If you don’t pay much attention to politics (or don’t live someplace where the presidential election cycle has been impossible to ignore for nearly a year), you might not be as aware of Iowa’s campaign season craziness. For almost an entire year, Iowa has been a hub for every 2020 presidential hopeful as well as the onslaught of staff, media, and national attention that comes with them.
Sure, it can be annoying to be delayed by a motorcade or stopped by security while trying to pick up lunch because a candidate happens to be dining at the same eatery. But the Iowa Caucuses are also an amazing time to show my out-of-state friends (and everyone else) all our state has to offer and why I’m so happy to call Des Moines my home. Plus, it doesn’t hurt that we get cool write-ups in publications like POLITICO. Or that Ben and Jerry once hung out at a coffee shop a few blocks from my house.
With caucus day swiftly approaching, there’s no better time to plan a politically-fueled trip to Iowa. If you happen to be passing through Des Moines during caucus season, I’ve compiled some of my favorite things to do in Iowa’s capital city as well as where you’re most likely to spot a candidate or two.
So What is a Caucus?
Things to Do in Des Moines
Places to Eat
Home to one of the best happy hours in town—half off pizza and beer or wine from 3 – 6 pm every day—Eatery A (2932 Ingersoll Avenue) is one of my favorite places to grab a quick bite or enjoy a bottle of wine with friends.
There’s no better cure for a long day than Fong’s Pizza (223 4th Street). This Chinese restaurant turned late-night pizza joint is always a favorite with visitors for its unique concept, strong drinks, and inventive pizza combinations. Order the Honey Garlic on Alfredo. You won’t regret it.
If you’re looking for delicious French pastries or a filling, healthy breakfast, La Mie (841 42nd Street) is just the place. Be sure to get there early on the weekends because the small space tends to fill up quickly. Also plan on taking a few pastries for the road. I promise I won’t tell.
This cozy coffee shop was my daily haunt when I was a student up the street, but even though I no longer live next door, Mars Cafe (2318 University Avenue) is still one of my Des Moines favorites. Their regular drip coffee is amazing (and will definitely give you the shakes) or, if you’re feeling fancy, go for their signature latte, the Sputnik.
The Waveland Cafe
If, maybe, you enjoyed a few too many libations at one of Des Moines’ drinking establishments below the night before, the Waveland Cafe (4708 University Avenue) will be your greasy breakfast savior. While you wait for your food, sip some coffee and try to see how many political candidates’ and news anchors’ signatures you can spot decorating the walls.
Zanzibar’s Coffee Adventure
Now that Mars Cafe isn’t part of my regular routine, Zanzibar’s (2723 Ingersoll Avenue) is a convenient (and delicious) on-the-way-to-work substitute. The tiny coffee shop offers delicious caffeinated (and non-caffeinated) beverages in a relaxed environment. If you’re looking for someplace to catch up on emails or get some work done, this is not the place. Zanzibar’s, sometimes refreshingly, offers no public WiFi.
Places to Grab a Drink
Confluence Brewing Company
Des Moines is lucky to be home to so many local breweries and Confluence Brewing Company (1235 Thomas Beck Road) is by far my favorite. Located just off one of Des Moines’ great bike trails, Confluence has a large taproom with lots of board games and food trucks typically parked just outside.
El Bait Shop
If you love beer, El Bait Shop (200 SW 2nd Street) is the place for you. With the largest selection (180+) of craft beers on tap in the city, there’s sure to be something for everyone at this beloved dive. Be sure to remember your (temporary) Iowa roots and order the fried cheese curds when it’s time for a snack.
The Lift (222 4th Street) has been one of my regular haunts since college and I can’t see that changing anytime soon. Regardless of when you visit (though I recommend a Wednesday to take advantage of 2-for-1 Martini Night), The Lift will be filled with music (most likely live), local art, and a wonderful atmosphere. My martini of choice? The New Year.
Walking into Up-Down (500 E. Locust Street) feels like walking into your cool neighbor’s tricked out basement, and that’s not a bad thing. Full of retro video games and skeeball lanes, this ’80s and ’90s themed bars has quickly become one of my favorite places in Des Moines.
Whenever I need a housewarming gift, new print for my apartment, or a unique piece of jewelry, I head straight to Domestica (505 E. Grand Avenue, #102). The shop has long been one of my East Village favorites. Now with a new, bigger location, Domestica’s lovely owner Chrissy is able to stock even more wonderful, must-have finds.
I’m a sucker for fancy pens, spiral-bound planners, and quirky greeting cards so Ephemera (505 E. Locust Street) is basically my version of heaven. Whether you’re just browsing or looking for the perfect birthday card for your bestie, this East Village shop is definitely worth a visit.
No visit to Des Moines is complete without a stop in RAYGUN (505 E. Grand Avenue). Pick up a cheeky T-shirt and irreverent Midwest-themed postcards to send to all of your friends back home. As RAYGUN says, “let us exceed your already low expectations.”
Des Moines Art Center
I may be a little biased, but the Des Moines Art Center (4700 Grand Avenue) is a great way to spend a few extra hours, regardless of when you find yourself in Des Moines. Plus, did I mention it’s free?
Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden
Winter can be a tough time to plan a trip to Iowa so the Greater Des Moines Botanical Gardens (909 Robert D. Ray Drive) is the perfect place for a warm reprieve.
Iowa State Capitol
Tour the epicenter of state politics—the Iowa State Capitol (1007 E. Grand Avenue). Be sure not to miss the gorgeous library and beautifully intricate rotunda.
Pappajohn Sculpture Park
Located in the heart of Des Moines’ Western Gateway, the Pappajohn Sculpture Park (1300 Grand Avenue) is a beautiful place to visit no matter what the season. Snap a photo with Jaume Plensa’s iconic Nomade and listen to an audio tour about the park’s works using your cell phone.
Share Your Thoughts
I would love to hear from you! If you’re a local, where do you recommend caucus visitors stop? If you’re headed to Iowa to experience the political frenzy, what do you want to know?