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Come Ashore Along the Mississippi River

People like to bring their troubles to the Mississippi River.

The subject of songs like “Old Man River” or classic fiction like “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” the river is seen as a constant in a world of change and uncertainty. Towns once seen as vital river ports now use the river mainly as a gorgeous viewing point for citizens to enjoy on riverside walks, restaurants and attractions.

Groups can enjoy top-tier attractions, discover fascinating history and feel the pull of the river at these engaging Mississippi River destinations.

La Crosse, Wisconsin

In a region known for its flat prairies, the immense bluffs of La Crosse, Wisconsin, tower unexpectedly over the Mississippi River. The grandeur of the scenery gives La Crosse a mountain town feel that groups can enjoy on walks through the vibrant downtown and accessible parks.

Groups can take in the river views of this former fur trading hub from Riverside Park. The 1911 downtown park hosts many of the town’s events, such as Riverfest, Oktoberfest and the Rotary Lights.

La Crosse serves as an art haven with over 30 active arts organizations, for example, the Pump House Regional Arts Center. The arts center hosts visual arts exhibits throughout the year, plus its own jazz, folk and blues performers. Local sculptor Elmer Petersen created many sculptures located throughout the downtown area, including “Eagle” in Riverside Park.

The Waterfront Restaurant and Tavern offers groups river views and modern American dishes. Some of its most popular dishes are cheese curds, crab cakes, fresh oysters and St. Joe’s ham melt.

A major draw for the city, the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe features stunning Italian Renaissance architecture and landscaped grounds. The Catholic shrine was dedicated in 2008 and has a visitors center, a rosary walk, a Stations of the Cross walk and a votive candle chapel.

For classic car fans, the Dahl Museum is a family-owned museum that displays some of the oldest known classic cars.

On the River: Passengers can look up La Crosse’s striking bluffs aboard the 149-person paddle wheeler La Crosse Queen. The modern-day replica of a 19th-century grand riverboat offers sightseeing cruises, lunch, dinner and private party charters.

explorelacrosse.com

Galena, Illinois

Ulysses S. Grant first arrived in Galena, Illinois, in 1860 as a lowly store clerk. When the Civil War broke out a year later, he advanced in the ranks to lead the Union army, and in 1865, he reentered Galena as a war hero celebrity. In response, a group of Galena citizens presented Grant with an elegant house in the town.

The gifted home opened to the public in 1904 as the U.S. Grant Home Site Historic Site. The 30-minute tours showcase the home’s original furnishings and tell stories of Grant’s time in Galena and as president shortly after the war.

Galena’s Main Street looks much like it did when Grant first saw it in the late 1800s. The downtown has more than 125 independent businesses inside its historic buildings.

On a walk downtown, groups can smell freshly popped gourmet popcorn, hand-dipped chocolates and chargrilled burgers from the town’s various eateries. Tours can combine dinner and river views at Timmerman’s Supper Club. The riverside restaurant offers steakhouse cuisine, a dance floor and DJ entertainment on the weekends.

Groups can find photo ops of the river at the 10-acre Gramercy Park, an Illinois Natural Heritage Landmark. To explore the city’s past, Galena Trolley Tours offers daily narrated tours through the town’s historic streets. Other Galena tours vary in focus; they include a winery tour and a haunted history tour.

On the River: The Chestnut Mountain Resort runs cruises aboard the Mississippi Explorer. The summer resort hotel offers hiking, biking, golf and pools, as well as one-and-a-half-hour wildlife cruises. To reach the boat, passengers ride down a 2,000-foot track to the banks of the Mississippi. The resort’s Scenic Chair Lift can take guests back up the embankment for a three-state view of the surrounding area.

visitgalena.org

Hannibal, Missouri

Born Samuel Clemens, Mark Twain saw the world from a unique perspective. His childhood in Hannibal, Missouri, shaped much of his later fiction, and many of his characters were inspired by real people he knew growing up.

Groups can learn about Twain’s childhood that shaped his works “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” in seven historic properties at the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum complex. The boyhood home re-creates Twain’s childhood, down to the original white picket fence.

In the museum, guests can examine many artifacts from the celebrated American author, such as his white suit coat. Other attractions include the Becky Thatcher House, the Huckleberry Finn House, the J.M. Clemens Justice of the Peace Office and Grant’s Drug Store.

Hannibal has a long history of preserving its historic buildings. The town saved Rockcliffe Mansion days before its scheduled demolition in 1967. Completed in 1900, the Victorian and Art Nouveau mansion now hosts guided tours to show the home’s antique furnishings, high-end lighting fixtures and period artifacts.

Groups can learn about another historic Hannibal character at the Molly Brown Birthplace Museum. Known as the “Unsinkable Molly Brown,” Brown was born in poverty and rose to riches. She became widely known after surviving the sinking of the Titanic.

Hannibal has several restaurants that welcome groups. One, the Ole Planters Restaurant, is a local favorite that offers hickory-smoked barbecue, pork tenderloin and homemade pie.

On the River: Visitors can see the rolling Mississippi from the same vantage point as Huck Finn did on the Mark Twain Riverboat. Groups can choose between a one-hour narrated sightseeing cruise or a two-hour dinner cruise for a buffet meal and live music. Built in 1964, the boat is 120 feet long with a 350-passenger capacity.

visithannibal.com

Vicksburg, Mississippi

Most American students learned about Vicksburg, Mississippi, in history class as the location of the pivotal Siege of Vicksburg. Today, the city honors that past and welcomes visitors to its charming downtown, historic attractions, art galleries, restaurants and riverscapes.

The Jessie Brent Lower Mississippi River Museum demonstrates the power of the mighty Mississippi with interactive exhibits such as a choose-your-own-river-adventure simulation. Other exhibits include stories about historic floods, a 1,515-gallon aquarium and the M/V Mississippi IV towboat.

To discover the significant role the city played during the Civil War, groups can explore the Vicksburg National Military Park. More than 14,000 memorial monuments and markers dot the 1,800-acre park to honor soldiers who served on both sides of the Civil War. Groups can also explore nine historic fortifications, the Vicksburg National Cemetery and the USS Cairo Gunboat and Museum.

More history awaits at the Old Court House Museum. Tours of the striking building reveal stories of Union shelling during the Civil War and Jefferson Davis’ time at the courthouse and an extensive collection of artifacts.

Since Vicksburg contains so much history, many groups opt for a Historic Vicksburg City Tour. Groups can also choose from the city’s numerous antebellum homes, such as the Jacqueline House Museum.

Vicksburg residents love their local restaurants, among them the family-owned Walnut Hills Restaurant. The restaurant hosts groups and is especially known for its fried chicken, homemade biscuits and from-scratch cornbread.

On the River: Those looking to experience the wild power of the Mississippi River can rent a canoe or a kayak from the Quapaw Cone Company. Guided half- or full-day tours drift past towering bluffs, forests and sandbars, with abundant wildlife often visible from both sides of the coast.

visitvicksburg.com

Baton Rouge, Louisiana

Baton Rouge, Louisiana, beats its own drum. The capital of Louisiana’s history has an unusual mix of French, Spanish and Creole cultures that show up in the city’s cuisine and history. Home to Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge also enjoys a collegiate energy.

Groups can explore the 300-year-old city’s downtown blues music joints, local shops and top attractions by foot. The great expanse of the Mississippi River is visible from various vantage points, including the Louisiana State Capitol’s observation deck. The 350-foot-high building is the tallest capitol in the country.

For local Louisiana seafood and all-American favorites, groups can try the riverfront Capital City Grill. Other options for groups include Tsunami Sushi and Little Village Downtown.

The Capitol Park Museum dives into state history with two permanent exhibits: “Grounds for Greatness: Louisiana and the Nation” and “Experiencing Louisiana: Discovering the Soul of America.” Both highlight the state’s cultural hallmarks, such as Mardi Gras, as well as famous residents such as Louis Armstrong and Huey P. Long.

Baton Rouge continues to surprise at Louisiana’s Old State Capitol. Though the Gothic castle looks more fit for fairy tales than a state government building, the National Historic Landmark offers tours with exhibits and architectural marvels, such as a cast iron staircase and a stained-glass cathedral dome.

Other top attractions include the LSU Rural Life Museum and Windrush Gardens, the USS Kidd and the Louisiana Art and Science Museum.

On the River: Several larger river cruise ships stop at Baton Rouge including American Queen Steamboat Company’s American Queen and  American Duchess. American Cruise Lines classic paddlewheelers, Queen of the Mississippi and America also stop in Baton Rouge, and American’s new modern riverboat, American Harmony began cruising from New Orleans to Memphis, Tennessee, with stops in Baton Rouge. American’s newest modern riverboat American Jazz will also begin cruising the Mississippi this September 2020.

visitbatonrouge.com

Eliza Myers

Eliza Myers has worked for The Group Travel Leader since 2007. She is the online editor and associate editor for Select Traveler.

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