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Experience The Best Of Des Moines Arts Festival For Free: My Top Picks

The Des Moines Arts Festival is an annual celebration of creativity and culture that brings together artists, musicians, and performers from all over the country. The three-day festival in June offers a variety of activities and events for all ages and interests, including free and low-cost options for those on a budget. If you’re looking for a fun and memorable way to spend time with friends or family this summer, the Des Moines Arts Festival in central Iowa is the perfect destination.

Disclosure: This post is sponsored by the Des Moines Arts Festival. All thoughts, opinions, and typos are my own. This post may contain affiliate links. 

People browse an art booth at the Des Moines Arts Festival
Photo courtesy Des Moines Arts Festival

There are plenty of free activities and events to enjoy at the Des Moines Arts Festival. One of the highlights is the live music performances, which showcase a diverse range of genres and artists throughout the weekend. You can also check out the interactive art displays and installations scattered throughout the festival grounds. In this blog post, I’ll share some of the best free things to do with your friends at the festival, so you can enjoy all the fun without breaking the bank.

Intro to the Des Moines Arts Festival

The Des Moines Arts Festival presented by Nationwide is a three-day arts and culture festival featuring 190 professional and emerging artists, live music, strolling street theatre, interactive arts activities and a variety of culinary offerings. In its 26th year, the festival will be held June 23-25, 2023 in Western Gateway Park, Downtown Des Moines, Iowa, surrounding the famed John & Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park. Remember the name of that park, because I’ll tell you about that soon.

Kids and adults coloring a community art project at the Des Moines Arts Festival

I brought my kids to the festival a few years ago and they had a lot of fun with all the interactive activities. This year though, I’m excited to say I’m planning a trip with a friend, so it’s going to be a whole new experience: A girlfriends’ getaway!

Important things to know about the Des Moines Arts Festival 

The most important thing (in my opinion) to know about the festival that most activities are going to be free! Admission is free. Parking is free. The live music and film festival are free. The interactive art activities are free.

Des Moines Arts Festival tents line 15th Street
Photo courtesy Des Moines Arts Festival

And all that free stuff is great because, if you’re like me, that leaves me a bigger budget for things like shopping, food and drinks. It’s all thanks to generous sponsors like Nationwide.

Other key festival details to know:

  • The festival is June 23–25, 2023. It’s open on Friday & Saturday from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. (Creative Zone closes at 7 p.m.), and on Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
  • There will be two food courts, plus stand alone food booths, at the festival. Vendors use all compostable serving materials.
  • The cool, covered VIP hospitality suites are designed by and executed by Silent Rivers Design + Build. They have a great view of the Main Stage, plus access to air conditioned restrooms.
Adults in the VIP hospitality suites at the Des Moines Arts Festival
Photo courtesy Des Moines Arts Festival

Free things to do with your friends at the arts festival

Where do I even begin with what I plan to do with my friend (she’s a trouper for letting me have free reign in planning)? Obviously, we’ll browse the art fair, which features visual artists from 32 states as well as Canada and Argentina. They were selected from a pool of 850 applicants through a rigorous blind, jury process. 

Sister Hazel promotional photo
Sister Hazel/Photo courtesy Des Moines Arts Festival

I love a good outdoor concert, though, so you’ll find me at one of the music stages for a large part of the 2023 Des Moines Arts Festival. The band I’m most excited about is alternative rock band Sister Hazel. They made it big with the single “All For You.”

There are two stages, though, so there’s a lot more music to be enjoyed. The 502s and Satsang join Sister Hazel in headlining on the Hy-Vee Main Stage. Buffalo Nichols and Joshua Ray Walker lead the Roots Stage. There will also be roaming street theater performances by Roberto the Magnificent and Bill Robison.

The HyVee Main Stage at the Des Moines Arts Festival
Photo by Alan Jacobs/Courtesy Des Moines Arts Festival

Tip: Concert seating is first-come, first-serve; early arrival is encouraged for each night’s headline acts. Blankets and lawn chairs are allowed.

Festival attendees can take part in the Billboard Project presented by Athene. It’s going to be a billboard-sized interactive art mural where we can create individual tile-sized art pieces that collectively create the full work of art. 

The billboard-sized mural is just one of the interactive art activities at the festival. There will be 25 interactive arts activities including MidAmerican Energy’s BOOM Art. And like nearly everything else at the arts festival, those interactive art activities are free! (Between you and me, this is going to be so much more fun doing the art rather than watching my kids do the art like last time.)

BOOM Art booth/Photo courtesy Des Moines Arts Festival

Don’t forget the Interrobang Film Festival is also a part of the Des Moines Arts Festival. It is a juried show, including public showings and panel discussions. About 40 films from around the world are screened each year in the air-conditioned Des Moines Central Library, on the east end of the festival grounds.

Is the Des Moines Arts Festival an overnight or weekend trip?

Downtown Des Moines is a little more than 130 miles away from Omaha. If you only plan on doing festival activities, then you would be fine planning an overnight getaway. However, there’s a lot more to see and do in Des Moines, so you may want to extend your stay for the whole weekend.

Where to stay near the festival

Hotel Fort Des Moines/Photo courtesy Des Moines Arts Festival

Des Moines has a variety of hotels for different budgets, but I know of only one that is offering 20% off their best rate for Des Moines Arts Festival guests: Hotel Fort Des Moines. Located just one block from the festival site, the Hotel Fort Des Moines is a modern hotel with over 100 years of history.

To get the discount, you’ll need to book through the festival link above. If you go through a hotel review site like Booking.com, you won’t get that rate.

What else is near the Des Moines Arts Festival?

Don’t miss the chance to see even more world-class art for free, though in this case, I’m talking giant public art. John & Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park shares the same space as the arts festival, so definitely make time to stroll the grounds. There are some very Instagrammable spots in the park. 

A kid plays near a sculpture at John & Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park

If you’re around on Saturday morning, make your way to the Des Moines Farmers Market. It’s a popular summer tradition held weekly in the Downtown Des Moines’ Historic Court District. For more activity ideas, check out this huge list of the best things to do in Des Moines this summer.

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The Des Moines Arts Festival is a great opportunity to immerse yourself in art, culture, and entertainment without having to spend a lot of money. From live music performances to interactive art installations, there are plenty of free activities to enjoy with your friends. By taking advantage of these budget-friendly options, you can make the most of your time at the festival without worrying about your wallet.

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