The Best Things to Do in Des Moines on a Weekend Getaway

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A skyline view of Des Moines Iowa from the capitol building.

When you think of a great getaway, you might not think of heading to Iowa. You may be surprised at what this midwestern state can offer! The great news is Des Moines, Iowa, sits in the center of the state, so it’s easy to reach many nearby attractions. All in all, it makes for a great weekend getaway! Let’s check out some things to do in Des Moines.  

A view of the Des Moines city life and skyline from the perspective of the capital building.

About Des Moines, Iowa 

With nearly 700,000 residents in the entire metro area, Des Moines is the most populated city in Iowa. It’s centrally located on the Des Moines River and serves as the state capital.

The city is well-known for the vast amount of insurance companies present in the area. In fact, it’s considered the third-largest “insurance capital” of the world. The city has also made its mark for its many data processing and logistical facilities. 

The weather in Des Moines isn’t exactly ideal. You can expect a typical hot midwestern summer and bitterly cold winters. Spring and fall prove to be enjoyable weather conditions, however, and the fall colors in the area are incredible! 

Things to Do in Des Moines

This isn’t a city that gets a lot of attention, so we wanted to offer some ideas of things to do in Des Moines. Keep reading to find out how you can make the best of your weekend getaway there. 

Tour the Capitol Building 

The capitol building glows with its gold capped dome.

As you drive along I-80, your eye will naturally find a gorgeous castle-like building with gold-domed spires. That’s the beautiful Des Moines capital building. 

Tours of the capital are free and a great way to learn more about both the city and state as a whole. You can tour during the week, but you’ll have access to more of the building if you tour it on the weekend since many of the rooms are in use during the week and not open to public tours. 

Pappajohn Sculpture Park

Pappajohn Sculpture park is a relaxing break from the buildings in the middle of downtown Des Moines.

The John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park contains artwork by 25 artists from around the world. This park is on 4.4 acres in the middle of downtown. You can walk among the large and unique sculptures from sunup to sundown. Visitors can tour the park on their own or book a guided tour. 

Iowa State Fair 

There is nothing quite like the Iowa state fair! With crowds, rides, and every type of fried food available.

If you’re visiting in the middle of August, check out the Iowa State Fair. It’s the 7th largest state fair in the nation, with 1.13 million visitors each year! 

Along with massive arenas featuring local businesses, insurance companies, and trade shows, you can walk through barns housing farm animals, including the largest boar, bull, and ram in the state. Check out the baby animals at the animal learning center, too! 

The Iowa State Fair is known for a few unique things like a cow made entirely of butter, incredible sand sculptures that change year-over-year, huge succulent pork tenderloin sandwiches, and the Bill Riley Talent Search. 

You can also walk through state-of-the-art RVs and get a great deal on your next purchase! 

The fair runs for 10 days, usually in the second and third weeks of August. While obtaining tickets to the fair is easy, finding a place to stay is not, so reserve your spot early on! 

Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden

The greater des moines botanical garden is a gorgeous reprieve from the every day life.

The Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden is a beautiful 14-acre garden near downtown Des Moines. The garden immerses you in a variety of flowering plants throughout the year. To discover what’s currently in bloom, you can visit the website. There are both indoor and outdoor gardens to explore. 

During the summer, you could catch an evening of music to enjoy along with your stroll in the gardens. You could spend hours in this place of serenity.  

Tour the Salisbury House

The Salisbury House is a historical, beautiful home that Carl Weeks and his wife, Edith, built in the 1920s. The house resembled the King’s House in Salisbury, England. Often referenced as a “national treasure,” the home is filled with the family’s original art collection, tapestries, and antique furnishings. 

You can do a self-guided tour during your visit at any point, but if you’d prefer a guided tour, check the website for current tour times. 

Drink at Exile Brewing Company 

Exile brewing is a cool and clever brewery in Des Moines worth visiting.

Brewing craft beer is a popular hobby in Iowa, and many unique breweries have risen from this pastime. We have a great local brewery suggestion: Exile Brewing Company is a great way to spend the afternoon. Not only can you enjoy a flight of beer brewed on-site, but you can also tour the brewery. 

The building was once a soap and cosmetics factory, but the brewing company has been transforming it since 2012. Each person over the age of 21 who takes the tour will receive four tastings and a souvenir glass. 

Living History Farms 

While in Des Moines, you must visit the Living History Farms to learn all about farming and trades. Three kids enjoy farm vegetables they picked.

If you’re looking for a quintessential Iowa experience, check out the history of agriculture in Iowa at Living History Farms. It’s an open-air museum featuring interactive exhibits that takes you through the process and history of over 300 years of farming in the area. 

Along with hands-on activities for both adults and children, there are live demonstrations of things like cooking over a fire, tanning bison hides, and plowing the fields with a horse at the head. 

The entire museum is a unique experience you’re unlikely to forget, but it gets even better if you head to Machine Shed Restaurant for any meal of the day. The food is served family-style with huge bowls of salad, mashed potatoes, rolls, roasted meats, and steamed vegetables that you dish up yourself. 

For breakfast, dessert, or an afternoon snack, try one of their enormous homemade cinnamon rolls. You won’t be sorry! 

Where to Stay

Now that we know some great things to do in Des Moines, where should you stay? We’ve gathered a few great places to camp while you’re in town. Let’s take a look! 

Walnut Woods State Park 

Walnut Woods State Park is a great place to spend a few days in nature. With two miles of hiking trails and cross-country skiing, it’s a fabulous stay year-round. Other popular activities include bird watching, fishing, and boating. The Great Western trailhead is around 3 miles from the park. This well-maintained and the paved trail connects Des Moines and Martensdale and is 16.5 miles long.

The campground features a playground, modern bathrooms (no showers), and trash. There are full hook-up sites, electric sites, and a dump station for those who need it. 

Iowa State Fairground Campground

During the fair in August, the Iowa State Fairground Campground has more than 2,300 sites, 784 of which are full hookups, with the rest having electric and water services. There are also three large bathhouses. 

When the fair is not in town, campers are still welcome to stay and enjoy the area. Campsites are first-come, first-served, but with plenty of sites available, you’ll find a spot. The 160-acre campgrounds feature century-old trees, woodland flora, and small wildlife. The Campgrounds are easy to find and located close to Interstates 80 and 35.

Cherry Glen Campground

Cherry Glen Campground is on the 26,000-acre Saylorville Lake Project. It’s the oldest campground on the lake. In this wooded area, you’ll find wildlife present in abundance. You can often spot white-tailed deer, turkeys, waterfowl, and other small animals around the lake. Visitors enjoy boating, sailing, water skiing, windsurfing, and swimming here.

There are 125 sites with electric hookups, each with a picnic table and a fire ring. There’s a dump station on-site as well as trash collection and a bathhouse. If you’re traveling with children, look for a site near the playground! 

Do You Think You’ll Visit Des Moines? 

Sometimes the best destinations are ones that we had never considered before. Iowa is often overlooked as a vacation destination, but perhaps it shouldn’t. 

Have you considered Iowa as a weekend getaway before? Are you surprised at the things there are to do in Des Moines?

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