Des Moines Travel Guide

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Best Things To Do in Des Moines

If you're on the hunt for an affordable city that boasts a variety of family-friendly attractions, you've come to the right place. From the hands-on

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If you're on the hunt for an affordable city that boasts a variety of family-friendly attractions, you've come to the right place. From the hands-on exhibits at the Science Center of Iowa to the waterslides at Adventureland Resort, nearly every top attraction in Des Moines is suitable for kids. Those traveling without little ones will be just as entertained thanks to the history on display at the impressive Iowa State Capitol and the variety of works housed within the Des Moines Art Center. For an activity the whole family can enjoy, rent bikes and make a day of exploring the High Trestle Trail.

How we rank Things to Do

Updated September 29, 2020

  • #1
    Things to do in Des Moines
    View all Photos
    #1 in Des Moines
    Parks and Gardens
    TYPE
    1 to 2 hours
    TIME TO SPEND
    Parks and Gardens
    TYPE
    1 to 2 hours
    TIME TO SPEND

    Despite chilly Midwestern winters, the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden remains a year-round top attraction thanks to the site's domed conservatory, which is kept consistently balmy to nurture the tropical plants housed within. Along with palm trees and a waterfall, the conservatory houses a variety of bright flowers, cactuses and succulents, among other plants. Outside the conservatory, there are numerous themed gardens interspersed with sculptures, including a rose garden and a water garden. In total, the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden spans 7 acres.

    According to recent visitors, the garden is a worthwhile stop year-round. Many who visited during winter referred to the conservatory as an oasis. Reviewers frequently used words like "beautiful" and "relaxing" to describe the garden.

  • #2
    View all Photos
    #2 in Des Moines
    Free, Parks and Gardens
    TYPE
    1 to 2 hours
    TIME TO SPEND
    Free, Parks and Gardens
    TYPE
    1 to 2 hours
    TIME TO SPEND

    In 2009, John and Mary Pappajohn, a Des Moines venture capitalist and his wife, provided funding for and donated more than 30 sculptures to the Des Moines Art Center. Their donation transformed an assortment of dilapidated buildings into the attractive sculpture park that stands today. One particular highlight of the 4.4-acre park is Jaume Plensa's Nomade sculpture, a 27-foot-tall hollow human form composed of white steel letters arranged next to and on top of one another.

    Past visitors called the sculpture park a must-see sight in Des Moines. Many also recommended packing a picnic to enjoy among the sculptures.

  • #3
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    #3 in Des Moines
    Free, Recreation, Sightseeing
    TYPE
    2 hours to Half Day
    TIME TO SPEND
    Free, Recreation, Sightseeing
    TYPE
    2 hours to Half Day
    TIME TO SPEND

    Stretching 25 miles and winding its way through five cities, the High Trestle Trail is a decommissioned railroad line that has been converted into a multiuse trail. Due to the trail's origins, it's relatively smooth and flat, making it ideal terrain for joggers and bicyclists. For many visitors, the trail's main highlight is the High Trestle Trail Bridge, which is located between the cities of Woodward and Madrid. The 1/2-mile, 13-story bridge crosses the Des Moines River valley and features six overlooks with interactive panels explaining the area's cultural and natural history. After dark, a section of the bridge's steel cribbings illuminate with a blue light. From April through October, the bridge is lit from sunset until midnight. From November through March, the lights shut off at 9 p.m.

    Past visitors raved about the trail, especially the photo-ops at the bridge. Several recommended arriving at night when the bridge is illuminated.

  • #4
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    #4 in Des Moines
    Free, Monuments and Memorials
    TYPE
    1 to 2 hours
    TIME TO SPEND
    Free, Monuments and Memorials
    TYPE
    1 to 2 hours
    TIME TO SPEND

    The Iowa State Capitol is a favorite of sightseers and history buffs thanks to its grand exterior and ornate interior. Completed in 1886, the capitol building has undergone several restorations. Among its architectural highlights are 29 types of marble, 12 types of wood (all native to Iowa, except mahogany) and the 23-karat gold-covered dome that stands 275 feet above the capitol grounds. Not only is the building home to the governor's offices, the legislature and the old Supreme Court room, but it also shelters several artifacts, including a model of the USS Iowa battleship and several monuments and memorials.

    According to past visitors, the capitol building should not be missed thanks to its impressive interior and artwork. Though you can tour the building on your own, some reviewers recommended opting for a guided tour, which can be prearranged by calling the Iowa Capitol Visitor Center.

  • #5
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    #5 in Des Moines
    Zoos and Aquariums
    TYPE
    1 to 2 hours
    TIME TO SPEND
    Zoos and Aquariums
    TYPE
    1 to 2 hours
    TIME TO SPEND

    A hit with locals and visiting families, the Blank Park Zoo sits on 49 acres, 22 of which are home to animal facilities and exhibits. Nearly 1,500 animals representing more than 100 species live here. Among the zoo's residents are red pandas, African lions, giraffes and Magellanic penguins. In addition to the animals, the zoo offers a variety of kid-friendly experiences, including train, carousel and camel rides, as well as animal feedings with parakeets and giraffes.

    Though a few past visitors bemoaned the zoo's small size, reviewers also said it's a great place to take kids. Others appreciated the modest entry fees.

  • #6
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    #6 in Des Moines
    Museums
    TYPE
    1 to 2 hours
    TIME TO SPEND
    Museums
    TYPE
    1 to 2 hours
    TIME TO SPEND

    According to past visitors, the Science Center of Iowa is a great place to bring curious kids. Along with an Imax theater, the center is home to a variety of hands-on exhibits that explore everything from physical science to zoology, meteorology and geology. "Brick by Brick," which challenges kids to build and design structures using Legos, is a particular favorite among recent visitors.

    Though reviewers offered plaudits for the science center, they also cautioned that it's best suited to little kids 10 and younger.

  • #7
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    #7 in Des Moines
    Museums, Recreation, Tours, Sightseeing
    TYPE
    2 hours to Half Day
    TIME TO SPEND
    Museums, Recreation, Tours, Sightseeing
    TYPE
    2 hours to Half Day
    TIME TO SPEND

    Learn all about Midwestern rural life at this outdoor history museum, which spans 500 acres. Among the attraction's four sites are a recreated Ioway Indian farm from the 1700s, an 1850s pioneer farm, a 1900s-era horse-powered farm and a 19th-century frontier town complete with several shops, businesses and homes. Each of the historical farms and the town of Walnut Hill are connected by walking trails and tractor-drawn carts. Along with the structures featured at each site, visitors will find historical interpreters performing the duties representative of the time period. For instance, at the Ioway Indian farm, visitors may see interpreters tan animals hides, demonstrate native crafts and tool making, and prepare food over an open fire.

    Past visitors likened Living History Farms to Colonial Williamsburg and said the interpreters are knowledgeable, informative and fun to observe. Many reported that this is a great educational attraction the whole family can enjoy.

  • #8
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    #8 in Des Moines
    Free, Shopping
    TYPE
    1 to 2 hours
    TIME TO SPEND
    Free, Shopping
    TYPE
    1 to 2 hours
    TIME TO SPEND

    It started in 1976 with just 15 vendors and has since grown to nearly 300 vendors and an average of 25,000 visitors each Saturday. The Downtown Farmers' Market is the place to go to sample local produce, pastries, cheese and more.

    Past visitors raved about the market and advised looking for long lines at vendors to determine which ones are the best. They also suggested coming hungry to make the most of the market's smorgasbord of food.

  • #9
    View all Photos
    #9 in Des Moines
    Museums, Free
    TYPE
    1 to 2 hours
    TIME TO SPEND
    Museums, Free
    TYPE
    1 to 2 hours
    TIME TO SPEND

    A companion site to the John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park, the Des Moines Art Center features a collection of 19th-, 20th- and 21st-century works of modern and contemporary art. Other artistic styles, including Renaissance, impressionism and post-impressionism, are also on display here. Artists featured in the center's 5,000-work collection include Georgia O'Keeffe, Henri Matisse and Edward Hopper, among others.

    Past travelers enjoyed visiting the Des Moines Art Center, though a few were unimpressed with its size. Some recommended opting for a guided tour to make the most of your visit. If you aren't able to arrange one, you can also access an audio tour at any time via your mobile phone.

  • #10
    View all Photos
    #10 in Des Moines
    Amusement Parks, Swimming/Pools
    TYPE
    Half Day to Full Day
    TIME TO SPEND
    Amusement Parks, Swimming/Pools
    TYPE
    Half Day to Full Day
    TIME TO SPEND

    If you're traveling with kids, consider spending a day at Adventureland Resort. In addition to amusement park rides like roller coasters, a carousel and a Ferris wheel, Adventureland is home to a water park complete with a lazy river, waterslides and multiple pools. There are also shows, food stands and games.

    According to past visitors, Adventureland offers diversions for all ages and is a great place to beat the heat in summer. Others appreciated how walkable the park is, but a few reviewers were disappointed with the quality of the food available for purchase.

  • #11
    View all Photos
    #11 in Des Moines
    Free, Parks and Gardens
    TYPE
    1 to 2 hours
    TIME TO SPEND
    Free, Parks and Gardens
    TYPE
    1 to 2 hours
    TIME TO SPEND

    For a taste of the outdoors, head to Gray's Lake Park. Situated about 2 miles southwest of downtown by the Raccoon River, Gray's Lake Park features a 167-acre lake with a 2-mile pedestrian- and cyclist-friendly trail encircling it. Along with the walking and biking path, the park also offers a playground, a boat ramp and facilities like restrooms. Available boat rentals include canoes, kayaks, pedal boats and stand-up paddleboards.

    Locals and visitors alike offer favorable reviews for the park, saying it's a great place to bring kids. Others praise the park's cleanliness.

  • View all Photos
    Museums, Free
    TYPE
    1 to 2 hours
    TIME TO SPEND
    Museums, Free
    TYPE
    1 to 2 hours
    TIME TO SPEND

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  • View all Photos
    Free, Parks and Gardens
    TYPE
    Less than 1 hour
    TIME TO SPEND
    Free, Parks and Gardens
    TYPE
    Less than 1 hour
    TIME TO SPEND

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  • View all Photos
    Free, Sports
    TYPE
    2 hours to Half Day
    TIME TO SPEND
    Free, Sports
    TYPE
    2 hours to Half Day
    TIME TO SPEND

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