12 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in Des Moines

Serving as the state capitol of Iowa, Des Moines has taken many steps in the last few decades to emerge as a vibrant cultural landscape with sculpture parks, botanical gardens, and a thriving shopping and dining district. Alongside this growing cultural scene, Iowa history is still in the making and in full display at places like the gold-domed State Capitol building, Salisbury House and Gardens, and the Hoyt Sherman Theater. Whatever you choose to do on your visit to this friendly city, whether it is touring impressive art collections or catching a baseball game under the lights, don't be surprised if you find yourself wanting to call Des Moines home for a while.

1 State Capitol

State Capitol
State Capitol

The gold dome of the State Capitol can be clearly seen from many vantage points across Des Moines, and while it's a postcard worthy image from the outside, exploring the history inside is a great way to spend an Iowa day. Home to the governor's office and many sectors of the Iowa government, including the Iowa Senate and the Iowa House of Representatives, the interior of the State Capitol 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 ten or more, and 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 or the regal Law Library on the second floor.

Address: 1007 E Grand Ave, Des Moines, Iowa

2 Science Center of Iowa

Science Center of Iowa
Science Center of Iowa | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

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. Containing dozens of hands-on exhibits that promote experiential learning and a planetarium to gaze upon the stars, plus an IMAX Theater to give a better picture of the world around us, the Science Center has enough attractions to keep any young researcher engaged throughout the day. In addition to the designated children's exhibits, the Science Center of Iowa also offers adult-orientated programs that stimulate socializing through science. To see some science in action and to learn a little bit about how the world works, the Science Center of Iowa is a must-see attraction for your next visit to Des Moines.

Address: 401 W Martin Luther King Jr Pkwy, Des Moines, Iowa

Official site: http://www.sciowa.org/

3 John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park

John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park
John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Centrally located in downtown Des Moines within Gateway Park, the John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park is a 4.4-acre landscaped space featuring 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 to catch a quick glance at the artworks. 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 Art Festival and the 80/35 Music Festival that really showcase this downtown city park.

Address: 1330 Grand Ave, Des Moines, Iowa

4 Editor's Choice Salisbury House & Gardens

Salisbury House & Gardens
Salisbury House & Gardens | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

The Salisbury House and Gardens sits quietly in the neighborhoods south of Grand Avenue, and 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, every visitor to the house is encouraged to 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, including a decadent library and study, and 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

5 Des Moines Art Center

Des Moines Art Center
Des Moines Art Center Mike Linksvayer / photo modified

Since 1948, the Des Moines Art Center has been exhibiting fine arts, and through its tenure, 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. 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 can shed a little light on the artists behind the work you're looking at, and the Chef's Palette café can leave you completely satisfied.

Address: 4700 Grand Ave, Des Moines, Iowa

6 Principal Park

Principal Park

Once known as Sec Taylor Stadium, Principal Park is located at the scenic confluence of the Iowa and Racoon River in downtown Des Moines. 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 Dr, Des Moines, Iowa

7 East Village

Raygun on Grand Avenue and East 5th in the East Village
Raygun on Grand Avenue and East 5th in the East Village | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

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 can be found than in the streets of the commercial and residential neighborhood of East Village. Located east of the Des Moines river, East Village features unique eateries like Tacopocalypse, with one of the best burritos you'll find in Iowa; fashion influencers like the always trending Raygun; and plenty of galleries and specialty shops to explore. Every day, the buzz of excitement for the Des Moines East Village seems to grow, and whether it's food, fashion, or entertainment, you'll find something fun to explore here.

8 Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden

Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden
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. Something is always in bloom here, and 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, or you just find yourself getting lost in the gardens on a self-guided tour, you'll see some of the beauty found in the dirt beneath your feet. 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.

Address: 909 Robert D. Ray Dr, Des Moines, Iowa

9 Water Works Park

Gray's Lake

Water Works Park contains nearly 15,000 acres of green space close to the streets of downtown Des Moines, which allow plenty of room for running, biking, bird-watching, fishing, intramural athletics, and special events throughout the year. There are many ways to enjoy everything Water Works Park has to offer, and simply setting down a blanket to relax in the sunshine counts as one. To extend your adventure from the park, a bike trail leads the way beneath Fleur Drive to connect with the waters of Gray's Lake and its scenic pedestrian pathway. During the winter months, you can drive through the dazzling display of Jolly Holidays Lights in the park between holiday festivities, making this a year-round attraction.

Address: 2201 George Flagg Pkwy, Des Moines, Iowa

10 Iowa State Fair

Iowa State Fair
Iowa State Fair Phil Roeder / photo modified

A tribute to the agricultural spirit that supports the state of Iowa, the Iowa State Fair is a nearly two-week celebration that happens every August at the fairgrounds in Des Moines. It provides community members and tourists alike the opportunity to experience the many facets of the industry that defines the state. You don't have to be a farmer or active in the agricultural industry to enjoy the Iowa State Fair, though. Some of the many different ways to experience it 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, and the summer days leading up to it go by fast, making it a Des Moines attraction worth planning ahead for.

Address: E University Ave & E 30th St, Des Moines, Iowa

11 Hoyt Sherman Place

Hoyt Sherman Place
Hoyt Sherman Place | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

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.

Address: 1501 Woodland Ave, Des Moines, Iowa

Official site: http://hoytsherman.org/

12 Robert D. Ray Asian Gardens

Robert D. Ray Asian Gardens
Robert D. Ray Asian Gardens | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

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. The Robert D. Ray Asian Gardens is just a small attraction, but with its eye-pleasing atmosphere and excellent view of the city in the background, don't be surprised to find yourself taking a moment to check it out each time you visit Des Moines.

Address: Robert D. Ray Dr, Des Moines, Iowa

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:

  • Luxury Hotels: 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 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, features a lovely courtyard area with a fire pit and is just a short stroll from restaurants in the Court Avenue District.
  • Mid-Range Hotels: The Hampton Inn and Suites 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.
  • Budget Hotels: The Quality Inn & 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, featuring an indoor pool, and the Baymont Des Moines - Airport Conference Center also with an indoor pool and rooms at an attractive price.

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