When you think of Des Moines and art you might think, “Isn’t that where they have the famous State Fair butter cow?” Yes, we do, thanks for asking. But we also have a lot of non-dairy art too. As the home of the world-renowned Des Moines Arts Festival attracting more than 250,000 visitors every June, Greater Des Moines is a premier arts destination in the Midwest. Our arts festival won the Gold Grand Pinnacle Award for Best Festival in the World (not Iowa...the world). So, no matter your taste, there's something for everyone’s inner Bob Ross.
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Friday: Dinner and a show (Performing Arts)
Here in greater Des Moines, we take the performing arts seriously. Boasting several professional companies spanning numerous professional disciplines, you're sure to find your favorite type of performance or, even better, experience something new!
To kick off your creative weekend, we recommend dinner and a show for your Friday evening. To unwind after a week of work, you might choose to indulge in southern comforts like fried chicken and mint juleps at the beautifully decorated and impossibly charming Bubba. Or try a multi-course meal at the James Beard nominated Proof, where the food itself is an art form and is so pretty you’ll feel guilty eating it (don’t worry, the guilt fades after the first bite).
On with the show! There is no shortage of performing arts organizations on the menu:
Ballet Des Moines
Iowa's only resident ballet company presents world-class ballet performances that will have you tapping your toes in delight.
Des Moines Community Playhouse
One of the oldest and largest community theatres in the US, The Des Moines Community Playhouse presents a full season of musicals, dramas, comedies, and family shows each year. Popular past shows include "A Christmas Story, The Musical," "Sister Act," "Les Miserables," and 'Newsies."
Des Moines Metro Opera
Founded in 1973, Des Moines Metro Opera is a nationally recognized, progressive opera company that has taken its place among America's leading opera festivals (typically late June – July), putting on such spectacles as Sweeney Tood. Located in an appropriately charming and beautiful setting in Indianola.
Des Moines Performing Arts – Civic Center
Home to the Des Moines Symphony and the Willis Broadway Series, our Civic Center often punches above its weight, landing hit Broadway shows such as Hamilton, Book of Mormon, and Mean Girls before much larger cities.
Hoyt Sherman Place
A historic entertainment venue in the Sheman Hill neighborhood, Hoyt Sherman Place features a public art gallery and beautifully restored, 1,200 seat performance theater hosting musical and comedic performances. Famous artists such as Jason Isbell, Buddy Guy and Band of Horses have performed here.
Located in the Historic East Village, Wooly's is the top spot to catch up and coming artists and indie rockers. An intimate venue that can accommodate around 700 people, this is the place to go to sip some PBR by the bar and watch bands that will make you the coolest person at the watercooler.
Wells Fargo Arena
If the bombast of arena rock is more your thing, Wells Fargo Arena is the place to be. The largest venue in Iowa hosts national touring acts such as Elton John, Taylor Swift, Garth Brooks, and Cirque Du Soleil.
Cap the night with a nightcap at Revival House, Des Moines’ newest tiki bar, where the décor is pretty and the drinks are pretty tasty. The art of tiki drinks has never tasted so good.
Saturday: Experience local art
Start your Saturday like a local and peruse the local arts and craft vendors at the famous Downtown Des Moines Farmers' Market (open Saturday mornings May – October) with 25,000 of your new closest friends. Or if you’d prefer a more intimate experience, grab a cup of coffee and explore a local art gallery like Moberg Gallery which is as accessible and approachable as is inspiring. (We also recommend Liz Lidgett Gallery & Design, which has been featured on Apartment Therapy and Martha Stewart, but it’s closed on Saturday, so fit that into your Friday plans).
Next, your journey will take you to Mainframe Studios, a "coworking space for artists" and the largest nonprofit art studio building in the nation. Mainframe Studios pioneered a new model for providing permanent affordable workspace to artists of all disciplines. You'll meet artists representing a wide array of disciplines, from glass blowing to woodworking and interior design to stonework. Fun fact: Margo Nahas, who designed the iconic Van Halen ‘1984’ album cover, has a space here.
Head to Ankeny, where you'll become the artist! At AR Workshop, you can practice your brushstroke on a personalized wall hanging or learn how to knit a chunky blanket. Then grab a bite to eat at Yanni's Grill (Italian and Greek cuisine) or WineStyles Ankeny (flatbreads and small plates).
Spend the rest of your afternoon appreciating the many galleries and boutiques in Historic Valley Junction in West Des Moines. Be sure to dip into Artisan Gallery 218, an artist-owned contemporary fine art gallery featuring curated Iowa-made original art. The Gallery also offers a variety of creative classes, including painting and jewelry-making.
While exploring Historic Valley Junction, you might choose to dine at St. Kilda Collective, a full-service restaurant serving farm to table dishes, fresh-baked pastries, artisanal coffee drinks featuring Counter Culture Coffee, and a full bar serving cocktails, beer, and wine.
Sunday: A day on the art route
Grab a decadent coffee from the confectionary artisans at Chocolaterie Stam on Ingersoll before a stroll around the Rose Garden and sculpture collection just outside the architectural masterpiece that houses the Des Moines Art Center.
Once you step inside the Art Center, you can view rotating special exhibits and the permanent collection featuring world-renowned artists including Georgia O'Keeffe, Edward Hopper, Eva Hesse, Andy Warhol, and Jean-Michel Basquiat.
For lunch, head back downtown to sample dishes that are as beautiful as they are delectable. Blue Sushi Sake Grill downtown has the largest maki selection in town and a dish called Cherry Bomb (bigeye tuna atop rice tempura) that must be tried to be believed. Wasabi Chi is another downtown sushi joint that is a local favorite thanks to their tuna wonton tacos and rolls like the Marilyn Monroll.
Work off your lunch calories with a walk through the John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park, one of Iowa's most popular selfie spots. Located in the heart of downtown Des Moines, the Pappajohn Sculpture Park is home to 31 pieces from internationally acclaimed artists spread out over 4.4 acres and is considered one of the most significant outdoor collections of sculptures in the United States. The Park is also part of the Greater Des Moines Art Route, connecting 87 pieces of public art throughout the community, including dozens of Instagram-worthy murals.
To learn about the pieces you'll encounter along the Art Route, download the Greater Des Moines Public Arts Foundation's mobile app. The Foundation collaborates with artists and local entities to make Des Moines a world-class destination for public art. Be sure to check out pieces commissioned from diverse artists such as Monumental Journey and Shattering Silence.
Finish off your journey towards artistic enlightenment with a dinner at the award-winning Harbinger (multi-course deliciousness) or Alba (gnocchi please).
As you can see, we’ve got something for every taste, whether you prefer the Nomade or the Butter Cow...assuring that while taste is subjective, we’ll never go out of style. See the video on what makes the Greater Des Moines art scene so unique.
Need more travel inspiration? Check out the rest of The Catch List itineraries. And add ideas to your Des Moines bucket list with our Des Best lists and S’s Are Silent videos!