15 Best Things to Do in Des Moines, IA

Des Moines, IA
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The city of Des Moines in Polk County is Iowa’s capital city and the most populous area in the state.

In 1851, Des Moines was chartered as a city, but it wasn’t until the turn of the 20th century that it began to grow.

Today, you’ll see a lot of attractions in Des Moines, combining a mixture of historical sites courtesy of the Civil War and modern destinations that show the busy city side of the area.

Here are the best things to do in Des Moines, IA:

Check Out the Exhibits at the Des Moines Art Center

Eterior view of Des Moines Art Center
Des Moines Guy, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Art lovers will have a great time in Des Moines when they swing by the local art center on Grand Ave.

The Des Moines Art Center takes tourists on an insightful journey across its halls, featuring modern, contemporary, traditional, and mixed-media art.

Pathway at Des Moines Art Center
Nhandler at the English-language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

From time-based media and photographs to paintings and sculptures, works from the Des Moines Art Center should pique your interest and provoke your thoughts.

Inside the center are permanent collections that shed light on 19th-century impressionism and international art.

As you step outside, you’ll see even more displays in the form of sculptures at the Pappajohn Sculpture Park.

Meet the Animals at Blank Park Zoo

Sign board of Blank Park Zoo
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Learn more about your friends from Kingdom Animalia when you swing by Blank Park Zoo on SW 9th St.

The zoo opened its doors to the Des Moines metro community in 1963 and has since become a popular attraction for locals and tourists alike.

There are over 20 exhibits to check out at Blank Park Zoo, each providing unique experiences for visitors.

Flamingos at Blank Park Zoo
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Feel free to check out the lion’s den, aviary, discovery center, tigers’ lair, sea lions’ habitat, and much more.

Aside from viewing these animals safely, you can also try other amenities inside the zoo, such as the train and carousel rides.

You can also try feeding animals such as giraffes and parakeets while you’re there.

Tourist waiting in the entrance of Blank Park Zoo
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Take Your Kids to the Des Moines Children’s Museum

Let your kids have fun at a museum made especially for them in West Des Moines, 12 minutes from Des Moines.

The Des Moines Children’s Museum on Valley W Drive Suite provides dozens of playing opportunities for kids.

Let your children interact with other playmates while developing their skills from various exhibits.

Likewise, the museum accommodates caregivers while children play, so there’s enough space for everyone.

The Des Moines Children’s Museum also hosts several programs and events that you’re free to join if you plan to stay in the city for a while.

Take a Refreshing Tour at the Greater Des Moines Botanical Gardens

Bird's eye view of Greater Des Moines Botanical Gardens
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Escape the busy streets and head to downtown Des Moines where you’ll see the famous botanical gardens on Robert D. Ray Drive.

The Greater Des Moines Botanical Gardens celebrates the world of plants, giving visitors a chance to immerse in beautiful spaces created by plant diversity.

Interior view of the dome and the plants at Greater Des Moines Botanical Gardens
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Tropical and temperate flora decorate this stunning botanical garden grounds, featuring several collections such as the Ladany Bonsai, Coleus and Plectranthus, and Orchid collections.

The Greater Des Moines Botanical Gardens offers weekend guided tours that last up to 30 minutes and take you on an educational walk, learning about unusual plants and the facility’s history.

Once you’re done exploring the botanical gardens, head to the Trellis Cafe to fill up some good food and drinks.

Water Lily at Greater Des Moines Botanical Gardens
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Take a Photo of the Iowa State Capitol

Exterior view of Iowa State Capitol
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Nothing says you’ve been to Des Moines than taking a picture of one of its famed landmarks, the Iowa State Capitol.

Located along Grand Ave, the Iowa State Capitol houses the Iowa senate, house of representatives, governor’s office, attorney general, auditor, treasurer, and secretary of state.

You can feel the power of the state capitol from its design, featuring a 23-karat golden dome and sporting a Renaissance Revival architectural style.

Library at Iowa State Capitol
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Take a picture of this grand establishment in Des Moines before exploring the halls by going on guided tours to learn more about its story.

As you step inside, you’ll see highly decorated walls and chambers using fine marble and different varieties of wood, such as oak, butternut, and walnut.

When you look up at the ceiling, you’ll also see a famous quotation from Abraham Lincoln inscribed around the dome on the frieze above the pillars.

Senate Chamber at Iowa State Capitol
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Enjoy a Glass of Wine at Jasper Winery

There’s no better place to enjoy a glass of wine in Des Moines than Jasper Winery along George Flagg Pkwy.

This urban winery in downtown Des Moines gives visitors a perfect chance to relax and indulge in the bursting flavors of various wine and cocktail selections.

Guests can also enjoy a stunning view of the production area and barrel room, where they can learn about winery operations.

Jasper Winery’s modern tasting room offers wine samples, flights, and by-the-glass orders, which you can enjoy on the outdoor patio.

While at it, pair your glass with a delectable cheese tray for everyone to share while admiring the view.

Visit the Science Center of Iowa

Exterior view of Science Center of Iowa
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Learn more about the sciences by taking a trip to the Science Center of Iowa on W Martin Luther King Jr Pkwy.

Science enthusiasts will have fun exploring the halls of this Des Moines science center, which contains several permanent exhibits and unique attractions.

Check out the LEGO SCI Model and look at the science center’s center replica made of approximately 75,000 LEGO blocks.

Cast of a Tyrannosaurs at Science Center of Iowa
Jonathan Chen, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

There’s also a collector’s corner where you’ll learn more about the natural environment in the form of ancient artifacts that tell the origin story of ecosystems.

Before leaving this Des Moines museum, swing by the Foucault Pendulum, one of the museum’s most unbelievable exhibits.

The pendulum weighs a whopping 235 points in the form of a 17-inch brass ball.

View Authentic Collections from Salisbury House & Gardens

Majestic architecture of Salisbury House & Gardens
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Tourists with a passion for vintage collections will enjoy wandering the halls of Salisbury House & Gardens on Tonawanda Drive.

This Des Moines attraction is home to a wide selection of fine art, antique furniture, decorative art, and musical instruments recognized worldwide.

The Salisbury House & Gardens is already a work of art in itself in terms of architecture, but wait until you step inside and witness the wonders of world-class art collections.

Look at critically acclaimed works from artists like Anthony Van Dyck, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Joseph Stella, and Leon Kroll, among others.

Overall, about 10,000 art pieces are inside this museum in Des Moines.

Most of these pieces came from the collections of Carl and Edit Weeks, the original owners of the Salisbury House.

Marvel at the Grand Terrace Hill Historic Site

If you have an eye for design, you better swing by Grand Ave to look at the Terrace Hill Historic Site.

Also known as the Hubbell Mansion, the Terrace Hill Historic Site sports a Second Empire architecture style.

Terrace Hill also served as the dream home of Benjamin Franklin Allen, Des Moines’ first millionaire.

Witness the grandeur of the mansion’s mansarded towers, lambrequined canopies, and the columned porches lined in front of the estate.

Terrace Hill was sold to Frederick Marion Hubbell in 1869, shortly after Benjamin Franklin Allen lost his fortune.

Spend a Relaxing Day at Gray’s Lake Park

View of Gray’s Lake Park
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There’s no better way to drown out the sound of the busy Des Moines streets than hanging out at the local park.

Gray’s Lake Park on Fleur Drive provides locals and tourists with a relaxing space where they can enjoy the ambient atmosphere and fresh air.

Yellow color flower at Gray’s Lake Park
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Gray’s Lake Park offers a lot of open spaces where you can lay down a picnic blanket and read your favorite book under the cool shade of trees.

You can also enjoy the calm Des Moines waters with various watercraft rentals like canoes, double kayaks, paddleboards, and rowboats.

Nightview of the bridge at Gray’s Lake Park
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After your activities, head to the local concession stands to have a scoop of ice cream or indulge in some snacks and cold drinks.

Explore the Robert D. Ray Asian Gardens

Scenic view of Robert D. Ray Asian Gardens
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Wandering the Robert D. Ray Asian Gardens will make you feel like you’ve traveled thousands of miles to the other side of the world.

This famous Des Moines attraction makes tourists feel like they’re in a zen environment with amazing landscapes and scenic views.

Chinese carden at Robert D. Ray Asian Gardens
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Hang out at Des Moines’ version of the Far East, and explore the wonders of Robert D. Ray Asian Gardens.

Walk around the Asian pavilion to get a good look at the pond cascading into the Des Moines River in the form of small waterfalls.

View of Robert D. Ray Asian Gardens
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As you walk around the garden, you’ll also see the large granite boulders with Chinese characters representing the words “responsibility,” “citizenship,” “fairness,” “respect,” “caring,” and “trustworthiness.”

Aside from being a beacon of cultural diversity, the Asian Gardens also pays homage to former Iowa Governor Robert D. Ray.

Uncover the Secrets of the Jordan House

Entrance to Jordan House
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There are a lot of stories to hear in Des Moines.

Perhaps some of the most important ones come from the historic Jordan House on Fuller Road.

Hear the tales of West Des Moines as you wander the halls of the Jordan House and get a good look at the antique collection adorning the walls.

Corridor at Jordan House
Goddesshanna, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

You’ll also see an Underground Railroad exhibit inside the museum, as the former house was a designated station in its early years.

Escaped slaves also used to hide in the property’s fields, barns, and outbuildings, while the house served as a haven for weary travelers.

In 1947, the Jordan House was sold to the Church of the Nazarene and purchased by the West Des Moines Historical Society in 1978.

Tour the World Food Prize Hall of Laureates

Exterior view of World Food Prize Hall of Laureates
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Des Moines is full of great attractions that pay homage to its rich culture, but the city also has attractions that highlight its advocacies.

The World Food Prize Hall of Laureates on Locust Street is a museum dedicated to agricultural achievements and fighting world hunger.

Built between 1900 and 1903, this critically acclaimed Des Moines attraction emphasizes the importance of global food security in its exhibits.

Entryway to World Food Prize Hall of Laureates
Rebekah Zemansky / Shutterstock.com

Embark on a guided tour in this unique museum, and learn more about the agricultural and humanitarian pioneers who contributed to improving global food security.

Aside from informational tours, you can also check out the famous mural room on the ground floor, housing a 360-degree 1,091-square-foot colored mural by Harry Donald Jones.

Something about riding a carousel awakens the inner child in most adults.

Luckily, there’s one you can enjoy within the borders of Des Moines.

The Heritage Carousel of Des Moines on Pennsylvania Ave first welcomed its guests in 1998 and has since provided an avenue for people to enjoy their stay in the city.

Hop aboard the carousel, check out the hand-carved and hand-painted horses made from basswood and listen to the sound of an old-fashioned band organ.

Bring your kids with you, too; they should enjoy going around in circles in this famous city attraction.

If you want to spend more time at the carousel, rent it for your parties and other special events.

Other Things to Do Nearby

Reconnect with Nature at Walnut Woods State Park

Snow covered benches at Walnut Woods State Park
Angela Arnold / Shutterstock.com

Enjoy the calming sound of the calm waters and the rustling leaves when you spend some time at Walnut Woods State Park in West Des Moines, Iowa.

This park is 20 minutes from Des Moines.

Go on a hike or enjoy the calm atmosphere in this secluded area where you can be alone with your thoughts.

Colorful birds at Walnut Woods State Park
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Walnut Woods State Park is West Des Moines’ haven for a bottomland hardwood forest where you’ll find the largest natural stand of black walnut trees.

Also situated by the park is the Racoon River, where you can spend some time casting your lines or embarking on watersports activities.

Some of the watercraft allowed in the area include canoes and kayaks.

River at Walnut Woods State Park
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Final Thoughts

There is a lot to see and do in Des Moines; sometimes, choosing which ones to include in your itinerary can be overwhelming.

So for your convenience, stick to this list of the best things to do in Des Moines, Iowa, and you’re set to have fun.

Book your trip today!

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