Top Things to Do in Des Moines | Midwest Living

Top Things to Do in Des Moines

Visiting the state capitol, the Iowa State Fair, Adventureland Park and a world-class sculpture park are just a few of the things to do in Des Moines. Check out our guide for what to do, where to eat and where to stay in Iowa's capital.

Politicians and 4-H'ers find plenty to do in Des Moines, home to both the capitol and state fair. The central Iowa city also appeals with high-end eats, fine art and the state's largest amusement park.

John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park

John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park


Adventureland Park Bernie's Barnyard kids area recently joined 100-plus rides and attractions. Head for thrills on the $9 million Monster steel roller coaster or cool off at Iowa's longest lazy river.

Blank Park Zoo Almost 1,500 animals call the zoo’s 22 acres home. Catch a seal show and feed giraffes.

Brenton Skating Plaza Open seasonally, the outdoor rink along the Des Moines River stays busy with visitors eager to skate with the city skyline as their backdrop.

Des Moines Art Center The 5,000-piece collection includes works by Andy Warhol, Henri Matisse, and Georgia O’Keeffe. Galleries reflect the styles of architects Eliel Saarinen, I.M. Pei and Richard Meier.

Des Moines Symphony Masterworks concerts hit the stage each season; the free outdoor Yankee Doodle Pops concert is a local favorite.

Downtown Farmers Market On Saturday mornings, streets burst with fresh produce and products from 50 surrounding

East Village shopping Between the state capitol and the Des Moines River, browse Raygun for sassy souvenirs, Eden for fragrant soaps, and Domestica for playful cards, posters and jewelry.

Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden A half-acre pond with seasonal plantings anchors outdoor gardens; tropical plants and a living wall thrive in the domed conservatory.

Hello, Marjorie Sip cocktails like the Editor’s Note (bourbon, apricot liqueur, smoked apple bitters, fresh apple) in a colorful space on the first floor of the old Des Moines Register building.

High Trestle Trail The 25-mile trail starting in Ankeny, 12 miles north of Des Moines, stars a ½-mile-long, 13-story bridge over the Des Moines River Valley. To evoke the sense of traveling through one of Iowa’s historical coal mines, 43 steel frames spiral along the bridge. Blue LED lights on these “cribs” glow at night.

High Trestle Trail

High Trestle Trail

Historic Valley Junction The west-suburban antiquing and crafting district with more than 150 businesses is an appealing antique itself.

Iowa Cubs The Chicago Cubs’ triple-A affiliate plays in downtown’s Principal Park.

Iowa State Capitol Take a free guided tour of the gold-capped capitol to get the full story of this Renaissance-style structure, built between 1871 and 1886.

Iowa State Fair Each year, more than 1 million people come looking for spectacles like the Butter Cow and the 1,000-plus-pound Big Boar (August 8–18, 2019).

John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park Two sculptures added last year make a total of 30 in a two-block park downtown. View on your own or request a tour from the Des Moines Art Center, which curates the collection.

Living History Farms Explore three eras of farms (1700, 1850 and 1900) and an 1875 town with a store, blacksmith shop and school.

Living History Farms

Living History Farms

Pop Up Yoga DSM Free yoga classes take place all summer at locations such as the RiverWalk Hub, area parks and Jasper Winery.

Salisbury House and Gardens Rare and first-edition books join acclaimed art at this 1920s Tudor-style estate.

Science Center of Iowa The world comes to life in hands-on exhibits: Make robots and rockets, watch a newscast, race a car or a rocket.

Science Center of Iowa

Science Center of Iowa

State Historical Museum of Iowa Travel from the past—see a Narive American wikiup and a Conestoga wagon—into the present.

West End Architectural Salvage Castoffs-turned-treasures fill four floors in the shop that inspired the HGTV series West End Salvage.


801 Chophouse Savor USDA-prime steaks, potatoes with Iowa's Maytag blue cheese, and great wine in a restaurant known as a clubby enclave for politicos.

Alba The happy hour to 6:30 p.m. (plus $6 burgers on Mondays) makes this a great choice, as do the New American plates of fare like pork belly rillettes.

Bubba Southern favorites—fried chicken, shrimp and grits, pimento mac and cheese—sparkle under regionally inspired decor like magnolia paintings and a bowtie collection.

Centro Crowds come in for contemporary Italian. If you want room for steak, pasta, panini or thin-crust pizza, beware the basket of addictive fresh focaccia.

Cheese Bar of Des Moines The star dish of the Ingersoll Avenue hot spot is a luscious three-cheese fondue, but elaborate boards, toasts, sandwiches and baked macaroni tempt as well.

The Cheese Shop of Des Moines More than 100 specialty cheeses from around the world melt into sandwiches, fondue and macaroni at the tiny, well-stocked shop and cafe.

Crème Cupcake and Dessert Daily flavors might include Peanut Butter Passion and Strawberry Angel. The Dessert Lounge sells treats paired with cocktails in the evening.

Eatery A The open kitchen turns out wood-fired pizzas and Mediterranean food such as fattoush.

Eatery A

Eatery A

El Bait Shop Choices, choices: 200-plus beers on tap and retro foods (Velvet Elvis Dip, Spam Egg and Cheese) from the menu of its neighbor, The High Life Lounge.

Exile Brewing Company Sample high-quality microbrews and delicious fried chicken tender salad in a loftlike setting. And don’t forget to snap a selfie in front of the fun mural outside.

The Hall Sixty-plus beers on tap, dishes from a rotating selection of food trucks and special events such as trivia night bring in the crowds to a refurbished railcar building in Valley Junction.

Harbinger New American and Asian flavors infuse the small plates at this eatery west of downtown. Savory sweet-potato pancakes arrive on stoneware with a side of fennel-citrus salad.

The High Life Lounge The 1960s come to life in this downtown dive bar. Try inexpensive classics like the chicken pot pie, goulash or meat loaf dinner.

Krunkwich Ramen House Funky creations might run ot turducken ramen and miso mac 'n' cheese. On Friday and Saturday nights, the space turns into Los Banditos Hot Dog Speakeasy.

Miyabi 9 Sit at the sushi bar to watch chefs roll creations like the Miami Heat (salmon, tuna, cream chese) and the Iowa with deep-fried pork.

Nick's Purists order the award-winning pork tenderloin sandwich without toppings, but the crispy-golden cut is superb smothered in chili, too.

Palmer’s Deli and Market  Parking is tough here at lunchtime for good reason: fresh-made sandwiches, soups, salads and jumbo cookies.

St. Kilda Australian-raised restaurateur Alexander Hail offers snadwiches like the Saint (fried egg with house-made ginger sausage) in a renovated 110-year-old downtown building.

Tursi’s Latin King A family-owned favorite, it has served Italian fare for more than 70 years on the East Side.

Where to stay

AC Hotel The Marriott property in the East Village features sleek, contemporary rooms with hardwood floors. A rooftop bar serves craft cocktails and small plates; guests will enjoy great downtown views.

Butler House on Grand Local interior designers decorated the seven bedrooms in this 1923 Tudor-style AirBnB across the street from the Des Moines Art Center.

Des Lux Hotel Check into a room or suite with a fireplace and whirlpool, then unwind over a martini in the wood-paneled bar. A made-to-order hot breakfast comes with your stay.

For information: Greater Des Moines Convention and Visitors Bureau

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