This post contains affiliate links. At no additional cost to you, I may earn a small commission if you book or purchase through these links. You can read my full disclosure policy here.Surprise! Love, Iowa. Read like a gift tag, this is kind of how I felt after my drive through the state of Iowa even with just a less-than-24-hour stop in Des Moines. Iowa turned out to be a darkhorse sleeper hit! I honestly didn’t expect such a beautiful, colorful city in Des Moines nor the unique attractions we found driving through! I enjoyed Des Moines so much I wish I had a couple more days to spend and plan on visiting again! Here are some fun things to do in Des Moines, Iowa!
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Iowa Fun Facts
- Sliced bread was invented by an Iowan
- Home to the world’s largest strawberry located in Strawberry Point
- Only state name that starts with two vowels
- John Wayne (famous actor) was born in Iowa in 1907
- Iowa State University is the nation’s largest land-grant college
- Quaker Oats in Cedar Rapids is the largest cereal company in the world
- Ime’s Bridge is the oldest of the six bridges in Madison County
- Elk Horn is the largest Danish community in the USA
- Kalona is the largest Amish community west of the Mississippi
- Fenlon Place Elevator in Dubuque is the world’s steepest and shortest railway
Read the entire 50 Iowa fun facts list!
Road to Des Moines
On our way to Des Moines from Omaha, Nebraska, we stopped in Elk Horn, Iowa. One of the two largest rural Danish settlements in the United States, it is also home to the only authentic and operating Danish windmill in the entire country.
Since I had just visited Denmark a few months prior, I was excited to see the windmill. Unfortunately, we arrived to find that the “mills were off the wind” as I put it. Although the windmill was undergoing renovations when we were there, it should now be fully restored!
Make sure you don’t miss the bronze bust of Hans Christian Andersen and the Morning Star Chapel. The “tiny church” is only 6 feet by 8 feet with four small pews. Both are right there beside the windmill!
TIPS: Explore the nearby Museum of Danish America while you’re there. Also in the neighboring town of Kimballton, there is a replica of Copenhagen’s Little Mermaid Statue.
When I was researching this trip, I came across this smiling water tower and knew we had to find it. Located in Adair, Iowa, “Ol’ Smiley” was erected in 1979 and definitely makes you smile! 🙂
Things to Do in Des Moines Iowa
High Trestle Trail Bridge
I was quite possibly most excited about seeing the High Trestle Trail Bridge. The half-mile-long bridge is part of the 25 mile High Trestle Trail. Towering 13 stories high, the bridge crosses the Des Moines River.
Each side of the bridge is marked with two 36 foot monuments that represent coal veins in limestone deposits.
The 41 steel frames are meant to convey what it’s like to descend into a mine shaft-a tribute to Iowa’s mining history. While you can access them day or night, they are most known for how they light up at night!
You should know that the trail is 0.9 miles EACH way to the bridge and another 0.25 miles on the bridge itself to reach the section that lights up. There are 2-3 small inclines but nothing major and one of the inclines has steps built in on the side. While it’s wooded, it is a gravel/dirt trail until you climb those steps, and then it’s a smoothly paved sidewalk to the bridge.
TIPS: While I highly recommend visiting at night for the visual, please be aware that it isn’t easily accessed. There are a couple of parking lots located on Qf Lane which GPS didn’t pick up for us (see map below). We parked in the one closest to the bridge that seemed to be a trailhead parking lot. If you are approaching the bridge from the east, Qf Lane is a left turn off of 334th Road approximately 3/4 mile BEFORE you cross the water (paralleling High Trestle Trail Bridge). It’s a dirt road and will have a “Road Dead Ends” sign. Both parking lots will be on the right.
Iowa State Capitol Complex
Known for having one of the prettiest in the nation, a stop to see the Iowa State Capitol is a must.
View of downtown Des Moines from the Capitol
The dome is gorgeous. Here is a view of it from the front and the back. As you can see, the weather performed a dramatic clearing act while we were there!
It isn’t just a Capitol building as there’s a whole complex to walk around containing a plethora of monuments and memorials. I’ve featured a few of them below.
Grand Army of the Republic
The Grand Army of the Republic was an organization comprised of veterans of the Union Army, Union Navy, Marines and Revenue Cutter Service who served in the Civil War. It dissolved in 1956 when the last member passed away. There are many GAR memorials all over the United States.
Abraham Lincoln and Tad Statue
The Abraham Lincoln and Tad Statue is the only statue that celebrates President Lincoln as a father versus a president. Des Moines couple, Fred and Mabel Torey, sculpted the statue and it was dedicated on November 19, 1961, the 98th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address.
Korean War Memorial
Located on the south side of the Capitol, the Korean War Memorial features a 14-foot obelisk in the center with eight 6-foot statues surrounding it depicting the story of the Korean War.
Revolutionary War Monument
The Iowa Revolutionary War Monument commemorates the 39 veterans of the Revolutionary War who are buried in Iowa. There are 13 granite pillars that represent the 13 original colonies. The pillar in the center includes inscriptions of the names, birthplaces and burial locations of each veteran.
Shattering Silence Memorial
The Shattering Silence Memorial commemorates the times Iowans have taken a stance to break their silence against inequality and injustice. It specifically commemorates the 170th anniversary of the 1839 Iowa Territorial Supreme Court ruling that prohibited slave Ralph Montgomery from being extradited back to Missouri after he failed to produce the $550 to buy his freedom.
Soldiers and Sailors Monument
The Soldiers and Sailors Monument commemorates Iowans who fought in the Civil War.
Iowa Vietnam Memorial
Dedicated in 1984, the Iowa Vietnam War Memorial is very similar to the one in Washington, DC.
Statue of Liberty Replica
This mini replica of the Statue of Liberty was one of 200 erected by the Boy Scouts of America in 1950. There is also a mini replica of the Liberty Bell nearby.
How cool is this reflection of the Capitol?
As you can see, there is plenty to do around the Iowa State Capitol!
Iowa Holocaust Memorial
Just a short walk from the Capitol is the Iowa Holocaust Memorial.
The relatively new memorial was constructed in 2013 and is comprised of four walls of engraved aluminum commemorating the millions (including 6 million Jews) murdered by the Nazis in World War II.
It also expresses gratitude to the Iowans in the US Armed Forces who fought to liberate the concentration camps in 1945 as well as to honor the survivors who came to Iowa.
Quite an emotional, thought-provoking moment. It is still inconceivable for me that this occurred. As I’ve mentioned in other posts, there should never have had to be a memorial for this because it’s a horrid act that never should have been committed.
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Pappajohn Sculpture Park
Open since September 2009, the Pappajohn Sculpture Park is a 4.4-acre park featuring sculptures by 22 of the world’s most famous artists.
Each piece of artwork is quite unique. I’m going to start with my favorite!
The Panoramic Awareness Pavilion by Olafur Eliasson | Denmark
Nomade by Jaume Plensa | Spain
White Ghost by Yoshitomo Nara | Japan
Back of Snowman, White and Black by Gary Hume | Great Britain
Thinker on a Rock by Barry Flanagan | Wales
Air Gets Into Everything Even Nothing by Ugo Rondinone | Switzerland
Moonrise, east.august and Moonrise, east.january by Ugo Rondinone | Switzerland
I thoroughly enjoyed walking around looking at all the different artwork. I like imagining what thought processes might go through the artist’s mind and what their personalities might be like.
Robert D. Ray Asian Gardens
Built by the Chinese Cultural Center of America, the Robert D. Ray Asian Gardens includes a Chinese pagoda, pond, landscaped gardens, handcrafted lights, and granite pillars. Each of the six pillars is inscribed with Chinese characters representing responsibility, citizenship, fairness, respect, caring, and trustworthiness.
Views from both sides of the pagoda
The Gardens not only honor contributions of Asian Americans to Iowa, but also the former Governor, Robert D. Ray, who governed from 1969-1983 and passed in 2018.
Governor Ray was the first public official in the United States to offer a safe haven to the endangered Vietnamese “Boat People”. He created Iowa SHARES to send medicine and food to Cambodia and kept the Tai Dam of Laos intact as people and culture by arranging for them to settle in Iowa. This is truly amazing work!
View of downtown Iowa, the Des Moines River and the Women of Achievement Bridge from the Asian Gardens
Women of Achievement Bridge
The $10 million dollar Women of Achievement Bridge is a pedestrian bridge along the Principal Riverwalk. It was a gift to Des Moines in celebration of the 125th anniversary of Principal Financial Group.
There were only four names added to the bridge initially in 2013.
Carrie Chapman Catt-one of the leaders of the American women’s suffrage movement
Louise Noun-philanthropist, civil rights activist, patron of the arts
Sister Bernadine Pieper-nationally renowned scientist and educator
Gertrude Elzora Durden Rush-first African-American woman to practice law in the state of Iowa
In June 2019, names will be added to the bridge for the first time since 2013.
Rotary Riverwalk Park
As soon as you cross the bridge (if coming from the side of the Asian Gardens), don’t miss the fishing-themed playground at Rotary Riverwalk Park. It apparently lights up at night too!
Where To Eat
Since we were in Des Moines less than 24 hours, I only hit up two places to eat. Looking back now, I apparently went with a quirky, humorous theme. 😉
Zombie Burger + Shake Lab
We checked out Zombie Burger for a very casual dinner. They describe themselves as “a post-apocalyptic-chic eatery with GOREmet burgers and shakes”. 😃
I got The Walking Ched (don’t you love these names? 😜). It consisted of a breaded and deep-fried mac n cheese bun, cheddar cheese, caramelized red onion, mac n cheese, and mayo. So, yes you need to be a cheese lover and clearly, I am.
It was really good! Really rich, but quite yummy! Not a fan of that much cheese? No problem, check out their other GOREmet burgers here.
I followed The Walking Ched up with the Zombie Unicorn shake. It had vanilla ice cream, marshmallow cream, and Fruity Pebbles. If that isn’t your thing, they have many other types of shakes.
TIPS: Come with an appetite. They have vegan options as well as soups and salads if you are eating light.
Hurts Donut Company
For breakfast the next morning, we grabbed a donut from Hurts Donut Company. Okay so maybe it was more like three donuts, but who is counting? Besides, it’s a road trip. Snacks required, right? 😉
They are known for their gigantic donuts and their sense of humor which they put into the names of their donuts.
Among the options were the Slim Shady, Bart Simpson, Grape Balls of Fire and Tang You’re It!
We tried out the Cotton Candy
the Cookie Monster and…
the Starry Starry Night!
Just when I thought their sense of humor only applied to their donuts, I saw this. Look closely at the restrooms sign. I can honestly say this was a first for me and I thought it was pretty funny!
Where To Stay
Stoney Creek Hotel & Conference Center
We opted to stay north of the city since we went to the High Trestle Trail Bridge and we were driving back to Minneapolis the next day. The Stoney Creek Hotel was a great mid-range option and the corner room they gave me was quite spacious.
I loved the lodge feel!
Uber is in Des Moines! Get your first ride free here or use code: heathert7463ue!
Okay, who’s interested in visiting Des Moines now? Bet you didn’t think (just like I didn’t) all this would be in Iowa, right? And now you know why I started the post with “Surprise! Love, Iowa”. There are other beautiful places to visit in Iowa along with Des Moines!
Not sure about you, but I definitely loved Iowa.
Hey Des Moines, I hear you and I consider myself “tagged it”. I’ll be back…and it will be my turn to say “Surprise!” Oh and one more thing Des Moines…thanks. Love, Heather.
Have you been to Des Moines? See why I call it the darkhorse? I have already started a list of more things I want to see when I return. Please let me know below if you have anything to add to it!
‘Til next time…
Leave a Reply - I Love Comments!
Loved seeing your take on my hometown! As I’m sure you’re aware, you barely scratched the surface of everything we have to offer. You should come back in the summer and check out the Farmer’s Market, Iowa State Fair, Living History Farms, Blank Park Zoo and so much more! We are full of surprises and hope you’ll be back soon!
Hi Krystal-Oh yes, I’m highly aware I only scratched the service. That’s why I want to go back! There is so much to do and I enjoyed visiting! Thanks for reading! 🙂
Jerry and Fiona says
We’ve read what a sleeper hit Des Moines is and you have definitely conformed it! Love these posts on the more obscure cities and towns.
There is some great public art installations here and the Asian Gardens would be our second stop, after a visit to Zombie Burger AND the appropriately-named Hurts Donut Company.
Hi Jerry and Fiona-Haha, it is appropriately named isn’t it? I’m with on loving posts about the lesser-known cities and towns. You never know what you’re going to find and you just might fall in love with it! Thanks for reading! 🙂
Jenn and Ed Coleman says
I am always surprise at how much Iowa reminds me of Ohio. When I first moved to Seattle people were like “you’re from Iowa” and I was like “ahhh, no I’m from Ohio.” We are a four letter state that starts with a vowel, grows a lot of corn, has Amish, large land grand universities, and home to famous cowboys (Zane Grey). Completely different from Iowa dude.
On my great escape west I actually spent the night under that water tower in Adair. The city of Adair has free camping at the city center (or did thirty years ago) so we just pulling under the smiling ball and settled in for the night.
Hi Jenn and Ed-I had no idea that Ohio and Iowa could confuse people, but I don’t have that much experience with either one of them. A lot of the things you listed makes them sound familiar. Particularly their 4-letters long names-starting (and ending) with vowels. How cool that you camped out underneath the Adair water tower! There is a park with sheltered picnic tables nearby so I’m curious as to whether or not camping under the Smiley is still allowed. Thanks for reading! 🙂
The Holidaymaker says
I have never been, but looks like it has a lot to offer for those that visit. The capital buildings are beautiful with the domes and love the art displays throughout the parks. Thanks for sharing.
Hi! Hope you get to visit one day and thanks for reading! 🙂
I must admit, Iowa has never been on my must-see list. I didn’t know anything about it, to be honest. I love that there is so much art, and all the beautiful memorials! Des Moines looks like a lovely little city – you’ve certainly done a great job showcasing it!
Hi Dani-It wasn’t on my list either honestly. But I was finishing up the last 5 of the US States left on my list and it was the last one I visited in those 5. It had so much cool stuff going on. I’m hoping more people visit because it’s definitely a sleeper hit. Thanks for reading! 🙂
Sandy N Vyjay says
Des Moines, Iowa is nothing short of a revelation. There is so much to see and experience in this lovely place. I am loving everything the place has to offer right from the bust of one of my favourites as a child, Hans Christian Andersen’s bust to the cute and teeny-weeny church. From the cotton candy and doughnuts to the Asian Gardens. Would love to visit Iowa.
Hi Sandy-I mean, who knew Iowa had so much packed into such a small state? They are the best-kept secret ever and I’m doing my best to blow their cover! Hope you get to visit soon and thanks for reading! 🙂
Melody PIttman says
Leave it to you to show me all the cool things I missed on my Des Moines trip!! I missed all of those cool monuments and memorials, plus that donut shop has me already planning a return visit…and I was just in Iowa a month ago!!
Hi Melody-Well, now I want to see where all you went to see what I missed. Des Moines just has it going on and I can’t wait to go back. Would love to hear about anything I should put on my return list! Thanks for reading! 🙂
Carmen Edelson says
Okay, Des Moines was never on my list but it sure is now! Those bridges look spectacular and I love that adorable chapel. Thank you for sharing and pointing out some hidden gems! Now I want donuts… 😉
Hi Carmen-Yes, Des Moines is just hiding all kinds of goodness from the rest of the world! And yes, isn’t life always better with donuts?? Thanks for reading! 🙂
I LOVE how much you packed into this post. There is SO much to do in Iowa. I find that folks are really nice too. The problem with living in Iowa is it is easy to forget just how much you can do. This post has me building a list for this next spring!
In addition to nature, there are some really fantastic spas, music venues, shows, etc. Right now I am loving the “big city” offerings that places like Timeless Tan and the West Glen Spa are offering.
Hi Ricardo-I’m so glad you liked the post. There truly is a lot to do in Des Moines! Hope you have a great time checking out the list this spring and thank you for the spa suggestions! Thanks for reading! 🙂