8 Things to Do in Des Moines, Iowa

From the biggest beer bar west of the Mississippi to the famed Iowa State Fair, there are oodles of reasons to visit this capital city.

Des Moines downtown

Des Moines is growing at a faster rate than any other Midwest metro.

Photo by Shutterstock

A popular T-shirt at Raygun, a well-known locally owned store in Iowa’s capital city, reads “Des Moines! Let us exceed your already low expectations!” It’s fairly tongue-in-cheek—the insurance town in flyover country has gotten genuinely (quietly) cool.

With vibrant cultural offerings, impressive bike trails, inventive restaurants, and a blossoming beer scene, Des Moines is an attractive place to visit. The low cost of living, strong job market, and affordable housing mean the city is becoming increasingly popular with transplants from across the country. The city is growing at a faster rate than any other Midwest metro, including Chicago, Milwaukee, and Minneapolis.

All that growth, innovation, and Iowa earnestness have helped propel Des Moines to become more than just a dateline during caucus season in recent years. Sure, you could keep waving from cruising altitude, but here’s why you should stop and take a trip to one of the Heartland’s most dynamic cities.

Enjoy Saturday morning at the downtown farmers’ market

Each Saturday from May through October, more than 300 local fruit and vegetable farmers, florists, bakers, winemakers, cheesemongers, butchers, artisans, and creators set up shop in the Downtown Historic Court District for the farmers’ market. Sprawling roughly 12 blocks, the market is the second largest in the United States (behind Madison, Wisconsin) and has been operating for more than 40 years. Beyond foodstuffs, flowers, and art from all 99 counties of Iowa, you can expect live music and street performers on every corner all season.

Spend an afternoon in the East Village

Everything between the Des Moines River and the Iowa State Capitol building is considered the East Village. Home to some notable boutique shops, award-winning restaurants, and much-loved dive bars—all with a counterculture bent—this neighborhood, full of U.S. National Register of Historic Places buildings, is worth spending a few hours in.

For food, consider Lucca for elevated Italian fare, Zombie Burger + Drink Lab for inventive handhelds and boozy milkshakes, or Open Sesame for Lebanese and Mediterranean dishes.

For drinks, tiki-themed Bellhop, barcadium (arcade bar) Up-Down, and classic cocktail focused Pura Social Club are all solid choices. There’s also Locust Tap, an 85-year-old dive bar where the walls are covered with the signatures of patrons, the drinks are strong, and the decor eclectic (you may notice an old prosthetic leg hanging above the door). On the same block as Locust Tap is the Blazing Saddle, the oldest gay bar in Des Moines.

After you’ve done your boutique shopping, pop into the Capitol building (you’ll know it by the shiny dome covered in gold leaf) for a self-guided tour. Or spend some time walking around the 12-acre Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden—the bonsai and orchid collections are particularly nice. And if you’re visiting in the winter, practice your pirouettes at Brenton Skating Plaza (it offers rentals).

Eat a pork chop on a stick at the Iowa State Fair

Iowa state fair

The Iowa State Fair features the nation’s largest state fair foods judging contest with nearly 900 classes of voting.

Photo by Shutterstock

Iowa’s annual, two-week-long tribute to blue-ribbon farm animals and deep-fried overindulgence, the Iowa State Fair, takes place in Des Moines each August. Fairgoers can spend the day visiting the agricultural exhibits, compete in the bean bags tournament, do carnival rides, watch musical acts in the grandstand, and nosh on highly caloric meat-forward treats, like the Pork Picnic in a Cup (layers of barbecued pulled pork, baked beans, coleslaw, and brown sugar pork belly in a cup).

And because Iowa is the first-in-the-nation-for-nominating state, during the years leading up to and including elections, you can expect to see presidential hopefuls shaking hands on the Grand Concourse, admiring the famous butter cow, and getting their photo taken eating a giant turkey leg while sitting on a hay bale.

Sip a locally crafted beer

Hop heads, prepare to be pleasantly surprised—Des Moines has a stellar beer scene.

Start at El Bait Shop, which is consistently ranked among the top beer bars in the country. They have 262 beers on draft—the largest offering west of the Mississippi River—including some of particularly hard-to-find barrels. Within a couple blocks you’ll also find a selection of hyper-specific, but robust beer joints, including Hessen Haus (a German-style beer hall), the Royal Mile (a British pub) the Red Monk (a Belgian café), and Iowa Taproom (with more than 100 suds brewed within the state).

There are also more than two dozen breweries in the metro. The three most senior (and the largest in size and volume) are Court Avenue Restaurant and Brewing Co., Exile Brewing Co., and Confluence Brewing. A popular newcomer, Lua Brewing, often has a selection of sours and boasts a patio overlooking downtown.

Dine at a renowned restaurant

While the State Fair’s fare leans deep-fried, don’t think that’s indicative of Des Moines’s dining scene.

Downtown, we’d recommend St. Kilda, a trendy Australian American café and bakery popular for its various avocado toast renditions and colorful grain bowls; French bistro Django for duck frites and beef tenderloin; Bubba for Southern comfort foods; and Fong’s, which defies categorization considering it’s equal parts tiki bar, pizzeria, karaoke joint, and Chinese restaurant. (Do yourself a favor and get the Crab Rangoon Pizza.)

On Ingersoll Avenue, known for its high density of bars and restaurants, there’s the supper club Jesse’s Embers; Mediterranean-inspired Eatery A; the aptly named Cheese Bar; and the Asian-focused Lucky Lotus and Harbinger.

Take in art at the Des Moines Arts Center and Pappajohn Sculpture Park

At the Des Moines Arts Center, the main gallery acts as a canvas for temporary exhibits, usually lasting one to three months. The permanent collection includes the works of many of the modern artists who dominated your Art History 101 textbook, including Matisse, Monet, O’Keeffe, Rodin, and beyond. Throughout the year, it offers guided and self-guided tours of the museum, as well as the outdoor rose garden and sculpture park. Found in downtown Des Moines, the building was designed by the acclaimed architect Eliel Saarinen and combines art deco and art nouveau styles.

Also downtown is the Pappajohn Sculpture Park, a four-acre area that displays more than 20 sculptures. The original 24 sculptures, valued at $40 million, were part of the personal collection of philanthropists John and Mary Louise Pappajohn, who donated the works to the city in 2009 to help revitalize downtown.

Catch nationally recognized bands at the 80-35 music festival

Des Moines is also home to a major music festival each July, known as 80-35. Named for the two interstates that cross through Des Moines, the summer festival features both local talent and bands known around the world. (2022 saw acts like Father John Misty, Japanese Breakfast, and Charli XCX.)

Rent a bike and hit the trails

Des Moines has more than 800 miles of bike trails within the metro area, making it an exciting place for cyclists to explore safely. One of the most popular routes is the High Trestle Trail, a flat, paved path atop a decommissioned and converted railroad line. For 25 miles, it weaves through the nearby cities of Ankeny, Madrid, Sheldahl, Slate, and Woodward. The most scenic portion may be where the route crosses the High Trestle Bridge, a 13-story-tall, half-mile-long bridge over the Des Moines River valley.

Stretching just over five miles, the Meredith Trail (named for Ted Meredith, a conservationist and former chairman of the board for Meredith Corporation) connects downtown to Gray’s Lake Park. The latter has a nearly two-mile path that encircles the lake; from the Kruidenier Trail Pedestrian Bridge that completes the loop, the views of the Des Moines skyline are incredible. Gray’s Lake is a popular spot to go fishing, sunbathe on the beach, and rent a kayak at the concession stand.

There’s also the West Des Moines Historical Bike Tour. This eight-mile loop passes the Jordan House, the Red Caboose, Raccoon River Park, and another nine locations that highlight the area’s history.

If you don’t have your own bike with you, look for one of the 27 BCycle stations, each with a selection of classic and E-bikes for public use, throughout town.

Where to stay in Des Moines

Renaissance Des Moines Savery Hotel

Book Now: Renaissance Des Moines Savery Hotel

If you’re looking to bed down in history, the Savery Hotel delivers. The 103-year-old hotel was originally helmed by a woman named Annie Savery, a well-known women’s rights activist. Though it’s been around since 1919, the hotel isn’t dated—in 2018 it completed a $20 million renovation. The red-brick hotel sits in the heart of downtown’s main entertainment district, near places like the Des Moines Performing Arts Center and Wells Fargo Arena.

Surety Hotel

Book Now: Surety Hotel

In a past life, the Surety Hotel was an office building for insurance companies. Now the midcentury-modern hotel features well-appointed rooms with floor-to-ceiling windows that overlook downtown.

Bailey Berg is the associate travel news editor at AFAR, where she covers breaking news, trends, tips, sustainability, the outdoors, and more. When not interviewing sources or writing articles, she can be found exploring art galleries, visiting craft breweries, hiking with her dogs, and planning her next adventure (at present, she’s been to 75+ countries and hopes to spend time in every one someday).