Best Things to Do in Des Moines

BY Jacqueline Kehoe | February 17, 2021

Welcome to Fifty Grande’s Best of the U.S. Bucket List series. This is your one-stop travel guide to the best, most unique and quintessential experiences of a city, state or event. Want to know how to “do” Des Moines? We’ve got you covered. Curated by experts, vetted by in-the-know locals, this is all you need to have the best trip ever. If we’ve written a Bucket List, we recommend you go. If it’s on this list, it’s the best the city has to offer right now. Consider this your one-stop answer to “What are the best things to do in Des Moines?”


At one of Des Moines most-loved restaurants, you’ll find a burger called the “Dead Moines.” It isn’t just a grisly play on words — 30 years ago, it was a city nickname. Downtown emptied at 5 p.m. as workers fled back to the ’burbs. Cornfields traded space for insurance buildings; empty skywalks and city streets created a midday ghost-town air; and gas stations and pawn shops outnumbered even restaurants and bars.

That’s all in the past. In the 1990s, the city reinvented itself — purposefully, mindfully — and succeeded. Des Moines is now one of the fastest-growing mid-sized cities in the nation, with millennials, entrepreneurs and families flocking here for the rare combination of affordable housing, James Beard-nodded restaurants and brewpubs, a thriving arts scene, accessible outdoor pursuits and booming tech and creative sectors. Nothing is more certain than the odds of the city surprising you — especially if you start with this guide. (Should you find yourself here, don’t mispronounce it: The “s”es are silent.)

The Sun Rises in the East Village

Des Moines’s East Village is a “redbrick city,” the kind that was unbearably hip both 100 years ago and right now. The grounds of the gilded-dome Capitol and the walking paths along the Des Moines River sandwich 200+ shops, restaurants, bars and music venues, a few of which show up in the list below. This is one of Iowa’s best gayborhoods (shout out to the stiff drinks at Blazing Saddle), an incubator for local creativity and a great spot for that morning latte or afternoon tea.

Iowa State Capitol in Des Moines, Iowa. Photo via Shutterstock.
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Iowa State Capitol in Des Moines, Iowa. Photo via Shutterstock.

Iowa State Capitol

1007 E Grand Ave, Des Moines, IA, USA

The only five-domed Capitol in the country, the grand-and-gold Iowa State Capitol naturally sits high on a hill, with panoramic views onto the East Village. Free self-guided and formal tours are available every day but Sunday. From the senate chamber, be sure to climb the 98 stairs up into the main dome and the “whispering gallery,” where acoustics ensure that you shouldn’t divulge any secrets, no matter your volume.

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Raygun in Des Moines, Iowa.
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Raygun in Des Moines, Iowa.

Raygun

505 E Grand Ave, Des Moines, IA, USA

One four-color, one-station screen press until 2007, RAYGUN now might actually live up to its hyperbolic slogan: “the greatest store in the universe.” They’ve now expanded to Kansas City, Cedar Rapids, Iowa City, Omaha and Chicago, but the headquarters press on in Des Moines. “7,000 square feet of words on things,” the T-shirt-heavy store celebrates every Midwest talking point in sans serif — “Wave the next time you fly over!” — and serves unending ink-block shade to the politicians who deserve it. 

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Zombie Burger in Des Moines, Iowa.
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Zombie Burger in Des Moines, Iowa.

Zombie Burger

300 E Grand Ave, Des Moines, IA, USA

Imagine a classic roadside 1970s burger stand — but with an over-the-top, Walking Dead bent. Zombie Burger spares no topping nor calorie, sitting at the confluence of comfort food and culinary exploration. Yes, they have salads, but you’ll be more satisfied with the “They’re Coming To Get You, Barbara” (grilled cheese bun!) or the “Undead Elvis” burger (peanut butter and fried bananas) paired with a gigantic $8.25 Human Centipeach milkshake.

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Wooly's in Des Moines, Iowa.
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Wooly's in Des Moines, Iowa.

Wooly's

504 E Locust St, Des Moines, Iowa, USA

Hannibal Buress, Watsky, Gin Blossoms, The Pork Tornadoes — the lineup at Wooly’s is an eclectic one, and one that proves even indie spots in Des Moines get a little national glory. It’s the kind of venue with a perpetually sticky floor; those looking for national acclaim but with armrests should head to Hoyt Sherman Place; for innovative cocktails, cabaret and brassy, bluesy jazz, that’s Noce.

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What About the Finer Things?

It’s not all about gettin’ sticky. You’ll also scope out incredible farmer’s markets, James Beard-level chefs, and take a bite out of Europe — all for a Midwestern-sized price tag. 

Salisbury House in Des Moines, Iowa.
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Salisbury House in Des Moines, Iowa.

Salisbury House

4025 Tonawanda Dr, Des Moines, IA, USA

Modeled after the King’s House in Salisbury, England, the Salisbury House has 42 rooms over 22,000 square feet, with gardens spread across nearly 10 acres. A 1920s Tudor-Gothic mini-Biltmore — but in true American fashion, built for a cosmetics heir — self-guided walking tours through grand arched doorways lead to encounters with 500-year-old woodwork, rare books and 10,000 vintage pieces arguably more fit for any English museum.

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Des Lux Hotel in Des Moines, Iowa.
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Des Lux Hotel in Des Moines, Iowa.

Des Lux Hotel

800 Locust St, Des Moines, IA, USA

Des Lux plays on its name accurately, remastering the 1912 Des Moines Club into a chic hotel with urban-Victorian vibes — and a few gargoyles for good measure. The Des Lux Bar has the best martini menu in the city, and the fact that it’s a few minutes’ walk to restaurants like Centro, Malo and James Beard-nominated Proof seals the deal. Name anywhere in the country that you can get this level of luxury starting at $150/night, and we’ll be amazed. 

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Downtown Des Moines. Photo via Shutterstock.
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Downtown Des Moines. Photo via Shutterstock.

Downtown Des Moines

Downtown Des Moines, Des Moines, IA, USA

If you find yourself in downtown Des Moines, head to the historic Court Ave. District. It’s here you’ll find the city’s notable farmer’s market (some 300 vendors every week), the Principal Riverwalk, the World Food Prize Hall of Laureates and the Des Moines Civic Center, home to the Des Moines Symphony. Bike trails run through downtown, along the Des Moines and Raccoon Rivers, and to Gray’s Lake and Des Moines Water Works Park.  

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Get Out and About

You’ve got to earn that food-on-a-stick somehow.

PappaJohn Sculpture Park. Photo via Shutterstock.
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DES MOINES, IOWA - JULY 11, 2018: Des Moines, Iowa Skyline from the Pappajohn Sculpture Park. Photo via Shutterstock.

PappaJohn Sculpture Park

1330 Grand Ave, Des Moines, Iowa, USA

Entering downtown Des Moines, you can’t miss it: 31 massive sculptures over four acres right in the center of it all. They’re a collection of works by 25 internationally acclaimed artists, making this one of the most serious outdoor sculpture parks in the country. “Nomade,” by Spanish sculptor Jaume Plensa, tends to be everyone’s favorite, though the arresting, interactive and rainbow “Panoramic Awareness Pavilion” is equally can’t-miss.

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High Trestle Trail. Photo via Shutterstock.
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High Trestle Trail. Photo via Shutterstock.

High Trestle Trail

High Trestle Trail, Ankeny, IA, USA

Don your headlamp and pedal down the High Trestle Trail — 25 paved miles from Woodward to Ankeny, just north of Des Moines — come sunset. The half-mile, 13-story bridge spanning the Des Moines River Valley is one of the largest trail bridges in the world, and its neon blue geometric glow will stop you in your tracks. The trail is open to hikers (and horseback riders), too.

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The Des Moines River. Photo via Shutterstock.
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The Des Moines River. Photo via Shutterstock.

Paddling the Des Moines River

Des Moines River, Iowa, USA

The 400-mile-long Des Moines River Water Trail runs all the way to the Mississippi, and the 8.8-mile section from the Saylorville Dam to Des Moines’ Birdland Park is a classic, fit for paddlers of all experience types. You can also head north to float through the super-scenic Ledges State Park or to Boone County for a gentle ride underneath vintage railroad bridges. 

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Iowa State Fair, Des Moines, Iowa. Photo via Shutterstock.
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Iowa State Fair, Des Moines, Iowa. Photo via Shutterstock.

Iowa State Fair

3000 E Grand Ave, Des Moines, IA, USA

For 11 days every August, the Iowa State Fairgrounds light up in carnival glory so unparalleled the festivities have been memorialized on stage and screen several times over (think State Fair or Butter). More than a million people descend on the state’s largest art show every year for foot-long corn dogs, butter sculptures, roller coasters, surprisingly big-name acts (Keith Urban, Styx) — and maybe even a politician sighting or two.

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