12 Best Things to do in Des Moines, Iowa (with Map)

Both Iowa’s capital and largest city, Des Moines is a fantastic place to visit. Set in the center of the state, it lies at the spot where the Des Moines and Raccoon rivers meet with plenty of pretty parks, gardens and green outdoor spaces dotted about its sprawling confines.

As it is one of the most important centers of commerce and culture in the Midwest, the city is home many headquarters of large corporations, but there are also plenty of things to do in Des Moines. The region’s rich agricultural heritage is proudly on display at, not only its bustling farmers’ market and Living History Farms, but at the annual Iowa State Fair too.

An intriguing mix of old and new, city and countryside, Des Moines is definitely well worth visiting when in Iowa and the Midwest.

12. State Historical Museum

flickr/Lee Wright

Offering a fascinating insight into the history, culture and nature of Iowa is the excellent State Historical Museum. Located at the foot of the grand Capitol Building, it is packed with interesting artifacts and exhibits on Native Americans and early settlers, cycling, cinema and the Civil War.

Now one of the most important and impressive museums in the state, it started life as a small historical society back in 1857. Since those early days, its collection has swelled to over 80,000 objects that cover more than 13,000 years of Iowa’s past, focusing on influential people and places. As well as innumerable exhibits, its granite and glass building has a cafe, and tours, talks and temporary exhibitions regularly take place.

11. Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden

Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden© dreamstime

The Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden lies on the east bank of the wide river that courses its way through town. Home to colorful plants, flowers, trees and shrubs, it is a delight to stroll around with amazing artworks and greenhouses dotted here and there.

Since being established in 1939, its gorgeous gardens have grown considerably. Scenic sections dedicated to cactuses and succulents are now found alongside beautiful bonsais, orchids and water features.

Aside from exploring its domed conservatory, which houses exotic plants, palm trees and a waterfall, one of the garden’s main highlights is strolling along the shady Ruan Allee promenade. In addition, intriguing outdoor sculptures can also be spotted amidst its lovingly landscaped lawns and blooming flowerbeds.

10. Blank Park Zoo

Blank Park Zooflickr/Carl Wycoff

Set just fifteen minutes’ drive south of the center, Blank Park Zoo covers a huge area with countless animal exhibits, attractions and enclosures encompassed within its confines. Long a firm favorite with families, it was first opened in 1966 and has inspired an appreciation and understanding of the natural world ever since.

The only accredited zoo in the state, it now boasts more than 1,500 mammals, birds and reptiles that represent over 100 different species. Visitors can see majestic African lions and Amur tigers prowling about next to rhinos, giraffes and zebras, with red pandas and penguins also on show.

Besides exploring its aviary, aquarium and discovery center, young ones can enjoy the Kids’ Kingdom where they can stroke animals, play on slides and even dig for fossils.

9. Salisbury House

Exhibiting some exquisite architecture, the stately Salisbury House is situated in a quiet neighborhood just west of downtown Des Moines. Inside the massive mansion, guests can explore dozens of decadently decorated rooms, while the pretty property also has immaculately manicured grounds and gardens to walk around.

Built between 1923 and 1928 for the wealthy cosmetic magnate Carl Weeks and his wife, the huge historic home is modeled on the refined King’s House in Salisbury, England. Featuring fine Gothic, Tudor and Carolean features, the beautiful building has over forty rooms with centuries-old antiques and incredible artworks.

After having taken in the delightful ornamentation of its elegant library and concert hall, you can then venture outside and enjoy its ornate botanic garden.

8. Des Moines Art Center

Des Moines Art Center© dreamstime

Just a stone’s throw from the expansive estate is another attraction that is well worth visiting if you are into art and architecture: the brilliant Des Moines Art Center. In contrast to Salisbury House, its complex showcases a striking mix of Art Deco, Art Nouveau and Modernist styles while its sizeable collection covers a wide range of artistic movements and mediums.

Originally opened in 1948, the magnificent museum now occupies a large site and also operates the phenomenally popular Pappajohn Sculpture Park in downtown. While renowned architects, such as I.M. Pei and Richard Meier, contributed to its arresting design, masterpieces by Matisse, Monet and O’Keeffe among others can be enjoyed in its light and airy galleries.

With talks, workshops and film festivals all regularly taking place, the Des Moines Art Center is not to be missed when in town.

7. Principal Park

Principal Parkflickr/Scott McLeod

If instead of museums and gardens it is thrilling sporting spectacles that you are after, then Principal Park is definitely the place to go. Home to minor league baseball’s Iowa Cubs, the atmospheric yet intimate stadium lies where the Des Moines and Raccoon rivers meet in the center of the city.

Regularly ranked among the best minor league ballparks in the nation, it was built in 1992 with the small stadium having undergone numerous renovations and expansions since then. Thanks to their fanatic fans, the Iowa Cubs – the Triple-A affiliate of the Chicago Cubs – are loads of fun to watch with all of Principal Park’s seats and suites offering up superb views over the field.

6. Living History Farms

Living History Farmsflickr/rachaelvoorhees

Located just fifteen minutes’ drive west of downtown you can find the fascinating Living History Farms. At the enormous interactive open-air museum, visitors can learn all about Iowa’s agricultural history with its informative displays, live demonstrations and costumed interpreters really bringing the recreated farms, shops and towns back to life.

Unfortunately bisected by the busy Interstate 35/80, the otherwise excellent museum was founded in 1970 with its four sites covering the last 300 years of the state’s rural history.

As well as a 1700 Ioway Indian Farm and a 1850 Pioneer Farm, there is the bustling frontier town of Walnut Hill to check out that shows what life was like in 1876. To top it all off, the 1900 Horse-Powered Farm highlights the impact the Industrial Revolution and modern machinery had on traditional farm life.

5. Gray’s Lake Park

Gray's Lake Park© dreamstime

Although it is set just five minutes southwest of the center, the gorgeous Gray’s Lake Park feels a world away from the hustle and bustle of downtown Des Moines. Very popular with both locals and tourists alike, it has all kinds of outdoor activities with the city’s sparkling skyline to be spotted far off in the distance.

Aside from walking, running and cycling along the loop trail that lines its shores, visitors can also kayak, canoe and paddleboard about the large lake’s tranquil waters.

In addition, there are park benches, picnic areas and playgrounds to make use of while swimming can be enjoyed at its small beach. At night, the Kruidenier Trail Pedestrian Bridge makes for a fine sight as its multi-colored lights and glass panels stand out delightfully against the dark.

4. Downtown Farmers Market

Downtown Farmers Marketflickr/Phil Roeder

The Downtown Farmers Market is definitely the best place to head in town if you are after fresh produce, artisanal food and delicious baked goods. A very colorful and chaotic affair, it is held every Saturday morning from the start of May through to the end of October with its endless stands and stalls attracting huge crowds each time.

Since 1975, the lively market has connected the state’s rural and urban communities with more than 300 vendors now selling their wares at its downtown site. Next to butchers and bakers are hot coffee stands and food trucks while stalls piled high with fresh fruit and veg produced by local farmers are everywhere you look.

Adding to the ambience are its live musicians and street performers with handmade arts and crafts also to be found on sale at the market.

3. Pappajohn Sculpture Park

Pappajohn Sculpture Park© dreamstime

One of the most unique and interesting places to visit in Des Moines is the picturesque Pappajohn Sculpture Park, which lies just to the west of the center. Part of Western Gateway Park, it has almost thirty stupendous sculptures to enjoy with their striking shapes, sizes and silhouettes making for some fantastic photos with the city’s skyline behind them.

Considered to be one of the most significant collections of outdoor sculptures in the country, it was opened in 2009 and now boasts iconic works by esteemed artists from all around the world. As well as thought-provoking pieces by Ai Weiwei and Barry Flanagan, one of its main highlights is Jaume Plensa’s Nomade.

Made out of thousands of white steel letters, the hollow human form explores and symbolises communication between individuals and cultures with visitors able to enter the sculpture and snap photos from inside.

2. Capitol Building

Capitol Building© dreamstime

Yet another of the city’s many artistic and architectural marvels is the breathtaking Capitol Building to the east of the river that acts as the seat of Iowa’s government. Perched atop a hill overlooking downtown, it showcases remarkable Renaissance Revival-style architecture with its glittering golden dome visible for miles around.

One of Des Moines’ standout symbols and sights, it was built between 1871 and 1886 with its grand design projecting strength, dignity and refinement. The only five-domed capitol in the States, it also sports a pretty portico and sturdy Corinthian columns while its enormous yet elegant interior is clad in mahogany, marble and murals.

On tours around the Capitol, guests can learn about its past and see fine carvings and artworks in its chambers, halls and offices while marvelous monuments and memorials dot the grounds around it.

1. Iowa State Fairgrounds

Iowa State Fairgrounds© dreamstime

Every August, Des Moines welcomes over a million visitors to the city, who come to enjoy the exciting shows, rides and competitions of the Iowa State Fair. Since 1886, it has been held on the east side of town with the annual event now being one of the oldest, largest and most renowned agricultural and industrial expositions in the country.

While the fun-filled fair celebrates the Midwestern state’s rich agricultural heritage through thrilling contests, parades and carnival rides, the Iowa State Fairgrounds also host other events during the year.

These include everything from auto shows and antiques markets to livestock exhibitions and concerts, with something of interest always going on in its historic barns and state-of-the-art exhibition centers.

Map of Things to do in Des Moines

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