15 Best Things To Do In Des Moines (IA)

Written by Veronique Raes
Updated on
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The capital of the state of Iowa, Des Moines is a place that mixes the old and the new.

If you take a trip here, you will find quirky and unexpected attractions such as the breathtaking Pappajohn Sculpture Park, mixed with historical landmarks like the State Capitol building.

As well as historic gems like museums and mansions, you will also find local initiatives such as the Downtown Farmers’ Market where you will get to see the best of the local Des Moines flavors.

For anyone travelling with younger guests, there are a wealth of activities to enjoy in Des Moines, including the majestic Blank Park Zoo, which has collections of animals from all over the world.

In addition to the zoo, you will also find botanical gardens, science museums and other educational attractions scattered all over this city.

Lets explore the best things to do in Des Moines:

1. Blank Park Zoo

Blank Park ZooSource: flickr
Blank Park Zoo

The Blank Park Zoo is located in the downtown area of Des Moines and is known for spreading across 25 acres of prime land.

First opened in 1966, the zoo has a mission statement to preserve and educate on conservation and environmental issues.

The zoo is divided up into main exhibits within the main Discovery Center and there are sections such as the Free Range Aviary and the Meredith Alpine Exhibit.

The species here come from all over the world, so you can expect to see a huge variety of animals, from sea life to African elephants.

Depending on what you want to see first, you can visit the Aquarium of the Discovery Center or stroll along the African Boardwalk, and there is even an Australia Adventure here which features koalas and kangaroos.

2. Des Moines Art Center

Des Moines Art CenterSource: flickr
Des Moines Art Center

Having first opened in 1948, the Des Moines Art Center is the perfect stop-off for art lovers with an interest in modern art.

The center is built in an Art Deco style and has paintings as well as other art forms including sculpture.

There is a permanent collection here that has pieces by powerhouse artists such as Rodin and Matisse, and there are also rotating exhibitions of collections from the region.

As well as the actual museum itself, there is also an ornamental rose garden here that features a range of sculptures.

3. Salisbury House & Gardens

Salisbury House & GardensSource: salisburyhouseandgardens
Salisbury House & Gardens

The Salisbury House & Gardens date from the 1920s and feature an ornate botanical garden as well as a glamorous mansion.

Inside the mansion, visitors will find an art museum as well as a concert hall and a library, and this is known as one of the top picks for anyone visiting this part of Iowa.

The house is modeled on a the famous 15th century Kings House in Salisbury in England, from which it gets its name, and the museum is full of art piece as well as historical documents, memorabilia, and even musical instruments.

4. Downtown Farmers’ Market

Downtown Farmers’ MarketSource: flickr
Downtown Farmers’ Market

Located in the Downtown Historic Court District of the city, this farmers’ market is ideal if you want to support the local community and find over 300 local vendors all selling their wares in the same place.

These include farmers, bakers, and artisans, and the market has been running for over 40 years, so know that you are in good hands with some of the best local producers in the business.

Farmers who sell their wares at the market come from all 58 counties of Iowa and you can expect local fruits, vegetables, flowers, and herbs to be sold here, as well as delicious meats.

There is entertainment in the form of live music and street performers throughout the day.

5. State Historical Museum

State Historical MuseumSource: flickr
State Historical Museum

The State Historical Museum is dedicated to showcasing the state of Iowa, and if you come here you can learn all about how this area of the United States came to be.

The galleries here have historical objects such as antiques and period documents that offer a fascinating insight into the growth of Des Moines, and there are also themed exhibits such as Wings over Iowa.

It is possible to go on a guided tour of the museum that takes an hour and will walk you through the story of Des Moines and the history of the museum and its collections.

6. Pappajohn Sculpture Park

Pappajohn Sculpture ParkSource: flickr
Pappajohn Sculpture Park

Covering over 4 acres of land, the Pappajohn Sculpture Park was founded in 2009 by John and Mary Pappajohn and is known as a quirky sight in the city where you will find over 20 sculptures by prominent local artists.

The sculptures here were all donated from the private collection of the Pappajohn’s and are overseen by the Des Moines Art Center.

In order to fully enjoy the sculptures, you can go on a guided tour of the park, or you can go it alone and take in this amazing artistic endeavor on your own.

7. The State Capitol

The State CapitolSource: flickr

The State Capitol building in Des Moines is a great place to come to learn more about this city as well as the state of Iowa.

The building itself dates from 1871 and you will find a range of ornate decorative features inside such as marble work, intricate stone carvings, and astonishing art collections.

The dome of the State Capitol building shines in the light thanks to the gold leaf that decorates it, and you can see all of these features and more on one of the tours available here.

You can tour the building and the grounds on either a self-guided tour or you can choose to follow a more formal set up with a knowledgeable docent who will explain the history of the capitol as well as that of Des Moines to you in more detail.

8. Better Homes and Gardens Test Gardens

Better Homes and Gardens Test GardensSource: tripadvisor
Better Homes and Gardens Test Gardens

Better Homes and Gardens Test Garden is a display garden and outdoor photography studio that is known as the shoot location for Better Homes and Gardens Magazine.

If you come here, you will find 22 different gardens which are grouped according to different themes, such as the Shade Garden which is made up of leafy woodland, or the Path Garden that features a delightful flagstone pathway.

The gardens can be visited by the public when not in use by Better Homes and Garden Magazine, and is the ideal place to come for an afternoon stroll.

9. Jasper Winery

Jasper WinerySource: hansencompany
Jasper Winery

Opened in 2000, Jasper Winery came into fruition as the result of grape planting in the area of Newton, which quickly turned into a full time wine production business.

The winery moved to Des Moines in 2008 and has a tasting room where you can sample the delicious beverages on sale here, and find out why Jasper Winery supplied many of the big businesses all over Iowa.

You can also take a tour of the winery and there is an educational session that lasts for 90 minutes that also features a tasting opportunity with cheese and chocolate pairings.

10. Terrace Hill

Terrace HillSource: flickr
Terrace Hill

Terrace Hill is better known for being the official home of the Governor of Iowa, and is also sometimes referred to as Benjamin F. Allen House or Hubbell Mansion.

The residence was built in the Second Empire style and is listed as a U.S National Historic Landmark.

The home measures in an 18,000 square feet and features an iconic 90 foot tower that dates from 1869.  Terrace Hill is open to the public and the inside has a permanent gallery as well as rotating exhibitions of art and historical pieces.

11. Des Moines Performing Arts

Des Moines Performing ArtsSource: flickr
Des Moines Performing Arts

The Des Moines Performing Arts Center operates out of the Des Moines Civic Center and has a capacity of over 2,000 spectators at one time.

Established in 1979, the center features Broadway plays as well as dance recitals and even family theater and children’s theater.

You can also catch musical concerts here, and many famous faces have played here over the years.

If you are interested in the arts, then this is the place to come and check out the scene in Des Moines.

12. World Food Prize Hall of Laureates

World Food Prize Hall of LaureatesSource: flickr
World Food Prize Hall of Laureates

The World Food Prize Hall of Laureates is a museum that is dedicated to Dr.

Norman Borlaug, a former Nobel Peace Prize winner who is known for his food programs designed to eliminate hunger and improve food security around the globe.

There are galleries that tell the story of the work of Dr.

Borlaug as well as educational exhibits and you can also walk in the picturesque flower gardens that surround the facility.

13. East Village

East VillageSource: flickr
East Village

The East Village is a great place to come in Des Moines if you want to find some of the city’s best historical gems such as the State of Iowa Historical Museum and the Iowa State Capitol building.

Many of the other buildings in the area are listed in the U.S National Register of Historic Places, and this is an ideal location to spend an afternoon walking around and taking in the history of the city.

There are also bars, restaurants, and shops here, and this is known as one of the most up-and-coming and vibrant places in all of Des Moines.

14. The Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden

The Greater Des Moines Botanical GardenSource: flickr
The Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden

The Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden encompasses 14 acres of land and has an illustrious history dating back to 1939 when it began life as a humble greenhouse.

Nowadays the Botanical Garden is one of the most beautiful parts of the city and you will find over 1,200 plants and flowers here.

The garden has a mission to educate others on the flora of the region as well as celebrate the natural beauty of the foliage on show.

Famous collections in the gardens include Amaryllis, Bonsai and Orchids.

15. Science Center of Iowa

Science Center of IowaSource: flickr
Science Center of Iowa

For anyone who likes science, or for parents looking for a rainy day activity for children, the Science Center of Iowa is an ideal place to come.

At the center you will find over 110,000 square foot of science related exhibits and galleries, many of which take the form of interactive laboratories.

This means that children can get hands-on as they learn all about science, and there is also an IMAX theater here that can seat over 200 spectators at one time and shows educational films about science.

15 Best Things To Do In Des Moines (IA):

  • Blank Park Zoo
  • Des Moines Art Center
  • Salisbury House & Gardens
  • Downtown Farmers’ Market
  • State Historical Museum
  • Pappajohn Sculpture Park
  • The State Capitol
  • Better Homes and Gardens Test Gardens
  • Jasper Winery
  • Terrace Hill
  • Des Moines Performing Arts
  • World Food Prize Hall of Laureates
  • East Village
  • The Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden
  • Science Center of Iowa