When you think of Iowa, you make think of the corn belt, but Iowa has an abundance of museums and culture. Whether you live in Iowa or are visiting for a few days, you’ll find there are plenty of free things to do in Des Moines, Iowa. Many of these activities are family friendly. In addition, if you exhaust the free options, there are also several impressive low-cost things to do in the area.
Free Things to Do in Des Moines, Iowa
The following seven sites are free and provide hours of entertainment.
State Historical Museum of Iowa
The State Historical Museum of Iowa, which is open Tuesday – Friday, is free to visitors and offers so many things to do!
The museum offers many exhibits, collections, and programs that enrich visitors’ understanding of Iowa’s history before and after the settlers arrived. Currently, some exhibits include Iowa and the Civil War and Hollywood in the Heartland, just to name a few.
If you have kids, be sure to sign them up for Goldie’s Kids’ Club. The program is free for kids 12 and under and introduces them to various aspects of Iowa culture and history. In addition, throughout the year, they will receive newsletters, exclusive invitations to events at the museum, and a card during their birthday month.
Iowa State Capitol
The Iowa State Capitol building, with its gold dome, is hard to miss, and why would you want to? Open Monday-Saturday, you can schedule a free tour with a guide, or you can show up for a free self-guided tour as your schedule permits.
Carnegie Library Museum
The Carnegie Library Museum is located 40 minutes outside Des Moines, Iowa in Perry, Iowa. This library was first built in 1904 thanks to a Carnegie grant. Now, it remains a functional library. However, it’s decorated like it was in 1910, so the library also serves as a museum.
In the basement, you can see the court room, which served as Perry’s court room for a decade at the turn of the century. Throughout the rest of the library, visitors will find pictures and collections from Iowa’s history. The Carnegie Library Museum is open Tuesday – Friday with limited hours on Saturday.
Iowa Gold Star Military Museum
The Iowa Gold Star Military Museum is located in Johnston, Iowa, less than 20 minutes outside of Des Moines, Iowa. This museum, which is open Monday-Friday and limited hours on Saturday, has exhibits on nine different wars the United States participated in as well as an exhibit on the Iowa State Patrol.
Visiting this museum is likely to take a few hours. Kids and adults alike will enjoy the tanks, guns, and realistic displays, including one of a World War I trench.
Historic Swanson House and Clive Depot
Located in Clive, Iowa, 15 minutes from Des Moines, the Historic Swanson House and Clive Depot transport you back in time 100 years. In 1911, Mrs. Swanson was left a widow with five young children to raise. She moved from the farm to Clive and created a general store. Her family lived upstairs. The general store closed in 1929, and Mrs. Swanson and her youngest daughter, Mildred, lived there the rest of their lives. When Mildred died, she donated the house, and the historical society turned it back into a general store. Now, you can experience what that time was like.
In addition, there is a historic caboose nearby that children can play on.
John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park
Get out and enjoy nature at the 4.4-acre John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park. This park is filled with artwork by 25 celebrated artists. The park is open from sunrise to midnight. You can request a tour, but make sure to do so at least three weeks in advance. You can also simply enjoy an audio tour which is available online or by calling a number.
World Food Prize Hall of Laureates
Located in the former Des Plaines Public Library, the World Food Prize Hall of Laureates is focused on Iowa’s role in feeding the world. The museum especially focuses on the late Norman Bourlag and other scientists who played an important role in trying to stop world hunger.
This museum only has guided tours on Tuesdays and Saturdays, so make sure to plan in advance.
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Low-Cost Things to Do in Des Moines, Iowa
There are plenty of free things to do in Des Moines, Iowa, but if you’ll be there for more than a few days and have a bit of extra cash, you may want to also try some of these low-cost things to do.
Iowa Hall of Pride
The Iowa Hall of Pride is an interactive museum that shares all things good about Iowa. In particular, there is an exhibit on 30 famous Iowans including George Washington Carver, Mamie Eisenhower, and Donna Reed, to name a few. Kids generally really enjoy this museum because it is interactive. Plan to be here at least a few hours. This museum is free to students in K-12, $10 for adults, and $7 for seniors ages 65 and older.
Terrace Hill is the historic governor’s mansion and is available for tour for a reasonable price of $5 for adults, $2 for ages 6 to 12, and free for children $5 and under. Tours are available at 10:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays and must be made 48 hours in advance.
On the guided tour, visitors will see the carriage house, first floor of the residence, and the historic gardens. Tours last approximately one hour.
There are plenty of free museums, parks, and government buildings in Des Moines, Iowa to keep you entertained without spending a penny. If you’ll be in the area for a longer time, there are also fun things to see that are reasonably priced.
Whether you’re from Des Moines or have visited there recently, what other attractions would you add to this list?
Melissa is a writer and virtual assistant. She earned her Master’s from Southern Illinois University, and her Bachelor’s in English from the University of Michigan. When she’s not working, you can find her homeschooling her kids, reading a good book, or cooking. She resides in Arizona where she dislikes the summer heat but loves the natural beauty of the area.