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Free Things to Do in Greater Des Moines 

In Greater Des Moines, we pride ourselves in being affordable (and fun!) no matter what activity you choose to do. But whoever said “Nothing in life is free” clearly hasn’t been to Des Moines. There are a whole host of ways to experience Des Moines without spending a dime...or at least, less dimes than you’d spend in other cities.  


Free Arts Activities 

The Des Moines Art Center boasts outstanding exhibitions and an important collection with a major emphasis on contemporary art. The collection is housed in three striking buildings, each designed by a world-renowned architect. Admission to the Des Moines Art Center museum is free with advanced and day-of reservations. Just outside the Art Center, visitors can appreciate numerous sculptures on the facility's grounds and the Claire and Mile Mills Rose Garden in neighboring Greenwood Park.  

Pack a picnic and spend a sunny afternoon at the Pappajohn Sculpture Park. Here you'll be inspired by dozens of works from internationally recognized arts right in the heart of downtown Des Moines. The 4.4-acre park offers plenty of room to spread out and enjoy throwing a frisbee for fido.   

Another hidden gem is Hoyt Sherman. Not only is it a beautiful concert and theater destination, but it also has an Art Gallery and Museum as well. It's open weekdays from 9 a.m. — 5 p.m., and guided tours are available!

Greater Des Moines is a renowned arts destination in the Midwest. Art Route Des Moines unites 87 pieces of public art with an artful access path designed on city sidewalks and intersections. Think, "Follow the Yellow Brick Road," where the sidewalk is painted with circles and chevrons leading to world-class sculptures, murals, and architecture — free for all to enjoy.  

For even more public art opportunities throughout the metro, take a tour of popular and inspiring murals...and of course, use #CATCHdsm when you post the obligatory selfie.  

Free East Village  

Spend a day exploring the Historic East Village, anchored by the majestic Iowa State Capitol. Frequently noted as one of the most beautiful capitol buildings in the country, the Iowa State Capitol overlooks downtown Des Moines with an impressive 23-karat gold plated dome. Free guided or self-guided tours are offered of the Iowa State Capitol and the famous law library Monday – Saturday. 

Just across the street from the capitol, visitors are invited to the State Historical Museum of Iowa. Guests can explore three floors showcasing Iowa's accomplishments, contributions, and heritage. The free museum features Hollywood in the Heartland, a blockbuster exhibit celebrating Iowa's movie legacy, and The First in the Nation exhibit detailing the significance of the Iowa caucuses and the role Iowans play in selecting presidential nominees. 

Also located in the East Village is the Robert D Ray Asian Gardens. The Garden, located downtown along the Des Moines River, is a tribute to Robert D. Ray, who served as Iowa's governor from 1969 to 1983. Ray was the first public official in the United States to offer a safe haven for the endangered Vietnamese "Boat People." The free, public gardens are a celebration of diversity within the community.  

Free Downtown  

Get around downtown Des Moines easily using DART's D-line shuttle. The free D-Line runs in a loop every 15 minutes, providing service from the East Village to the Western Gateway. Just hop on the bus at any of the stops – no fare needed! Look for bus stops labeled with D-Line along Grand Avenue and Locust Street.  

Take the D-Line to the Des Moines River for a leisurely stroll along the Principal Riverwalk. The Principal Riverwalk is a recreational park district featuring a 1.2-mile trail and two pedestrian bridges connecting the east and west sides of downtown. The Riverwalk provides access to an outdoor ice skating rink, an amphitheater, and will soon be the home of the Lauridsen Skatepark, set to be the largest skatepark in the nation.  

Just south of downtown is Gray's Lake park. The park features a walking and biking path surrounding the lake, a public beach, and picnic areas. Visitors will enjoy watching the lively park activity and walking over the beautifully lit bridge with views of the Des Moines skyline.  

Parks, trails, beaches, and splash pads 

Greater Des Moines is home to many beautiful parks, an 800-mile connected trail system, and several public beaches and waterwaysHigh Trestle Trail, Jester Park, Saylorville Lake and Ledge State Park are just a few of our faves. The City of Des Moines operates and maintains numerous splash pads and spray grounds.  

Museums for All 

Visit the Greater Des Moines Botanical Gardens as part of the Museums for All program. Simply present an EBT card and a valid ID and receive unlimited free admission for up to four people during regular operating hours. 

Free Events 

  • Des Moines Downtown Farmers' Market - May - October 
  • Parades (St. Patrick's Day, Independence Day, Capital City Pride, Iowa State Fair) 
  • Live Horse Racing at Prairie Meadows Racetrack Casino Hotel  
  • CelebrAsian - May 
  • Yankee Doodle Pops – July 3 
  • Des Moines Arts Festival – June 
  • World Music and Music Festival – September 
  • Latino Heritage Festival - September  
  • East Village Holiday Promenade - December 
  • Jingle in the Junction – November/December 

Explore more free things to do.

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!