Five Free Things in Des Moines: Art, culture are at home in Iowa’s capital

The historic East Village district in Des Moines, Iowa, has dozens of restaurants and quirky shops. It sits at the base of The Capitol, which opened in 1886 and offers free tours.
The historic East Village district in Des Moines, Iowa, has dozens of restaurants and quirky shops. It sits at the base of The Capitol, which opened in 1886 and offers free tours. The Associated Press

Nestled in the middle of Iowa, surrounded by miles of rolling hills green with corn and soybeans, is the capital city Des Moines. A metropolis that’s experienced a popularity surge in recent years thanks to new businesses and housing opportunities, Des Moines has plenty of activities that will be kind to your wallet.

Des Moines was the subject of a Star Magazine cover story last year — reporter Edward M. Eveld found it charming — so if you had it on your list to visit this summer, here’s a primer.

East Village

The historic East Village district encompasses several blocks of businesses and restaurants at the base of the gold-domed state Capitol. There are dozens of restaurants and quirky shops that are open for perusing even if you’re not spending a dime. The Capitol, opened in 1886, is atop a hill offering views of the East Village and downtown below. The Capitol is open to visitors and there are regular tours. Nearby is the State Historical Museum, offering free exhibits about the history of Iowa.

Farmers Market

Every Saturday morning between May and October, the Des Moines Farmers Market offers local produce from hundreds of vendors from around the state. Just west of the Des Moines River on nine city blocks in the Court District (a popular entertainment hub at night), the farmers market can connect the casual visitor with a plethora of food, drinks and crafts. It may be the delicious pastries or live music that draws visitors to the market, but it’s the people watching and sense of community that keeps them returning.

Sculpture Park

On the surface, the John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park is a 4.4-acre park on the west end of downtown with art pieces on display year-round. But the park, which opened in 2009, is also a representation of the city’s revitalization as a destination for out-of-state visitors. There are more than two dozen installed works of art, each with a range of height, size and theme. Using your cellphone, there’s also a free audio tour available by dialing numbers listed with each piece. If you’re looking for more art, the Des Moines Art Center is about 3 miles west. The art center is free and boasts more than 4,800 works of art.

Water Works Park

If you find yourself full of food and culture, perhaps it’s time to enjoy the nearby Water Works Park. Just a few miles southwest of downtown, there are nearly 1,500 acres of green space laced with bike baths that cross and border the Raccoon River. Those bike paths also connect to the more urban Gray’s Lake Park, which offers a 2-mile stretch of trail around a picturesque lake with the downtown skyline as a backdrop. Bike paths connect both parts to downtown, where bike rentals are available.

Des Moines Social Club

Rounding out your visit should be the Des Moines Social Club, an arts and entertainment venue that opened its headquarters in May. While the nonprofit has been around the community in some capacity for several years, its renovated space in a former fire department headquarters is another sign of Des Moines’ upswing. On any given night, the Des Moines Social Club is hosting several activities aimed at promoting the local arts scene. And while some of them include a small entrance fee, there are many free events at the club’s art gallery and black box-style theater next door.