The purpose of this “Our Town Series” is to go beyond the familiar and find the fresh and new. My first adventure was to my husband’s hometown of Des Moines, Iowa. Unfortunately, I think many dismiss this heartland city as familiar and mundane. A visit to this city will bust that myth. I found Des Moines fresh and new!
Let’s Go Learn Things beyond the familiar….
Des Moines Iowa
Even though this was my husband’s hometown, I spent a considerable amount of time here. My in-laws continued to live here until 2008. If you do the math, that means it has been 10 years since I visited Des Moines. Where has that time gone, and what has happened to Des Moines???
In the early 2000’s downtown Des Moines was in need of updating. Mid-century high-rises cast gloomy shadows over the the tired business district. Like many Midwest cities, warehouse and railroad skeletons dotted the landscape. The life of the area had moved to the suburbs. Over the last decade Des Moines has committed to reversing that trend. Today downtown Des Moines has improved its green spaces with public art. They have created vibrant neighborhoods that are attracting young professionals to live and play in the city. With over 800 miles of walking and biking trails in Greater Des Moines, this city is rolling.
Downtown Des Moines Neighborhoods
Des Moines has focused on several pockets of development and restoration in the downtown area. These neighborhoods are attracting young professionals with new trendy housing options and fresh new downtown activities. In the late 1990’s Des Moines had very little attractive downtown housing, today you can find high-rise condos, chic lofts, and restored Victorian mansions. The housing demand continues to grow as the local neighborhood associations commit to building and revitalizing their niches. Four of the vibrant neighborhoods start around the State Capitol and fan out from there.
Historic East Village
This eclectic neighborhood runs from the State Capitol campus on East 14th St west to the Des Moines River. The spectacular State Capitol was completed in 1886, after 15 years of construction. The splendor of this building reflects the typical architecture of the time and the pride of the residents in their state. The dome is literally 24K gold. Tours of the Capitol, either formal or self-guided are free Mondays-Saturdays.
Over the last decade the East Village has rescued many historic buildings and housed them with trendy independent businesses. This area has a hipster, funky charm that begs you to sit a bit and people-watch.
This area, just to the south of the East Village, is the focus of the newest downtown developments. Historically this was zoned as an industrial region. Residential buildings, eateries and breweries are spearheading the growth of this neighborhood. As a work in progress this area is ever changing and deserves a frequent close inspection.
Peace Tree Brewing was a cavernous taproom with inviting seating inside and out. I had several favorites here but the Templeton Barrel-Aged Saison was to die for!!! Templeton Rye Whiskey is produced in little Templeton, Iowa and Peace Tree has enjoyed several collaborations with them. YUM!
Historic Court District
As we move west across the Des Moines River we discover the Historic Court District. This neighborhood centers around Court Ave. reaching west to the Polk County Courthouse. The area holds most of the larger entertainment venues of Des Moines, such as the Des Moines Civic Center, Des Moines Symphony and Cowles Commons. A large farmers market fills the streets every Saturday from May-October. The Meredith Trail and Principal Riverwalk are easily accessible from this neighborhood.
At the suggestion of Jordan of Catch Des Moines, the Visitors Center, I headed to El Bait Shop for beer and food. This was the most overwhelming (In a GOOD way) beer bar I have ever encountered. Taps and beer bottles as far as the eye could see with heaping plates of steaming comfort food wafting past me. OMG! Their website claims 262 taps and more in bottles. While this is not fine dining, it is a definitely a blast!
Downtown Des Moines’ western anchor or gateway, depending on the direction you approach the city, is Western Gateway Park. The Park is a collection of green space, modern and historic architecture and public art. I found the area a fascinating mix of urban bustle and earthy zen, truly showcasing a Des Moines fresh and new. Covering 13 acres with the Des Moines Central Library, University of Iowa Pappajohn Educational Center and Temple for the Performing Arts. But the centerpiece of this neighborhood is the Pappajohn Sculpture Park.
Suggested: Pappajohn Sculpture Park
Pappajohn Sculpture Park really makes Des Moines fresh and new
Public art and sculpture parks are terribly trendy these days. They are such a great way for cities to beautify while supporting the arts. This park is an extension of the Des Moines Art Center, located about 2 miles further west. When I visited, the Pappajohn Sculpture Park was full of kids on field trips, business people on lunch and tourists, all soaking up the green and zen space. Each exhibit was annotated with a thorough paper Visitor Guide and a scannable audio tour.
Outer Environs of Greater Des Moines
Not only is Des Moines fresh and new, it is also delightfully easy to drive. I easily zipped out to the western suburbs on Interstate 235 in less than 20 minutes. There is plenty of adventure to be had outside of downtown Des Moines.
If you are really motivated, there are bike trails leading all over the region. RAGBRAI, The Great Six-Day Bicycle Ride began in 1973 when Des Moines Register feature writers John Karras and Donald Kaul decided to go on a bicycle ride across Iowa. In the early years of this raucous event, Iowa was not really known as a bicycling destination. However, time moves on and now Iowa is a bicycling haven. Central Iowa has trails running east-west, north-south and all around. Check out this extensive map of Central Iowa Trails: Despite popular myth, Iowa is not completely flat, it is covered with rolling hills, rivers and creeks and quaint little towns. So when you come to visit Des Moines be sure to pack your bike.
Valley Junction in West Des Moines
This trip I did not have time to visit West Des Moines but I have spent plenty of time there over the years. Valley Junction is a compact 4-5 block segment of 5th Ave and Railroad Ave. in West Des Moines. It is a restored railroad district with quaint shops and local eateries. The Tavern was always our “go-to” for pizza. I see that they also have a Fox Brewing that would be worth a visit.
Iowa State Fairgrounds
Of course everyone has heard of the Iowa State Fair. This is an icon and stand out for the Midwest. It has been decades since I went to the Fair but I have lots of travel blogging friends who can tell you about it:
- Lisa and Tim at The Walking Tourists share Food and Fun at the Iowa State Fair.
- Katy at Flint & Co explores Food at the Fair and shares Tips for the Iowa State Fair
Living History Farms in Urbandale
My main goal for visiting Des Moines was to take in Living History Farms for my Living History Museums Series. See all the details in my post Living History Farms. Personally, I recommend taking your kids to this over Adventureland. But that is just me….
I loved the Hotel Renovo located right next to Living History Farms. It was a beautiful and modern hotel, providing an interesting juxtaposition with the Farms. This modern lodging definitely helps make Des Moines fresh and new.
It was a wonderful surprise to discover Des Moines fresh and new!! As usual I leave a destination with more to see and a reason to return. I hope that I have given you a reason to look beyond the familiar find Des Moines fresh and new.
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* Disclosure: I was hosted by Catch Des Moines for my visit. All ideas and opinions are mine alone. Thank you to Jordan of Catch Des Moines for the great fresh and new look at Des Moines.