Yeah. Oktoberfest in Des Moines.
While medical school leaves zero time to think about anything besides cytokines and glycolysis, we are blessed with a fall break, and by golly if I’m not gonna take advantage of a week off to have some fun!
I live just a few hours away from Des Moines, the capital of Iowa here in the U-S-of-A. My best friend just happens to live there, so I invited myself over for the weekend and we did quite a bit in two days. Here’s the rundown:
Iowa State Capitol tour
If you’ve read this blog for awhile, or have had the misfortune of meeting me in person, you’ll know that it’s my life’s goal to visit every single one of the U.S. state capitol buildings.
Iowa makes #7, I think.
What I found immediately striking about the Iowa State Capitol is its golden dome, shining like a beacon from the Capitol Hill. Apparently, it is the only U.S. capitol to have a golden dome. Of course, it isn’t solid gold (who would think that? definitely not me…). A master gold-leafer lays each tissue-thin sheet of gold by hand until the whole dome is covered, and so the amount of gold in the dome is actually the size and weight of a 6lb baseball! That is just insane!
Once inside, our tour group met under the central dome. All of the capitols’ domes are magnificent, but it somehow manages to take my breath away every time. The tour guide had us each take a turn standing in the very center of the dome, and told us to whisper something. Based on the acoustics of the dome, speaking into it causes the sound to echo back to you from all sides, and it feels like a dozen people are all whispering at you. For some reason, the first person to try said “Elvis Presley”, and for some reason, we all decided that was an idea good enough to copy. So that’s what we all whispered into the dome.
We checked out a couple of the exhibits in the main area, including a replica of the S.S. Iowa warship and a case full of dolls of all the first ladies of Iowa. My favorite was a lady named Friendly Lucas, who agreed to move to Des Moines for her husband’s term on one condition. He must give her a deed to land in her name, and her name only. Women weren’t officially allowed to own property in the U.S. until 1839, so her request required a huge undertaking. Still, her husband wanted to be in office badly enough that he made it happen, making Friendly one of the first women in the U.S. to own property.
That was very girlboss of her.
Next, we visited the office of the secretary of state, where we learned about the capitol’s origins. The modern Iowa State Capitol was built by Irish, Polish, German, and Dutch immigrants (as well as many more I’m sure). Skilled craftsmen were especially sought after, and when the contractor put up an ad for a master woodcarver, he was surprised when a 23-year-old answered the ad. And yet, he absolutely killed it, fashioning almost a dozen gorgeous wooden panels depicting Iowa’s natural resources for the representatives’ desk. When the number of representatives changed from 6 to 9, they invited that same craftsman back (now 60 years old), and he made 3 additional panels. If it weren’t for the seam in the wood, you’d never know that the desk required two separate projects.
We made quick stops in the Iowa Senate and House of Representatives, and they are pretty similar to the ones you see in any state capitol, with a semicircle of desks surrounding the central desk where debates are held.
Next, we visited my favorite part of the capitol, by far. The library. I can’t do it justice in words, but just imagine what the library from Beauty and the Beast would look like in real life. There are 5 stories of bookshelves, all connected by spiral staircases. Floor to ceiling windows and a stained glass ceiling let in tons of light, and over 106,000 books are kept here.
The Iowa State Capitol Library is listed as one of the top 5 most beautiful libraries in the world! Don’t ask me for my source, I forgot to ask the tour guide where she got that, but I believe it!
The final part of the tour was a bit of a workout.
We ascended what I call the grand staircase, flanked by two bronze statues of women holding lanterns. They actually used to belong to Illinois, but Illinois gave them to Iowa because the statues were too “salacious”. A couple of years later when Illinois felt bad about slut-shaming their statues, they asked for them back, to which Iowa said, “no”. And they remain here to this day.
At the top of the staircase, there are a few mosaics depicting the departments of the state, such as “defense” and “agriculture”. You know how some paintings have eyes that follow you across the room? Well one of these mosaics has a foot that follows you as you pass by it. If you’re on the left, the foot faces left. If you walk to the right, the foot seems to turn with you until it is facing the right. Scarrrrrrrry.
The real workout began when we made our way up to the dome. This part of the tour is optional because it requires a 92-step climb up a very narrow spiral staircase. Having climbed all one billion steps to the Duomo in Florence, I felt up to the task, and we made our way up to the upper rim of the capitol’s dome. Looking over the edge is dizzying. The railing is only about waist height for me, so it was a little nerve wracking walking along. Our guide told us this is the whispering corridor, and to demonstrate, she hid behind a pillar and told us all to give a thumbs up if we could hear her. Even whispering from the other side of the corridor, we could all hear her clear as day!
After the whispering, the tour was over. I loved the tour, and I love seeing state capitols because it gives you the perfect overview of a state’s history, and each capitol has so many neat little stories that go into making it.
Oktoberfest in Downtown Des Moines
Like I mentioned before, a lot of German immigrants came to work in Des Moines, and as such, there are a lot of German-American descends living here today. So Oktoberfest is taken very seriously. Thankfully for us, they still had tickets available, and so my friends and I decided to see what Oktoberfest in Des Moines was all about.
It was about a lot of things, that’s for sure! Lots of people were dressed to the nines in lederhosen and dirndls, and one of those “oom pah pah” bands kept chugging away merrily throughout the whole night.
Our ticket included entrance into the festival, a souvenir pint glass, and a drink ticket for one free beer. Immediately, I decided to give the Leinenkugel’s classic brew a try. It was a fine and standard pale ale. I don’t know a single thing about beer so sorry for the lack of detail.
If you’re not a beer person, then never should you fear! There were tons of alcohol brands offering free samples, especially with the “seltzer craze” that seems to be rocking the nation. Jagermeister was here too, and I got to try a shotski for the first time ever. What is a shotski? Well, it’s where you and your friends line up shot glasses along an old-fashioned alpine ski, and shoot them all at the same time. To this day, I’m unsure of how my friends and I managed to do this without spilling the shots all over ourselves, but I’ll chalk it up to an Oktoberfest miracle.
In addition to oompah-ing and drinking, there are also lots of booths selling very cool crafts, and some yard games, which is the best idea ever. We tried this game where everyone has a nail in this stump, and you want to be the first person to hit the nail all the way into the stump using just the back of a hammer. Needless to say, projectile nails were flying everywhere and it’s a miracle no one was blinded. But by golly was it a good time.
There’s also plenty of Bavarian food, and a brat with sauerkraut provided the perfect paring to my second beer of the night, the Leinenkugel’s Oktoberfest brew. This one was an amber ale, and I liked it much more than the first one.
The rest of the night was fabulous, we listened to the band and swung along to the oom-pah-pah until it got dark. Then, because apparently we all became thousand-year-olds after graduating college, we left to go to bed.
Downtown Des Moines itself is incredibly well lit and safe at night, much safer than other places I’ve lived and visited. This seems like a great place, both to live and to attend Oktoberfest.
Latino Heritage Festival
Since it’s currently Latinx heritage month here in the U.S.A., Des Moines hosted their Latino Heritage Festival downtown while I was there, and so we couldn’t help but pop by and check out what was going on.
Lots of bands playing all types of music, dozens of delicious-smelling food trucks, and info booths lined the streets, and I only wish I hadn’t had lunch before arriving! We played a match-the-flag-to-the-country game, and thankfully I got Brazil which has a pretty distinctive flag. Like the previous day, most of the time was spent enjoying a drink and listening to salsa music. Also once again, I wish I was brave enough to go up and dance with everyone. But once again, I am a huge coward. One day!
Pappajohn Sculpture Park
We had a tricky time finding our way here because Apple Maps kept trying to take us to the Papa John’s pizza restaurant.
But we were able to find it! The sculpture garden is downtown, and through its winding paths, you can see all sorts of sculptures. Some are colorful and fun, and some are very scary. I call one section of the garden “the Upsidedown” because those statues look like the demigorgon and vespa from Stranger Things.
The central sculpture is this carnival-looking glass prism that takes sunlight and spits it out into rays of rainbow light across the lawn. There’s an audio tour that you can follow by calling a phone number. Sometimes it would give us insight into the sculptors’ vision, and sometimes it would just play a funky little tune with no explanation. As you may expect, some of the sculptures had vague meanings like “society” and “subversive” that flew right over my head, but some were easier to understand. One of my favorite sculptures is Keith Haring’s “Three Dancing Figures” which the audio guide told us represent “how people love to dance and have fun”. I can get with that.
My other favorite is Jaume Plensa’s “Nomade”, a person sitting with their arms around their knees, made entirely of white letters. You could walk inside, and it was just as marvelous of a work outside and inside.
My Verdict on Des Moines:
Even with only a weekend to see as much as possible, I feel like I got a nice taste of Des Moines. It’s one of the only big cities in Iowa, and so my friend tells me it’s always lively with something fun going on.
The capitol really blew my expectations out of the water in terms of art and grandeur, and Des Moines provided a great first-ever Oktoberfest experience for me.
There’s also something so lovely about the cornfields stretching for miles. In Missouri (where I’m from), it’s more cow pastures and so driving past the wide, golden expanses provided a welcome change of scenery.
I’d love to go back and see the botanic gardens, as well as some of the parks. So until next time… thanks Des Moines!