17 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in Des Moines, IA
Author Brad Lane was born in Des Moines and grew up in West Des Moines.
Des Moines, the state capital of Iowa, has taken many steps in the last few decades to become a vibrant cultural mecca of the Midwest. It's infused with tourist attractions like sculpture parks, botanical gardens, and a thriving shopping and dining scene. Native Iowans are proud of their capital city, and this shows itself with the friendly faces you'll meet on the street.
Iowa history is still in the making and on full display in Des Moines. Places like the gold-domed State Capitol building shimmer with the state's 170-plus-year history. Other spots like the Salisbury House and Gardens and the Hoyt Sherman Theater display the city's rich cultural heritage, as do downtown storefronts and historic landmarks.
Other top things to do in Des Moines include catching an evening baseball game under lights or touring an impressive art collection. Science is also easy to interact with at the Science Center of Iowa, and the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden offers something new in bloom each season. And walk no farther than the East Village for the trendiest neighborhood in Des Moines.
Discover more sightseeing ideas with our list of the top attractions in Des Moines.
See also: Where to Stay in Des Moines
1. State Capitol
The gold dome of the State Capitol is seen from many vantage points across Des Moines. While it's a postcard-worthy image from the outside, exploring the history inside is a great way to spend an Iowa day.
The State Capitol is home to the governor's office and many sectors of the Iowa government, including the Iowa Senate and the Iowa House of Representatives. The is also adorned with large works of art and a hand-carved design that radiates the prestige of the history made within its walls.
Free guided tours are available throughout the week for groups of 10 or more. Every visitor can roam the halls and tour the open rooms on their own, including standing atop the glass floor that gives a great view of the gold dome interior.
The regal Law Library on the second floor is also open to the public and offers perhaps the most ornate book collection in the entire state. While it's not a traditional library with the latest books to check out, it's a studious space and place to admire alongside any tour.
Address: 1007 E Grand Ave, Des Moines, Iowa
2. Iowa State Fair
The Iowa State Fair is a tribute to the agricultural spirit that supports the state of Iowa and a nearly two-week celebration that happens every August at the fairgrounds in Des Moines.
This fair provides community members and tourists alike the opportunity to experience the many facets of the industry that defines the state. However, you don't have to be a farmer or active in the agricultural industry to enjoy the Iowa State Fair, not in the least bit.
Some of the many ways to experience the Iowa State Fair include trade shows, exhibits, art galleries, amusement rides, live music, and more food stands than one can shake a stick at. The eleven days of the Iowa State Fair is packed with entertainment and things to do. Several local and big-name concerts take place at the fair each year.
Address: E University Ave & E 30th Street, Des Moines, Iowa
Official site: http://www.iowastatefair.org/
3. Water Works Park
Water Works Park contains nearly 15,000 acres of green space close to the streets of downtown Des Moines. This manicured green space is popular with activities like running, biking, bird-watching, fishing, and intramural athletics.
Among the many ways to enjoy everything Water Works Park has to offer is simply setting down a blanket to relax in the sunshine. To extend your adventure from the park, a bike trail leads beneath Fleur Drive to connect with the waters of Gray's Lake and its scenic pedestrian pathway. Boat rentals are also available to access the water.
During the winter months, you can drive through the dazzling display of Jolly Holidays Lights in the park between holiday festivities. Water Works Park is also a popular place to cross-country ski or snowshoe.
Address: 2201 George Flagg Pkwy, Des Moines, Iowa
4. John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park
The John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park is a 4.4-acre landscaped space, centrally located in downtown Des Moines within western Gateway Park. It features more than 20 works of sculptured art. The park has been entertaining Des Moines urbanites with wonderful sculptures since 2009 and is a great place for families, tourists, and anyone on their lunch break.
The Sculpture Garden and surrounding Gateway Park are fun places to visit at any time of year, but come summertime, these celebrated spaces serve as venues for various community gatherings, including the Des Moines Arts Festival.
The Des Moines Arts Festival takes place every year in June and is a true celebration of summer in Des Moines. The Art Festival features hundreds of artists, vendors, and friendly faces filling the greenspace and sidewalks.
Western Gateway Park is also home to the largest music gathering in Des Moines, the annual 80/35 Music Festival. This quickly growing music festival is named after the two prominent roadways that cross paths in Iowa: Interstate 80 and Interstate 35.
Address: 1330 Grand Ave, Des Moines, Iowa
Official site: http://www.desmoinesartcenter.org/visit/pappajohn-sculpture-park
5. Principal Park
Once known as Sec Taylor Stadium, Principal Park is located at the scenic confluence of the Iowa and Racoon Rivers in downtown Des Moines. It's home to Iowa's own Triple-A minor league baseball team, the Iowa Cubs. Principal Park was remodeled in 1992 and has since been noted as one of the best minor league stadiums in the nation.
It's not just the scenic stadium that fills the bleachers at Principal Park though, it's something less tangible that attracts all the attention. It could be the summertime smells of fresh-cut grass and hot dogs, or the sound of a stadium cheering on their home team, perhaps even the sharp crack of a bat from a well-timed swing. Whatever it is, Principal Park has all the right ingredients for America's favorite pastime.
Add in the extra-inning and special events found at Principal Park, including fireworks on the Fourth of July and community events like car shows throughout the season, and you don't even have to be a fan of baseball to see why Principal Park is a premiere Des Moines attraction.
Address: 50 309, 1 Line Drive, Des Moines, Iowa
Official site: https://www.milb.com/iowa
6. Des Moines Downtown Farmers' Market
The Des Moines Downtown Farmers' Market is a time-honored community event that has been taking place downtown since 1975.
This market occurs on Saturday mornings between May and October and features hundreds of visitors ambling about the Historic Court District. It also features nearly 300 vendors displaying a wide range of goods, ranging from local produce to hand-made goods.
Expect a wide variety of vegetables, home-baked goods, and locally made goods lining the entire market. Also, keep an ear out for an array of live music performances often taking over the street corners. These community performers range from acoustic guitarists to drum soloists.
The Des Moines Farmers' Market is also the spot to get hot food items, including several breakfast options.
Official site: https://www.dsmpartnership.com/desmoinesfarmersmarket/
7. Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden
With plants ranging from temperate to tropical, the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden takes you indoors and out while you tour the carefully planted collections. And, thanks to its eye-catching bubble that traps sunlight, something is always in bloom at this urban botanic center.
Whether your visit is part of an adult-education class on gardening, or you're attending a tastefully decorated event in the rentable venue space, you can admire the garden's beauty. But the most popular way to visit is to get lost in the gardens on a self-guided tour.
If you happen to be visiting the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden during the lunch hour, the Trellis Café located within the gardens can make your visit here extra special.
Special events at the botanical garden include "Botanical Blues" throughout the winter and a four-day Spring Garden Festival.
Address: 909 Robert D. Ray Drive, Des Moines, Iowa
Official site: http://www.dmbotanicalgarden.com/
8. Des Moines Art Center
The Des Moines Art Center has been exhibiting fine arts since 1948. During this time, this critical cultural attraction has seen some expansion in floor space, exhibits, and the community that surrounds it.
Featuring constantly rotating exhibits from local and nationally renowned artists, plus permanent pieces from artists like Matisse, Monet, and O'Keeffe (just to name a few), the Des Moines Arts Center offers plenty to see. The Des Moines Art Center also proudly offers free admission.
For an enriched experience of all the center has to offer, taking part in one of the many educational programs or guided tours offered by the facility sheds light on the artists behind the work.
The grounds of the Des Moines Art Center are also beautifully manicured and perfect for a stroll. The neighboring Greenwood/Ashworth Park offers even more space to play outside. For lunchtime appetites, the Art Center Café caters to artistic tastes.
Address: 4700 Grand Ave, Des Moines, Iowa
Official site: http://www.desmoinesartcenter.org/
9. East Village
Over the last few decades, Des Moines has been growing into a cultural hub and capital of new tastes and styles. No better example of this cultural emergence is found than on the streets of the commercial and residential neighborhood of the East Village.
Located east of the Des Moines river in downtown, this burgeoning neighborhood is lined with local restaurants, shops, and lively spots to enjoy at night. Forever trendy stores like RAYGUN really set the tone for the East Village, and the entire neighborhood is lined with several galleries and art displays
Unique eateries in the East Village, like Alba Restaurant, feature world-inspired cuisine and seasonally inspired menus. For a unique twist on an American classic, Zombie Burger in the East Village is known for its monstrous patties and concoctions. Here, treat yourself to a GOREMET bashed burger and other spooky entrees.
Official site: https://eastvillagedesmoines.com/
10. Science Center of Iowa
While it's particularly entertaining for children of all ages, don't be surprised to find adults also having fun at the Science Center of Iowa. This award-winning space features permanent and rotating hands-on exhibits that promote experiential learning. The Science Center is also home to a planetarium to gaze upon the stars, plus an IMAX Theater to give a better picture of the world around us.
In addition to the designated children's exhibits, the Science Center of Iowa also offers adult-orientated programs that stimulate socializing through science. Adult programs at the Science Center include evening programs on the third Friday of each month.
The facility also hosts a variety of children's camps, workshops, and after-school programming. SCI Summer Camps are particularly popular and range from STEM explorations to renewable technology intensives.
Address: 401 W Martin Luther King Jr Pkwy, Des Moines, Iowa
Official site: http://www.sciowa.org/
11. Des Moines Civic Center
The Des Moines Civic Center is the signature venue operated by Des Moines Performance Arts (DMPA). It has a hard-to-miss downtown location, with the inviting Cowles Common open-space plaza in front.
The Civic Center hosts a variety of engagements throughout the year, including perhaps most notably the Willis Broadway Series, with nationally touring Broadway shows comprising its lineup.
Other entertainment options at the Des Moines Civic Center include musicals, comedy shows, music acts, and other live performances. The other venues operated by DMPA include the connected Stoner Theater, the adjacent Cowles Common (formerly Nolan Plaza), and the nearby Temple Theater.
Official site: https://desmoinesperformingarts.org/
12. Drake University
Drake University is a nationally recognized university with deep roots in Des Moines that date back over 130 years.
What began as a one-building college with fewer than 100 students has blossomed today into a mid-sized university with approximately 5,000 students enrolled every semester. And the campus of this private university, just northwest of downtown, offers attractions for students and community members alike.
Drake University athletics is one of the biggest appeals for non-students. Fans come to cheer on the Drake Bulldogs in a number of sports, including basketball, football, and volleyball. However, the biggest fan spectacle is undoubtedly the Drake Relays that take place every April. This popular event is regarded as one of the nation's biggest outdoor track and field events.
Official Site: https://www.drake.edu/
13. Salisbury House & Gardens
Built in the 1920s by businessman Carl Weeks and his wife Edith, the Salisbury House and Gardens sits quietly in the neighborhoods south of Grand Avenue. While no one has officially occupied this 42-room estate in more than six decades, there is still plenty of life and culture to explore.
Whether you consider yourself a history buff or antique admirer, even just a casual explorer, the Salisbury House and Gardens and the history it holds can interest every member of your family.
For a small admission fee that goes towards the Salisbury House Foundation, you can explore the preserved parts of the home and gardens on a self-guided tour.
However, it is well worth your time to take part in a guided tour, which allows patrons to visit areas that are otherwise off limits to the public, including a decadent library and study. The guided tour provides much of the story of how this house, resembling a royal manor, came to be in Des Moines.
Address: 4025 Tonawanda Dr, Des Moines, Iowa
Official site: http://salisburyhouse.org/
14. Hoyt Sherman Place
Originally constructed in 1877, Hoyt Sherman Place has remained a cultural icon for well over a century in Iowa. It's not just a sense of nostalgia that has kept this once family home an important aspect of the Des Moines community for so long. Rather, it's the stunning auditorium and first-class talent found on the stage that keeps the seats packed and tickets sold out quickly.
Hoyt Sherman Place has had its share of renovations and upkeep over the last century, including a notable upgrade in 2003 that restored the space to its original grandeur. Nowadays, you can expect a long list of shows, performances, and special events to choose from when visiting this historic venue. Minutes from several notable downtown eateries, Hoyt Sherman is often a popular option for dinner and show.
Address: 1501 Woodland Ave, Des Moines, Iowa
Official site: http://hoytsherman.org/
15. Robert D. Ray Asian Gardens
This picturesque pavilion is on the east bank of the Des Moines River, only a few blocks from the Greater Des Moines Botanical Center. The Robert D. Ray Asian Gardens provides a uniquely landscaped outdoor space to explore and take in the rich diversity that helps shape the city of Des Moines.
Featuring an eye-catching Asian pavilion atop a cascading stream and decorative garden, the 1.4 acres here are punctuated by stone pagodas and sculptural rock formations.
Address: Robert D. Ray Drive, Des Moines, Iowa
Official site: http://www.cccaiowa.org/files/riverfront.htm
16. Des Moines Disc Golf
Des Moines is blessed with a wide range of disc golf courses. This burgeoning sport has always been present in the Des Moines metro, with several courses within a 30-minute drive.
A few favorite courses include Grandview Disc Golf Course, Ewing Disc Golf Course, and Walnut Ridge Disc Golf Course. Disc golf offers a fun and free thing to do in Des Moines.
The courses can get busy on the weekends and the late afternoons. Several sports retailers sell disc golf discs, but only Titan Disc Golf, on Hubbel Avenue, specializes in the sport. Head to this locally owned disc golf store for more advice on where to play and what discs to bring.
17. World Food Prize Hall of Laureates
The World Food Prize Hall of Laureates is between the Civic Center and the Des Moines River in downtown Des Moines.
This prestigious museum is dedicated to Iowa native and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Norman Borlaug for his world-changing work in agriculture. Among many other facilities, the museum and renovated library space highlight other achievements made toward fighting world hunger.
The museum has limited public viewing hours. Currently, the museum is only open to the public on Tuesdays, when guests can take a free guided tour. No self-guided tours are available.
Official site: https://www.halloflaureates.org/
Where to Stay in Des Moines for Sightseeing
To be close to some of the major attractions, including the State Capitol and the Science Center, it's best to stay in downtown Des Moines. The city center is compact, with a variety of good restaurants and interesting shops in the Court Avenue District. Those with children may want to consider staying in the southern part of downtown near the Blank Park Zoo. Below are some highly rated hotels in central locations:
- The recently renovated Hyatt Place Des Moines Downtown features rooms with beautiful city views and is conveniently located near some of the city's key attractions.
- Embassy Suites by Hilton Des Moines Downtown is an all-suite option in the East Village area, close to the State Capitol. Room rates include a cooked-to-order breakfast and an evening reception with appetizers.
- Des Moines' newest hotel, the Residence Inn by Marriott Des Moines Downtown, features a lovely courtyard area with a fire pit and is just a short stroll from restaurants in the Court Avenue District.
- The Hampton Inn and Suites Des Moines Downtown is a great choice for families, with rooms offering microwaves and mini fridges and an indoor pool. It is also just steps away from some of the city's trendiest restaurants.
- The recently renovated Des Lux Hotel offers oversized rooms in a building dating from 1912, within walking distance of nearby attractions.
- Connected via skyway to the Iowa Events Center and Wells Fargo Area is the Renaissance Des Moines Savery Hotel.
- The Comfort & Suites Event Center is a pet-friendly property right next to the Wells Fargo Arena.
- Other decent budget options can be found near the airport, a 10-minute drive away, and include the Days Inn & Suites by Wyndham des Moines Airport, featuring an indoor pool.
- The Baymont Des Moines - Airport Conference Center also has an indoor pool and rooms at an attractive price.
Best Time to Visit Des Moines, IA - Historical Climate Averages
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