It has a skyline possibly suited for a really big metropolis (squint hard). The statehouse--all domed, gilded and filigreed--would do a small European country proud. Lofts, condos and townhouses sprout throughout the downtown like cornstalks after a good rain.
Obviously, this city works hard to lure people in from the suburbs--for a weekend or for good--and might even look to attract visitors from such self-satisfied towns as Chicago and St. Louis.All that urban bustle wasn't what inspired me to make my first visit. I had a theory going: There are a lot of medium-sized cities in the Midwest that never seem to figure into a leisurely traveler's itinerary. Why, I bet each one has something absolutely unique, a claim to fame, a sound basis for bragging rights.
For example, I ran down a list of attractions put forth on the Greater Des Moines Convention and Visitors Bureau Web site. Besides the expected water parks, historical homes, museums, golf courses and the like, I came across the National Balloon Museum in nearby Indianola, about 15 miles south of downtown Des Moines.
Now, there's a claim to fame, a balloon museum of national reach. I went there soon after my arrival in Iowa. It must have been a slow day, because only one other car stood in the parking lot when I arrived. I had looked at vacant lots in the vicinity, along U.S. Highway 69, and none of them held those majestic, gaily painted balloons that I had expected to see.
After I entered the vaguely balloon-shaped blue and yellow National Balloon Museum, I learned that sort of spectacle wouldn't occur until the National Balloon Classic to be held in the area July 28 through Aug. 5.
I was left to wander through rooms full of wicker passenger baskets, gas tanks, artfully draped silks and synthetics--artifacts from balloon adventures past.
Volunteer docent Carol Fellows told me the museum idea got started in 1977, when a lot of balloonists wanted to unload old equipment, prizes, clippings, commemorative pins and other stuff that had been taking up space in their garages.
Indianola seemed to be the logical site, because the National Hot Air Balloon Championships were held there every year from 1971 through 1989. The blue and yellow building opened up in 1988, just as balloonists were deciding that the championships should be moved to different towns across the country.
"There's also a museum in Albuquerque," Fellows said. "But we like to think we're the one."
Interesting, but I thought our medium-sized Midwest cities should have even more compelling claims on our attention than that.
So my hook for the story got a little limp. I arrived looking for the one attraction that would make Des Moines stand out. Instead, I soon learned, dozens of other nifty things pop up, like hot air balloons.
Or the prairie dogs in Blank Park Zoo.
Sure, a lot of towns have zoos, even if none happens to have a zoo named Blank (philanthropist A.H. Blank wrote the checks that got things started in 1963). But the prairie dog compound in Des Moines has tunnels underneath so humans can observe the animals at lair-level, as well as watch them jump out of their hidy-holes.
The five Wednesdays in July are designated Zoo Brew. The zoo stays open far past its usual 4 p.m. closing time, people buy beer and chicken wings, and wander around while a band plays.
That evening was Hog Night, when participants were encouraged to ride their motorcycles to the zoo. A few did, and a handful of men sported black Harley shirts and rampant facial hair. But mostly it was just plain folks enjoying an evening out, having a few brews and listening to the Blue Band covering rock tunes from all eras.
Oh, yes. Some got down with the prairie dogs, or admired the three lions, two tigers, the snow leopard, the four giraffes and two zebras. Sea lions barked somewhere inside a hidden cove.
Here and there, motorcycle and scooter dealers displayed examples of their wares. That was pretty much all the hog in Hog Night. The resident Blank Zoo sow and her piglets were fast asleep in their little shed.
"Some people feel that `Des Moines' is derived from the Indian word `moingona,' meaning river of the mounds, which referred to the burial mounds that were located near the banks of the river. Others are of the opinion that name applies to the Trappist Monks (Moines de la Trappe) who lived in huts at the mouth of the Des Moines river."
So goes the official city government explanation of the name, although one scholar claims it derived from a scatological tribal in-joke.
We can leave that naming argument to the experts, but the river is definitely there, spanned by bridges and rapidly becoming the centerpiece of a downtown residential district.
That partly answers a question that a medium-size metropolis of about 200,000 residents tends to raise. How well does it do city?
Well enough that in my four days, I hardly felt the need to leave downtown--except for that foray to the national balloon headquarters (or one of them), a visit to the wonderfully vintage Iowa State Fairgrounds (practically downtown; this year's fair is Aug. 10-20) and a stop at Living History Farms in the suburb of Urbandale.
That 550-acre museum of agricultural life includes replica farms from different periods along a trail that wends through woods and clearings. A tractor pulling passenger carts dropped us visitors off at 18th Century Indian huts made from brush and branches. From there we could hike to a rough-hewn 1850 pioneer farm and then a spread from the early 1900s with a red barn and a pair of white plow horses.
The layout also includes a small town of "old days" vintage--chapel, general store, apothecary and a print shop, home of the Advocate newspaper. As in most of the places along the main street, the Advocate was occupied by costumed role-players. Ben Rubenking and Stacie Petersen were setting type and adjusting the presses.
That day's schedule said visitors to the print shop would learn how to gather news, and I felt this was as good a time as any to brush up.
"The editor would write local stories," Rubenking said, "but the national and international news would be brought in by the railroad." All of the local newsmakers were no more than a couple hundred yards from the Advocate front door.
Type for the four-page weekly was set by hand, letter by letter. "That would take about 40 hours to set it, proof it, print it. So the news wasn't as instant as it is today," Rubenking pointed out.
I had time to slap off the dust and head back downtown well before the Cubs game. The AAA minor league Iowa Cubs play in a modern riverside park so close to the central business district that a lot of spectators leave their cars in the city's many parking garages and walk to the game.
I strolled around the little entertainment/cultural district on Court Avenue and nearby streets. Blocks of old brick buildings extend out from the impressive Polk County Courthouse. Some of the structures are undergoing condominium conversions, others offer quaint, old-timey settings for food, booze, coffee and music.
Then, two blocks south, the brand-new and wildly flamboyant Science Center lures families with hands-on exhibits, IMAX Theater and dazzling shows.
Only a bit farther south from the Science Center on that Friday night, the Cubs would take on the Albuquerque Isotopes. Already, in late afternoon, families were flocking to a sort of ballpark Midway of batting cages and pitching machines, targets to throw at, a hammer and gong to test arm strength, an inflatable baseball museum and a giant ballplayer balloon of Thanksgiving parade dimensions. Abbott and Costello did their "Who's on First" routine over the PA system.
Principal Park (named for the financial group that contributed heavily to the recent renovation of the city-owned stadium) has a kind of major-league style inside. Its 11,000 seats were nearly filled with fans who were not so intent on the game as on the spectacle of it all.
There were between-innings dance contests, singing contests, T-shirt giveaways, free souvenirs shot out of portable cannons, a daffy bear cub mascot in a Cub cap gamboling atop the dugout.
I looked up from all the hoopla and noticed that the Cubs and Isotopes were tied and that the bottom of the 9th had just ended. It had been fun, but I was in no mood for extra innings.
I soon learned that the scoreboard was wrong, or I had read it wrong. By the time I reached Court Avenue, the crowd was roaring louder than it had all night, followed by a fireworks display. Windows of the old Randolph Hotel at Court and 4th Street and the bail-bond offices on the ground floor reflected the rockets' red glare. Turned out it was the bottom of the 9th when Cub Geovany Soto's solo homer abruptly ended the game, and the home team won 3-2.
The Court Avenue area was coming alive. Rhythm and blues poured out of the adjoining bars Tequila Tom's, Rock's and Envy. A little farther east, hard rock coming from Buzzard Billy's Flying Carp Cafe rattled the parking garage next door.
Weekenders transformed the district. Two nights before, on the day of my arrival, I had a quiet dinner at the Court Avenue Restaurant and Brewing Company. The atmosphere was virtually hushed.
On Saturday morning, the same neighborhood became a crowd scene. Tents lined the streets with vegetables, fruit and baked goods for sale, plus clothing, novelties, candy, woven baskets and house plants. This was the weekly Farmers Market, which runs from 7 a.m. to noon and provides an excellent reason not to sleep in.
Sax player Julius Brooks performed with his trio outside the old Hotel Kirkwood (closed during conversion to apartments). In front of Buzzard Billy's, a big band, the Sacred Heart Sax `n' Brass, blasted out familiar dance tunes and marches. A guitar player/singer entertained near Tequila Tom's.
After shopping the tents, people could troll the shops in the East Village, a few blocks east and over the river. The chic little boutiques have just the right big-city cachet: Smash ("apparel for guys, girls, polar bears and unicorns"), Urban Belly (maternity wear and baby care), Accenti (accessories), Kitchen Collage (kitchen tools and tableware), Sticks (American crafts) and a whole lot more.
East Village occupies old buildings or new buildings with an old look with lofts on the upper floors, but Des Moines has its modern touches too.
The State Historical Building is striped with dark pink and light pink granite circling a pleasing series of slabs. Displays inside have been done with the artistic flair of modern museum craft. The Des Moines Public Library wears a smooth reflective skin of copper-colored glass. Wells Fargo Arena and the Botanical Center look like vehicles for extra-terrestrials.
For me, the most eye-popping of all was the Des Moines Art Center. At first, I was put off by the yellowish Lannon stone exterior covering the low-slung main building. Eliel Saarinen designed it in the sort of post-war modernistic style that leaves me cold. But the building does contribute a measure of tranquility to its corner of Greenwood Park. Later additions by I.M. Pei and Richard Meier give the whole a more dramatic, even startling, contemporary look.
Inside, the museum's small collection is big-league: Boudin, Corot, Corbet, Picasso, Renoir, Bacon, Winslow Homer, Grant Wood, John Singer Sargent. . . . The paintings plus mostly modern sculpture and installations inside the galleries and outside on the lawn made it clear that I was in an important little segment of the art world.
On my last afternoon in town, I wandered through parts of the elaborate Skywalk that connects several downtown buildings. During weekdays, the skyway keeps office workers off the streets. Services along the way, including restaurants, make it tempting to stay inside during lunch hour. That leaves daytime street life rather dull Monday through Friday.
But the town compensates on weekends, when parts of the metropolis come alive.
In the middle of all the Farmers Market excitement on Saturday morning, a large man sat down where the Court Avenue Restaurant & Brewing Company sets out its sidewalk tables.
He looked up at a server. "Is this chair going to hold me?" he asked. "It's not going anywhere," she snapped.
"Then bring me something."
"Don't have Beck's."
"OK, so do your worst."
Just a small demonstration that Des Moines can do big-city just like the rest of us.
If you go...
Des Moines is 345 miles from Chicago--about a six-hour drive. Various Web sites show non-stop round-trip flights starting at $309 and one-stops starting at $288. This for an arbitrarily selected departure on July 31 and returning Aug. 4.
The Metro Transit Authority runs buses on most major streets, but a rental car provides the most flexibility. Parking is plentiful and reasonable at downtown parking garages, and most meters accept dimes and nickels as well as quarters.
I chose the Renaissance Savery Hotel (401 Locust St; 515-244-2151; marriott.com) not only for its downtown location but its history as a Des Moines institution founded by Massachusetts businessman James Savery in 1888. The 194 rooms retain the old-fashioned touches with expected modern amenities. Starting at $169, but ask about specials.
Another member of the Marriott stable is just up the block, and both hotels are attached to the Skywalk, which leads to the convention center and lots of places downtown. Most of the major hotel and motel chains are represented throughout the city and suburbs.
Nothing beats a hot dog and a beer at the ballpark. Principal Park, home of the Iowa Cubs, charges $10.75 for a dog and a large brew. Speaking of brew, the Court Avenue Restaurant & Brewing Company (309 Court Ave.; 515-282-2739) does serve designer suds, but also whips up high-level entrees with a presentation that's just so.
For a gourmet experience, I chose Sage the Restaurant (6857 University Ave.). It's nicely hidden in a block shared by a tax accountant, a hair salon and a Chinese martial-arts academy. But inside, Sage is all about good taste, from the subdued decor to dishes like my sea bass on a bed of rattlesnake beans, surrounded by halved and roasted cherry tomatoes. Entrees from $18.
There's a lot more from fast food to highly ambitious. Check with the folks below.
Greater Des Moines Convention and Visitors Bureau, 400 Locust St., Suite 265, Des Moines, IA 50309; 800-451-2625; www.seedesmoines.comCopyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times