Blake Walsh

15 Best Things to Do in Downtown Des Moines, IA

  • Published 2023/01/14

Downtown Des Moines in Iowa is a unique destination because behind its tall buildings and contemporary homes lies a rich culture and history.

From its art havens to its vigorous urban oasis, Downtown Des Moines offers a different take on urban living.

The best things to do in Downtown Des Moines, Iowa, range from spending time with nature, appreciating art, unleashing your inner foodie, and shopping for local treasures.

If that sounds enticing, then check out the full list of recommended activities below.

Celebrate Fine Arts at the Des Moines Art Center

Sculpture in front of the Des Moines Art Center

Nagel Photography /

The Des Moines Art Center has exhibited exemplary pieces of fine art since 1948.

On top of this, the museum of Modern and Contemporary Art houses a restaurant, gift shop, and its school for studio art education.

Interior of the Des Moines Art Center

Nagel Photography /

The museum is along Grand Avenue, where you’ll find Ashworth Park and Pappajohn Sculpture Park.

Admission to the Des Moines Art Center is free, though a guided tour is also available for those who are eager to learn more about the exhibit and the artists behind them.

Facade of the Des Moines Art Center

Nagel Photography /

Sample Local Flavors at the Des Moines Downtown Farmers’ Market

The Des Moines’ Downtown Farmers’ Market at East Walnut Street is not just a time-honored tradition but also a place to sample local products.

The market is available and free to visit on all Saturdays from May through October.

The community gathering that began in 1976 is now celebrated by over 300 vendors and an average of 25,000 visitors every weekend.

You might want to come in hungry on your visit to make room for the smorgasbord of local food and some imported products you’ll find in the stalls.

After all, the best way through the busy Des Moines Downtown Farmers’ Market is to eat your way out of it and purchase some souvenirs to relish the experience.

The market primarily hosts products from the 58 counties of Iowa, ranging from vegetables, grains, fruits, herbs, and signature meat produce.

The variety of products and vendors is always a treat for goers, but if you’re exploring the market for the first time, it will be a good idea to visit the Information Booth at Third Street and Court Avenue first.

Additionally, the folks here can also lend you a free wagon if you plan to purchase many items during the fair.

Experience Broadway at the Des Moines Civic Center

If you want to slow things down, you can enjoy Broadway plays, musical concerts, family theater, and dance recitals at the Des Moines Civic Center.

The schedules are published on their official website, where you can also book tickets in advance.

The performing arts center is the largest theater in the state since it opened its doors in 1979; the Des Moines Performing Arts operates it.

The Des Moines Civic Center is known for hosting major Broadway touring companies and for offering educational programs that aim to preserve the importance of culture and arts in the history of Iowa.

The theater is conveniently located in the business district along Walnut Street.

Take a Cultural Stroll at Salisbury House & Gardens

Daytime view of Salisbury House & Gardens

Jmaxschwerd, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Salisbury House & Gardens is an events place, museum, and architectural hallmark that dates back to the 14th century.

Some of the things you can look forward to here, aside from artifacts, memorabilia, and historical documents, include a distinguished rock collection and artworks from the likes of Leon Kroll, Lillian Genth, and Joseph Stella.

The English gardens around the premises are open to the public but can also be rented out for events and gatherings.

As such, you are advised to check availability before visiting the mansion or walking in.

The Salisbury House & Gardens is located along Tonawanda Drive.

Take Photos at the Pappajohn Sculpture Park

The grounds of Pappajohn Sculpture Park

Paul Brady Photography /

Pappajohn Sculpture Park was founded in 2009 by John and Mary Pappajohn, who donated their private collection of sculptures to the Des Moines Art Center.

The 4.4-acre park along Grand Avenue stands out in the urban metro thanks to its colorful and peculiar sculptures that you can explore on your own or via a guided tour.

You can enjoy the Sculpture Garden and the surrounding Gateway Park any time of year, or you can time your visit during the summer, when it’s the most festive, thanks to various community gatherings, including the Des Moines Arts Festival.

Nomade sculpture at Pappajohn Sculpture Park

Nagel Photography /

The Des Moines Arts Festival is held annually in June where it hosts hundreds of vendors, artists, urbanites, and tourists.

Other activities and attractions you can expect during the festival are performance arts, craft beers galore, a film festival, artist demonstrations, and live music.

A sculpture at Pappajohn Sculpture Park

Ganeshkumar Durai /

Discover Healthy Alternatives at Harbinger

More than a meal, Harbinger offers its customers an extraordinary dining experience.

The restaurant is located at the popular Ingersoll Avenue food spot, where it stands out for its vegetable-focused and locally sourced menu with distinctly Asian flavors.

Running the diner is Joe Tripp, who also owns Basic Bird and Little Brother from other locations and is a five-time semifinalist for the James Beard Foundation Award for Best Chef Midwest.

Harbinger is an essential stop not just for visiting Des Moines but Iowa in general.

It’s a great place for guests who may want to get out of their comfort zone or simply experience some of the best dishes that the locals have to offer.

Enjoy Breakfast at St. Kilda

Enjoy an exquisite Australian-style breakfast at St. Kilda Café and Bakery right in Downtown Des Moines.

This little bakery at Southwest 5th Street is a sweet spot for locals and tourists, thanks to its ambient design and ideal location.

It’s a go-to for hangouts, gatherings, and special events.

It’s also a great place to start the day or unwind for those touring Downtown.

Try its fresh-baked pastries and artisanal coffee to kick off an adventurous day.

St. Kilda Café and Bakery also serves lunch and features a full bar with essential beers, wines, and cocktails.

Enjoy a Peaceful Time at the Robert D. Ray Asian Gardens

Chinese pavilion at Robert D. Ray Asian Gardens

yosmoes815 /

This massive Asian garden in Des Moines is a project of former Iowa governor Robert D. Ray and aims to celebrate diversity in the state, particularly in honor of Asian Americans and their contributions.

The Robert D. Ray Asian Gardens is a sight to behold along the riverbanks of the Des Moines River due to its vibrant and unique architecture.

One of its signature spots is the Character Garden, where six granite boulders are inscribed with Chinese characters representing the morals of responsibility, respect, fairness, caring, citizenship, and trustworthiness.

Interior of Robert D. Ray Asian Gardens' Chinese pavilion

yosmoes815 /

Meanwhile, the Chinese pagoda near the river has to be the most recognizable structure for visitors and passersby as it towers above the greens and calls attention to itself with its bright red frame.

You can reach this riverside sanctuary via Robert D. Ray Drive.

The grounds of Robert D. Ray Asian Gardens

yosmoes815 /

Shop at Fontenelle Supply Co.

Fontenelle Supply Co. is a shopping place popular for its custom leather shop that even men would enjoy exploring.

It also carries sustainable, American-manufactured brands such as Filson, Barebones, Opinel Knives, Outerknown, and more.

It has an extensive catalog of outdoor gear and wearables, as well as camping and safety equipment for those who like to live on the edge.

There are also supplies for men’s grooming and some unique scented candles inspired by men’s pop culture and timeless classics.

You can find Fontenelle Supply Co. along East Grand Avenue corner East 6th Street.

Visit St. Ambrose Cathedral

Exterior of St. Ambrose Cathedral

Craig Horobik /

Another building with historical significance for the people of Des Moines is St. Ambrose Cathedral.

Even as Downtown moves into a modern urban lifestyle, the century-old St. Ambrose, which marked the first Catholic congregation in Des Moines, remains a prominent landmark in the business district.

The building was designed with the Romanesque Revival style in mind; you’ll easily find semblance in its architecture with those churches found in southern France.

Interior of St. Ambrose Cathedral

Farragutful, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The church’s interior features stained-glass windows depicting the arrival of Catholicism in Iowa and in the U.S. instead of common biblical themes.

St. Ambrose Cathedral and the adjoining rectory (the house where a parish priest or minister lives) have been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1979.

You can visit the church at 607 High Street.

Stained glass window of St. Ambrose Cathedral

Farragutful, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Shop and Dine at West End Architectural Salvage

The West End Architectural Salvage is the perfect place to get your local Des Moines woodcraft and furniture.

West End Architectural Salvage sources inventory from various places, but the restoration and crafting process is a brand and experience unique to this rustic hub at 9th Street in Downtown Des Moines.

The products include restored or customized chairs, cabinetry, tables, workstations, shelving, and more.

Meanwhile, the antique collection is where you’ll find time-tested treasures such as decorative lighting, stained glass, cabinets, old typewriters, and clocks, among many others.

There’s even a domestic coffee shop if you feel like sticking around after a round of shopping or simply taking time to relish the century-old building that houses the gallery.

Spend a Quality Afternoon at the Gray’s Lake Park

Bridge at Gray's Lake Park

QZ /

If you’re looking for a place to rest your feet after touring around Downtown Des Moines, Gray’s Lake Park along Fleur Drive would be a fitting site to recharge and enjoy nature.

Gray’s Lake Park is also a go-to destination for outdoor enthusiasts due to its dynamic hiking trails for walking or biking, fishing spots, and boating activities.

The 167-acre recreational park also looks stunning at night, especially its 425-foot-long Pedestrian Bridge, which lights up with bright neon lights after sundown.

Night scene at Gray's Lake Park

QZ /

Other Things to Do Nearby

Enjoy an Urban Oasis at Des Moines Water Works Park

Des Moines Water Works Park near Raccoon River is one of the largest urban parks in America.

The area was initially bought out to protect the water source, but following renovations, the park was opened to the public in 1933 as a recreational ground.

Nowadays, the 1,500-acre Des Moines Water Works Park is a favorite local hangout spot that also sports recreational outdoor activities such as biking, paddling, fishing, hiking, and even horseback riding.

There is also Arie Den Boer Arboretum, a botanical garden featuring crab apple trees with over 300 varieties, some of which are only found in this Des Moines sanctuary.

The flowers typically bloom in a two-to-three-week span from April to May, depending on the species, during which the arboretum is magnificently covered in shades of white and pink.

Taste Local Wine at Jasper Winery

Jasper Winery has a tasting room where you can sample their trademark spirits.

It has been one of the popular wine suppliers across Iowa since 2000.

It also offers an educational session for visitors, which lasts for about 90 minutes and includes some tasting opportunities, complete with chocolate and cheese to complement the wine.

The urban winery is located at George Flagg Parkway, where it also hosts an event space for private gatherings and personalized weddings.

Tour the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden

Exterior of the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden

Le Do /

Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden, located just outside of Downtown, is a 14-acre botanical garden that sits along the Des Moines River.

The domed conservatory includes a storied Bonsai collection, select art and sculpture exhibits, and other series of specialized gardens and plant collections of cactuses, flowers, succulents, and more.

Interior of the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden

Nagel Photography /

You can avail of limited free guided tours on Saturdays on a first-come, first-served basis.

There is also a pre-registered paid guided tour for groups with a minimum of five individuals.

Adding to the attraction is a garden shop in the vicinity, as well as the in-house Trellis Café, which notably serves a locally sourced, plant-inspired menu.

Aerial view of the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden

cnetten /

Final Thoughts

Des Moines is a city rich in culture and history, and Downtown, as its business center, is no exception.

The number of cultural landmarks in this highly urbanized zone is astonishing—be it museums, recreational parks, theaters, or historical sites.

An ideal visit would correspond with the active months of the Downtown Farmers’ Market or the Des Moines Arts Festival in June, when the best of what Iowa has to offer is on full display.

But make no mistake, the list of the best things to do in Downtown Des Moines is an all-year-round affair.

Just browse through the list above to plan the most satisfying and efficient itinerary you can have for your next trip to the heart of commerce and culture in Iowa.

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