The day we visited historic downtown Des Moines, its venerable Younkers department store building burned to the ground. As we pulled into town, we were greeted by smoke, traffic and crowds with cameras headed toward the 115-year-old building that was being renovated into apartments and retail space.
We drove a few blocks past, and found a spot on the street (free parking on Saturday and Sunday). Like salmon swimming upstream, we walked against the crowds, toward Pappajohn Sculpture Park (desmoinesartcenter.org; 1-515-277-4405).
The smell of smoke was faint by the time we reached the park, on the west end of downtown. It is similar to the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, and there is a reason for that: Its namesakes, John and Mary Pappajohn, have contributed much to the arts and business education in the Midwest, and Mary is a director of the Walker Art Center.
There are more than 25 sculptures in this 4.4-acre park, located between 15th and 13th streets, along with an audio tour (dial 1-515-687-8264 and then tap in the sculpture number). Among the most striking pieces: Louise Bourgeois’ “Spider,” an intimidating bronze representing the artist’s mother, a weaver, and Jaume Plensa’s “Nomade,” a 27-foot-tall stainless-steel work constructed of alphabet letters and open on one side, so you can walk into it.
Kids will like “Thinker on a Rock” by Barry Flanagan, a skinny bronze rabbit more than 13 feet tall with long ears reaching toward the heavens, and the newly installed “Glass Colour Circle” by Danish artist Olafur Eliasson, with 23 panels of 9-foot-tall reflective multicolored glass surrounding a lighthouse beam. Visitors can walk inside and see colors overlap and images reflected. This piece was dedicated on May 1.
A nice surprise was stumbling upon B-cycle, sibling to Minnesota’s Nice Ride short-term bike-rental network. Here in Minnesota, we have 170 stations available and more on the way. In Des Moines, there are four stations that link Pappajohn Sculpture Park on the western gateway to Brenton Skating Plaza on the east side, with one station to the south near the home of the Iowa Cubs (a Chicago Cubs AAA affiliate) along the Raccoon River. A 24-hour pass is $6 (desmoines.bcycle.com; 1-515-333-5590).
Where to eat
We first dropped in for a drink at Americana, across the street from the park, and ordered a couple of cocktails. We hit at just the time (between 2 and 3) that food is not served, so it was one and done before moving on (americanadsm.com; 1-515-283-1312). Craft cocktails are a specialty there, with pride in product evident from the lemon peel embedded into a generous ice cube in my Brandy Barrel (Cedar Ridge Apple Brandy, Courvoisier VS, Green Chartreuse) to my husband’s DSM Manhattan (Maker’s Mark, Carpano Antica).
We had to eat, however, so it was off for a quick bite at nearby Fighting Burrito, with healthful options for vegetarians and carnivores alike. After looking at the size of my husband’s “Crazy Horse” burrito, with slow-cooked beef and spicy salsa, I went for a kid-sized “Harvey Milk,” with ancho chicken and black beans. Believe me, the abbreviated size was more than enough. Chips and guacamole rounded out the delicious meal, and even the chips were exceptionally tasty (www.fightingburrito.com; 1-515-288-4144).
Later that evening, we dined at Proof, with James Beard-nominated chef Sean Wilson in the kitchen. Try the seared scallops with orange blossom coulis or the sumac and black pepper pork with bacon-braised greens, and you will leave with all taste buds assuaged and a smile on your face. If you happen to be in town on a second Saturday with your sweetie, sign up for the couples dinner featuring 10 courses for $100 a couple — such a deal (proofrestaurant.com; 1-515-244-0655).
Walk it off
With free admission, the next place you must go is the Des Moines Art Center, about 3 miles from downtown, nestled into three very different but connected buildings. Each of the buildings was designed by a world-renowned architect (Eliel Saarinen, I.M. Pei, Richard Meier), but they fit together comfortably. Inside you will find collections that favor artists of the 19th and 20th centuries, ranging from Edward Hopper and Jasper Johns to Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso. The museum is open most days only until 4 p.m. except for Thursday, when it’s open until 9 p.m. There is also a restaurant, Baru, on the premises with gourmet plates available until 3 (7 on Thursdays). As with most museums, it is closed on Mondays.
Tired of art? (Is that really possible?) If so, head to the historic East Village. It has gone through a renaissance and has new and restored architectural details, along with a trendy kind of cultural vibe.
There are also plenty of upcoming festivals and events to enjoy. There's the Des Moines Arts Festival in Western Gateway Park (June 27–29); a Saturday farmers market in the Court District through Oct. 25; Des Moines Restaurant Week (Aug. 15–24); and the World Food Festival in the East Village (Sept. 19–21). For more information, go to catchdesmoines.com.
Kathleen Schedin Stoehr is a professional writer and editor based in Minneapolis/St. Paul.