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6 charming Mississippi River towns you’ll want to visit

The American Duchess on the Upper Mississippi River The American Duchess on the Upper Mississippi River. | Photo courtesy American Queen Voyages

On a Mississippi River cruise, the journey and the stops can be as enchanting as the paddle wheeler you’ll travel on. You’ll visit many historic and charming towns that illuminate our nation’s past and offer distinctive present-day pleasures.

“Traveling on the American Queen steamboat made me feel that I was entering a part of American history,” says AAA Travel Advisor Terry Cullinan, who took a 7-day Mississippi River cruise with American Queen Voyages last December. “Every stop brought an opportunity to meet locals, who were warm and welcoming and so very proud of their cultural heritage and historical sites.”

Many of the river towns that cruise passengers like Cullinan visit are packed with compelling history, cool culture, and a cornucopia of charm. Here are 6 you'll want to visit.

1. Red Wing, Minnesota

The American Queen at anchor in Red Wing.

The American Queen at anchor in Red Wing. | Photo courtesy American Queen Voyages

Red Wing, home to the shoe company that bears its name, puts its best foot forward for residents and tourists. This small town, founded in 1815 on the upper Mississippi River in southeast Minnesota, boasts 6 museums in its 35 square miles: the Aliveo Military Museum; the American Ski Jumping Hall of Fame and Museum; the Goodhue County Historical Society museum; the Pottery Museum of Red Wing; the Red Wing Marine Museum; and the Red Wing Shoe Company Museum (displaying the world’s biggest boot).

Levee Park in Red Wing, Minnesota

Red Wing's Levee Park offers views of the Mississippi River. | Photo by Jennifer Olson

Besides museum-hopping, head outdoors to Levee Park or He Mni Can/Barn Bluff, one of the town’s highest natural points and a remnant of the region’s glacial history. Trails and stairways lead to the bluff’s 340-foot summit, which offers views of downtown Red Wing and the Mississippi River. Panels at the bluff’s base tell the story of the Mdewakanton Dakota people, who consider the bluff sacred. They named it He Mni Can, which means Hill Water Wood, to reflect the way it appeared to be rising from the water.

Local bites: Head to Hanisch Bakery and Coffee Shop for baked goods, which are repeatedly voted the best in Minnesota.

Souvenirs: Red Wing footwear is a shoo-in memento, but don’t overlook collectible Red Wing pottery and stoneware, made from local clay.

2. Dubuque, Iowa

The funicular in Dubuque, Iowa

Dubuque's historic funicular railway offers river views. | Photo by Wirestock Creators/stock.adobe.com

What started as a small, lead-mining town on the banks of the Mississippi in northeast Iowa developed into a city packed with colorful attractions. Art thrives in the heart of Dubuque—and not only in the fine collection found at the Dubuque Museum of Art or in the city’s many galleries. Nearly 60 murals and street art, painted by local and world-renowned artists, grace buildings in the historic downtown. In addition, a rotating supply of sculptures from the Art on the River project adds pizzazz to the picturesque Mississippi Riverwalk.

Other Dubuque must-sees include the Fenelon Place Elevator (called “the world’s steepest, shortest scenic railway”); the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium; the Mines of Spain State Recreation Area; and the Dubuque Arboretum and Botanical Gardens.

Local bites: Don’t miss the Turkey ‘N’ Dressing sandwich (a bread-on-bread sandwich) at Cremer’s, a family-owned grocery.

Souvenirs: Take home the divine caramels made by nuns at Monastery Candy and the ethereal handmade chocolates from Betty Jane Candies.

3. Hannibal, Missouri

The American Queen at anchor in Hannibal.

The American Queen at anchor in Hannibal. | Photo courtesy American Queen Voyages

Once upon a time, Hannibal was a quiet, sleepy town on the west bank of the Mississippi River in northeast Missouri. It still is—albeit an enormously famous one, thanks to Mark Twain (pen name of Samuel Clemens), who was raised there. Not surprisingly, Hannibal tourism centers around the beloved author, and you can tour voluminous Twain-centric sites, including the Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum, the Mark Twain Cave, and the Becky Thatcher House.

Downtown Hannibal, Missouri

The colorful buildings of Hannibal's historic downtown. | Photo courtesy Hannibal Convention & Visitor's Bureau

But the town’s other attractions also merit attention, including the nightly Haunted Hannibal Ghost Tour, the Rockcliffe Mansion (the Gilded Age home of a lumber baron), and a museum devoted to Titanic survivor “The Unsinkable” Molly Brown, who was born in Hannibal.

Local bites: Order the pork tenderloin sandwich and the house-made root beer at the Mark Twain Dinette.

Souvenirs: Besides Mark Twain books, check out 2 top-notch quilt shops: Hickory Stick Quilt Shop and Bits & Pieces.

4. Alton, Illinois

Carlinville Square in Alton.

Carlinville Square in Alton. | Photo courtesy Illinois Office of Tourism

This town delights birders, who flock to the area to see trumpeter swans, bald eagles, and about 300 other avian species. The region’s prime location in southwest Illinois, near the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, provides a big opportunity for bird-watchers to expand their life lists. Great bird-watching spots include the Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary and Audubon Center and the Melvin Price Locks and Dam, adjacent to National Great Rivers Museum.

A statue honors Alton native Robert Wadlow, who was 8 feet, 11 inches tall. | Photo courtesy Illinois Office of Tourism

A statue honors Alton native Robert Wadlow, who was 8 feet, 11 inches tall. | Photo courtesy Illinois Office of Tourism

In downtown Alton, cruise by Lincoln-Douglas Square to see life-size statues of Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas, commemorating their last senatorial debate in 1858. Two other bronze renderings pay tribute to Alton natives: musician Miles Davis and Robert Wadlow, the world’s tallest man at 8 feet, 11 inches.

At the 110-foot-tall Elijah P. Lovejoy Monument, a winged statue of Victory tops a towering pillar to memorialize the newspaper editor. The champion of free speech and influential abolitionist was murdered in Alton. Also, don’t miss the town’s 2-hour Underground Railroad guided shuttle tour.

Local bites: Savor fried river-fresh fish at stands and casual restaurants in Grafton, about 15 miles upriver from Alton.

Souvenirs: You’ll find keepsakes in vintage and quirky boutiques. How can you pass up shops named Mississippi Hippie, It’s Raining Zen, and Mom Said No?

5. Vicksburg, Mississippi 

A remnant of the Civil War in Vicksburg. | Photo by warren_price/stock.adobe.com

A remnant of the Civil War in Vicksburg. | Photo by warren_price/stock.adobe.com

Sitting pretty on the east bank of the Mississippi River across from Louisiana, Vicksburg enjoys such a strategic location that Abraham Lincoln declared the city “the key” to victory during the Civil War. History buffs will be fascinated by Vicksburg National Military Park, which spreads over 1,800 acres and holds more than 1,400 memorials and monuments; Vicksburg National Cemetery; and the USS Cairo Museum, dedicated to the massive military gunboat that sank in 1862.

The Anchuca Historic Mansion and Inn.

The Anchuca Historic Mansion and Inn. | Photo courtesy Vicksburg Convention and Visitors Bureau

Vicksburg offers 11 historic homes open for tours. Constructed in a range of architectural styles—including frontier, antebellum, Victorian, and mission revival—and bearing elegant furnishings, the homes have fascinating stories. Don’t miss the McRaven Tour Home, built in 3 time periods and named the “most haunted in Mississippi.” And check out the 3-story Duff Green Mansion, built by slaves and turned into a hospital during the Civil War. For a refreshingly different stop, head over to the Biedenharn Coca-Cola Museum, developed because the beverage was first bottled on the site.

Local bites: Dine at Walnut Hills, which serves “Southern plantation cuisine” (think fried green tomatoes or fried chicken); 10 South Rooftop Bar & Grill, which has magnificent views of the river and is especially popular for cocktails at sunset; and Solly’s Hot Tamales, a joint famous for its Mississippi Delta tamales.

Souvenirs: This is the place to purchase Civil War relics, such as bullets and Minié balls collected from the battlefield.  Also popular are locally made, hand-painted pewter figurines of Civil War soldiers sold at the Old Depot Museum gift shop.

6. Natchez, Mississippi

Dunleith Historic Inn in Natchez

Dunleith Historic Inn in Natchez. | Photo by stevengaertner/stock.adobe.com

In pre–Civil War days, Natchez claimed more millionaires than anywhere else in the country, and they built a wealth of grand mansions that are open to visitors today. Natchez also offers dozens of sites important to the civil rights struggle and several historic churches.

Unsurprising for a city representing the epitome of Southern hospitality, Natchez delivers an abundance of homegrown entertainment. High notes include a calendar packed with festivals and venues playing jazz, blues, bluegrass, country, rock ’n’ roll and other forms of live music and Southern food good enough to thrill gourmets.

A bandstand offers a view of the Mississippi River

A bandstand offers a view of the Mississippi River. | Photo courtesy Visit Natchez

Local bites: Natchez was proclaimed “the biscuit capital of the world,” and cooking authority Regina Charboneau offers a biscuit-making class at her downtown cooking academy. Short on time? Double-dip by dining at Biscuits and Blues, a casual tavern with live music on selected nights. Natchez is part of the Mississippi Delta Hot Tamale Trail, and locals swear by the ones made at The Donut Shop and Fat Mama’s Tamales.

Souvenirs: Jams and jellies always make super souvenirs as well as gifts. Regional specialties are made of mayhaw and muscadine, seasonal fruits that thrive in the South.

AAA Travel Alert: Many travel destinations have implemented COVID-19–related restrictions. Before making travel plans, check to see if hotels, attractions, cruise lines, tour operators, restaurants, and local authorities have issued health and safety-related restrictions or entry requirements. The local tourism board is a good resource for updated information.

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