Top 10 Things to Do and See in Des Moines, Iowa

Des Moines, Iowa, has restaurants and attractions to suit every taste
Des Moines, Iowa, has restaurants and attractions to suit every taste | © Ellen Isaacs / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo of Benjamin M. Smith
20 August 2020

In many Americans’ minds, the state of Iowa is the most emblematic of the Midwest – a region known for its friendly people, idyllic landscapes and hearty food servings. As the capital city, Des Moines is the best place to visit to get a sense of the Iowan way of life, its history and fun attractions.

Visit the Iowa State Capitol

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Panorama of the Iowa State Capitol building. Des Moines, Iowa.
© Stephen Bay / Alamy Stock Photo
As one of the most spectacular buildings in Des Moines and one of the finest capitol buildings in the US, the Iowa State Capitol is a must-visit. Designed in a polished renaissance style, the building is stunning, but the dome is something to behold, built of iron and brick and encrusted with 23-carat gold. Schedule a tour to learn more about this grand edifice.

Tour the Des Moines Art Center

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The architecture of the Des Moines Art Center alone reflects the changing artistic sensibilities the museum has undergone throughout the years, shifting from an original art deco wing to a modernist design for its second addition and then towards a more natural design to maximize the flow of natural light in the third wing. This non-profit institution has a variety of classic works, including the likes of Edward Hopper, Henri Matisse, Claude Monet and Andy Warhol, to name just a few. Stop here to catch the latest exhibition, which changes twice a year, for a relaxing afternoon in Des Moines.

Buy something at the Downtown Farmers’ Market

Market, American
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Consider coming to the Downtown Farmers’ Market at the Iowa State Capitol during the summer, and at the Hy-Vee Hall in the winter. With a variety of baked goods, locally made arts and crafts and fresh produce and meat, the Downtown Farmers’ Market is the best place to support local businesses and do some shopping.

Go to the Iowa State Fair

Amusement Park
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DES MOINES, IA /USA - AUGUST 10: Attendees at the Iowa State Fair. Thousands of people filling the midway at the Iowa State Fair on August 10, 2014 in
© YAY Media AS / Alamy Stock Photo
This Iowa tradition never gets old. The Iowa State Fair, one of the largest state fairs in the country, is one of the best cultural events to attend as a visitor. The more than 450 acres (182ha) of the fairgrounds are put to use, where livestock competitions, amusement park rides, cultural tents and food trucks rule (with more than 200 food stands, look for the unique, not-so-healthy dishes, such as deep-fried Snickers, for something a little different). Also, be on the lookout for the famous butter cow, an Iowa State Fair tradition since 1911.

See a show at Hoyt Sherman Place

Amusement Park
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Originally the home of Major Hoyt Sherman, brother of Civil War hero General William Tecumseh Sherman, the Hoyt Sherman Place stands today as a testament to his influence on shaping Des Moines. It serves as one of the city’s finest theaters, built for Sherman at the peak of his banking career. With routine performers such as Robert Cray and the Punch Brothers, Hoyt Sherman Place hosts an intimate concert experience that’s laced with history.

Have a beer at El Bait Shop

Bar, American, Mexican, Cocktails, Wine, Beer
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El Bait Shop is the beer capital of Des Moines. With more than 260 beers on tap and the world’s largest selection of American craft beers, this bar has its bases covered for thirsty, discerning hops heads. With tasty Mexican and American food offerings, a stop here would cure most ills induced by the road, and would easily fuel another day of travel through the Hawkeye State.

Hang out at the John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park

Market, Park
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Des Moines, Iowa, USA. 02nd Nov, 2014. Some of the several dozen sculptures arrayed in the Pappajohn Sculpture Park in downtown Des Moines. Credit:  Brian Cahn/ZUMA Wire/Alamy Live News
© ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo
The John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park makes its home in the middle of downtown. With 31 sculptures spread out on a 4.4-acre (1.8ha), pedestrian-friendly green, it is one of the most accessible parks in the city, and a great one to come to for some downtime. Bring your spoils from the Downtown Farmers’ Market here to picnic and enjoy the park’s sights.

Browse the Kavanaugh Art Gallery

Art Gallery
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The Kavanaugh Art Gallery is a family-owned, world-class art space dedicated to artworks from across the globe. With more than 4,000 pieces in-house, this gallery has an impressive collection, with a variety of fine paintings, sculptures and many limited-edition prints. The Kavanaughs have been collecting since 1989 at this location, set amid the old town of West Des Moines.

Have a meal at Centro

Restaurant, Italian, Contemporary, $$$
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Housed in a stately brick building that once functioned as a Masonic Temple, Centro is one of the best restaurants in Des Moines – and with good cause. Chef George Formaro and company dish up some of the best Italian-inspired plates in the city, such as handmade ricotta gnocchi and pancetta-wrapped shrimp. Be sure to indulge at least once on a trip to Des Moines, and be sure to do it here.

Walk around the East Village

Historical Landmark
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View towards downtown from E Locust St in the East Village, Des Moines, Iowa, USA.
© Ian Dagnall / Alamy Stock Photo
With a variety of trendy bars and restaurants and many specialty shops, the historic East Village of Des Moines is the area’s most bustling neighborhood. From Jett and Monkey’s Dog Shoppe to Velvet Coat, there’s something for every kind of consumer in the East Village, even those that walk on four legs.
These recommendations were updated on August 20, 2020 to keep your travel plans fresh.