Des Moines frequently hosts marathons, so check for street closures, especially on holiday weekends.
Good to know
It’s a very bikable city, so be aware of bike traffic, especially downtown.
Recommended time of the year
I wouldn’t recommend visiting these locations in the winter time as Iowa winters can be frigid. The zoo is open in the winter, but only certain exhibits due to cold weather. Most of the places we went would be ideal in spring/summer/fall.
Buy your zoo tickets online to save a few dollars.
About This Day
Cities in the Midwest often get a bad rap for being in the “flyover zones” and not very exciting. We were surprised to find that Des Moines, Iowa, is actually a neat place to visit. As a result, this itinerary is full of fun things to do in Des Moines with kids. There are many parks, bike paths and family-friendly places to explore. And, even though we saw a lot of the city, we certainly didn’t do or see it all. To begin your Des Moines family fun, head to Blank Park Zoo. This zoo is well-shaded and the exhibits aren't too far from each other. Moving on, continue to Pappajohn Sculpture Park for a relaxing stroll to observe the installations, take some fun family photos or relax on the grass. After taking in the artwork, your kids will get a real kick out of Union Park, where there are a plethora of options for kids to entertain themselves. Lastly, the 1.2-mile (2 km) Principal Riverwalk, in the heart of downtown Des Moines, offers great views of the city architecture and more outdoor fun for the family. We purposefully went to a lot of cheap or free places and were surprised how enjoyable and well done those were. Although parking was sometimes difficult to find (it was a triathlon weekend), Des Moines is a fairly easy city to navigate.
First stop on your things to do in Des Moines with kids: Blank Park Zoo. The name isn’t inspiring, but this zoo is ideal for families with small children who tire quickly or easily. The exhibits are in close proximity to one another and the zoo can be seen in totality within an hour or two. The animals are easily viewed and we even heard the lions roaring from the picnic area! That was one of our nuggets’ favorite experiences. This is a great place for the kids to burn some energy, too. The zoo has two playgrounds, one inside and one in the parking lot. It also has a charming garden and butterfly area where kids can explore and play. This zoo is well-shaded for hot summer days. Our nuggets most enjoyed the playground, the ease of viewing animals and the garden area.
DIRECTIONS The zoo is about a 15-min drive south from the downtown area. It is easily found using GPS on a phone.
TIP The parking is free and includes a small picnic area if you choose to bring your own food. Otherwise, the picnic area inside the zoo is reserved for guests who purchase food at the food court.
Continuing with the Des Moines family fun, next stop Pappajohn Park. Although this is not your typical park with a playground or picnic area, it provides a way for families with young nuggets to experience some art and culture without the stuffy feeling of a gallery. There are some great photo opportunities here. There are also paths for walking on and plenty grass for your kiddos to run around. Our kids very much enjoyed the interesting sculptures and pieces of art to be found in the park. They also enjoyed running up and down the grassy knolls.
DIRECTIONS This park is easy to find and is conveniently located in the downtown area of Des Moines. There is only street parking available, so keep a close eye on your nuggets.
TIP This park is downtown, is not fenced in and is surrounded by main streets. Many sculptures have signs requesting that visitors do not touch or climb on them, so remind your nuggets to be considerate of the art as well as the artist.
Union Park is every kid’s dream and parents will have fun, too. Walking paths, a splash pad, a carousel, updated playground equipment and the main attraction is the vintage rocket slide. Our nuggets could have spent all day here and been quite content. Although the modern play equipment is fun, nothing compares to the vintage metal rocket slide. Even for us parents, the ride was quite irresistible and thrilling. But if tall metal slides aren’t your thing, there is another play area with newer and smaller equipment. Even though the carousel and splash pad were closed, as we were there in September, we still enjoyed this spot. This is an ideal park to pack a lunch and stay for an afternoon of fun during the warm summer days.
DIRECTIONS There are several entrances to the park with a few different parking lots. Depending on where you want to go within the park (i.e. slide, splash pad, carousel) you can find parking close to that area. The park is located in a neighborhood, but is easy to find using GPS.
TIP Some parts of the park are closed in the fall and winter months (carousel and splash pad) and the carousel is not free. This park is huge, so make sure you keep a close watch on your kids. The vintage rocket slide is pretty tall, so smaller nuggets will definitely need parental assistance.
This walking trail is a 1.2-mile (2km) loop in the heart of downtown Des Moines. It includes paved paths, bike lanes, bridges, sculptures, swings and a garden. Even though this isn’t your typical park, there are plenty of things your nuggets will want to climb on, see and do along the walk. Our nuggets enjoyed getting up on the stage in front of the Embassy Suites, walking across the bridge, seeing the Japanese garden and climbing on the giant fishing bob at the Rotary Park. Younger nuggets will appreciate fun things to climb on, older ones will enjoy all the sites and historic buildings to take in.
DIRECTIONS There are many places to get on/off the Riverwalk. Just pick the places you most want to see or stop at and choose the best starting point.
TIP This can be a lot of walking for little nuggets, so wear good shoes and bring your water. Also, be aware of bicycles.