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New to Des Moines? Me too — here's what's worth a visit so far

Here are the tried and true first things to check out in Des Moines, from someone who’s lived in the area less than six months.

DES MOINES, Iowa — As a newcomer to Des Moines, exploring a new city, learning the culture and finding the best things to do can be a little intimidating.

I first moved to Des Moines in late May for work and, since then, I've been trying to find my footing by taking myself on adventures and figuring out what's worth a return trip. So far, it's been successful. 

Here are the tried and true first things to check out in Des Moines, from someone who’s lived in the area less than six months.

Des Moines Art Center

If you're interested in seeing art from Henry Ossawa Tanner, Edward Hopper, Georgia O’Keeffe and more without going very far, look no further — the galleries at the art center feature 19th-century to modern-day art.

Admission and parking are free, so check it out as frequently as you want.

And make sure to stop by the gift shop, where you can find a postcard of the scariest thing I've ever seen — Le Villageois aux Cheveux Ras by Jean Dubuffet. (Yes, I bought one.)

Court Avenue

When the sun is up, Court Avenue is a beacon of all things food in Des Moines — I highly recommend just taking a walk and trying out any food that catches your eye, whether that's Tornado Taro boba from Pho Real or endless pasta refills over at Spaghetti Works.

At night, Court Avenue is transformed into a party hub with bars galore, including local favorites like Hessen Haus, 1908 Draught House and more. After you're done getting drinks, stop by late-night shops like Fong's Pizza before you head on home (responsibly).

RELATED: Pumpkins, apples and hayrides: Your guide for fall fun in the Des Moines metro

Culture and music festivals

There's plenty to do year round, with festivals popping up downtown and elsewhere almost every weekend. If you're around next year for the Latino Heritage Festival, Oktoberfest, CelebrAsian, 80/35 Musical Festival and more, make sure to eat some good food and celebrate with good people.

To see what festivals are still on the horizon, check out the city's festival and music events website.

Greater Des Moines Botanical Gardens

As the weather cools down outside, there's one place that'll feel like a sweltering summer day no matter what — the tropic conservatory.

For $10 for adults and $7 for those 4-17 years old, you can explore exotic plants as well as Iowa's nature throughout the grounds. For the cost, it's a real bang for your buck and beautiful 365 days a year. 

Downtown Des Moines Farmers' Market

The downtown Des Moines farmer's market fills up most of Court Avenue each Saturday morning from 7 a.m. to noon (8 a.m. to noon in October) with vendors. If you need some of Iowa's best pupusas, a library card or even just some new candles, visit the farmers' market and do some damage. The market will continue through the month of October.

For a full list of vendors, click here. There are also other farmer's markets in the area that will return next spring, including Ankeny, Waukee, Johnston and more

RELATED: More consumers buying organic, but US farmers still wary

Historic East Village

If you like to eat or shop, East Village is the place to go in Des Moines. Between sarcastic Iowa brands like Raygun, antique shops and up-and-coming boutiques, there's something for anyone of any age. I think any shopping, eating or exploring pairs best with a to-go coffee and a trip to the river, but there's many ways to spend a day in the historic village. 

Here's a full list of businesses to try next time you're on the right side of the river. 

Iowa State Capitol

Full disclosure, I haven't been yet.

But, the pictures are gorgeous and there's lots of history on the grounds, so it's a must-see for anyone learning about the city. Come in and take a look anytime from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturdays.

If you'd like to schedule a free tour, call 515-281-5591.

Iowa State Fair

It's already over this year, but there's nothing quite like a gigantic state fair to fill a summer day (or five). The food is great, the rides are fun and there's always a Local 5 booth to visit.

Come say "hi" next year, when the fair returns to the Iowa State Fairgrounds east of downtown Des Moines from Aug. 10-20, 2023.

Pappajohn Sculpture Park 

What better way to spend an afternoon than looking at sculptures and taking a walk across 4.4 acres downtown? Whether you go to check out the sculptures, people watch or just have a scenic place to read a book, it's free and visually interesting.

Here's the full visitor's guide, which includes sculpture locations, instructions on accessing a free audio tour and more. 

Principal Riverwalk

If you haven't figured it out already, I love any activity that involves walking around pretty places —  and the Principal Riverwalk Park is the perfect place to do it. The path along the river is accessible for both walking and biking, and there's plenty to do if you like to skate, fish or picnic. 

The season's not here quite yet, but there's also the Brenton Skating Plaza on the edge of the East Village, which is a wonderful winter addition to the riverwalk area. 

RELATED: An Illinois native and a Minnesota native visit the Iowa State Fair for the first time — here's how it went


The trails that run through and around Des Moines are expansive, with 68 miles of paved trails and 19 miles of soft trails in total. Depending on where you go and when you go, fall foliage, rivers and plenty of dogs on walks will greet you. 

To make sure you're up to date on all trail closures or notices, you can sign up with the "Know before You Go" text message notification service.  Text DSMTRAILS to 84483 to receive trail updates from Des Moines Parks and Recreation.

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