Eye-Opening Iowa: Things to see and do in lesser known America!

February 1, 2019

by Kathryn Neto

Last summer I went to America for the first time. I went to visit a friend who lives just outside of Des Moines, the capital city of Iowa. I felt like I had stumbled upon buried treasure! Des Moines is a charming city with quirky boutiques, amazing coffee shops, and a fun nightlife, and it is completely underrated. Many people were shocked when I told them I chose Iowa as my first state to visit in America, however, I think it is much better to visit somewhere that is lesser known and less touristy. Iowa is charming and undiscovered, the people welcome you in like family, and Des Moines is an artistic hub of activity with fun things to see and do. If you don’t like city holidays that much, Des Moines doesn’t have a “big-busy-city” vibe, and if you drive for 10 minutes or so, you’ll be out in the countryside. Iowa is naturally spectacular, with lots of outdoor activities at your disposal. Only an hour or so away from Chicago by plane, it is an easy place to fly to, with popular flight routes flying often and you can get some great deals if you are flying from the UK or Europe. My flight was £560 return (flying from Dublin) which is a steal when traveling in June. Check out Skyscanner to book your flight today!


Best Places to Eat and Drink in Des Moines

If you’re like me and you’re a complete foodie, then you’re going to want to know about the amazing food & drink places in the city. First, let’s talk about coffee.


When traveling, good coffee places is a high priority for me, so on arrival, my first port-of-call was to check out the coffee shops.  Here is a list of 5 great coffee joints in Des Moines, in order of preference:

  1.  Smokey Row – my favorite place in Des Moines! Excellent coffee, great specialty range, and such a good vibe!
  2. Mars Coffee Bar – this place definitely appeals to hipsters. Their seasonal drinks are amazing – when I was there I had a Lavender Honey Latte which was amazing!
  3. Scenic Route Bakery – if you care as much about baked goods as you do great coffee, then this place is for you. Their monkey bread is excellent!
  4. Plain Talk: Books & Coffee – this place offers a less commercialized experience and is a great place for book-lovers. This cute neighborhood book-coffee shop offers employment to people with disabilities.
  5. Grounds for Celebration – for those looking for a bit more swank, this is the place for you! This is also a great spot for a healthy lunch – try their chicken salad filled croissant!

Me with my Smokey Row coffee. I ordered a Sweet Georgia Brown Latte: brown sugar and cinnamon blended with a rich roast coffee. YUM.

You could choose one of the above to explore, but I recommend you visit all of them! They all offer something different and show you a slightly different side of Des Moines.


There are so many choices for places to eat in Des Moines, so you will never be stuck. However, I wanted to experience the most truly unique places that I could find and thankfully, my local friend took me to some of the best spots.

Fong’s Pizza. 

This place is probably one of the weirdest places I have ever been to. This interesting restaurant is a mash-up between a Pizza Parlor and a Tiki bar. It serves great pizzas with Asian toppings and Asian food with Italian fillings. It may be confused about its identity but it is certainly not confused about good food. I ordered their Crab Rangoon Pizza which was delicious. Of course, they have normal pizza toppings too if you aren’t much of an experimenter (but try the weird ones, I dare you!) Plus, it won’t break the bank – you can get a 16-inch pizza and a drink for around $25.


For something a little more salubrious, this place serves excellent sharing plates and exceptionally good cocktails. It has a luxurious yet rustic wine bar feel, with original brick walls and an extensive wine selection. My favorite cocktail was their Lavender Love Potion: Crème de Violette, St. Germain, Lime Juice, Prosecco and Mint (see below). This is definitely a good place for a date or a dinner party!


The Lavender Love Potion from Roca

These places where my personal favorites, however, you will also find many more choices depending on your pallet.

Things to do in Iowa: Des Moines and beyond!


Every Wednesday throughout the months of June, July, and August, Blank Park Zoo in Des Moines hosts their annual ZooBrew, an after-hours event for adults only, where you can visit the Zoo and enjoy a beer as you walk around and see the animals. There is a great vibe thanks to the live music and better yet, it’s a fundraiser! What better way to spend a warm June evening?

Gray’s Lake Park.

Whether you want to sit back, relax and picnic with your family, or challenge yourself to a long walking trail, Gray’s Lake Park has what you need. This large 167-acre park in Des Moines caters to everybody, with walking trails, picnic areas, a playground, and boat rental. You can spend a day here or an hour here and enjoy the outdoors in the city.

Let’s hit the road…

You can’t come to America and not do some sort of road trip! So I packed up my bags and headed out of the city and into the rural mid-western countryside. I traveled with my friends to Elkader, a town near the border of Wisconsin, and we spent the weekend in nature. It is super simple to rent a car, as all the major car rental companies are situated at Des Moines International Airport. Check out rental cars’ website to find your best deal.


An unforgettable experience in Elkader was kayaking along the Turkey River. It was spectacular! The scenery and the wildlife were beautiful. My friends and I put in at Elkader and got out at Motor Mill, and it was a peaceful stretch of the river. There are other trails you can do – just check out Turkey River’s website for more information. The town of Elkader is cute and historic with some lovely gift shops. You can also get set up with kayak rentals here.



After kayaking, we climbed Effigy Mounds, an interesting National Monument with ancient mounds built in the shape of wild animals. The views from the top are outstanding, as you gaze upon the all-encompassing Mississippi River. In terms of difficulty level, it is quite strenuous with a lot of climbing, but boy is it worth it.

The Mississippi River

Kayaking along the Turkey River

Hiking Effigy Mounds

After our climb, we headed across the border to Wisconsin, where we stopped off at Fort Mulligan’s Grill Pub, where we got to try Wisconsin’s famous cheese curds (see below). After that, we headed home for some much-needed rest.

Cheese Curds from Fort Mulligans Grill Pub, Wisconsin

To say that I was impressed by the variety, excellence and warmth of my trip to Iowa are putting it mildly. The people I met along the way, their stories and warm generosity made the trip super special. The weather in June was hot and humid with a few thunderstorms thrown in, but that is just part of the experience! It was truly eye-opening for me and I am so happy that I got to see the lesser known part of America as my first window into the States! Less really is more.

Kathryn Neto

By Kathryn Neto

Hello my name is Kathryn and I am a travel addict. My husband & I are based in Portugal but travel a lot throughout Europe and beyond. I am a total foodie, so my travel priorities tend to focus around that (and coffee)! I also love poetry, musing casually about life, culture and hearing people's stories. Whether it's basic budget travel or a boujee vacay, I have many tips, tricks and tales to better inform you before you go!

Read more at wanderlustkate.co.uk

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