36 Hours in Des Moines | Midwest Living

36 Hours in Des Moines

A visit to Iowa's capital city means a chance to try new restaurants, visit local boutiques, take in tons of free art and browse an epic Saturday-morning farmers market. Find out how to make the most out of a weekend getaway to Des Moines.


Happy hour with a side of pizza @ 5 p.m.

Arrive before 6 p.m. for half-off pizza, wine and beer at Eatery A, where reclaimed wood from Central Iowa appears in the decor and Mediterranean flavors appear in the dishes. Snag a seat on the patio, or sit inside to watch the giant oven spit out wood-fired pizzas. Each pie improves upon a classic (cheese pizza features ricotta, gruyere, mozzarella and provolone) or introduces diners to funky new favorites (think chorizo, pineapple and jalapeño jam).

Art in the park @ 6 p.m.

The largest donation of art in Iowa's history sits in a free, 4.4-acre park in the center of Des Moines. At the donor-named John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park, visitors can walk among sculptures such as the Panoramic awareness pavilion, a large-scale light creation made up of 23 panes of partially silvered colored glass by Danish artist Olafur Eliasson.

Des Moines Sculpture Park
Sculpture park guests are invited to walk inside the panoramic awareness pavilion by day. A fresnel lamp lights the pavilion by night.

Check into Des Lux Hotel @ 7 p.m.

The location of the small-yet-luxurious Des Lux Hotel—within walking distance of nearly everything in downtown Des Moines—is attractive enough on its own. Spacious guestrooms, some with gas-powered fireplaces and whirlpool baths, sweeten the deal. Built in 1912 and converted into the 51-room hotel in 2001, the building still sports exposed brick, wood panelling and other vintage touches in the lobby and elsewhere.

Swanky night out @ 8 p.m.

Opened on the final evening of 2015, Noce features regional jazz musicians, including general manager and jazz vocalist Max Wellman, known for his Sinatra-like style. The cabaret lounge seats 100 at white cloth-draped tables, and the staff, clad in all black, serves signature cocktails from the jazz-age bar. Acoustic paneling mimics concert hall setups, and a dramatic sculpture of brass instruments hangs from the ceiling.

Noce Jazz Club
A sculpture made from brass instruments hangs from the ceiling; a performance on Noce's stage. Photos courtesy of Eva Lewin and Noce.

Late-night snack @ 11 p.m.

An early dinner calls for a late-night snack; luckily, Ingersoll haunts deliver. Los Banditos Hotdog Speakeasy serves a rotating menu of hotdog creations with toppings like pickle chips and kimchi, as well as hand-cut french fries and numerous vegan options. Those with a sweet tooth will want to stop by Crème, a dessert lounge with fancy drinks and cupcakes that landed them a spot on an episode of Cupcake Wars.


Farmers market fun @ 9 a.m.

From May to October, any visit to Iowa's capitol city should include a visit to the Downtown Farmers Market, which covers nine blocks in the Historic Court District. Nearly 300 farmers and producers of artisanal-everything gather to sell their wares. Definitely do your first meal here: grab a breakfast burrito from Farm Kids Food Co. or a crepe from Sweet Treats Without Wheat, a stand overflowing with gluten-free goodies. Leave room to sample granola, cheese, salsa, wine and more.

Des Moines farmers' market
Court Avenue overflows with people (and delicious food) each Saturday May through October. Photo courtesy of the Greater Des Moines Partnership

Shop the town @ 10:30 a.m.

Get lost in West End Architectural Salvage, the inspiration for an HGTV show and home to four floors of antique furniture, vintage advertising signs and more. Just a three-minute walk away is the brand new Art Terrarium, where funky houseplants and local art awaits. Head to the revitalized eastern edge of the city for more boutiques and artisan buys. Stop at Raygun for sassy souveniers, Eden for fragrant soaps and Allspice for that seasoning blend impossible to find anywhere else.

Aussie lunch break @ 12:30 p.m.

Recently opened St. Kilda calls itself an Australian-style cafe and bakery; we call it an excellent place for lunch. Exposed brick and, yes, avocado toast give it a hip vibe, but friendly hosts and a breakfast-all-day policy keep the cafe from straying into pretentious territory. We're obsessed with the beautiful, mosaic-esque granola bowls topped with fresh fruit and local honey.

Told ya the granola bar was pretty; Floor-to-ceiling windows let in plenty of natural light. Photos courtesy of Iris22 Productions and St. Kilda

Tour a piece of history @ 2 p.m.

The ornate, gold-domed Iowa State Capitol is impressive from afar and downright stunning up close. Docents lead free tours through the building, pointing out details like a geometric mistake in the tiled floor (oops) and the image of a wise owl in the hand-carved Supreme Court bench. Brave visitors can even climb into the dome for a whole new view of the city. Call ahead or schedule your guided tour online (self-guided tours also allowed).

Go for a spin @ 4 p.m.

Rent a bike at one of the new mobility hubs created by Des Moines Area Regional Transportation and the Des Moines Bicycle Collective. Purchase a Daily Fun Pass on the BCycle website for just $6 and get an hour of bicycling (each additional hour is $4). We love a quick lap around the 1.9-mile Grey's Lake Park trail or a longer excursion on the 550 miles of trails near Des Moines, like the Neal Smith Trail, which brings cyclists past the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden.

Surprise your tastebuds @ 6 p.m.

Des Moines native and head chef Joe Tripp fuses Iowa ingredients with flavors inspired by his journeys through southeast Asia at the new Harbinger, a vegetable-focused, small-plate dining experience. The cocktail and dinner menu are ever-evolving to make use of seasonal produce, but dishes like the mint-and-lime-infused melon or pork belly with pickled mushrooms hint at the fascinating blend of tastes and textures diners can expect. Order multiple small plates to share for the full effect.

A specialty cocktail and small plate to share at Harbinger. Photos courtesy of Byron Jones

Sip specialty brews @ 8 p.m.

Court Avenue is a central entertainment district on the weekend, but visitors can find laid-back hangouts just off the main drag, too. Try one of 222 beers on tap at El Bait Shop before venturing to the Vaudeville Mews for a folk or alt-rock concert performed by regional talent (check online for schedule and prices). Afterwards, try a specialty martini at The Lift, a bohemian bar in the old Kirkwood Hotel—look for the antique elevator cage still being used as a centerpiece, as well as a rotating roster of local art.

Game night with a twist @ 11 p.m.

Walk down a stairway and into another decade at Up-Down, a barcade featuring more than 40 arcade games from the 80s and 90s, plus a lineup of craft beers. For just 25 cents per game, try Pac Man, Gallaga, pinball machines, skee ball and more.

Stairs leading to the underground barcade; Pinball Wizards-in-training practice their skills. Photos courtesy of Ben Martin and Up-Down


Malo brunch @ 10 a.m.

The popular Latin-cuisine Malo expands its menu Sunday mornings to include an elaborate brunch buffet with chicken and waffles, a chocolate fountain and all-you-can-eat tacos (try Al Pastor, a chile-marinated pork shoulder taco topped with pineapple and tomatillo salsa). If that's not enough, we have three words for you: bloody Mary bar.

Peruse the art museum @ 12 p.m.

World-famous architects like I.M. Pei designed the Des Moines Art Center, making the building a piece of art all on its own. Curators keep selections fresh by supplementing the permanent collection with eye-popping temporary exhibitions, and visitors are welcome to explore the grounds, which include a lush rose garden and dramatic sculptures. Entrance is free, although donations are appreciated.

One last coffee break at @ 2 p.m.

Before you hit the road, stop by Horizon Line Coffee, a new shop in the Western Gateway Neighborhood started by two friends who moved to Des Moines from Southern California. Sip a beautifully poured lavender and thyme latte, or try a coffee flight: beans from a specific region, served three ways (double shot of esperesso, a cold brew and a pourover). A no Wi-Fi policy makes the spot an ideal place for conversation.

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