There is no way that all the family fun in Greater Des Moines could be contained in a two-day itinerary. You’ll need multiple trips (or perhaps a summer) to fit in all of this merrymaking, so plan accordingly. Mix and match ideas to create various “funtineraries,” so that you’ll never have to hear your kids (or spouse) lament “I’m boooooooooored” ever again.
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An amusement park, water park, and underrated craft beer destination all in one! You’ll want to reserve a whole day (or two) for Iowa’s largest amusement park, with more than 100 rides, shows, and attractions for all ages, including popular coasters, The Monster, and Phoenix. Water park admission is included and features over a half dozen slides, a lazy river, wave pool, Kokomo Kove for the young kiddos, and a swim-up bar for the grownups. Rent a cabana in Adventure Bay to use as your home-base and stay at either Adventureland Inn or the adjacent campground to stay close to the action. Thrill rides and chill vibes abound!
Blank Park Zoo
Lions and tigers and red pandas, oh my! This 49-acre zoo on the south side of the city includes exhibits such as tigers, seals, lions, giraffes (that you can feed!), lemurs, red pandas, and rhinos (including a recent addition, baby Kamara). With add-ons like train rides, face painting, a carousel, and camel rides, we’re not lion when we say the fun is almost unbearable. Ok, we’ll stop.
Science Center of Iowa
Let’s be honest, virtual learning is exhausting. Take the kids to the Science Center of Iowa, where learning is REAL fun. Located in the heart of downtown, SCI includes permanent exhibits like Why the Sky? (space), Brick by Brick (LEGO), and What on Earth (zoology/geology), along with a host of cool traveling exhibits like the recent appearance by SUE: The T. rex Experience.
Living History Farms
We’re not all farms, you know, but the ones we do have are pretty epic. This interactive, 500-acre outdoor museum has four different farms that tell the story of Iowa’s 300-year-old history. Tour a 1700 Ioway Indian Farm, 1850 Pioneer Farm, 1900 Horse Powered Farm, and the 1876 Town of Walnut Hill. At the farms, you’ll find everything from milking cows to a blacksmith shop to old-timey baseball games. Each site is hosted and worked by historical interpreters. It’s literally acres of fun.
Lauridsen Skate Park
Looking for something with a bit of a WOW factor? Drop in to the new Lauridsen Skatepark, which has 88,000 square feet of skateable surface, making it the largest skatepark in the country! Situated along the Des Moines River on the north end of the downtown Principal Riverwalk, it includes Olympic caliber park and street courses, and features a promenade, flow bowl, amoeba pool, snake run and even a skakeable WOW sculpture. Did we mention it’s free? Home to world class events like the Dew Tour, your kids can skate where the pros skate. Or for the less coordinated, just throw down a blanket on the lawn and live vicariously through those who can really rip it.
Other family-friendly attractions:
Boone and Scenic Valley Railroad
Take a ride through spectacular scenery on a classic train car and learn about the history of railroading in Iowa. Season excursions transform trains into the Pumpkin Express in the fall and the Santa Express during the holidays.
You wake up from a fever dream in a cold sweat. You just dreamt of a bacon cheeseburger sandwiched between two giant deep-fried macaroni and cheese “buns.” And it was served with a milkshake that had Cinnamon Toast Crunch? This…this…can’t be real, can it? Zombie Burger. Making fever dreams come true since 2011.
Here in Des Moines, we’ve solved the age-old dilemma “Crab Rangoon or pizza?” by putting the Crab Rangoon directly on the pizza and serving it with a tiki drink and jet fighter helmet. See why celebrity chef Alton Brown called it “the best thing I ever ate.” Don’t worry—there are plenty of less exotic (but no less delicious) options for the pickier eaters in your brood. Check out our Des Best video featuring the famous pie.
A smashing good time will be had by all at Smash Park, home to Iowa’s largest outdoor patio. You need that large patio when offering pickleball, bocce ball, cornhole, shuffleboard, ping pong, foosball, giant Connect Four/Jenga, yard dice, AND beer pong. And we haven’t even gone inside yet, where there’s even more fun and games, plus loads of large-screen TVs and an underrated food and a drink menu. Try their specialty cocktails or “sociabowls” and pair them with a “Sheet Ton of Nachos,” a meatball bomber, or just eat the rest of your kid’s chicken strips when they get distracted by one of the games.
Another place that is just as awesome for parents as it is kids (if not more), The Hall is a German-style beer hall that offers four diverse food menus (German fare, burgers, pub fare, and pizza) and 54 taps of beer (and wine!) in a comfortable, cool atmosphere. It’s also home to one of the best patios in the metro and a whole bookshelf of games, including rock ‘em sock ‘em robots, for the kids and kids at heart.
Other family-friendly restaurants:
Jethro’s BBQ – Popular local BBQ chain with eight locations, each with a unique specialty (steaks, fish, pork chops, bacon, etc). Huge portions is an understatement.
Mullets – Fun riverside roadhouse with a two-tiered patio, views of downtown, something for everyone on the menu, and yes…photos of mullets on the wall.
Central Standard – Over a dozen types of burgers to choose from, a huge beer list for the parents, and milkshakes that come with sparklers. Need we say more?
El Fogon – Some of the best authentic Mexican food north of the border (the Iowa border at least). The kids can watch chefs make homemade tortillas up front while mom and dad sip on giant margaritas and plan their next date night.
Taki Steakhouse – Sit at the hibachi grill at this Japanese steakhouse and watch as the chefs prepare your steak, chicken, or shrimp feast tableside. The kids will love the flaming onion volcano and the spatula flips…the show is just as impressive as the food!
Iowa Taproom – The popular family-friendly bar and grill is nice and loud inside, so if your kids are loud, people will be none the wiser as you sample the 99 Iowa beers on tap.
Buzzard Billy’s - Cajun, creole, and American food in a fun atmosphere just a stone’s throw from Wells Fargo Arena if you find yourself there for a show or event.
Do your kids love pizza? Of course they do, they’re kids! Check out our list of Des Best pizza places in the metro for more ideas.
THINGS TO DO
Downtown Farmers' Market
No trip to Des Moines is complete without a visit to the #2 Farmers’ Market in America (Who’s #1? We’d like to file a grievance.) Every Saturday morning from May to October, you’ll find more than 300 vendors selling everything from produce, baked goods, and prepared foods to art, wine, and flowers. With live music, murals, and cute pups everywhere, this is possibly the best place to get a true taste of Des Moines!
Great Escape and Social Eats & Crafts
The Great Escape dubs itself as “The Ultimate Experience,” and who are we to argue? With 24 bowling lanes, laser tag, more than 50 arcade games, and virtual reality experiences, it really is the ultimate playground for both kids and adults. For those who would rather spectate with a cold beverage, Social Eats & Crafts is located onsite with more than 30 beers on draft and modern American cuisine like burgers, flatbreads, fish and chips, and salads.
Sleepy Hollow Adventure Park
In the spring, it’s a Renaissance Faire park themed out like an English village. In the summertime, it’s an event park with go-karts, batting cages, mini-golf, sand volleyball, inflatables, and laser tag. In the fall, it’s the Midwest’s largest Halloween Theme (Scream) Park. In the winter, it’s a snow park with sledding and tubing. Sleepy Hollow, is there anything you can’t do?
As the first and only “selfie museum” in Iowa (and one of only eight in the country), this is an immersive experience with 27 different “Instagram rooms,” where visitors can snap as many photos as they’d like to share on their feeds. Taking inspiration from places like the Museum of Ice Cream and The Color Factory, each room has a different theme, like a 50’s diner scene, a yellow room with a bike, and red room with a couch shaped like lips.
Other family-friendly things to do:
Urban Air – This place has a leg up on your average trampoline park. There’s a legendary ropes course, climbing wall, warrior course, dodgeball, battle beam, a tube indoor playground, and the main attraction, the Sky Rider (think zipline that zig-zags over all the other attractions). Phew. We’re worn out just from typing all that.
Climb Iowa – With locations in suburban Grimes and the East Village downtown, the fun at Climb Iowa rocks—literally. For first-time visitors, there’s a quick orientation before hitting the rock wall, and for locals, you can sign up for classes or even climbing leagues!
Glazed Expressions – Premiere do-it-yourself art studio in the metro with locations in Clive and Ankeny. Choose from more than 350 pottery pieces to paint or create your own candles.
Operating Room – Bar arcade in West Des Moines where you can console yourself with old school video games, pinball, and Skee-ball, along with craft cocktail slushies, pizza, and burgers.
Warrior Lanes – Fun that’s right up your alley with 16 lanes with automated bumpers (optional) on every lane and epic Extreme Glow Bowling on Friday and Saturday nights.
Des Moines Playhouse – One of the oldest and largest community theaters in the country, presenting musicals, classic plays, and a children’s theater series, along with classes and camps for kids.
AR Workshop – Unique DIY craft studio in Ankeny offering DIY to-go kits (wood, canvas textiles, paint, etc.), workshops, kids parties and camps, and even virtual parties!
Reiman Gardens – This enchanting 17-acre public botanical garden on the Iowa State campus features 26 distinct garden areas, including the always popular Christina Reiman Butterfly Wing, home to 800 live butterflies.
Bass Pro Shops – Yes, it’s an outdoor store, but did you know it’s also home to a bowling alley, antique store, aquarium, restaurant, and an entertainment center?
Rusty Stars Alpaca Farm – Hang out (for free!) with the world’s cutest animal, the alpaca. File under “things I didn’t realize I needed in my life.”
SEASONAL ATTRACTIONS AND EVENTS
Des Moines Arts Festival (late June)
One of the top art festivals in the entire country, this three-day celebration downtown has just as much fun stuff for the little ones as it does mom and dad. There is an entire Creativity Zone where littles can paint, draw, and do all sorts of arts and crafts. Not to mention there’s live music, the Sculpture Park, fountains to frolic in, and tons of food and beverage vendors (with plenty of ice cream options). Did we mention admission is free?
Iowa State Fair (mid-August)
The best state fair in the country happens every August right here in Des Moines. There’s fun for the whole family, with concerts, giant slides, amusement rides, animals, parades, contests, livestock competitions, and of course, more than 80 foods on a stick. This isn’t your typical fair. The Iowa State Fair is a bucket list item that
USA Weekend ranked ahead of Disneyland for summer fun. Your kids will indeed find solace in that fun fact.
Center Grove Orchard and Geisler Farms (September/October)
The top places for fall fun are Center Grove Orchard and Geisler Farms, where you experience a cornucopia of activities. From potato sack slides, corn mazes, and sunflower meadows to hayrides, pumpkin patches, and cider donuts, your Instagram will be creating some serious FOMO!
Holiday Festivals and Lights (November and December)
There are plenty of ways to spread holiday cheer as the temperatures drop and the holidays near. The East Village Promenade and Jingle in the Junction typically kick things off in their respective neighborhoods with shopping, carriage rides, caroling, and Santa! Then all month long, there are radiant light displays to check out, two of the biggest being Jolly Holiday Lights (the largest display in the State) at Adventureland and Santa’s Rock N’ Lights at Living History Farms. Find a full list of the best light displays in the metro.
PARKS AND OUTDOOR
You’ll be at home on the range at Jester State Park, one of Iowa’s favorite outdoor playgrounds. With hiking, equestrian activities, mini-golf, a nature center, a natural playscape, and elk and bison herds, you’ll feel like you got transported to an earlier time, minus the meager life expectancy.
Ledges State Park
If you want to hit the trails, we have plenty of good hiking, including one of the most popular places in Iowa, Ledges State Park. With sandstone cliffs and dense forests, you can soak in nature’s beauty and feel rejuvenated while your kids wade in the winding creek along Canyon Drive.
Seven Oaks provides all of the fun of a kayak or tube float without the hassle of planning and hauling. Take a seven-mile (2-4 hours) float down the Des Moines River Valley via canoe, kayak, or tube. You’ll go past animals, wildflowers, and under the highest double-track railway bridge in the world, and there are plenty of sandbars to explore and enjoy a picnic along the way. The best part, they coordinate the pickup and drop-off, so you only have to worry about snacks and beverages!
While we may not be the land of 10,000 lakes (34 actually, but who’s counting?), what we lack in quantity, we make up for in quality. Take Saylorville Lake, the most popular lake in Central Iowa; with 26,000 acres of boating, beaches, and lakeside bars, you’ll find something to float your boat whether you’re a nautical know-it-all or novice.
Other family-friendly outdoors activities:
High Trestle Trail - 25 miles of exploration, anchored by an illuminated bridge, and never far from a bite or brew.
Sculpture Park - 4.4 acres of awe-inspiring art and selfie opportunities.
Walnut Woods – Head to Walnut Woods in West Des Moines and walk along the river, collecting rocks. Then paint the rocks and hide them along the walking trail for others to find.
Walker Johnson Park – One of the largest parks in the metro, it’s home to tons of play structures with spider nets and wooden bridges for the little ones. There’s even a skate park and a giant in-ground slide.
Gray’s Lake – An urban oasis in the heart of the city with a 2-mile trail around the lake and a skyline backdrop. Just remember: Paddleboats are always a better idea in theory.
Clive Greenbelt – Eight miles of paved trails offering a string of trailside parks and fun twists and turns. And dangerously close to taco pizza at The Other Place.
Lake Ahquabi State Park – The place to go for fishing and camping, with an underrated beach known for its bright blue water.
For more ideas on outdoor adventures, check out our S’s Are Silent: Outdoors video or our Aquatic Adventures blog.
When in doubt, nothing beats a day at the old ballpark (or arena), so check out why Des Moines was voted “Top Minor League Market in America.”
Iowa Cubs – Catch a rising star (or a hot dog) with the Chicago Cubs AAA affiliate at beautiful Principal Park along the river.
Iowa Wild – The AHL affiliate of the Minnesota Wild. Come for the buzzer beaters, stay for the satisfying zen of watching a Zamboni clear the ice.
Iowa Barnstormers – The Indoor Football League team where Hall of Famer Kurt Warner got his start. The team won the league championship as recently as 2018.
Iowa Wolves – The NBA G-League team affiliated with the Minnesota Timberwolves and frequent home to Iowa, Iowa State, and UNI alumni.
Des Moines Menace – Soccer team that plays in USL League Two. Soccer has been anointed the “next big thing” here in Des Moines!
Drake Relays – Check out the premiere amateur track and field event in the US every May on the iconic blue oval.
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!