Lisa had the rare weekend day off so we decided to take a day trip to Des Moines, Iowa. It is the capital of Iowa and about a 2-hour drive from Omaha. We did not think the trip warranted an overnight stay (though, later, we realized it could be a fun overnight trip). Our trip was a full one, from windmills in western Iowa – traditional Danish to the energy-producing modern – to lunch at a restaurant using zombies as its theme.
Des Moines may not seem like it would be worth a trip out of Omaha. But it was. Sidenote: we met a couple at Heartland of America Park in downtown Omaha a few years ago. they had come to Omaha for a day trip and loved our city. I mentioned we were interested in visiting Des Moines, as well. Their response was “Why? There is nothing to do there.” Guess they may not have been big suppporters of their city. We found a lot to do in the roughly seven hours we were there.
Overall, we spent 90 minutes on a tour of the state Capitol building, and and additional 30 minutes roaming the capitol grounds. We visited the domed Des Moines Botanical Gardens, River Walk – including the Center Street walkway bridge and an Asian garden, and a modern art-based sculpture park.
Our trip started with a stop in Elk Horn, Iowa, to see the authentic Danish windmill at the visitors center. We arrived too early to actually go into the visitors center (open 9 a.m. – 5 p.m.), so we took photos of the windmill. There is a bust of famed Danish fairy tale author Hans Christian Andersen. Not sure why; other than he is Danish. The windmill was cool to look at. It was the worth the 15 minutes off and back on the interstate.
A few miles east on I-80 are “windmill farms.” These energy producing windmills dot several farmfields along the way.
Des Moines istelf is a decent city to drive through. Traffic flowed well. Exits are well-marked and easily accessible. The downtown area actually posted signs highlighting attractions and the direction to each. It reminded me of Minneapolis.
Our first stop in the capital was the Capitol. Free tours are offered hourly between 9:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. Monday thru Saturday. I recommend taking a guided tour as the guide has access to rooms that are not available on self-guided tours. They started with a brief history of the capitol building and how Des Moines became the capital city.
I recommend a guided tour. Guided tours take about 90 minutes, and are well worth it. The guide has access to rooms not available during self-guided tours. Access included the original State Supreme Court room, state law library and the stairwell to the “whispering gallery.” The gallery is as high as anyone can climb stairwise. It’s approximately 170 feet above the main floor. It is as close to the dome as the public can get.
The tour also includes viewings of both chambers of the Legislature – House of Representatives and the state Senate. Iowa has a partisan legislature, so members are Republicans, Democrats or Independents. The House of Representatives has 100 members, while the Sentate has 50 members.
The original House of Representatives was destroyed by a fire in 1904. The decor in both chambers is considerably different. The Senate has more excess in its decor. The House does not have as nice of chandeliers, etc.
The state law library is located in the Capitol Building. The library was simply beautiful. Photos do not do the room justice. It is worth the trip just to spend time there. I talked with another guy shooting photos and we agreed we could stay in the library for hours. Scott Pelley of “CBS Evening News” reported on the Iowa Caucus from the library in January.
Possibly, the most popular view in the Capitol is the rotunda’s dome. The American flag flies hundreds of feet above the floor. the blue sky backdrop gives a perception that the flag in flying in the air.
Following the building tour, Lisa and I walked around the capitol grounds, viewing several monuments and sculptures. There is a statue recognizing the service of a long-time senator, as well as a monument honoring the 13 original American colonies.
One of my favorite statues was one with President Abraham reading to his son, Tad. Lincoln is one of my favorite presidents of all time.
We asked locals for a nice local restaurant to try and the folks highly recommended Zombie Burgers. It is centrally located in the Capital district, about 5-6 blocks from the Capitol and near the river walk and botanical center. You can park near the restaurant and walk to any of those areas with ease.
The menu is full of delicious sounding items, from the popular Zombie Burger to Sarah’s Revenge, a very spicy burger. Burgers come in three slice types – single, double tap (double burger) and triple. The triple “guarantees” the zombie burger is truly dead. Based on our burgers – Lisa had the Dead Moines and I had George Romero’s Pittsburgher – and others we saw, there is no way not to be stuffed. We ordered a basket of fries to split, but the two of us maybe ate a total of 10-15. It was a waste of of an order, to be honest. The sandwiches are enough.
The menu looks like a newspaper with “Dead” stories. The headline on ours was that Gov. Brainstad was going to run for President. He did not see a limited vocabulary or the taste for human brains as an obstacle to election. The menu is on the back page. Nice marketing.
Following lunch, we felt the need to really walk off the zombie burgers. We headed over to the Des Moines Botanical Center. It is a small domed facility. While it was nice to visit, it was not as impressive in person as it looked on the internet. It’s not a must-see attraction in my opinion. Some of the plants and trees were pretty, but it was not worth it. We’ve seen better botanical centers in other cities, including Omaha, St. Louis and Oklahoma City. I am a bit biased, too, in that after seeing palm trees in the Philippines, seeing one in Des Moines is not a big deal.
Afterward, we headed across the street to the River Walk. It had a variety of attractions to view. There is an American wooded area with a variety of trees and plants. Several people spent the afternoon sitting on park benches and lawn chairs working on paintings of the area.
The River Walk is punctuated by its main attraction – the Center Street Bridge. The bridge is unique. It has two paths, separated for walkers/joggers and bicyclists. However, it seems people take whichever path they feel like taking. In the middle, is a connecting walkway. You can see the river below though plexiglass in the concrete. It is lit at night and apparently quite a sight, according to locals.
The bridge connects the east and west sides of the River. On the west side is the Wells Fargo Arena. It is home to the Iowa Barnstormers of the Arena Football League, as well as an NBA Developmental League team.
The arena hosted the Women’s NCAA basketball tournament regional this weekend. Baylor and Tennessee are the top teams in the bracket and meet Monday for a trip to the Final Four.
The Asian Garden was a nice area to visit. The attraction was the result of efforts put forth by former Gov. Robert Ray.
We closed out our visit with a trip to the Pappajohn Sculpture Garden on Grand Avenue. It has several modern art pieces. From a white tree to a woman getting into the bathtub, the park had multiple eclectic pieces. It was worth the walk. It only takes a few minutes to tour.
So, if in Omaha, and you want something to do out of town, take a drive down I-80 and check out Des Moines. It is a nice clean and friendly town – a smaller Omaha, someone said. If you are planning a trip through the U.S. and you are traveling through Des Moines, take the time to visit. You’ll appreciate it.
On the way home, we had to stop by the local Harley Davidson store, so Lisa could get a photo of the “Big Barn.”
Lisa and I hope you enjoyed the article and the photos: