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Discover Des Moines as a Family Vacation Destination

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When you think of a family vacation what comes to mind? Orlando, San Diego, Maui…Des Moines? Well, Des Moines may not have quite as much to offer as some of the popular destinations, but you may be surprised by just how much fun a vacation in the heart of Iowa can be.

Now, I have to admit that I’ve lived in Iowa all my life, as has my husband and, obviously, our kids. So I may be a little bit biased about the appeal of the Hawkeye State. However, after growing up around so many great places and events, I sometimes forget just how unique—and fun—they are.

A boy harvesting some pretend veggies at the Iowa State Fair (Photo Courtesy of the Iowa State Fair Website)

Living History Farms
Another must-see attraction in Des Moines is the Living History Farms, a 500-acres outdoor living museum that will make you feel as though you’ve traveled back in time. Historical interpreters are dressed in authentic clothing while they complete the daily routines of their particular time period. You’ll meet the 1700 Ioway Indians, 1850 pioneers, 1875 townspeople, and 1900 farmers.

A trip to Living History Farms is not only extremely fun, but also it’s eye-opening for kids who experience history not as something they just read about, but something they can “try out” for themselves. Whether it’s helping make biscuits from scratch, feed chickens, grind corn, or run a printing press, the hands-on opportunities will be history lessons they will retain for years to come.

Living History Farms opens for the public on May 1 and remains open through fall. One admission price covers all activities within the museum, including parking and tractor rides.

The Machine Shed Restaurant
After you’re done touring the past at Living History Farms, get a taste of Iowa at The Machine Shed Restaurant right next door. Family-style meals and traditional farming decor make this an entertaining and delicious dining experience. According to their website, this restaurant is not just farm-themed but is “dedicated to the American farmer.” Go here for hearty comfort foods like the Shed’s World Famous Baked Potato Soup and Country Fried Steak or Chicken.

The Iowa State Fair
If you want to get the best slice of Iowa, you’ve got to come during the Iowa State Fair in August. It truly is Iowa’s greatest celebration, drawing in over a million people from all over the world each year. The Iowa State Fair website describes the fair as, “a salute to the state’s best in agriculture, industry, entertainment and achievement. It is the true heartbeat of the Midwest, unequaled and unduplicated.”

Two of Paula’s three sons “hamming” it up at the Iowa State Fair

For 10 days in August, thousands of people come together in the 400-acre setting each day to watch young people show sheep that they’ve raised, walk past the famed butter cow (a cow sculpted of butter), and eat the latest concession “on a stick.” Every day there’s something new to experience: watching baby ducklings hatch, participating in contests like “cow chip” throwing, browsing the art exhibits, staring in awe at the biggest boar, eating ice cream made at the Dairy Barn, and attending concerts by some of the country’s top performers. You will really see it all at the Iowa State Fair (including some of the most interesting groups of folks you’ve ever people-watched).

Blank Park Zoo
For a “wild” adventure, spend some time exploring the 22 acres of animal exhibits at the Blank Park Zoo, which houses nearly 1,500 animals and continues to expand each year. What I really enjoy about the zoo is that it’s large enough that you can see a wide variety of animals but small enough that you can get through it in several hours with minimal blisters or shin splints. And much of the grounds is either shaded or indoors, so even if it’s rainy or terribly hot, you can stay relatively comfortable. The food is fairly reasonably priced, or you can pack a picnic lunch to save a little more. Eat at the large playground area and the kids can burn off some energy climbing the rock wall or cool off in the spray-mist features.

Last week my second grader attended a field trip with his class to the zoo, and he had a blast. Except a surprise encounter with a feisty peacock, (“Mom, they’re just loose in there!”) my son most enjoyed the lions and the newest members of the zoo, Cane and Kitar, male and female red pandas.

If you live near another zoo and want to visit the Des Moines zoo, you may want to look into purchasing a Zoo Pass, which could not only get you and your family into the Blank Park Zoo for free, but also can grant you admission into more than 160 other zoos and aquariums as well. But even if you don’t have a Zoo Pass, admission is affordable.

blank park zoo giraffe
This giraffe is just one of nearly 1,500 animals at the Blank Park Zoo

Where to Stay
Even though we live just a bit north of Des Moines, we’ve treated our family to little hotel “getaways” throughout the years. Over Spring Break last year we visited the Comfort Suites at Living History Farms. This hotel exceeded our expectations with its family-friendly features. The pool area is huge and bright and includes a dining area that is far enough from the water so you won’t get wet but close enough that you can relax with a cup of coffee while watching your kids swim. The spacious lobby includes cozy nooks complete with computers, books, and games for guests to use at their leisure. The hotel also offers a free continental breakfast, which is always a plus when you have (hungry) kids!

If you’d like more of a lodge feel, I recommend the Wildwood Lodge. Although the Northwoods theme is more fitting of Iowa’s northern neighbor, Minnesota, it’s a warm and inviting place to stay, especially for kids. Choose from traditional rooms or family suites with more room to spread out. The beautiful pool area includes an elevated whirlpool that looks like it’s part of a waterfall. The heart of the lobby is a huge fireplace with plenty of comfy seating surrounding it. The Wildwood also includes an expanded continental breakfast.

Getting Here
Located at the intersection of I-35 and I-80, Des Moines is extremely accessible by car. We also have Des Moines International Airport, where rates have become much more comparable to major airports in recent years. The Amtrak train is yet another option, as it stops in Osceola, just 40 minutes south of the state capital.

Des Moines, as well as the entire state of Iowa, has so many incredible attractions and festivals, I wish I could just sit down and share them all with you over an ear of Iowa sweet corn. To learn more visit and to explore all my beloved hometown has to offer. I hope to see you here soon!

Would you consider Des Moines as a family vacation destination? Let us know in the comments!

Paula Reece started her blog in April 2008 to share her crazy and often humorous life as the only female in a house with three boys, a husband, a male dog, and a bird and fish whom she suspects are both of the male persuasion as well. Paula has a degree in English and works part-time as an editor for an educational publishing company.

  1. Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama says

    Paula – Thank you for writing a Travel Mamas Guest Blog!

    After college graduation I drove a Ryder truck with a friend from Arizona to Minnesota and we stopped at the Machine Shed Restaurant for lunch as we made our way through Iowa. It certainly was a unique restaurant & I still remember how dang good that food was! I wish we would’ve stopped at the Living Farms too. Maybe next time we’re visiting family in Minnesota, we’ll take a little detour to Iowa!

  2. Sarah V. says

    This makes me want to visit Iowa! Thanks for the great post, Paula.


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