It’s caucus time in Iowa – the first state to cast its votes to nominate a Presidential candidate – and 2020 promises to blow all precedents and records out of the water.

People listen to a candidate with an enormous Iowa flag behind them during the Iowa Caucuses in 2019; Things to do in Des Moines during the Iowa Caucuses
The good people of Iowa take their position as the first primary in the nation very seriously. Campaigners can find plenty to do when they're in the state © Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

The remaining Democratic hopefuls and a couple of Republicans (unlike some other states, the Iowa Republican party is not cancelling its primary in 2020) are descending on the Hawkeye state and into Iowans’ living rooms and backyards, coffee shops and bars to pitch their credentials and plans voter-by-voter. According to the Des Moines Register, in the six months leading up to the February 3 caucus there will be 2,500 candidate visits. That’s a lot of hand shaking and camera ops!

If you’re headed to Iowa to support your candidate – or even full-on moving there to work on a campaign – chances are you’ll find your way to Des Moines, the state capital and the epicenter of caucus politics. And there’s no shortage of things to keep you entertained and occupied while you are there.

A black t-shirt on display reads, "Iowa! For some reason you have to come here to be president!" at a shop; Things to do in Des Moines during the Iowa Caucuses
Raygun is Iowa’s one stop shop for tongue-in-cheek political and non-political apparel and gear © KC McGinnis for The Washington Post via Getty Images

Get outfitted, and soak up the history

The first stop for any left-leaning political junkie is a visit to Raygun, an Iowa-owned mainstay for stocking up on t-shirts, stickers and other swag both political and apolitical. It’s located in Des Moines’ small but punchy Historic East Village just across the Des Moines River on Grand Ave. Inside, Mars Coffee Bar serves up excellent brews.

While in the East Village, take time to poke around. Once-vacant lots and decrepit buildings have been transformed into a small-town-feeling stretch of independently owned shops, bars and restaurants lauded over by the grandly ornate State Capitol. Stop by Permanent Collection, a letterpress and design studio owned by a graduate of the University of Iowa’s Center for the Book; Sticks Gallery, a folksy Iowa design studio packed with whimsically painted woodwork; Pink Print and Domestica, stationary and paper product shops; and Marv’s Music for vinyl new and old. Boost your wardrobe beyond candidate t-shirts at the women’s boutique Velvet Coat, and re-fuel at Scenic Route Bakery.

Des Moines’ turn-of-the-20th-century heyday is evidenced in its magnificent Beaux Arts architecture. Highlights include the State Capitol, the Hall of Laureates (originally a public library), and the Polk County Courthouse. Terrace Hill, the 1869 governor’s mansion, is open to the public and the Iowa Architecture Foundation offers seasonal walking tours of the city.

Flowers dominate the foreground in a landscaped park as the Iowa state capitol stands on a hill behind; Things to do in Des Moines during the Iowa Caucuses
Iowa’s Beaux Arts state capitol is surrounded by a beautiful park, just right for taking a moment away from the campaign trail © Charles Smith/Corbis/VCG / Getty Images

Off the campaign trail, onto a outdoor trail

Though it’s difficult to escape the political maelstrom in Iowa during caucus season – simply wearing a candidate’s button is enough to ignite conversation with a stranger – city parks and bike trails can clear the head. Water Works Park, made up of 1,500 acres of fields and woods bisected by the Raccoon River, offers trails and several picnic areas.

Downtown, just west of the business district, the Pappajohn Sculpture Park boasts a striking collection of massive pieces by internationally acclaimed artists, including Willem de Kooning and Sol Lewitt. Restaurants and bars surround the green space, and it’s a lovely spot to decompress.

Further west on Grand, Greenwood/Ashworth Park hugs the well-recommended Des Moines Arts Center. A distinct architectural presence with contemporary wings designed by I. M. Pei and Richard Meier in 1968 and 1985 respectively, the museum is home to an impressive collection featuring Edward Hopper, Jean-Michel Basquait and Jeff Koons, and its rose garden is perfect for a picnic.

With a thorough network of pleasant trails, 20 BCycle rental stations, and easy access to rural Iowa biking routes, Des Moines is great for cycling. The mostly scenic Great Western Trail heads south from Water Works Park, following an old railroad bed 17 miles south to Martensdale. At Cumming, about nine miles in, pop into the friendly Iowa Distilling Company for small-batch spirits; from here onward, it’s fields and woodlands. Bike Country, about 12 miles north of downtown in Ankeny, is the closest road and mountain bike rental.

A massive sculpture of a man, made of white letters of the alphabet, sits in a park surrounded by a tall building and radio tower; Things to do in Des Moines during the Iowa Caucuses
The Pappajohn Sculpture Park is surrounded by Des Moines' tallest buildings and a several good restaurants © KC McGinnis / For The Washington Post via Getty Images

Refuel with Des Moines’ surprising food scene

Clusters of good restaurants dot the East Village, the blocks surrounding the Sculpture Park and Ingersoll Ave between 24th and 31st Streets. Check out Alba, offering creative American, A Dong’s for Vietnamese, upscale Harbinger, local favorite Palmer’s Market (great for breakfast), and Trellis Café, at the Botanical Gardens. Further afield, Drake Diner offers 50s diner standbys, contemporary twists and cocktails.

The Cheese Shop, a tiny spot in the 1933 strip-mall Shops at Roosevelt, feels like old-world Europe. Its cheesemonger happily offers tastes of whatever you’d like from their exceptionally well-curated artisan offerings, and there’s a wonderful selection of meats (try the hand-carved La Quercia acorn-fed ham) and wine. A sister restaurant is on Ingersoll Ave.

Next door, La Mie Bakery offers delicious baguettes, sandwiches and pastries. For a broader offering, including fried chicken, salads and an organic grocery, Gateway Market is fantastic. If you need to hunker down on your laptop with plenty of strong java to keep you going, head to Smoky Row Coffee.

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A handful of off-the-radar Des Moines favorites feel like a time and space warp, offering odd reassuring comfort in hectic times. Even the most stressed of political activists can find calm in a cream-filled ‘angel’ donut or a peppermint bar ice-cream at Bauder Pharmacy, a classic soda fountain that opened in 1916.

A half-mile east on Ingersoll Ave, the cozy and dark 1963 Jesse’s Embers steakhouse is packed with locals midweek and Noah’s Ark, a 1946 throwback with red vinyl seats and a sunken bar, serves excellent pizza (available for take-out). The iconic 1912 Graziano Brothers, an Italian market famous for its sausages, is a Des Moines institution.

The Court Avenue Entertainment District on a summer night in Iowa; Things to do in Des Moines during the Iowa Caucuses
Every four years, cities and towns across Iowa come to life as the political circus rolls in. There’s always a place to grab a drink with new friends, like this entertainment district in Des Moines © harmantasdc / Getty Images

Celebrate – or commiserate – at a local watering hole

On those days when polls and canvassing leave you wanting to drown your sorrows or raise a glass to good news, Des Moines has a robust bar scene.

Downtown’s Court District is the city’s primary bar scene, but if tastes lean more towards laid-back, return to the East Village. At Up-Down, you can pair cocktails and pizza with vintage pinball, ski-ball and ‘80s arcade classics like Pac-Man and Frogger.

The tiny Locust Tap, with its peeling columns, foaming beer neon sign and graffiti splayed interior, is the quintessential corner dive, a great spot for a bottle of beer and a game of pool. Cocktails reign at the narrow brick-walled Continental Lounge. In fact, its Bulleit Rye Sazerac just may be the ultimate political elixir.

Originally published in October 2019, updated in January 2020.

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This article was first published October 2019 and updated January 2020

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