Exploring a city doesn’t have to mean spending lots of money. That’s especially true in Des Moines! There are tons of free things to do in Iowa’s capital city from outdoor adventures to places to learn about the state’s history. Whether you’re looking for a fun weekend activity for the family or a date that won’t break the bank, there’s something for everyone to enjoy around the metro. Continue reading to discover some of the incredible things to do in Des Moines.
1. Hit the Trails
Central Iowa is full of incredible trails for cycling, walking and more! Fill an afternoon with an outdoor adventure by hopping on one of the city’s many trail systems. See incredible views of the skyline from the Meredith Trail that follows the river and loops around downtown. Or head north of the metro to ride on the iconic High Trestle Trail Bridge over the Des Moines River.
Related post: 7 easy hiking trails near Des Moines
2. Enjoy Public Art at the Pappajohn Sculpture Park
Even if you aren’t an art lover, a visit to the Pappajohn Sculpture Park is an essential part of any visit to Des Moines. This incredible 4.4-acre park in the heart of downtown features more than 30 sculptures by some of the world’s most renowned contemporary artists. From iconic pieces like Jaume Plensa’s Nomade to a large bronze pumpkin by Yayoi Kusama, the Pappajohn Sculpture Park is one of the city’s true gems.
In addition to the Sculpture Park, Des Moines has a wonderful collection of murals and other public sculptures scattered throughout the city. Use the Greater Des Moines Public Art Foundation’s resources to find maps and more information about other pieces of public art around town.
Pappajohn Sculpture Park, 1330 Grand Avenue, Des Moines
3. & 4. Discover Iowa’s History
If you’re looking to learn a bit about local history, look no further than the beautiful, gold-domed Iowa State Capitol. The Capitol building is open to the public to visit and tour for free Monday through Saturday each week. Explore the monuments around the grounds and then head inside for a closer look at the dome and the jaw-dropping State Law Library.
We did this tour with young kids during our epic Iowa Road Trip and it was just short enough for them not to get too antsy.
Less than a block away, you can continue your educational outing with a visit to the State Historical Museum of Iowa. This free museum has a variety of permanent and temporary exhibits that highlight history from across the state including everything from information about early settlers to famous Iowans in Hollywood.
Iowa State Capitol, 1007 E. Grand Ave., Des Moines
State Historical Museum, 600 E. Locust St., Des Moines
5. Show Off Your Skills at the Lauridsen Skate Park
One of Des Moines’ newest attractions, the Lauridsen Skate Park is located just off of the Principal Riverwalk along the banks of the Des Moines River. This 88,000-square-foot attraction showcases Olympic-caliber park and street courses, including a skateable art installation. Whether you’re a novice or a pro, this new park is a prime place to perfect your skills and catch some air.
Lauridsen Skate Park, 901 Second Ave., Des Moines
6. Des Moines Art Center (yes, it’s free)
For lovers of modern and contemporary art, the Des Moines Art Center is the perfect, free afternoon activity. This world-class museum features traveling exhibitions as well as an impressive permanent collection of art by some of the biggest names in the art world.
The three distinct buildings that make up the Art Center are just as much centerpiece as the art that hangs on their walls. Architecture buffs will enjoy wandering the halls designed by Eliel Saarinen, I. M. Pei and Richard Meier as they take in the art on view.
Des Moines Art Center, 4700 Grand Avenue, Des Moines
7. & 8. Embrace the Outdoors
Des Moines has some incredible outdoor spaces, just minutes from downtown, and Gray’s Lake Park is a perennial favorite. With a 2.1-mile trail loop around the lake, Gray’s Lake is a popular place for walkers and runners. The small lake is also a great location for paddling and the park even offers limited boat rentals during the warmer months.
Across the street, Des Moines Water Works Park is almost 1,500 acres just waiting to be explored. In addition to wooded trails and ample outdoor spaces, a recent renovation of the park added in a concert pavilion, art installation, playground and more.
Gray’s Lake, 2101 Fleur Drive, Des Moines
Des Moines Water Works Park, 2201 George Flagg Parkway, Des Moines
9. People watch at the Downtown Farmers’ Market
While there are lots of things to buy at the weekly Downtown Farmers’ Market, visiting is an experience by itself. Every Saturday from May through October, the market draws thousands of residents and visitors alike to the streets of downtown to browse, eat and experience what Iowa growers and producers have to offer. Even if you’re on a budget or not looking to spend money, the people (and dog) watching at the farmer’s market is reason enough to visit on its own.
Downtown Farmers’ Market, Downtown Des Moines’ Historic Court District
Tip: The farmers’ market is right by the Science Center of Iowa, and if you have a family membership to Omaha Children’s Museum (or another ASTC museum), you can get FREE reciprocal membership admission into the science center!
About the Guest Blogger
Megan Bannister is a freelance writer and blogger at Olio in Iowa based in Des Moines, Iowa. When she’s not sampling and writing about food, Megan enjoys visiting unique destinations, roadside attractions, and “world’s largest” things across the Midwest and beyond. Her book, “Iowa Supper Clubs”, highlights classic eateries past and present from around the state.