18 Cool Things to See & Do in Des Moines On Your Iowa Vacation

Buzzin’ through the Midwest? Take a breather to check out all the best things to do in Des Moines, Iowa. The most populous city and capital of Iowa is one of the most surprising urban destinations in the Midwestern United States. It’s chock-loaded with cool boutique shops, superb museums, and trendy restaurants.

Home to nearly a quarter of a million people, Des Moines delivers everything travelers are looking for on the ultimate Midwest road trip. Find the artsy soul of Iowa’s capital at the Historic East Village or Historic Valley Junction. Each neighborhood is home to a barrage of art galleries, boutiques, and restaurants.

Traveling to Des Moines with the kiddos? Dig into family-friendly tourist attractions like Blank Park Zoo or the Science Center of Iowa. Or, if you’re lucky, you might catch the Iowa State Fair at the famed Iowa State Fairgrounds. Outdoor adventurers will find plenty to love around Des Moines, too. Among the city’s top points of interest lie outdoor paradises like Gray’s Lake Park and the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden.

Ready to plan the ultimate trip to Iowa’s beautiful capital city? Carve out the perfect itinerary with this complete guide to the best places to visit in Des Moines, IA.

Must-see places to visit

Blank Park Zoo

Wandering around Des Moines with the family? Set them loose at Blank Park Zoo, located about 10 minutes south of downtown.

The only accredited zoo in Iowa, Blank Park Zoo offers plenty of fun activities for the entire family crew. Start with exploring the zoo’s Discovery Center, home to exotic animals like red pandas and dwarf caiman. Walk through its Amazon rain forest, past a waterfall, before spotting the unique marine life in the 15,000-gallon saltwater aquarium.

Other highlights at the Blank Park Zoo include African lions, Siberian tigers, zebras, and okapi. The kids will also love the zoo’s fun activities. Highlights include a train ride, carousel, camel rides, and behind-the-scenes animal encounters.

John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park

Located next to Western Gateway Park in downtown Des Moines, the John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park is one of the city’s most interesting places to see.

Wander around John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park to discover more than two dozen works by famed American and international artists. Highlights around the 4.4-acre park include Robert Indiana’s famous LOVE sculpture, Pumpkin (L) by Yayoi Kusama, and Spider by Louise Bourgeois.

The John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park is open daily from dawn to dusk.

Historic East Village

Wedged between the Iowa State Capitol and the Des Moines River, the Historic East Village is the city’s most interesting quarter. The neighborhood is one of the city’s original business districts. Today, it teems with lovely historic buildings, boutique shops, and some of the trendiest restaurants in Des Moines.

Stroll around Historic East Village to duck into hip cafés, bistros, art galleries, music venues, and even retro arcades. Fuel up with a coffee at Scenic Route Bakery or eco-conscious Horizon Line Coffee. Finish the morning stocking up on quirky clothing at Raygun, the self-proclaimed “Greatest Store in the Universe.”

End your wanderings with a relaxing walk among stone pagodas, ponds, and waterfalls of Robert D. Ray Asian Gardens

Historic Valley Junction

The heart of West Des Moines, Historic Valley Junction dates back to the 1890s when it was built as the city’s main railroad district. Today, the atmospheric historic district assembles over 150 boutique shops, art galleries, and restaurants.

Two blocks wide, Historic Valley Junction centers around 5th Street between Locust Street to the north and Railroad Avenue to the south. Get your vintage clothing fix at Atomic Garage Valley Junction, or unleash your inner playwright or actor at the Theatrical Shop.

Refresh with a cup ‘o joe at the St. Kilda Collective, one of the city’s most popular coffee shops, or a craft beer and pub grub at G Mig’s 5th Street Pub.

Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden

If you’re a nature, be sure to carve a visit to the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden into your Iowa itinerary. This blissful urban oasis spans 12 acres in East Village in the heart of town. One of the most beautiful points of interest in Des Moines, it’s a must-visit for any outdoor enthusiast.

Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden

At the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden, you’ll explore ten distinct outdoor gardens. Options include a rose garden, gravel garden, savanna, and conifer garden. Duck into the garden’s unique geodesic tropical conservatory. Marvel as tropical plants and desert succulents thrive in Iowa’s cool climate.

After dazzling at its colorful flowers and plant life, save time for lunch and a sip of coffee or tea at the on-site Trellis Café.

The Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden also hosts several special events throughout the year, including the weekly Music in Garden. Check the garden’s official event calendar to see what’s on during your visit.

Iowa State Capitol

With its gleaming 23-karat golden dome, the Iowa State Capitol is one of the top tourist attractions in Des Moines for architecture and history buffs alike. Built in 1885, the historic capitol building has long been the city’s most recognizable landmark. Even if you’ve got only one day in Des Moines, it’s a worthwhile detour.

Iowa State Capitol

The Iowa State Capitol is home to the Hawkeye State’s legislature, governor’s offices, and even an old Supreme Court room. Inside, you’ll marvel at 29 varieties of marble, punctuated by a variety of decadent woods, mostly from forests around Iowa. Of course, the real highlight is looking up at the gilded dome, soaring 275 feet up.

Besides its architecture, history buffs will find a slew of monuments, memorials, and historical artifacts, including a model of the USS Iowa battleship.

The Iowa State Capital is open for tours between 8 am and 5 pm from Monday to Friday and from 9 am to 4 pm on Saturdays. Although you’re free to roam around on your own, opt for one of the free guided tours to get the full lowdown on the graceful building’s history and legacy.

Living History Farms

Ever wondered about life in the Midwest in centuries past? Get a taste of 300 years of Iowan history at Living History Farms. Located in Urbandale, IA, just ten minutes north of West Des Moines, the 500-acre outdoor history museum recalls the Iowa’s agricultural history, from its humble pioneer beginnings to becoming one of America’s most productive farmland.

Start your Living History Farms journey at the 1700 Ioway Indian Farm, featuring crops like blue flour corn, pumpkins, squash, and beans. You’ll also spot several lodges, similar to those used by the Ioway people on their seasonal bison hunts.

At the 1850 Pioneer Farm, watch farmers harvesting wheat, corn, and potatoes as their wives prepare hearty meals in the log house. Step back into the early 20th century at the 1900 Horse-Powered Farm, where draft horses use their might to help farmers cultivate and harvest their crops.

Or witness 19th-century life at the 1876 Town of Walnut Hill as merchants and artisans ply the shops along the main street. Around the recreated frontier town, you’ll also spot an old church, schoolhouse, and family homes, including a typical upper-class Victorian home.

Living History Farms is open from Tuesday to Saturday, from 9 am to 4 pm.

Gray’s Lake Park

Located just minutes from downtown, Gray’s Lake Park is one of the most popular public parks in Des Moines, Iowa. The 166-acre park features a slew of outdoor activities—from hiking trails to boat rentals to fishing—all to a beautiful backdrop of the Des Moines city skyline.

Gray's Lake Park

Start exploring Gray’s Lake Park with a walk or bike ride along the Kruidenier Trail. Meandering two miles around the lakeshore, the popular hiking and bike trail is famed for its 1,400-foot pedestrian bridge.

Time your Gray’s Lake Park visit with the evening hours to see the majestic Kruidenier Trail Pedestrian Bridge all lit up. With its multi-colored lights reflecting off its glass panel and lake water, it’s quite a sight to behold!

Want to extend your outdoor activity? Gray’s Lake Park connects to the city’s 42-mile trail network along with the Central Iowa Trail System, spanning more than 500 miles.

For more relaxed outdoor pursuits, rent a canoe, kayak, or paddleboat for a leisurely paddle around the lake. Or hit the sandy shores for a chilled-out day on Gray’s Lake Beach.

Des Moines Art Center

A surprising find in the heart of the Midwest, the Des Moines Art Center is a world-renowned contemporary art museum. Its permanent collection spreads out over three eye-catching buildings. The museum’s galleries burst at the seams with 19th- and 20-century American and international art.

Des Moines Art Center

The exhibits at the Des Moines Art Center span several mediums, including paintings, mixed media, and sculptures. Browse the art museum’s galleries to unearth impressive artwork from famed artists like Georgia O’Keefe, Henri Matisse, Francis Bacon, and Edward Hopper.

Want a more immersive experience? Sign up for one of the center’s art classes, covering everything from painting and drawing to ceramics and metalwork.

Robert D. Ray Asian Gardens

Seeking tranquility in the heart of the city? Pencil in an afternoon at Robert D. Ray Asian Gardens. Wrapping 1.7 acres along the Des Moines River, the calming garden is one of downtown’s top chill-out spots and a must-see while you’re in Iowa’s capital.

Robert D. Ray Asian Gardens

Enter Robert D. Ray Asian Gardens via its striking 37-foot-tall Asian pavilion. Cross the bridge and follow the path into the Character Garden. The garden features a collection of six granite stones. Each is inscribed with Chinese characters symbolizing the virtues of respect, civic duty, responsibility, trustworthiness, care, and respect.

Along the way, admire the beautiful stone pagodas, sculptures, lanterns, and bonsai-like trees dotting the grounds.

Science Center of Iowa

Visiting Iowa with the kiddos? Pique their curiosity at the Science Center of Iowa in downtown Des Moines. Featuring a barrage of fun hands-on exhibits, the popular science museum is one of the top Des Moines points of interest for families.

Science Center of Iowa

Set the kids loose at the Science Center Iowa’s permanent exhibits for a fun day of learning. Zip through the cosmos at Why the Sky?. Experience Iowa’s native cold-blooded inhabitants at What on Earth?. Or build earthquake-proof LEGO creations at Brick by Brick.

After you’ve ignited their creativity at the interactive exhibits, immerse in the stars Star Theater Planetarium. Featuring a 50-foot 360-degree screen, it’s the perfect venue to catch a fun & educational show.

Terrace Hill Historic Site

Step back into 19th-century Des Moines with a visit to the Terrace Hill Historic Site. The 18,000-square-foot historic house was built 1869 as a private home. Today, Terrace Hill is the official residence of Iowa’s Governor and has been designated as a National Historic Landmark.

Terrace Hill Historic Site offers a look at the stunning Second Empire architectural style. The home’s design features the style’s characteristic mansard roofs and elaborate ornamentation. 

Tour the first and second floors of the magnificent Victorian home to learn about its rich history. Marvel at its brilliant stained-glass windows and ornate woodwork. You’ll get a glimpse of the lavish lifestyle of its original owners, Benjamin Franklin Allen and Frederick Marion Hubbell. After you’re done inside, wander through the estate’s historic grounds, spanning eight acres.

Terrace Hill is open for guided tours between March and December. Tours are by reservation only, from Tuesdays to Sundays at 10:30 am and 12:00 pm.

Adventureland Park

Historic sites got the kids antsy? Inject a little excitement into your Des Moines trip itinerary at Adventureland Park. Located northeast of the city in the town of Altoona, IA, the popular amusement park is high on thrills. The theme park features over 100 amusement rides ranging from easy-going to hair-raising.

Spike your adrenaline with a ride on one of Adventureland’s thrilling roller coasters, including The Monster infinity roller coaster, the fast-paced wooden Outlaw, and The Dragon Slayer, the park’s newest coaster. Or for more family-friendly thrills, whirl around The Scrambler, The Phoenix, or Rockin’ Rainbow.

If you’re visiting Iowa in summer, cool off at the Adventure Bay water park. Float leisurely along the Caribbean Cruiser lazy river. Chill out at the Breaker Beach wave pool. Or race down water slides like the Bermuda Quadrangle and Reef Racer.

Des Moines’ Downtown Farmers’ Market

If your visit falls on a Saturday, start your morning browsing the Des Moines’ Downtown Farmers’ Market. Set up in the Historic Court District, the weekly market assembles almost 300 food vendors, farmers, and artisans from all around the Hawkeye State.

Browse the food vendor stalls to fill your basket with everything from fresh fruits & vegetables and eggs to meats and cheeses. Alongside all the delicious locally-grown food, you can also sift through arts & crafts, clothing, local wines.

The farmers market takes place on Saturdays from 7 am to noon from May to September and from 8 am to noon in October.

Hoyt Sherman Place

The namesake of the Sherman Hill Historic District, Hoyt Sherman Place is one of the city’s most interesting cultural hotspots. The performing arts venue and art gallery occupies an opulent Victorian manor, built in 1877 by banker Hoyt Sherman.

While the historic home and gallery is worth a tour, the real highlight to visiting Hoyt Sherman Place is to catch a world-class concert or comedy show at its historic theater. Check the events schedule to see what’s on during your Des Moines visit.

Des Moines Water Works Park

Hugging the banks of the Raccoon River off Fleur Drive, Des Moines Water Works Park is a must-visit for nature lovers looking to cram a few more outdoor activities into their itinerary.

The 1,500 acres of Des Moines Water Work Park teem with trails, ranging from paved walking paths to horseback riding trails. Take a walk along the 1-mile section of the Bill Riley Trail that runs through the park. If you’re looking for an extended hiking adventure, connect to the Walnut Creek Trail, Great Western Trail, or Meredith Trail.

Visiting in spring? One of the best things to do in Des Moines is marvel at the world’s largest collection of flowering crab apple trees at the Arie den Boer Arboretum. With over 800 trees, the colorful display is absolutely stunning! The peak crab apple tree bloom falls from late April to early May.

If you’re lucky, you might be able to catch a concert or special event at Lauridsen Amphitheater and Killinger Family Stage. Check the events calendar to see if there’s anything happenin’ during your stay in Des Moines.

Raccoon River Park

The largest public park in West Des Moines, Raccoon River Park offers a slew of recreation options to give your Iowa trip itinerary a kick of outdoor activities.

Curiously, Raccoon River Park centers around Blue Heron Lake rather than its namesake river. Rent a canoe, kayak, or paddleboard at the Raccoon River Boathouse for a jaunt around the 232-acre lake.

RELATED: Top-Rated Day Trips from Des Moines

Rather stay on shore? Take a dip at the swimming beach or cast a line from the 225-foot Raccoon River Fishing Pier. For a more active onshore adventure, gear up for a run, hike, or bike ride around Blue Heron Lake along the 3.2-mile Raccoon River Park Trail.

Principal Park

A fan of America’s favorite pastime? Don’t miss the chance to catch a baseball game at Principal Park. Formerly known as Sec Taylor Stadium, the minor league ballpark is the home field of the Iowa Cubs of the International League.

Before or during the game, be sure to dig into Principal Park’s many food & drink options. Grab a juicy pork tenderloin sandwich, a local staple. Or go for more typical stadium fare by chowing down on nachos, hamburgers, and even Chicago-style hot dogs.

Wash it all down with a local brew at the Iowa Craft Beer stand, offering several dozen locally-brewed beers.

Where to stay

For most travelers, the top choices for where to stay in Des Moines are Downtown Des Moines and the East Village. Although you’ll pay higher prices here, these two city-center neighborhoods are home to many of the city’s top-rated hotels and main points of interest.

Des Moines Marriott Downtown

Des Moines Marriott Downtown

For a comfortable stay in the heart of the city, lay down your head at the Des Moines Marriott Downtown. With elegant modern decor, this hotel is the perfect place to relax after a long day of sightseeing. End your itinerary by basking in the hotel’s top-notch amenities, including an indoor pool and fitness center. 

Renaissance Des Moines Savery Hotel

Renaissance Des Moines Savery Hotel

Add a dash of elegance to your trip with a night in this sleek 4-star hotel. Located in Downtown, this historic hotel features a stunning Colonial Revival architecture style, with its building dating back to 1919.  Add to the ambiance by ending your evening sipping cocktails or ordering a bottle of champagne in the chic on-site bar, the Coda Lounge.

Hotel Fort Des Moines, Curio Collection By Hilton

Hotel Fort Des Moines, Curio Collection By Hilton

Experience a page out of the history books with a night at the historic Hotel Fort Des Moines. Once a favorite for celebrities like Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash, this boutique hotel is a charmer, offering guests a wide range of amenities, including two on-site restaurants & bars and a fitness center.


Ryan O'Rourke is a seasoned traveler and the founder & editor of Treksplorer, a fiercely independent guide to mid-range luxury travel for busy people. With over 20 years of extensive travel experience, Ryan has journeyed through over 50 countries, uncovering hidden gems and sharing firsthand, unsponsored insights on what to see & do and where to eat, drink & stay. Backed by his travel experience and in-depth research, Ryan’s travel advice and writing has been featured in publications like the Huffington Post and Matador Network. You can connect with Ryan on Twitter/X at @rtorourke.

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