Des Moines has endured ribbing over the years from its metropolitan neighbors to the north for being too mundane. But Minnesotans game for venturing off the interstate and into the heart of downtown will discover that the joke's on them for making assumptions -- Iowa's capital city has become a vibrant place to live, work and visit.
WHAT TO DO
Visit a prized museum: One of the most impressive new downtown attractions is technically more than 100 years old. The World Food Prize Foundation spent two years and $30 million transforming the historic former public library into the Hall of Laureates (100 Locust St.; 1-515-245-3783; www.worldfood prize.org). Part museum, part conference center, it honors the late Norman E. Borlaug, an Iowa native and University of Minnesota graduate known as the father of the Green Revolution. Borlaug received a Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his work in developing high-yield crops, and he founded the World Food Prize in 1986.
Filled with eye-popping murals, tapestries and other artwork inspired by agricultural practices from around the world, the Hall of Laureates is within a Beaux Arts building constructed of salmon-colored Minnesota limestone. It opened in 1903 and was the first of seven public buildings erected along the Des Moines River as part of the nationwide "City Beautiful" movement. Original elements have been restored, such as a 10,000-piece stained glass skylight above the rotunda, and "green" features have been added -- including solar roof panels and an 8,000-gallon cistern that collects water to irrigate the English garden -- that meet Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Platinum certification.
The Hall of Laureates strives to honor Borlaug's legacy, to inspire younger generations to continue his work in eradicating hunger and to highlight Iowa's contributions to feeding the world. It will open to the public in May, while an interactive educational exhibit on the lower level is set to open in late summer. Visit the website for up-to-date details.
Walk or bike along the river: The plaza east of the Hall of Laureates is a stop on the Principal Riverwalk (www.principal.com/riverwalk), another ambitious downtown project nearing completion. The 1.2-mile loop of lighted, landscaped paths and pedestrian bridges connects downtown's east and west sides, and links to other area recreational trails. Bicycle rental is available through four Des Moines B-cycle kiosks (www.desmoines.bcycle.com).
Explore the East Village: East of the Riverwalk, near the golden-domed Capitol, the Historic East Village (www.eastvillage desmoines.com) has become a trendy shopping and dining destination. People walk dogs and push strollers past shops selling funky furniture, specialty cooking items, cheeky T-shirts and eco-friendly pet toys. Tour the neighborhood by foot or bicycle, then relax with a pot of tea at Gong Fu Tea (414 E. 6th St.; 1-515-288-3388; www.gongfu-tea.com).
WHERE TO STAY
Built in 1919, the Renaissance Des Moines Savery Hotel (401 Locust St.; 1-515-244-2151; www.startribune.com/a1187) is perfectly positioned for downtown exploring; it's three blocks west of the river and within walking distance of the East Village. Guest rooms were renovated in 2011.
For a more intimate experience, stay at the 1900 Inn (1033 26th St.; 1-877-577-0149; www.the1900inn.com), near the Drake University campus. The beautifully restored home has modern conveniences including satellite TV and Wi-Fi. Homemade breakfasts feature local meats, dairy products and produce.
WHERE TO EAT
The East Village is home to several restaurants, including two headed by James Beard Restaurant Award nominees. Lucca (420 E. Locust St.; 1-515-243-1115; www.luccarestaurant .net) offers a prix-fixe menu of homemade gnocchi, ravioli and other Italian dishes. Alba Restaurant (524 E. 6th St.; 1-515-244-0261; www.albadsm.com) serves contemporary American cuisine such as scallops in Romesco sauce in a former car dealership showroom.
Teenagers and "Walking Dead" fans will be drawn to Zombie Burger + Drink Lab (300 E. Grand Av.; 1-515-244-9292; www.zombieburgerdm.com) and its zombie-themed decor, extensive burger offerings and creative flavors of brain freezes (shakes).
IF YOU GO
The Greater Des Moines Convention and Visitors Bureau (1-800-451-2625; www. seedesmoines.com) has information about attractions and upcoming events.
Joy Riggs is a Northfield-based freelance writer.