Dubuque Iowa ̶ An Unexpected Pleasure on the Mississippi River

Dubuque, Iowa is a surprisingly interesting little town on the banks of the Mississippi River with plenty of fun restaurants, public art and interesting architecture. I last explored Dubuque as part of a girlfriends’ getaway bringing together gal pals from Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan. It was perfectly suited for all we wanted to do, which was eat, talk and explore.

This post contains affiliate links and sponsored travel. To learn more, read our DISCLAIMER here.

The National Mississippi River Museum in Dubuque, Iowa

The oldest city in Iowa and right on the Mississippi River, Dubuque is the home of the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium. We had heard about it for years, but were unprepared for its size and quality of education and entertainment.

History exhibits begin with the formation of the river and its uses by Native Americans and early European explorers.

Did you know that it takes 90 days for a drop of water to travel the path of the Mississippi from the headwaters at Lake Itasca to the Gulf of Mexico?

We learned that at one time, Iowa was the pearl button capital of the world? For about 20 years in the 1880s to the early 1900s, they dug up fresh water mussels and figured out how to make buttons out of the shells. This was a huge industry down river in Muscatine Iowa until they overfished the river. And then, plastic was invented.

We climbed aboard dredge boats and tug boats and stood transfixed at the play of the river otters. I loved learning about music and art inspired by the river. Of course, you can’t have a river museum without discussion of floods, including what causes them and what happens when the Father of All Waters decides to change it course.

Plan on a good half day at the museum, maybe longer. There are a couple of cafes serving snacks and a light meal. Take a walk along the levee to appreciate the river and the artwork along this path.

According to Charles Kuralt

“Rivers run through our history and folklore, and link us as people. They nourish and refresh us and provide a home for dazzling varieties of fish and wildlife and trees and plants of every sort. We are a nation rich in rivers.”

Public Art in Dubuque Iowa

My friends and I spent a lovely autumn afternoon just walking around downtown looking at the murals. We were inspired by the colors, uncertain of some of the imagery and entertained by the experience. Plus, we got lots of steps in.

The city has about 50 murals brought to life by the Voices Mural Project starting in 2016. Of course, we just wandered, following glimpses of color spotted between buildings and down alleys. But there is a map for serious consumers of big outdoor art. And before long, there will be a digital tour with signs and such. The artists have come from across the country to create this bit of beauty in Dubuque.

Riding the Fenelon Elevator in Dubuque

The Fenelon Place Elevator is an experience rather unique in the U.S. If we were in Switzerland, I would call it a funicular, but here we are in the Midwest. This is supposedly called the shortest, steepest railroad in the world. Despite the misconception that Iowa and much of the Midwest is as flat as a pancake, Dubuque is really very hilly.

Basically, back in the 1880s, a wealthy banker did business downtown near the river, but lived on the bluff overlooking the river. He got tired of that strenuous walk, especially in the heat of the summer and the freeze of winter. So he built himself an elevator. It goes up at a 41° angle. It’s 296 feet long and brings passengers up 189 feet. And it’s a beautiful view on top.

Where to Stay in Dubuque, Iowa

We stayed in a cute AirBnB on Third Street in Dubuque’s Historic Cathedral District, which was just perfect. We could hear the cathedral chime the hour throughout the day. But a few years ago, my family and I had stayed at the historic Hotel Julien in Dubuque. It’s named for Julien Dubuque, the French-Canadian who founded the city in 1785. I can highly recommend it. I can also recommend Shot Tower for an awesome pizza.

My friends and I didn’t have time to explore the Botanic Gardens or the Mines of Spain or many other sites in the area, so we’ll have to go back. If you’re interested in visiting the Field of Dreams in Dyersville, Dubuque is a good place to stay. Overall, we enjoyed ourselves in this pleasant little town and think you will as well.