Quintessential Des Moines
Ask any Des Moines native what they recommend for food, drinks, or fun, and they'll happily inundate you with suggestions. Here we've compiled everything you need for a weekend filled with all things essential Des Moines.
FIND YOUR ADVENTURE AND DOWNLOAD THIS ITINERARY HERE.
Hotel: Downtown Marriott
If the walls of this metro stalwart could talk, we imagine they would have much to say of the countless high-profile political guests and lobby bar patrons. Every four years, during Iowa's first-in-the-nation caucuses, presidential hopefuls descend on the city (oftentimes up to a year in advance) to persuade the famously undecided Iowans of their worthiness of a vote. And where do they stay and socialize with influential journalists, endorsers, and donors? None other than the Downtown Marriott. This hotel lobby bar is the place to see and be seen – right in the center of downtown Des Moines.
Start the night off right with a drink at the Royal Mile, a British Pub located on 4th Street. Here you'll enjoy beer styles of the British Isles along with a healthy dose of American craft and an impressive Scotch menu. If you need a nibble before dinner, share a plate of fish and chips – the best in town! Feel like a local when you confidently march up the stairs to the not-so-secret second-floor pub, the Red Monk, for Belgian style beers.
For dinner, arguably one of the best restaurants in Greater Des Moines is 801 Chophouse, located in the tallest building in Des Moines of the same address. At 801, you'll indulge in extravagant dishes such as crab cakes and scallops or perfectly cooked lamb chops. If you're watching your budget (but not necessarily your waistline), you could opt instead for a plate of Broasted chicken at High Life Lounge with a side of bacon-wrapped Tater tots – both delicacies were made famous on an episode of “Man vs. Food.” Wash it all down your favorite grandpa beer or head right next door to El Bait Shop, boasting Iowa’s largest beer selection, with over 250 beers on tap.
If you're ready to party, head to Court Avenue – the center of the Greater Des Moines bar scene. For a more subdued but no less enjoyable evening, you'll find the Historic East Village just over the river. The East Village is bursting with unique bar and restaurant concepts and home to popular establishments like Up-Down, a local barcade with classic arcade games and a creative drink menu.
For late-night dining, there's no better option than Fong's Pizza. Any Des Moines-ian will tell you the Crab Rangoon Pizza can't be beat! Food Network star Alton Brown even bestowed the honor of dubbing this pie "best thing I ever ate!" And don't miss out on the requisite Des Moines photo op wearing a fighter pilot helmet while sipping one of Fong's signature tiki drinks.
Set your alarm early! You're heading to the Downtown Des Moines Farmers' Market. More than 300 vendors are waiting to greet you with wares ranging from local produce and flowers to prepared foods and handcrafts. Meander four city blocks and enjoy street performers at nearly every turn. Find the famous breakfast burritos at the end of 4th Street and while you wait in line, sip a coffee from Java Joe's at the stall next door. And no trip to the Farmer’s Market would be complete without the requisite photo holding sunflowers or a pineapple drink with the historic courthouse in the background.
At the east end of the market, you'll be ready to enjoy 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 is home of the Lauridsen Skatepark, the largest skatepark in the nation and home to the soon-to-be iconic skateable WOW sculpture! Even if you don't skate, you can live dangerously...vicariously.
Be sure to stop and look west when crossing Grand Avenue for a peek of the iconic red glowing Traveler's Umbrella, a Des Moines landmark. As you head towards the East Village, you’d be remiss to pass up lunch at Zombie Burger, a favorite of locals and visitors who rave about the spiked shakes and daring burgers, some of which use creative components like two grilled cheese sandwiches or fried mac and cheese “buns.” Pick up a souvenir at the nearby RAYGUN, an irreverent t-shirt store offering clever takes on current events.
No visit to Iowa’s capital city is complete without a visit to the magnificent Iowa State Capitol building. Often topping lists of the country’s most beautiful capitols, our is capped in 23-karat gold and offers stunning views of downtown Des Moines. Take in a free guided or self-guided to tour of the capitol to view the famous doll collection, climb to the top of the dome, and live your fantasy of dancing like Belle and the Beast in the incredible Iowa Law Library with jaw-dropping intricate spiral staircases and endless towering bookshelves.
Watch where you're walking, and you'll likely notice green spots painted on the sidewalk. These mark the Art Route leading you to public art pieces throughout Greater Des Moines. Follow the dots to the Pappajohn Sculpture Park in the Western Gateway, where you'll find 30+ pieces by internationally renowned artists. Don't miss your chance to take a selfie inside Nomade – the two-story-tall sculpture of a crouching body made entirely of metal letters.
Enjoy dinner facing the sculpture park from either Americana (home of the “bombshell brunch”) or Django, a French restaurant with one of the best happy hour menus in town. After dinner, catch the late show at Noce Jazz Cabaret. The cozy jazz club brings in regional acts and hosts holiday specials throughout the year. Be serenaded by local crooner and Noce’s proprietor, Max Wellman, or if you’re lucky, you might catch dueling saxes!
Sorry, you can't sleep in today, either. It's time for breakfast at Waveland Café. This beloved classic greasy spoon diner is a favorite of locals and celebrities alike! Famous Iowan, Jason Momoa is known to frequent the establishment on his visits home to Norwalk and orders "the Momoa" off the menu including hash browns, biscuits and gravy and two eggs.
For Sunday Funday, you MUST experience the Greater Des Moines craft beer scene - best enjoyed via bike tour through central Iowa’s 800 miles of connected trails. Any Joe Schmoe on the street will happily inundate you with local beer recommendations, like Confluence’s Des Moines IPA (easily accessible from the bike trail along Gray’s Lake). Or, you can save yourself time and try them all at once the Iowa Taproom, where you’ll find nearly a hundred all Iowa beer taps encircling a grain bin.
Along your treck, don’t miss essential stops at 515 Brewing, known for creative sours, and make your way north towards the High Trestle Trail bordering the always popular Saylorville Lake. Along the high Trestle Trestle Trail, you’ll encounter plenty of stops to whet your whistle such as Firetrucker Brewery in Ankeny and Flat Tire Lounge in Madrid. Pro tip: plan your ride for late afternoon, and by dusk you’ll arrive at the famously illuminated High Trestle Trail bridge. Just don’t forget a bike light, or fellow bikers will likely inform you of its absence.
Hanging out for another day?
Well, then we're just getting started! Now that you have a small taste of some of the local favorites that Des Moines has to offer, check out our "Best of the Burbs" Itinerary for additional ideas around the metro.
Don’t Miss these quintessential Des Moines festivals, events and attractions!
Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden - Visit the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden year-round and enjoy meandering through the exotic plants in the perpetually 80-degree conservatory.
Drake Relays – Competition events for the best track and field athletes in the country hosted annually in April.
Iowa Cubs Baseball – The Chicago Cubs AAA Affiliate, The Iowa Cubs baseball season runs throughout spring and summer at Principal Park right in downtown Des Moines.
CelebrAsian - Celebrate Asian culture, taste international cuisines, and experience far east art and music at the CelebrAsian hosted annual in May in Western Gateway Park.
Capital City Pride Festival - Spend a warm June weekend at the Capital City Pride Festival, celebrating the LGBTQIA+ community with an event schedule full of live music, shows, a parade and local vendors.
Better Homes & Gardens Test Garden - Des Moines is home to major media company, Meredith Corporation. Its flagship brand, Better Homes & Gardens, maintains impeccable photo-ready gardens right in downtown Des Moines – visit select days during the summer.
Nitefall on the River – A summer concert series hosted in an outdoor amphitheater along the Des Moines River with the downtown skyline as the backdrop. Previous acts have included Fitz and the Tantrums, Eli Young band and Lake Street Dive.
Des Moines Arts Festival - The award-winning event features renowned artists from across the nation. Hosted annually in June in downtown Des Moines’ Western Gateway Park, festival goers enjoy national touring musical acts, local performers and art demonstrations, and plenty of food and beverage options to keep you entertained all weekend.
80/35 - If you have a preference for pop and alternative tunes, then 80/35 is for you! Hosted by the Des Moines Music Coalition, the annual event in July hosts a diverse mix of artists while showcasing local Des Moines businesses and musicians. Past artists have included The Roots, Modest Mouse, Weezer, Portugal The Man, and more.
Iowa State Fair - "Nothing compares" to the Iowa State Fair hosted annually in August. Dine on corn dogs and 27-degree beer, ride the giant slide, and admire the butter cow. There's something for everyone at the best fair in the nation!
Ciao! Des Moines: Italian American Heritage Festival – Take a trip Italy right here in Des Moines each July! The Italian American Heritage Festival highlights Italian culture with music and dancing, live cooking demonstrations, interactive contests and games like Bocce, grape stomping, a “Best Sauce” competition, and more.
Hinterland - Hosted just south of Greater Des Moines, country, pop, and alternative acts collide at this popular music festival in August. Whimsical and groovy, this festival takes on a lively, communal atmosphere and invites all ages! Past artists have included Jason Isbell, Kacey Musgraves, Gary Clark Jr, Band of Horses and Willie Nelson.
World Food and Music Festival – Every September, savor the experience of premier international cuisine at the World Food & Music Festival with live music, cultural dance, cooking demonstrations, wine, craft beers, and of course, enough food to satisfy all your cravings.
Latino Heritage Festival - Celebrate the culture of Central and South America at the Latino Heritage Festival in September. Check out Iowa Latino art pieces, dance and musical performances, and sample the many food vendors serving up spicy Latin cuisine.
Christkindlmarket Des Moines - An outdoor festival styled after the popular European holiday market tradition hosted annually in November. Visitors shop for European goods, sip Glühwein and dance to traditional European music.