Updated: Feb 4, 2020
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Des Moines, Iowa – As a professional politico living in the nation’s capital AND a proud Midwesterner raised on variations of corn, butter and pork mixed into a 9” x 13” greased pan, Iowa’s capital city hits a certain sweet spot for me. During presidential election years, it becomes a hub for the most sophisticated campaign strategists, star wattage political journalists, and nationally known surrogates stumping for their candidates: all of whom end up sheltering in place in Des Moines as a jump-off point to crisscross the state.
The trickledown effect of Iowa’s “First in the Nation” presidential caucus status means that even in non-presidential election years, the political culture connected to Des Moines is evident. “Average voters” engage with candidates on a higher-level of debate and expect top-notch Get Out The Vote programs. (If you’re coming out to Des Moines to volunteer on a Congressional campaign, you can’t “phone in” your phone banking or door knocking hours.) I've not been on the ground in Iowa for a caucus, but I was present for a high-profile US Senate win that resulted in that chamber’s power flip and there is something special about experiencing political history in Iowa.
Additionally, it's quite entertaining to watch the East Coast/West Coast political “elites”
(luv ya guys! ;) descend on fly-over country and discover that Eighth Wonder of the World – the fried pork steak sandwich – and to watch them ogle it with a mix of lust and distrust. It's also fun to observe their gradual realization (and appreciation) of the fact that Ranch dressing is indeed the sixth Mother Sauce.
But Des Moines is about more than just campaigning & food. The Iowa State Fair held in Des Moines (OK, technically still about food: on a stick) is one of the most popular state fairs in the US and home to the famous Butter Cow sculpture contest. If you liked Tracy Flick in “Election,” you’ll appreciate Jennifer Garner’s Laura Pickler in “Butter” – and will come away with an understanding of the competition’s significance to the state. Iowa also loves its bridges. Beyond the quaint, covered ones of Madison County highlighted by a sappy Clint Eastwood, there are some pretty cool, architecturally-inspired bridges in and around Des Moines that are worth visiting on a lovely day. It’s also fair to say that the arts scene in Des Moines punches above its weight as evidenced by its modern/contemporary museum, Des Moines Arts Center, and the truly fabulous downtown Pappajohn Sculpture Garden, a delightful 4.4 acres featuring 25 installations from celebrated artists from around the world.
And while Iowans don’t have any professional major league sports teams to cheer on (Tip: Don’t insult Hawkeye or Cyclone fans by pointing out their teams are not of professional caliber), Des Moines does have some unique quality sporting events right in its backyard. The Des Moines Register sponsors the annual summer RAGBRAI (no cutesy acronym here; literally: Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa), where professional or amateur cyclists can ride across the state on a weekly trek or join for a daily leg of the ride. Additionally, Drake University, located in Des Moines, has hosted the prestigious spring track & field competition known as Drake Relays since 1910. World famous Olympians like Bruce/Caitlin Jenner, Carl Lewis, Jesse Owens and Wilma Rudolph have all competed at Drake Stadium.
A final Pixie Point: The Des Moines Airport sells one of my all-time favorite souvenir t-shirts: “I LOVE PIG BUTTS AND I CANNOT LIE.” I may or may not own it in more than one color. Don’t forget to buy yours on the way home. Cheers! XO, CP
Pixie Picks: Des Moines, Iowa (2020)
Sleep: Downtown Des Moines is chock full of big-name chain hotels and the rates seem like a bargain compared to larger US capital cities. The Des Moines Hyatt Place, Hilton Des Moines Downtown, and Embassy Suites are all solid choices. For something a bit less cookie-cutter with an upscale urban feel, try Des Lux Hotel on downtown Locust Street. Marriott has opened the AC Hotel, which offers contemporary lodging in the cool kids Des Moines neighborhood of East Village. The close-in suburbs of Clive and Urbandale offer convenient, casual-yet-nice accommodations.
Eat: Are you one that can’t visit LA without devouring an In-and-Out burger? (Likely after Instagramming it? No judgement). If so, hightail it to Smitty’s Tenderloin Shop and order the restaurant's approximately 8” x 9” King Loin signature sandwich. And Instagram it, for sure! If a high-power steak house is more your style, visit 801 Chophouse, which is located in the tallest building in downtown Des Moines. For funky moods, try the undead-themed Zombie Burger & Drink Lab (the Walking Ched is a popular menu item) or Fong Pizza, a true gastro mash-up of Chinese food on pizza crust plus Tiki cocktails. Don’t skip brunch at the “upscale 1950’s” Drake Diner near the university campus; the pumpkin pancakes are amazing. (Tip: You can order via GrubHub or Postmates if you’re stuck at the campaign HQ.) For a group and/or the indecisive, Ingersoll Avenue is considered “restaurant row” and offers a little something for everyone. And of course, at the Iowa State Fair, eating any and every type of food on a stick is encouraged. Finally, Jethro’s Bacon Bacon (not a typo) BBQ is worth a trip to West Des Moines based on its name alone (and the Sweet Corn Cookie Bacon Ice Cream Sandwich).
Drink: Des Moines does the kitschy, retro-bar theme exceptionally well. There are several local drinking establishments in which no one will bat an eye if you order a Schlitz. There’s also a strong late-night game during the campaign/election season; after all, politicos are people, too, and need a place to imbibe after knocking on doors or while waiting for new poll numbers. My personal favorites include: High Life Lounge, Ernie’s Boondock, and Hello, Marjorie (decorated like an unfortunate 1970’s living room). El Bait Shop is very popular with craft beer enthusiasts and has a great bar food menu. For live jazz and specialty cocktails, check out the chic venue Noce.
See: Pappajohn Sculpture Park (see above) is a unique outdoor urban art space funded by a well-known Iowa philanthropist (not the pizza people). Strolling through the 25 large-scale installations is a nice break/treat from downtown business meetings or campaigning. The Des Moines Arts Center is a top-notch contemporary art museum featuring artists such as Hopper, O’Keefe and Matisse; the modern white building itself is worth a view. If you love an Insta-worthy garden patio setting, be sure to visit the Better Homes & Gardens Test Garden, which is adjacent to publisher Meredith Corporation’s downtown Des Moines headquarters. It's used by magazine editors for photo shoots; take a tour and see the printed pages bloom into real life. The World Food Prize Hall of Laureates is worth a visit for those interested in history and/or agriculture. This unusual Beaux-Arts style museum celebrates individuals who’ve dedicated their lives to ending hunger worldwide; its artwork galleries depict Des Moines and Iowa history. The museum is open to the public (and provides guided tours), but only two days a week, so be sure to check ahead if you plan to visit.
Play: Get outdoors on a nice sunny day and walk or bike across the pedestrian-friendly Iowa Women of Achievement Bridge that connects the East and West sides of Des Moines. Further afoot in the Des Moines Valley is the striking High Trestle Trail Bridge, the main attraction of the 25-mile recreational High Trestle Trail that was repurposed from a formerly active railroad track. The bridge has six lookout points and 41 steel frames designed to represent support cribs of a coal mine. The frames are illuminated with blue lights at night, highlighting its blend of art and function. The bridge is popular with cyclists; Ankeny trailhead is about 30 miles from downtown Des Moines, but do review the trail info thoroughly to determine the best viewing spot for you. If time is limited or you don’t want to leave downtown, Gray’s Lake is a popular Des Moines park that offers nearly 2 miles of lit walking and jogging trails and is a nice alternative to the downtown hotel gym. (And yes, it too has a bridge.) If urban exploration is your thing, head over to the hipster-esque East Village and peruse the neighborhood's coffee bars, cafes and independent boutiques.
Buy: Whatever any necessity you're lacking (and a slice of pizza) at “The Hy-Vee,” Des Moines’ (and Iowa’s) most popular grocery store chain. For a boutique clothing experience (read: champagne while you shop), stop by Aimee in East Village and be gob smacked at the downright bargain basement prices compared to NYC, LA or DC. Preservation also offers stylish clothing and accessories; Leona Ruby sells fun jewelry by local designers and name brands. Raygun is popular for selling pithy political t-shirts and lots of stuff with Bernie Sanders’ face imprinted on it. Houzz.com fans will like the four-story West End Architectural Salvage, an antique/salvaged goods warehouse with its own coffee bar/café. It's stuffed to the brim and a fun place to get lost for a while.
Wear: Denim. Dress it up; dress it down. Note: Des Moines is home to several financial services/insurance companies, so you won’t feel out of place stopping by a restaurant or bar in a suit or business dress after work. Comfortable walking shoes, sneakers or urban-style boots are good if you plan to get out to explore the city on foot. If you’re there to campaign in the fall, it’s cold. Pack fleece, layer accordingly, and bring toe warmers.
The Fine Pixie Print: Review as of 2.3.20. As with all other “Capital Pixie Travels” reviews, this is a list of personal recommendations by a 40-something, moderately-adventurous, single female tourist and has NOT been recently verified for any closures, changes of address, hours of operation, good or bad fashion trends, weather phenomenon, political dust-ups, or any other logistically important data points. Trust, but verify. Safe travels! #makememories #alwaystakethetrip