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Currently showing in the Heartland

Courtesy Quad Cities CVB

Historically, populations have settled along rivers that have provided community life, transportation and power for industry. After years of decline, in recent years, Midwestern cities have reclaimed the history and beauty of their waterways, turning them into vibrant centerpieces once again.

Quad Cities
The Quad Cities area along the Mississippi River more than doubles visitors’ fun, as the towns of Rock Island, Moline and East Moline in Illinois and Bettendorf and Davenport in Iowa provide a wide range of opportunities along the river, where the 47-passenger Channel Cat water taxi runs continuously among three river landings from Memorial Day to Labor Day.

At Moline’s John Deere Pavilion, which celebrates the company’s historic and ongoing contributions to agriculture, interactive exhibits mingle with John Deere equipment.

Bettendorf’s riverfront boasts the Isle Casino Hotel Bettendorf, Iowa’s largest hotel complex, with three restaurants.

During the summer, Rock Island’s Mississippi Visitors Center on Rock Island Arsenal, an active military base, offers narrated walking tours of Lock and Dam 15. Visitors view one of the world’s largest roller dams, whose span turns 360 degrees to allow barges to lock through.

Davenport, the third-largest city in Iowa, has a sweeping new waterfront development — RiverVision — with attractions such as the River Music Experience and the modernistic Figge Art Museum, which is an architectural icon along the waterfront.

“Each community along the river has its own unique riverfront,” said Jessica Waytenick, public relations and marketing manager for the Quad Cities Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Activities range from winter bald-eagle viewing to numerous festivals along the water in warmer months.”

Aboard the Celebration Belle, an 800-passenger, family-owned riverboat, passengers cruise the Mississippi from Moline; Dubuque, Iowa; and Prairie du Chien, Wis. Four-hour themed cruises include big bands, classic oldies and Oktoberfest.

In 2012, the Sounds of Gospel Cruise will be added. Daylong trips feature three meals cooked on board, an afternoon snack and live entertainment with audience participation.

“Two weeks ago, we had an all-day cruise of 110 people,” said Susan Yarolem, tour and travel manager for Celebration River Cruises. “The tour operator called to tell me that every single comment card came back marked excellent, and he’s never had that happen for an attraction.”

Dubbed Mill City, Minneapolis became the milling capital of the world for most of the 20th century with St. Anthony Falls powering the city’s mills. Today, visitors are drawn to the river to discover the city’s history.

The Segway Magical History Tour offers a three-hour loop of the Minneapolis Riverfront District. After a short training session, guides take groups to the river pathway and across the Stone Arch Bridge, which connects the district’s two sides.

Once used by trains carrying freight and passengers, the bridge is now exclusively for walking and biking. Landmarks on the tour include the Mill City Museum, the Guthrie Theater, St. Anthony Falls and St. Anthony Main. Pracna, the city’s oldest restaurant, established in 1890, serves craft beers on its riverfront patio.

The tour includes a pass for later use at the Mill City Museum, built into the ruins of the Washburn A Mill.

Backstage tours of the Guthrie Theater, on the banks of the Mississippi, highlight the building’s distinctive architecture, which features two cantilevered lobbies that extend toward the river.

“It’s really a great spot to look at the Mississippi, especially in the summer,” said Lee Henderson, communications manager for the theater.

Dam tours at the Upper Saint Anthony Falls Visitor Center, located atop the central control station, afford beautiful views. Visitors learn about the falls’ history, Mississippi navigation and the lock’s operation.

For another vantage point, Paradise Charter Cruises operates the Minneapolis Queen paddleboat, plus group yacht charters, which cruise between Minneapolis and St. Paul.

Elizabeth Hey

Elizabeth Hey is a member of Midwest Travel Journalists Association and has received numerous awards for her writing and photography. Follow her on Instagram and Facebook @travelbyfork.