Best Towns and Small Cities: Des Moines, Iowa

This post is a shout-out for my Iowa relatives, and for Amy’s siblings and their Aunt Joyce and Uncle Ray, all of whom are Iowans.


The London Guardian has a series called “Best Towns and Small Cities in the United States”. I find it fascinating to see what places the Brits think excel as places for young and old to call home. Included in the series so far are Eugene, Chapel Hill, Ithaca, Portland, Ventura, Missoula. Yesterday’s story was about Des Moines Iowa.

My father’s family is from the southeast corner of the state, just along the Missouri border. My Aunt Pauline lived just over the state line, in Downing, Missouri. We don’t have any immediate relatives in Des Moines as far as I know. although perhaps a few distant cousins.

But according to the Guardian, Des Moines — once a sleepy bastion of banking and insurance back office operations, home of sports bars and ranch dressing and neighborhood joints serving American mass produced beer– has come alive. This small-ish midwestern city, smack in the center of the state, now has craft beers, farm-to-table restaurants, trendy indoor music venues year round and large outdoor festivals in summer, cool but affordable neighborhoods, a coffee shop culture, and an overall low cost of living. Young people are staying, a change from the past.

I had a taste of Des Moines as a remade city a few years ago, when I was staying in a downtown hotel for a family event. Amy and her brother were running a race, and we came to cheer them on. Not wanting hotel restaurant food, I walked a few blocks to a seafood place that touted its selection of fresh oysters.

Did I say that Des Moines is in the center of the state, far from anyplace fresh oysters might originate? The oyster expert behind the seafood bar and I struck up a conversation. She’d trained with one of the major chefs and graduated from a good culinary program, and Des Moines was where she was offered a job. Initially skeptical, she accepted, and was thriving.

They oysters were fresh and delicious and excellently prepared and served.

Clearly a city the size of Des Moines doesn’t have the array of options that a city like Seattle does. The trade-off, besides our more temperate weather, is cost of living. And truth to tell, now that I’ve lived here in Seattle awhile, I’ve narrowed down to my favorite places and cultural activities. There’s a ton here to do, much of it low cost — library lecture series, REI outdoor adventure classes — and no one can take in more than a taste.

I note that a number of the small cities on the Guardian list are in cold places, which would preclude my interest. But I get the appeal. There’s a lot to be had in a place like Des Moines and a mid-range salary goes a long way if you don’t mind bundling up for the cold.

8 thoughts on “Best Towns and Small Cities: Des Moines, Iowa

  1. Des Moines has changed significantly since my growing up days. It has become quite the hot spot. Old downtown hotels are lovely apartments. The skywalk system allows you shopping, medical opportunities, theater experiences and sporting events without going outdoors. Best of all..I can still find my way around without difficulty.

  2. Did I ever mention Marilynne Robinson’s book, Gilead? Your reminding me of your family’s Iowa roots made me think of this book — historical fiction voiced by an elderly man looking back from the 1950’s, with a story that goes back to pre-civil war days, written for his son. I wrote in my reading journal “Kindle’s estimate of the time it would take to read was ludicrously short compared to what it took me — I needed to savor every bit!” And “The book begged to read aloud”. Lucky you if you haven’t read it already.



  3. It is interesting to see what attracts people to ose towns and small cities. The Midwest doesn’t appeal to me with its hot summers , severe winters and flat topography.

  4. for Joyce: Great to hear. I was last there for Amy and Scott’s race. That southeast corner of Iowa, where my father’s family is from, hasn’t boomed yet. He grew up in Mark, Iowa — some miles outside Bloomfield, the county seat. Mark was just a crossroads, with a general store and a filling station, and the last time I was there both had simply fallen down from disuse.

  5. for Katie: Yup, it has all of that. Interestingly, my former home town of Rochester hasn’t become part of this trendy small city thing, but Buffalo — which in my estimation was even more of a left behind industrial city, has.

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