In Des Moines, our Midwestern humility is a blessing and a curse. It keeps us grounded, but also keeps us a best-kept secret (or so we’re told). Within the confines of our little best-kept secret are several hidden gems (this is very meta) that our followers weren’t afraid to blow the lid off. You’re probably familiar with the Greatest Hits, but here are some of the Des Moines deep tracks that are too good not to share.
If you end up on every local's hidden gem list, are you really a hidden gem? Discuss. Such is the case with Simon's, who serves up dishes like Steak de Burgo and Chicken Florentine in a cozy and inviting space with customer service to spare (count on Simon swinging by your table to check on you). Their complimentary red velvet cake is also one of the worst-kept (and most delicious) secrets in town.
What's a kolache?" you may ask incredulously. Hold onto your hat, we would warn, as you're about to have your mind and taste buds blown. A staple in Texas, these savory pastries were brought to Des Moines courtesy of former Cyclone football player (and Houston native) Brent Curvey. Think fresh pastry dough filled with egg, sausage, cheese and jalapeno. We assume you've stopped reading by now to go get one (or five).
Angry Goldfish Pub & Eatery
Angry Goldfish is the kind of neighborhood joint that the phrase "hidden gem" was coined to describe. It's family-friendly, cool without trying too hard (dig the reclaimed wood and Makers Mark lamps), and the food is familiar yet consistently creative. Try the tenderloin with Sriracha Goldfish breading or Bruschetta Chicken Sandwich to see what we're talking about.
Formerly a popular food truck called "The Spot," The Walnut is located in a converted 1920's garage and serves up American fare like the popular Royal Bird sandwich, which turns "it tastes like chicken" into "IT TASTES LIKE CHICKEN!"
Francie's Bar & Grill
This southside gem is another neighborhood fave of locals in the know, who love their patty melts, Italian grinders, pints of Guinness, and waitresses who call you "hon."
Sonny’s Pizza Bistro
One follower called it “the best pizza outside of Sicily”. Have they actually been to Sicily? Hard to tell. But this family-owned Northside favorite is the kind of place that the term “pizza joint” was coined for and they serve a mean martini as well.
If there were a dive bar equivalent to Simon's, it would be Carl's. Carl's seems to be everyone's favorite dive bar, from townies and hipsters to international media and politicians come Caucus time. Surprisingly spacious, it's a great place to play pool or darts, listen to a band, or watch a game saddled up to the bar while enjoying the underrated craft beer list.
Cooney's has everything you'd expect from your favorite dive bar. Dimly lit, cash only, fireplace, free popcorn, Guinness on tap. It's the kind of Irish bar that actually feels authentically Irish, and not just the "we have green beer on St. Patrick's Day" kind of Irish.
When you're located in the heart of downtown, it seems counter-intuitive that you could be a hidden gem, but this blink-and-you-miss-it bar across from Fong's Pizza fits the bill. Serving up the best martinis in town and craft beer in a dark space that feels like something out of a Tim Burton movie, with local art adorning the walls, this place has corned the "creepy comfortable cool" market (or perhaps created it).
The Bartender's Handshake
The Bartender's Handshake is the type of place that manages to feel both intimately familiar and vaguely exotic at the same time, serving up handcrafted cocktails in a decidedly unpretentious fashion. The Bartender's Handshake wouldn't be out of place in Brooklyn, with its midcentury modern motif and AstroTurf patio (where you can roast your own S'mores). Unlike Brooklyn, the bartenders here will smile!
Ken's bills itself as "a not-so-secret speakeasy." Still, considering it opened during a pandemic, we're going to make an executive decision and let it qualify (besides, isn't “hidden gem” the very point of a speakeasy?). Located in the basement of the Iowa Taproom, they nail the speakeasy vibe, from the dark wood to the Templeton Rye whiskey barrels on the walls. But what you're here for is the bourbon, gin rickey, or Brandy Old Fashioned.
When it comes to #lakestuff, Saylorville and Gray's Lake tend to hog the spotlight. But tucked away on the southeast side of Des Moines is the criminally underrated Easter Lake, a beautiful and peaceful lake with all the same amenities and loads of charm to boot. With kayak or pontoon rentals, a swimming beach, a picnic area, and a 4-mile path around the lake that goes under an Instagram-able covered bridge, it's the gorgeous getaway you didn't know you needed in your life.
Yellow Banks Park
Head east to Pleasant Hill and check out Yellow Banks Park, with 140-foot tall bluffs offering breathtaking views of the Des Moines River and countryside. The quiet trails are an excellent option for family hikes, and the 60+ camping sites provide a tranquil escape and spectacular stargazing.
You don't have to be a tree nerd to enjoy the lush open spaces at Brenton Arboretum in Dallas Center. With rolling hills, a pond, tall prairie grass, a natural playground, and a labyrinth (not this one), it feels like something out of a movie (or Bob Ross painting). It also gets our vote for the best place to take your pup or family photos.
Parents feel like if they've seen one park, they've seen them all. But Union Park has a way of bringing out the kid in all of us. Maybe it's the giant metal rocket slide (lift your thighs on a hot day!) from the late '60s, or the Heritage Carousel, which is still just 50 cents per ride (love those 60's prices!). Pro-tip: you can even rent out the carousel for birthday parties or family outings.
Rusty Stars Alpacas
Well folks, we did it. Hang the "Mission Accomplished" banner. We found the world's cutest animal, the alpaca. And there's a whole host of them down in Winterset, Iowa, just waiting to populate your social media feed. Visit on Saturdays (it's FREE) from 10 am – 4 pm to cuddle with your new furry best friend and pick up an alpaca fur hat, scarf or pair of socks at the gift shop afterward.
Badger Creek State Park
Sunflower Fields – Here comes the sun(flower). Chances are, if you live around Des Moines or know someone that does, you've seen the bright yellow sunflowers at Badger Creek in your Instagram feed. Starting in July, everyone from wannabe influencers to families with kids in tow head down to Van Meter to nab a photo among the four-acre sunflower field at Badger Creek State Park. Put the petal to the metal though…they only last until the end of August.
Civic Center Tours
Here in Des Moines, we got shows like Hamilton and Dear Evan Hansen before many cities twice our size. (That's not a humblebrag, just a regular brag). Now you can see where Aaron Burr warms up his vocal cords and what it feels like to perform from the pit with a behind-the-scenes tour of Iowa's most iconic performing arts venue, the Des Moines Civic Center. The tour lasts an hour, and it's free. If that's not enough to make you do jazz hands, what are we even doing here?
Starting in the Spring each year, head down to Cumming, Iowa, and get fresh produce and food from the vendors at Middlebrook Farm. But this is no ordinary small-town farmer's market. It's part of a larger "agrihood" – a community of 1,000 homes build around a working farm and community gardens. Still evolving, it's a gathering space that hosts events and interactive opportunities throughout the summer and will be connected to the community via pedestrian trails and main-street-style parking. It's as charming as it sounds.
Tucked away in Merle Hay Mall is Iowa's first Instagram pop-up museum, Selfie Wrld. Featuring over 27 Instagrammable rooms such as a retro 50's diner scene, a sultry red room with a lip-shaped couch and a ball pit, it's already started to draw people from across the country, spurred by a TikTok video that was viewed over 1.3 million times. We can't guarantee that you'll go viral, but we can guarantee a good time and, at the very least, a new profile pic.
If you've got a taste for history and the macabre, check out Iowa's oldest cemetery, Woodland Cemetery. Predating even Des Moines' days as the state capitol, it was established in 1848 and contains 80,000 graves, including most of the city's founding fathers. If you're deceased and have a building, street, or school named after you in Des Moines, odds are that you're buried here. The City of Des Moines occasionally offers historical tours, which are well worth it, but if you go, you may want to visit by sunlight. We're not saying it's haunted…but we're not NOT saying that either.
Need more travel inspiration? Check out the rest of The Catch List itineraries here. And add ideas to your Des Moines bucket list with our Des Best lists and S’s Are Silent videos!