As part of a new series, Travel + Leisure is exploring America one three-day weekend at a time. Here’s what to do on a short trip to Des Moines.
Despite being located in what many may call a “Flyover State,” Iowa’s capital of Des Moines has a lot to offer in the way of culture, food, and local flavor. There’s plenty to do in the downtown area alone to (quickly) fill up a long weekend itinerary.
Des Moines is a lot bigger than you’d think—the entire city sprawls more than 82 square miles, but staying downtown is going to be your best bet if you’re looking to partake in the local nightlife. Airbnb is an especially good option given that you won’t find more than a handful of chain hotels in the heart of the city.
Here’s how to have the ultimate three-day weekend in Des Moines with shopping, lots of good eating and drinking, live music, and one of the best bike rides in Iowa. Read on, and start planning.
Any local will tell you that you can’t start off a good day without a stop at La Mie, a bakery on 42nd Street. The pastries cannot be beat, and you’ll have an overwhelming number to choose from. If you’ve got the time, make sure to give one of their hot menu items a try.
The Des Moines Art Center is not to be missed. Designed by Eliel Saarinen, with later additions by I. M. Pei and Richard Meier, the museum is as stunning on the outside as the artwork it houses from heavy hitters of the 20th century: Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Francis Bacon, and Josef Albers. You can find storied paintings alongside the work of Iowan artists—the perfect mix for a dose of international and local culture.
After you’ve perused the museum, head out back to the sculpture garden and the award-winning rose gardens. If the weather agrees, this is the perfect spot for a midday picnic (there are plenty of grassy areas for it, so bring a blanket!).
If you find yourself heading indoors for lunch, drive over to Manhattan Deli—a true hidden gem and a favorite among locals. It’s the perfect spot for a massive sandwich and house-made soups and desserts.
Just a quick drive out of the city, you’ll find a number of noteworthy wineries. You can plan an afternoon trip to what I call the trifecta: Covered Bridges Winery near Winterset, open April through October; Summerset Winery in Indianola, open year-round; and Jasper Winery back in the city limits of Des Moines, also open year-round. Make sure to visit a few covered bridges on the way—they are the ones that inspired the book The Bridges of Madison County.
Bring some small bites and stick around for the live music that happens on a regular basis at Jasper Winery. If you find yourself visiting on a night without an act, grab a chair near the fireplace and get comfortable.
If you’re lucky enough to catch the Downtown Des Moines Farmer’s Market—open Saturdays May through October—don’t miss the opportunity to grab a breakfast burrito from Taqueria 3 Hermanos. It may take some walking around to find it, but it’s well worth the hunt.
Stop by Malo—an eatery located on the ground floor of the Des Moines Social Club—for Latin-inspired dishes. Make sure to explore the building; it was once a firehouse and has since been renovated into a stunning space for art shows, live music, theater, and community classes.
Take some time to shop at the downtown area’s many boutiques. Start near Exile at West End Architectural Salvage, where you’ll find four stories of antique odds and ends and a coffee shop on the ground floor to give you a mid-afternoon boost of caffeine. Afterward, take a five-minute drive to the East Village. Make sure to visit Raygun, a T-shirt shop specializing in quirky (and incredibly local) sayings; Hill Vintage & Knits, the perfect spot for thrifted outfits; Domestica, a one-stop souvenir shop with handmade goods from locals; Porch Light Antiques; Moxie, a great stop for adding to your art collection; and Aimee, just in case you’re looking for a show-stopping outfit. For a break from shopping, visit the Exile Brewing Company (tours run every Saturday from 3:15 to 4 p.m.)
Stick around the East Village for dinner—there’s a restaurant for every taste. If you feel like sushi, head to Miyabi 9. In dire need of a burger? Zombie Burger + Drink Lab is one for the memory books—each menu item is inspired by a zombie film, with phrases like “mac and cheese bun,” “two grilled-cheese-sandwich bun,” and “green chile + cheese croquette” dotting the menu. Lucca, owned by three-time James Beard Award nominee Stephen Logsdon, is a little piece of Italy in downtown Des Moines, featuring contemporary takes on traditional Italian dishes (read: great pizza). For dinner with a view, Alba is a mix of 1950’s Art Moderne and rustic-chic interiors. A palette of colorful wooden doors hangs from the ceiling in the dining room, and each wall is covered in artwork—great for a date night when you’ve got a hankering for solid American dishes.
Head to Up/Down—an underground barcade—for a post-dinner pick-me-up with a side of giant Jenga. The bar is a mix of vintage arcade games, board games, and a couch area for video-game playing. When you’re all gamed out, check out Wooly’s for some live music. They have acts most nights of the week, ranging from local favorites (The Maytags, Annalibera, Max Jury) to national acts like Sleigh Bells, Pink Floyd tribute bands, Eric Hutchinson, Sick Puppies, and Taking Back Sunday (there’s a throwback!).
One of the best spring/summer/fall activities in Des Moines is to make the bike ride from downtown Des Moines to Cumming, Iowa (about 15 miles away). The best place to start: Mullets, where breakfast food is best eaten on the rooftop deck with a view of the skyline—it’s right next to the start of the path.
Rent a bike from the Des Moines Parks and Recreation program and head down the Great Western Trail toward Cumming. You’ll get a great view of Waterworks Park (more on that later) and a taste of the great outdoors Iowa is known for.
At the end of your ride, you’ll come across Cumming Tap, which serves amazing tacos for all the fuel you need to bike back to Des Moines.
Take your time riding back through Waterworks Park—1,500 acres of wooded area with areas for biking, picnicking, grilling, fishing, and hiking.
I can think of no better way to finish up a trip to Des Moines than with a couple of cocktails at The Lift—a bar located on Fourth Street in the downtown area with friendly bartenders and a constant rotation of local art—and dinner at Fong’s Pizza, a spot specializing in Polynesian-inspired pizzas. Don’t be turned off by the incredibly creative pies—Crab Rangoon, Egg Roll, Iowan. I’ve never met a pizza I didn’t like at this spot. Looking for more live music? Just down the street from The Lift is the Vaudeville Mews, a spot that focuses on local acts almost every night of the week.
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