Plan for a Whirlwind Weekend in Des Moines

Iowa’s capital beckons visitors with arts, eats, fashion, and other finds
"Panoramic Awareness Pavilion" (2013) at the John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park
“Panoramic Awareness Pavilion” (2013) at the John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park

Photo by Rich Sanders

Editor’s Note: Reporting for this story was completed in 2019. Consult local COVID-19 guidelines when planning travel.

More than a few eyebrows were raised when I explained that my husband and I were heading to exotic Des Moines, Iowa, to celebrate our first anniversary. “What’s in Des Moines?” they’d ask.

“We’ve never been there, so that’s what we’re going to figure out!” I’d answer.

The two of us had a few rules when it came to deciding where we’d go to celebrate such a momentous occasion. We were hoping for a destination approximately 3 or 4 hours from the Twin Cities. We also wanted to visit a place neither of us had been before, which meant that many of Wisconsin’s major cities were out. (Sorry, Madison and Milwaukee.) Our wish list: good food, a cute local hotel, interesting attractions, and decent shopping. While Iowa isn’t the first place you think of when you think romance and excitement, when I posted about our upcoming weekend, my inbox was flooded with enthusiastic recommendations, which I took as a good sign. (Why yes, I am a millennial who crowdsources her vacations!)

Des Moines is just a few hours’ journey, easily accessible via I-35, even during construction. Our first detour was Diamond Jo Casino in Mason City, a monolith casino-hotel-restaurant on the side of the highway. At approximately noon on a Friday, Diamond Jo was filled with elderly folks playing the slots—just how I like it. Iowa recently became one of just 11 states to allow sports betting, making Diamond Jo a destination for locals ready to place their bets. We had one beer each, failed miserably at the Wheel of Fortune game, and continued towards Des Moines.

Des Moines and Iowa come with their fair share of corn jokes, but the truth is that the city is home to just over 200,000 people, and it’s rapidly expanding, attracting those interested in art, the outdoors, and food and drink. It’s the perfect weekend—not overwhelming, but it can’t all be done in a day, either.

The Des Moines Art Center is the perfect example of the city’s ability to feel at once like a small town and a big city. The lovely space is calm, nestled near the water, and flooded with gorgeous, warm light. While the collection is small, it’s cohesive and dynamic, and suits a variety of art palates. You’ll find sweeping portraits by John Singer Sargent and more-contemporary pieces, including Francis Bacon’s “Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X,” adorning the walls as you roam. We were lucky enough to stop by during the run of two excellent exhibits: “Monument Valley,” an examination of the myth of the Wild West, and “Of Our Time,” a collection of pieces from contemporary Indigenous artists. Just a few minutes away, you can wander the John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park in downtown Des Moines, an outdoor attraction that boasts pieces by Louise Bourgeois and de Kooning, among others. Both the museum and the garden are free and family-friendly.

The State Capitol is also worth a stop, especially for the history buffs among us; it’s a grand building with a gold-encrusted dome, sweeping marble staircases, and a gigantic library, which you can admire if you take the guided tour.

Preservation, in the East Village
Preservation, in the East Village

Photo by Studio Preservation

My husband and I both have retail backgrounds, so we can’t visit a new city and not do a little shopping. In the East Village neighborhood we popped into Preservation, a small and airy women’s boutique featuring covetable modern lines like Paloma Wool and Minneapolis’ own Winsome, and snapped up a pair of neon-orange Adidas at its neighbor, Subsect Skate Shop. For an expertly curated selection of bath, body, and home products from lines like the Laundress, Kiehl’s, Diptyque, and Kjaer Weis, visit Eden, a light-filled modern apothecary. Fontenelle Supply Co. is a small but stylish men’s store with an outdoorsy vibe, and Raygun, which touts itself as “the greatest store in the universe,” is packed with cheeky tees for the whole fam.

If antiques and vintage are your thing, Des Moines is filled with goodies, including the sprawling Brass Armadillo Antique Mall (carve out some time to explore this one!), Porch Light Antiques, Raccoon Forks Trading Company, and Funky Finds Vintage & Retro.

The fun didn’t stop on the drive home, either. It’s imperative to stop in Mason City for dinner on the way back to Minnesota, and here’s why: Northwestern Steakhouse, home to the most incredible steak I’ve ever had. It’s a family-owned spot hidden in a residential area near a few baseball fields and has been serving up its iconic “Greek-style” steaks since 1920. Northwestern is nothing fancy: red vinyl booths, wooden walls, laminated menus are standard fare here. But the steaks are broiled to tender, juicy perfection and come with an optional signature Greek salad and a side of spaghetti. Go with it, because it will blow your mind—buttery, cheesy, and drizzled with their special sauce. A fillet is just $29.95, and well worth the drive. It, like Des Moines, is full of delightful surprises.

Hello, Marjorie's features a bright pink Jack Kerouac quote
Hello, Marjorie’s features a bright pink Jack Kerouac quote

Photo by Kenzie Wyatt

Where to Eat

Fong’s Pizza is a downtown Des Moines institution, a cheeky mix of Asian-inspired dishes and classic Italian. Get an old-school, rum-heavy tiki drink (or two) and try their signature Crab Rangoon pizza. All brunching should be done at St. Kilda and Harbinger. Both St. Kilda locations are bustling with brunchers filling Instagram with their bright and cheery plates. Dine at the bar at Harbinger, which features Asian-inspired, vegetable-forward dishes in a small, welcoming space. The pork belly Benedict was decadent without feeling heavy, and the candied ginger on the rim of my fresh-squeezed mimosa was a lovely touch. For getting fancy, make a reservation at Lucca, which blends fine dining with accessible prices (a prix fixe, four-course dinner is just $42!) and a welcoming, chicly minimal aesthetic.

Where to Play

The legendary High Life Lounge is like your grandparents’ basement bar, complete with a framed pic of George Jones by the door. After a High Life (or two) there, visit El Bait Shop next door for a vast, well-organized beer list. Take your pic in front of Hello, Marjorie’s pink neon sign reading “The prettiest girls in the world live in Des Moines,” a Jack Kerouac quote. Sip craft cocktails in a space decorated like a ’60s living room. The folks behind Hello, Marjorie also own Bellhop, a modern tiki spot. If you’re feeling outdoorsy, drive to check out the High Trestle Trail, a 25-mile-long trail which runs through five towns and features a super cool and modern, neon-lit (at night), half-mile bridge across the Des Moines River. If I could walk this in high heel boots, you can too.

Where to Stay

The Des Lux Hotel in downtown Des Moines offers renovated historic lodging complete with 24-hour gym and sauna, and within walking distance of local restaurants and bars. Bonus points for the cute bar and lounge, the shiny grand piano in the lobby, and gigantic, quiet rooms made for privacy, romance (they have Jacuzzi suites), and relaxation.