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Des Moines, Iowa

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Personality Types that Like it Best

Did You Know … ?

  • The McCaughey septuplets, born in Des Moines (1997), were the world’s first set to survive infancy.
  • “The Bridges of Madison County” (1995) was filmed in nearby Winterset and Adel.
  • Ronald Reagan was the first sports director for Des Moines’ WHO radio station (1930s).
  • The 600 pounds of butter in Iowa’s “Butter Cow” sculpture could butter 19,200 slices of toast.
  • Iowa’s RAGBRAI bike touring event inspired others to establish more than 200 similar rides across the U.S.

Of bicycles and a buttery cow

Des Moines is the world’s third-largest international insurance center after London, England, and Hartford, Conn. Located at the confluence of the Des Moines and Raccoon rivers in the middle of Iowa, Des Moines (pronounced Da Moin — forget the “s”es) has been the state’s capital since 1857.

Active travelers enjoy its recreational trails (550 miles in central Iowa, including 42 in the city) for cycling, in-line skating, jogging or walking.

But the big favorite for this crowd is the July river-to-river, west-to-east, cross-Iowa cycling event. It is the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa, or RAGBRAI for simplicity, of sorts. The Des Moines Register is the lead sponsor for the seven-day ride, the world’s oldest (1973), largest (limit: 10,000 riders daily) and longest (average: 468 miles) touring bicycle event.

The Iowa State Fair, which seems to fall on the year’s hottest days, in August, is older (founded 1854) and has its own audience. The country’s most famous state fair and inspiration for the book, “State Fair;” a Broadway show, and three movies, it attracts more than a million attendees annually.

Fairgoers attend grandstand shows, eat pork chops by the thousands and scores of foods served on a stick and see best-in-class competitions ranging from needlepoint to vegetables to livestock. The fair’s roster includes tractor pulling and hog calling contests — and the “Butter Cow” sculpture. Dozens of animals are born at the fair, too.

Des Moines offers an eclectic collection of additional diversions, ranging from the artsy and historic to the outdoorsy and downright silly.

The city is noted for its art center and its botanic gardens. It hosts the Des Moines Art Festival and ArtFest Midwest. Iowa Shakespeare Experience is active year-round, presenting classics in historic mansions, plus free outdoor summer theater.

There are historic homes and neighborhoods to explore, where attractions — aside from architecture — range from antiques shopping to an edgy nightlife. Living History Farms and its costumed reenactors present recreated farms from several eras, plus an Ioway Indian village.

Other choices include NASCAR races, an annual balloon festival in nearby Indianola and a festival devoted to all things bacon.

Things to do for Venturers

  • See a performance at Wooly’s in Des Moines’ Historic East Village. Events at the venue are heavily weighted to alternative, heavy metal and indie bands.
  • Camp on site when attending a NASCAR race weekend at Iowa Speedway.
  • Come for the Blue Ribbon Bacon Festival, served up with a lot of self-deprecating humor, early in the year, for access to bacon samplings, bacon lectures, bacon-inspired dishes, bacon competitions and even a bacon queen. Or, get serious and spend a spring weekend at the festival’s Blue Ribbon Bacon University, the world’s oldest (2013) and only college dedicated to bacon!
  • Compete in the IMT Des Moines Marathon in October. Or, run in the Komen Race for the Cure.
  • Ride in RAGBRAI. Or, at least cycle on the numerous trails on offer in and around the Iowa capital (42 miles in the city, scores more in the area).
  • Take a hot-air balloon ride during the summertime National Balloon Classic in Indianola (12 miles south of Des Moines). Watch the show but see the National Balloon Museum and U.S. Ballooning Hall of Fame there as well.

Things to do for Centrics

  • Catch one of the country’s major track events, the Drake Relays, held in spring at Drake University.
  • Take classes in comic book art or cooking or break dancing at the Des Moines Social Club. Or see theater or wrestling or something else at the site, which was formerly headquarters for the Des Moines Fire Department.
  • In August, attend the Iowa State Fair. Look for the livestock shows, free entertainment, zany contests — and a cow sculpted in butter. Camp on the grounds.
  • Book a period dinner at one of the historic houses in suburban Urbandale at Living History Farms, a group of working farms on the grounds of a former prison farm.
  • See theater in a historic mansion — even the governor’s residence is one site — presented by Iowa Shakespeare Experience; not all shows are Shakespearean. Also, in summer, the group presents the outdoor Shakesperience Festival of the Classic Arts, and these shows are free.
  • Take the 30-minute drive east to Newton for a tour at the Maytag Dairy Farms in Newton, makers of the renowned handcrafted Maytag blue cheese since 1941. The Maytag family also gave its name to the washing machine.

Things to do for Authentics

  • Spend time at the Des Moines Arts Center for its collection of American and European masterpieces and modern sculpture — and for the building. Architects Eero Saarinen, I.M. Pei and Richard Meier each designed a section of the center. There are annual art festivals, too.
  • Seek out the covered bridges in Madison County, which were made famous by the book and movie, “The Bridges of Madison County.” Ideally, time the visit for the annual Covered Bridge Festival in October. Tour John Wayne’s birthplace in Winterset, the county seat, while in the area.
  • Cruise the Des Moines River on an authentic paddle wheeler, the Jon Anderson White Riverboat.
  • Interact with the residents of the Iowa Primate Learning Sanctuary, where one bonobo is renowned for his ability to communicate with humans.
  • Tour the Iowa State Capitol building, then take a guided tour at Terrace Hill, the governor’s residence.
  • Explore one of the city’s historic sites, such as the Historic East Village, described as the most vibrant and diverse, in the heart of town, or Historic Valley Junction, the original downtown of West Des Moines, now noted for antique shops, art galleries, boutiques and the like.

Additional Resources

For more information, consult the Greater Des Moines Convention and Visitors Bureau at