Des Moines, Iowa, strikes the perfect balance between vintage and modern, the old and the new. It was incorporated in 1851 and named after the Des Moines River, meaning “River of the Monks.” Over the years, Des Moines expanded to become the go-to city for insurance services. Several financial and publishing firms are based in this city.
The US presidential primary cycle starts in Des Moines, making it a significant city in US politics. Today, you can tour Des Moines to indulge in cultural experiences, adventures, and historical gems. This magnificent city is sure to delight all who come to experience its splendor. Here are the top 15 things to do in Des Moines, Iowa.
15. Herbert Hoover Presidential Library & Museum
(image via Hoover Presidential Library)
The Herbert Hoover Presidential Library & Museum is a presidential library and burial site for Herbert Clark Hoover, the 31st president of the United States, and is situated on the grounds of the Herbert Hoover National Historic Site in West Branch, Iowa. Together with his buddy Harry Truman, Herbert Hoover dedicated the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum.
The biography of this president is brilliantly portrayed in this amazing museum and exhibition. Hoover lived an interesting life, despite the fact that the Great Depression dominated his presidency. More than 150 different collections may be found in this library, most of which are devoted to political reform, atomic energy, famine relief, and agricultural economics.
14. Jasper Winery
(image via Jasper Winery)
The “estate style” winemaking complex Jasper Winery is situated in the center of the metro, only a short distance from downtown Des Moines. They offer a chic, contemporary tasting area. This one-of-a-kind location specializes in regionally produced grapes and cutting-edge new wine types for personalized weddings and private gatherings.
Utilizing grape types that flourish in the Midwest, Jasper Winery creates premium wines. Wines made by hand are available for tasting in the colorful tasting room. If you give them a call in advance, they will give you a tour from a member of their extremely informed team.
13. Salisbury House
(image via Salisbury House & Gardens )
A manor house in the Tudor, Gothic, and Carolean styles, Salisbury House is a regal addition to the Iowa state. Between 1923 and 1928, it was constructed by cosmetics tycoon Carl Weeks and his wife, Edith Van Slyke Weeks.
Salisbury House, which is a little over 22,000 square feet in size was inspired by the King’s House in Salisbury, England. It has over 40 magnificently decorated rooms which are sure to bring inspiration to any traveler. The Salisbury House Foundation owns and manages the property, which is available for public tours, gatherings, and private rentals.
12. World Food Prize Hall of Laureates
(image via World Food Prize Hall of Laureates)
The World Food Prize Foundation undertook a $29.8 million capital project to restore the century-old Des Moines Public Library Building as the Dr. Norman E. Borlaug World Food Prize Hall of Laureates as a special tribute to Nobel Peace Prize winner and founder Dr. Norman Borlaug and to provide an enduring foundation for all of the programs he created.
The necessity of maintaining global food security is emphasized in this superbly restored Beaux Arts building that symbolizes the giving attitude. As the man who gave birth to the Green Revolution and saved more than one billion lives via agricultural breakthroughs, Dr. Borlaug is recognized for his contributions. The structure also honors Iowa’s pioneers in agriculture and humanitarianism as well as those who have won the International Food Prizes for their substantial contributions to the battle against hunger, world hunger relief efforts, and improving the lives of others. Stop by and experience the spirit of giving in this beautifully restored building!
11. Iowa State Capitol
(image via Wikipedia)
The Iowa General Assembly is located in the Iowa State Capitol, often known as the Iowa Statehouse. The Iowa Senate, Iowa House of Representatives, Governor’s Office, Attorney General’s Office, Auditor’s Office, Treasurer’s Office, and Secretary of State’s Office are all located in the same building. Although court proceedings often take place in the adjacent Iowa Supreme Court building, the structure also houses a chamber for the Iowa Supreme Court. This is the only five-domed capitol in the nation, the structure was built between 1871 and 1886.
Visits to the capital building are free from Monday through Saturday. You can reserve free guided tours by contacting the Iowa Capitol Visitor Center. On the south and western sides of the capital, on the ground level, are public entrances. To enter, all guests must pass through a security checkpoint. Across the Des Moines River from downtown lies the city’s East Village area, where the capital is situated.
10. Jester Park
The Jester Park Nature Center, one of Iowa’s top nature centers, provides access to the state’s unspoiled landscape. This institution adds immense value to the area by bringing together education and tourism. Tourists, students, educators, families, and others can connect to the natural playscape here via restored woodlands, Saylorville Lake, and a network of natural trails through the nature center. This also serves as the welcome center and portal to Polk County’s family of parks.
Everyone has access to outdoor adventure and fun thanks to their Outdoor Recreation and Wellness Center. This spot is located next to the nature center and offers a variety of outdoor programs. Rental equipment, archery, and the bouldering wall are all available here. This park also offers a golf course, camping, and cabins, an equestrian center, lodge, boating, and so much more. Experience the beauty of Iowa at this amazing park.
9. Sample Des Moines’ Culinary Experiences
Des Moines offers immersive culinary experiences, including wine-tasting with chocolate and cheese pairings at Jasper Winery. This winery provides 90-minute educational tours. To indulge in classic American comfort food, visit renowned establishments in Des Moines such as Harbinger, Eatery A, Alba, and Proof.
You can visit Tasty Tacos, Tacos Mariana’s, Tacos Degollado, or Tacos La Familia for the best Mexican foods in Des Moines. Here, you’ll sample deep-fried flour tacos, burritos, and enchiladas. To taste Des Moines’ nightlife, visit watering holes such as Up-Down, El Bait Shop, and Noce Jazz Club.
8. John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park
Pappajohn Sculpture Park is a 4.4-acre park in downtown Des Moines. It was opened in 2009 within the Western Gateway Park to provide the perfect social space for all Des Moines urbanites. Today, the park is home to over 20 sculptures.
You can visit the Pappajohn Sculpture Park anytime with friends, family, or colleagues for a picnic. This manicured space is also ideal for anyone seeking to unwind or have alone time. If you want a guided tour, visit between April and October. The Pappajohn Park hosts several events in summer, such as the Des Moines Arts Festival in June. This festival blends different activities with good food and friendship.
7. Science Center of Iowa
(image via Science Center of Iowa)
If you’re looking for something to do with kids, consider visiting the Science Center of Iowa. This award-winning center promotes experiential learning using hands-on exhibits for kids of all ages. Kids can gaze upon the stars at the planetarium or watch an educational feature film at the center’s IMAX Theater.
The Science Center of Iowa hosts several children’s camps and workshops, such as SCI Summer Camps. You can engage in adult-orientated programs as your kids learn. Visiting this center is one of the top things to do for families in Des Moines.
6. Explore Des Moines’ Outdoors and Sports
(image via Des Moines Water Works Park)
Adventurous souls in Des Moines can visit the beautiful Easter Lake Park to indulge in kayaking, angling, swimming, and other recreational activities. If you love nature walks, hiking, or biking, look for the 6.2-mile Mark C. Ackelson Trail along Easter Lake. Then, visit Water Works Park for bird-watching, fishing, and biking. You can ride your bike from Water Works Park to Gray’s Lake and rent a boat to explore this scenic water body.
You can visit Raccoon River Park in southeastern Des Moines, home to the 232-acre Blue Heron Lake. This recreational space is ideal for fishing enthusiasts, paddlers, and sports fans. At the scenic confluence of the Iowa and Racoon River, you’ll find Principal Park. It is home to Iowa Cubs, the state’s Triple-A minor league baseball team.
5. Iowa State Fair
(image via Iowa State Fair)
Des Moines hosts the Iowa State Fair every August. This 11-day event celebrates farmers and the agriculture sector, the backbone of Iowa’s economy. You can attend the fair as a family to indulge in kid-friendly live music shows, amusement rides, and good food.
The Iowa State Fair also hosts trade shows, art galleries, and more. This activity-packed event has something for everyone, whether you’re a farmer or not.
4. Des Moines’ Botanical Gardens
(image via Greater Des Moines’ Botanical Garden)
On Robert D. Ray Drive, the 14-acre Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden celebrates the world of plants. It was founded in 1939 as a greenhouse and transformed into a botanical garden in 1979. Today, this garden is home to more than 1,200 plant species, including orchids, amaryllis, and bonsai. Then, travel a few blocks along the Des Moines River to visit the picturesque Robert D. Ray Asian Gardens.
Another must-see site for nature lovers is the Salisbury House & Gardens on Tonawanda Drive. This historic mansion offers an all-in-one tourist attraction, including a botanical garden, art museum, library, and concert venue. You can visit Salisbury House for a romantic date or participate in events like yoga in the gardens.
3. Downtown Farmers’ Market
(image via Downtown Farmers’ Market)
This farmers’ market in downtown Des Moines is the perfect place to start your Iowa culinary experience tour. Over 300 local farmers, bakers, and artisans offer their products in this market. Here, you’ll find delicious meats, fruits, vegetables, flowers, herbs, and more.
The market has been supporting the local farmers from all 58 Iowa counties for over 40 years. Whether you ache for beef, chicken, goat, lamb, pork, or turkey, Downtown Farmers’ Market can satisfy your meat needs. You can also visit this market on a sunny day to attend live music events or interact with skilled street performers.
2. Blank Park Zoo
(image via Blank Park Zoo)
The Blank Park Zoo is a 25-acre park dedicated to environmental and wildlife conservation. It was opened in 1966 to educate children on how to preserve the environment. Today, this zoo on 9th Street is home to several animal species from different regions globally.
You can visit Blank Park Zoo with your kids to educate them on the values of conserving wildlife and the environment. The zoo is divided into several sections. From the African Boardwalk, you can see elephants and other animals that roam Africa’s wild savannas. If your kid loves koalas and kangaroos, visit the Australia Adventure section. At the zoo’s Discovery Center, you’ll find an aquarian, caves, birds, and more. Don’t forget to check Meredith Alpine Exhibit. The Blank Park Zoo is one of the best things to do as a family in Des Moines.
1. Des Moines Art Center
The Des Moines Art Center houses permanent and rotating collections, including modern art, paintings, and sculptures. This 1948 art center in downtown Des Moines combines Art Deco and Art Nouveau architectural styles. Here, you’ll find artworks from renowned artists such as Rodin, Matisse, Monet, O’Keefe, and many more.
The center has an ornamental rose garden that features several sculptures. Des Moines Art Center is the go-to attraction site for art lovers and families interested in modern art. During your tour, take some time to appreciate the building’s architectural design by Eliel Saarinen.
As you can see, Des Moines has a lot to offer everyone. If you are looking to do more in the surrounding area, check out other weekend trips from nearby Des Moines, Iowa.
These areas are perfect for a quick day trip or a long weekend getaway. Explore our favorite things to do or peruse some pre-built itineraries.