Des Moines is one of the most underrated, fun-filled vacation destinations in the Midwestern US. The city is brimming with a medley of quirky attractions and activities waiting to be uncovered!
Located at the confluence of the Raccoon and Des Moines rivers, Iowa’s capital city is the perfect place for outdoor lovers. There are over 70 picturesque hiking trails outside the city center, but you don’t have to travel far to be in nature as the city has several parks and open spaces.
Fans of craft beers will no doubt relish visiting the best breweries in Iowa and foodie fans will love dining at the many trendy restaurants where up-and-coming chefs make their names.
Des Moines is also an affordable city. Many Des Moines attractions are free to visit or low-cost, so you can have an amazing vacation without splurging too much.
If you’re not sure what things to do in Des Moines, then don’t worry, because there are the best attractions!
The Top Things to Do in Des Moines
Des Moines is a really cool place to visit thanks to its myriad of awesome attractions. If you’re short on time and can’t get to them all, you should absolutely check out these 5 unmissable attractions in the city!
Discover the Local Beer Scene
Take a tour of no less than four craft breweries, complete with taproom taste sessions. Enjoy a chat with brewery owners and learn more about the local beer scene, then savor a delicious lunch at Exile Brewing.
Take a Day Trip to Dyersville
Explore the charming city of Dyersville, home to the iconic Field of Dreams baseball field. Tour the well-preserved set and relax on the popular porch swing from the movie.
Go Glamping in Saylor Creek
Enjoy a relaxing stay in at a comfortable glamping site outside the city center and in the heart of the Iowa forests. Saylor Creek is just a short drive out of the city near to Des Moines River.
Discover the Legendary Bridges of Madison County
Follow in the footsteps of Meryl Streep and tour the iconic bridges that feature in the movie and the novel. Explore distinctive Iowan landmarks like the Clark Tower and the Middle River.
Visit the State Capitol
One of Iowa’s most popular attractions, the State Capitol draws thousands of visitors each year. Marvel at the iconic gold-leafed dome, tour the lavish interiors and check out the library’s glass-stained windows.
1. Explore the State Capitol
Let’s kick this list off with one of the most iconic attractions in Des Moines! Easily recognizable by its golden dome that can be spotted from various vantage points across the city, teh State Capitol is just as awe-inspiring inside, with stunning stone sculptures, vivid artwork, and plenty of marble fixtures.
This bling-heavy, Renaissance-style property also houses an impressive law library, complete with stained glass windows.
You can always take a free self-guided tour, but if you want to learn more about Des Moines and the state of Iowa, my advice would be to sign up for a formal guided tour (also free!). Be sure to allocate yourself around 1-2 hours to properly take everything in. This is the perfect activity for backpackers in the US on a budget.
- Entrance fee: Free
- Hours: 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. (Monday through Friday), 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. (Saturday)
- Address: 1007 E Grand Ave, Des Moines, IA 50319, USA
Here’s one for beer aficionados! Discover Fox Brewing’s quirky spin on craft beer at its flagship brewery and learn about how Firetrucker Brewery set up shop in an old brick fire station – all while sampling their products, of course!
The cool thing about this activity is that you’ll be treated to a behind-the-scenes peek of four different craft breweries, complete with taproom tours.
You’ll also get to talk to brewery owners and learn more about Iowa’s beer scene. Expect some serious boost in your beer knowledge thanks to the guided commentary as you ride from one site to the next.
Oh, and did I mention that a delicious lunch at Exile Brewing is included?
- Entrance fee: $108
- Hours: 11.30 a.m. to 4.30 p.m.
- Address: Science Center, 101 SW 4th St, Des Moines, IA 50309, USA
3. Marvel at the Salisbury House & Gardens
The gorgeous Salisbury House & Gardens attracts lots of tourists each year – and for good reason!
Not only does this Tudor-style manor make for an impressive backdrop for those IG pictures, but you’ll also get to take in a decadent collection of fine art, books, original musical instruments, and tapestries.
Depending on when you’re visiting, you may even get to attend a special event like concerts, dinners, Shakespeare on the lawn, or even yoga in the gardens. Reservations are highly recommended in peak season since the place can get quite packed then.
Be sure to wander the beautiful grounds after your tour – one of the most romantic things to do in Des Moines, especially at sunset.
- Entrance fee: $10 (Self-Guided Tours), $15 (Guided Tours)
- Hours: 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. (Friday through Sunday), 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (Wednesday and Thursday)
- Address: 4025 Tonawanda Dr, Des Moines, IA 50312, USA
One of the best things about Des Moines is that it’s surrounded by nature and hiking trails. One of the best ways to experience the best of that nature is by taking a glamping trip just outside the city center.
Nestled in the serene setting of Saylor Creek, this glamping tent lies in the forest, surrounded by calming trees, but still being a short drive to downtown.
If you love camping, you’ll enjoy sleeping in this spacious tent, but without losing the comforts of home. It’s warm and inviting, and there’s a lovely outdoor shower and fire pit to sit around sharing stories.
- Entrance fee: $150/night
- Hours: Check-in from 3 p.m., Checkout at 11 a.m.
- Address: Des Moines, Iowa, USA
5. Admire Quirky Sculptures at Pappajohn Sculpture Park
If you ask me, nothing represents Des Moines’ quirkiness better than the Pappajohn Sculpture Park! Set within Western Gateway Park, this pedestrian-friendly park houses several eccentric sculptures that tower over the landscape.
Now, this is a great place to explore virtually all year long, but if you’re there in June, you may get to attend the 3-day Des Moines Arts Festival. Each year, the park also hosts the 80/35 Music Festival in July.
Keep your eyes peeled for the small indicators that offer suggestions about how to best experience each particular art. Some of them are interactive while others have visual, audible, or other cool creative features – perfect for parents looking for fun things to do in Des Moines with kids!
- Entrance fee: Free
- Hours: 6am – Midnight
- Address: 1330 Grand Ave, Des Moines, IA 50309
6. Catch an Event at the Des Moines Civic Center
I’m sure by now you’ve realized that Des Moines is a super artsy place – and the Civic Center is no exception!
As the largest theatre in Iowa, this place is regularly used for various types of events, including ballets, Broadway shows, concerts, and plays. Kids-oriented shows are also hosted, making this an excellent venue for families visiting the city.
Just a heads-up: tickets sell out quickly in peak season so be sure to get them in advance. You can also download the Des Moines Performing Arts app to browse upcoming events, buy, and access your tickets.
Past performers include Sarah Vaughan, Victor Borge, and even the Preservation Hall Jazz Band- so you’ll definitely be in for a treat!
- Entrance fee: Dependent on show
- Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., weekdays only
- Address: 221 Walnut St, Des Moines, IA 50309, USA
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7. Stroll Through the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden
Located on the eastern banks of the Des Moines River, the Botanical Garden is easily one of the most jaw-droppingly gorgeous places in the city! While it originally started as a humble greenhouse, it has since flourished into a sprawling oasis.
With a huge collection of tropical and native Midwestern plants, this garden offers the ideal setting for travelers looking for relaxing activities in Des Moines.
Keep an eye out for elevators that’ll take you to viewpoints from where you’ll be treated to sweeping views of the brightly-hued flora. You’ll also find themed areas such as a Reflection Garden and a Water Garden. If you feel peckish after your tour, you can always grab a bite at the on-site Trellis Café.
- Entrance fee: $10
- Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., every day excluding Mondays (open until 9 p.m. on Thursday)
- Address: 909 Robert D. Ray Dr, Des Moines, IA 50309, USA
8. Unwind at Gray’s Lake Park
Are you looking for a place where you can wind down while relishing in the glorious Midwestern sun?
Well, Gray’s Lake Park is loaded with just about everything you need for a relaxing day: picturesque trails galore, a beach, and even an accessible playground.
If you head there in the evening, you’ll most likely see residents ‘doing the loop’ – a daily ritual where locals hike the beautifully illuminated Kruidenier Trail Pedestrian Bridge. The bridge’s glass panels combined with the multi-colored lights make for quite a display indeed!
Now, if you don’t feel like doing the loop yourself, you can always rent a canoe or kayak and paddle on the calm waters. Restrooms, picnic areas, and concession stands are also available.
- Entrance fee: Free
- Hours: 5 a.m. to 10 p.m.
- Address: 2101 Fleur Dr, Des Moines, IA 50315, USA
9. Take the Kids to the Science Center of Iowa
Wondering what to do in Des Moines on a lazy afternoon? Well, how about taking the family to the Science Center of Iowa?
And don’t worry: this isn’t just another boring ol’ science center. In fact, this place is touted as one of the coolest venues in the city, mainly because of its interactive laboratories where the kids can enjoy a hands-on experience.
Oodles of fun await through the science-related galleries, exhibits, a LEGO SCI model, and even a 6-story Imax Planetarium. Talk about getting lost in space!
The center regularly hosts special events such as workshops, family nights, and classes among others so you may wish to check out what events are on before you visit.
- Entrance fee: $13
- Hours: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
- Address: 401 W Martin Luther King Jr Pkwy, Des Moines, IA 50309, USA
If you’re visiting Des Moines as part of a USA road trip, then you might be keen to take the 3 hour drive to Dyersville. Or if you’ve been in Des Moines a while and you’ve got more time to kill, I would totally recommend a day trip to this charming city. After all, it does happen to be home to one of the most iconic baseball fields in the whole country.
Whether you want to unleash your inner kid at the National Farm Toy Museum, step back in time at the Plaza Antique Mall or quench your thirst at the Textile Brewing Company, Dyersville’s certainly got you covered!
While you’re there, you can always consider this Fields of Dream activity, complete with a tour of the perfectly preserved set. And yes – you’re absolutely allowed to have a go on the movie’s popular porch swing!
- Entrance fee: $24
- Hours: Dependent on tour
- Address: 28995 Lansing Rd, 28995 Lansing Rd, Dyersville, IA 52040, USA
11. Head for Cedar Rapids
Since Cedar Rapids lies just under 2 hours away by car, it would be a shame to not take advantage of its many attractions, don’t you think?
In fact, touring the City of Five Seasons is one of the best things to do near Des Moines. Don’t miss a visit to Grant Wood’s studio to see where this famous painter created American Gothic.
This particular building is actually owned by the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, another great destination that houses the world’s biggest collection of Grant Wood’s paintings.
On the south bank of Cedar River, you can also check out the National Czech and Slovak Museum, a popular tourist attraction found in the Czech Village.
- Entrance fee: Free
- Hours: N/A
- Address: Cedar Rapids, Iowa, USA
12. Check Out the Iowa State Fair
Touted as one of the top things to do in Des Moines, the Iowa State Fair is a 10-day event that sees the entire city flare to life. Expect wholesome family fun, contests, and rides galore!
Folks usually travel from all over to attend the fair while celebrating the local agricultural industry. The fair is also known for its many food stands, so here’s your chance to sample some of the best fares in the city.
In addition to all the great things awaiting at the Iowa State Fairgrounds, you’ll also be privy to outdoor concerts by local artists.
Just remember that the State Fair only comes to town once a year (in August), so plan your trip accordingly!
- Entrance fee: $14
- Hours: 8 a.m. to midnight
- Address: 3000 E Grand Ave, Des Moines, IA 50317, USA
13. Step Back in Time at the Living History Farm
This unique attraction brings the past to life, with living exhibits that share at least three decades of Iowan history!
The ideal destination for travelers who would like to learn more about rural Midwestern history, this interactive outdoor museum takes you through different periods. As such, you’ll get to experience a 1700s Indian Farm and an 1850s Pioneer Farm.
Depending on when you’re visiting, you may even get to attend special programs like skills classes, as well as historic teas and dinners.
In fact, the Living History Farm is especially known for its interactive recreation of a Pioneer Wedding. Visitors can attend a ceremony, help the newlyweds sort through their gifts, and pack their wagon.
- Entrance fee: $17
- Hours: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. (Tuesday-Saturday)
- Address: 11121 Hickman Rd, Urbandale, IA 50322, USA
14. Have a Picnic at Ashby Park
A great destination for travelers looking for summer activities in Des Moines, Ashby Park features plenty of free fun. There’s a splash pool, a spray ground, and even a wading pool – basically everything you need to beat the heat!
This seasonal, 11-acre park also offers several picnic tables and barbecue facilities so you can always grill up a storm before enjoying an Al Fresco meal with your family.
You’ll find various entertainment options geared towards both adults and kids such as an accessible playground, tennis and pickleball courts, a nature trail, as well as an open field space. Because it’s quite a popular spot among locals, this is also the ideal venue to mingle and connect with residents.
- Entrance fee: Free
- Hours: 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.
- Address: 3200 38th St, Des Moines, IA 50310, USA
Bridges of Madison County fans, this one’s for you! Located a quick, half-hour drive from Des Moines, Madison County’s bridges are steeped in the local history. And if like me, you happen to be a fan of the movie (or the novel), you really don’t want to skip this super cool activity.
During this tour, you’ll also be able to take in some of the most distinctive landmarks in Iowa, including the Middle River and Clark Tower.
Because the Cutler-Donahoe bridge was moved to City Park, you’ll additionally have the chance to mosey around the park, take pictures on another stone bridge that’s featured in the movie, or try to find your way through the English hedge maze.
- Entrance fee: $30.77
- Hours: Dependent on tour
- Address: Madison County Chamber of Commerce, 73 E Jefferson St, Winterset, IA 50273, USA
16. Browse Through the Downtown Farmers’ Market
Home to a delightful assortment of markets, bakers, artists, and farmers, the weekly Downtown Farmer’s Market should absolutely feature on your list of things to do in the city!
Extremely active in the summer, this pet-friendly market hosts vendors from all over Iowa, so you’ll be able to shop for various local goods. Live entertainment is often provided in the form of shows and outdoor concerts.
And if you’re visiting off-season, fret not: this venue transforms into a Winter Market during those colder winter months to help patrons get into the holiday spirit.
As such, you’ll be able to browse for gifts and holiday ornaments while sipping on hot apple cranberry wine – the local winter drink of choice in Des Moines!
- Entrance fee: Free
- Hours: 7 a.m. to 12 p.m. (Saturday only)
- Address: 300 Court Ave, Des Moines, IA 50309, USA
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17. Sample Local Ice Cream at Snookies Malt Shop
Traveling with your pooch and looking for dog-friendly things to do in Des Moines? Well, you’ll be glad to learn that Snookies Malt Shop welcomes four-legged patrons and even treats them to a Pup Cone, free of charge!
And if you’re wondering why an ice cream parlor made this list, that’s because this family-owned place is something of an institution in the city – as evidenced by the long lines in front of the shop.
Snookies specializes in various frozen treats like old-fashioned sundaes, slushies, super thick shakes, or even malts. I can absolutely recommend their Arctic Blast which is basically a few scoops of ice cream blended with your choice of candy.
- Entrance fee: Free
- Hours: 1 p.m. to 9 p.m.
- Address: 1810 Beaver Ave, Des Moines, IA 50310, USA
Where to Stay in Des Moines
Worried about not being able to find a comfy yet affordable place to stay in Des Moines? Don’t be!
The city offers several options that’ll suit just about every budget and travel plans. From motels to Airbnbs or even more elegant hotels, you’re bound to find something that suits your expectations.
Here are my recommendations for where to stay.
Best Motel in Des Moines – AmericInn by Wyndham
If you’re on a road trip through Iowa then this motel might just be the place for you! Located adjacent to the Des Moines International Airport, this motel offers a complimentary hot breakfast so you can properly fuel up for the day.
Expect beautifully appointed rooms that sleep 2-4 guests. Superior rooms add extra beds for up to 7 people. All units boast tea and coffee-making facilities, as well as microwaves and refrigerators for those late-night snacks!
Spend a day exploring nearby attractions like The Capitol and Gray’s Lake Park, then return to the hotel to cool off with a dip at the onsite pool.
Best Airbnb in Des Moines – Stylish Home Near East Village
Hands-down, this is my absolute favorite place to stay in the city! It’s in an excellent location near the East Village, and offers easy access to popular attractions in Des Moines:. Whether you want to enjoy a relaxing stroll by the Des Moines River or catch an outdoor concert at Simon Estes Amphitheatre, there’s zero chance of getting bored in this vibrant neighborhood!
This Airbnb comes with a well-equipped kitchen, but with Des Moines’ best eateries just a short distance away, so why bother cooking, right? After a thrilling day of sightseeing, retreat to one of the 4 bedrooms that comfortably accommodate larger groups of 10 guests.
Best Hotel in Des Moines – Embassy Suites Des Moines Downtown
With beautiful views of the Des Moines River, Embassy Suites features spacious suites that accommodate 2 to 6 guests. All units provide private kitchenettes – an excellent addition for when you don’t feel like eating out!
Guests can take advantage of the hotel’s thoughtful amenities like a state-of-the-art fitness center and free cooked-to-order breakfasts. There’s also an indoor pool.
When you feel like exploring, head over to nearby attractions like the Science Center of Iowa, the Wells Fargo Arena, and the State Capitol Building.
Some Additional Tips for Visiting Des Moines
I can imagine how impatient you are to get out there and check out all those incredible attractions! But before you do, be sure to check out these travel tips to ensure that your stay in Des Moines goes off without a hitch.
- Invest in travel insurance! You never know what may happen on the road.
- Stay near the Downtown Area. It won’t take you long to realize that the downtown area is one of the most diverse areas in Des Moines. Staying here you’ll also be close to the lively East Village which houses plenty of retail and dining options.
- Download DART. Des Moines has an excellent public transportation system, so getting around by bus is really easy. You can always download the official Des Moines Area Regional Transit Authority (DART) app to plan your trips and buy bus passes.
- Take Advantage of the Skywalks. Des Moines has 4 miles of skywalks in the downtown area, all climate-controlled so you can navigate your way around regardless of the weather.
- Plan Your Visit in the Fall. Because fun-filled events like the Iowa State Fair take place in summer, the city can get exceptionally crowded then. If you don’t mind missing these festivals, I would suggest that you plan your visit in the fall.
- Bring a good water bottle with you and avoid buying single-use plastic ones!
Don’t forget your travel insurance for Des Moines
It’s good to get lost sometimes, but it’s also good not to get too lost. There are people that want you home in one piece.
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Final Thoughts on Things to Do in Des Moines
I’m sure by now you’ve understood why Des Moines is one of the top-ranked cities to visit in the whole freakin’ Midwest- not to mention the 11th best place to live in the U.S!
Families, couples, and even backpackers have it made with an assortment of affordable accommodation options, free attractions, and plenty of picturesque outdoor spaces that perfectly lend themselves to those IG pictures!
Whether you’re looking for exciting things to do in Des Moines with the family, or simply want to chill back in one of their pretty parks, you can be sure that the city will perfectly cater to your expectations.
So, what are you waiting for? Time to lace up your walking shoes and book yourself a flight to this incredible destination that perfectly showcases the very best of the midwestern US.
Bye for now, but not forever!
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