I believe many people have a preconceived notion of what a place will be like before they ever step foot there. Many people think of three things when they think of Iowa: football, farmland, and corn. What I discovered when I visited Iowa for my first time was these things are definitely huge here but what’s missing is pride and family. Iowans are fiercely proud of their state and for them family comes before anything else.
For my first trip to Iowa, I chose to go to Des Moines, the capital of Iowa. The population is relatively small at only around 215,000 people or just over 700,000 if you include the suburbs. Des Moines is the most populated city in the state too so this is most definitely considered the “big city” in these parts.
That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of things to do in Des Moines, especially in the downtown area. Just don’t expect a big city vibe when you come here or anything even close to that. I highly recommend staying in the downtown area. Most things are within a mile of downtown and it’s a very walkable city plus there are multiple places where you can rent a bicycle. I chose not to rent a car when I was here and it turned out to be a wise decision, saving me on parking fees not only at the hotel but also the metered spaces all over the downtown area. There’s also a free bus called Des Moines Regional Transit Authority (DART) that runs every 10 minutes between the East Village and Western Gateway Park Monday through Friday.
What’s There to do in Des Moines?
One of my favorite things to do when I travel is to visit botanical gardens. The Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden was the first place I visited here. For $10 admission, I saw the Conservatory, Bonsai Gallery, Wells Fargo Rose Garden, Dorothy and Max Rutledge Conifer Garden, Koehn Garden with reflecting pool, Ruan Allee walkway, Water Garden, Lauridsen Savannah, and my favorite part of the garden, the Hillside Garden and Waterfall. Inside the conservatory there was a Desert Garden, Rainforest, and Horticultural Exhibits area. There is also the Trellis Cafe but I didn’t eat there. Multiple seating areas are all around the outdoor spaces in addition to inside the conservatory. I walked through every garden and it took me about an hour. It is one of the smaller botanical gardens I’ve been to but worth coming here if you enjoy gardens. https://www.dmbotanicalgarden.com/
Close to the botanical garden is the small but free Robert D. Ray Asian Gardens. It’s a peaceful spot beside the Des Moines River. You can easily see the entire area in 10 minutes or less if you’re just passing through.
Also nearby both gardens is the Lauridsen Skatepark, the largest skatepark in the United States. The park has five skating areas and runs adjacent to Principal Riverwalk Park. A unique part of the park is a bright red “WOW” sculpture (seen in the first photo above) 80 feet long and 12 feet high that was designed to be skated on but has become an Instagram hotspot for people just walking through.
If you have children or are a child at heart, there’s the Blank Park Zoo with the typical zoo animals like lions, tigers, giraffes, rhinos, and penguins. There are also behind the scenes tours, which are quite pricey for non-members but half the price for members. The zoo is open daily from 10 am to 4 pm and admission is $14 for adults and $8 for children. https://www.blankparkzoo.com/ The Science Center of Iowa and Blank IMAX Dome Theater is also a fun place for families. SCI has numerous hands-on exhibits designed to spur interest in science and learning along with live science demonstrations, a planetarium, and IMAX theater. SCI is open Thursday-Sunday and admission is $11 for adults and children. https://www.sciowa.org/visit/
Salisbury House and Gardens is a 42-room mansion built in the 1920’s modeled after the King’s House in Salisbury, England in the style of Gothic, Tudor, and Carolean Architecture. The house is filled with original art, tapestries, and antique furniture from around the world. One of my favorite things was learning all of the background information about the Weeks family that lived there. Carl Weeks made his fortune by combining cold cream with face powder and began his own makeup company, The Armand Company. Salisbury House is open for tours Wednesday through Sunday from 12 to 5 pm. Self-guided tours do not require reservations and are $10; guided tours at 1 and 3 pm are $15 and reservations are recommended. https://salisburyhouse.org/
If you enjoy history, the Iowa Hall of Pride is a fun way to learn about Iowa. There are displays about some sports legends from Iowa like gymnast Shawn Johnson, track and field Olympian Lolo Jones, professional football player Kurt Warner, plus many others. There are also displays and information about musicians, farming, wind farms, bike trails, just to name a few. Most of the displays are touch-screen with multiple videos to watch. There’s also a game area where you can play arcade-type games for a fee. It is open Monday through Friday and costs $10 for admission. https://www.iowahallofpride.com/
The Farmer’s Market is a fun place to stroll around if you’re in Des Moines on a Saturday from May 1 through October 30 in the mornings until noon. Several blocks downtown are closed off to cars so you can leisurely browse from over 150 vendors. I saw everything from meats, cheeses, breads and other bakery products, tea, artwork, handmade jewelry, fresh flowers, and a wide variety of produce. There were also some bands and musicians scattered throughout the area. https://www.dsmpartnership.com/desmoinesfarmersmarket/saturday-market
For art lovers, the Des Moines Art Center is a wonderful place to explore for about an hour or so, plus admission is free. There’s mostly modern and contemporary art, which I’m usually not a huge fan of but I enjoyed many of these pieces of modern art and could appreciate them. One of my favorites was a temporary display by Justin Favela and is running through January 2022. Using only tissue paper and cardboard, he designed enormous food-related pieces of art that I found intriguing. There were also some paintings by famous artists like Van Gogh, Georgia O’Keeffe, Salvadore Dali, and Renoir. https://desmoinesartcenter.org/visit/
An outdoor art exhibit that’s also free, the Pappajohn Sculpture Park includes artwork by more than 25 artists on 1330 Grand Avenue in downtown Des Moines. There are walkways around most of the sculptures and grassy areas in others. The park is open from sunrise to midnight daily. https://desmoinesartcenter.org/visit/pappajohn-sculpture-park/
Where to Eat
There is no shortage of bars in downtown Des Moines, some of which also serve pub-style food. There isn’t a huge selection of restaurants in the small downtown area, but there are still quite a few including The Spaghetti Works (affordable especially for what you get), Court Avenue Brewing Company, Buzzard Billy’s (cajun), Exile Brewing Company, Hessen Haus (German food), Pho Real Kitchen and Bar (really good Vietnamese food), Royal Mile (British Pub-style food), and one of my favorites, Fong’s Pizza which has Asian-inspired toppings like Crab Rangoon or ramen noodles if you’re adventurous plus more traditional toppings. There are of course more restaurants in the area if you have a car or aren’t staying in the heart of downtown. All of the above restaurants are within a mile of one another if you are staying downtown and are easily walkable, however.
Where to Stay
I stayed at the Hampton Inn Downtown and found the location to be perfect for me. Since I could walk to most places I wanted to go to with the exception of a couple of places I didn’t even need to rent a car. However, the hotel walls are thin and the doors so heavy they slam loudly when closed so be advised and bring earplugs. There’s also a Residence Inn right beside the Hampton Inn; both are on Water Street. For a non-chain hotel in the downtown area, there’s the Des Lux Hotel and the Surety Hotel. If you want to stay closer to the Wells Fargo Arena and Iowa Events Center, there’s a Comfort Inn and Fairfield Inn and Suites nearby.
You may be wondering how many days would be the right amount for Des Moines. I stayed five nights and thought that was a day too many; four nights would have been plenty or even three nights. A long weekend would actually be just about right and give you plenty of time to explore the major sights. Since I was running the IMT Des Moines Half Marathon on a Sunday morning, I decided to stretch out my time a bit more in case I needed to take it a bit easy after the race, plus I wanted to give myself a buffer in case of flight delays before the race since there aren’t many flights from where I live to Des Moines.
I realize Des Moines, Iowa isn’t on most people’s list of places they want to visit, but honestly, it’s a nice city with friendly people and some unique offerings. If you ever find yourself in the area, try to forego any preconceived notions you may have and you might find yourself pleasantly surprised.
Have you been to Des Moines? If so, what did you do? I’d love to hear anyone else’s thoughts on the area!