Enjoy Downtown Des Moines for Free
When you think of Downtown Des Moines, you might naturally associate it with the 9 to 5 business grind. But did you know there are several family-friendly activities available? And…even better, did you know that a lot of them are free fun things?! If you haven’t ventured downtown with your family, check out one or all of these awesome attractions. Here are our top 15 things to do downtown for free!
TIP: Many of these fun, FREE stops are listed in 100 Things to Do in Des Moines. Make sure you have your copy!
Next door to the sculpture park is the Central Library, an innovative and state-of-the-art building open to all with a wing dedicated to children and families. Central Library is a unique copper color due to the windows featuring three layers of glass with copper mesh between the layers. As the first building in the world to use these panels, this beautiful building is host to a variety of family-friendly events and activities. Check out upcoming events at DMPL.org and plan a library visit soon!
A part of Des Moines Performing Arts, Cowles Commons is a gorgeous open-air space that is versatile and used for a variety of events. The Crusoe Umbrella by artist Claes Oldenburg and the lighting sculpture Swirl by artist Jim Campbell make this a one-of-a-kind sight. Joining the sculptures is the popular zero-depth Lauridsen Fountain which can be enjoyed throughout the warm months. Throughout the year they offer a variety of free community events available to all. Watch DMPA.org for upcoming events.
Free Downtown Shuttle
If you are in downtown Des Moines, you can hop on the DART shuttle for free. The free D-Line runs in a loop, every 15 minutes. It provides service from the Iowa State Capitol complex to Western Gateway Park where the Pappajohn Sculpture Park is located. You can hop on at any stop! A great way to explore all of downtown Des Moines for free! Take a look at times and tips before you go.
Gray’s Lake Park
Located just outside of downtown Des Moines, but when you are at Gray’s Lake Park you can soak up the skyline views. This park offers so many fun things to do including walking, a popular fishing spot, biking, boating, and more. Pack a lunch, bring your bike, and enjoy an afternoon or full day at Gray’s Lake Park.
Historical East Village
While you can spend money while you wander through the Historical East Village, you can easily roam through charming boutiques for free. During the Holiday season, it is the perfect place for families to visit to get into the holiday spirit. The Historical East Village is located on the East side of the Des Moines River. There are many award-winning restaurants in the area that offer great food, but if you are looking for a fun lunch spot for the family, make sure you stop at Zombie Burger!
Iowa Historical Building
Take in some Iowa history for free at the Iowa Historical Building. It offers three full floors of exhibits and displays for visitors to explore. Look at real-life mammoth bones that were discovered on the floor of the Raccoon River Valley or the Hollywood in the Heartland exhibit. If you have young children, make sure you stop at the Hands-On History room where children can take a closer look at a geode and other fun, hands-on activities.
Iowa State Capitol Building
Take in and explore Iowa’s Capitol Building located just east of the Historical East Village. You can book a tour for free and you can explore the beautiful West Capitol Terrace. This is a popular place to grab pictures of the Des Moines skyline. A free stop full of Iowa history.
Iowa Women of Achievement Bridge
This beautiful structure connects the East and West sides of Des Moines over the Des Moines River at the Northern edge of the Principal Riverwalk loop. As an iconic image of present-day downtown, the bridge has two separate pathways and offers incredible views of the river from above. Lights at night make the bridge an especially spectacular view that appeals to all ages!
One of our favorite new-ish additions to the Des Moines Riverfront along I-235 is the Lauridsen Skatepark. As the largest open skatepark in the nation, this beautiful park offers a fun space for skateboards, scooters, bikes, and spectators young and old. My 7-year-old and I have spent a few afternoons here and one of the things I absolutely love is how welcoming and inclusive all the skatepark regulars are to newbies. It’s a great spot to spend a few hours hanging out and enjoying the sunshine!
Meredith Test Gardens
The Meredith Test Gardens are right next to the Sculpture Park, just over one block. They are beautiful gardens where they photograph and grow things for Meredith publications. They always have unusual plants and flowers for the horticulture enthusiast but it is also fun for kids to explore with little paths, benches hidden in the trees, and a fish pond. A very fun fountain is the centerpiece of a central courtyard with nice tables and chairs that are perfect for picnic lunches. It is a little tricky to visit here because the gardens are only open to the public on Fridays from Noon until 2 p.m.
Pappajohn Sculpture Park
One of Des Moines’ premier artistic gems is the Pappajohn Sculpture Park located on the Western end of downtown. This 4.4-acre park features over 30 unique pieces of artwork on display. Unlike museums with art on walls where quiet is key, this outdoor exhibit with bigger-than-life sculptures appeals to kids and adults. Bring a picnic, take lots of pictures, and enjoy the best outdoor art collection Des Moines has to offer! After you are done wandering the sculpture park head to the Des Moines Art Center which is a FREE admission and take in all the beautiful contemporary art and more it has to offer.
Robert D. Ray Asian Gardens
Located just down the road from the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden is the Robert D. Ray Asian Gardens that sits along the Des Moines River. The area includes stone pagodas, lanterns, sculptural rock formations, and a Character Garden. The Character gardens are large granite boulders carved with Chinese characters. A great place to explore and learn about Asian culture.
Science Center of Iowa
You may be thinking … “Science Center of Iowa, free?” Head to your local library and check out an Adventure Pass! Several of the Des Moines area libraries offer Adventure Passes which make it FREE for you and your family to make a visit to the iconic Science Center of Iowa for free. Spend your day wandering around the two-level building filled with hands-on activities and exhibits. Do not forget to see a chemistry show or an unforgettable experience in the planetarium. View their complete schedule of events before going.
Water Works Park
Another park is not located IN downtown Des Moines, but not far at all. As one of America’s largest urban parks, Water Works Park is full of fun things to do! Visitors can play on the natural playground, fish, bike ride, wander through the Arie den Boer Arboretum, and more. For even more fun catch live music on the Lauridsen Amphitheater Killinger Family Stage throughout the year.
West End Architectural Salvage
A unique and different spot, but tons of fun if you like to wander and look at vintage things! This unique shop is located on the South side of Downtown Des Moines and offers multiple floors of fun items to look at and even purchase if you want. While you are wandering you are more than likely to come across something that will bring you back to your childhood. Grab a cup of coffee or other fun beverage while you are there!