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Ports and Pastimes Along the Mississippi River

America’s greatest river offers great opportunities for group exploration.

Boats have plied the mighty Mississippi from the earliest days of western expansion. And while the river continues to be a major hub for commerce, tourism is king. River cruise vessels ply the waterway, from the headwaters of the river in Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico, making stops at many wonderful river cities on the way. 

Here is a mix of large and small cities that continue to flourish because of their position on the Mississippi. Groups will find these cities on Mississippi River cruise itineraries, or they can visit them while following the river on land tours.

Winona, Minnesota

Winona, Minnesota, is the quintessential Mississippi River town. A major grain and lumber producer at the turn of the 20th century, the city’s downtown is revered for its beautifully preserved Victorian architecture. Over the years, Winona has evolved into a major art and entertainment destination, playing host to a nationally acclaimed Great River Shakespeare Festival and the Minnesota Beethoven Festival. The Minnesota Marine Art Museum, which sits on the banks of the river, features a collection of art inspired by water and includes paintings by Renoir, Monet, Matisse, Van Gogh and Picasso and has one of the largest collections of Hudson River School paintings in the world. 

Beautiful 500-foot-high bluffs covered in hardwood forests line the river, making Winona a wonderful destination for leaf peeping in autumn. Bicyclists and hikers will enjoy exploring the area’s old logging trails, and groups that want to get out on the water can rent kayaks and follow the water trails, or book a sightseeing, fall foliage or bird-watching cruise on the Mississippi.

La Crosse, Wisconsin

The Mississippi River is an integral part of what makes La Crosse, Wisconsin, special. Groups that want to learn more about the river can take a scenic cruise on the La Crosse Queen, a modern replica of a Mississippi River paddle-wheeler, or climb to the top of Grandad Bluff, a 600-foot-high bluff overlooking the city and river. On a clear day, visitors to the bluff get great views of Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa. 

A former lumber town, La Crosse is now known for its beer-making. Many groups enjoy taking a craft brewery tour of the area or touring the historic homes — dating from the 1850s — in the 10th and Cass Streets Residential Historic District. Niagara Cave, one of the best caves in the country, is in La Crosse. Groups can take a mile-long hike underground, discovering fossils, an underground stream and a waterfall. Groups can tour the Historic Hixon House, built in 1858 by pioneer Gideon Hixon, a wealthy lumber baron. The home has all of its original Victorian and Arts and Crafts furnishings. 

Dubuque, Iowa

Riverboats were built in Dubuque, Iowa, until 1976, so it isn’t a surprise that riverboat cruising is one of the most popular things to do in this river city. Groups can book passage on the American Lady Yacht or the Celebration Belle riverboat or visit the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium, the only place on the Mississippi River that tells the story of the river, its tributaries and its importance to the people and animals that rely on it for their survival. Visitors can ride the Fenelon Place Elevator, the shortest and steepest railway in the world, 292 feet up the side of the bluffs for a bird’s-eye view of the Mississippi.

Eagle Point Park at the north end of the city overlooks Lock and Dam No. 11 on the Mississippi River and is a great place to look for eagles or just watch the river barges navigate the lock. Many groups visiting the area spend time on Dubuque’s revitalized main street and riverfront district or at the Diamond Jo Casino or the Q Casino, which feature gaming, entertainment and dining. 

Hannibal, Missouri

The hometown of one of America’s most famous authors, Hannibal, Missouri, owes much of its prominence and notoriety to the pen of Mark Twain, born Samuel Clemens. For Twain fans, the big attraction is a tour of all the Hannibal locations that figured prominently in his most beloved books: “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” Groups can tour Twain’s boyhood home, as well as the Becky Thatcher House, the Huckleberry Finn House and a museum and interpretive center. The Mark Twain Cave, which he wrote about in five of his books, is wonderful for groups. Look for Samuel Clemens’ name among the thousands of signatures on the cave walls. If groups want to get out on the water, they should book a cruise aboard the Mark Twain Riverboat.

For an overview of Hannibal’s history and other famous residents, visit the Hannibal History Museum. The Rockcliffe Mansion, built by a lumber baron at the turn of the 20th century, is considered one of America’s great castles, and car lovers will want to spend some time at Karlock’s Kars and Pop Culture Museum.

St. Louis

The Gateway Arch is the iconic representation of St. Louis, but it was the Mississippi River that dictated the city’s growth. Groups visiting the city should make sure to allocate time to visit the Gateway Arch Museum before taking the tram ride to the top of the arch for panoramic views of the city and the Mississippi River. Riverboat cruises are available at the base of the arch; they give groups a detailed history of the city and the river. Big Muddy Adventures will take groups on organized paddles of the Mississippi River from just north of St. Louis at the Chain of Rocks Bridge to the Gateway Arch. That section of the river is not traversed by boats or barges, and groups can stop and visit some of the small islands on the river or have a picnic before continuing downstream. 

The St. Louis Aquarium at Union Station is well worth a visit. The aquarium, which opened in 2019, features both freshwater and saltwater animals and takes visitors on a journey along the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. Most of the city’s museums and the zoo are free to the public.

Memphis, Tennessee

Visitors from all over the world make the pilgrimage to Memphis, Tennessee, to tour the home of rock ’n’ roll legend Elvis Presley. And although Graceland is a big draw, an entire industry has grown up around the life and accomplishments of the entertainer. Groups should allocate a day to visit Graceland and explore Elvis Presley’s Memphis Entertainment Complex. Music lovers will want to visit the Rock ’N’ Soul Museum, which tells the story of the delta blues and how that musical genre led to the development of rock ’n’ roll, and Sun Studio, where Presley and other musical greats launched their careers.

Groups that want to get out on the river should reserve a sightseeing or a dinner and music cruise on the Memphis Riverboats at Beale Street Landing. Guided group kayak tours of the Memphis Riverfront or the Mississippi River are also available. Travelers can catch some live delta blues, jazz, gospel or rock ’n’ roll music in the Beale Street Entertainment District; enjoy some famous Memphis barbecue; or learn about the civil rights movement in the U.S. at the National Civil Rights Museum.

Natchez, Mississippi

Founded in 1716, Natchez, Mississippi, is the oldest city on the Mississippi River. The historic river town has a deep-rooted history that is visible in its unique shops, restaurants, museums and historic homes. Groups that want to get close to the river should visit Bluff Park, which has great views of the tugboats and river traffic on the Mississippi; take a walk along Silver Street, which was home to gamblers, pirates and riverboat captains during the town’s heyday; or have a drink at the town’s oldest bar, the Under-the-Hill Saloon. 

Visitors love to explore the area’s many historic homes, including Longwood. Also known as Nutt’s Folly, this octagonal antebellum mansion was started in 1860 but was never completed because of the Civil War. 

To learn more about the Native Americans who called Natchez home, groups should visit the Grand Village of the Natchez Indians, an archaeological site that features three prehistoric mounds, a reconstructed native house and a museum. Music lovers should follow the Mississippi Blues Trail markers through town while taking in live music at juke joints, restaurants and other music venues.

St. Francisville, Louisiana

St. Francisville in West Feliciana Parish is unlike any other location in Louisiana. The town considers itself English when most of its neighboring towns trace their roots to the French. Located near the Tunica Hills, which follow the east bank of the Mississippi River, St. Francisville has ecosystems and wildlife that aren’t found anywhere else in the state. John James Audubon spent much of his time in Louisiana between 1821 and 1837 and completed more than 100 plates there for his book “The Birds of America.” He also completed 32 paintings at St. Francisville’s Oakley Plantation, where he stayed for four months. Groups can tour the plantation, now the Audubon State Historic Site, or the nearby Rosedown Plantation State Historic Site, which has the best preserved and documented antebellum gardens in the country.

There are four other plantation homes groups can tour in the parish, as well as the Port Hudson Battlefield. To get out on the river, take a kayak tour on Bayou Sarah, once a thriving shipping port between Natchez and New Orleans before 1860, or Cat Island Swamp, home to a 2,500-year-old cypress tree.