PeaceJoyAustin

Cheap, free, and local-endorsed things to do in beautiful places

Des Moines

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  • The largest city and capital of Iowa
  • A hub for the insurance industry
  • Has one of the top-ranked farmer’s markets in the country

Metro Population: 635,000 (#89 in the U.S.)

When To Visit: May-October

Climate: Very seasonal – with a hot summer, cold snowy winter, and cool spring and fall

Situated in a very central location in Iowa, Des Moines is perched on the intersection of the Des Moines and Raccoon Rivers and has a multitude of parks and walking paths. The area has been settled for over 7,000 years and today is an economically thriving city that hosts over 1 million visitors for creative and indulgent eats at the annual Iowa State Fair.

Photo: River Walk Park

Where To Go in Des Moines

East Village: Take a stroll through this historic area brimming with historic buildings, eats, art, and local shops. Free. 6th Street & Grand Avenue.

Iowa State Capitol: One of the most ornate and stunning state capitol buildings, the Iowa capitol is perched on a hill overlooking Downtown Des Moines and is open to the public Monday-Saturday 8-5pm (closes 1 hour early on Saturdays). It’s a worth a visit to see the exterior during off hours. Free. 1007 East Grand Avenue, East Village. (515) 281-5591

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Iowa State Capitol

Principal Riverwalk: Miles-long pedestrian paths along the Des Moines River that provide excellent views of the Downtown skyline and surrounding areas. Free. 520 Robert D. Ray Drive, East Village.

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Downtown Des Moines from the Principal Riverwalk

Pappajohns Sculpture Park: Dozens of unique sculptures of all sizes are fun to view and immerse yourself into in this open space with great views of the Des Moines skyline. Free. 1330 Grand Avenue, Downtown. (515) 237-1386

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Pappajohn Sculpture Park

Arts Center: This large and diverse art museum is architecturally stunning and has excellent rotating exhibits from local and international artists. Free. 4700 Grand Avenue, Downtown. (515) 277-4405.

Gray’s Lake Park: A popular walking and running area for locals, this lake is surrounded by pedestrian paths which also have great views of the Raccoon River. If it’s a hot day, there’s beaches where you can take a dip. Free. 2101 Fleur Drive, Downtown. (515) 242-2855

Terrace Hill: The only governor’s mansion in the country that’s accessible to the public, Terrace Hill is a beautiful building that was built in 1869 and has panoramic views of Des Moines. Tours are available between 10:30 and 1:30 March-December. $5 admission. 2300 Grand Avenue, Greenwood. (515) 281-7205

Des Moines Cheap Eats

Des Moines restaurants and fast casual eateries popular with locals where you can get a full meal for under $15. I always highlight some vegan or vegetarian options – cutting down on the amount of meat you eat is by far the #1 way you can reduce your environmental impact and contribute less to animal cruelty.

Eatery A: You’ll enjoy creative Mediterranean eats at surprisingly low prices and delicious wood-fired pizza at this highly-rated and polished restaurant. 2932 Ingersoll Avenue, Greenwood. (515) 282-8085

Tasty Tacos: Don’t expect authentic Mexican food, but the huge and extremely fluffy flour tortillas at this long-time local favorite joint are worth a taste. It’s a great showcase of Midwestern Mexican food. 1400 East Grand Avenue, Capitol East. (515) 266-4242

University Library Cafe: Simple breakfasts done very well are the essence of this popular brunch spot with a large drink menu and traditional lunch and dinner eats located next to the Drake University campus. 3506 University Avenue, Drake. (515) 255-0433

Ritual Cafe: A hippie 100% vegetarian coffee shop with a great amount of breakfast and sandwich, and all-natural smoothie options in a bohemian setting. 1301 Locust Street D, Downtown. (515) 288-4872

Fong’s: This creative restaurant uses Chinese food as pizza toppings – it’s a once-in-a-lifetime twist on the pizza. There’s also a tiki bar! 223 4th Street, Downtown. (515) 323-3333

Woody’s Smoke Shack: Des Moines’ best BBQ joint that serves top-notch cuts and sides in a colorful setting. 2511 Cottage Grove Avenue, Drake. (515) 277-0005

Snookies Malt Shop: A local favorite, this old-fashioned malt shop serves up a variety of twists on soft serve and makes a mean shake and malt. The outdoor seating area is a wonderful hangout spot on a warm day. 1810 Beaver Avenue, Beaverdale. (515) 255-0638

Strudl Haus: The napoleon pastry at this hip dessert spot is a must-try while you’re in Des Moines – they also serve a variety of Austrian desserts and baked goods. 1951 Indianola Avenue, Indianola Hills. (515) 529-9886

Des Moines Nightlife

Des Moines bars, lounges, and clubs that are popular with locals and meet one or more of these criteria: A) Unique, unlike anyplace you’ll find in another city B) Fun and lively, sure to be a good time C) Beautiful decor or view

The Garden Club: A multi-room gay club with frequent drag shows, a good-sized dancefloor, and a pleasant outdoor patio. Expect a $5 or so cover on weekends. 112 Southeast 4th Street, East Village. (515) 243-3965

The High Life Lounge: This bar and cafe has huge food and drink menus in a very low-key, down-home setting. It feels like real Iowa! 200 Southwest 2nd Street, Downtown. (515) 280-1965

Star Bar: Super cheap drinks and an extensive food menu make this chic neighborhood bar a hit with locals. 2811 Ingersoll Avenue, Greenwood. (515) 244-0790.

Blazing Saddles: This casual two-level sit-down bar that is Des Moines’ oldest gay bar is conveniently located in the center of the city’s hippest neighborhood: the East Village. 416 East 5th Street, East Village. (515) 216-1299

Nearby Side Trips from Des Moines

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VW Spider in Avoca, Iowa

Berry Patch Farm: A family farm a half-hour northeast of Des Moines that offers a variety of berry picking. Seasonal.

Omaha: Nebraska’s largest city only 2 hours away offers visitors a taste of Wild West history, a thriving art scene, and gorgeous views of the Missouri River. Read more.

VW Spider: If you take I-80 west of Des Moines, a stop at this attraction 1 mile off the freeway in the town of Avoca is a must! It’s random AF but quite a unique sight.

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