Des Moines, the capital of Iowa
, is home to a diverse selection of attractions, museums, restaurants, wedding venues and parks. View modern art at Des Moines Art Center, take a tour of the Capitol building, shop at the Downtown Farmers’ Market and take a stroll through the spectacular Pappajohn Sculpture Park on your weekend getaway or day trip.
Best things to do in Des Moines, IA with kids include the Blank Park Zoo, the Science Center of Iowa and the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden. CDC information for travelers. Hours/availability may have changed.
1. Des Moines Art Center
© Des Moines Art Center
The Des Moines Art Center, founded in 1948, houses a large collection of modern art, paintings, and sculptures in its facilities located on Grand Avenue in downtown Des Moines. The building was designed by Eliel Saarinen and combines the Art Deco style with the Art Nouveau style.
The center’s permanent collection includes works of art by well-known artists such as Matisse, Monet, O’Keefe, Rodin, and many more. The main gallery is used to display temporary exhibits that usually last from one to three months. In addition to the main building, there is a rose garden as well as various outdoor sculptures.
4700 Grand Avenue, Des Moines, Iowa, Phone: 515-277-4405
2.The Capitol Tour
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The Capitol Tour is a free tour of the Capitol building and the Capital grounds, and you can take self-guided tours as well as formal guided tours of the Iowa State Capitol.
These tours, lasting about one hour, begin on the ground floor of the rotunda where there is a gift shop that offers items related to Iowa and to the Iowa State Capitol.
The building dates from between 1871 and 1886 and is an excellent example of 19th century architecture with carvings, marble, and fine works of art.
The dome is covered in beautiful 23-carat gold leaf.
1007 East Grand Avenue, Des Moines, Iowa, Phone: 515-281-5591
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3.Downtown Farmers' Market, Des Moines, Iowa
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The Downtown Farmers’ Market is held along Court Avenue in the Downtown Historic Court District of Des Moines. Supporting 300 artists, bakers, crafts people, and farmers, it has been connecting rural and urban communities for forty years.
Farmers from 58 counties in Iowa are represented at the market, and some of the produce offered includes fresh fruit and vegetables, eggs and cheese, flowers and herbs, and much more. If you are wondering what to do in Des Moines on a sunny day, this is a great stop. Beef, chicken, goat, lamb, pork, and turkey are some of the meats that are sold at the market. The market also hosts special events like entertainers and festivals.
300 Court Avenue, Des Moines, Iowa, Phone: 515-286-4928
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4.Pappajohn Sculpture Park
© Pappajohn Sculpture Park
Located on Grand Avenue in downtown Des Moines, the John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park is a 4.4-acre park that opened in 2009. The park is home to over 20 sculptures by well-known artists.
The Pappajohns donated these works of art and represent the largest donation of art made to Des Moines Art Center.
Although guided tours are offered from April to October, anyone can visit the park and view the sculptures while the park is open. School tours are welcome and it is possible to rent the park for special events.
1330 Grand Avenue, Des Moines, Iowa, Phone: 515-237-1386
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5.Des Moines Performing Arts
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The Des Moines Performing Arts is a non-profit arts organization that owns and operates the 2,735-seat Des Moines Civic Center located on Walnut Street. Established by local business leaders in 1979, the organization presents the Willis Broadway Series and other world-class productions such as The Dance Series and the Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield Family Series.
The Des Moines Civic Center was a part of the revitalization of the downtown area of the city, and past performers include Victor Borge, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Sarah Vaughan, and many more. In addition to the Des Moines Civic Center, the organization also operates Cowles Commons, the Stoner Theater, and the Temple Theater. If you are looking for date night ideas in Des Moines, watch a performance at this unique venue.
221 Walnut Street, Des Moines, Iowa, Phone: 515-246-2300
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6.Salisbury House & Gardens, Des Moines, Iowa
© Salisbury House & Gardens
Located on Tonawanda Drive, the Salisbury House & Gardens is a furnished 1920s mansion and botanical garden. The historic stone mansion contains an art museum, a concert venue, and a library. It is one of the top romantic attractions in Des Moines, Iowa. Carl and Edith Weeks built the Salisbury House after a visit to the 15th century Kings House in Salisbury, England.
The art museum houses the Weeks’ collections of books, decorative art, and fine art, as well as musical instruments. The Salisbury House also hosts special events such as yoga in the gardens, book clubs, concerts, and dinners. The house and gardens can be rented for private functions like weddings and parties.
4025 Tonawanda Drive, Des Moines, Iowa, Phone: 515-274-1777
More ideas: Beautiful Iowa Weekend Getaways & Best Places to Visit.
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7.World Food Prize Hall of Laureates
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Located in the former Des Moines Public Library Building on Locust Street, the World Food Prize Hall of Laureates is a museum and educational center dedicated to Nobel Peace Prize winner Dr. Norman Borlaug and the programs he established to fight hunger and achieve global food security.
The facility consists of several spaces including a ballroom, a gallery, educational exhibit areas, gardens, and more. The rooms and the garden can be rented for special occasions such as board meetings, conferences, parties, and weddings. The organization offers public tours and school tours as well as holiday open houses that feature live performances.
100 Locust Street, Des Moines, Iowa, Phone: 515-245-3735
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, From LA
8. Blank Park Zoo, Des Moines, Iowa
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The Blank Park Zoo is a zoological park located on 9th Street south of downtown Des Moines close to historic Fort Des Moines. Consisting of 25 acres, the zoo originally opened as the Des Moines Children’s Zoo in 1966. Today, it is dedicated to conservation and education.
The only accredited zoo in the state, the Blank Park Zoo features several large exhibits such as the Discovery Center, which consists of several sections like the Cave, the Free Range Aviary, and the Meredith Alpine Exhibit. Other exhibits include the African Boardwalk, the Aquarium of the Discovery Center, and the David Kruidenier Australia Adventure. If you are wondering what to see in Des Moines with kids, the Blank Park Zoo is a fun place to visit on a family vacation.
7401 SW 9th Street, Des Moines, Iowa, Phone: 515-285-4722
9.Things to Do in Des Moines: East Village
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Bounded on the north by Interstate 235, East 14th Street on the east, and the Des Moines River on the south and the west, the East Village is a downtown residential and commercial district in Des Moines. It is a historic area where you can find the State of Iowa Historical Museum, the Iowa State Capitol, and numerous buildings that are listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places such as the Hohberger Building, the Municipal Building, the Northwestern Hotel, and more.
When several buildings were scheduled to be demolished, citizens stepped in, and today many of the buildings are used as restaurants, shops, and housing. The East Village hosts many events and is a dynamic and popular neighborhood.
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10. Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden
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The Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden is a 14-acre botanical garden located on Robert D. Ray Drive on the east bank of the Des Moines River. The garden began in 1939 as a city greenhouse, and today’s Botanical Garden facility opened in 1979. The Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden is one of the must-see attractions in the city. More than 1,200 different kinds of plants are on display, and the mission of the conservatory is to celebrate and explain the world of plants.
Collections include Amaryllis, Bonsai, and Orchid, among others. The garden hosts events such as Fall Gardening, Garden Growers - An Apple a Day, Story Sprouts, and Yoga at the Garden.
909 Robert D. Ray Drive, Des Moines, Iowa, Phone: 515-323-6290
11.Proof, Des Moines, Iowa
Behind a simple and unassuming facade Proof hides a secret: highly acclaimed chef Sean Wilson. Chef Wilson creates world-class dishes that combine local, seasonally grown produce with North African/Mediterranean influence superimposed on classic American comfort food. It sounds complicated, but the results are provocative and delicious. Watermelon tartar, mushroom ragu, and roasted bone marrow are just some of the delights you can expect from the ever-changing menu.
If you really want to be entertained by Chef Sean’s latest imaginative ventures, book one of his “every second Saturday” events. It is fixed price six-course meal, and anything goes. Proof has an excellent wine list with vintages mostly from Mediterranean countries.
1301 Locust Street, Des Moines, Iowa, Phone: 515-244-0655
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12.Better Homes and Gardens Test Garden
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Located on Locust Street next to the Meredith Corporation, the Better Homes and Gardens Test Garden is a display garden, outdoor photography studio, and test garden for the Better Homes and Gardens magazine and web site. Visitors can view the 22 different garden spaces, including the Path Garden with its perennials and flagstone path, the Prairie Garden that contains large perennials like goldenrod, and the Shade Garden, a woodland garden with hostas and other ground plants.
The garden spaces are frequently replanted for visitors’ enjoyment. The garden can be rented for special events such as corporate meetings.
1716 Locust Street, Des Moines, Iowa, Phone: 515-284-3994
13.Tasty Tacos, Des Moines, IA
© Tasty Tacos
When Grandma Mosqueda generously passed on her recipe for flour tacos to her enterprising grandchildren more than 50 years ago, she had no idea that her tacos would become legendary. Starting with next to nothing, the Mosquedas now have five restaurants, and people come from everywhere to get a taste of the deep fried flour tacos filled with juicy meat, lettuce, and plenty of cheese.
They maintain a policy of “fast serve not fast food” and make their tacos, burritos, enchiladas and other typical Mexican street food every day from scratch, so everything is fresh and delicious. Tasty Tacos is a renowned Des Moines institution, and their tacos have been voted best in town for years.
1418 E. Grand, Des Moines, Iowa, Phone: 515-266-4242
© Fong's Pizza
Fong’s Pizza bar and pizzeria defies categorization. Try to imagine a Chinese restaurant with tiki drinks, fabulous pizzas, craft beers, and ongoing karaoke. You can only find this combination at Fong’s. Something they take very seriously at Fong’s are their pizzas, which are Chinese. Well, the fillings are Chinese. You can have your pizza with Moo Shu Pork, Teriyaki Beef, Crab Rangoon, and dozens of other fantastic combinations, each one more unexpected and delicious than the next.
Who would have guessed that such a thing like Chinese pizza exists and that you would love it? However, word has gotten out about the tasty fare and the fun atmosphere, and people can’t stay away. Dining at Fong’s Pizza is an unforgettable experience.
223 4th St, Des Moines, Iowa, Phone: 515-323-3333
15.Things to Do in Des Moines: Science Center of Iowa
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The Science Center of Iowa is a hands-on science facility with a planetarium and an IMAX theater all located on West Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway on the west bank of the Des Moines River. The science-based interactive galleries and the education labs are housed in the 110,000 square foot Science Center in the downtown area.
The six-story IMAX theater is dome shaped and seats 216 people. The Science Center offers many educational outreach programs, including camps, preschool visits, school visits, overnight adventures, and more. The center also hosts many different special events such as classes, family nights, IMAX events, and workshops, among others.
401 West Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway, Des Moines, Iowa, Phone: 515-274-6868
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16.Splash, Des Moines, IA
Located in a renovated historic Homestead Building, Splash is an upscale oyster bar and seafood restaurant with artistic, colorful decor and heavenly food. Don’t let the magnificent murals and huge aquariums distract you from what really matters at Splash: fresh fish from all corners of the world and six kinds of oysters.
The fish arrives daily from places such as Boston, Key Largo, Seattle, and Honolulu. Their Oyster Bar has the freshest live oysters from the cold waters of the Pacific Northwest and New England bays. Chef Dominic Iannarelli is a veritable magician who treats his ingredients with the utmost respect – the seafood he prepares is succulent, bursting with flavors, and done to perfection.
His Sea bass meunière is the talk of the town. Splash has more than 450 bottles of wine, ensuring you can find the perfect accompaniment for your meal. One of their two sommeliers will be happy to offer a recommendation. They even offer classes.
303 Locust St, Des Moines, Iowa, Phone: 515-244-5686
RoCA (Restaurant on Court Avenue) is located in the Historic Court Avenue District in downtown Des Moines. It is a charming establishment with exposed brick walls and an eye-catching sculpture made of bottles. You can eat in their lounge, at the bar, or in the main dining room; each has its own distinct atmosphere.
The menu is extensive and features Executive Chef Aaron Holt’s interesting modern take on many great favorites. You will find delectable American cuisine with subtle French and Italian touches. Try Ribeye skewers marinated in hoisin sauce or pork chops stuffed with provolone, prosciutto, and served with green beans, shallots, apple caponata, and whipped potatoes. Roca has a respectable wine list and a selection of craft beers to go with your food.
208 Court Ave, Des Moines, Iowa, Phone: 515-282-3663
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18.Things to Do in Des Moines, Iowa: State Historical Museum
© State Historical Museum
Located on East Locust Street, the State Historical Museum displays exhibits that show the growth of the state of Iowa. The collections include historical documents and artifacts, and visitors can also view exhibits like the Rand McNally Globe and Wings over Iowa. There are educational programs available for students and other groups.
The collection tour is a one-hour walking tour that shows visitors how the museum takes care of its large collection of artifacts and how it stores them. It is possible to rent several spaces in the museum: the atrium for parties and receptions, classrooms for meetings, and the auditorium for lectures.
600 East Locust Street, Des Moines, Iowa, Phone: 515-281-6412
© Jasper Winery
Jasper Winery began in the year 2000 when Jean and Paul Groben started planting grape vines outside of Newton. As the business grew, the winery moved to its current location on George Flagg Parkway in downtown Des Moines in 2008. In the tasting rooms, visitors are able to sample some of the wines made from vineyards all across the state of Iowa.
The winery offers several tasting experiences such as a 90-minute educational VIP Tasting and Tour, a wine and cheese pairing, and a wine and chocolate pairing. Jasper Winery hosts special events like a summer concert series, jewelry classes, and more.
2400 George Flagg Parkway, Des Moines, Iowa, Phone: 515-282-9463
20.Terrace Hill, Des Moines, Iowa
© Terrace Hill
Located on Grand Avenue on a hill overlooking downtown Des Moines, Terrace Hill is the official residence of the Governor of Iowa. Also known as the Benjamin F. Allen House, the Hubbell Mansion, and the Iowa Governor’s Mansion, it was built in the Second Empire style of architecture and became a U.S. National Historic Landmark in 2003.
The 18,000 square foot mansion includes a 90-foot tower and was built for Benjamin Franklin Allen in 1869. Inside the mansion, visitors are able to view the permanent collections as well as temporary changing exhibits.
2300 Grand Avenue, Des Moines, Iowa, Phone: 515-281-3604
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25 Best Things to Do in Des Moines, Iowa
- Des Moines Art Center, Photo: Des Moines Art Center
- The Capitol Tour, Photo: Courtesy of Katherine - Fotolia.com
- Downtown Farmers' Market, Des Moines, Iowa, Photo: Courtesy of kasto - Fotolia.com
- Pappajohn Sculpture Park, Photo: Pappajohn Sculpture Park
- Des Moines Performing Arts, Photo: Courtesy of Nikita Savostikov - Fotolia.com
- Salisbury House & Gardens, Des Moines, Iowa, Photo: Salisbury House & Gardens
- World Food Prize Hall of Laureates, Photo: Courtesy of David Mohn - Fotolia.com
- Blank Park Zoo, Des Moines, Iowa, Photo: Courtesy of EBFoto - Fotolia.com
- Things to Do in Des Moines: East Village, Photo: Courtesy of Miles - Fotolia.com
- Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden, Photo: Courtesy of julia_mlozano - Fotolia.com
- Proof, Des Moines, Iowa, Photo: Proof
- Better Homes and Gardens Test Garden, Photo: Courtesy of shaiith - Fotolia.com
- Tasty Tacos, Des Moines, IA, Photo: Tasty Tacos
- Fong's Pizza, Photo: Fong's Pizza
- Things to Do in Des Moines: Science Center of Iowa, Photo: Courtesy of Budimir Jevtic - Fotolia.com
- Splash, Des Moines, IA, Photo: Splash
- RoCA, Photo: RoCA
- Things to Do in Des Moines, Iowa: State Historical Museum, Photo: State Historical Museum
- Jasper Winery, Photo: Jasper Winery
- Terrace Hill, Des Moines, Iowa, Photo: Terrace Hill
- Cover Photo: Courtesy of Henryk Sadura - Fotolia.com
Attraction Spotlight: Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden
Spanning more than 13.5 acres of land on the banks of the Des Moines River, the Greater Des Moines Botanical Gardens is a living botanical tapestry. Comprised of both outdoor and indoor gardens, the grounds include a tropical conservatory, shop, restaurant, and water garden.
The outdoor gardens were primarily designed by Hoerr Schaudt Landscape Architecture, bringing to life the master plan for the parklands. Through this plan, the Greater Des Moines Botanical Gardens deliver its mission of exploring, explaining, and celebrating the world of plants.
The Conservatory and Indoor Gardens immerse visitors in the living museum of the Greater Des Moines Botanical Gardens. Specimens include plants from all over the globe, from luxurious orchids to pointed cactuses. The tropical oasis of the conservatory envelops guests in the humid air of the rain forest, complete with overhead canopy.
With cactuses, succulents and many other desert dwellers, the Desert Gardens appear as architectural as they do horticultural. This permanent exhibit, maintained by a group of local volunteers known as the Desert Diggers, is a walk through the drier areas of the world. Educational as well as enjoyable, this garden seemingly transports guests from downtown Des Moines to the driest desert around.
Sculpture – Art
Art is as important indoors as outdoors at the Greater Des Moines Botanical Gardens. Used to draw the attention, create visual interest, or cause the guest to pause and consider her surroundings, sculpture is a vital component in the visual artistry of the space. The collection includes works by both local and internationally recognized artists, which were made possible by donations from local patrons.
With its bubbling waterfall, hanging flowers and towering trees, the tropical plantings of the Conservatory seem a world away from prairies of the Midwest. Each plant is labeled for entertainment as much as education, with exotic and unusual names such as the Traveler’s Palm, the Chenille Plant and the Tapeworm Plant. This permanent collection, with its jewel-like koi fish, is one of the most popular attractions at the Gardens.
The Outdoor Gardens encompass a wide variety of botanical beauty for visitors to explore. This includes various features, from the rose garden to the water garden and much more. With thousands of specimens on display, the Outdoor Garden celebrates the seasons, an ever-changing canvas for natural inspiration. Focusing on sustainable horticulture, this responsible and remarkable attraction is educational and entertaining for all.
Formed from a row of 20 maple trees, this 220 foot promenade is the architectural spine of the Garden plan. The hardscape of the allée (which is pronounced allay) incorporates sustainable features, such as the reclaimed brick of its construction. This walkway is at its peak beauty in late spring, when the maple trees bud and the 3,400 bearded irises that line its path come into bloom.
Art & Sculpture
Sculpture plays a vital role within the garden, complimenting and enhancing the natural beauty. Several pieces placed throughout the garden, invite visitors to periodically pause and ponder the moment. These sculptures include pieces by not only regional artists, but internationally recognized artists, as well.
Capitalizing on the Gardens’ riverfront location, the Belvedere creates a striking space for taking in the skyline. The area more than lives up to its name, which means beautiful view in Italian. Again reflecting the changing seasons, eight bold, seasonally planted urns enhance the drama of the seating area.
Trellis Café & Bonsai Terrace
The Garden’s Café, Trellis, also offers skyline views to visitors while enjoying lunch, a pastry or cup of coffee. The outdoor dining experience includes not only the skyline but garden enjoyment, as well. The café also contains an exhibition space for the Garden’s historic Bonsai Collection.
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Celebration Lawn & Garden
Situated at the heart of the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden is the celebration lawn and its surrounding gardens. This spacious area with is lush carpet of grass creates a venue for events, performances and celebrations of all kinds. The gardens bordering the lawn are expertly planted using a variety of annuals, with seasonal punctuations to provide year-round visual interest.
Conifer & Gravel Garden
Based in the traditions of British Garden designer Beth Chatto, the Conifer and Gravel Garden is a highlight of the property. Densely planted with a vast variety of species, the exhibit showcases some of the Garden’s most rare and unusual specimens. With more than 250 species from around the world, this dry garden is a signature experience and a must-see for visitors.
The winding paths of the Hillside Garden guide visitors through woodland and prairie landscape, to a scenic overview at the top. Pathways are lined with a diverse collection of trees and shrubs, well-established lilacs and generous hydrangeas. The impressive cantilevered waterfall creates even more experience for the senses and is a particular feature of this garden.
Parking Lot & Entry Garden
A day at the Des Moines Botanical Garden begins in the parking lot, with gardens welcoming visitors from their very first moment. This seasonal garden is at its most impressive in the spring, when more than 30,000 bulbs emerge from the earth to bathe the borders in color. In summer and fall, native Iowa grasses and colorful perennials take over, keeping the color while providing abundant sources for native pollinators.
Always a classic feature to enjoy, the Rose Garden engages not only the visual but the olfactory senses, as well. At the Des Moines Botanical Garden, this is taken one step further, with roses interspersed with herbs and other edible plants perfuming the air. Developed by Dr. Griffith Buck, professor of horticulture at Iowa State University, the thriving roses pay homage to the Garden’s philosophy of honoring horticultural traditions of the Midwest.
The ecologically conscious Savanna Garden overlooks the Des Moines River, connecting back to the allée at the southwest corner. Incorporating native plants from the area, as well as those from other temperate regions around the globe, the garden interprets the natural world in inspiring ways. With long prairie grasses that undulate and dance in the river breezes, the Savanna garden welcomes visitors to sit back and unwind.
Featuring panoramic views of the Des Moines skyline, the Water Garden is a showstopper of the Botanical Garden. This permanent exhibit showcases myriad kinds of water-life, including water lilies, copper irises, and Japanese water irises, in addition to islands of seasonal and tropical plantings, as well. This year-round, half acre garden creates an engaging experience for visitors.
In addition to its impressive permanent garden collections, the Greater Des Moines Botanical Gardens also showcases events, exhibitions, performances and programs. The Seasonal Artist Exhibit in the North Gallery features photography and art from various artists throughout the year. Changing regularly, visitors are advised to see the website for the latest showcase. The Garden also features temporary horticultural exhibits. Lasting a few months each and running throughout the year, the exhibits cover a wide variety of topics. Such past examples include Holiday Exhibition, Going Up? Living Walls,and The Summer Exhibition: 150 Years of Iowa Horticultures.
Other events include weekly Nights in the Garden through the summer, story-telling sessions for children, cooking nights, craft activities and a host of holiday programs. Educational programs at the Garden offer gardening classes and the Annual Symposium, showcasing nationally acclaimed lecturers to discuss horticulture and related topics. Children’s educational programs include art workshops, potting bench classes, youth tours and other special events. For those wishing to take the garden home with them, special plant and bulb sales provide the opportunity to do just that, and feature limited edition plants for most garden styles.
Despite the idea for the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden dating as far back as 1929, the actual garden did not open until some fifty years later, in December 1979. Momentum for the garden was maintained and built through the years by the local gardening clubs which eventually became known as the Friends of the Des Moines Botanical Center. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, this energy continued with capital fund drives to create new greenhouses, meeting rooms and a rework of the garden entrance.
The opening of the Garden Show House in 2007 renewed interest in the Gardens, as frequently changing seasonal displays attracted new audiences. With increased attention and energy, in 2008, Des Moines leaders began working on a plan to revitalize, refurbish, and re-brand the gardens. These plans came to fruition in 2012, when the new master plan was approved by the City Council. Following vigorous funding and fundraising efforts, refurbishment began in 2013. Following extensive improvements, the new outdoor gardens were opened to the public for the first time on April 4, 2015.
With such a widely varied calendar of events and programs, visitors are recommended to check the website prior to visiting, in order to maximize their enjoyment of the Gardens. The website also provides recommended “Garden Etiquette”, photographic guidelines, updates on any closures or construction and other useful information. The Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden is easily accessible from major freeways and provides parking on site. Additionally, the Smart Gardener Blog provides a wealth of information available to gardening enthusiasts whether they have the opportunity to visit the Gardens or not.
Back to: Best Things to Do in Des Moines, Iowa.
909 Robert D. Ray Drive, Des Moines, IA 50309, Phone: 515-323-6290
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