Blake Walsh

15 Free Things to Do in Des Moines, IA

  • Published 2022/11/05

Des Moines is Iowa’s state capital and Polk County’s seat.

At once, the city exudes affluence in its gold-domed capitol building.

While this city is among Iowa’s most affluent, you can enjoy a visit here without burning a hole in your pocket.

The Des Moines River cuts across the northeastern half of this city that adopted the waterway’s name.

Founded in 1851, the city was first named Fort Des Moines, shortened to Des Moines in 1857.

Coal mining and the construction of the railroad drove the early development of Des Moines.

When the local coal industry lost steam in 1908, Des Moines began to evolve as a business center.

The city also undertook a significant makeover in its “City Beautiful” project at the turn of the 20th century.

The banks of the Des Moines River became one of the focal points of this project, helping create free ways to enjoy the city.

Find these attractions on the following list of free things to do in Des Moines, Iowa.

Tour the John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park

Colorful sculptures at Pappajohn Sculpture Park

Paul Brady Photography /

This park is on Grand Avenue and is named after its benefactor, the Iowa philanthropist couple John and Mary Pappajohn.

The John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park covers 4.4 acres and features more than two dozen art pieces.

Established in 2009, this pedestrian-friendly park serves as an enchanting gateway to the downtown of Des Moines.

The park immediately impresses visitors with its well-designed landscaping that complements the sculptures on its grounds.

Stainless steel sculpture at Pappajohn Sculpture Park

Nagel Photography /

The park’s sculptures include the “Thinker on a Rock” in bronze by British artist Barry Flanagan.

Another bronze head-turner in the park comes in “Spider,” an artwork by the American sculptor Louise Bourgeois.

The free guided tours of the park are available from April to October, with a three-week advance request required.

The grounds of Pappajohn Sculpture Park

Paul Brady Photography /

Browse Contemporary Pieces at the Des Moines Art Center

Exterior of the Des Moines Art Center

Nagel Photography /

Founded in 1948, the Des Moines Art Center is the umbrella institution in charge of Pappajohn Sculpture Park.

Contemporary art is the focal point of the extensive collection of this center on Grand Avenue.

The center has collected 6,000 artworks dating from the 19th century to the present.

Interior of the Des Moines Art Center

Nagel Photography /

Aside from paintings, modern art, mixed media, and sculpture, this center also has books, ceramics, and photographs in its collection.

Visitors of the Des Moines Art Center can see works of well-known artists which are iconic of the movement or style they each represent.

One of these is the 1927 painting “Automat” by Edward Hopper used as a Time magazine cover.

Facade of the Des Moines Art Center

Nagel Photography /

Enjoy Free Entertainment at the Des Moines Arts Festival

Check out the schedule of the annual Des Moines Arts Festival, traditionally held in late June.

The entertainment presentations during this festival are free and held mainly at the city’s Western Gateway Park.

The park spreads over 13 acres on Locust Street and presents the city’s Creative Zone.

This area on the downtown’s doorsteps is also home to the Des Moines Art Center, the Pappajohn Sculpture Park, the Des Moines Central Library, and the Temple for Performing Arts.

The activities during the Des Moines Art Festival include concerts at the park’s Hy-Vee Main Stage, where bands perform alternative and rock music.

Festival visitors who prefer laid-back retro and Americana sounds can listen to musicians at the Root Stage.

For free movies, public screenings of the side event Interrobang Film Festival occur in the South wing of the Downtown Library.

See the Orchids at the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden

Aerial view of the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden

cnetten /

This garden offers free walk-in and private group tours in its vibrant 12-acre site on Robert D. Ray Drive.

The Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden opened in December 1979, operating under the City of Des Moines Parks and Recreation Department.

This public garden showcases the diverse temperate and tropical flora around the world.

Its unique collections include orchids, Plectranthus plants, coleus, and bonsai creations.

Exterior of the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden

Le Do /

The garden invites guests to shoot casual, candid pictures of its plants and landscapes.

The seasonal blooms of the garden are most striking in its impressive geodesic dome, especially at nighttime.

Watch out for the art shows and educational programs this wonderful Des Moines garden hosts.

Interior of the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden

Nagel Photography /

Tour the Iowa State Capitol

Exterior of the Iowa State Capitol

Grindstone Media Group /

Also known as the Iowa Statehouse, Iowa State Capitol is a must-visit Des Moines landmark.

The capitol’s building and its golden dome immediately catch attention at its site on Grand Avenue East and 9th Street in Des Moines’ East Village.

Built from 1871 to 1886, the capitol building flaunts Neoclassical and Renaissance Revival architectural designs.

As the home of the General Assembly of Iowa, the building houses the state’s Senate, House of Representatives, and the Office of the Governor.

Senate chamber in the Iowa State Capitol

Nagel Photography /

The Iowa State Capitol sits atop a hill, thus offering a panoramic view of Des Moines downtown.

The capitol building is open to guided video and pictorial tours for groups of ten or more.

Several memorials and monuments provide points of interest on the sides and front of the capitol.

Among these are the Lincoln and Tad statue and the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument.

Law library in the Iowa State Capitol

Nagel Photography /

Walk amid the Flowers at Greenwood Park

This park spans over 80 acres off Grand Avenue and offers many enchanting features to visitors.

Greenwood Park was established in the 1930s, and its popularity bloomed because of the Clare and Miles Mills Rose Garden.

This Des Moines park attraction is one of the 132 listings under the All-American Rose Selection Public Display Garden.

This Des Moines public garden is a crowd-drawer in June when its collection of more than 2,500 plantings of over 200 rose varieties starts to bloom.

You can walk through this garden via the nature trail of Greenwood Park, which boasts other public facilities.

These include enclosed and open shelters, an inclusive playground, charcoal grills, a pond, an amphitheater, a sprayground, picnic tables, restrooms, benches, and free parking.

Take a Stroll on the West Capitol Terrace

Night scene at the West Capitol Terrace

Real Window Creative /

Visitors of Des Moines can enjoy the luxury of space at the: West Capitol Terrace, accessible via East Locust Street.

This public space, known as the city’s People’s Park, spans over ten acres.

The design of the terrace builds upon the site’s existing Beaux Arts style and formal French Plan.

It was developed as a green sanctuary where visitors can walk, have a picnic, or join a special event that the West Capitol Terrace hosts.

The well-designed terrace features five distinct areas interconnected with steps and ramps with an overall grade change of more than 30 feet.

Each area offers a unique experience, with some providing quiet contemplation amid exquisitely landscaped gardens.

Plants native to Iowa grace the gardens of this environment-friendly terrace, thus enhancing the visitors’ experience.

The welcoming, pedestrian-oriented terrace also draws visitor interest in the granite map on its base showing all the 99 counties of Iowa.

Tour the State of Iowa Historical Museum

Facade of the State of Iowa Historical Museum

dustin77a /

Located on East Locust Street, the State of Iowa Historical Museum is free.

The museum occupies three floors of the State Historical Building of Iowa, just west of the State Capitol in Des Moines.

The building is also home to the State Historical Library and Archives and one of two Research Centers of the State Historical Society of Iowa.

The museum’s wide variety of displays and exhibits depict Iowa’s rich history and heritage.

Exterior of the State of Iowa Historical Museum

Billwhittaker at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Visitors can learn about life in Iowa before it became a state and when European settlers arrived.

The museum also explores the rich natural resources of Iowa and the efforts to balance the use and preservation of these assets.

A visit to the State of Iowa Historical Museum will also unveil Iowa’s role on the side of the Union during the Civil War.

On a more contemporary note, the museum documents the journeys of presidential candidates that traditionally start from the Iowa primaries and caucuses.

Relax at the Rotary Riverwalk Park

Des Moines visitors taking a stroll on the 1.2-mile Principal Riverwalk can take a break at the Rotary Riverwalk Park on West River Drive.

This park is along the west side of the Des Moines River and overlooks the Iowa Women of Achievement Bridge, a short distance to the south.

The Rotary Riverwalk Park opened in 2014, with fishing as its theme, as shown in its centerpiece play area.

This park’s highlight comes in a 65-foot-long replica of a fishing pole with a bobber at its end 12 feet wide.

Kids enjoy this play area with rubberized surfaces, swings, and LED lighting at night.

Cross the Iowa Women of Achievement Bridge

View of the Iowa Women of Achievement Bridge at night

Nagel Photography /

Dedicated in 2013, the Iowa Women of Achievement Bridge is a new state landmark just east of downtown Des Moines.

This bridge honors Iowa’s outstanding women’s arches over the Des Moines River, connecting the city from east to west.

At night, the bridge lights up and stands out at the north end of the Principal Riverwalk loop.

Night lights of the Iowa Women of Achievement Bridge

Nagel Photography /

The bridge features two separate walkways; one of them opens exclusively for pedestrians or joggers, and the other opens only to bikers.

You can enjoy picturesque views of the city and the cascading Des Moines River waters below the bridge.

Walkway of the Iowa Women of Achievement Bridge

Nagel Photography /

Explore the Principal Riverwalk

Split pathway of Principal Riverwalk and Iowa Women of Achievement Bridge

yosmoes815 /

Visitors of Des Moines can conveniently explore the city attractions on the east and west banks of the Des Moines River via the Principal Riverwalk.

Developed from 2004 to 2013, the riverwalk features a 1.2-mile trail looping around both sides of the River.

Two pedestrian bridges connect this carless loop, one of which is the Iowa Women of Achievement Bridge in the north.

Through this loop, you can visit the Simon Estes Riverfront Amphitheater and other nearby attractions like the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden.

The Riverwalk also enables access to civic gardens near the Des Moines City Hall, where you’ll see some unique artworks.

One is a colorful mural, “A Social History of Des Moines,” painted from September 1937 to December 1941.

Join the Iowa Bike Expo

The free Iowa Bike Expo occurs annually in January at the Iowa Events Center on 3rd Street.

This one-day expo is a must-attend for biking fans, touted as the largest event of its kind in the Midwest.

Bikes and bike equipment manufacturers from across the country participate in this expo.

Visitors can watch a trail race event during the expo or attend educational seminars on bike advocacy, consumer trends, and new biking destinations.

The expo likewise offers the chance to learn about Iowa’s bicycling history.

For instance, you will learn about the colorful story of the week-long, non-competitive Des Moines Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa (RAGBRAI).

Visit the World Food Prize Hall of Laureates

Exterior of the World Food Prize Hall of Laureates

David S Mohn /

The exhibit at this unique museum on Locust Street is a source of marvel to Des Moines visitors.

The World Food Prize Hall of Laureates, free to the public, highlights agricultural achievements in the fight against hunger.

The museum’s home is a century-old Beaux Arts-style building once the Des Moines Public Library.

The building’s rich history unfolds in one of the museum’s rooms, along with other exhibits about agricultural breakthroughs.

In the museum’s Ruan Laureates room, your eyes will land on a stained glass globe identifying 12 areas where agriculture and food production originated.

The other theme rooms of the museum include the Iowa Gallery, Founders Boardroom, Rotunda, and Mural Room.

Enjoy a Free Concert at the 80/35 Music Festival

A rapper performing at the 80/35 Music Festival

Max Goldberg, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In early July, the Greater Des Moines Music Coalition organizes this annual nonprofit event at Western Gateway Park on Grand Avenue.

The 80/35 Music Festival typically features five stages, with four free to the public.

The festival’s stage with entrance fee takes its performance in the Des Moines downtown.

Performer at the 80/35 Music Festival

Shrieking Tree, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The 80/35 Music Festival features a diverse lineup of performers from all music genres.

The event also sets up a Kid Zone where children can enjoy many fun activities.

Singer at the 80/35 Music Festival

Shrieking Tree, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Tackle the Walnut Creek Trail

The Des Moines park system boasts an extensive trail network.

The Walnut Creek Trail is one of the most popular among mountain bikers, runners, and hikers.

This trail extends over 9.3 miles and opens access to other courses in Des Moines and nearby regions of Iowa.

All told, there are 68 miles of paved trails and 19 miles of soft trails within the city limits of Des Moines.

The Des Moines trail network enjoys connectivity to over 550 miles of other trails in Central Iowa.

Recent estimates show that more than one million hikers each year pass on the city’s trails, indicating their popularity.

Final Thoughts

Visitors to Des Moines need not spend much to enjoy the points of interest in the city.

Many of its parks and museums are open to the public, too.

Check out the free things to do in Des Moines, Iowa!

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