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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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…