Des Moines took my breath away. My fault for underestimating it.
This city is every bit as charming, fun and quirky as other cities with a larger profile. (Think Austin, Portland and Seattle.) Where it differs is that it hasn’t been overrun by traffic, hipsters and a giant company HQ pricing people out of the city. It’s much more chill and laid back.
I’d visit soon though, if I were you. Des Moines is growing. Fast. Once you’ll visit, it’ll make sense why. It’s a gem that, for now, is a little hidden.
How to Spend 2 Days in Des Moines
Introduction to Des Moines
Official Language(s): none at federal level, English is considered the national language
Currency: U.S. Dollar
Emergency phone number: 911
When to Go to Des Moines
Weekends in the fall
If you can, a weekend in the fall is an absolute delight. The historic Court District hosts the Saturday morning Farmer’s Market. From 7 a.m. to noon until the end of October, you can get local wares during good seasonal weather.
Much of Des Moines’ government area (including the Capitol building) are tree-lined, making autumn a sight for sore eyes.
Where to Stay in Des Moines
Residence Inn by Marriott
Des Moines doesn’t have any hostels (yet) but the Residence Inn by Marriott really exceeded my expectations. It’s steps away from the Farmer’s Market, and many other attractions. It’s clean, inexpensive and has a pool(!). The staff are super friendly and give great local recommendations.
How to Get Around in Des Moines
As far as cities go, I found Des Moines to be very walkable, especially the downtown area. It’s not the easiest city to bike around in (though they seem to be working on it), but I travel better on foot anyways.
For longer distances, you can take the DART. A day pass is pretty inexpensive.
Where to Eat in Des Moines
Des Moines really excels in the area of slightly odd restaurants with really good food.
What do I mean by slightly odd? Make your first stop Zombie Burger and you’ll see. Reserve a spot ahead online if you can, it gets packed fast. At its core, it’s a ridiculous setting that serves damn good burgers and fries. Don’t be afraid to be touristy… take a pic with the zombie mannequins.
Court Avenue Brewery
Court Avenue Brewery is much more tame. Consider this a good restaurant if you’re traveling with a picky eater; they’ve got seafood, burgers, pizza and more. Something for everyone.
High Life Lounge
The High Life is like a homage to 1960’s bar culture. The menu is full of comfort food. Old advertisements and posters line the walls. There’s even a phone booth for the truly nostalgic.
Crème Cupcake + Dessert
Fun fact: Crème Cupcake + Dessert was featured on “Cupcake Wars.” Deservedly so. Their main draw is a menu that matches a dessert with a cocktail or coffee that pairs well. Good stuff. I left with to go boxes of “later cupcakes.”
Day 1 of 2 Days in Des Moines
I mentioned the Farmer’s Market earlier, and for good reason. I absolutely love when cities do this on the regular. It’s ideal for a tourist to get a feel for the city; what people like, where the local good stuff is, and maybe even snag a recommendation or two for the rest of the trip.
World Food Prize Hall of Laureates
This is such a cool exhibition area, but is only open two days of the week. Slightly inconvenient, but very worth visiting. It’s a gorgeous building with exhibitions on successes in alleviating world hunger.
Somewhat out of the way, the Jordan House has to be one of my favorite historical home tours. It’s the home of James Jordan, who’s house was a stopping point to safety on the Underground Railroad.
Terrace Hill Historic Site
The Governor’s Mansion is a little out of the way, cash only ($5 entrance) and tricky to time it right, but… I would recommend a visit. It’s a beautiful place to tour.
The State Capitol Building
The Capitol and the area surrounding it looks like it was plucked straight out of Europe. And, I mean, it is a Renaissance-style building, so it kind of makes sense.
I highly recommend taking a tour of the building. It’s free, and it’s got a stunning interior.
State Historical Museum of Iowa
State history museums are always a treasure, and Iowa is no exception. There are so many neat exhibits and displays to get lost in. Best part? It’s free to enter.
Day 2 of 2 Days in Des Moines
Science Center of Iowa
The Science Center is way more fun than I ever thought science could be. Hands-on learning, designed for both the young and the young at heart (no, really), have turned this place into an area where everyone is itching to do some science.
It’s impossible to walk away without having learned something. It’s just so fun. Word to the wise though; defer to the littles and let them have their turn before you.
Last but not least, the River Trail is an excellent way to see pretty sights on a well-planned route.
Robert Ray Asian Gardens
You’ll pass by the Robert Ray Asian Gardens which gives you a great chance to pretend you’ve traveled way farther than Iowa.
Greater Des Moines Botanical Gardens
Finally, you’ll arrive at the gardens. The area is so much bigger than it looks and it’s a sight to see. Des Moines doesn’t half-ass anything. Plants included.
Know Before You Go
Parking can be a bit of a pain downtown. You’ll find lots of meters, so bring extra quarters when you arrive.
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