Things to Do in Iowa’s Secretly Cool Capital City

Funky shops and local taps are just the start.

skater at skate park
Iowa’s capital is one of the state’s best-kept secrets. | Catch Des Moines
Iowa’s capital is one of the state’s best-kept secrets. | Catch Des Moines

Iowa is often wrongly written off as flyover country, and perhaps it’s this lack of faith that’s helped capital Des Moines quietly become cool. Part of the city’s tagline is “culture without the cost,” and this comes in the form of art festivals, dinner shows, and coworking space for artists.Throw in the continuously growing craft brewery and cocktail scene, restaurants and chefs that are some of the best in the Midwest, and more than 800 miles of trails, parks, and waterways, and you’ll see why so many people are picking up and making the move to Des Moines.

The city is practically devoid of traffic (how many other capitals can claim that?), and despite the fact Des Moines is growing at a faster rate than any other Midwest metro—including Chicago, Milwaukee, and Minneapolis—it’s still super affordable (if you’re looking for a new city to call home, this could be the place).

If you’re shopping at RAYGUN, a well-known clothing store in downtown’s historic East Village, you’ll come across T-shirts with sayings like, “Des Moines! Let us exceed your already low expectations!” It won’t take long to make good on this offer. Here’s why taking a trip to one of the Heartland’s most dynamic cities is worth it.

RAYGUN store building Des Moines
RAYGUN’s slogan says it all. | Photo courtesy of Catch Des Moines

Eat, drink, and shop in the East Village

Downtown Des Moines is bisected by the aptly named Des Moines River; everything between the river and the gold-domed Iowa State Capitol Building is considered the East Village. The vibrant area is home to award-winning restaurants, cool boutiques, and solid dive bars—all with a counterculture lean.

If you’re hungry, swing by Alba for inventive American fare (think deviled eggs with buttermilk crumble and roasted chicken with carrot salsa verde), or Lucca for salads, sandwiches, and pastas—plus a pretty reasonable, four-course prix-fixe dinner for $50. For elevated comfort food and hangover cure-alls, The Breakfast Club and its loaded hash browns won’t let you down.

When you’re ready to grab a drink, try the tiki-themed Bellhop or barcadium Up-Down (if they’re serving macaroni and cheese pizza by the slice, do yourself a favor and get it). Open since 1937, Locust Tap is a beloved local dive with strong drinks, graffitied walls, and weirdly enough, a prosthetic leg hanging above the door. Around the corner is The Blazing Saddle, the oldest gay bar in Des Moines.

Beyond touring the Capitol, other things to do include seeing a show at Wooly’s (which could be anything from Animal Collective to an Audioslave tribute) or strolling around the 12-acre Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden in the heart of downtown, where collections serve as living libraries of flora from around the world (there’s also an entire bonsai collection). Be sure to pop into RAYGUN for apparel and home goods decorated with phrases (inside jokes, really) that have special meaning to Midwesterners, and then head next door and browse the shelves at Storyhouse Bookpub.

Public art sculpture
Even the trails are cool. | Catch Des Moines Things To Do

Hit the trails

I get it, Iowa isn’t the first place that comes to mind when you think of outdoor adventures, but there are actually over 800 miles of bike trails within the Des Moines area alone. Arguably, the most iconic is the High Trestle Trail. It’s on a decommissioned and converted railroad line that snakes 25 miles through five nearby cities: Woodward, Madrid, Slate, Ankeny, and Sheldahl. The highlight of the multi-use path is the half-mile, 13-story High Trestle Bridge—one of the largest trail bridges in the world—which overlooks the Des Moines River valley. The Neal Smith Trail is another popular option that follows the Des Moines River for much of its 26 miles. It passes through wildflower meadows, dense forests, and Big Creek State Park.

Or, for something easier and breezier, jump on the five-mile Meredith Trail and head to Gray’s Lake. Just south of downtown, the lake also has a two-mile path and is a lovely spot for a picnic (you’ll also find paddle board and kayak rentals). From the sole bridge, you’ll be able to soak up views of the Des Moines skyline.

bar with many beer taps
Snag hard-to-find brews at El Bait Shop. | el Bait Shop des moines

Imbibe in the craft brewery scene

There’s quite a bit of fandom for Busch Light in Iowa (makes sense—it’s made with corn). But Iowans choice for kegger beer isn’t indicative of its collective palate. Des Moines has a beer scene that rivals far larger cities (and the pints are much cheaper).

There’s El Bait Shop, home to 262 drafts—the largest collection west of the Mississippi River—which is consistently ranked among the top beer bars in the nation, largely due to its religiously maintained taps and ability to score hard-to-get suds from across the country.

Newer to the scene is The Hall, which features more than 50 domestic and international tap handles. At beer hall-style Iowa Taproom, you’ll find 99 beers, all from the state of Iowa (there are usually multiple Toppling Goliath beers, and yes, you should get them). Other bars with regionally focused brews include Hessen Haus (mostly German or German-style beer), The Red Monk (Belgians), and The Royal Mile (British).

Out of the 20-plus breweries in Des Moines, Court Avenue Restaurant and Brewing Co., Confluence Brewing, and Exile Brewing Co. are three of the pioneers. At Exile, order the Ruthie lager, named for a 1950s-era Des Moines bartender who made headlines as far away as Australia for her unusual serving style that involved balancing a pair of glasses on her chest, pouring the beer, and delivering the beers to the tables without spilling or touching the glassware. Just down the street from Exile is Lua Brewing, and though it only opened in November 2019, it’s already made a name for itself as a must-visit for hop heads.

interior of hotel
Surety Hotel

Where to sleep in Des Moines

When the Savery Hotel (now known as the Renaissance Des Moines Savery Hotel) first opened in 1919 as a gift from James Savery to his wife, Annie, a notable women’s right activist, it was the first hotel in the state that had separate bathrooms for each guestroom—a true luxury at the time. In the century-plus since, the massive red-brick hotel in the heart of downtown—near popular entertainment venues like the Wells Fargo Arena, the Iowa Events Center, and the Des Moines Performing Arts Center—has continued to be one of the most opulent (In 2018, it wrapped up a $20 million renovation).

Nearby is the Surety Hotel, another historic building that was originally an office for financial and insurance companies. Now, the 12-story Beaux-Arts building, with its mid-century modern rooms stocked with amenities from local makers, is one of the most luxurious accommodations in town. Located just two blocks from the Court Avenue Entertainment District, you’ll be close to the popular Saturday morning Downtown Farmers’ Market.

Want more Thrillist? Follow us on Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube, TikTok, and Snapchat!

Bailey Berg is an Alaska-based journalist covering travel, beer, the outdoors & more. Follow Bailey on Twitter at @baileybergs.