Top 8 things to do in Des Moines, Iowa

A popular T-shirt in Raygun, a popular locally owned store in Iowa’s capital, reads “Des Moines! Let’s Exceed Your Already Low Expectations!” The Bridge Country Insurance City has turned out really cool (quietly).

With its vibrant cultural performances, great bike trails, innovative restaurants, and a thriving beer scene, Des Moines is an attractive place to visit. The low cost of living, strong job market, and affordable housing mean that the city is becoming increasingly popular with transplants from all over the country. The city is growing faster than any other metro in the Midwest, including Chicago, Milwaukee, and Minneapolis.

All of this growth, innovation, and Iowa’s seriousness helped propel Des Moines to become more than just a date streak during caucus season in recent years. Sure, you can continue to wave away from the altitude, but that’s why you should stop and take a trip to one of Hartland’s most dynamic towns.

Enjoy Saturday morning at the farmers market downtown

Every Saturday from May through October, more than 300 local fruit and vegetable growers, florists, bakers, winemakers, cheese merchants, butchers, artisans, and creators set up shop in the downtown historic court district for the farmers’ market. Spanning approximately 12 buildings, the market is the second largest in the United States (behind Madison, Wisconsin) and has been in operation for over 40 years. In addition to food, flowers, and art from all 58 Iowa counties, you can expect live music and street performers on every corner all season long.

Spend an afternoon in East Village

Everything between the Des Moines River and the Iowa State Capitol is considered the East Village. Home to some notable boutique stores, award-winning restaurants, and beloved dive bars – all with counter culture – this neighborhood, filled with US National Register of Historic Places buildings, is well worth spending a few hours in.

For food, consider Lucca for Italian high-end food, Zombie Burger + Drink Lab for innovative handhelds and milkshakes, or Sesame Open for Lebanese and Mediterranean dishes.

For drinks, the tiki-themed Bellhop, the Up-Down barcadium (arcade bar), and the classic cocktail-focused Pura Social Club are all solid options. There’s also Locust Tap, an 85-year-old dive bar where the walls are covered in customer signatures, the drinks are strong and the decor is eclectic (you might notice an old faux leg hanging above the door). On the same block as Locust Tap is Blazing Saddle, Des Moines’ oldest gay bar.

After you’re done shopping at the boutique, head up to the Capitol (you’ll know it by its shiny gold-foil-covered dome) for a self-guided tour. Or, spend some time wandering the 12-acre Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden – the bonsai and orchid groups are especially impressive. And if you’re visiting in the winter, work out your workouts at Brenton Skating Plaza (provides rentals).

Eating a piece of pork on a stick at the Iowa State Fair

The Iowa State Fair features the state’s largest fair judging competition with nearly 900 categories of voting.

Iowa’s annual two-week tribute to blue-ribbon farm animals and over-eating fried food, the Iowa State Fair is held in Des Moines each August. Fair-goers can spend their day visiting agricultural fairs, competing in the bean bag tournament, taking carnival rides, watching music acts in the amphitheater, and enjoying high-calorie meat dishes, such as pork picnic in a cup (grilled layers of pulled pork, baked beans, cole slaw, pork belly, brown sugar in a cup).

And because Iowa is the number one candidate state in the running for the nomination, during the years leading up to and including the election, you can expect to see presidential candidates shake hands at the Grand Concourse, admire the famous butter cow, and get photographed eating a giant turkey leg while sitting on a straw.

Sip locally made beer

Heads jumping, prepare to be pleasantly surprised – Des Moines has a great beer scene.

Start at El Bait Shop, which is consistently ranked among the best beer bars in the country. They have 262 draft beers – the largest on offer west of the Mississippi – including some particularly hard-to-find kegs. Within two buildings you’ll also find a selection of highly selective, yet sturdy beer joints, including Hessen Haus (German-style beer hall), Royal Mile (British pub), Red Monk (Belgian café), and Iowa Taproom (with More than 100 foams are fermented in-state).

There are also more than twenty breweries in the metro. The three largest (and largest in terms of size and volume) are the Court Avenue Restaurant and Brewing Co. and Exile Brewing Co. and Confluence Brewing. Popular newcomer Lua Brewing often has a selection of sour and boasts a patio overlooking downtown.

Dinner in a famous restaurant

While State Fair fare tends to be fried, don’t think this is indicative of the Des Moines dining scene.

Downtown, we recommend St Kilda, a trendy Australian-American café and bakery famous for its various avocado toasts and colorful cereal bowls; Django French Bistro for Duck Frites and Beef Tenderloin; Bubba for Southern Comfort Food; and Fong’s, which defies classification since it has equal parts tiki bar, pizzeria, karaoke joint, and Chinese restaurant. (Do yourself a favor and get the Crab Rangoon Pizza.)

On Ingersoll Street, known for its high concentration of bars and restaurants, is Jesse’s Embers supper club; Mediterranean-inspired restaurant A; aptly named cheese bar; and Lucky Lotus and Harbinger which focus on Asia.

Enjoy art at the Des Moines Arts Center and Pappajohn Sculpture Park

At the Des Moines Arts Center, the main gallery serves as a canvas for temporary exhibitions, usually lasting one to three months. The permanent collection includes works by many of the contemporary artists who have dominated your Art History 101 textbook, including Matisse, Monet, O’Keeffe, Rodin, and beyond. Throughout the year, it offers guided and specialized tours of the museum, as well as an outdoor rose garden and sculpture park. Found in downtown Des Moines, the building was designed by famous architect Eliel Saarinen and combines Art Deco and Art Nouveau styles.

Also downtown is Pappajohn Sculpture Park, a four-acre area displaying more than 20 sculptures. The original 24 sculptures, valued at $40 million, were part of the personal collection of philanthropists John and Mary Louise Papagon, who donated the works to the city in 2009 to help revitalize Downtown.

Enjoy nationally recognized bands at the 80-35 . Music Festival

Des Moines is also home to a major music festival in July, known as 80-35. Named after the two highways that cross Des Moines, the summer festival features both local talent and bands known around the world. (The year 2022 saw acts like Father John Misty, Japanese Breakfast, and Charli XCX.)

Rent a bike and hit the trails

Des Moines has more than 800 miles of bike paths within the metro area, making it an exciting place for cyclists to explore safely. One of the most popular is the High Trestle Trail, a flat, paved path over a decommissioned and diverted railroad. For 25 miles, it cycles through nearby cities like Ankeny, Madrid, Scheldahl, and Slate Woodward. The most beautiful part may be where the road crosses the High Trestle Bridge, a 13-story, half-mile-high bridge over the Des Moines River Valley.

The Meredith Trail (named after Ted Meredith, a conservationist and former chairman of the Meredith Board of Directors), stretches just over five miles, connecting downtown with Grays Lake Park. The latter has an approximately two-mile-long trail that surrounds the lake; From the Kruidenier Trail Pedestrian Bridge that completes the loop, the views of the Des Moines skyline are incredible. Gray’s Lake is a popular place to go fishing, sunbathe on the beach, and rent a kayak at the concession stand.

There is also the West Des Moines Historic Bicycle Tour. This eight-mile loop passes through Jordan House, Red Caboose, Raccoon River Park, and nine other sites that highlight the history of the area.

If you don’t have your own bike with you, find one of the 27 bike stations, each with a selection of classic bikes and e-bikes for general use, around town.

Where to stay in Des Moines

Renaissance Des Moines Safari Hotel

Book now: Renaissance Des Moines Safari Hotel

If you’re looking to sleep in on a date, the Savery Hotel offers just that. The 103-year-old hotel was originally run by a woman named Annie Savery, a well-known women’s rights activist. Although it’s been around since 1919, the hotel is undated – in 2018 it completed a $20 million renovation. The red-brick hotel is located in the heart of downtown’s main entertainment district, close to places like the Des Moines Performing Arts Center and Wells Fargo Arena.

Guarantee Hotel

Book now: Guarantee Hotel

In the past, the Surety Hotel was an office building for insurance companies. Now the mid-century modern hotel features well-appointed rooms with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the city centre.

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