The golden-domed Iowa State Capitol is one of the most prominent buildings in Des Moines’ skyline. The modified and refined Renaissance style building, which sits at the eastern end of Des Moines’ downtown, serves as a sort of museum to Iowa history, and FREE tours of the capitol are offered Monday through Saturday. The kids and I took a tour of the Capitol last week. Read on to catch our recap and for a few tips on touring the Iowa State Capitol with kids.
Know Before You Go
- Hours of Operation: 6:00 am – 5:00 pm.; Monday through Friday; 9:00 am – 4:00 pm Saturday. The Capitol is closed Sundays, New Year’s Day, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Memorial Day, Fourth of July, Labor Day, Veterans Day, Thanksgiving (and day after), and Christmas Day.
- Cost of Admission: FREE.
- Parking: Visitor parking is available for FREE. Find a parking map here.
- Food: The Statehouse Cafeteria and vending area are located on the Ground Floor.
- Restrooms: Men’s and Women’s Restrooms are located on the Ground Floor.
- Prior to your visit: check out the Iowa Legislature’s website to learn more about the capitol tours, find driving directions, maps and more.
While You’re There
I have been to the Capitol a few times for events, but I had never taken the time to go on a guided tour, especially not with my kids. My son has actually been on the tour himself a few times and with a year of school under her belt, I thought my daughter was now prepared to stay attentive and quiet during the tour. She, actually, was the most excited of all of us to go. I particularly enjoy learning about history, but was pleasantly surprised by how interesting the tour was and how much fun we all had.
Just entering the Capitol building can seem a bit daunting. Public entrances are located on the ground floor on the south and west sides of the building. Upon entrance into the building, all visitors are required to go through a security scan, much like what you would encounter at the airport. Once you’ve been screened, the Tour Guide Station will be straight ahead to your left. There’s also a small gift area, vending area and cafeteria on this floor.
We arrived on a Friday at about a quarter til noon. Tours depart from the Tour Guide Station on the half hour, so we had just missed the group. No problem, the gentleman manning the station called up to the tour guide and asked their location. We were able to join the tour group on the first floor and luckily hadn’t missed much of the tour. Tip: Groups of 10 or more should schedule a tour of the Capitol online. Self-guided tours of the Capitol and Capitol grounds are also available anytime during normal business hours.
Our tour guide was a pro. She was full of information and quick and concise with answers to questions. (I’ve actually heard good things about several of the tour guides.) She noted that the Capitol was built between 1871 and 1886 and represents one of the nation’s finest examples of 19th century architecture. The Capitol is actually the third building that has housed Iowa’s government.
She showed us the Senate Chamber and the House Chamber. She gave notes on architecture and artwork and information about the history of the capitol and of Iowa. She noted that the gold leaf covering the dome is as thin as a sheet of paper and adeptly lead us from the ground floor all the way up to the Whispering Gallery. I don’t want to give the whole tour away, so I’m just going to highlight a few of our favorites of the hour and twenty minute tour.
My son’s favorite stop on the tour is the model of the battleship U.S.S. Iowa, which is located on the first floor. The U.S.S. Iowa was the flagship of its time and has a fascinating history. After it was retired, it was docked in San Francisco and was headed for the scrap heap. Known in its heyday as the Battleship of Presidents, the state of Iowa raised funds to have it towed to its current location in San Pedro, California. Now positioned on the Los Angeles Waterfront, former home to the US Navy pacific fleet, it is a living history museum. Interesting fact; since Iowans raised the funds to have it moved, we can tour it for FREE!
My daughter’s favorite highlight of the tour is the collection of dolls depicting Iowa’s current and past first ladies in their inaugural gowns. It is also displayed on the first floor across from the Governor’s office. My favorite room in the Capitol was the Law Library. It’s located on the second floor and occupies the entire west wing of the building. It contains over 100,000 volumes of law books and the circular staircases of iron grillwork at each end of the library make it seem like something out of a Harry Potter movie!
Lastly, we all three loved the trek up to the Whispering Gallery. After a detailed explanation, by our tour guide, of how many stairs we would walk up (90) and down (120); how to walk on the very narrow steps leading up to the gallery; that children under six are not allowed; and those with heart conditions or severe asthma were discouraged from making the ascent. Also, those afraid of heights would not enjoy it either.
I must admit it was a bit of a hike to get up to the Whispering Gallery, but very doable and well worth the effort. While we were up in the gallery, our tour guide demonstrated how amazing the acoustics in the dome are. As she stood on the opposite side of the dome and spoke, it sounded like she was standing right next to you. The State Capitol is truly an impressive Iowa landmark and is well worth a visit.
Iowa State Capitol
1007 East Grand Avenue
Des Moines, Iowa 50319
Phone: (515) 281-5591
Have you taken a tour of the Iowa State Capitol with your kids? Share your tips for a fun day touring in the Comment section below.