Me sitting in the Alphabet Man Sculpture
Location: Iowa, United States of America

Iowa isn’t usually on the top of most traveller’s lists of places to see and do before they die (unless you’re a die hard corn fan that is); and that’s understandable when you have the likes of New York, Los Angeles and Las Vegas vying for your attention. However, if you do find yourself with an opportunity to stop in the Hawkeye State -do take it! Here you’ll discover there’s a little bit more to this place than corn, corn and corn (and soya beans on the odd occasion).

On the way back from our road trip west with a day to spare in Iowa, I thought I’d see what Des Moines had to offer a visitor. First of all the most important thing to know about the city is that they use the same street names on both sides of the Des Moines river, and only distinguishable by an ‘East’ in front of the street names; for example, E 3rd Street is on the east side of the Des Moines River, whilst 3rd Street is on the west side. Major streets that run through both sides of the river follow this lead also, so Grand Ave indicates Grand Ave on the west side of the river and E Grand Ave is on the east side. Once you get this though, you should be fine.

A view of Des Moines skyline from the State Capitol Building

We started the day exploring the West side of the river, and tried out a pumpkin spiced almond milk latte from Mars Cafe, a popular student hang with plenty of seating, free wifi and outlets for laptops; and from there headed to the Des Moines Art Centre. Whilst there we saw a lot of big name artists including Warhol, Picasso and Matisse (and just a small fraction of their 5000 strong collection). You could easily lose a day here but we moved on to the Hoyt Sherman Theater which is a beautifully restored 137 year old building, that houses Des Moines first public art gallery and a beautiful theater build in 1923 which still hosts performances. We were fortunate to have a private mini tour from one of the Des Moines Women’s Club members who happened to notice me wandering around, and learned about how one man’s vision influenced this city.

A statue of three iron figures looks downtown with the gold dome of the State Capitol in the background

Next up we headed out in the sunshine to the John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park. It’s a small park and should take you at least 30 minutes to explore and the centre piece, a giant alphabet person called Nomade by Catalan artist Jaume Plensa, is really awesome. By now my stomach was rumbling so we headed to the first completely vegan restaurant in town, the New World Cafe over on the east side of the river. The staff were friendly, and the food fantastic and affordable, and I devoured my sweet corn burger and green juice – even Siu On gave the Mexican bowl a big thumbs up!

Me posing in a doorway with painted flowers around it

Since we had crossed over to the east side of the river, we wandered around the historic East Village which is a collection of boutique stores, cafes and bars lining wide streets just up from the business district. I found myself lost in some of the most eclectic antique and vintage stores I’ve ever seen, and had a great time digging through all kinds of knick knacks. After this we headed up to the Iowa State Capital Building, and although we missed the tour that takes you up the stunning copula, we still had a great time on our own exploring the three stately floors and poking around official offices and rooms (the library is a must see of five floors of law and legal books and spiral stair cases!).

Two customers browsing the vintage store shelves

After this it was time for us to hit the road again and with another three hours til we arrived at our final destination, we bid Des Moines adieu, and left fairly impressed with the hidden gems in this often overlooked city.

Featured photograph & image 3 by Auyeung Photography, others by Jelena Stipanicev.