In Des Moines, our Midwestern humility is a blessing and a curse.It keeps us grounded, but also keeps us a best-kept secret (or so we’re told).Within the confines of our little best-kept secret are several hidden gems (this is very meta)that our followers weren’t afraid to blow the lidoff.You’re probably familiar with the Greatest Hits, but here are some of the Des Moines deep tracks thatare too good not to share.
If you end up on every local's hidden gem list, are you really a hidden gem? Discuss. Such is the case with Simon's, who serves up dishes like Steak de Burgo and Chicken Florentine in a cozy and inviting space with customer service to spare (countonSimon swinging by your table to check on you). Their complimentary red velvet cake is also one of the worst-kept (andmostdelicious) secrets in town.
What's a kolache?" you may ask incredulously. Hold onto your hat, we would warn, as you're about to have your mind and taste buds blown. A staple in Texas, these savory pastries were brought to Des Moines courtesy of former Cyclone football player (and Houston native) Brent Curvey. Thinkfreshpastry dough filled with egg, sausage, cheese and jalapeno. We assume you've stopped reading by now to go get one (or five).
Angry GoldfishPub & Eatery
Angry Goldfish is the kind of neighborhood joint that the phrase"hidden gem"was coined to describe. It's family-friendly, cool without trying too hard (dig the reclaimed wood and Makers Mark lamps),and the food is familiar yet consistently creative. Try the tenderloin with Sriracha Goldfish breading or Bruschetta Chicken Sandwichtosee what we're talking about.
Formerly a popular food truck called"The Spot,"The Walnutis located ina converted 1920's garage and serves up American fare like thepopularRoyal Bird sandwich, which turns"it tastes like chicken"into"IT TASTES LIKE CHICKEN!"
Francie'sBar & Grill
This southside gem is another neighborhoodfaveof locals in the know, who love their patty melts, Italian grinders, pints of Guinness,and waitresseswhocall you"hon."
Sonny’s Pizza Bistro
One follower called it “the best pizza outside of Sicily”. Have theyactually beento Sicily? Hard to tell.But thisfamily-ownedNorthside favorite is the kind of place that the term “pizza joint” was coined forand they serve a mean martini as well.
If there were a dive barequivalentto Simon's, it would be Carl's.Carl'sseems to beeveryone's favorite dive bar, from townies and hipsters tointernationalmedia and politicians come Caucus time. Surprisingly spacious, it's a great place to play pool or darts, listen to a band,or watch a game saddled up to the barwhileenjoying theunderrated craft beer list.
Cooney's has everything you'd expect from your favorite dive bar. Dimly lit, cash only, fireplace, free popcorn, Guinness on tap. It's the kind of Irish bar thatactually feelsauthentically Irish, and not just the"we have green beer on St. Patrick's Day"kind of Irish.
When you're located in the heart of downtown, it seems counter-intuitive that you could be a hidden gem, but this blink-and-you-miss-it bar across from Fong's Pizza fits the bill.Serving up the best martinis in town and craft beer in a dark spacethat feels like something out of a Tim Burton movie,with local art adorning the walls, this place has corned the"creepy comfortable cool"market (or perhaps created it).
The Bartender's Handshake
The Bartender's Handshake is the type of place that manages to feel both intimately familiar and vaguely exotic at the same time,serving up handcrafted cocktails in a decidedly unpretentious fashion.The Bartender's Handshake wouldn't be out of place in Brooklyn, with its midcentury modern motif andAstroTurfpatio (where you can roast your own S'mores). Unlike Brooklyn, the bartenders here willsmile!
Ken'sbillsitself as"a not-so-secret speakeasy." Still,considering it openedduring a pandemic, we're going tomake an executive decision and let it qualify (besides, isn't “hidden gem”the very point of a speakeasy?). Located in the basement of the Iowa Taproom, they nail the speakeasy vibe, from the dark wood to the Templeton Rye whiskey barrels on the walls. Butwhatyou'rehereforisthe bourbon, gin rickey,orBrandy Old Fashioned.
When it comes to #lakestuff,Saylorvilleand Gray's Lake tend to hog the spotlight. But tucked away on the southeast side of Des Moines is the criminally underrated Easter Lake, a beautiful and peaceful lake withallthe same amenities and loads of charm to boot. With kayak or pontoon rentals, a swimming beach, a picnic area,and a 4-mile path around the lake that goes under an Instagram-able covered bridge, it's the gorgeous getaway you didn't know you needed in your life.
Yellow Banks Park
Head east to Pleasant Hill and check out Yellow Banks Park, with140-foot tallbluffs offering breathtaking views of the Des Moines River and countryside. The quiet trails are an excellent option for family hikes,and the 60+camping sitesprovidea tranquil escape andspectacularstargazing.
You don't have to be a tree nerd to enjoy the lush open spaces at Brenton Arboretum in Dallas Center. With rolling hills, a pond, tall prairie grass,anatural playground,and a labyrinth (notthis one), it feels like something out of a movie (or Bob Ross painting). It also gets our vote forthebest place to take your pup or family photos.
Parents feel like if they've seen one park, they've seen them all.But Union Park has a way of bringing out the kid in all of us. Maybe it's the giant metal rocket slide (liftyourthighs on a hot day!) from the late'60s,orthe Heritage Carousel, which is still just 50 cents per ride (love those 60's prices!). Pro-tip:you can even rent out the carousel for birthday parties or family outings.
Rusty Stars Alpacas–Well folks, we did it.Hangthe"Mission Accomplished"banner. We found the world's cutest animal, the alpaca. And there's a whole host of them down in Winterset, Iowa, just waiting to populate your social media feed. Visit on Saturdays (it's FREE) from 10am – 4pm to cuddle with your new furry best friend and pick up analpacafur hat, scarf orpair ofsocks at the gift shop afterward.
Badger Creek State Park
Sunflower Fields–Here comes the sun(flower).Chances are,if you live around Des Moines or know someone that does, you've seenthe bright yellow sunflowers at Badger Creek in your Instagram feed. Starting in July, everyone from wannabe influencers to families with kids in tow head down to Van Meter to nab a photoamongthe four-acre sunflower field at Badger Creek State Park. Put the petal to the metal though…they only last until the end of August.
Civic Center Tours
Here in Des Moines, we got shows like Hamilton and Dear Evan Hansen before many cities twice our size. (That's not a humblebrag, just a regular brag). Now you can see where Aaron Burr warms up his vocal cords and what it feels like to perform from the pit with a behind-the-scenes tour of Iowa's most iconic performing arts venue, the Des Moines Civic Center. The tour lasts an hour,and it's free. If that's not enough to make you do jazz hands, what are we even doing here?
Starting in the Spring each year, head down to Cumming, Iowa,and get fresh produce and food from the vendors at Middlebrook Farm. But this is noordinarysmall-town farmer's market. It's part of a larger"agrihood"– a community of 1,000 homesbuildaround a working farm and community gardens. Still evolving,it's a gathering space that hosts events and interactive opportunities throughout the summer and will be connected to the community via pedestrian trails and main-street-style parking. It's as charming as it sounds.
Tucked away in Merle Hay Mall is Iowa's first Instagram pop-up museum, SelfieWrld. Featuring over 27Instagrammablerooms such as a retro 50's diner scene, a sultry red room with a lip-shaped couch and a ball pit, it's already started to draw people from across the country, spurred by aTikTokvideo that was viewed over 1.3 million times. We can't guarantee that you'll go viral, but we can guarantee a goodtime and,at the very least, a new profile pic.
If you've got a taste for history andthe macabre, check out Iowa's oldest cemetery, Woodland Cemetery. Predating even Des Moines'days as the state capitol, it was established in 1848 and contains 80,000 graves, including most of the city's founding fathers. If you're deceased and have a building, street,or school named after you in Des Moines, odds are that you're buried here. TheCity ofDesMoinesoccasionally offershistorical tours, which are well worth it,but if you go,you may want to visit by sunlight. We're not saying it's haunted…but we're notNOTsaying that either.
Need more travel inspiration? Check out the rest of The Catch List itinerarieshere. And add ideas to your Des Moines bucket list with ourDes Best listsand S’s Are Silentvideos!