The Top Things To Do And See In Des Moines, Iowa

| © Paul Brady / Alamy Stock Photo
Cheryl Wassenaar

Des Moines, Iowa, is a rapidly growing mid-size city with a delightful culinary scene. Despite the changes that have come to the city, it and its residents have retained their Midwestern charm. As the capital, it’s the best way to get a look at Iowa’s history, but you can’t miss the beautiful scenery and art, either. Here are our top things to do to have the best experience in Des Moines.

Visit the historic Salisbury House

This Tudor-style manor home dates back to the 1920s. Its former owners, the Weeks Family, collected fine art, rare books, historic documents and sculpture, most of which remain in the house today. Now on the National Register of Historic Places, the Salisbury House is one of the finest house museums in the Midwest. While the architecture may draw many appreciative glances, the other collections and the botanical gardens are equally fine. Both self-guided and guided tours are available, Monday through Saturday. Aside from its collections, the house is also used as an events venue, particularly for concerts.

Watch a film at Fleur Cinema and Cafe

Des Moines’ best place to catch everything from the latest Hollywood blockbuster to the most heralded arthouse film, Fleur Cinema and Café offers more than just the standard movie theater fare to snack on while you watch. There’s a full coffee bar as well as plenty of locally made and organic treats. Of course, regular popcorn and candy are also available. Aside from its usual flicks, the theater hosts special events with the Des Moines Film Society and resurrects certain classics chosen by viewers. A delightful bonus: the seats come with extra leg room.

Tour the Iowa Capitol Building

Iowa’s history is best embodied in its Capitol building, which is considered one of the most beautiful state capitols in the United States. The gilded dome is not to be missed. When inside, don’t forget to cast your eyes skywards to fully appreciate the artistry that went into the construction. The law library, one of the largest in the United States, is utterly magnificent, with spiral staircases, ornamental balconies and a stained glass ceiling. Tours of the capitol building are available Monday through Saturday, with some exceptions.

Walk The Neal Smith Trail

Iowa may be better known for its flat cornfields, but the Neal Smith Trail is not to be ignored. It is a stunningly vibrant trail with hills, lakes, and abundant wildlife. On the trail, you can stop and rest at Saylorville Lake; the outdoor butterfly garden there is a particular treat. Tracing the Des Moines River, the 26-mile trail ends at Big Creek Lake’s beach. Moreover, it connects with the John Pat Dorrian Trail in downtown Des Moines. As it’s paved with asphalt, biking, walking, jogging, and skating are all popular options. The trail’s Des Moines endpoint is at the Birdland Marina.

Shop and dine in Valley Junction

Located in West Des Moines, the historic Valley Junction district boasts over 150 specialty shops and restaurants, as well as the single largest collection of independent businesses in the Des Moines metropolitan area. Not to be missed are the many different antique stores, like Finding Iowa. Restaurants like G Mig’s 5th Street Pub offer great places for either lunch or dinner. The Junction also hosts special events like the Sip & Shop, which offers afterhours shopping and socializing.

Enjoy exotic plants at the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden

Situated along the Des Moines River, the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden spans a massive 14 acres. The conservatory holds over 1,000 varieties of exotic plants from around the world. This botanical garden also boasts a huge number of the Midwest’s ornamental and native plants. Of particular interest is the half-acre water garden, which offers one of the best views of the Des Moines skyline. Meanwhile, the historic bonsai collection is housed on a terrace, which also offers outdoor dining. Recent additions and revitalizations have only enhanced the beauty of this impressive botanical garden more.

Taste locally made wine at Jasper Winery

Iowa has a budding wine industry, and Jasper Winery is the very best place to get a taste of Iowa wine in Des Moines. Located near Grays Lake, the winery offers a retreat from the buzzing downtown to try locally-sourced wines in a spacious tasting room. Local bands often come in and play during the summer. The winery also hosts plenty of events and parties to release the latest vintages. Both the wine and chocolate and wine and cheese pairings are a great introduction on how to taste and enjoy wine; be sure to make reservations for those. General tastings are complimentary.

Picnic at the John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park

Opened in 2009, the Pappajohn Sculpture Park is an oasis of fine art in downtown Des Moines. This 4.4-acre park is open year-round from sunrise to midnight. From April through October, you can schedule guided tours, though they are not required to enjoy the unique sculptures. The Des Moines Art Center has also provided an audio tour, available online. One of the sculptures, Seating for Eight, can be climbed on, making for a great photo op. Picnicking is also allowed, and there is a small café as well. Visit both during the day and at night to get the full experience.

Explore West End Architectural Salvage

Lovers of antique, retro, and vintage fare will be in heaven at West End Architectural Salvage, located in downtown Des Moines. There are four floors to explore, with constant changes and redecorations to keep things fresh. With a coffee bar on the first floor, this place is a great way to spend a weekend morning in the city. Keep an eye on the events page, as they often hold special sales or events. This is the same shop featured on the HGTV show of the same name; if you’re lucky, you may even spot one of the stars on your trip.

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