3 Amazing Days In Downtown Des Moines, Iowa

We always get a chuckle when we hear people tell us that there is nothing to see or do in the Midwest. While the destinations can be spread a little farther apart, we find the drive between cities to be filled with beautiful scenery. Once we arrive at our new destination, we are amazed at just how many fantastic sights are waiting to be explored. This is certainly the case for our 2018 visit to Des Moines, Iowa. For years, Crystal and I have been traveling through this Midwest metropolis on our way to Minnesota. Our stops in Des Moines were always limited to fuel pit stops or dropping in on her family members who live in the area. When Travel Iowa asked us to feature some cities in their state, we knew this was the perfect opportunity to explore this capital city in greater detail.

We want to thank the Travel Iowa and Catch Des Moines for their hospitality. Rest assured that all opinions are our own.

Traveling can be a continued form of education, especially when you take time to check out the local history and science centers.

Learning The Lingo

Our first step, after picking a destination, is to begin determining an itinerary. This is done with an attempt to balance our stops with lots of variety. We know that our readers cover a huge variety of demographics, so we always try to pick plenty of stops for them to choose from when planning their own get-away. One of the first things we look for are educational opportunities. We truly believe that travel is a form of continued education, and opens up plenty of chances to learn about the culture and history of our destinations. A stop at the State Historical Museum of Iowa helped pave our way to better understand how Des Moines grew to its current status. Here we learned not just about the city we were getting ready to explore, but also the state in general. This makes a great first stop for your Des Moines vacation. (Read more about the Historical Museum here.)

While I was doing the planning, I stumbled upon a lesser known museum. Inside the downtown Wells Fargo location there resides one of about a dozen Wells Fargo Museums. These small scale exhibits are chocked full of hands on displays designed to highlight the role that Iowa played in connecting an expanding nation. What surprised us the most was just how many interactive exhibits this place has assembled. It’s a great stop for families, since there are lots of activities that can be enjoyed by kids of all ages. (Even my age!) (Read more about the Wells Fargo Museum here.)

Speaking of family friendly sites, how about stopping in the Science Center of Iowa. Here we found another place that is packed with all age accessible displays. While the majority of the space is designed to educate about various scientific principles, there is a gallery filled with more local appeal. The “What On Earth?” exhibit is a good place to learn about some of the native species that you may encounter during your visit to Des Moines or Iowa in general.  (Read more about the Science Center here.)

We love boutique style shops and Des Moines has plenty to visit.

East Village Appeal

The layout of the downtown region in Des Moines is designed to be user friendly. The Des Moines River cuts a swath through the heart of the downtown and becomes a centerpiece for the design of the area. On the east side of the river, the neighborhood is called the East Village. This area is filled with a mix of commercial and residential, as well as holding the capitol building. We had the pleasure of meandering through the shops on a couple of occasions. Lots of boutiques are found in and around the area, and we even located one that we recognized form Kansas City. (RayGun has a store in the CrossRoads District of KCMO.)

Our stay at the Staybridge Suites was the perfect spot for a home base to explore downtown Des Moines.

Close-In Comfort

We were fortunate to be lodged right in the heart of the region we were exploring. The Staybridge Suites, in the East Village, made a perfect home base for us. The room was fantastic with lots of plugins for all of our electronics. We even got the chance to try out their pool and hot tub one evening. These were welcomed after a day of walking throughout the downtown. They have a breakfast buffet every morning, but we had already made plans to explore some of the local eateries. In talking with other hotel guests, the food was described as delicious. With a dedicated covered parking lot and key card access, this place worked well for our busy schedule.

Downtown Des Moines, Iowa has a large number of outdoor sights to explore.

Getting Outdoors

Downtown Des Moines is filled with interesting outdoor spaces to explore. From the capital hill over to the Gateway Park, you can find unique sights that are specific to this area. Each stop has its own flavor and at any time you could find a crowd. During our evening we would stroll around admiring the murals we found tucked away on the side of various businesses. (Great for selfies!) Of course, artwork is limited to this style, and a visit to the Pappajohn Sculpture Park offers tons of potential picture possibilities. Besides, it is nice to get out into the green spaces that Des Moines has reserved for its residents and visitors. (Read more about the outdoor spaces here.)

The Des Moines Botanical Gardens are a good place to get inspiration for your own space.

Another good spot to get in touch with nature is the Des Moines Botanical Gardens. Here we were in awe of the amazing number of species that can survive the wild weather of the Midwest. We even found a couple that we are wanting to add to our own landscape. Just down the road we visited the Robert Ray Asian Garden that holds some interesting foliage and sculptures. Its riverside location makes for a great spot to reflect and view the city skyline. (Read more about the gardens here.)

The authors made new friends while visiting Des Moines, Iowa.

With so much to see and do in downtown Des Mines, Iowa you may want to plan a couple extra days for exploring. After all, we only had enough time to see the center city section. There are still tons of sights to be discovered on your own vacation to the Iowa capital. What are some of the places you think we should add to our next visit? Mention them in the comments section below and we will add them to our list. Thanks!

14 thoughts on “3 Amazing Days In Downtown Des Moines, Iowa”

  1. You missed one favorite: The World food Prize building along the river. A beautiful treasure inside and in its landscaping.

    1. We had plans to see them, but they were closed the day we could visit, due to the Memorial Day holiday. The building is beautiful, so we will have to add it to our next visit.

  2. How about the Living History Farms? I agree with you that there’s a lot to see in the midwestern towns especially for big-city girls who want to know about the agricultural side of the country.

  3. Doreen Pendgracs

    I know what you mean, Jeff. I once had a CA-based editor tell me there was “nothing to see in the Midwest.” His mind was so biased against it that he didn’t even want to entertain any stories about the region. You’ve done a great job in showing us just how much there is to see in and around Des Moines.

    1. Thanks, Doreen. We are working hard to show people that there is plenty to see in the “fly-over” states. Just get off the interstates and into the hearts of the towns and cities.

  4. All I had ever heard about Des Moines before was some rather disparaging remarks in a Bill Bryson book. It’s good to see that there’s a bit more to the town than that – for me the sculpture park and the Wells Fargo Museum would be great places to visit.

    1. Bill Bryson grew up in DM decades ago when many of the things mentioned here didn’t
      exist or have greatly improved. Bryson’s style is to make fun of things and find the
      humorous side. He does the same thing with his tours of England.

  5. Thank you for highlighting Des Moines so well. It is the Field of Dreams! A visit to the Capitol building is fun. Our Civic Center hosts many Broadway shows who like to come to Des Moines first to Sold out shows.

    Our Des Moines Art Center (museum) is incredible and many people travel to see it from all over the world. The Des Moines Playhouse is the oldest community theatre in existence. Wonderful plays, fantastic talent and terrific programs for children (my son loved his time spent there) and adults.

    My cousin was married in Des Moines two years ago. Her Boston husband loved Des Moines as did his relatives from upstate New York. They were thrilled and excited with all the amenities here and virtually no traffic! So glad to hear the Boston and New York people fell in Love with Des Moines. Enchanted indeed!

  6. I would suggest Salisbury House & Gardens located at 4025 Tonawanda
    Drive. It is a beautiful historical museum that was once the private home of Carl
    and Edith Weeks. Built between 1923-1928 it has architectural pieces from historical
    buildings in England, a wonderful art collection and a library of 3500 books
    comprising rare edition, limited and special edition books. Tours are Tuesday-Sunday.

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