10 can't-miss Iowa City traditions for new University of Iowa students

Zach Berg
Press Citizen

This week marks the beginning of a new school year at the University of Iowa, and that means thousands of freshmen and new students filling the streets of Iowa City.

Starting new at any university can be daunting, but one of the great things about going to school at UI is that students can get the big school experience while also being in a rather small town.

Iowa City isn't daunting — it's friendly, welcoming and filled with a plethora of things to do outside of school activities that make the town an enjoyable place to study.

A UI student sits in front of the Old Capitol on campus in this file photo.

To get a real taste of what Iowa City is about — from the food, to the culture and the natural beauty of the area — here are 10 Iowa City traditions all new students should take part in as soon as possible.

(I left off items like "hit up all the downtown bars" because I know most of you freshman aren't 21 yet, but this list should help keep you busy until then.) 

Late-night dinner at Pancheros 

A burrito is prepared inside the Pancheros restaurant on Clinton Street on Thursday, Sept. 24, 2015.

Nowhere in Iowa City is more beloved by UI students than Pancheros Mexican Grill, the fast-casual burrito and Tex-Mex restaurant. The now-national chain got its start in Iowa City 25 years ago, and their custom-made burritos are darn tasty, so the appeal makes sense to me.

The greatest joy of Pancheros and its downtown Iowa City location, just across the street from the UI Pentacrest at 32 S. Clinton St., is that it is open every night until 2 a.m. That means that all those late night hours you've spent studying can be capped off with a massive burrito with a side of chips and queso. 

Go to a night football game at Kinnick Stadium 

Nov 12, 2016; Iowa City, IA, USA; Fans storm the field after Iowa Hawkeyes place kicker Keith Duncan (not pictured) kicks the game winning field goal against the Michigan Wolverines at Kinnick Stadium. The Hawkeyes won 14-13.

Any longtime Hawkeye football fan will tell you this: Night games at Kinnick Stadium are unlike any other game. Last year, the Hawkeyes upset the previously unbeaten Michigan Wolverines in Iowa City with a last-second field goal. That game kicked-off at 7 p.m.

In the 2015 Rose Bowl season, the Hawkeyes beat the Pittsburgh Panthers with similar last-second field goal. That game started at 7 p.m., too. 

With a nighttime crowd made up mostly of people who have been tailgating the whole day, the crowd at a Kinnick night game is more lively than at any other game, unless it's the Cy-Hawk game, of course. We don't know when the night games are scheduled for this football season just yet, but when the times are announced, jump on the chance.

Go to Wilson's Orchard 

A bushel of Zestar apples awaits departure at Wilson's Orchard south of Solon on Monday, August 15, 2011.

Be it for a cute apple-picking date, a place to go when family visits or just a fun place to spend the day with friends, visiting Wilson's Orchard is a beloved tradition for every Iowa City resident, and it should be for college students too. 

Open from 10 a.m. until 6 p.m. from the beginning of the UI semester until winter hits, any day is a good day to visit Wilson's, 4823 Dingleberry Rd NE., Iowa City. The weekends are obviously more busy than weekdays, so plan accordingly.

You can pick your own apples, go on an apple-tractor ride, visit the shop filled with goodies made of apples and other local goods, and just explore the orchard. With Rapid Creek Cidery, the orchard's own restaurant and event center, opening on-site earlier this year, you can also get a filling dinner as well. 

Eat pizza at The Airliner on Sunday

Airliner’s Chicago-style meat craver’s pizza is seen on Monday, Dec. 22, 2014.

The Airliner's pizza is one of the most longstanding culinary traditions in Iowa City. Open since 1944, Airliner's pizza is a delectable medium crust that's soft with a little bit of crunch and makes for a very filling pizza.

On Sundays, they sell slices for just $1. Taking full advantage of this deal has long been a tradition, too. Especially when the NFL season is in full swing, the many televisions glued to Sunday football and The Airliner's $1 slices are a match made in heaven for sports fans. 

Go to a reading at Prairie Lights Bookstore

Author Nathan Hill reads from his novel "The Nix" at Prairie Lights Books as part of the Iowa City Book Festival on Saturday, Oct. 8, 2016.

If you're a new UI student and don't know much about town yet, the first thing you should know is that Iowa City is one of the most renowned towns for writers in the world. Thanks to UI's Writers' Workshop, a seriously long list of some of the greatest writers the world has known have either visited here, taught here or lived here. 

Today, many of the most respected writers come to town to read from their latest books at Prairie Lights, the locally-owned book store that has become a world-renowned literary institution itself. Last year, the book store brought Stephen King and Colson Whitehead to town.

Do yourself a favor, though, and go to a reading of a young writer, or someone who hasn't cracked The New York Times best-sellers list just yet — that way you can say you saw them before they hit it big. 

The best thing about Prairie Lights readings is that most are free.

Taste a pie shake at Hamburg Inn No. 2 

The blueberry pie milkshake at Hamburg Inn No. 2 in Iowa City.

Dining at Hamburg Inn No. 2 is a must for any new UI student by itself, but one of their items is quite unlike anything else you'll likely find in town or elsewhere: The pie shake. They take a slice of their house-made pies and blend it into a large shake. That way, when you take a spoon to this bad boy — spoon is required since chunks of pie don't flow through straws — you'll still find pieces of pie crust and fruit filling in almost every bite.

Pie shakes come in all the types of pie you can imagine: cherry, pecan, apple. I strongly recommend the blueberry pie shake, though.

See a show at Hancher Auditorium

Leslie Odom Jr. performs for guests at Hancher Auditorium on Monday, March 27, 2017. Odom starred as Aaron Burr in the Broadway production of "Hamilton."

Like Prairie Lights draws some of the nations's best writers to town like a magnet, Hancher Auditorium draws some of the best in the worlds of music, dance and theater to Iowa City. 

This year, jazz legend like Wynton Marsails is playing at Hancher. Broadway productions like "The King and I" and "Kinky Boots" will be dancing across the Hancher stage. At 7 p.m. Oct. 1, Hancher will host a free outdoor concert featuring "Hamilton" star Leslie Odom Jr. That's just the tip of the entertainment iceberg Hancher is bringing to town this year.

With student discounts for every show, there's no reason not to see a show at Hancher during its season which runs from September until May 2018. 

Take in a women's and men's basketball game at Carver-Hawkeye

Iowa center Nicole Smith (45) and Hailey Schneden (40) relax during Iowa women’s basketball media day on Thursday, October 29, 2015 in Carver-Hawkeye Arena. (Rachel Jessen/For the Press-Citizen)

UI is lucky enough to have two storied basketball programs. The women's team has been going to the NCAA tournament almost regularly since 2004, and made it to the Sweet Sixteen in 2015. The men's team made it to the tournament in 2014, 2015 and 2016, and has three Final Four teams in its history.

Both programs have basketball Hall of Fame coaches in their past — Lute Olson for the men's and C. Vivian Stringer for the women's — and have longtime and well-respected coaches leading both teams currently. That makes any game a good time to check out the basketball teams. The teams' seasons start in late October or early November. 

Meet Rusty the Giant Sloth at the UI Museum of Natural History

The University of Iowa's Museum of Natural History features a replica of an ancient giant sloth, which is nicknamed "Rusty." The exhibit is often adorned with decorations to match the season. Photo taken Thursday, Dec. 13, 2007.

UI's Museum of Natural History is one of the most fascinating gems Iowa City has. Free to the public, the sprawling museum recreates the 500-million year geological history of Iowa with dinosaur fossils, hundreds of taxidermy animals and countless other attractions.

The animal with the biggest fan base is Rusty the Giant Sloth. Inside Iowa Hall, Rusty is a giant Ice Age sloth that stands taller than most people, even probably Shaquille O'Neal. He's one impressive sloth. He also has his own Facebook and Twitter accounts, so be sure to get a selfie with the sloth and follow him on social media. 

Hike Hickory Hill Park in fall 

UI student David Lathrop helps clear garlic mustard helps in Hickory Hill Park on Saturday morning, April 20, 2013. Benjamin Roberts / Iowa City Press-Citizen

Tucked in the northern edges of Iowa City is Hickory Hill Park, a 190-acre park that is a mix of forest, open fields and prairie. With its location within city limits, it's not too far for  UI students to visit. 

The best part of the park, located at 800 Conklin Lane, is its miles of trails that lead you winding through the park. When summer turns to autumn and the leaves start to change, it becomes the picturesque highlight of the town. With grills located at different locations within the park, it's a great place to spend the morning hiking and the afternoon cooking some burgers. 

Reach Zach Berg at 319-887-5412, zberg@press-citizen.com or follow him on Twitter at @ZacharyBerg.