20 Things To Do In Des Moines

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The economic, cultural, political and legislative capital of Iowa, Des Moines is the biggest city in the Hawkeye State and a real agricultural titan in America’s Midwest region. Named after Fort Des Moines, which stood on the location where downtown Des Moines stands today, the city is home to many of Iowa’s biggest, most popular and most prestigious attractions.

Things to do in Des Moines include visiting the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden, stopping by the Iowa State Fair and touring the historic Hoyt Sherman Place. There’s also tons of history and Iowan culture to sample all across this cosmopolitan and forward-thinking metropolis, so be sure to clear your itinerary since there’s quite a lot to see, do and discover in this interesting Midwest city.

Des Moines, Iowa

20 Things To Do In Des Moines

1- See The Striking Iowa State Capitol

Iowa state capitol building and green lawn
Exploring the Iowa State Capitol building is one of the things to do in Des Moines.

The stately and eye-catching Iowa State Capitol is undoubtedly Iowa’s most important landmark in the heart of downtown Des Moines.

Built in the Renaissance Revival style, the capitol was jointly designed by architects John C. Cochrane and Alfred H. Piquenard and officially opened as the legislative hub for the Hawkeye State in 1886 after more than 15 years of construction.

Overlooking the city from atop a hill, the five-domed capitol with its Corinthian columns and intricate cornices is open for free guided and self-guided tours to the public throughout the year.

Featuring a spectacularly grand interior that features mahogany, marble and masterful artworks virtually everywhere you look, this is one of Des Moines’ best attractions to visit and one of the best free places to visit in Iowa.

The Iowa State Capitol is at 1007 E Grand Ave, Des Moines, IA 50319. Check out Des Moines by downloading this fun scavenger hunt. 

2- Stop By The World Food Prize Hall of Laureates

Housed inside the former Des Moines Public Library Building in downtown Des Moines, the World Food Prize Hall of Laureates was opened in 2006 in honour of Nobel Peace Prize winner and Iowa native Dr. Norman Borlaug.

Borlaug was instrumental in increasing global food production and pioneering the Green Revolution during the 60s and was a pivotal figure in establishing the prestigious World Food Prize during the 1980s.

Today, this historic venue houses a museum and educational centre and is open for tours, private functions and even live performances to the public.

The World Food Prize Hall of Laureates is at 100 Locust St, Des Moines, IA 50309.

3- Visit Pappajohn Sculpture Park

sculptures of horses and other art on a green lawn in Des Moines
One of the kid-friendly things to do in Des Moines this weekend is to wander around looking at the public sculptures.

The 4.4-acre (1.8 ha) Pappajohn Sculpture Park in downtown Des Moines is a state-of-the-art cultural venue established in 2009 after John and Mary Pappajohn donated 24 sculptures to help set up the venue.

Located within the city’s Western Gateway Park, the sculpture park’s sizeable public art collection includes works from Jaume Plensa, Louise Bourgeois and Ai Weiwei.

Offering guided tours between April and October every year and accessible to the public for self-guided tours whenever the Western Gateway Park is open, this unique Des Moines arts institution’s well worth visiting whenever you’re looking for something new and exciting to do in Iowa’s capital.

The Pappajohn Sculpture Park is at 1330 Grand Ave, Des Moines, IA 50309.

4- Visit Iowa State Fair

State Fair At Sunset
Visiting the Iowa State Fair is one of the fun things to do in Des Moines if you’re there at the right time of year.

Hosted at the Iowa State Fairgrounds every year since 1886, the popular Iowa State Fair is an 11-day-long celebration of Iowa’s industrial and agricultural prowess that treats visitors to a range of amusement rides, live entertainment and food options.

The state fair is one of the biggest and oldest in the United States, attracting over a million visitors annually.

Held in August every year, the event captures the essence of Iowa and her people, incorporating livestock exhibitions, auto shows, antique markets, and so much more into one fantastic attraction that’s, without a doubt, Iowa’s biggest spectacle.

The Iowa State Fair is at 3000 E Grand Ave, Des Moines, IA 50317.

5- Tour The Historic East Village

Des Moines’ historic East Village is the historical and cultural heartbeat of the city, boasting several buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places, world-class art institutions, and some of the city’s best entertainment venues.

Located in downtown Des Moines, the neighbourhood is home to the Iowa State Capitol and the State of Iowa Historical Museum, as well as a range of historic eateries, shops and houses saved from demolition by the locals.

Bordering the Des Moines River, the district is one of the most scenic places in the city and is perfect for discovering the best downtown Des Moines has to offer.

6- Unwind In The Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden

The Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden has been Des Moines’ premier outdoor attraction ever since this state-of-the-art venue first opened back in 1939.

Spanning over 17 acres (7 ha), the centre features more than 1,200 individual plants on display across the venue’s various indoor-outdoor gardens.

Several special events also take place at the venue throughout the year, such as Yoga at the Garden and An Apple a Day, and the venue’s large glass dome makes it possible to visit the gardens year-round.

From roses and conifers to bonsai trees and orchids, there’s endless natural beauty at this splendid Des Moines attraction.

The Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden is at 909 Robert D. Ray Dr, Des Moines, IA 50309.

7- Visit The Impressive Terrace Hill

A stately mansion to match Iowa’s grandiose Capitol, Terrace Hill is the official residence of the Hawkeye State’s governor and a designated National Historic Landmark since 2003.

Unofficially known as the Iowa Governor’s Mansion, the Hubbell Mansion or the Benjamin F. Allen House, depending on whom you ask, this 18,000-square-foot (1,672 m2) estate is a stunning example of Second Empire style architecture and a must-see Iowa landmark.

Originally built for Benjamin Franklin Allen in 1880, the estate’s interior, exhibits, and collections are open to the public for tours throughout the year.

Terrace Hill is at 2300 Grand Ave, Des Moines, IA 50312.

8- Tour Salisbury House

The Salisbury House is a 42-room, 22,000 square feet (2,000 m2) Gothic, Tudor and Carolean-style estate built by cosmetic magnates Carl and Edith Weeks over a six-year period between 1923 and 1928.

Modelled after the famous King’s House in Salisbury, England, the estate doubles as an art museum and library, exhibiting the Weeks’ large decorative art, fine art, musical instrument and book collections.

Hosting everything from yoga sessions to live concerts throughout the year, this incredibly historic Des Moines attraction is always a fantastic Iowa attraction to add to your Des Moines itinerary.

The Salisbury House is at 4025 Tonawanda Dr, Des Moines, IA 50312.

9- Get Creative At Des Moines Art Center

des moines sculpture and buildings
Wandering around on foot is one of the things to do in Des Moines to get your bearings.

Renowned for its sizeable collection of contemporary art across mediums such as paintings, sculptures and more, the Des Moines Art Center is a world-class arts institution that opened in 1948.

The centre is housed inside an Art Deco and Art Nouveau-style building designed by Eliel Saarinen, exhibiting works of art by world-famous artists such as Claude Monet, Georgia O’ Keefe, Henri Matisse and Andy Warhol.

With some of the world’s biggest masterpieces on display by some of the world’s most famous artists, this is one fine cultural institution you wouldn’t want to miss out on whenever you’re in Des Moines.

The Des Moines Art Center is at 4700 Grand Ave, Des Moines, IA 50312.

10- Learn About Iowa’s Past At Living History Farms

Situated in Urbandale, some 10 miles (16 km) west of downtown Des Moines, the Living History Farms is a 500-acre (202 ha) open-air museum that perfectly captures Iowa’s proud farming traditions of the last 300 years.

The venue takes visitors on a trip back in time to see what farm life was like in Iowa during the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries through various buildings and re-enactments.

Established in 1970 by agricultural economist Dr William G. Murray, this living museum was the site for Pope John Paul II’s ecumenical service, Mass and homily during his 1979 visit to Iowa, which over 340,000 people attended.

The Living History Farms is at 11121 Hickman Rd, Urbandale, IA 50322.

11- Discover the State Historical Museum

Views Around Des Moines
Admiring architecture is one of the things to do in downtown Des Moines.

The State Historical Museum is a world-class repository of Iowa’s past conveniently located just a stone’s throw from the State Capitol in downtown Des Moines.

First formed in 1857 as little more than a small historical society managed by the University of Iowa, the museum quickly grew in size over the following decades and is home to more than 80,000 individual artefacts.

The museum tells Iowa’s past, present and future better than any other venue in the state, making it worth a visit if you’re interested in discovering more than three centuries of Iowa history.

The State Historical Museum is at 600 E Locust St, Des Moines, IA 50319.

12- Be Inspired By The Science Center of Iowa

view of downtown Des Moines across the park
Looking for things to do in Des Moines today? Check out our top 20.

The Science Center of Iowa is a fully-interactive, hands-on educational facility in downtown Des Moines that was originally opened as the Des Moines Center of Science and Industry in 1970.

More than 300,000 people visit the centre yearly thanks to its great STEM programs, planetarium and LEGO installations, making it one of Iowa’s most visited attractions.

Whether it’s dinosaurs, space or zoology you’re interested in, this interesting Iowa venue has something for all ages to see and interact with.

The Science Center of Iowa is at 401 W Martin Luther King Jr Pkwy, Des Moines, IA 50309.

13- Connect With Nature At Water Works Park

Touted as one of the largest urban parks in the United States, the 1,500-acre (607 ha) Water Works Park is Des Moines’ biggest outdoor attraction and is home to some of the state’s most scenic landscapes.

The massive park was established in 1933 to protect the city’s water supply and has since grown into a truly remarkable tourist attraction connected to Gray’s Lake via a network of nature trails.

One of the park’s biggest attractions is the Arie den Boer Arboretum, a 1,200-tree garden with one of the world’s largest collections of crab apple varieties.

A great place to hike, bike, picnic, or catch a show at the large amphitheatre, this splendid Des Moines destination is among the best outdoor landmarks in all of Iowa.

Water Works Park is at 2201 George Flagg Pkwy, Des Moines, IA 50321.

14- Go Shopping At The Downtown Farmers Market

Sourced Fresh From The Farmers Market
Shopping in the farmer’s market is one of the things to do in Des Moines this weekend.

If you’re looking for the freshest produce, tastiest homemade bakes or locally made artisanal crafts, there’s no better place to visit than Des Moines’ Downtown Farmers Market.

This immensely popular community gathering was first organised in 1975 and has grown into one of downtown Des Moines’ most visited attractions, featuring over 300 vendors across several city blocks.

Food trucks, street performers and live music are just some of the things you can expect to find at this weekly-held open-air market that’s regularly ranked as one of the best farmer’s markets in the country.

15- Spend An Afternoon At Gray’s Lake Park

Scenic Gray’s Lake Park is a beautiful outdoor recreational area just two miles (3.2 km) outside downtown Des Moines.

The park is filled with nature trails, riverfront views and plenty of greenery, however, it’s the park’s 167-acre (68 ha) Gray’s Lake that steals the show as the park’s main attraction.

The park lies adjacent to the Raccoon River and is sandwiched between MacRae Park and the Des Moines Water Works Park, two of the city’s most popular public parks.

Open day and night, the park provides water access for paddleboarding and kayaking.

It features plenty of picnic areas and benches for visitors to use while enjoying everything that this great outdoor attraction has to offer.

Gray’s Lake Park is at 2101 Fleur Dr, Des Moines, IA 50315.

16- Watch A Game At Principal Park

Opened in time for the 1992 baseball season, Principal Park is the official home of the Iowa Cubs and is among the biggest sporting venues in downtown Des Moines.

The stadium has a total seating capacity of more than 11,000 spectators and plays host to minor league baseball games, as well as live concerts and other special events.

Whether it’s to scout the future stars of the big leagues or to catch a live music performance, this state-of-the-art Des Moines arena is always a great Iowa attraction to experience.

Principal Park is at 1 Line Dr, Des Moines, IA 50309.

17- Admire Robert D. Ray Asian Gardens

red Chinese pagoda and lake in Des Moines
One of the things to do in Des Moines IA is to pay a visit to Chinatown.

The perfectly manicured Robert D. Ray Asian Gardens is a 2-acre (1 ha) riverfront botanical garden that was opened in 2009 to pay homage to Iowa’s late governor Robert D. Ray.

Ray played a pivotal role in the resettlement of thousands of Asian refugees across the state of Iowa throughout the 1970s, helping turn Des Moines into the Hawkeye State’s most diverse city.

Several key sites and attractions can be found in and around this unique Midwest outdoor landmark, including a 37-foot-tall (11 m) Chinese pagoda, the Bridge for Prosperity, the Bridge for Friendship, and the Gateway for Diversity.

Situated right on the banks of the Des Moines River in the city’s downtown heart, this incredibly scenic Iowa landmark is unlike anything else in the Hawkeye State, making it well worth visiting the next time you travel around Iowa.

The Robert D. Ray Asian Gardens is at Robert D. Ray Dr, Des Moines, IA 50309.

18- Catch A Broadway Production At Des Moines Civic Center

top things to do in des moines
If you’re looking for things to do in Des Moines, Iowa, you’ll find plenty day and night.

Owned and operated by the non-profit Des Moines Performing Arts, the Des Moines Civic Center is a world-class cultural institution that has been Iowa’s largest performing arts venue since its opening in 1979.

The centre has a total capacity of 2,744 and regularly hosts concerts, ballets and Broadway productions.

Managed by the same organisation that oversees Des Moines’ Temple Theater, Stoner Theater and Cowles Commons, this impressive Iowa landmark is a beacon for the arts across the Hawkeye State.

It is always a great place to catch a performance during your stay in Iowa’s trendy capital.

The Des Moines Civic Center is at 221 Walnut St, Des Moines, IA 50309.

19- Visit The Historic Hoyt Sherman Place

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places and an inductee of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Des Moines’ Hoyt Sherman Place is the former home of prominent banker and statesman Hoyt Sherman.

The historic Iowa landmark was completed in 1877 on a 5-acre (2 ha) plot of land that Sherman bought for $105 in 1850 and was designed by renowned Iowa architect William Foster.

Today, the venue is a museum, art gallery and theatre that’s managed by the Hoyt Sherman Place Foundation, showcasing the vast art collections of Sherman and the Des Moines Women’s Club for all to enjoy

The Hoyt Sherman Place is at 1501 Woodland Ave, Des Moines, IA 50314.

20- Learn About Rare And Exotic Animals At Blank Park Zoo

The 49-acre (20 ha) Blank Park Zoo has been a favourite attraction among Des Moines families ever since this sprawling animal sanctuary opened in 1966.

Providing a home for over 1,500 animals and more than 100 species, the zoo features an aquarium, aviary and discovery centre.

It is conveniently located just 5 miles (8 km) south of downtown Des Moines.

From rhinos and zebras to penguins and panda bears, there are many things to see and animals to learn about at this one-of-a-kind Iowa attraction.

Blank Park Zoo is at 7401 SW 9th St, Des Moines, IA 50315. 

Des Moines, Iowa, skyline and bridge illuminated at night
One of the things to do in Des Moines tonight is to enjoy the city and bridge lights from across the river.
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Jessica Shaw is a storyteller who has lived in four U.S. states - Missouri, Georgia, Ohio and Illinois - and has visited many others. She loves history and nature and is a big fan of road tripping.