Dubuque, Iowa, is one of the most historic and fun cities in the state! It’s the perfect spot for a getaway, no matter the season, and offers tons of things to do for all ages. So whether you have a day, a week, or more to explore Dubuque, we’ll help you prioritize what to see and do!
Table of Contents
- A brief history of Dubuque
- Top things to do in Dubuque
- National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium
- Mississippi Riverwalk & Art on the River
- Take a Mississippi Riverboat cruise.
- Mines of Spain State Recreation Area
- Fenelon Place Elevator
- Eagle Point Park, Dubuque
- Visit the Millwork District in Downtown Dubuque
- Crystal Lake Cave
- Dubuque Arboretum & Botanical Gardens
- Dubuque casinos
- More things to do in Dubuque & nearby
A brief history of Dubuque
Native American cultures once lived in the Dubuque area, a resource-rich region. Before European settlers arrived, the Mesquakie, Sauk, and Fox tribes fished, hunted, and farmed the area.
In 1785, French-Canadian fur trader Julien Dubuque arrived and started a trading post. He soon formed relationships with the Mesquakie. And they eventually allowed him to work alongside them in their lead mines (now called the Mines of Spain). Finally, Julien was given control of the mining operation, and he ran it until he died in 1810.1
In 1833, the Black Hawk Purchase Treaty was signed, and the area was opened to settlement by the U.S. government. This, plus the mines and the area’s bountiful resources, fueled rapid growth. And in 1837, Dubuque became “Iowa’s oldest city.”1
As the 19th century progressed, Dubuque’s resources and location on the Mississippi River made it a key port for shipping and trade. Railroads were built, and industries such as meatpacking and mill working were established.
Early in the 20th century, it continued to thrive and became a center for riverboat tourism. But, by the 1970s and 80s, its population and many industries declined, and the city faced economic challenges.
Yet, the city endured! Millions of dollars raised in the 1990s revitalized the area, particularly the downtown and riverfront areas.1 Today, Dubuque is a cultural center full of history, attractions, and outdoor recreation.
Top things to do in Dubuque
What are some of the things to do in Dubuque? So much! Dubuque has incredible things for all ages and interests to see and do! Below are our top recommendations for attractions in the area. (For locations, view our map below.)
National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium
The National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium has something for everyone! This Smithsonian Affiliate is considered “part aquarium, part museum, part science center,”2 and a fun time for all ages. So plan to spend a few hours here!
Here are some of the highlights of this incredible museum:
- Learn about the river’s history and culture
- See live river wildlife (100+ species!)
- Explore hands-on exhibits (touch and feed a stingray!)
- See historic riverboat artifacts & tour a riverboat
- View a 4D movie (3D with special effects)
But that’s not all! The museum is at the Port of Dubuque, and there’s (so much) more to explore. Check out the Riverwalk, river cruises, Grand Harbor Resort & Waterpark, Diamond Jo Casino, bowling, shops, and restaurants.
Mississippi Riverwalk & Art on the River
The Missississippi Riverwalk is a must-see on any visit to Dubuque! This accessible, scenic, half-mile paved trail extends along the river at the Port of Dubuque. It runs from the Star Brewery Complex to the National Mississippi River Museum.
The trail features beautiful landscaping, benches, picnic tables, a gazebo, and Art on the River sculptures(!) to enjoy! Also, find the Stone Cliff Winery, Grand Harbor Resort & Waterpark, the Marina, and the Mississippi River Museum on the route.
The Port of Dubuque Marina is where excursion boats dock during the warmer months. You might stop at the Marina for refreshments after your walk!
Art on the River features sculptures on the Riverwalk with a new theme and new sculptures each year. Learn more about the exhibition here.
Take a Mississippi Riverboat cruise.
There’s no better way to see the mighty Mississippi River than a riverboat excursion! The good news is several riverboat excursions stop at the Port of Dubuque (at Rivers Edge Plaza). From shorter dinner and sightseeing cruises to weekend or week-long trips, stop here.
- American Lady River Cruises offer 1½ to 2-hour cruises. Book a cruise online at their website.
- Riverboat Twilight Cruises offer one-day cruises from Dubuque to Guttenburg and back. Or, if you board in LeClaire, Iowa, you can take a two-day excursion to Dubuque overnight and return to LeClaire.
- To book online, go to their website.
- Celebration Belle River Cruises offer all-day cruises from Dubuque to a few other river towns, like Moline, Illinois, and Prairie Du Chien, Wisconsin, a few times yearly. Go to their website for more information or to book a cruise.
- American Queen Voyages and American Cruise Lines offer week-long trips on large river excursion boats. These cruise lines don’t originate in Dubuque but stop at the Port of Dubuque.
Mines of Spain State Recreation Area
The 1437-acre Mines of Spain Recreation Area is integral to Dubuque’s history and a National Historic Landmark. It’s the site of former lead mines once operated by the Mesquakie and later European settlers.
Highlights of the Mines of Spain:
- E.B. Lyons Interpretive and Nature Center
- Bird & butterfly garden
- Julien Dubuque Monument (on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River)
- Several miles of hiking and cross-country ski trails (maps here)
- An interpretive trail through diverse habitats
- Picnic areas & open air-shelters
Fenelon Place Elevator
The Fenelon Place Elevator isn’t called “the world’s steepest, shortest, scenic railway” for nothing!
This historic cable car was first built in 1882 and is 296 feet long and 189 feet high; it’s also known as the Fourth Street Elevator. It was initially constructed to give residents living on the hill an easier & faster way to and from downtown.
Visitors can ride up and down the steep hill in downtown Dubuque and enjoy incredible views. It’s open daily from April through November.
And after your historic ride, stop by the shops and quaint eateries in the downtown area!
Eagle Point Park, Dubuque
Breathtaking views! You’ll get that and much more when you visit Eagle Point Park in Dubuque. This 164-acre park has trails, a spray pool, a fish pond, playgrounds & more!
Highlights of Eagle Point Park:
- Entry fee: $1 for vehicles
- Open May – October
- Views of three states! Stop at the viewing towers.
- Paved trail following an old streetcar route
- Spray pool
- Rock Garden & Fish Pond (historic limestone construction)
- Picnic pavilions & shelters (reservable)
- Tennis courts
Visit the Millwork District in Downtown Dubuque
The historic Millwork District was once the city center for milling and industrial business. But many companies and buildings declined in the mid-1900s. Since then, renovations have created a vibrant downtown destination for locals and visitors alike!
In other words, Downtown Dubuque’s Millwork District is an excellent place to spend a few hours. Restored historic buildings line the streets and offer boutique shops, eateries, entertainment, art, and more! It’s definitely worth experiencing when you’re in Dubuque.
Crystal Lake Cave
Crystal Lake Cave is six miles south of Dubuque and a fun stop for all ages! Grab a jacket and go for a cave tour to see stalactites, stalagmites, and other geological wonders.
After your tour, browse the gift shop for a souvenir. And kids can head to the gem mining area to uncover their own gemstones! Also, feel free to take a picnic lunch to enjoy at the cave’s picnic grounds afterward.
Crystal Lake Cave is usually open May through October, but weekends only in the spring and fall. Check their website or Facebook page for updated hours and pricing.
Dubuque Arboretum & Botanical Gardens
Visit the Dubuque Arboretum & Botanical Gardens year-round for FREE! The Arboretum has something everyone is sure to enjoy:
- A Visitor Center
- Nature walks
- 60 types of gardens
- A Children’s Playground
- Art and sculptures
- Veterans Memorial
- Koi Pond (in the Japanese Garden)
Bike or walk through this living museum of trees, plants, and flowers, and learn as you go (perhaps you’ll get ideas for your own yard!) You can explore independently (grab a map here) or request a free weekday guided tour.
Remember to stop at the visitor center, grab a coffee, get fish food for the Koi, or browse the gift shop. And learn more about the gardens throughout the 56-acre park.
The Diamond Jo Casino and Q Casino are popular attractions for more than just gambling. Both offer restaurants and non-gambling entertainment.
The Diamond Jo Casino is at the Port of Dubuque near Grand Harbor Resort and the Mississippi River Museum. It has a 30-lane bowling alley, a few dining options, and live music on weekends.
Q Casino & Hotel is at Chaplain Schmitt Island and near the Hilton Garden Hotel and Veterans Memorial Plaza. Besides gambling, it offers a bar, restaurant, and live music on most weekends.
More things to do in Dubuque & nearby
If you have extra time and want to explore further, stop by the Travel Dubuque Welcome Center at 280 Main Street. And consider the following:
- Grand Harbor Resort & Waterpark
- The Shot Tower
- Star Brewery Complex (Stone Cliff Winery)
- Carnegie Stout Public Library
- Dubuque Museum of Art
- Sundown Mountain Resort
- Sky Tours Zipline
- Field of Dreams, Dyersville
- Heritage Trail
1. (n.d.). History. City of Dubuque. https://www.cityofdubuque.org/1060/History
2. (n.d.). National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium. National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium. https://www.rivermuseum.com/
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