There is always something to do in Des Moines

I've been wanting to create this guide ever since I moved back to Des Moines in late 2020 and was on a mission to explore all the things my new (again) city had to offer. My favorite thing about Des Moines is that there is ALWAYS something to do, whether it's something new, something tried-and-true or something seasonal. Knowing my list will never be complete, I've decided to just create it based on my current favorites and update it as I discover new (and new-to-me) things.

About me

Before diving into this guide, you should probably know a bit about me as the creator. I'm a brand photographer based in Des Moines, Iowa. I'm a wife and mama, raising a teen, a tween and a rescue pup. When I'm not cheering on my kids at the ballpark or soccer field, I spend my free time in Des Moines exploring restaurants, bars, coffee shops, clothing shops, gift shops, book stores, live music, hotels, trails, beaches, gardens, farms, art and sporting events. I'm typically up for just about anything. I prefer wine over beer and I love spending time outdoors, whether it's a patio, poolside or in nature.

This guide is for anyone who craves similar experiences unique to Des Moines, Iowa, whether you live here full time or you're just visiting for the weekend. The beauty of Des Moines is that you can experience so many different things in one day, one weekend, one lifetime.

And everywhere you go, people are genuinely happy to be there and ready to have a good time.

female with blond curly hair holding glass of wine at restaurant table smiling

RoCA, Court Ave.

How this guide works

I have categorized everything by neighborhood, for the most part. This guide includes the neighborhoods where I spend the majority of my free time as well as some can't miss annual events. (It does not include all Des Moines neighborhoods...yet.)

This list is by no means all encompassing, it's just a starting point based on things I have experienced and enjoyed. Also, almost every place on the list is unique to Des Moines so you know you're getting an experience you can't get anywhere else. 

Note: all photos were taken with my iPhone (with the exception of the header photo taken with my DSLR) when I was out and about experiencing each of these things myself. I have ONLY included things I have actually done.

long pedestrian bridge with red metal truss under blue sky with clouds

Union Railway Bridge, Downtown to East Village

East Village

  • Marne for modern, sustainable women's wear.
  • Janes for sylish littles + their mamas.
  • Fontenelle Supply for men's clothes + accessories.
  • Indie House for elevated home decor + design.
  • Porchlight for home goods + gifts.
  • Storyhouse Bookpub for new + used books for all.
  • Raygun for witty tees + goods.
  • Daisy Chain for coffee (+ local honey.)
  • Eden for quality skincare.
  • Ephemera for cards + gifts.
  • Kin for intentional goods + aura readings.
  • Subsect for skateboards + apparel.
  • Wooly's for live music.
  • Republic on Grand for rooftop eats + drinks.
  • Clyde's for elevated diner fare.
  • The Purveyor for wine + snacks.
  • New Northwestern for cocktails.
  • Peace Tree for beer.
  • Ernies for a cozy dive bar vibe.
  • Bellhop for tiki drinks.
  • Coa Cantina for margaritas.
  • Breakfast Club for fun brunch vibes.
  • Nosh for light lunch + snacks.
  • Des Moines Botanical Garden for a tropical escape.

And soooo many more places to explore!

inside of bookstore next to large window and wall art that says "Read Together Des Moines"

Storyhouse Bookpub, East Village

front entrance of upscale modern home design shop with table, chairs and decor items

Indie House

wood board with seared ahi tuna and edamame next to glass of champagne

Republic on Grand

young girl outside skate shop windows holding a skateboard and resting foot on another


three tropical cocktails with garnish and colorful straws on bar top with huge display of liquor bottles in background


women's clothing and accessories on display in bright shop with white walls


palm trees and rock wall with waterfall inside dome of botanical garden during daytime

Des Moines Botanical Garden

collection of instant film aura photographs showing different colors around each individual


collection of pillows, bandanas, plants and artwork inside shop with many windows


Downtown / Court Ave. / West End

  • Northern Vessel for coffee (especially cold brew latte.)
  • St. Kilda for brunch + lunch.
  • Homegrown for brunch + lunch.
  • Lua for patio beers + food.
  • Roca for shared plates.
  • Fresko for brunch/lunch/dinner.
  • Bubba for elevated Southern fare.
  • Django for comfortable French cuisine.
  • Mulberry Street Tavern for nostalgic vibes + worldly fare.
  • Secret Admirer for frozen patio drinks + cocktails.
  • Hello Marjorie for a 70s vibe cocktail lounge.
  • In Confidence for a hidden speakeasy with creative cocktails.
  • Chu Chu's for my favorite cronuts + donuts.
  • CKD for a mix of modern + vintage goods.
  • Golden Hour for luxury candles.
  • The Cave for wine + live music.
  • Moglea for hand painted cards + goods.
  • Pappajohn Sculpture Park for art.
  • Principal Park for Iowa Cubs baseball.
  • West End Architectural Salvage for 4 floors of antiques + drinks.
  • Lauridsen Skatepark for the largest public skatepark in the country.
  • Downtown Des Moines Farmers Market for food, produce, flowers + more!
crowds of people and popup tents lining the street at downtown farmers market on a sunny day

Des Moines Downtown Farmers Market

frozen cocktail on patio of secret admirer on sunny day in downtown Des Moines

Secret Admirer

Lauridsen Skatepark


girl and boy standing in front row of iowa cubs baseball stadium with the field behind them

Iowa Cubs Principle Park

large pot of oysters sitting on table with french fries, wine and plates


view of cafe from above with white tables full of people and tree in middle of room surrounded by glass windows

Allora Cafe

glass of cold brew latte with Northern Vessel logo being held up inside sunny coffee shop

Northern Vessel

shelves of wine bottles next to wood piano

The Cave

Ingersoll / 42nd Street

  • Cheese Bar for wine, bubbles + bites.
  • Eatery A for mediterranean, pizza + a great happy hour.
  • Harbinger for well crafted small plates.
  • Lachele's for the best burger diner in town.
  • The Bartender's Handshake for craft cocktails at a neighborhood bar.
  • Creme for cakes, desserts + the BEST cinnamon rolls.
  • La Mie for baked goods, breakfast + lunch.
  • Chain & Spoke for coffee alongside bicycles.
  • Preservation for stylish + sustainable women's clothing.
  • Restoration Jungle for plants + pots.
  • Wildflower for flowers + gifts.
  • Rumors for amazing vintage clothing connected to Rogue Planet Music record shop.
  • Des Moines Art Center for an extensive collection in a beautiful space.
  • Greenwood Park for hiking trails amidst tall trees.
  • Des Moines Playhouse for talented community theater productions.
small charcuterie board with cheese, crackers, pickles and jelly sitting on wood table with glass of wine and champagne

Cheese Bar

fancy small plate of fish and bowl with a chicken skewer across top


two females taking a mirror selfie in clothing shop with white walls and large plant


a girl and boy walking towards giant wall mural of colorful geometric shapes inside art museum

Des Moines Art Center

two burgers, fries and tater tots sitting on diner table with a beer, soda bottle and ketchup


Valley Junction + Adjacent

  • St. Kilda Collective for brunch, lunch + dinner.
  • Coopers on Fifth for a delicious dinner.
  • Tavern for my favorite pizza.
  • Coffee Cats for enjoying your brew while playing with adoptable cats.
  • Reading in Public for an all inclusive selection of books (+ coffee.)
  • Hinge for women's clothing + home decor.
  • Bings for humorous cards + gifts.
  • Bozz Prints for Iowa printed goods both classic + clever.
  • Paws & Pints for a huge outdoor dog park + bar.
  • Raccoon River Park for water recreation + 3 mile walking trail.
  • Either/Or for indoor/outdoor dining + great decor.
  • ValAir ballroom for indoor concerts at a historic venue.
  • Eggs + Jam for a 90s hip hop brunch.
  • The Trendy Gardener for indoor plants + design (and free mimosas while waiting for brunch next door at Eggs + Jam!)
  • Valley Junction Thursday evening farmers market + live music during summer
boy walking through farmers market with shave ice in front of marquee that reads "we heart valley junction"

Valley Junction Farmer's Market

book store with shelves of books on walls, coffee counter in middle and large neon sign that says "Reading in Public"

Reading in Public

woman walking dog down snow covered outdoor trail lined with tall trees without leaves in winter

Raccoon River Park

plate of avocado toast with red onions, feta, corn and cucumbers

St. Kilda Collective

white dog with tongue hanging out laying down in front of mural that reads "DSM heart DOGS"

Paws & Pints

Highland Park / Oak Park

  • Des Moines Mercantile for local goods + gifts.
  • Slow Down for coffee + good vibes.
  • Cha Cha's Highland Bakery for my other favorite donuts.
  • Art Terrarium for all the plants.
  • The Collective for sustainable home goods + supplies.
  • The Little Book for little readers (+ young adults too!)
  • Divine Times Vintage for the ultimate throwback.

And other amazing places opening soon!

a lemonade cheers on sidewalk outside Slow Down in the Highland Park neighborhood

Highland Park / Oak Park

old leather couch in front of painted wall murad with people, plants and flowers that says "SLOW DOWN"

Slow Down

interior of mercantile with a classic cruiser bicycle in front of brooms and garden tools hanging from pegs on wall

Des Moines Mercantile

brick wall painted with pink and green umbrella over the words "hiland bakery" with donuts raining down

Hiland Bakery

children's book shop owner smiling at pink counter in front of large painted mural of forest animals with book shelf

The Little Book

South of Downtown / Fleur Drive

  • Grays Lake for a beautiful walk with a view of downtown.
  • Lauridsen Amphitheatre at Water Works Park for outdoor summer concerts.
  • Popup beer garden at Water Works Park for summer beers under tall trees (after a walk around Gray's Lake.)
  • Jasper Winery for summer time Thursday evenings. 
  • Fleur Cinema & Cafe for indie films + drinks.
  • Skips for classic dishes served in a cozy house since 1981. (This was my dad's favorite restaurant in Des Moines.)
white dog looking at lake with two kayakers under blue skies and white clouds

Gray's Lake

Worth a drive outside of Des Moines

  • Rose Farm
  • Pepperharrow
  • Rusty's Alpacas
  • Bridges of Madison County (Holliwell Bridge is a fav!)
  • Madison County Fall Crawl
  • Indianola town square (for shopping at Soulfull, Adorn + Feed & Foster, plus breakfast/lunch at Petit Cafe)
  • Indianola Balloon Classic
  • Jester Park Nature Area
  • Brenton Arboretum
  • Ledges State Park
  • Center Grove Orchard
  • Middlebrook Mercantile
  • Tulip Time
  • Hinterland 
Brenton Arboretum at sunset with rolling hills, trees, prairie grass and pond

Brenton Arboretum

large crowd watching performers on stage at Hinterland music festival under blue summer skies


boy jumping off top of stacked hay bales with arms in air and bright blue sky

Center Grove Orchard

group of females with wine in hand posing in front of Rose Farm greenhouse decorated with fall pumpkins

Rose Farm

alpaca on the iowa countryside with another alpaca in the background

Rusty Stars Alpacas

Where to stay

Hotel: Surety downtown or AC Hotel in East Village

Airbnb: Foxcroft Estate in Ankeny (worth the short drive to downtown)

Glamping: Iris Aisle or Pepperharrow in Madison County (disclaimer: I haven't stayed overnight at either of these, but I have seen them in person)

View from Surety Hotel downtown at Christmastime

Tiki Lounge at Foxcroft Estate

large gray hotel room with king bed, couch, coffee table and corner windows from floor to ceiling

Corner room at AC Hotel

upscale hotel lobby with leather couches, marble fireplace and coffee table with books

Lobby at Surety Hotel

large tufted chair inside cabin with wood walls and a framed embroidered flower and a guitar hanging on wall

Cabin at Iris Aisle

What's next

I will continue to add to this list as I explore other neighborhoods and businesses in and around Des Moines. I've been wanting to create this guide for quite some time so I can easily share with others. I was finally prompted to do so when I was interviewed by Redfin for an article they created about living in Des Moines. It was fun to see what others shared about what they loved about Des Moines, the similarities and differences. Des Moines truly has something for everyone.