Des Moines is a small city where people are (generally) friendly and the pace of life is comparatively slow. But Iowa’s state capitol has some features that elevate it to legitimate Midwestern tourist destination. The city boasts a surprising amount of highbrow culture, a small dose of cosmopolitanism and one of the country’s largest annual events. Granted, the number of attractions in Des Moines is not on par with Minneapolis, Chicago or St. Louis, but there is more than enough to keep visitors engaged, especially if they are looking to go beyond the urban vacation diet of museums and shopping.
The urban/rural balance in Des Moines makes it an attractive place for nature lovers and environmentalists. Though there are other industries thriving in this section of the state, agriculture is, as it always has been, a major part of Iowa’s identity. Even though farming has become big business, plenty of evidence of the industry’s small time roots can be found in local farmer’s markets and restaurants.
Iowa is known for its plethora of bed-and-breakfasts. While the number of quaint inns is not as great in Des Moines as in other parts of the state, there are several small-scale sleeping options for those who are willing to book well in advance. The Cottage Bed and Breakfast is one of the more popular choices when it comes to this type of accommodation.
Camping is a popular pastime for area residents and visitors alike. There are plenty of camping spots, but pitching a tent in one of these places is not always the best way to get close to nature. The Iowa State Fair Campground is a popular choice for tenters visiting Iowa in August, but the crowds almost completely take nature out of the equation.
State park and recreational area campgrounds are quieter, more natural venues. There are about a dozen choices within 30 miles of Des Moines, making tent-sleeping a practical option for summertime visitors.
The Gateway Market is known for its fresh produce and also for the organic dishes served in its café. Le Jardin is a classier green dining option. The restaurant features French cuisine made from local ingredients produced by area farmers or grown in Le Jardin’s on-site garden. Another green eatery is Southern-themed Azalea. It champions a similar fresh-and-local approach to cooking.
Iowa’s agriculture scene is on full display at the Des Moines Farmers Market, which is held downtown each Saturday during the warmer months. Musical performances and artisans make this more of a social event than a mere shopping experience. The market is, however, the best place to get a taste of locally grown, in-season foods.
If there is one must-see environmental attraction in Des Moines, it is the Botanical and Environmental Center. The gardens are pleasant in and of themselves, but it is the center’s commitment to education in horticulture and environmental stewardship that makes it the city’s greenest spot.
The Blank Park Zoo is one of the more impressive small zoos in the country (both as a tourist attraction and a conservation organization). The Conservation Committee seeks to promote stewardship of nature through grassroots efforts and educational programs.
The free Pappajohn Sculpture Park brings highbrow culture to the outdoors. It is sites like this that show that Des Moines is much more than a nondescript, small city.
The Iowa State Fair makes its 10-day run each August. Yes, there are large crowds, fried foods and carnival rides, but there is also plenty of exhibits and shows for people interested in agriculture. For those who want to completely avoid crowds, there are numerous city parks offering glimpses into the area’s natural landscapes. Perhaps even more attractive are the more than 300 miles of trails in the Greater Des Moines area. Many of these paths are paved, making it possible to bike (for recreation and/or transportation) as well as hike.
Like most of its Midwestern peers (save Chicago), Des Moines is a car city. To explore beyond the downtown area, visitors will most likely need to get behind the wheel (or onto the bike – see below). There is a modest bus system, but it is mainly for commuters heading to the city’s central areas. That said, it is possible to get around central Des Moines on the bus during the daytime.
Iowa, on the whole, has a large network of bicycle trails and there is a strong bike culture. With over 300 miles of trails in Greater Des Moines available to cyclists, it is feasible to get to many area attractions without having to step into a car.
Des Moines has plenty of small city, Midwestern traits. But it also has a respectable amount of cosmopolitanism and has maintained a healthy natural/urban balance that makes it an attractive destination for green-minded travelers.
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