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Victorian houses, outdoor sculpture, and tree-lined rivers set the stage in Iowa’s largest city, where you can find plenty of arts, culture, and nature in the relaxed setting of a classic Midwestern metropolis. The things to do in Des Moines reflect the city’s transformation from a frontier boom town into a modern crossroads, as stately museums share space with a working fairground, covered walkways link the convention centers and coffee shops, and attractions from studios to open-air galleries abound.
Home to most of the skyscrapers in the state of Iowa, Downtown Des Moines is a lively collection of hotels and event centers surrounded by restaurants and a well-served entertainment district. An extensive skywalk system links most of the area’s central buildings, while park benches and period street lamps line the sidewalks between jazz clubs and restaurants at street level.
Across the river from the skyscrapers of downtown Des Moines, the East Village packs a vibrant collection of specialty shops, attractions, and favorite hangouts. An outdoor theater stands along the waterfront, and the Iowa State Capitol stands on a hilltop park overlooking downtown and the river.
One of the oldest neighborhoods in the city, Drake gets its name from the private college that’s anchored the area since 1881. Peaceful tree-lined roads dominate the scenery, but the concentration of college kids has encouraged a healthy collection of cafes, coffee shops, and diners among the historic homes.
The Des Moines and Raccoon rivers meet at the edge of downtown, making for miles of greenways, forests, and fields running through the city. Pedestrian trails lead you along the riverfront and across the water, and you can relax in the shade at the Arie Den Boer Arboretum and admire the sculptures at Pappajohn Sculpture Park. There’s plenty of elegant architecture around, from the golden dome of the State Capitol to the unique Second Empire design of the governor’s mansion at Terrace Hill and the Tudor-style manor of Salisbury House.
Des Moines offers a showcase of nature at both the Blank Park Zoo and the immense indoor conservatory at the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden. For a deeper look at the past, visit the State of Iowa Historical Museum, which features a 15,000-year-old mammoth skeleton. See what the country looked like in the wild old days, and check out exhibits on the state’s history through pioneer times and into the 20th century.
Try your luck at the Quarter Horse racetrack of Prairie Meadows, a suburb of Des Moines, or check out the thrill rides and family attractions at Adventureland. Look back in time at Living History Farms, or make a stop at Jordan House, a Victorian mansion that served as a stop on the Underground Railroad.