Audience Engagement Editor Erika Owen shares the best places to eat, drink, see, and shop in Iowa’s capital.

The silhouette of the downtown Des Moines skyline is seen as the sun sets in Des Moines, Iowa, U.S., on Friday, Jan. 29, 2016. As the first in the nation Iowa caucuses approaches, where registering your vote isn't as simple as casting a ballot, the state
Credit: Getty Images

While I did not grow up in Des Moines, I spent what I consider to be some of the best years of my life—my college undergrad years—in the city. Des Moines has undergone a transformation in the past decade, becoming less known for its butter-loaded state fair (which is actually a great time) and more known for its cultural and political impact, which has resulted in headlines across the nation.

In the four years that I lived there, I fell in love with a crab rangoon pizza while sitting next to a taping of Alton Brown’s Good Eats, met one very special person while enjoying a martini made by an actor from Blade Runner, discovered a lifelong interest in local music by becoming friends with Des Moines’ most talented musicians, and watched the Des Moines Social Club—which I would describe as the cultural heartbeat of the city—grow into its name with the help of a small group of passionate people. All of this is a long-winded way of saying that you can’t get the most out of Des Moines without meeting the characters who live there. So, with that in mind, here are my must-visits for the next time you find yourself in the great Iowan capital.

Where to Eat

Zombie Burger is exactly what it sounds like—an eatery sporting zombie murals by local artists, with a menu full of inside jokes that only a zombie-movie fanatic could truly appreciate. Since opening in Des Moines’ East Village neighborhood, the restaurant has quickly become one worth traveling for. Don’t miss the Raygun, with Monterey Jack, guacamole, and fried jalapenos; or the Walking Ched—deep-fried macaroni and cheese bun and bacon, cheddar cheese, caramelized and raw onion, and more macaroni and cheese. If you’re looking for the perfect date-night spot, check out Django, the resident French restaurant with a killer selection of cheeses.

zombie burger
Credit: Yelp

Pizza night at Centro on Locust St. is also not to be missed. This is a great place for politician-spotting during election time. If “hole-in-the-wall” and “hidden gem” better fit your dinner tastes, check out Tasty Tacos—locals will tell you this is where to find the very best tacos. If there’s one thing I never stop craving, it’s Des Moines’ beloved Vietnamese restaurant, A Dong. You can’t go wrong with anything on the menu.

Where to Drink

While Des Moines has its fair share of college-student haunts (West End, the Library, and the the newish Lefty's Live Music are all in the vicinity of Drake University), you really need to get downtown to catch the best variety of nightlife. The Lift is generally my first stop when it comes to taking in happy hour with locals of all ages. On Wednesday nights, the bar offers a two-for-one martini deal that cannot be beat, considering the list is extensive and the bartenders are some of the friendliest around. Across from the Lift on Fourth Street, you’ll find Fong’s Pizza—a Des Moines institution that has garnered national attention for its Polynesian-inspired menu (they serve a crab rangoon pizza, and yes, it’s actually good). Don’t leave without taking a kamikaze shot while wearing one of the branded helmets they have behind the bar.

Fong's Pizza
Credit: Yelp

If you’re looking for something a bit more, say, entertaining, check out Up/Down, in the East Village. This arcade bar has been around for a couple of years, but playing rounds of giant Jenga with a beer in hand never gets old. Speaking of beer, Hessen Haus—a beer hall off Court Avenue in downtown Des Moines—is the perfect place for entertaining a crowd. The best part: whenever a train passes by on the nearby tracks, a whistle in the bar blows and all Jaeger shots are only $3. Be warned: they take the traditional rules of passing “das boot” around the table seriously.

Where to Shop

If you’re on the hunt for something witty, giftable, or just downright cute, head to Raygun, where all of the T-shirts have some sort of zinger targeting one (or more) flyover state on them. Des Moines has no shortage of boutiques, offering sustainably made clothing that’s often by local designers, handmade souvenirs, and other housewares that are just too cute to pass by. Some of my favorites: Hill Vintage and Knits for thrifted fashion, Aimee for gorgeous conversation starters, Domestica for quirky jewelry and Des Moines-themed wall art, Ephemera for one-of-a-kind stationery, and Eden for the best-smelling bath and body products around. Don’t miss West End Architectural Salvage if wandering through four floors of reclaimed goods is your idea of an ideal afternoon out.

des moines
Credit: West End Architectural Salvage & Coffee

What to Do

The Des Moines Social Club has become the hub of all things hip and Des Moines in the past couple of years. If you’re looking for art, music, food, or theater, you’re likely to find it in this old firehouse turned social club.

The Des Moines Art Center is known around the world for its designers (Eliel Saarinen and Richard Meier) and extensive collection. Inside, you’ll find Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Alexander Calder, and Edward Hopper's Automat. Behind the Art Center, you’ll find an award-winning rose garden overlooking a lake—ideal for setting up a picnic on a warm day. Speaking of gardens, don’t miss the Better Homes and Gardens test garden at the Meredith Corporation headquarters in downtown Des Moines. It’s free and open to the public on Friday afternoons.

des moines
Credit: Courtesy of Des Moines Art Center

For those looking to get a peek inside of Des Moines’ political playing field, head to the state capitol building at the edge of the East Village. You can’t miss it: the roof of the building is covered in 23k gold. The capitol hosts daily tours (guided and self-guided) from Monday through Saturday during open hours.

Where to Hear Music

For a great sampling of local artists, head to the Vaudeville Mews. You can find a different genre every night of the week, and you’re likely to meet a few local musicians in the process. The Des Moines Social Club’s Basement bar is another great spot for taking in local talent. If you find yourself traveling through Des Moines during the summertime, don’t miss the many music festivals they’ve got going on: 80/35, Hinterland, GDP, 515 Alive, World Food & Music Festival—there’s a little bit of everything in this so-called flyover city.

basement bar
Credit: Courtesy of Des Moines Social Club

For national touring acts, Wooly’s is the place to go for a show with high-profile headliners in an intimate space. If you’re looking for a brewery with a side of live music, check out Exile Brewing Co. The space hosts a number of live music acts throughout the month—and the beers, with labels designed by local artists—are a must-try.

What I Want to Try

There has been a huge uptick in interesting dinner options in downtown Des Moines since I made the move to New York City. On my list: Eatery/A, Malo, and Krunkwich Ramen House—all picks I’ve heard my Des Moines buddies praise over and over. In terms of music, local jazz musician Max Wellmann has been creating the roster at a new jazz bar in downtown Des Moines called Noce that seems to be everyone’s favorite spot come Saturday night.

Erika Owen is the Audience Engagement Editor at Travel + Leisure. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @erikaraeowen.