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Greetings Internet Stranger! I’m Stella Jane and welcome to the best things to see in Des Moines Iowa! It’s often said that Americans don’t get enough history in schools. We have a huge country and our citizens literally come from every other nation in the world, so it’s hard to cram everyone’s history into just a few years of schooling.
But one excellent way to learn American history is to visit the state capitals. And why not start with the best things to see in Des Moines, since Des Moines is the capital of the lovely state of Iowa. Its capitol building is easy to visit because it’s so close to the center of town, and on top of that, it is free!
If you’re looking for an edu-taining American trip, Des Moines is the place for you! You can learn all about Native Americans, pioneers, The Music Man, and Iowa’s greatest export: zombies. Don’t believe me? Soon you will! Hopefully before the zombies have eaten all your brains!
Best Things to See in Des Moines
Where to Stay?
I highly recommend the Staybridge Suites Des Moines Downtown. It has an extremely convenient location, a fitness center, and a friendly staff.
Plus, not only is breakfast included, it’s one of the only hotels I’ve stayed at that includes a light dinner for free on some nights. That’s extremely convenient if you’re in Des Moines on a Monday when a lot of restaurants will be closed.
Click here to get a great rate on this hotel!
Or if you’d rather explore, click here to see many excellent hotels available in Des Moines.
This search engine will help you find the most affordable and convenient hotel during your day of the best things to see in Des Moines. With tons of options to choose from, I’m sure you’ll find something for your schedule and budget.
Best Things to See in Des Moines
Morning: Iowa State Capitol
Did you know that Des Moines was the capital city of Iowa? So, what’s the difference between the Iowa state capitol and the Des Moines capitol building?
Nothing! The Iowa state capitol and the Des Moines capitol building are two different names for the exact same building. I’m just trying to cover all my bases here, Internet Strangers! Leave no Iowa history nerd behind! And no matter what you call this building, no list of the Best Things to See in Des Moines is complete without them.
Like pretty much every other state capitol building I have visited, the Des Moines capitol building is free to visit. If you are a group of over 10 people, you should make a reservation on the website. If not, just show up and take a self-guided tour.
If you’re lucky, like I was, you’ll be allowed to join in on a tour with a school group. Just try not to scare the children and I’m sure you’ll blend in fine. But whether your tour is with a guide or self-guided, you’ll learn more than…
Three Fun Facts: Des Moines Capitol Building
1) What’s the Coolest Thing in the Des Moines capitol building?
The Des Moines capitol building is surprisingly lovely, so there’s plenty to see inside. Don’t forget to look up so you can see the stunning dome. But I suggest asking to see the Iowa Constitution. According to one of the employees, it’s the third Constitution that was ever written for the state of Iowa.
Apparently the first Constitution was invalid because it was attempting to steal land from neighboring Minnesota. (MEAN! Who would steal from a state as nice as Minnesota?)
And the second Constitution didn’t provide for banks. That’s also a problem. You can’t run an economy on corn, Iowa! Eventually people are going to want you to pay them. The Iowa Constitution is the second shortest state constitution after Vermont.
Fun fact! The Vermont state constitution is just footage of Bernie Sanders yelling, “I AM ONCE AGAIN ASKING YOU…”
2) What Do People Do in the Des Moines Capitol?
They run the state of Iowa with an iron fist, naturally. Like many smaller states, people-wise, the state government isn’t in session for very long. The Iowa State House of Representatives is only in session from January through April because of the farm season.
Those government officials need to hurry back home to their fields so they can build a ghost baseball field in their backyard before summer arrives. (If you build it, he will come.)
If you’re looking to rake in the big bucks, working in the Iowa government might not be for you. According to our docent, the salary is only 26,000 dollars a year. But keep in mind that it’s a part-time job, so that might not be so unreasonable. I mean, if you’re making all that money from ghost baseball in the summer and everything.
3) Where Can I Eat Near the Des Moines Capitol Building?
I’m shocked that you’re thinking of your tummy instead of the Very Serious Matter of Iowa State government, Internet Stranger. But I will indulge you. Before you tour the Iowa capitol, stop in for breakfast at the Scenic Route Bakery, just a short walk away.
I recommend their chocolate croissant and the Honeybee Latte, made with real honey. You might not think you should come all the way to Iowa just to try some French pastry, but you’d be wrong. Dead wrong.
For lunch, step into the pride and joy of Des Moines: Zombie Burger. This is where every zombie who’s any zombie in Des Moines comes to eat, and it’s definitely one of the best things to see in Des Moines.
I suggest the Walking Ched burger because the bun is made out of fried mac and cheese, which is as authentically Midwestern as it gets. Just don’t try to pick up the bun with your hands because you’ll get coated in fried cheese. Not that I learned this from bitter experience or anything. AHEM.
Chase the burger with the highly instagrammable unicorn milkshake made with enough sugary cereal to satisfy the crankiest inner child. It will put such a big smile on your face people will think you’ve turned into a zombie. A happy sugar zombie, at any rate.
Just be on the lookout for zombie attacks in the bathroom!
Best Things to See in Des Moines
Afternoon: State Historical Museum of Iowa
We’ve spent the morning learning about Iowa’s government. Now we’re going to finding the Best Things to See in Des Moines and dive deep into Iowa’s history at the State Historical Museum of Iowa. (You can get the info about their opening hours and prices here.)
Like many states, Iowa has chosen to put their history museum inside their state capital city. But does every state history museum contain so much information about The Music Man? That’s No, with a Capital T that rhymes with P and it stands for Pool. You can easily spend a few hours here learning much more than…
Three Fun Facts: Iowa History
1) Are Any Famous People From Iowa?
There are many famous people from Iowa, including “American Gothic” painter Grant Wood and John Wayne. But I want to draw your attention to Black American Iowan Alexander Clark. Mr. Clark was active in politics both before and after the Civil War, and he formed Iowa’s first African-American regiment, which obviously fought for the Union.
But Clark is also famous for working with his daughter to end the legal segregation of schools in Iowa back in the 1860s. (Legal segregation of schools didn’t end in the entire country until 100 years later.) What an amazing pioneer of social justice.
According to the photos in the Iowa history museum, Mr. Clark could also rock a sweet tux if the photos in the museum are historically accurate. Not every Iowan lives in their coveralls!
2) What About Iowa Movies?
Plenty of movies have been set in Iowa, including the Rogers and Hammerstein musical State Fair. But there are only two real contenders for the Iowa movie throne: The Music Man and Field of Dreams. It’s hard to decide which should win! But you can’t say you’ve checked out the best things to do in Des Moines if you haven’t seen the memorabilia from these fine films.
The Music Man was the masterpiece of Iowa boy Meredith Willson, who was born in Mason City, Iowa. The show couldn’t be more of a tribute to small-town Iowa life, even though Willson has lots of fun teasing the locals. The Music Man even has an entire song called “Iowa Stubborn”. One of the lyrics is, “You really got to give Iowa a try!” That’s soooo Iowa!
And the show remains popular. It was recently on Broadway, starring Hugh Jackman and Younger‘s Sutton Foster.
But Field of Dreams, which is about baseball playing zombies, may be the ultimate Iowa movie. It even has the line, “Is this heaven? No, it’s Iowa”. And it’s inspired a yearly Field of Dreams game which is actually played by two real MLB teams. But it does lose some points because the author was not from Iowa. He was…Canadian. That’s basically the Iowa of countries, though.
3) How did Iowa Become a State?
So first of all, the State Historical Museum of Iowa gets massive props from me for naming their exhibit on the Iowa territory “You Gotta Know the Territory” because that’s a line from The Music Man. Very meta! Only a true Iowa stubborn Music Man fan would get the reference.
Iowa became a state on December 28, 1846, but it has a long history before that. Before Europeans arrived in Iowa, it was inhabited by the Meskwaki tribe. (The Meskwaki purchased land in Tama, Iowa in the 1850s and they still live there today.)
You can see Meskwaki artifacts like blankets and feast bowls in the exhibit. Unless you are from Iowa, it’s unlikely you’d have the chance to see these treasures back home.
European-Americans were drawn to Iowa because of the farmland, which makes sense because if there’s one thing Iowa has a whole bunch of, it’s farmland. Even today, Iowa has the third-most farms of any state in the country. That’s pretty impressive, considering Iowa is not even close to being the third largest state in the country.
Best Things to See in Des Moines
Late Afternoon: Pappajohn Sculpture Park
If it’s a lovely afternoon in Des Moines, head to Pappajohn Sculpture Park. Admission is completely free, and you can see works from
As well as more of Des Moines’s terrifying zombie population!
If the weather’s not so nice, or you’re just feeling like a thirsty bitch, head to Peace Tree, one of Des Moines’s excellent craft breweries. If you’re looking for something a little funky, get their OG orange sour beer. But they have yummy normcore beers like lagers and IPAs as well.
Best Things to See in Des Moines
Evening: Dinner at Alba
You know an American city has really arrived when it has two things: a craft brewery and a restaurant that serves Craft Cocktails and Small Plates. (I call them CraCoSmaPla restaurants.) And in Des Moines, if you want CraCoSmaPla, you book a seat at Alba.
In the 1980s, if you’d told someone you could get a great cocktail in Des Moines made with cynar, a bitter Italian liqueur, they would not have believed you.
I suggest getting 3 small plates per person. Start with deviled eggs, that church picnic classic. These were kicked up a notch of class with grana padano twill. (Grana padano is the less famous cousin to Parmesan.)
If I’m ordering small plates, I always make sure at least one is light and vegetable-based, to avoid scurvy. This Brussels sprout salad had bacon in it, so I’m not sure how healthy it was, but I’m pretty sure the sprouts cancel out the fat in the bacon.
Even at a small plate restaurant, it’s nice to get one dish that’s more like a main course. I selected a half-portion of one of their specialties, gnocchi. (If you’re Josh from Younger and you’re reading this blog, it’s pronounced nyo-key. That’s my second Younger reference of the night!)
This gnocchi was served with roast vegetables, lemon crema, and prawns. They were delicious, but I always wonder how they get fresh prawns to a landlocked state like Iowa. Do they Fed Ex them?
For dessert, I had another glammed-up church picnic classic: pineapple upside-down cake. My favorite part of this dish is the Maraschino whipped cream. That is genius! Everyone knows the Maraschino cherry is the best part of the sundae. All whipped cream should be Maraschino from now on!
Best things to see in Des Moines
Tools For Travel
- A cell charger so that you’ll be able to keep taking photos of all the best things to see in Des Moines
- The most reliable travel umbrella that is small enough to fit in my purse, but strong enough to stand up to powerful winds on our day in Des Moines
- These great TSA approved clear toiletries bags, so I can always keep spare toothpaste and travel sized toiletries in any carry-on.
- My book Get Lost, that I wrote myself with all my best travel tips. This book will show you how travel can take you on a journey of self-discovery.
That’s the Best Things to See in Des Moines
What do you think are the Best Things to See in Des Moines? Are you stoked to book your hotel room in Des Moines right now? And why are there so many zombies in Iowa’s capital? Please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org!
Note: If you want to know how I put my travel itineraries together, just click here. Keep in mind that while this article is about how to spend 24 hours with the Best Things to See in Des Moines, that doesn’t mean you should ONLY spend 24 hours with the Best Things to See in Des Moines.
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