About This Place
While most people think of Iowa's economy as largely corn-based, Des Moines has transformed itself into a mecca for insurance companies. About 70 insurance firms are headquartered in Des Moines, which helped this city of 200,000 maintain a vibrant economy even as the rest of the country suffered during the Great Recession. Another stabilizing factor is the large number of government jobs in this state capital. Farms and other agricultural businesses, from equipment manufacturers to seed distributors, also continue to play a key role in the region's economy. Located almost in the center of Iowa, Des Moines is 140 miles east of Omaha, Nebraska, and 330 miles west of Chicago. Tourists are few and far between in these parts, yet there are a surprising number of fun things to do in Des Moines.
Held at the same 400-acre site since 1886, the Iowa State Fair was the inspiration for the novel "State Fair" by Phil Strong, three movies and even a Broadway musical. This mid-August event is such an American institution that the fairgrounds, located about four miles east of downtown, is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Among the fair's many traditions, a life-size cow sculpted entirely of butter is re-created every year and placed on display in a large cooler. From cooking contests and games to kiddie rides and concerts, the fair presents 11 days of non-stop entertainment.
To view sculptures and other artwork made of materials other than butter, head to the Des Moines Art Center, a few blocks west of downtown on Grand Avenue. The permanent collection consists of more than 4,000 works of art, primarily modern and contemporary art from the 20th and 21st centuries. Other traveling exhibitions have presented photos from the Civil Rights era and a conceptual work that melded silent film and sculpture. The buildings themselves are also works of art, designed by architects I.M. Pei, Eliel Saarinen and Richard Meier.
Another must-see Des Moines attraction is Iowa State Capitol. Completed in 1886, the building is topped by a large dome gilded in 23-karat gold leaf. In the interior of the structure, 29 different types of marble are used, and each chandelier in the house chamber glimmers with 5,600 crystals. To keep Iowa's lawmakers warm during the area's brutally cold winters, the capitol is equipped with 24 fireplaces.
When the weather begins to warm up in April, Better Homes & Gardens magazine offers Friday afternoon tours of its test garden, located next to the company's downtown offices. This is where the staff experiments with new plant varieties, and it is also the site of many of the magazine's photo shoots, so visitors will want to be sure to bring a camera. Summertime visitors can enjoy a picnic or a relaxing stroll along the two-mile trail around Gray's Lake, which is situated on the southwest side of downtown Des Moines. Paddleboats and canoes are also available for rent by the hour. For anglers, the 96-acre lake brims with channel catfish and largemouth bass.