Every summer during the 11-day run of the Iowa State Fair, Des Moines is home to more foods on a stick than you can, well, shake a stick at. But look beyond the corn dogs--and the cornfields--and you might just be surprised: Iowa's unassuming capital (metro population: 564,900) has taken a turn for the hip.
A burgeoning fine-dining scene, arts offerings worthy of a larger metro, upscale shopping destinations and family-friendly attractions have transformed Des Moines into a fun midsize place to spend a weekend.
Click ahead to learn about some of our favorite attractions in Des Moines. Want to share your own ideas? Leave a comment below or on Midwest Living®'s page on Facebook.
This end-of-summer pilgrimage celebrates Iowa's farms. The Iowa State Fair is 11 days of farm animals (the Big Boar!), midway rides, blue-ribbon prizes, a butter cow, crazy contests, live music and fried food on a stick (deep-fried Snickers bars!). The fair's 400 acres can be overwhelming; navigate the sprawl by using free downloadable walking tours from the fair website. For a view above the crowds, relax for a few minutes on the Sky Glider ride (515/262-3111; iowastatefair.org).
Iowa State Fair 
A donation of 25 sculptures worth $40 million transformed a downtown green space in Des Moines. The Des Moines Art Center curates the new collection at the John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park, which looks especially fabulous at night, when lights illuminate the oversize sculptures. Enjoy walking through the sculptures on your own, or make a reservation for a one-hour guided tour (515/271-0328; www.desmoinesartcenter.org/downtown).
Listen to tapes of coal miners at work, learn about Iowa's caucus system, see a battle flag preservation lab or carry pioneer-era water buckets with a shoulder yoke. Thoughtful exhibits at the State Historical Museum display a wide range of artifacts, from George Washington's hair to Abraham Lincoln's glasses (515/281-5111; iowahistory.org)
Des Moines' Downtown Farmers' Market ranks among the region's best. More than 200 vendors line blocked-off downtown streets Saturday mornings May through October, offering fresh produce, artisan works, street food and live music (515/286-4928; desmoinesfarmersmarket.com).
Take a free tour of the gold-domed landmark, built between 1871 and 1886, and its monument-dotted grounds overlooking downtown Des Moines. Tours highlight the paintings, statues and ornately decorated architecture of the building, made with 29 types of marble (515/281-5591; legis.state.ia.us/pubinfo/tour).
Iowa State Capitol 
See what makes Des Moines such a great getaway, including the Des Moines Arts Center, the Pappajohn Sculpture Park, Gray’s Lake, Living History Farms and the East Village.
Des Moines has undergone a dining transformation, the kind that happens one kitchen at a time, until residents look up and say, "Wow! Things have changed." More than 850 restaurants across the city cater to every taste, including Thai, Japanese, French and authentic Mexican cuisine. Popular spots include Centro for contemporary Italian cuisine (515/248-1780; centrodesmoines.com); Bistro Montage with classic French dishes (515/557-1924; bistromontage.com); and, in downtown's ever-hipper East Village, Miyabi 9, with some of the city's best sushi (515/288-8885).
Ride a camel; feed giraffes, parakeets and other creatures; and explore the Discovery Center with red pandas, pink pigeons, and tamarin monkeys at the 22-acre Blank Park Zoo, home to more than 800 animals. Daily programs can include bird shows, sea lion demonstrations, lion shows and serval (African wild cat) training demonstrations (515/285-4722; blankparkzoo.com).
Blank Park Zoo 
More than 200 top-ranked and emerging national artists converge in summer in Western Gateway Park for the Des Moines Arts Festival, an annual showcase of visual and performing arts (515/286-4950; desmoinesartsfestival.org).
This 500-acre living-history site taps Iowa's rural roots, featuring a 1700 Ioway Indians village, an 1850 working pioneer farm, the 1875 town of Walnut Hill, a 1900 horse-powered farm and agricultural exhibits. Historical interpreters in period clothing demonstrate skills such as blacksmithing and cooking (515/278-5286; lhf.org).
Living History Farms 
Explore a cave, tackle a domino obstacle course and enjoy other interactive exhibits at the Science Center of Iowa. Also featured: an IMAX Dome Theater, daily demonstrations on topics such as chemistry and inventions, and shows in the Star Theater planetarium (515/274-6868; sciowa.org).
The outstanding collection features modernist works by Edward Hopper, Henri Matisse and others. Large, airy exhibit spaces reflect the different styles of three architects: Eliel Saarinen, I. M. Pei and Richard Meier (515/277-4405; desmoinesartcenter.org).
Housed in the Civic Center, the Des Moines Symphony presents a half-dozen classical concerts each season as well as an Opening Night Gala, a pops concert for New Year's Eve and the outdoor Yankee Doodle Concert in early July (515/280-4000; dmsymphony.org).
Des Moines Symphony 
Iowa's largest tourist attraction, Adventureland features more than 100 shows, attractions and rides, including three roller coasters. A new water park offers 13 water slides, an inner-tube raft ride, a lazy river and a swim-up bar (800/532-1286; adventurelandpark.com).
The Chicago Cubs' triple-A affiliate plays in downtown's Principal Park, which opened in 1992 and has been expanded and renovated several times since then. A perennial favorite: the annual July fireworks show (as well as fireworks after Friday night games) (515/243-6111; iowacubs.com).
Iowa Cubs 
This west-suburban antiquing district with 150 shops is an appealing antique itself. Valley Junction boomed in the 1890s when freight and passenger trains rumbled through every day, and businesses grew up around the railroad stop. Today, visitors will find specialty stores, art galleries, restaurants and more among the historic buildings. Just a few miles west is the largest new shopping complex in Iowa: Jordan Creek Town Center, an upscale West Des Moines mall with stores like Sephora and J. Crew (515/440-6255; jordancreektowncenter.com).
In winter, twirl outside under the skyline at Brenton Skating Plaza (515/284-1000; brentonplaza.com), or try skiing and snow tubing at Sleepy Hollow Sports Park (515/262-4100; sleepyhollowsportspark.com). In other seasons, Sleepy Hollow offers miniature golf, climbing wall and Go-Karts.
Founded in 1973, the Des Moines Metro Opera has provided Des Moines with classic opera for nearly 40 seasons. Offering three to four productions a summer, the opera has performed classics such as A Midsummer Night's Dream and La Boheme. The summer season typically runs late June through mid-July (515/961-6221; desmoinesmetroopera.org).