench.
As the tradition continues to evolve, there are new twists and wrinkles to the tradition each season, but the core remains the same: we see the bigger picture, the families fighting for their health, and we hope we can make your day just a little better.
Don’t worry about the dust in your eye, everyone else has it too.
And while you have the feels, it’s always a good time to consider doing more than just waving. You can support the children and families in the Stead Family Children’s Hospital with a gift of any size. Every donation truly makes a difference.
Beyond the Game
Outside of the game itself, there is plenty to do ahead of kickoff in and around Iowa City. A lot will depend on your timing, but there are lots of options if you get to town the Friday before and or you stay and extra day and make a weekend of it.
THE PENTACREST & OLD CAPITOL
If you went to the University of Iowa, you’ve almost certainly had a class or five in one of the four buildings surrounding the Old Capitol that make up the iconic core of Iowa’s beautiful campus. The east end is adjacent to downtown Iowa City, making it a perfect spot to grab a quick picture before you head across the river for the game.
If you get into town early, you can scope out the Museum of Natural History at Macbride Hall. It’s not what you came for, but if you’ve got kiddos you can kill an hour checking out the sloth and other various artifacts (if you’re in Coralville killing time with the kiddos, the Iowa Children’s Museum at the Coral Ridge Mall is also a great option).
Head down the hill to the west of the Pentacrest and you’re facing the Iowa Memorial Union, Main Campus Library and about a three-quarters of a mile walk to Kinnick.
Just as the Pentacrest is the heart of the UI campus, the Ped Mall is the heart of downtown Iowa City. Just southeast of the Pentacrest and bounded by Clinton Street to the west, Washington Street to the north, Linn Street to the east and Burlington Street (OK, the Graduate Hotel) to the south, the Ped Mall is where all the non-football action is.
This is the main hub for bars and restaurants, and on gameday it will be overflowing with black and gold-clad fans. There are a number of places to grab your last-minute Hawkeye gear or gameday supplies.
If you’re looking for something to do, somewhere to eat or drink, or just some good people watching, this is the place to be any day of the week in Iowa City.
ATHLETICS HALL OF FAME
Located just a little over a mile west of Kinnick Stadium along Melrose Avenue (across Mormon Trek Blvd from Finkbine Golf Course), the Iowa Athletics Hall of Fame is a great place to spend an hour or half a day depending on your schedule and level of interest. Admission is free and the walk to Kinnick is doable, though not ideal. Here’s what the UI has to say about the museum:
The University of Iowa Athletics Hall of Fame is the ultimate fantasy for a Hawkeye fan. The UI Athletics Hall of Fame has three floors of Hawkeye memories; from the National Championship trophies to the Orange Bowl to Nile Kinnick’s Heisman trophy. The UI Athletics Hall of Fame is a must see destination for friends and fans of the intercollegiate athletic programs at the University of Iowa.
I’ve been a number of times and you genuinely can learn something new each time. It’s a bit of a shame the HoF isn’t closer to Kinnick and Carver. If you have the time, it’s worth the trip.
Looking for a bite to eat? On game day, most of the local bars will fill up pretty early, so get there in plenty of time if you’re looking for a seat. Same goes for the breakfast spots if you’re looking to catch an Iowa City staple ahead of the tailgate scene.
Tops on the list is Hamburg Inn No. 2. Hamburg doesn’t have anything particularly special on the menu, but it’s an Iowa City staple because of the ambiance and the wall-to-wall pictures of every celebrity and politician that’s visited Iowa City over the last several decades, because they all stop here.
Other local favorites include Bluebird Diner and Pullman Bar & Grill for breakfast (Pullman is great at other times as well). If you’re looking for a burger, check out Short’s Burgers and Shine. If pizza is more your thing, Pagliai’s is a thin crust staple while The Airliner has been in business since WWII. If deep dish is more your style, Wig and Pen is west of the river in Coralville.
There are also dozens and dozens of options around the stadium. From pizza to barbecue to the classic “big ass turkey leg!” If you can’t find what you’re looking for from a street vendor, find your way to an Iowa tailgate and make some new friends.
Where to Stay
If you’re planning to head to Iowa City for more than a day trip, you’ve got to do some planning. There are myriad hotels popping up all over the area, but most will fill up well in advance of game day and almost all are going to require a two night stay at rates that are double what they charge the rest of the year.
You’ll need to do your own planning for budget and vicinity to the things that are important to you, but here are some suggestions.
Virtually right across the street from Kinnick Stadium sits a Courtyard by Marriott. It’s just off of Melrose Avenue and less than a block west of the stadium. If being close to the game and tailgating is your goal, there’s no beating this option. It’s also home to the Iowa Swarm collective’s weekly tailgates on the rooftop.
On the east side of the Iowa River, there are several more options that come with a slightly longer walk to the stadium but put you into the thick of student life before and after the game with more options for food and drink.
The Graduate Hotel (fka The Sheraton) is at the epicenter of downtown Iowa City. Literally. It’s on the pedestrian mall with access from Dubuque Street by car. Historically, this was really the only major hotel chain option in the core of downtown Iowa City. That’s changed in recent years.
Just south of The Graduate you’ll now find The Element by Marriott and a Hilton Garden Inn on the corner of Clinton Street and Burlington Street, just across from Starbucks and the University of Iowa School of Music. A bit further south and east (read: further from the stadium), there’s a new Hyatt Place.
Beyond the national chains, there are a couple boutique hotels that are available in the heart of downtown Iowa City. Hotel Vetro has been around for a while and is every bit as close to the pedestrian mall as The Graduate. It sits atop the Bread Garden Market off of Linn Street, just across from the Iowa City Public Library. A block further east is a new hotel since your last trip to town. The Hotel Chauncey sits in the new tower on Gilbert and College Streets.
There are also several options in Coralville and further out. The further from the stadium, the better the chances of finding an agreeable rate and avoiding a two-night minimum.
Whether you’re coming to Iowa City for the first time or just the next time, we hope you enjoy your time. If you’ve got tips or thoughts of your own based on your fan experience in Iowa City, please share them in the comments below!
As always, Go Hawks!