Des Moines skyline at sunset

Des Moines is perfect for a long weekend. (Photo: Getty Images)

Weekend Getaways

Combine Great Food and Art in One Long Weekend in Des Moines, Iowa

Aside from being one of the friendliest cities in the Midwest, Des Moines, Iowa, has incredible dining (zombie-themed burgers, anyone?) and nightlife scenes. Pair that with the fact that it’s highly walkable and home to some fantastic live music venues plus a world-class art museum — and you have the ultimate playground for a long weekend getaway.

Don’t fall into the trap of all that “flyover state” nonsense — Des Moines exudes a proud and vibrant spirit that can be experienced in every bar, locally owned shop and restaurant.

As always, check for travel restrictions and closures before planning your trip.

Friday: Explore the East Village

Iowa State Capitol on a sunny day
Visit the Iowa State Capitol. (Photo: Getty Images)

Head into the downtown neighborhood to kick off your first day in Iowa’s capital city. Before anything else, grab breakfast at St. Kilda — an Australian-style eatery serving breakfast (all day) and lunch. Opt for the brioche French toast or the cheddar-chive biscuit sandwich.

The downtown area is super walkable, so if you find a good parking spot near breakfast, leave your car and head into the East Village for a self-guided tour of the Iowa State Capitol building. With a dome covered in 23-karat gold leaf, it’s impossible to miss, especially if you choose to walk up Locust Street, which has a fantastic head-on view of the grounds.

Guided tours are conducted Monday through Saturday, but you can head off on a self-guided tour at any time during the building’s business hours. Don’t miss the Iowa State Law Library for its almost-over-the-top gilded and muraled surfaces and ornate spiral staircases.

From here, take a 10-minute walk over to Zombie Burger + Drink Lab, a restaurant with a — you guessed it — zombie movie theme. The burger menu is not to be messed with.

Here’s a taste: “They’re Coming to Get You Barbara,” which features a bun made of grilled cheese sandwiches, with caramelized onion, bacon and “Zombie sauce.” Top it off with a boozy milkshake to really get your afternoon started.

There are some great locally owned shops in the East Village neighborhood, and you can visit them all in a few hours. Check out Aimée for designer womenswear, Porch Light for home goods, Raygun for some uniquely Midwestern apparel, Ephemera for cards and other paper goods, Domestica for locally made gifts and Leona Ruby for jewelry.

Once you’re shopped out, grab a table at one of the best restaurants in the neighborhood: Lucca. Known for its Italian dishes, they serve a great four-course prix fixe menu featuring dishes like gnocchi, scallops, chicken Parmesan and risotto.

Post-dinner, you’re off to see some live music. Check out the lineup at Wooly’s — one of the city’s most popular spots for local and national acts — and grab tickets to see whoever is taking the stage.

Once the music stops, take a short walk to the Up-Down barcade. Here you can play classic (and modern) arcade games with a drink in hand. Once you’re done with your own gaming, find a seat next to the giant Jenga setup for some real entertainment.

Saturday: Lose Yourself in Art and Gardens

Let yourself sleep in a bit and head to the downtown neighborhood for brunch at Americana when you’re good and ready. The restaurant offers its Bombshell Brunch Buffet every Saturday and Sunday morning, which features unlimited food and drinks at the Bloody Mary, mimosa and screwdriver bar.

Your first stop post-brunch will be the Des Moines Art Center. The museum is made up of three buildings designed by famous architects: the Eliel Saarinen building, completed in 1948; the I. M. Pei building, completed in 1968; and the Richard Meier building, completed in 1985.

The center is home to both permanent collections and rotating exhibits. Don’t miss out on the award-winning rose garden at the back of the museum and the surrounding sculptures.

By now, you’re probably feeling a bit snacky. Take a ride back toward the East Village for a break at Scenic Route Bakery, known for its pastries and inventive coffee drinks.

Take a load off and give your feet a bit of a rest because you’re going to explore the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden next. The 14-acre green space is located right on the Des Moines River and has both indoor and outdoor gardens to explore. The conservatory in particular will transport you far, far away from your Midwestern surroundings for a little bit.

Pink fruit cocktail with a garnish and straw
Toast to a fun getaway. (Photo: Getty Images)

As the sun sets, start planning your trip to Hello, Marjorie — a hip cocktail bar in the downtown neighborhood within walking distance — for pre-dinner drinks. The interior neon sign is one of the most photographed places in the city, spelling out Jack Kerouac’s famous line: “The prettiest girls in the world live in Des Moines.”

Your dinner destination is a Des Moines staple for inventive pizzas. Fong’s Pizza marries two unlikely themes: Polynesian cocktail lounge and classic Italian red-sauce restaurant. And the pizzas really run the gamut, from a ramen-topped pie and a loaded potato option to a honey-and-garlic pizza with orange chicken. Plus, the Tiki-inspired drinks come in quirky, graphic glassware.

You’re in a great spot for Saturday night barhopping. Head around the corner to Court Avenue Brewing to sample local beers or head across the street for a martini at the Lift, a dive bar with art from local artists filling the walls.

Sunday: Bike Downtown and Shop Historic Valley Junction

Downtown Des Moines and its surrounding neighborhoods are wonderfully bikeable areas, and you’re going to experience that firsthand today. First, rent a bike from one of the many BCycle stations — Des Moines’s bike share program — and head to Mullet’s.

This restaurant is a favorite spot for cyclists, given its location right off of the bike trail. The breakfast menu is extensive and loved by many; the omelets and chicken and waffles are highly recommended.

If the weather is nice, claim a table on the rooftop. Once you’ve got some fuel to pedal, hop on the nearby bike trail and follow it to Gray’s Lake, located right outside of the Downtown neighborhood. This 166-acre park has a looped trail encompassing the entire lake for walkers and cyclists.

Pho with red chopsticks and limes
Chow down on a hearty Vietnamese dish. (Photo: Getty Images)

For lunch, you’re off to A Dong, the best Vietnamese restaurant in Des Moines (you could bike or drive, take your pick). There are so many things to choose from — stuffed tofu served with sautéed veggies and tomato sauce, vermicelli with beef and lemongrass and stir-fried shrimp with cauliflower, to name a few.

Everything tastes better with a Vietnamese-style coffee, as well, so don’t skip out on a midday pick-me-up.

You’re breaking out of the downtown neighborhood after lunch, so hop in a car and head to West Des Moines, where you’ll spend the afternoon exploring the historic Valley Junction neighborhood. This area is known for its antiques shops, so make a point to stop by Hinge, Memory Lane Antiques and A Okay Antiques to lose yourself in their treasures.

There are also some great clothing shops — vintage lovers will lose a few hours in Atomic Garage, and you can find more modern styles (and home decor) at Sisters. Craving a mid-shop snack? Head to Let Them Eat Cake for a freshly baked pastry.

For dinner, stick around and get a table at the Winchester Public House, a Prohibition-style pub with great bar food and plenty of drinks. Valley Junction isn’t quite a hub of nightlife, so head back to the downtown neighborhood for your post-dinner plans. Start at Exile Brewing and see where the night takes you.