Des Moines is an insurance town. The largest city in Iowa is also one of the largest hubs of insurance business in the world, with hundreds of companies setting up shop there. Walking the streets of Des Moines—or, better yet, the network of skywalks hovering over them—it feels like a town actuaries would love. Clean, safe, and organized are all words that spring to mind.
Fun, too. Des Moines is definitely a fun town, with a burgeoning food and drink scene buoyed by the sturdy base of corporate clientele and enough cultural attractions to keep you busy over a long weekend. Des Moines is the fastest-growing city in the Midwest and near the top nationally, with amenities likewise increasing in recent years.
Here’s what not to miss on a getaway in DSM, as Iowans call it, including some expert advice on the hippest spots in two neighborhoods, as shared by a local writer.
Skywalks have connected buildings above sky level since at least the fifteen-hundreds, but they’re a decidedly mid-century phenomenon in the U.S. Des Moines’s first passage opened in 1969 and grew steadily. Today there are four miles of interconnected climate-controlled skywalks taking you around downtown—handy on chilly winter days and through humid Iowa summers. The skywalks connect not only offices but also hotels, including most of the city’s hotels as well as the arena where Kurt Warner twice led the Iowa Barnstormers to Arena League glory. As of our publication date, the hours have been cut back due to safety concerns in the twilight hours, so you may or may not be able to use it for bar-hopping.
Much like John Lennon, Tiny Tim lived the last part of his life in a downtown residential hotel. Unlike the Beatle, that hotel was in Des Moines instead of across from Central Park. The “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” singer was a New York native who made his home at the Hotel Fort Des Moines for a few years before his death in 1996. The devoutly religious ukulele player liked the city because it’s “peaceful” and “God-fearing.”
The century-old Hotel Fort Des Moines is different now than in Tim’s day thanks to a newly completed top-to-bottom renovation. It took six years to rehab the nearly three-hundred-room property, which has also hosted Elvis and a half dozen presidents. Some period details remain in the grand property, such as the “This car goes up” sign above the elevator door.
Brand new to the space are Proudfoot & Bird, the wood-fired restaurant off the lobby, which makes great steaks, and In Confidence, a subterranean speakeasy below that opened in late January and takes online reservations.
The rooms have the comfort and polish to be expected of a four-plus-star property and easy access to everything downtown. There’s an entrance to the skywalk just across the street.
Pineapple Pizza and Painkillers
Why would you put a tiki bar inside a pizzeria and name the whole thing Fong’s? The story starts in 1880, when an enterprising young man named Lee Din left the flood-prone city of Guangzhou for post-Gold Rush San Francisco. Din eventually made his way to Iowa and, sometime between 1904 and 1907, opened King Ying Low. When King Ying Low closed just over a century later, it claimed to be the oldest Chinese restaurant in the United States.
In 2009, just after King Ying Low closed, a new owner took over the space for a hip downtown pizzeria with a mid-century tiki drink menu. But rather than rip out all the old decor, they leaned into it with Fong’s. The concept is more than signage deep. Fong’s makes fusion pies like crab rangoon and orange chicken. The drink program includes traditional tiki recipes like the Zombie and Beachcomber, which tilt just a little sweet, plus an extensive craft beer menu.
Baited and Hooked
Speaking of craft beer, Des Moines is home to what may well be the best craft beer bar in the Central Time Zone. That’s the legendary El Bait Shop, which has two hundred and sixty taps of well-chosen craft beer. But not too well-chosen—owner Jeff Bruning says he’ll eighty-six any beer that sells too well so that customers have to try something new and different.
El Bait Shop has shabby-chic blue-collar marina decor and is usually bustling with business. If you want an extremely Iowa dining experience, go to the attached sister spot High Life Lounge, which serves a classic pork tenderloin sandwich along with bacon-wrapped little smokies, deviled eggs and the onion ring equivalent of shoestring potato fries.
The area immediately east of the Des Moines River, approaching the Iowa statehouse, is known as the East Village and is one of the city’s most vibrant and walkable neighborhoods (see sidebar on previous spread). Along with all the shops and restaurants, you’ll find an outdoor ice skating rink overlooking the river in the winter plus the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden.
The garden’s main attraction is a massive plexiglass geodesic dome, which transports you to the tropics on the chilliest winter days. Inside, you’ll find banana trees that seem like they’re destined to scrape the eighty-foot ceilings, along with a large cactus garden and an impressive array of orchids.
Hiland Bakery is one of the anchors of the emerging Highland Park neighborhood (see sidebar left), a former streetcar suburb that fell on hard times mid-century before bouncing back of late. The owner bought the business—and doughnut recipe—from the previous owner after this institution closed to revive it. The doughnuts, which are exceptional, were called the best in the state of Iowa by Food & Wine magazine—normally you can take any list that purports to know the best anything in every state with a grain of salt, but the magazine is owned by Meredith, a mega-publisher based in Des Moines, so we trust the author got it right on pain of demotion to Family Circle.
If you know a burger place in Des Moines, it’s probably Zombie Burger, a chef-y burger spot known for its post-apocalyptic decor. Locals swear by Lachele’s Fine Foods, a diner that serves smash burgers in the Ingersoll neighborhood (the Waldo of Des Moines). The vibe is friendly and familiar while the namesake burgers are simple and flawless. On the way back to downtown, swing by Black Cat Ice Cream, which scoops up extra-creamy cones in flavor combos like spicy honey with burnt sugar and brown butter cookie dough.
Arguably the most significant art attraction in Des Moines, the Pappajohn Sculpture Park is also low-key and free. A four-acre plot surrounded by shops and restaurants on the western edge of downtown, the initial outlay for the displayed art was pegged at $40 million. The collection has grown since and now includes the addition of a restored Keith Haring and a scaled-down version of Robert Indiana’s well-known LOVE.
The Cave wine bar sits in a nondescript white building on a quiet block of downtown. The specialty is natural wine, paired with live music from small ensembles. It’s been named among the nation’s best wine bars by Punch and is a place that feels like it belongs in a much larger and less Midwestern city than Des Moines. Or, perhaps, it’s better to say that it expands the idea of Des Moines just a bit.
Neighborhoods to know
By Karla Walsh
Situated between the Des Moines River and the Iowa State Capitol, this vibrant neighborhood is the place to add to your agenda if you’re keen on a crawl. Dining and brewery options abound, and if you’re in the mood to shop, you have a bounty of boutiques to choose from.
Swing by Kin for crystals, tarot cards, candles and other supernatural splurges.
If leather goods are more your style, you can’t miss Fontenelle Supply Co., where hats, belts, wallets and more are hand-crafted on site.
Beauty mavens can score fragrances, high-end skincare and home goods at Eden.
Then, when you’re ready to add to (or swoon over) an art collection, globally lauded Liz Lidgett Gallery and Design is a must.
Just down the street, prepare to lose yourself in stacks of novels, biographies and cookbooks at Storyhouse Bookpub.
And to fuel your trip home, step inside The Purveyor for macarons and cookies from sister brand Doré Bakery.
Oak Park/Highland Park
Just a five-minute drive north of downtown, you’ll land at this rapidly evolving neighborhood. Once connected to the core by streetcars and now in the thick of a small-business renaissance, you can savor donuts, tacos, pupusas and thin-crust pizza at these diverse shops.
Foster more eco-friendly habits by outfitting your home with eco-friendly home goods and bath products at The Collective.
From vintage blankets and kids toys to beeswax candles and hand-crafted cutting boards, Des Moines Mercantile is your one-stop shop for one-of-a-kind souvenirs (that you’ll actually use).
Deck your halls with houseplants and trees at Art Terrarium. The flora pros on staff will coach you though exactly how to care for your investment—even if you have a not-so-green thumb.
For coffee, conversation and sweet and savory goodies from local wholesale partners, The Slow Down Coffee Co. is an ideal intermission during your retail therapy.
What’s old is new at Divine Times Vintage, a mid-century modern shop full of timeless apparel, art and furniture sourced by multiple resident vendors and a new thrifty guest host each week.
Get lost at Red Rooster Records, where you’ll discover rack upon rack of old-school vinyl, CDs and cassettes.