Des Moines, Iowa: It’s not a tropical getaway or major city, but this metro area of over 645,000 people is a unique jewel in the Corn Belt, where you’ll find a plethora of activities, art, dining, and shopping you won’t get anywhere else.
If you’ve never been before, you’ll want to consider these interesting things to do and see, plus places to grab a bite, snag some photos, and have a shopping spree.
Things To Do In Des Moines
Visit The Blank Park Zoo
Blank Park Zoo, located in downtown Des Moines, is a wonderful place to kick off your time in Des Moines. With over 25 acres of land, the zoo, which opened in 1966, offers a range of animal experiences you’ll enjoy, including the Australian Adventure, where you can see live koalas and kangaroos, a rare treat outside of the land down under.
The zoo features a free-range aviary and exhibits where you can feed koi fish, parakeets, and giraffes, or even take a camel ride. You will see elephants, zebras, otter, rhinos, gibbons, tigers, and more.
Spend a few hours at the zoo viewing the critters, having an animal encounter or two, and grabbing a snack or meal at the Safari Grill or Macaw Cafe.
You can visit the zoo between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. Admission for adults is $14 and children’s admission is $8.
Traverse The High Trestle Trail
The High Trestle Trail is a decommissioned railroad track, repurposed for pedestrians, cyclists, and rollerbladers. The trail itself stretches for 25 miles and winds its way through four counties. The High Trestle offers shaded and open areas, varied terrain, and diverse views along the 25-mile route.
The trail features a 130-foot trestle trail bridge from which it gets its name. The bridge is one of the longest of its type in the world and was named by the BBC as one of the world’s eight amazing footbridges. If you come at the right time, you can see the bridge lit up at night.
The High Trestle Trail offers you a unique way to experience Des Moines and, if you’re up for the full day, to meander on through four additional towns. There’s no admission fee and the park is open year-round. Multiple access points allow trail-goers to enter and stop off at Ankeny, Madrid, Sheldahl, Slater, and Woodward, too.
Get Cultured At The Des Moines Art Center
The Des Moines Art Center first opened its doors in 1948. Since then, the art deco-style building has provided visitors with a unique art experience through its permanent collections featuring Rodin and Matisse, as well as the rotating exhibitions of collections from the region.
The museum also boasts a stunning ornamental rose garden that features a unique collection of sculptures. You’ll probably want two to three hours to enjoy the full experience of the museum and gardens.
The Des Moines Art Center is an admission-free activity. Check the website for hours and special events.
Unwind At Smash Park
If you’re feeling social, head to Smash Park for a one-of-a-kind experience. This unique and interactive venue is basically a backyard party year-round, except you don’t have to do any cleanup.
Smash Park has Iowa’s largest patio and contains over 40 HD televisions for those who want to kick back and relax. If you’d rather be the player, they offer:
- Pickleball courts
- Shuffleboard courts
- Bocce ball
- Ping pong
- Giant Connect Four
- Giant Jenga
- Yard Dice
- Beer Pong
- Golden Tee
- Board Games
Smash Park is an all-in-one sort of joint, featuring backyard foods, hand-crafted cocktails, over fifty beers, and premium wines and spirits. Angus burgers, fire-roasted rotisserie chicken, and more make this a great place for a group on a friends’ getaway or family outing.
Smash Park opens at 8 a.m. daily and is open late, with varying hours each night. Fees vary by activity, so head to the website for more info.
Places To Eat In Des Moines
If you’re looking for a beautiful atmosphere for an upscale dining experience after a long day of shop and play, you’ll want to visit Lucca, a luxurious Italian restaurant. The dining area features the building’s original exposed brick, which brings additional warmth to the already cozy restaurant.
Their indulgent menu includes choices ranging from popular pastas like the Al Forno and Amatriciana to multi-course dinners featuring a range of choices like shrimp ceviche, potato bacon soup, pork mole, and eggplant marinara.
They’re open for lunch and dinner and offer both gluten-free and vegetarian options.
Skip’s has been serving their upscale food and handcrafted cocktails in Des Moines since 1981. They offer a variety of American classics anyone can appreciate and have some of the best service in town. According to travelers and locals alike, the prices are reasonable, the service prompt, and the food delicious.
Their menu features unique delights like pecan encrusted chicken strips and jalapeno shrimp appetizers. Their ever-popular chicken marsala makes the lunch menu, and you can try the Steak de Burgo if you go for dinner.
Skip’s is open for lunch and dinner, save for Sunday when they are closed.
Featured on Guy Fieri’s Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives in October 2015 and selected by Guy for Triple D Nation in December 2018, Flying Mango is a tasty barbecue and Caribbean food joint with heart.
Flying Mango grills or smokes the vast majority of its fare, earning the restaurant a statewide reputation for uncommonly deliciously cuisine. The restaurant is owned by husband-and-wife team Michael Wedeking and Suzanne Van Englehoven. They purposefully aim to craft a memorable meal for each guest who visits their Des Moines restaurant.
You can try dishes like the Jenny Salad with brisket and cornbread, the Chicken Creole, or smoked pork tenderloin. If you’re after a dinner inspired by the Deep South, the Redneck Surf-n-Turf and Louisiana Platter will get you there.
Flying Mango has dinner hours Tuesday to Thursday from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. and Friday and Saturday from 5 to 10 p.m. Lunch and dinners on other nights are available for private parties only.
For a different twist on dining, visit Harbinger. The Asian-influenced restaurant -- owned by Joe Tripp, a three-time James Beard Award Semifinalist for Best Chef: Midwest, and Rae Doyle, the front of house manager and sommelier -- blends fresh farm produce with seasonal flavors to create unique twists on well-known Asian dishes like steamed buns, mochi, and chawanmushi.
If you want to indulge in a full dining experience here, you can create your own five-course meal from a select menu, or try the chef’s pre-selected tasting menu. Both meals include wine pairings and vegetable-forward plates that will leave you satisfied.
Harbinger is open for dinner starting at 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Tip: If anything includes the XO sauce, you don’t want to miss it.
Shopping In Des Moines
West End Architectural Salvage
If you’re dying for some stunning rustic furniture and home accessories, you’ll want to drop into West End. They source their inventory from New York, St. Louis, Minneapolis, Chicago, England, and the Middle East to curate their unique and intriguing collection of classically appealing items.
Tin panels, stained glass windows, aged furniture, and more can be found here, and they can ship items home for you if you find something you just have to have but can’t manage to transport.
Or, if you’re looking for something small and unique to bring home as a gift, they have interesting mementos like jewelry made from old typewriter keys and custom pieces crafted from odds and ends discovered in their curation process.
If you enjoy an empowering shopping experience, you’ll want to visit this quirky Des Moines shop. Raygun offers a range of collections -- tumblers, mugs, magnets, stickers, t-shirts, and more -- and items that promote the rights of pretty much everyone in our nation.
The shop started when Iowa college graduate discovered he didn’t fit the mold for most jobs and grew into a multi-location shop that promotes the rights of women, public education, the LGBTQ+ community, cyclists, “snowflakes,” the environment, and pretty much everything else that’s marginalized and under-represented.
Leona Ruby is a stunning jewelry shop where you can find locally crafted pieces and nationally celebrated collections from brands seen everywhere elegant, including the red carpet. Owner Ellen Martinson named the store for her two grandmothers, Leona and Ruby. These women introduced her to patent leather handbags, high heels, and jewelry. Their love of beauty helped inspire Ellen’s commitment to compassion, humor, and generosity in all that she does -- including managing her beautiful Des Moines store.