Dubuque, Iowa, is one of the most beautiful river towns in the heart of America. It offers many experiences that are sure to provide wonderful memories. If you are an explorer, you’ll find lots to do at any time of year. The town’s bluffs offer spectacular views, and the area’s four full seasons ensure the colors change frequently. History buffs will appreciate the stunning architecture and the town’s Mississippi River connection. And the charm of the downtown area will win the hearts of shopping enthusiasts.
Here are just some of the best things to do in historic Dubuque.
1. Ride The Fenelon Place Elevator
The Fenelon Place Elevator is a historic cable car on the world’s steepest, shortest scenic railway. It’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The views are well worth the small fee for the short ride to the top. You’ll not only have a tremendous view of Dubuque, but you’ll also see three states and the Mississippi River. This is one of those things that you absolutely need to do when you visit Dubuque. Everyone wants to be able to brag that they rode the Fenelon Place Elevator!
The cars are pretty tight quarters and are not wheelchair friendly. However, if you want to see the view from the top, you can drive your car to the top of the bluffs and park close to where the elevator stops.
2. Explore The National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium
I have had the opportunity to visit many museums across the country, and this one is truly one of the best. The Mississippi River is something that I have always taken for granted — I grew up crossing it while traveling out of the state of Iowa. The National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium is located on the banks of the river, and it is where history comes to life. I particularly enjoy the steamboat, as there’s something about reminiscing about what life was like on a steamboat that intrigues me. The numerous fish in the aquarium will keep you (and the little ones in your party!) entertained for hours.
Wear a good pair of walking shoes and explore every nook and cranny. You’ll learn something new about the Mighty Mississippi at every exhibit.
3. Go Bird-Watching At Eagle Point Park
Bald eagles frequent this part of Iowa all year long. Eagle Point Park provides hours of entertainment, with panoramic views of the Mississippi River and bald eagles flying back and forth. Pack a picnic lunch and your binoculars for a memorable day in the park. Fall is a spectacular time to visit, since the trees are loaded with color. Plan to spend a couple of hours here for an enjoyable time.
4. Take A Stroll On The Mississippi Riverwalk
The Riverwalk, built above a levee and part of the Heritage Trail System, is a nice place to stroll along the Mississippi River. Made up of more than 25 miles of trails, the Riverwalk connects the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium to the Star Brewery Complex. The art on this walk — particularly the sculptures — makes it a truly exceptional experience. Take the time to slow down and enjoy the art. The Shot Tower is a few steps off of the walk itself.
The Riverwalk is an easy, level path and a great way to enjoy the riverfront in Dubuque.
5. Explore The Dubuque Arboretum And Botanical Gardens
If you enjoy nature and the outdoors, you will appreciate all that the Dubuque Arboretum and Botanical Gardens have to offer. A large part of the arboretum is handicap accessible, and most of it is fairly level. From the rose garden to the herb garden, there’s something for everyone. I love visiting botanical gardens in different seasons — there’s always something new to see.
Donations are accepted, and it’s important to note that volunteers create and maintain these gardens. Without these volunteers, this beautiful space would not exist.
6. Hike The Trails At The Mines Of Spain Recreation Area
The Mines of Spain Recreation Area is home to 21 miles of hiking trails and 6 miles of groomed cross-country skiing trails. This area is beautiful in the summer, but it really pops when the snow falls in the winter. The limestone bluffs, scenic overlooks, forests, and prairies are magnificent. The great thing about this recreation area is that there are trails for hikers of all levels, so you can be as adventurous as you’d like. Water enthusiasts will appreciate the canoeing and kayaking opportunities here.
Springtime can bring flooding, so check the website before you head out for a hike. Catfish Creek, which leads to the Mississippi River, is open from 4:30 a.m. through 10:30 p.m. every day. There are no fees to experience this park.
7. View The Julien Dubuque Monument
Located on Julien Dubuque Drive, the Julien Dubuque Monument offers history plus stunning views. Just another reason to spend time in the Mines of Spain Recreation Area! This monument stands on the edge of a bluff above Catfish Creek, where kayakers take to the waters.
8. See The Street Art
Dubuque is home to close to 40 colorful murals. This project has taken shape rather quickly — it began in 2016. Each mural tells a story, and the result is that the historic downtown is peppered with colorful works of art that are not to be missed. I love strolling the streets and looking around the bends to see what is next.
A postcard picture awaits you between 10th Street and Jackson Street. Take your smartphone with you and take a selfie to remember your visit. Be sure to share it with your friends on Facebook — they will be curious to know where you traveled!
9. Head To Downtown Dubuque
Downtown Dubuque is home to several neighborhoods that all offer something unique. The Town Clock District, Port of Dubuque District, Historic Old Main District, and Historic Millwork District are just a few of them. Walk or drive about and marvel at the spectacular architecture.
Dine in the Historic Old Main District for some of the best food in Dubuque, from fine dining to chicken wings. Live music and theater also come to life here, as well as the ultimate shopping experiences.
The sidewalks are fairly level throughout the downtown area, but there are some hills. Anytime you are in a river town, that is to be expected!
To top off your visit to Dubuque, dine at Caroline’s Restaurant and check out the amazing architecture within Hotel Julien. This restaurant offers exceptional American cuisine, including an Iowa chop.
What To Know Before You Go
Dubuque is located off of Highway 20, a historic route on the eastern side of Iowa. The Field of Dreams in Dyersville is close by, as is charming Galena, Illinois. You could easily spend three full days in this part of the country. You will not be bored, as there is literally something to do around every street corner! This river town is a great place to slow down, enjoy life, and be grateful for nature. The views from the cliffs all around are sure to wow you.
Dress in layers, since the weather in Iowa can change quickly. Pack your hiking shoes, binoculars, and a hat to protect yourself from the sun. If you are visiting during the winter, bring snow boots, snowshoes, or cross-country skis.
My guess is that once you visit, you will find yourself planning a return visit.