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History Buff

Discover the unique stories of influential people and the (sometimes literal) groundwork they laid to build Greater Des Moines into the rich cultural destination it is today. From helping escaped slaves on the path to freedom to establishing the “Nobel Prize of food,” early Des Moines leaders left incredible legacies and a challenge to future generations to continue to support the advancement of the region.

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Museums

State Historical Museum
With three floors showcasing Iowa’s accomplishments, contributions, and heritage across 99 counties, experience our state’s rich history through exhibits and artifacts. Popular exhibits include Hollywood in the Heartland, Iowa and the Civil War, and Iowa History 101. Open Tuesday through Friday, admission is free! 

World Food Prize
Situated along the Principal Riverwalk in downtown Des Moines, the World Food Prize Hall of Laureates housed in the former Central Library building was constructed in 1903 as part of the City Beautiful movement. The Hall of Laureates serves as a museum to recognize the importance of food sustainability and the fight against hunger. Featuring stunning artwork alongside interactive displays on hunger and food security, the museum is a popular location for events, conferences, and weddings. 

Historic Jordan House
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1973, the Jordan House is an official site on the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom. The 1850s Victorian located in West Des Moines is one of five preserved underground railroad stops in Iowa. The Jordan House's 16 rooms tell the history of its builder, James C. Jordan, one of Iowa's earliest settlers.

Bennet School Museum
Built in 1926, the Bennett School was one of the last one-room schools to be built in West Des Moines and was in use until at least 1941. The school was eventually sold, remodeled slightly, and used as a private home for a number of years before being donated to the West Des Moines Historical Society by its final owners. 

Historic Swanson House & Clive Depot
The Clive Historical Society manages the Swanson House, Clive Depot, and railroad caboose properties all located together. This is the historic center of Clive which was platted in 1882. The Swanson House served as a general store and post office for the period from 1911 to 1929. 

Living History Farms
Living History Farms tells the amazing story of how Iowans transformed the fertile prairies of the Midwest into the most productive farmland in the world. While at the 500-acre open-air museum, visitors travel at their own pace through four different historical sites with time periods spanning 300 years. On-site interpreters provide a unique learning environment of seasonal activities and demonstrations. A specific interest may be the Flynn Mansion. Built in 1870 by Martin and Ellen Flynn, this Victorian Italianate home is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

John Wayne Birthplace Museum
Head down to picturesque Winterset to see the birthplace of “Duke,” the most famous cowboy who ever lived. The John Wayne Birthplace Museum is located adjacent to his childhood home and features original movie posters, wardrobe, letters, artwork, and more. You can even relax inside the museum’s movie theater and catch a John Wayne flick. 

Boone & Scenic Valley Railroad
All aboard! Make your way to Boone and take a ride through spectacular scenery on a classic train car and learn about the history of railroading in Iowa at the museum. Come wintertime, the train turns into the “Santa Express” and goes all the way to the North Pole (wink wink)!

Attractions and Landmarks 

Iowa State Capitol
As the only five-domed capitol in the country, and covered in 23-karat gold, it’s not a stretch for us to say it’s the most beautiful and ornate capitol building in the country. Completed in 1886, it is decorated with 29 different types of marble and includes 100 rooms, including the magnificent law library, which is the most photographed room in the state. Open Monday – Saturday, both guided and self-guided tours are available. 

Terrace Hill
When construction of Terrace Hill was completed in 1869, it was Des Moines’ tallest home owned by its wealthiest man. Now a stunning example of Victorian Second Empire architecture, the 18,000-square-foot building serves the dual purpose of the official governor’s residence and a National Historic Landmark.

Salisbury House
This historic house museum is a 42-room estate surrounded by nine acres of beautiful gardens and woodland. It was built from 1923-1928 by cosmetic pioneer and Iowa native, Carl Weeks. Come tour this exquisite American estate and its diverse collections of art, literature, and worldly treasurers. 

Hoyt Sherman Place
Nestled on the eastern edge of the historic Sherman Hill district in Des Moines, Hoyt Sherman Place boasts one of Des Moines' most magnificent entertainment, banquet, and meeting facilities. Built in 1877 by prominent pioneer businessman Hoyt Sherman, the elegant family home is graced with marble fireplaces, parquet floors, and a carved mahogany entryway. The building also includes an impressive and elegant art gallery as well as a 1,400-seat theater that has hosted luminaries like Hellen Keller, Amelia Earhart, and Grant Wood. Take a tour of this magnificent site or visit during a show. 

Bridges of Madison County
For a taste of pure Americana, take a short trip south of Des Moines to Winterset to see the famed covered bridges. Tour the six Instagram-worthy bridges where you can recreate scenes with your sweetheart from the classic romantic drama.

Principal Park
In 1992, a new 11,500-seat baseball stadium, now called Principal Park (lovingly referred to as "Sec Taylor" by lifers), opened along the Des Moines River, providing views of the Iowa State Capitol building and downtown skyline. But the team’s history dates to 1887, when the now Iowa Cubs were formed as the Des Moines Hawkeyes and later Iowa Oaks.  

Historic Valley Junction
Built upon a historic railroad district, and founded in the 1890s, Historic Valley Junction was developed near the depot of the Chicago, Rock Island, and Pacific Railroad. During the first half of the 20th Century, grocery stores, meat markets, department stores, bakeries, banks, and theaters could be found up and down Fifth Street. Now, Valley Junction is a popular retail and restaurant destination, known for antique shops and art galleries.

Woodland Cemetery
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.

Dine and Drink 

Aposto
When you arrive, you may think you’ve got the wrong address and ended up at someone’s house. You would be partially right. Aposto is a unique dining option serving modern classical cuisine inside an 1880 Victorian mansion. Their menu may be small, but it’s packed full of delicious dinner options.

Malo
The Latin cuisine restaurant is in the historic Fire Station No. 1 in the heart of downtown Des Moines. Malo moved into the renovated art deco building in 2014 and has no plans to say “Adios” any time soon. Stop in for dinner and a delicious mango margarita.  

Christopher’s 
Des Moines has a rich history of Italian restaurants, and Christopher’s is one of the forefathers. Enjoy a full menu of appetizers, soups, salads, steaks, sandwiches, seafood, chicken, pizza, and pasta classics at Christopher's. This family owned Beaverdale landmark has been around since 1963, and features Des Moines’ signature dish, Steak de Burgo; a filet served with finger-licking garlic butter sauce.   

Graziano Brother’s
A Des Moines staple, Graziano Brothers grocery store opened in 1912, sells classic Italian ingredients such as fresh cheeses, spices, and pizza dough. Their famous Italian sausage is sold nationwide and is featured on restaurant menus throughout the Midwest. 

Hello, Marjorie
In what was once the headquarters for news, Hello, Marjorie took over the Des Moines Register building. News flash: This bar has some of the best cocktails in the city alongside their unique décor. Love the feeling of a 70’s living room? Head over to Hello, Marjorie to be taken back while sipping on a delicious Marjorie Old Fashioned. 

Hessen Haus
Located in what was once an old train station, Hessen Haus is a Brauen Pub that was many things before that. A horse barn, dance hall, restaurant, and so much more. The history is all over the walls at Hessen Haus. You can go all in and order a German Meatloaf or a Schnitzel, or you can just admire the German traditions from afar with some Brisket Mac & Cheese.   

The Hall DSM
Rail car repair shop turned large gathering hall is exactly what you are getting when you head to The Hall at Valley Junction. This building was built in 1899, and when being transformed into The Hall, the builders could tell. Rails had to be removed from the floor, but the now owners showcase those rails to remember the history behind it. The Hall hosts 54 different beers, as well as wine and coffee. With food provided by the Justice League of Food, spanning burgers and pizza to German fare, you won’t go hungry either.  

Smitty’s Tenderloin
Smitty’s takes us all the way back to the 1950s. This loveable Tenderloin Shop has been serving up the unofficial sandwich of Iowa, the breaded tenderloin, daily since 1952. Bill Smith, aka “Smitty,” is the namesake and founder of this restaurant, which was later passed on to his son and his family. Smitty’s not only has a legendary tenderloin, but they take it up a notch by creating specialty loins. Whether you want a Chili Cheese Loin or a Taco Loin, they’ve got something for even the biggest appetites. 

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!