From meeting new people to experiencing new sights, sounds, and smells – is there anything more exciting or rejuvenating than a break from the day-to-day mundanity? Traveling is an excellent way to immerse yourself in a new culture, setting, or way-of-life, but the best part is this: you don’t have to venture far from home to enjoy what this world has to offer.
Whether your journey takes you across your own city, to an unexplored part of your state, or even to the other side of the world, there’s no doubt you will still learn a lot about your surroundings – and yourself – along the way.
While the culture an hour away from your home might not be drastically different from what you’re used to, you can still gain a deepened sense of appreciation for where you’ve laid your roots. Plus, traveling locally has a lot of benefits:
More cost-effective. Local travel is certainly a budget-friendly way to explore! Many activities and parks are free or have a low cost of entry. For day trips, you can also pack your own meals to save.
Eco-friendly way to travel. Travel is hard on the environment, but putzing around your area is more sustainable than air travel.
Quick trips. Getting out locally means you can do it more often! Long weekend trips are a lot easier to take when the destination is a short drive away.
Easy to plan. Preparing your itinerary for a local getaway will likely save you some time and stress.
More convenient. Especially if you have little ones, sticking close to home may be much more convenient than far-off destinations. If you forget something, have an emergency, or need to cut the trip short, being closeby definitely has its benefits.
Located in central Iowa is Des Moines, the capital city and most populous region of the state. It is situated on the Des Moines River and has surprising significance within the insurance industry, being credited as the "number one spot for U.S. insurance companies" and named the third-largest "insurance capital" of the world. It’s also enjoyed previous titles such as the "Best Place for Business", as awarded by Forbes, but don’t worry – it’s not all work, as there is plenty of fun to be had in and around the city.
With its hot summers and cold, snowy winters, Des Moines dwellers can enjoy the best of both worlds, whether it’s hiking, paddling, fishing, and picnicking, or skiing, snowmobiling, and snowshoeing. The city is home to several art and history museums, not to mention many state parks, campgrounds, award-winning restaurants, and more.
Ready to discover the best of Des Moines? Let’s get started!
*Note: Some of the suggestions may not be doable due to coronavirus closures, but keep this list handy for when things start opening back up more! Be sure to check individual pages for specific operation details.
Looking to leave the bustling city behind in favor of Mother Nature? Luckily for you, Des Moines has numerous state parks and recreation areas nearby, all offering fun activities and the tranquillity of the great outdoors.
Just over a 45-minute drive from the city center is Ledges State Park, the most popular state park within the region attracting millions of visitors. Several structures built by the Civilian Conservation Corps are a must-see, including an arch stone bridge to a shelter in Oak Woods, stone trail steps, and a shelter in Lower Ledges. Don’t miss the canyon drive either, as the views are breathtaking!
What’s unique about Big Creek State Park is that it contains a ‘diversion dam’, which was primarily developed as a flood control project but also offers a wide variety of recreational activities, such as swimming, boating, and fishing. Camping is not permitted, but you can enjoy additional amenities such as picnic areas, a beach, playground, and a multi-purpose sports field.
Less than an hour’s drive east of the city is Rock Creek State Park, which offers plenty of recreational activities for you to spend your day enjoying. There are several trails for hiking, horseback riding, cross country skiing, and snowmobiling, as well as amenities for camping, swimming, boating, and fishing.
Located right on Iowa’s largest water body, Lake Red Rock, is the Elk Rock State Park, which is home to more than 50,000 acres of public land. The area has a rich Native American history and offers recreational activities such as camping (including an equestrian campground), multi-use trails, swimming, boating ,fishing, water skiing, snowmobiling, and more.
With lakeside camping, a stone lodge, and numerous recreational activities on offer, it’s no wonder that Lake Ahquabi State Park is a popular destination among residents and travelers. This scenic 770-acre park is just a 35-minute drive from the city and is named after a Sauk and Fox word meaning "resting place".
If you’re still looking to explore more of Des Moines by foot, then perhaps a hike in or outside of the city is in order? These trails don’t just offer magnificent views and natural scenery but are also the most popular walks within the area.
Located within the city is the Sycamore Trail, an 11.1 kilometer moderately trafficked loop trail which is suitable for all skill levels. The trail features a river and is very popular from March through to October. Look out for wildlife, such as birds and marine life along the way!
You’ll find this scenic trail at Gray’s Lake and it’s the perfect way to enjoy the picturesque lake by foot. The 3.4 kilometer trail can be accessed from the North or South entrances and it’s mostly flat and paved, making it easy for walkers of all levels.
This 4.3 kilometer moderately trafficked loop trail is also located right near the city and is rated as moderate. It’s known for its beautiful foliage and stunning wildflowers, offering an escape so close to the city. Keep an eye out for wildlife, such as chipmunks, and be aware that mountain bikers also share the trail.
Whether you’re craving a casual spot for lunch or the luxury of fine dining, Des Moines is filled to the brim with eateries worth noting. Here are our favorites!
Centro is one of the city’s most-renowned restaurants, featuring delicious Italian inspired food created by Executive Chef Jonathan Baker. With a casual and cool atmosphere, Centro prides itself on being an urban Italian eatery, as opposed to stuffy fine dining. Don’t miss their Portobello fries, Kill-Bill pork tenderloin sandwich, or handmade cavatelli.
Located in downtown Des Moines is the famous Zombie Burger and Shake Lab, a zombie themed eatery in a “post-apocalyptic chic” setting. With its three-cut beef burger blend, specially crafted artisan buns, and hand-mixed shakes, you won’t want to miss out on this delicious and totally unique dining experience.
With the motto “unapologetically Iowan”, The Iowa Taproom is certainly one place you can’t miss – whether you’ve lived in Iowa your whole life or are visiting from out-of-state. Here, you’ll find over 100 regional craft beers, as well as locally sourced American fare. The historic and industrial setting creates a unique atmosphere too.
What do you get when you combine an old-school Polynesian cocktail lounge and a red-sauce Italian joint? Fong’s Pizza, of course! This popular place combines flavors and inspiration from the Far East and the West, offering a foodie experience like no other. Try their famous and original Crab Rangoon Pizza, pizza rolls, or General Tso’s Chicken for something you’ll never forget.
For German fare and imported German beer on tap, a trip to Hessen Haus is well worth it. This place recreates the authentic atmosphere of an old-world German bier hall, instantly transporting you across the world. Along with live music, you’ll also find signature menu delights such as the Knock-Out Currywurst Burger and Jager Schnitzel.
Wondering “what’s next?” Well, when it comes to Des Moines’ attractions and activities, you’re only just getting started. Here are some of the most fun things on offer in and around the city!
If you and your family are looking for a way to pass the day, look no further than these fantastic activities.
There are currently 104 different animal species and 1,484 animal specimens cared for at the Blank Park Zoo. Along with seeing them up-close or watching displays with the rangers, you and your family can also enjoy activities such as train, carousel, or camel rides, as well as animal feeding encounters.
The Sleep Hollow Event Center has fun activities and accommodating facilities for all visitors – young and old. Here, you can enjoy activities such as golf, go-karts, laser tag, and more. There are also other parks within the complex, including a Snow Park featuring winter activities, a Renaissance Faire Park featuring one of the largest “castles” in America, and a Haunted Scream Park, which is the largest and most elaborate Halloween theme park in the Midwest.
What should you do in Des Moines once the sun goes down? We’re glad you asked! Here are our suggested night-time attractions.
Now, you might be thinking: why would I go to the Science Center at night? Well, the Science Center of Iowa runs fun Adult Programs at night, including a Mixology Workshop, where you can learn the art and science of mixing a craft cocktail, as well as Yoga Under the Stars every Monday (October through May) in the Star Theater Planetarium.
The 17,000-seat Wells Fargo Arena is your answer to some of the best entertainment the region has to offer. You can catch a game from a number of different sports teams, family shows, concerts, and other performances. Be sure to check the events page to see what’s on and grab your tickets!
Looking to save a dollar or two during your Des Moines excursion? There are plenty of activities and attractions that can be visited on a budget, helping you to get the most out of your time spent in the city.
Described as an urban oasis and living museum in the heart of Des Moines, the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden is not to be missed. Admission for non-members costs no more than $10 per person and you can enjoy 7 acres of natural beauty, including the outdoor gardens, Gardeners Show House, iconic geodesic tropical conservatory, café, gift shop, and more.
Where can you experience over 300 years of history within a single place? At the Living History Farms! This place tells the story of how Iowans transformed the fertile prairies of the Midwest into the most productive farmland in the world. As a 500-acre open-air museum, visitors travel at their own pace through historical time periods spanning 300 years. Admission costs $9.50 - $16.
If you’re looking to make the most out of your time spent in Des Moines, look no further than these recommended activities. They’re completely free!
The Iowa State Capitol building offers free self-guided and formal tours on Monday through Sunday. You can view the impressive interior and landscaped grounds, as well as watch an educational video, and more. There’s even a gift shop on-site!
The Des Moines Art Center is voted as one of the most impressive attractions within the city and it’s completely free to look around! Guided tours of the museum and the nearby Pappajohn Sculpture Park are also on offer, as are unique and ever-changing exhibits.
By now, you’ve probably been on your feet all day exploring the sights and delights that Des Moines has to offer. If you’re craving some rest and relaxation, or even a bit of pampering, these are two of the best spas in the region.
If you ask around the locals, they’ll all have one spa on their lips: Salon Spa W. They have an ever-growing list of past celebrity clients (does Barack Obama ring a bell?), but also offer affordable services for anyone who walks in their door, including hair treatments, facials, massage, manicures, pedicures, and more.
Are sore muscles ruining your Des Moines adventures? Treat yourself to one of the many, highly-rated massage services at Summer’s Massage Therapy – the locals swear by it! There’s everything from Pain Focus Therapy and Hot Stone Massage, to Deep Tissue, Massage Cupping, and more.
If rejuvenation for you is less about deep relaxation and more about sweating it out, then you’re in luck. Des Moines is home to some of the highest-rated gyms and yoga studios within the region.
The majority of classes at Power Life Yoga Barre Fitness are taught in a heated or semi-heated environment to help you get the most out of your workout. They offer a wide variety of classes to suit any fitness level (including kids’ yoga), all of which offer benefits such as stress reduction, increased blood circulation, detoxification, and improved sleep.
The Elite Edge Transformation Centers across Des Moines and West Des Moines help you to lose the weight and start a healthy lifestyle. They offer a free week, so you can really get to know if their gym services are right for you. Training sessions begin on the hour each day, every day, so there’s no excuse not to join in!
Looking to fulfill your wanderlust by heading outside of the region for a day? You could spend decades within Des Moines without barely scratching the surface of all there is to do in this large city, but consider these day trips next time you fancy a new adventure.
Less than an hour’s drive from Des Moines is Pella, a charming Dutch inspired region featuring delightful architecture, the Molengracht Canal, Vermeer Mill, and of course, tulips (when in season!). Although so close to the city, Pella will instantly transport you to a quaint Dutch town miles and miles away.
Just under a 3-hour drive from the city center is Backbone State Park, Iowa’s oldest state park and one of the highest points in Northeast Iowa. It’s also home to the “Devil’s Backbone,” one of the most popular hikes in the state, as well as other recreational activities such as water activities, rock climbing, and visiting the on-site Civilian Conservation Corps Museum.
As a final reminder, some of these activities may need to wait until businesses fully reopen from coronavirus closures. However, there is still much to see and experience in Des Moines that you can enjoy today! What are your favorite spots in Des Moines? Send them our way to [email protected] or by tagging us on Instagram @rvshare and using the hashtag #rvsharelocal.