The capital city of Iowa is less than a day's drive from Chicago, but it's often overlooked in lieu of other more tourist-centric Midwest cities like Minneapolis, the Wisconsin Dells or St. Louis.
But while Des Moines does not have a mega mall, a water park of city-like proportions or an arch of any kind, it does have many other attributes that make it a worthy Midwest travel destination. In fact, the lack of a tourist gimmick is what makes it a great place for a mini vacation away from the city.
In full disclosure, I was born and raised in Des Moines. I may have a bias toward my hometown, but after living away for more than four years, I can vouch for its little city (or big town) qualities that actually do make it a standout city in the Midwest.
Des Moines may not make the list of sexiest travel destinations in the world (or even in the Midwest), but here are four reasons you should put it on your list.
1. Des Moines has one of the best farmers' markets in the country.
If there's one thing Iowa is known for to the outside world, it would be its farms. Visitors from Chicago often take a negative view of Des Moines before they even arrive because the drive is, quite frankly, boring, with flat farmland making up most of the landscape.
That farmland, however, gives way to a vibrant harvest that partially supplies one of the best farmers' markets in the country. The produce available at the summertime market comes from 58 different counties, and the market takes up several city blocks near the Des Moines River. The farmers' market isn't just a place to stop and buy a few fresh ingredients. It's an event that happens every Saturday from May to October. (There's also a smaller indoor farmers' market for the winter.)
The streets in the farmers' market are packed by 9 a.m. Saturday mornings, and customers can find almost anything, from fresh Iowa produce to flowers and from breakfast burritos to Iowa-raised rabbit meat.
2. Des Moines is the place to be, by some accounts.
If you're a hipster or a political junkie, a visit to Des Moines could be the one thing you've been missing.
The city has gotten some positive press nationally in recent years due to its affordability, growing young population and city efforts to revive the downtown area. The National Journal published an article in October titled "Do the Most Hipster Thing Possible—Move to Des Moines." Ditch Brooklyn, the author wrote, and head to Iowa.
To be fair, Des Moines is not Brooklyn, but it's not quite as far off as most people think. Des Moines has its share of locally owned trendy restaurants (like the upscale French restaurant Django and the hip burger joint Zombie Burger), coffee shops (like Mars Cafe and Zanzibar) and breweries (like Confluence and Exile) to please a Brooklynite or two.
Following the article in the National Journal, even The Oregonian conceded Des Moines is more hipster than Portland.
For political junkies, Des Moines has always been the place to be. In the year leading up to a presidential election, most of the candidates establish headquarters in the city and spend a lot of time traveling throughout the state, which hosts the first caucus in the country and sets the tone for the rest of the election.
The early start to the political campaign season can be a nuisance for those who live there, but it's a lot of fun for those interested in national politics.
3. Des Moines has an appreciation for art.
One of the city's biggest draws on the national scene is the six-year-old John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park, which features artwork by 22 artists from around the world. The park sits in the middle of downtown Des Moines and is part of the setting that is slowly turning the downtown area into an urban dreamscape. In the summer, the park fills with people strolling around the premise and wondering at the meaning of the varied sculptures.
The Des Moines Art Center makes another worthy tab on the itinerary. It has an impressive collection of contemporary art for a city of its size and houses works by Edward Hopper, Henri Matisse and Georgia O'Keefe, among others.
The grounds of the art center also feature a beautiful rose garden that is the setting for many wedding portraits and senior photos. The place is not swarming with photographers, however, so it is also a nice place to go for a quiet or romantic stroll. It is no wonder that many soon-to-be-married couples take their wedding photos there.
4. A trip to Des Moines is one of the most affordable out-of-state vacations you can take.
Des Moines is not an expensive city. Its cost of living is relatively low and there are not outrageous entrance fees for any of the above mentioned activities. If you're low on cash but want a weekend away, Des Moines is a great option.
Depending on gas prices, the biggest expense is likely to be the travel cost. Driving to Des Moines, however, is cheaper than flying to most Midwest destination cities from Chicago.
A Few Things to Consider
If you're planning on traveling outside of Des Moines for anything, you'll need a car. All of the activities mentioned above, however, are in the downtown area, meaning visitors can walk or take a bus to their destinations.
If the weather is nice, Des Moines also has 42 miles of bike trails within city limits. A bike can take you to many points of interest in the city, but make sure you can deal with the elements of Midwestern weather before deciding to pedal everywhere.