Free Family-Friendly Attractions in Des Moines
My husband had to pick up his new work van in Des Moines this week, but we were coming in late and had to return home upon delivery. That left us with about an hour to burn, with five kids ranging in age from 5 to 19. It really wasn’t enough time to make a paid attraction worth the entrance fee, but there are a few free attractions in Des Moines (besides parks) worth seeing.
There are 5 main freebies in Des Moines for families:
- State Historical Society of Iowa
- John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park
- Iowa State Capitol Building
- Des Moines Art Center
- Better Homes & Gardens Test Gardens
(I’ve seen a few pages list the Iowa Hall of Pride as a free activity, but it isn’t free for adults.)
Neither the art center or the test gardens were open during our visit, and we’ve already been to the sculpture park and historical society, so it made the choice fairly simple.
Visiting the Iowa State Capitol
Walking up to the capitol building, our 5-year-old started giggling, “We’re going to the golden castle!” and I completely understand why! Iowa’s capitol building has five domes skillfully covered in paper-thin gold leaf, glistening like a beacon to all who enter the city. In fact, it is the only state capitol with five domes, demonstrating an opulence visitors witness inside and out.
Why Is a Visit to the Iowa State Capitol Great for Kids?
- It’s impressive. Carved wood and granite columns, massive murals sprawling across walls and ceilings and the awe-inspiring interior of the dome make children’s jaws drop to the mosaic-covered floor.
- It’s intriguing. Last week, our 16-year-old was asking about the makeup of the government. We talked about legislature at the state and federal level. Here was a perfect opportunity to show him where so much of our law-making really happens. In addition, there are numerous exhibits inside the capitol presented in ways that appeal to children, from a model and presentations on the Battleship U.S.S. Iowa to the display of dolls based on Iowa’s first ladies (now sporting its first First Gentleman, our current governor’s husband, Mr. Kevin Reynolds.
- It’s quick. Sometimes children don’t have the patience needed for a long tour. We buzzed through the state capitol in about 30 minutes total, not counting time spent investigating the grounds, going to the bathroom … or posing for photos.
Why You Should Schedule a (Free) Guided Tour
Parking and admission to the Iowa State Capitol is free of charge, and tours – should you choose to go on one – are free too. However, if you have a large family group (10 people or more) they do require at least 3 weeks advance notice. If you just show up like we did, you can join a prescheduled tour or go at it on your own with a free detailed map available from the gift shop that shows you where you can go and how to get there. Tours last about an hour and a half and weren’t scheduled during our travel window.
Best reasons to go on one? Dome access.
Who Shouldn’t Go to the Capitol?
Kids (and adults) who are afraid of heights might struggle with the experience, from the ground floor’s steep staircase to the first level to navigating the promenade to the top. Taking the spindly spiral staircases to the Whispering Gallery at the very top might be asking too much. (Children under age 6 and people with heart conditions or asthma are not allowed on that portion of the tour.)
Other Des Moines Freebies
- Pappajohn Sculpture Park is one of the coolest spots in the Metro, with several large-scale art installations to inspire awe, fear and everything in between. Tours can be arranged through the Des Moines Art Center two weeks ahead of your visit. However, this is a real park with plenty of space to run, roll and play. (The only thing I don’t like? Trying to convince multiple children at once to keep their hands off the “equipment.”)
- State Historical Society of Iowa has a little something for everybody. There’s an interactive playroom for younger children with legos, coloring stations and other activities. Exhibitions vary greatly, from mammoth bones and pioneer history to the state’s impact on elections and entertainment.
- Des Moines parks offer residents and visitors a tremendous amount to do and see. One of my favorites is Pirate Cove park located near the corner of 3rd Ave. and 24th St., complete with rustic Moai head sculpture (a la Easter Island) and pint-size pirate ship. Driving into the Saylorville Lake area is also quite impressive, and the campgrounds are clean and have modern bathroom/shower facilities.
Planning a Trip to Des Moines, Iowa
Iowa’s capital is a great choice for a 1- to 3-day getaway. There isn’t a wealth of free activities, but the few the city offers pack and punch. In addition, there are several notable paid attractions perfectly suited to visiting families, including:
- Adventureland Theme Park
- Living History Farms
- The Science Center of Central Iowa
- Blank Park Zoo
- Boone Railroad
- Botanical Gardens
- Seven Oaks Recreation Center
- Iowa Hall of Pride
Special events are where the city really shines, starting with the Iowa State Fair in August, minor league baseball and arena football games, and high-quality children’s dance and theater performances held throughout the year.
Want to get away for the weekend? Heading through the Midwest with the kids and not sure what to do? Get in touch if you’d like help planning the perfect Des Moines getaway.