The state's capital city is bisected by the Des Moines River. Start your visit at the gold-domed state Capitol, which features elaborate wood trim and multicolored marble. The nearby State of Iowa Historical Building contains exhibits related to the state's development, including a Conestoga wagon, examples of Indian beadwork and crafts from the Amana community.
One must-see is the striking Des Moines Arts Center. Architects Eero Saarinen, I.M. Pei and Richard Meier each designed a section of this impressive art museum, which houses a collection of American and European masterpieces and modern sculpture. Another must-see is the Science Center of Iowa, filled with hands-on exhibits about nature and physics. Living History Farms (open May-October) is a 600-acre/245-hectare complex of working farms west of town that covers three centuries of history. It contains a replica of an Ioway Indian village from around 1700, a pioneer farm from the mid-1800s, a horse farm from 1900 and a modern-day agricultural operation.
There are a number of historical homes in Des Moines, particularly in the Sherman Hill neighborhood, that are open to visitors (call ahead—hours are limited). Terrace Hill was built in 1869 and now serves as the residence of the governor. Jordan House, built in 1850, was once the home of James Jordan, who aided escaped slaves as they fled north. The Hoyt Sherman Place is a Victorian mansion built in 1877 that now contains an art gallery and period furnishings. And Salisbury House is a structure based on the King's House in Salisbury, England.
The Des Moines Botanical Center displays a rich collection of exotic plants under a 75-ft/23-m dome, and the Blank Park Zoo affords visitors an up-close encounter with the residents in walk-through, natural-habitat exhibits. After seeing the sights, relax and eat at the refurbished Court Avenue District, now a center for food and entertainment.
Depending on the season, sports fans might want to catch a minor-league baseball game (the Iowa Cubs play at Principal Park) or the Iowa Barnstormers, an arena football team.
While you are in Des Moines, be sure to shop at Valley Junction, a collection of antiques and specialty shops. The town also hosts a farmers market every Thursday, late May-September. Visitors seeking thrills may want to investigate Adventureland Park (a theme park that has water rides and a classic, old-fashioned wooden roller coaster as the centerpiece of its Wild West area) or Prairie Meadows in Altoona (a horse track and casino).
Des Moines' annual events include the Des Moines Arts Festival, held along the riverfront in June, and the state fair in August. The Iowa State Fair is the most famous in the U.S. (It's even listed in the book 1,000 Places to See Before You Die, along with the Taj Mahal and the Great Pyramid of Giza.)
There are several good day-trip destinations out of Des Moines. Just 12 mi/19 km south in Indianola is the National Balloon Museum, which is devoted to hot-air ballooning. (The National Balloon Classic, which includes competitions and entertainment, is held there in late July or early August.) In State Center, 35 mi/56 km northeast, is an impressive rose garden. Clear Lake is the site of The Surf Ballroom, the place where early rock 'n' roll legends Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and the Big Bopper gave their final concert in 1959. All three were killed shortly after the show when their plane crashed into a nearby cornfield. A monument stands outside the ballroom, but inside, the music goes on: The Surf still operates as a dance hall with live bands. A memorial concert for Holly, Valens and the Bopper is held there each year.
You can learn more about the lives of early Danish settlers at the twin villages of Elk Horn and Kimballton (75 mi/120 km west of Des Moines). They include a relocated Danish windmill built in the mid-1800s, historic houses and a replica of the Little Mermaid statue in Copenhagen. In Mason City in north central Iowa, you can tour sites connected to composer Meredith Willson, who was born there in 1902. Willson's The Music Man was based on his experiences growing up in Mason City, and the town celebrates his legacy in Music Man Square, which includes his boyhood home, a music conservatory and a re-creation of the set from the Warner Brothers film The Music Man.
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