The Best Things to do in Des Moines, Iowa

The 15 Best Things to do in Des Moines, Iowa

Nestled in Central Iowa, Des Moines doesn’t always get the love it deserves. But spend a few days exploring this up-and-coming Midwestern city, and it won’t take long to see why Des Moines is rapidly emerging as one of the coolest cities in the US.

If it’s Des Moines’ cool factor you’re after, you’ll find it in spades in the Historic East Village. This riverside neighborhood is lined with beautiful 19th and 20th-century buildings that have been given new life as buzzing microbreweries, boutique shops, and innovative restaurants and cafes. Explore further afield, and you’ll find world-class museums, massive outdoor art installations, and one of the most beautiful capitol buildings in the entire US.

If it’s outdoor activities you’re craving, you’ll absolutely love Des Moines. With the city’s location at the confluence of the Raccoon and Des Moines rivers, there is no shortage of waterways to kayak along and lush riverside parks to explore. From hiking and biking to fishing and swimming, there is always a fun outdoor adventure to be had when the weather is nice. 

With so many different things to see and do, you might not know where to begin. So we’ve compiled our list of the absolute best things to do in Des Moines for you. Stick to these fun and unique Des Moines bucket list activities, and there’s no doubt you’ll have an incredible time in Iowa’s capital city!

15 Fun and Unique Things to do in Des Moines

1. Sample Farm-Fresh Eats at the Downtown Farmers’ Market

Best Things to do in Des Moines, Iowa: Downtown Farmers’ Market

Stopping by the Downtown Farmers’ Market is easily one of the most fun things to do in Des Moines if you want to get a feel for the local culture. From the friendly vendors to the live entertainment, this place is always buzzing!

The seasonal farmers market takes place every Saturday from 8 am to noon from May through October in the Historic Court District in downtown Des Moines. But if you do happen to be in town in the winter months, there are special winter markets held on certain days, so be sure to check the website.

Cool Things to do in Des Moines, Iowa: Downtown Farmers’ Market

This massive farmers market hosts roughly 300 local vendors, and you can shop for everything here – from farm-fresh fruits, veggies, meats, and cheeses to flowers, baked goods, jewelry, and art. 

You’ll want to come hungry because you’ll find some of the best food trucks and farm-to-table eats in town at the Downtown Farmers’ Market. From Mexican-style street tacos at Roadside Tacos to Pakistani dishes at Lyela’s Kitchen, there’s something to suit all tastes here!  

2. Take a Tour of the Historic Iowa State Capitol Building

Des Moines, Iowa Bucket List: Iowa State Capitol Building

Built between 1871 and 1886, the magnificent Iowa State Capitol building is easily one of the top Des Moines attractions. This architectural gem is perched on a hill in the East Village neighborhood and is easily recognizable by its Renaissance Revival style and its 275-foot gold-leafed dome. (Fun fact: This is the only five-domed capitol in the United States!)

While you can easily take a few minutes to admire the building from the outside, it’s well worth taking some time to explore the interior. You’re more than welcome to go on a self-guided tour, or you can always sign up for one of the fascinating (and free!) guided tours. Do note that the Iowa State Capital is closed on Sundays.

Among the building’s most incredible features is the Victorian-styled Law Library, where you’ll find two spectacular wrought iron spiral staircases leading to four stories of book-lined shelves. This place is widely regarded as one of the most beautiful libraries in the world!

3. Check Out the Massive Sculptures in the Pappajohn Sculpture Park

Must do things in Des Moines, Iowa: Pappajohn Sculpture Park

If you’re looking for unique things to do in Des Moines, you really can’t beat the Pappajohn Sculpture Park. This artsy gem is located in Western Gateway Park and features 28 massive sculptures set on 4.4 acres of land. The park is totally free to visit and is a place visitors of all ages can enjoy. 

You can join one of the free guided tours (available April through October), or you can just cruise around on a self-guided tour. One of the most iconic works you’ll come across is Nomade by Spanish sculptor Jaume Plensa. This 27-foot-tall sculpture was made using white painted steel letters that connect to form a crouching human figure.

What to do in Des Moines, Iowa: Pappajohn Sculpture Park

Other notable works include Iron Tree Trunk by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, which serves as a reflection on China’s “Great Leap Forward,” as well as Thinker on a Rock by Barry Flanagan, a quirky take on Auguste Rodin’s The Thinker.

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4. Peruse Art at the Des Moines Art Center

Best Things to do in Des Moines, Iowa:Des Moines Art Center
Image courtesy of Brittany Brooke Crow

In addition to the Pappajohn Sculpture Park, art enthusiasts will want to add a visit to the Des Moines Art Center to their Des Moines sightseeing itinerary. The museum is well worth visiting for the architecture alone, which boasts Art Nouveau, Art Deco, and Modernist styles. 

Step inside, and you’ll find all sorts of impressive modern and contemporary paintings, sculptures, and mixed media works. The expansive permanent collection boasts works from a range of renowned artists, from Andy Warhol, Henri Matisse, Claude Monet, and Francis Bacon to Georgia O’Keeffe, Auguste Rodin, Paul Gauguin, and Mark Rothko. 

Be sure to check the website before you visit because the Des Moines Art Center is always hosting fun workshops, art classes, talks, festivals, and more! Plus, there’s also at least a few temporary exhibits that are well worth checking out.

5. Cheer On the Iowa Cubs at Principal Park

Des Moines, Iowa Things to do: Iowa Cubs at Principal Park

If you’re a sports fan and you happen to be in town during baseball season, seeing the Iowa Cubs play at Principal Park is definitely one of the most fun things to do in Des Moines. The Iowa Cubs are the Triple-A affiliate of the Chicago Cubs, and their season runs from April through September. So this is a great family-friendly activity if you’re planning on a summer visit.

Even if you’re not a huge baseball fan, the location of this park at the confluence of the Des Moines and Raccoon rivers makes for a totally unique experience. Plus, no matter where you’re sitting in the stadium, you’ll be able to spot the gilded dome of the Iowa State Capitol in the distance beyond center field!

Best Things to do in Des Moines, Iowa: Iowa Cubs at Principal Park

This is Iowa, so rest assured the pork-centric concessions are reason enough to catch a game here. From bacon-wrapped hot dogs to massive pork tenderloin sandwiches, you won’t go hungry at Principal Park. Plus, this stadium is located right in the heart of downtown, so you’ll have plenty of bars and restaurants to choose from before and after the big game!

6. Take a Break at the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden

Paying a visit to the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden is one of the coolest things to do in Des Moines if you want to escape the hustle and bustle of downtown. This nature-filled oasis is set on 12 sprawling acres of land right on the banks of the Des Moines River.

You’ll definitely want to check out the domed conservatory, where you’ll find seasonal plants and flowers that are constantly evolving. Explore the grounds, and you’ll find a range of indoor and outdoor gardens, plant-filled greenhouses, and cool sculptures and artwork dotting the landscape.

Be sure to check the calendar because there are always fun events and workshops going on at the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden, including family-friendly yoga sessions and evening cocktail parties. If you’re lucky, you might even be able to time your visit with Dome After Dark, where you’ll get the chance to see the conservatory and Gardeners Show House all decked out in romantic lights!

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7. Have a Fun-Filled Day at the Iowa State Fair

Best Things to do in Des Moines, Iowa: Iowa State Fair

If there’s one thing that should be at the top of your Des Moines bucket list, it has to be the Iowa State Fair. Held each year for 11 days in August, this local institution has been held at the Iowa State Fairgrounds since 1886.

It’s no surprise that the Iowa State Fair attracts more than one million people from around the world each year. Throughout the fair, there are concerts, parades, antique markets, auto shows, livestock exhibitions, and so much more. 

Of course, no fair is complete without a whole slew of carnival games and rides. Adults and bigger kids will love Thrill Ville, which is brimming with thrilling, adrenaline-pumping rides and roller coasters. And little kids will love all of the family-friendly rides and games at Thrill Town. 

Once you work up an appetite, you’ll have over 200 food stands to choose from. From corn dogs to nachos, you’ll have all the standard fair foods. But you’ll also want to try the creative, award-winning fair foods like the Pork Picnic in a Cup, a cup layered with BBQ pulled pork, baked beans, and coleslaw topped with brown sugar pork belly, or the “OMG” Chicken Sandwich, a delectable fried chicken sandwich with a glazed doughnut “bun.”

8. Take a Hike on High Trestle Trail

Best Things to do in Des Moines, Iowa: High Trestle Trail

Embarking along the High Trestle Trail is one of the best things to do in Des Moines if you’re looking to get outside. This 25-mile rail trail is easily one of the most popular Des Moines activities and offers endless hiking, biking, and sightseeing opportunities.

The route stretches from Ankeny to Woodward through five towns and four counties. But if you’re not up for hiking or biking the entire route, you can just do a portion of it. 

Located near Madrid, the High Trestle Bridge is the trail’s most iconic attraction. As one of the largest pedestrian bridges in the world, the bridge is 130 feet tall and extends for over 2,300 feet over the Des Moines River. 

The coolest part about the bridge is the 41 geometrical steel frames that work together to form a truly Insta-worthy attraction. Visit at night, and you’ll have the chance to see the bridge all lit up. It’s definitely one of the best things to see in Des Moines!

9. Spend a Day in Historic East Village

Fun Things to do in Des Moines, Iowa: Historic East Village

If you’re looking for the coolest things to do in Des Moines, take a stroll across the river to the Historic East Village. This is undoubtedly the hippest part of town, and many say it’s “the closest thing to Brooklyn that Iowa has ever seen.”

This is where you’ll find the Iowa State Capitol, as well as Italianate, Gothic Revival, Queen Anne, and Neoclassical architectural gems. Plus, East Village is set on the eastern banks of the Des Moines River, so there are plenty of riverside walking trails to explore. If you’re in town during the summer, there are often concerts held at Simon Estes Amphitheater.

Explore this hip part of Des Moines, and you’ll find all sorts of independent boutique shops to peruse and trendy cafes to chill out in. This is also where you’ll find the best bars and restaurants in town. If you’re looking for fun things to do in Des Moines, you’ll find it in spades in East Village!

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10. Learn About Iowa’s Agricultural History at the Living History Farms

Fun Things to do in Des Moines, Iowa: Living History Farms
Images courtesy of Living History Farms,,

Tucked away in Urbandale, just 15 minutes from downtown, the Living History Farms is easily one of the most unique Des Moines attractions. Explore this 500-acre open-air museum, and you’ll walk away with an excellent understanding of Iowa’s agricultural history.

The “farm” offers four areas where you’ll find outdoor exhibits, displays, and costumed demonstrators, all themed around a specific period of time, spanning 300 years of history. 

Start your journey at the 1700 Ioway Indian Farm, where you’ll learn all about the farming techniques used by the Ioway Indians in the early 18th century. After that, explore the 1850 Pioneer Farm, where you’ll see costumed interpreters farming corn and potatoes in the fields.

Then there’s the 1876 Town of Walnut Hill, where you’ll see recreations of frontier shops and homes, as well as a bustling main street teeming with costumed reenactors. And finally, the 1900 Horse-Powered Farm offers visitors a glimpse of what it was like to plow the fields, harvest corn, oats, and hay, and do daily household chores back in the day.

11. Go Brewery Hopping

Must do things in Des Moines, Iowa: Brewery Hopping

Craft brew aficionados (and anyone looking for a fun time, really) will love sampling the city’s best breweries. And with 20+ to choose from in and around Des Moines, you’ll be spoiled for choice. 

If you’re looking for an easy-to-reach brewery in downtown Des Moines, you can’t go wrong with Exile Brewing Co. Be sure to sample their flagship Citra Sky Hazy IPA or their Bavarian-style Wheat Hannah. For something a bit different, Confluence Brewing Company churns out all sorts of creative concoctions – from hoppy and malty to seasonal and sour.

Des Moines, Iowa Bucket List: Brewery Hopping

And then there’s Kinship Brewing Co., which welcomes pet owners with their half-acre dog parks, as well as Lua Brewing which serves up some seriously creative brews and bites. If you need something to soak up all of that booze, Court Avenue Restaurant & Brewing Company offers an excellent menu of elevated pub grub. Think Black & Tan Reubens, Maple-Bourbon Pork Chops, and Ginger Beer Pancakes.

12. Indulge Your Inner Horror Fan at Zombie Burger

When it comes to unique things to do in Des Moines, it doesn’t get much quirkier (or tastier) than a visit to Zombie Burger. Located in the hip East Village neighborhood, this cult favorite is all about catering to the horror geek in all of us. But even if you’re not a huge horror fan, their burgers and shakes are nothing short of delicious.

Horror fans can nerd out on the offerings, which range from GoreMet Bashed Burgers and Soylent Greens (salads) to Standard and Spiked Shakes. Try the Juan of the Dead burger with green chile and chipotle mayo, the Stuntman Mikes Chicken Sandwich with Nashville hot chicken on a Texas toast bun, or the Dawn of the Dead breakfast burger.

Round your burger out with gourmet Goat Cheese Jalapeño Poppers or Zombie Poutine and a boozy Human Centipeach shake.

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13. Get Outside in Gray’s Lake Park

What to do in Des Moines, Iowa: Gray’s Lake Park

Between its rivers and vast green parks, Des Moines offers all sorts of outdoor activities to partake in when the weather is nice. If you’re looking for an easy escape from the hustle and bustle of downtown, head over to Gray’s Lake Park for some outdoor fun!

The 166-acre park is set along the Raccoon River and Gray’s Lake and is within walking distance of downtown. The highlight of this park is Gray’s Lake, where you can go fishing on the lake, go swimming at the beach, or rent a boat or kayak and get out on the water. A must on your Des Moines bucket list, you should definitely walk over the 1,400-foot-long Kruidenier Trail Pedestrian Bridge, which is illuminated in cool colored lights each evening.

There’s also a 2-mile loop trail around the lake, which connect to a variety of longer trails if you’re looking for something more challenging. Gray’s Lake Park is adjacent to the spectacular Des Moines Water Works Park, which offers even more hiking, biking, and picnicking opportunities.

14. Marvel at the Animals at Blank Park Zoo

Best Things to do in Des Moines, Iowa: Blank Park Zoo

Spending a day at Blank Park Zoo is always a good idea if you’re looking for family-friendly things to do in Des Moines. From African lions, red pandas, and wallabies to giraffes, sea lions, and red river hogs, you’ll encounter all sorts of creatures at Blank Park Zoo.

One of the coolest things to do at the zoo is one of the Behind-the-Scenes Tours. Depending on which one you choose, you’ll have the chance to watch a feeding and training session with sea lions and penguins, get up close with endangered Eastern black rhinos, feed adorable giraffes, and so much more. 

Depending on when you visit, there are constantly fun events being held at the park – from the Holiday Zoo Brew to Santa at the Zoo. Even if you don’t attend a special tour or event, you’ll be endlessly entertained by the 20+ animal-filled exhibits. 

15. Sip and Swirl at Jasper Winery

Unique Things to do in Des Moines, Iowa: Jasper Winery

If you’re spending the day frolicking in the Des Moines Water Works Park consider ending your day with a glass of wine at local favorite Jasper Winery. This gem is located right across the way from the park and just minutes from downtown, so it’s super easy to reach.

Tastings are free and generous here, and you’ll get the chance to sample five different wines while learning all about winemaking before taking a peek into the production area and barrel room. 

Fun Things to do in Des Moines, Iowa: Jasper Winery

If you want to hang out on the outdoor patio for a while, you can also purchase wine flights, bottles, and wine by the glass. If you need a break from the wine, there’s also a nice selection of ciders and beer. The friendly staff will also prepare a lovely cracker and cheese tray for you (for a fee) if you’re feeling peckish.

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There you have it! The 15 best things to do in Des Moines. What’s your favorite thing to do in Des Moines? 

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