For the eastern half of its run across Iowa, US-20 has been “upgraded” to fast four-lane freeway most of the way between Dubuque and Cedar Falls, a historic industrial town founded in 1845 along the Cedar River. Now home to the University of Northern Iowa, Cedar Falls (pop. 41,390) preserves the remnants of its manufacturing heritage and has a lively collection of pubs and bistros tucked away along the cobbled streets of its tidy six-block downtown. For die-hard road-food types, there is a vintage Maid-Rite Diner (116 E. 4th St., 319/277-9748), serving up classic Iowa-style “loose meat sandwiches” in the small industrial section of downtown “CF.” Also good, and one of the key forces driving the reawakening of downtown Cedar Falls, is a 1950s-style chrome diner at the heart of downtown: the Cup of Joe (102 Main St., 319/277-1596), whose strong coffee is guaranteed to revive even the most exhausted road-tripper.

For a place to stay in the historic core of Cedar Falls, check out the lovely Blackhawk Hotel (115 Main St., 319/277-1161, $129 and up), which has a great lobby and oodles of charm.

Downstream from Cedar Falls, and similarly bypassed by the modern US-20 freeway, Waterloo (pop. 37,934) is a bigger and busier city, with an almost urban feel and an unexpected ethnic diversity, thanks in particular to the estimated 3,500 Bosnian Muslim refugees who were resettled here by the U.S. government after escaping the genocidal 1990s wars in the Balkans. Waterloo also has a good museum, the Grout Museum of History and Science (503 South St., 319/234-6357, Tues.-Sat., $10). Despite the name, it’s a general science and history museum—not a collection of great tile-setting materials!

Though it now employs less than half the 25,000 workers it did at its 1960s peak, Waterloo is also home to a massive John Deere Tractor assembly plant (3500 E. Donald St., 319/292-7668 or 888/453-5804, Mon.-Fri.) on the outskirts of town. The plant is open for free tours and has a small shop where you can stock up on their trademark caps and souvenirs.