Image source: Iowa Department of Tourism
Every four years, the political world turns its eyes to Iowa, an otherwise low-key, unassuming destination where most residents are quite comfortable with their Norman Rockwell-like existence.
The unusual caucus system in Iowa politics is the first major event where the public gets to cast a vote, an early indication of which presidential candidate might do well on the national stage.
Still, the rest of the nation often scratches its head and wonders, "What's so special about Iowa?" While the prospective candidates are out stomping around Iowa, it's time the rest of the world joins them.
Start in Des Moines, the state capital, pronounced "duh-moin." The capitol building itself is quite lovely with one of the shiniest domes in the business. Yes, it's pure gold. Stand for a few minutes on the west steps, looking out on the non-existent crowds before you and pretend to be a candidate just endorsed by some major organization. It happens here all of the time, but usually people show up to watch.
The coolest part of Des Moines, maybe all of Iowa, is the six square blocks just west of the capitol, appropriately called the East Village. Yep, that's Iowa for you. Actually, it's east of the river and the city's original business district, thus home to some of the state's most historically significant buildings.
The commerce here now relies on the creativity of hundreds of brilliantly talented artists from throughout the Midwest. "From Our Hands" is one such shop, featuring art from recycled materials and other designs from about 60 artisans of various media. Another great one is Sticks that creates its own line of whimsical furniture.
These are all of the independent, mom-and-pop, "Main Street" type businesses that politicians are "concerned" about. You don't have to patronize their emotions, but do patronize them with your wallet.
Java Joe's is one of those coffee shops visited by all aspiring politicians when campaigning in Iowa. Located on 4th Street downtown, Java Joe's is the oldest coffee roaster in Des Moines, and hip enough that all politicians want to be seen here. It doesn't hurt that Java Joe's is big enough to handle a big crowd and hosts live broadcasts on the major networks during the campaign season. Settle in for a plunge pot of coffee and a great big old cinnamon roll, Iowa's unofficial state food.
Have another cup of coffee at the Ritual Cafe, a decidedly liberal hang-out just across the street from Gateway Park, a beautiful outdoor space filled with sculptures and other public art. Obama made a stop here in 2012, as did Joe Biden, and Chelsea Clinton has even made appearances for her mom. In addition to Fair Trade coffee, the Ritual Cafe is one of the best vegetarian restaurants in the city. Yes even Iowa has vegans and vegetarians.
Another spot that provides great photo ops and a hip audience is the Drake Diner, doing business in the neighborhood of 5,000 students at Drake University. Have another cinnamon roll here, a slice of handmade pie or a great milkshake. All of the candidates do.
And, of course, the must-see-do activity for anyone who visits the state of Iowa, with political dreams or otherwise, is the Iowa State Fair. Held for ten days in mid-August, not only is the Iowa State Fair home of great pieces of art sculpted from butter and any fried food that can be stuck on a stick, it was the inspiration for the Rogers and Hammerstein Musical State Fair.
More than one million people attend the fair, which has been listed in 1,000 Places to See Before You Die.
Have you been to Des Moines? What else would you add to this list?