The oldest city in Iowa, Dubuque lies in the northeast of the state alongside the majestic Mississippi River. Long an important center of shipping, commerce and culture, it has lots of pretty nature spots and interesting historic sights for you to check out.
Named after Quebecois explorer Julien Dubuque, the first settler in the state, it was founded in 1833 as a small lead mining town. Over the decades, it grew rapidly thanks to its port and timber industry with the city’s attractive waterfront and old architecture now counted among Dubuque’s main attractions.
Aside from the things to do in Dubuque itself such as a ride in its famous funicular and exploring its magnificent museums, there are loads of bluffs and viewpoints to discover nearby.
12. Crystal Lake Cave
Located just ten minutes drive down the Mississippi River from downtown is the incredible Crystal Lake Cave. At the enormous underground complex, guests can take tours around all its illuminated passageways and see shimmering stalactites and stalagmites.
Discovered accidentally by lead miners in 1868, it was then developed into a commercial show cave in the early 1930s. Since then, generations have come to ogle at fantastical formations like the Lost Gardens, Soda Straws and The Chandelier which dangles dramatically from the cave ceiling.
The highlight however has to be the shallow Crystal Lake itself which beautifully reflects the shiny lights and little flowerlike crystal clusters above. After learning more about the cavernous cave, you can sift for gems or shop for gifts above ground in its on-site store.
11. Voices Mural Project
When ambling about the center and some surrounding neighborhoods, you can hardly fail to notice the countless colorful and creative artworks decorating the area. These impressive productions are part of the Voices Mural Project; a plan to turn the city’s streets into an amazing outdoor art gallery.
Since being established in 2006, dozens of delightful designs by both regional and national artists have been plastered on the unused walls of otherwise plain and boring buildings. While some depict Iowa-inspired landcapes and animals, others are of flowers, fishes and famous US figures.
Visitors can either keep an eye out for the marvelous murals or use an online map to uncover all the arresting artworks. In total, there are around 45 unique art pieces just waiting to be discovered either on highly visible high streets or down hidden alleys.
10. National Farm Toy Museum
A surprisingly interesting place to stop by, the National Farm Toy Museum lies half an hour’s drive directly west of Dubuque in neighboring Dyersville. It boasts a colossal collection of some 30,000 or so toy tractors and model farms with displays on the history of farming also featuring.
What started out in 1978 as an agricultural show with tractor parades and antique farm equipment exhibits has since morphed into the sprawling two-storey museum we see today. Now, its vast floors are crammed with cowboy dolls and cool dioramas of historic homesteads while hundreds of kinds of tractors and combine harvesters line its walls.
Afterwards, you can watch a short film clip on toy production in Dyersville and farm toy enthusiasts talking about their collections before picking up a tractor or two yourself in its gift shop.
9. Diamond Jo Casino
If you’re after another kind of play entirely, then the Diamond Jo Casino back in Dubuque may just be the place to head. At its high-energy entertainment complex, you can chance your luck at around 800 games with top-class comedy shows and live music concerts also regularly taking place.
Originally a riverboat operation, the ever-expanding casino is now based firmly on land in the city’s rapidly developing port area. As well as a chic casino floor, it has three fine dining restaurants and a couple of trendy cocktail bars to try. Its events center also puts on a packed schedule of exhilarating shows throughout the year.
The main reason people visit though is for its casino which has almost 800 slot machines and scores of table games such as poker, blackjack and crabs to play.
8. Stone Cliff Winery
Another great spot to relax and unwind in style is the Stone Cliff Winery, just up the riverwalk from the casino. Here you can sample some wonderful wines in a sumptuous setting with a simple lunch menu and selection of beers also available.
Founded in 1995, the lovely little local winery now occupies the historic old Dubuque Star Brewery overlooking the Mississippi. The weathered bricks of the 1899 Romanesque Revival-style building now make a fine backdrop for its atmospheric tasting room and outdoor terrace on the ground floor.
Besides trying some award-winning wines paired with charcuterie and cheese boards, you can listen to relaxing piano music at the bar or sign up for one of their fun murder mystery nights.
Offering up some outstanding views over both the Mississippi and downtown Dubuque is the scenic Riverwalk. Very popular with both locals and tourists, it takes you down by the waterfront with park benches and public artworks lining the route.
Stretching half a mile in length, the flat, paved path runs atop the flood protection levee that lies alongside the bustling port. From here, you can enjoy divine views over the mighty Mississippi and neighboring states of Illinois and Wisconsin on the opposite bank.
Rising at one end of the Riverwalk is the distinctive Dubuque Shot Tower while the informative plaques dotted along teach you all about the port’s past. In addition, you can also snap some superb pics of the historic 1868 railroad bridge and trussed arch Julien Dubuque Bridge off in the distance.
6. Mines of Spain Recreation Area
Home to lots of stunning landscapes, scenery and nature, the Mines of Spain Recreation Area is set just ten minutes drive south of downtown. Asides from all its exciting outdoor activities, it also has some interesting archaeological sites and an excellent nature center to check out.
So named due to the lead mines established by Europeans in the 1780s, the riverside state park was occupied for millennia before that by numerous Native American peoples. While hiking amongst its woods and wild spaces, you’ll often come across ancient rock shelters and the ruins of centuries-old trading posts and villages.
In its nature center, you can learn about the local fauna and flora and pick up maps to the mines and monuments dedicated to Quebecois explorer Julien Dubuque. From atop the limestone bluffs next to the cylindrical stone tower, you can enjoy sweeping views over the Mississippi.
5. Field of Dreams Movie Site
For baseball fans, a visit to the Field of Dreams movie site is simply a must when in town. Nestled away to the northeast of Dyersville, it has terrific tours for you to take around the iconic farmhouse and ballpark featured in the film.
Surrounded by almost endless fields of corn, the Lansing family’s farm was selected to be the set of Kevin Costner’s sports fantasy drama in 1989. With its inspiring message to pursue your dreams no matter what, it quickly became a huge hit and was later nominated for three Academy Awards.
On tours, you’ll hear lots of fascinating facts about the filming process and property before pitching and catching out on the immaculate field yourself. At times, you can also take photos with some of the ghost baseball players who starred in the film.
4. Dubuque Arboretum and Botanical Gardens
Full of colorful plants, flowers, trees and shrubs, the gorgeous Dubuque Arboretum and Botanical Gardens lie on the northwest outskirts of the city. With picturesque paths meandering their way here and there amidst all the fantastic flowerbeds and water features; it really is a treat to stroll around.
Since being established in 1980, the arboretum has grown considerably and is now impressively the largest in the States staffed solely by volunteers. In total, there are over a staggering sixty gardens to see with prickly cacti and pretty perennials lying next to formal English and Japanese gardens.
While wandering amidst its towering trees and acclaimed hosta garden, keep an eye out for some of the arresting artworks lining its trails. You can also take engaging tours around the arboretum with a playground and magical children’s garden also geared to younger ones.
3. Eagle Point Park
As it boasts breathtaking views over three states, the prominent Eagle Point is often listed among the most spectacular public parks in the Midwest. Home to plenty of paths, picnic areas and playing fields, it lies just up the Mississippi River from downtown, perched atop lofty limestone bluffs.
First opened to the public in 1909, the park was later praised by President Franklin D. Roosevelt for its beauty and views. As the drop down to the river is quite steep, visitors can see Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin stretching away before them with pelicans and eagles often spied flying about below.
Other than basking in phenomenal views of the Mississippi, its banks and bridges, you can hike and bike about its trails or watch a concert at its band shell in summer.
2. National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium
Located alongside the Port of Dubuque is the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium; one of the city’s top cultural institutes. As well as focusing on the history, culture and ecosystems of the renowned river, it has tanks full of fish and even raptor aviaries for you to examine.
The only museum dedicated solely to exploring the Mississippi River’s past and present, its colossal waterfront campus was founded in 2003. Its two state-of-the-art centers look at everything from the Native American cultures that flourished alongside it to the old steamboats that plied its waters.
In addition to learning about its human history, guests can also see some of the wildlife found along the river and its surroundings. Besides cute river otters and turtles, its expansive aquarium contains frogs, eels and even alligators while educational films constantly play at the site’s theater.
1. Fenelon Place Elevator
Although claims it is the shortest and steepest railroad in the world have yet to be backed up, a ride on the Fenelon Place Elevator is certainly a memorable affair. In no time at all, its classic cable cars transport you to the top of a big bluff which offers beautiful views over downtown Dubuque and the Mississippi River below.
Built in 1882, the narrow-gauge funicular was the brainchild of former mayor and state senator J.K. Greaves who lived at the top and worked at the bottom of the hulking great bluffs. Frustrated by the time and energy he was wasting each day, he commissioned a local engineer to design a small track and cable car for his private use.
Later opened to the public, it stretches just 296 feet in length and elevates passengers 189 feet from Fourth Street up to Fenelon Place. Now recognized as a National Historic Landmark, its wonderful old wooden cars are romantic to ride in with the views from up high the best in town.