Iowa : Safety by City
- Arnolds Park
- Cedar Falls
- Cedar Rapids
- Clear Lake
- Council Bluffs
- Des Moines
- Fort Dodge
- Fort Madison
- Iowa City
- Mason City
- North Liberty
- Pleasant Hill
- Polk City
- Sioux City
- Spirit Lake
- Storm Lake
- The Amana Colonies
- West Des Moines
Des Moines, Iowa, is a capital city in the heart of the Midwest.
It was once known for being boring and buttoned-up but has been shedding that image a little bit at a time as the city revitalizes itself.
The city of more than 214,000 people still holds on to that “Iowa Nice” personality while exploring cultural spots and outdoor spaces that are more for a family walk through the park.
This isn’t your grandpa’s Des Moines.
Even Politico wrote an article titled “How America’s Dullest City Got Cool.”
Iowa has long been the first influence in presidential elections, with the Iowa Caucus becoming the center of the political world every four years.
Even at its busiest, Des Moines is still one of the most affordable places to visit in the country without sacrificing quality.
The city is more than the cornfields Iowa is known for, and you’ll be amazed at some of the up-and-coming districts to enjoy.
With growth has come some safety issues, and we’ll go through all the risks and rewards of this slice of Midwestern America.
Warnings & Dangers in Des Moines
OVERALL RISK : MEDIUM
I promise you, some of the nicest people you'll ever meet are in Des Moines, but the city does come with medium risk, and crime is nipping at the heels of niceness. Violent crime rates are nearly twice the national average, and theft rates are at a one in 42 risk rate.
TRANSPORT & TAXIS RISK : LOW
DART is the public transportation system for the city and into neighboring suburbs. Rental cars, taxis, and rideshares are readily available. There's low risk with any option.
PICKPOCKETS RISK : MEDIUM
I was even surprised at the 130 pickpockets and purse snatchings reported in 2020. Since there were more than 5,000 thefts total, it's not a huge risk, but it's still a reasonable risk to know that these types of petty crooks are out there looking for an easy score. Make it harder for them by hiding your wallet in a jacket pocket or front pants pocket. Bring small purses that are crossbody, so they aren't easy to snatch.
NATURAL DISASTERS RISK : MEDIUM
Iowa can get severe weather throughout the year. Severe thunderstorms with tornadoes are the biggest and most dangerous risk. You really need to stay weather aware here all year long. Winter can bring snowstorms, blizzards, and ice storms. Extreme temperatures can happen in winter and summer.
MUGGING RISK : MEDIUM
The robbery risk is 63% higher than the national average, but only 22% of those robberies happen in public spaces. You just can't let your guard down here due to the growing crime rate.
TERRORISM RISK : LOW
If there were a city for terrorists to target in Iowa, it would be Des Moines, but it's still not a big enough city to bring a high risk. During the caucuses, there might be a greater risk.
SCAMS RISK : LOW
The scams here are centered around locals and don't break the mold of the typical scams. Mostly you want to watch out for spoofing scams, law enforcement threats demanding payment or face arrest, or utility scams - but again - what are the odds a tourist will face that? It's low risk.
WOMEN TRAVELERS RISK : MEDIUM
Women have the same medium risk as anyone else and should use caution when walking around at night. Always travel with another person and stay in crowded and well-lit areas.
TAP WATER RISK : LOW
The 2022 Consumer Confidence Report shows full compliance with all requirements and a very detailed list of what the city does to keep the water safe and how you can help.
Safest Places to Visit in Des Moines
Catchdesmoines.com is the official tourism website.
You can feel secure choosing from the attractions there or purchasing discount tickets, but other than direct venue sights, but careful with any ticket purchases through third parties.
Terrance Hill is the governor’s mansion and a fine piece of Victorian architecture.
It has a regal appearance, but I also kind of see how it could look like a haunted mansion from the Lizzy Borden era.
Terrance Hill has an app where you can get tickets and reservation information.
The Des Moines Botanical Gardens are in bloom every month of the year, with rotating flowers and plants to match the season.
Sixteen gardens await your visit, and you can even take a few moments of peace and quiet in the reflection garden.
Admission is free.
Blank Park Zoo calls itself Iowa’s “Wildest Adventure.”
In addition to all the typical animals you’ll find at a zoo, there’s a train that goes around the zoo and a carousel offering rides.
You have at least three opportunities to feed different animals, including giraffes (my personal favorite).
VIP tours are available for an additional cost to meet a wallaby, penguin, sea lion, or giraffe behind the scenes.
Papajohn Sculpture Park is a collection of eclectic and dynamic works of sculpture art.
This is the Central Park of Des Moines, stretching nearly five acres through the heart of the city.
This is also a great place for a morning run or an evening stroll.
Salsbury House & Gardens takes you inside a castle-like home built for a cosmetic magnate in the 1920s.
The impeccable finishing complements the incredible collection of art.
Reserve your spot by calling (515)274-1777.
Tours are limited to 10 tickets each.
A visit to the Iowa State Capital starts with the gleaming 23-karat gold done on top and brings you into the historic structure that looks more like a mansion than a government building.
Places to Avoid in Des Moines
Des Moines is a bit of a contradiction, as it ranks high in a lot of positive categories yet has this growing crime rate.
There aren’t any parts of town where you’re going to be in danger if you end up there.
There are just some neighborhoods that might have more crime than others.
If you stay near all the tourist attractions and major roadways, you’ll wonder why I would even mention crime in this seemingly “Pleasantville” model city.
The Capital East District is one place you want to use caution in if you’re there at night.
It’s not the safest place to walk around by yourself.
While you might be more creeped out by shady characters than actually in danger, it’s smart to avoid this part of town after sundown.
West Court Avenue has also seen a rise in crime in 2022.
Sgt. Paul Parizek of the Des Moines Police Department told local station KCCI, “The frequency of the violence in the form of a fight or dispute is much lower than it was in years past, but the level of violence when it occurs is much greater.
People are bringing guns and bringing knives — and they’re not hesitating to use those.”
Iowa has a growing drug problem, like many states.
The latest concern involves prescription drugs that look like real pills but are loaded with deadly doses of Fentanyl.
Don’t buy any drugs from someone on the street, no matter how real the drugs look.
Be sure only to use a licensed pharmacy.
While you shouldn’t use illegal drugs, to begin with, the drugs here could cause an overdose or death without the user realizing how dangerous it is.
Safety Tips for Traveling to Des Moines
- The Des Moines Police Department has a crime map on its website, but it was taken down in April of 2022 for improvements. As of October 2022, the mapping still isn’t working. When it does work again, it will have updated real-time information so you can see crime trends closer to your travel dates.
- When you’re getting directions, be advised that West Des Moines is an actual city. You’ll want clarity if someone is telling you to go to the west side of Des Moines or West Des Moines proper.
- Des Moines has several pedestrian bridges that go over lakes and rivers in the area. When the weather gets cold, the pavement on the bridges will free before the roadways do. While there’s little to no risk of falling off a big (they are really wide), you want to watch your footing or bicycle wheel and use an abundance of caution.
- Sign up for Alert Iowa emergency notifications to stay on top of severe weather and other urgent issues in the county. If thunderstorms are in the forecast, don’t spend the day outside in parks or wilderness areas. As soon as you hear thunder, go inside.
- Iowa has been hit several times over the past few years by Derechos, which are powerful wind storms that can flatten corn and tear buildings apart. Take this threat seriously. It’s like the power of a hurricane and tornado wrapped into one and doesn’t always come with thunder and lightning. Look up some videos on YouTube, and you’ll see how serious this can be.
- If you want to go fishing or hunting while you’re in Iowa, you’ll need a license from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. Be sure to get a non-resident license.
- When snow emergencies happen in Des Moines, it follows a strict even-odd parking rule so plows can clear the streets. You can read about it on the city’s website because, at first blush, it’s not easy to understand. It also requires moving a vehicle a lot. If you can, park in a lot or a garage to avoid having to move your car based on the day of the week and the numbers on the street.
- Download the DSMmobile app so you can have a direct line of contact with the city. You’ll be able to report street issues, like potholes or downed tree limbs. You can also upload photos to the city, and they’ll be able to get geo-coded information from your photo.
- The Des Moines Police Department posts weekly lists of where they will be running radar to catch speeders. You can review this list, but it’s a nice reminder to drive at the speed limit because officers do patrol the streets here.
- When it snows in Des Moines, there are dozens of makeshift sledding hills that come to life. In the excitement, it can be easy to forget basic safety. Wear a helmet for the best protection against a collision, and when you’ve got down the hill, get out of the way as soon as possible so other sledders don’t hit you. With so many options, you’ll be able to find one that isn’t as crowded.
So... How Safe Is Des Moines Really?
Des Moines is a tale of two cities.
There’s the side with growing violent crime rates, and there’s the side that is ranked one of the Top 15 Places to Live in America.
The thing is – it’s all the same city.
There’s a really strong chance you won’t notice any of the violent crimes or even petty crimes.
You might leave Des Moines and think I was nuts for giving it a medium risk.
Heck, at first, I doubled and triple-checked the crime data to make sure I wasn’t nuts.
The Des Moines Police Department didn’t supply crime data for 2021, making it more challenging to do any comparison from year to year.
While the submitting of crime data to the FBI is voluntary, historically, the majority of departments have complied.
Reporting crime trends and other information helps a city get government funding.
It also helps the politicians know what to fight for in Congress.
Buried in the police department’s website, I found a 2021 Statistical Report, on which I based the crime information in this article.
The city started a program in 2022 called Cure Violence, which is a leadership and community partnership to stop crime and identify the repeat offenders responsible for many crimes.
“Our community has been asking us to do things differently and to try something new,” City Manager Scott Sanders said.
“We have to take the risk and find a unique way to address the issue of violence in Des Moines.”
The majority of the crime happens between people who know each other, as 15% of violent crimes were against strangers in 2020.
28% of thefts are car break-ins, and 47% of violent crimes happen in homes.
Some basic safety practices will go a long way here.
My greatest hope is you visit Des Moines and think I’m nuts for giving it a medium risk.
How Does Des Moines Compare?
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- Visas - Visitors from outside the country will need a U.S. Visa or Visa Waiver to enter through Customs. It can take several months to secure a visa, so don't delay getting the process started. You can travel freely throughout Des Moines and the suburbs without having to show ID.
- Currency - You can only use the U.S. Dollar here. There are plenty of locations to exchange currency, but for safety, don't use a public ATM. You can pay for most items with a credit card, so don't feel like you need to have cash here.
- Weather - You'll need winter outerwear from November through March, but check the 10-day forecast before you travel, since the Midwest can have mild spells anytime in the winter. Bring different layers of clothing from spring and fall, since temperatures fluctuate then too. It's not unheard of for one day to be near freezing and the next day to be in the 70s. Summers will be hot and humid. Bring bug spray and sunscreen in addition to comfortable walking shoes.
- Airports - Des Moines International Airport is just five miles from downtown. It's the closest, largest, and - well - only airport to choose from, unless you're ready for a long road trip.
- Travel Insurance - You'll want travel insurance due to the weather risks and to ensure your rental car is protected from hazards on the road.
Des Moines Weather Averages (Temperatures)
Average High/Low Temperature
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