What Can I Do in Des Moines, Iowa?

Amanda Holland
Amanda Holland

There are countless exciting things to explore in Des Moines, Iowa, from museums and interactive attractions to shopping districts and historical sites. With its rich history and friendly locals, Des Moines is definitely worth visiting.

The Blank Park Zoo features giraffes and over 1,000 other animals, fish, and birds.
The Blank Park Zoo features giraffes and over 1,000 other animals, fish, and birds.

Fun Facts About Iowa and Des Moines

  • Des Moines is home to the Waveland Golf Course, which opened in 1901. It’s the oldest municipal golf course in the U.S. west of the Mississippi river.
  • Rap artist Drake shares his name with Drake University, which is located in Des Moines.
  • During a celebrity golf tournament in West Des Moines, actor Rob Lowe hit a golf ball that struck and killed a goldfinch (the state bird) while it was flying.
  • Des Moines is pronounced di-ˈmȯin (rhymes with “coin”).
  • Iowa is famous for giving the world sliced bread, the Red Delicious apple, actor John Wayne, and Arabella Mansfield, the first female lawyer in the country.
About 20,000 people attend the Des Moines Farmers’ Market every Saturday.
About 20,000 people attend the Des Moines Farmers’ Market every Saturday.

What Does Des Moines Mean?

Historians agree the city’s name comes from the Des Moines River, which French explorers named. In French, des moines means “from the monks” or “of the monks.” Though it seems obvious that the French explorers simply chose a word from their own language, historians and linguists believe that the name actually comes from the indigenous people of the area.

The Iowa state capitol building has five domes. The central one is covered in 23-karat gold leaf.
The Iowa state capitol building has five domes. The central one is covered in 23-karat gold leaf.

One explanation is that European explorers simply shortened the Algonquian clan name of a local tribe from Moingoana to Moines. A 2015 linguistic study of the Miami-Illinois language tells a slightly different story. In this version, Moingoana wasn’t the true name of the tribe in question. Rather, it was a derogatory nickname that the rival Peoria tribe used and gave to 17th-century French explorers as a joke. Unfortunately, the “polite” translation of Moingoana is “excrement-faces.”

Visitors to Living History Farms can learn about agriculture and farming in several different eras.
Visitors to Living History Farms can learn about agriculture and farming in several different eras.

There isn’t a consensus about what to call a person from Des Moines. Sources list various possibilities: Des Moinesian, Des Moineser, and Iowan.

What Is Des Moines Known For?

Des Moines is the state capital, and the capitol building features a gilded dome that’s one of the largest in the world. The city also has about 4 miles of climate-controlled skywalks that cover about 30 blocks, allowing residents and tourists to avoid icy winter winds and sweltering summer weather. The Des Moines Farmers’ Market sees over 20,000 attendants every week.

Things To Do in Des Moines During the Day

Here are some top Des Moines attractions:

  • Iowa Gold Star Museum: This military museum seeks to honor Iowa’s veterans from all wars, and it features exhibits from various conflicts from the Civil War to Operation Enduring Freedom.
  • Living History Farms: Covering over 300 years of history, this outdoor museum features reenactors in period costumes. These interpreters provide information about the history of Iowa during five different time periods, focusing on agriculture and farming.
  • The Science Center of Iowa: This scientific museum includes interactive exhibits for both children and adults as well as a planetarium and an IMAX theater.
  • Blank Park Zoo: Home to more than 1,000 creatures, the zoo is hailed as one of the best in the state.
  • Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden: The center has both indoor and outdoor gardens featuring plants from diverse climates, including many native Midwestern species.

What To Do in Des Moines at Night

Consider these fantastic options for evening activities in Des Moines:

  • See a baseball game at Principal Park. It’s the home of the Iowa Cubs (the Chicago Cubs’ Triple-A affiliate team).
  • Enjoy food, drinks, and vintage arcade games at the Up-Down Arcade Bar.
  • See a show at the Des Moines Performing Arts Center.
  • Check out the shops, bars, art galleries, and restaurants in the up-and-coming East Village.

Plan an Enjoyable Trip to Des Moines, Iowa

As you can see, the Hawkeye state is anything but boring. You can find plenty of fun things to do in Des Moines, and Sioux City is only a three-hour drive away. In the other direction, Dubuque, Iowa, is home to the Mathias Ham House Historical Site. This restored 19th-century house includes period furnishings.

If you’re in Des Moines in August, you can attend the Iowa State Fair. This iconic event is held every year on fairgrounds that are over a century old. It features concerts, agriculture exhibits, livestock competitions, and a giant cow sculpture made of 600 pounds of butter. Next time you’re planning a trip to the Midwest, be sure to schedule some time to enjoy Des Moines.

The Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden has an orchid collection that showcases various species and hybrids.
The Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden has an orchid collection that showcases various species and hybrids.
Amanda Holland
Amanda Holland
Amanda Holland is equally passionate about math and grammar, and she has incorporated both into her career. She spent several years as a signals analyst for the Defense Department, creating and editing reports for the intelligence community. After her two kids were born, she transitioned to a career as a freelance writer. When she isn't crafting content, she's usually reading, baking, or playing video games.

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Discussion Comments

ysmina

@LisaLou-- There is also the CityView Des Moines, it's another weekly news print for Central Iowa. I'm a foodie, and I love reading the food section of CityView, because every week, they review restaurants in Des Moines. I have discovered some great places through there. My favorite is the Tokyo Steakhouse.

They also have monthly updates about the shows and plays that will be shown at the Huff theater and Des Moines Playhouse that month. I heard that a play based on an Alfred Hitchcock film will be on this month. Oh and of course, there is a section for parties as well.

CityView is a great way for residents to keep up to date, but I imagine that it can be a great resource for tourists as well.

ddljohn

I went to school in Iowa and would drive to Des Moines with my friends from time to time.

When we were in Des Moines, we generally went to the malls for shopping, ate at restaurants in Downtown Des Moines and also went to the clubs at night. Des Moines has a fun night life and there are plenty of places to hang out with friends or dance. There are also a lot of people from other nationalities, so it's possible to find various cuisines and even international grocery stores.

I think Des Moines is a fun city. It's not really a place I would travel particularly for, but if you're passing by, you can definitely find plenty to do while you're there.

sunshined

I have been to the city of Des Moines twice. Once to run in a race they have every spring called Dam to Dam. The other time was in the winter to attend a conference.

Visiting in the spring was nice as it was warm and I remember it being very green. Going for a few days in the middle of February was a different story. It was extremely cold and windy and I felt like I was freezing all the time.

Both times I visited I felt like the people were very friendly. Even though you are in the middle of farm country, the city is not all that bad for being a small Midwestern city.

Their capital building really stands out as it has a gold top that really glistens in the sunlight.

When I went for the marathon, I also went bike riding on some of the bike trails. They really have an extensive route of connecting trails and the scenery was nice with a mixture of suburban and rural settings.

I wouldn't want to live there because I don't think I could take the winters, but it was a friendly place to visit.

I know a lot of people live there because they feel it is a nice place to raise a family.

Mykol

One of my best friends lives in Des Moines, and I have visited her many times. We have attended some performances downtown and took our kids to the Science Center.

They have an IMAX theater inside their science center which our kids enjoyed. I was impressed with a huge pendulum that was suspended from the ceiling which demonstrated the Earth's rotation.

The downtown Des Moines skywalk system is also very nice. You can park your car in one spot and get just about anywhere you need to go downtown by walking the skywalk. This is especially nice when the weather is bad.

I always enjoy my visits to Des Moines and find the city easy to get around in. You can go from one side to the other in about 20 minutes. There isn't a ton of traffic, so you can get from one place to the other in a short amount of time.

This would be wonderful, as it usually takes me 45 minutes just to get to work where I live.

LisaLou

I have lived in Des Moines for many years, and even though it is not a huge city, there are quite a few nice attractions.

My kids were really excited when the Jordan Creek Town Center opened in West Des Moines several years ago.

This brought most of the popular and well known stores they loved to shop at. Before this opened, they would have to travel to Minneapolis or Chicago to shop at these places.

The city of West Des Moines has grown substantially and you can find everything you need here. Not only are there many of the well recognized stores, but many quaint shops as well.

Valley Junction is an area where they have all kinds of antiques and unique shops. In the summer they have an active farmers market there every week.

Every Thursday the Datebook Des Moines is published, which describes all the coming attractions for the week. This comes right before the weekend, so you can easily make plans for the weekend and the week ahead.

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