It has a skyline possibly suited for a really big metropolis (squint hard). The statehouse--all domed, gilded and filigreed--would do a small European country proud. Lofts, condos and townhouses sprout throughout the downtown like cornstalks after a good rain.

Obviously, this city works hard to lure people in from the suburbs--for a weekend or for good--and might even look to attract visitors from such self-satisfied towns as Chicago and St. Louis.All that urban bustle wasn't what inspired me to make my first visit. I had a theory going: There are a lot of medium-sized cities in the Midwest that never seem to figure into a leisurely traveler's itinerary. Why, I bet each one has something absolutely unique, a claim to fame, a sound basis for bragging rights.

For example, I ran down a list of attractions put forth on the Greater Des Moines Convention and Visitors Bureau Web site. Besides the expected water parks, historical homes, museums, golf courses and the like, I came across the National Balloon Museum in nearby Indianola, about 15 miles south of downtown Des Moines.

Now, there's a claim to fame, a balloon museum of national reach. I went there soon after my arrival in Iowa. It must have been a slow day, because only one other car stood in the parking lot when I arrived. I had looked at vacant lots in the vicinity, along U.S. Highway 69, and none of them held those majestic, gaily painted balloons that I had expected to see.

After I entered the vaguely balloon-shaped blue and yellow National Balloon Museum, I learned that sort of spectacle wouldn't occur until the National Balloon Classic to be held in the area July 28 through Aug. 5.

I was left to wander through rooms full of wicker passenger baskets, gas tanks, artfully draped silks and synthetics--artifacts from balloon adventures past.

Volunteer docent Carol Fellows told me the museum idea got started in 1977, when a lot of balloonists wanted to unload old equipment, prizes, clippings, commemorative pins and other stuff that had been taking up space in their garages.

Indianola seemed to be the logical site, because the National Hot Air Balloon Championships were held there every year from 1971 through 1989. The blue and yellow building opened up in 1988, just as balloonists were deciding that the championships should be moved to different towns across the country.

"There's also a museum in Albuquerque," Fellows said. "But we like to think we're the one."

Interesting, but I thought our medium-sized Midwest cities should have even more compelling claims on our attention than that.

So my hook for the story got a little limp. I arrived looking for the one attraction that would make Des Moines stand out. Instead, I soon learned, dozens of other nifty things pop up, like hot air balloons.

Or the prairie dogs in Blank Park Zoo.

Sure, a lot of towns have zoos, even if none happens to have a zoo named Blank (philanthropist A.H. Blank wrote the checks that got things started in 1963). But the prairie dog compound in Des Moines has tunnels underneath so humans can observe the animals at lair-level, as well as watch them jump out of their hidy-holes.

The five Wednesdays in July are designated Zoo Brew. The zoo stays open far past its usual 4 p.m. closing time, people buy beer and chicken wings, and wander around while a band plays.

That evening was Hog Night, when participants were encouraged to ride their motorcycles to the zoo. A few did, and a handful of men sported black Harley shirts and rampant facial hair. But mostly it was just plain folks enjoying an evening out, having a few brews and listening to the Blue Band covering rock tunes from all eras.

Oh, yes. Some got down with the prairie dogs, or admired the three lions, two tigers, the snow leopard, the four giraffes and two zebras. Sea lions barked somewhere inside a hidden cove.

Here and there, motorcycle and scooter dealers displayed examples of their wares. That was pretty much all the hog in Hog Night. The resident Blank Zoo sow and her piglets were fast asleep in their little shed.

"Some people feel that `Des Moines' is derived from the Indian word `moingona,' meaning river of the mounds, which referred to the burial mounds that were located near the banks of the river. Others are of the opinion that name applies to the Trappist Monks (Moines de la Trappe) who lived in huts at the mouth of the Des Moines river."

So goes the official city government explanation of the name, although one scholar claims it derived from a scatological tribal in-joke.