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Des Moines Guide


Des Moines, Iowa’s capital city, is not only a great city to visit, but also provides the perfect springboard from which to explore other areas in the Midwest. Its attractions include something for everyone, with a range of good museums housing informative historical displays and art exhibits, a zoo and a local Botanical Centre, as well as amazing mounds created by Native American Indians.

The city has several notable buildings, including the Basilica of St John, which was built 15 years ago in Romanesque style and has a beautiful marble interior and stained-glass windows, and the historical Hoyt Sherman Place, dating from 1877 and showcasing artwork and antiques.

The history of America’s heartland is well documented in the Des Moines Historical Museum; while the Heritage Gallery and the Arts Centre, with exhibits of work from the 19th and 20th centuries, make ideal outings for art lovers.

The Botanical Centre, with the largest collection of plants to be found in the Midwest, is a wonderful place to spend a leisurely afternoon among indigenous flora. The nearby Blank Park Zoo provides a fun outing for families, with a range of local animals and more exotic species from farther afield. The zoo includes a display of 70 moon jellyfish in a 2,500-gallon saltwater cylinder, the first of its kind in Iowa.

An intriguing attraction, and one that no history buff should miss, is the Effigy Mounds National Monument, situated slightly northeast of Des Moines. Here you can view massive mounds, built over a thousand years ago by ancient Native Americans who vanished before the arrival of Christopher Columbus. Little else is known about the monument, except that most of the structures were burial sites.

There are 195 mounds spread over 1,022 hectares of land. Of these, 31 are shaped in an array of animal forms, depicting eagles, falcons, bear, bison, deer, turtles and lizards. The others are conical, linear or compound. Natural features in the mounds include forests, grasses, wetlands and rivers.

The major suburbs in Des Moines are: Clive, Crestwood, Fort de Moines, Lovington, Millman, Norwoodville, Pleasant Hill, Rider, Windsor Heights and Urbandale.


Urbandale, 16kms west of Des Moines city centre, is home to the Living History Farms, a 243-hectare outdoor museum which traces the development of agriculture on Iowa’s prairie lands. Five historical time periods over 300 years are represented.

Self-guided tours move from the oval bark houses of 18th century Iowan settlements, to 1850s homesteads, to modern agricultural techniques of the present day. At the entrance to the farm are a hotel and the Iowa Machine Shed Restaurant, serving hearty portions of country fare like meatloaf and chops.

The Iowa Gold Star Museum, situated at historic Camp Dodge in Johnston, honours Iowans who have served the state and the country. Displays range from a collection of artefacts from the Civil War to exhibits documenting modern periods in history.

Adventureland Park, at Altoona, has over 100 rides, shows and attractions, including three exciting rollercoasters certain to get your adrenalin flowing. This is a great place to take children on an adventure; additionally, there are hotels and campgrounds conveniently located next to the park.

The city of Clive offers a wide range of recreational trails and opportunities, as well as three modern retail centres and a variety of delectable restaurants.

The Raccoon River Valley Trail is a 90-kilometre long, asphalt covered environmental and recreational trail which covers three branches of the Raccoon River system in Dallas County.

Along the trail there are multiple points of historical and natural interest, including: the Guthrie County Historical Village in Panora; views of the antique French Tudor House in Adel; and scenic vistas of native prairie land that show Dallas as it was before it was populated. Hiking, biking, in-line skating, jogging and skiing are all possible along the trail.

To & From

Des Moines Airport is Iowa’s largest, and is served by 12 different airlines, with flights going to and from 15 other airports. International passengers headed for Des Moines are likely to pass through Memphis, Chicago, Minneapolis or Atlanta before reaching the city.

Airfares to Des Moines tend to be extremely high, and if you have the time, it is far more cost effective to fly into one of the surrounding cities and drive the rest of the way. This will also make your stay in Des Moines easier, as public transportation is limited.

Two interstate highways cut through Des Moines, making it easily accessible by car. I-80 cuts through Des Moines en route from Illinois to Oregon. I-35, from Minneapolis, reaches Des Moines before continuing south as far as New Orleans.

Des Moines is conveniently located between Chicago and San Francisco on the Amtrak rail route. Both of these cities have extensive rail links to other destinations in the US. From Chicago, it’s possible to reach most major cities in the Midwest by train, as well as destinations along the east coast and to the south. San Francisco’s train network serves towns and cities along the west coast.

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