Art, History, Culture, Adventure, and Food Await in Dubuque Iowa

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If you’re looking for things to do in Dubuque Iowa, rest assured that you will find a rich abundance of fun to keep you busy in this great river town located in Eastern Iowa. 

Art, history, culture, adventure, food, and fun are at your fingertips in Dubuque, Ia located along the Mississippi River on Iowa’s section of the Great River Road National Scenic Byway.

Art, History, Culture, Adventure & Food Await in Dubuque Iowa

At first thought, Dubuque, Iowa has a reputation as a tired industrial river town. Situated along the Mighty Mississippi River about one and a half hours from my town of Wilton, this outdated idea couldn’t be further from the truth. 

Thanks to millions of dollars in grant money and a fantastic vision, Dubuque has been able to transform 90 acres of underutilized industrial property into the current Port of Dubuque. That revitalization breathed new, modern life into the city already rich with a number of amazing historical sites and breathtaking scenery. 

If you’re interested in the “historical, environmental, educational and recreational majesty of the Mississippi River,” you’ll definitely want to plan a visit to the city of Dubuque. Any trip along the Great River Road must include a number of days in this fantastic Iowa city. You won’t see nearly enough in just one day.

History of Dubuque

Dubuque was named for its first permanent settler, French-Canadian fur trader, Julien Dubuque, who arrived in the area in 1785. He was originally drawn to the area for the fur trade, but more importantly, the numerous lead deposits controlled by the Mesquakie Indians. 

Working with the Native Americans, Dubuque was able to tap into those lead deposits in an area he named The Mines of Spain. Eventually, the Mines of Spain became one of the most prosperous mines in the lead district. From 1845 -1847, 57 million pounds of lead were mined there each year, more than in any other area in the United States.  

Some people may know that Dubuque was the first city in Iowa, chartered in 1837 before Iowa was even a state. With that distinction, it stands to reason that Dubuque also claims the first church started in Iowa. It had the first newspaper, the first bank, the first murder, and the first public hanging. Dubuque also has ties to Al Capone and the Chicago mob!

From these early, and sometimes nefarious beginnings, the amazing city of Dubuque is begging for exploration!

Why Visit Dubuque

We choose travel destinations for a variety of reasons. Sometimes, we want outdoor adventures. Sometimes, we want to immerse ourselves in art or history. And sometimes we just need relaxation with a healthy dose of pampering. Dubuque offers all of these things – and more!

Food is also of utmost importance whenever and wherever we travel. Particularly, rich, delicious, locally sourced food: grown, prepared, served, and cleaned up by someone other than me. And trust me, Dubuque has so much amazing food! Definitely plan to arrive hungry. You can read about amazing Dubuque restaurants in my next article on Dubuque!

Attractions in Dubuque that You Will Not Want to Miss

Following is an alphabetical list of just some of the fun that you can have in Dubuque. This city has many more fun things to do for families. It also makes a great romantic getaway destination for couples and would be a great place for a girls getaway as well!

1. Crystal Lake Cave

If spelunking is up your alley, you’ll definitely want to check out Crystal Lake Cave! Located outside Dubuque under the Iowa corn fields, you’ll find the most amazing crystals, stalactites, and stalagmites! Crystal Lake Cave is currently closed for the winter but will reopen in May 2022. Check their facebook page for updates.

Crystal Lake Cave Address: 6686 Crystal Lake Cave Road

2. Eagle Point Park

Head up to Eagle Point Park for the most amazing views of the Mississippi River and Lock and Dam 11, plus Iowa, Illinois, and Wisconsin!

Bring cash if you’re driving: there is a $1 admission fee for cars, but it’s free for pedestrians if you want to walk up the hill.

Eagle Point Park Address: 2601 Shiras Avenue

3. Fenelon Place Elevator

The shortest, steepest funicular railway is definitely an iconic attraction in Dubuque. Take a few extra minutes to learn the history of this elevator because it’s an interesting story of one man wanting a shortcut to work. Every day, his gardener would haul him up and down several times a day so he could quickly and easily get home from work.

We’ve ridden funiculars in Heidelberg, Germany and Colorado Springs too! This one is short and sweet, but the views are no less spectacular!

Bring cash – The Fenelon Place Elevator doesn’t cost a lot ($2 per person one way) and they don’t take debit or credit.

Fenelon Place Elevator Address: 512 Fenelon Place

4. Grand Harbor Resort and Waterpark

Grand Harbor Resort and Waterpark is a particularly fun hotel for kids who love swimming! It’s located on the Mississippi Riverfront and is within walking distance to the National Mississippi River Museum and Diamond Jo Casino.

Book your stay at Grand Harbor Resort here.

5. Hotel Julien Dubuque

I love historic hotels and my stay at the Hotel Julien did not disappoint! This elegant boutique hotel features a rich and sordid history with past connections to Al Capone and the Chicago Mob. It’s stylish and chic and very conveniently located right in the heart of downtown Dubuque.

If you can’t stay there, you’ll definitely want to grab a meal in Caroline’s Restaurant!

Book your stay at Hotel Julien Dubuque today!

6. Lock and Dam 11

My kids always loved watching the barges at the locks and dams along the Mississippi River. Lock and Dam 11 in Dubuque offers walking tours, barge watching an outdoor boat and wildlife viewing observation deck, restrooms, and picnic area. If you want to get closer than watching from above, I suggest stopping in and checking it out!

Lock and Dam 11 Address: 3000 Lock & Dam Road

7. Mines of Spain State Recreation Area 

Julien Dubuque Monument in the Mines of Spain recreation area is an iconic Dubuque scene prominently displayed on Travel Dubuque’s Visitor Guide. You can get your own Dubuque travel guide by requesting one for free, by the way.

Plan some time to hike of Dubuque’s most iconic trails with scenic overlooks and views of the old quarry, the three quarter mile Horseshoe Bluff Nature Trail. If you need accessible trails, you’ll find one there too! The John and Alice Butler Trail is a half-mile ADA paved trail near the EB Lyon’s Center.

Mines of Spain State Recreation Area Address: 8991 Bellevue Heights Road

8. Murals in Dubuque

If you like murals, you can find almost 40 of them in Dubuque! Thanks to a partnership with the non-profit organization Voices Productions, the local art community works with famous artists to bring these masterpieces to life! I only saw a handful, but loved every single one. 

Click here to find a map of all the murals in Dubuque.

9. National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium

You don’t have to go all the way to the East Coast to find a Smithsonian affiliated museum! Just visit the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium to learn all about the Mississippi’s role in Dubuque! We’ve been to this museum many times and it never gets old.

Visiting the National Mississippi River Museum is such a fun thing to do in Dubuque – and it’s not just for kids! Make the time to spend a few hours here when you visit Dubuque! Plan your visit by visiting their website.

National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium Address: 520 East 3rd Street

10. River Boat Cruises

Take a sunset, happy hour, lunch, or dinner cruise on the American Lady Yacht from Schmitt Island. If you’re lucky, the captain may let you drive the boat!

Many other river boats cruise into Port of Dubuque as well! In fact, you can cruise all the way up the Mississippi River from New Orleans if you want! Shorter cruises are also available from the Quad Cities, including on the Riverboat Twilight pictured above!

11. Saint Luke’s United Methodist Church

Did you now you can see over 100 original Tiffany stained glass windows designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany in Dubuque? No? Me, either. Here’s how to see what’s been called “one of the five finest Religious Tiffany collections in the world!” Click here for a window tour to see the stained glass artwork at Saint Luke’s.

Saint Luke’s United Methodist Church Address: 1199 Main Street

12. Historic Shot Tower

Another fun thing to do in Dubuque – take a look a the Shot Tower national historic landmark built in 1856 to supply the US military with lead bullets. It’s hard to believe that lead was dropped through a grate in the top and then used gravity and inertia to become perfect round bullets, but that’s exactly the historic purpose of this tower!

Shot Tower Address: East 4th Street Extension

13. Sundown Mountain

If you like skiing, you’ll want to check out Sundown Mountain. Featuring 21 ski runs and two terrain parks for snowboarding, Sundown is a fun place to explore. I haven’t skied there myself, but my husband has been with our son and they had a great time!

Sundown Mountain Address: 16991 Asbury Road

If you’ve been, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the fun things to do in Dubuque! Did I forget to mention your favorite? Let me know if the comments!

If you enjoyed this article full of things to do in Dubuque, you might like these articles too:

Outdoor Adventure in Fort Dodge Iowa

Traveling Wiscon’s Great River Road

7 Beautiful Eastern Iowa State Parks

Visiting the Madison County Covered Bridges

About Michelle Marine

Michelle Marine is the author of How to Raise Chickens for Meat, a long-time green-living enthusiast, and rural Iowa mom of four. She empowers families to grow and eat seasonal, local foods; to reduce their ecological footprint; and to come together through impactful travel.

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