DES MOINES – If your one-tank getaway ideas rarely lead you toward Iowa, you’re missing out.
For example, the state capitol, Des Moines, is a drive-able getaway that you can even do in a long weekend.
There are all sorts of fun stops along the way, too – including Louis Sullivan’s jewel box bank building in Grinnell, the Maytag Dairy Farms in Newton, the World’s Largest Truck Stop in Walcott and Starved Rock State Park in Illinois, to name a few – if you want to see the sights.
On a recent spring visit, the city – the most populous in the Hawkeye State – was sunny and warm and alive with folks enjoying sculpture gardens, brewery and restaurant patios and more.
What I noticed first was the interesting array of fine architecture in the city, from vintage skyscrapers to lovely churches and more. I'd love to go back just to wander some more.
Because it is the capital of Iowa and the the seat of Polk County, Des Moines has a ton of governmental buildings, including the beautiful Renaissance Revival state capitol, which is the only such building in the country with five domes.
Designed by John C. Cochrane and Alfred H. Piquenard, the building was begun in 1871 but not completed until 15 years later, thanks to a variety of hiccups.
Back across the Des Moines River – from which the city got its name – sits the 1906 Beaux Arts Polk County Courthouse drawn by Wichita architects Proudfoot & Bird. Its regal feel balances the State Capitol perched on its hill to the east.
East of the river, you’ll find all manner of government buildings in classical, modern and other styles, while west of the river is where you’ll find other gems, like the stunning 1932 Art Deco U.S. Bank building (pictured below) and 1903 Beaux Arts former Des Moines Public Library building that’s now the World Food Prize Hall of Laureates, with exhibits on agricultural achievements, sustainable practices and the battle against hunger around the world.
Normally, the capitol and World Food Prize Hall are open for tours. Visit their respective websites for details. The Polk County Courthouse – currently in the midst of a $39 million renovation – isn’t currently offering tours.
For a glimpse of some fine 19th century and early 20th century retail buildings, check out the bar and restaurant-lined Court Street and the intersecting Fourth Street, where you’ll find the local landmark Fong’s Pizza.
For some internationally recognized modern architecture – in three different styles – head west to the Des Moines Art Center, whose collection inhabits a complex designed by world-class architects Eliel Saarinen, I.M. Pei and Richard Meier.
For a full story on the Des Moines Arts Center – embedded into a beautiful neighborhood park – check out this article.
The Des Moines Art Center also has an outdoor extension downtown in the Pappajohn Sculpture Park in Western Gateway Park.
Here, for free, in every kind of weather and with the Des Moines skyline as a backdrop, you can see works by the likes of Louise Bourgeois, Mark di Suvero, Jaume Plensa, Ai Weiwei and others.
One of the most popular is Olafur Eliasson’s 2013 Panoramic awareness pavilion, created for the site, which you can enter and peer back out through colorful glass panels.
There are aso guided tours, audio tours and exploration guides for the park – details of which can be found at the website.
While you’re exploring downtown’s parks, don’t miss the Robert D Ray Asian Gardens along the river, with its stone pagodas, lanterns, bridges, rock formations and waterfalls that cascades into the river.
Baseball lovers will want to time a visit to coincide with an Iowa Cubs home game at Principal Park, though the AAA squad wasn’t at home when I was there. The schedule and ticket information is here.
Beer fans should note there are about a half-dozen craft breweries around the downtown area. Although I didn’t get to them all, 1717 Brewing had some solid brews, including a couple German ryes, a black IPA, Irish red and cream ale – among others – that were solid.
It also has a nice little patio with a walk-up ordering window, as well as a large taproom.
Just across the street is the Des Moines branch of Peace Tree Brewing, which also has taprooms in Grinnell and Knoxville (Iowa), where it was founded in 2009.
The Des Moines taproom – in a renovated Quonset hut – was hopping when we were there and its spacious patio is a big draw, as are the Mile Long Lager, East Village IPA and Blonde Fatale Belgian Ale.
On the west side, near the Pappajohn, we had lunch at Lua Brewing, which had a packed patio and a well-ventilated and beautiful taproom that served some of the best burgers I’ve ever had anywhere and a great dunkel called Passing Afternoon.
A few blocks south, on the opposite side of the sculpture garden, we popped into Exile Brewing, located in a former industrial building.
Both the patio and the taproom/brewpub were doing a booming business, so I opted to grab a couple cans from the cooler to take away. The G.G. dunkel and Ruthie lager were well-crafted and an enjoyable nightcap in the hotel room.
Des Moines’ downtown area flanking the river is extremely walkable and compact enough that you can get most everywhere (except the Art Center) on foot. But the city also has a great bikeshare program called BCycle that has 120 bikes available at 20 stations clustered mostly around the center of the city, with a few farther afield.
Details on renting the bikes, station locations and more are at desmoines.bcycle.com.
One other place that requires a car is Classic Frozen Custard, a frozen custard stand south of the city that offers chocolate and vanilla, but also flavors like pumpkin, lemon and caramel cashew – among others.
Stop for a cone or sundae and say goodbye to Des Moines, Milwaukee style.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.