Laid out on the bluffs by the mighty Mississippi River, Burlington is at the spot where in 1805 explorer Zebulon Pike first raised the American flag on what would become Iowan soil.
A century later the city was flourishing as a nexus point for river and rail transport networks. Burlington has a lot of fine brick architecture from this period, in a downtown area that is now enjoying a 21st-century revival.
In 1894, Burlington became the home of the “most crooked street in the US”, built to overcome the sharp gradient between a residential neighborhood and the commercial district below.
Snake Alley as it’s known, is an attraction in its own right, with tighter turns than Lombard Street in San Francisco, and the site of events like an art fair in June.
1. Snake Alley
The natural amphitheater enclosing downtown Burlington is a physical barrier that required a creative solution in the 1890s.
A one-block section of N 6th Street was turned into “the most crooked Street in the US” to link downtown with an upscale residential neighborhood on Heritage Hill.
Snake Alley was the work of three German immigrants who were inspired by vineyard paths in Germany and France.
An engineering marvel, the surface still has the same curved limestone curbing and locally-fired bricks that were laid down in 1894.
Over 273 feet, Snake Alley makes five half-curves and two quarter-curves, and is one-way, with all traffic heading downhill.
2. Downtown Burlington
In the heart of Burlington you get an idea of what a downtown area is supposed to be in the 21st century.
This is a U.S. Historic District, experiencing a renaissance that began in the 1990s and continues apace.
With new projects unveiled each year, downtown Burlington is a destination for shopping, dining and entertainment, enhanced by cultural institutions, tons of events and no shortage of beautiful architecture.
Many of the larger buildings, like the mammoth Hotel Burlington, arrived at the start of the 20th century when Burlington was a transport hub, as both a riverport and key link on the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad.
3. Burlington Bees
Burlington has a baseball team that was founded as long ago as 1889. For much of their history the Bees played in Minor League Baseball’s Midwest League, and are now in the collegiate wood-bat Prospect League following a reshuffle in 2020.
A long list of stars have played for this team, including hall of famers like Larry Walker, Billy Williams and Paul Molitor.
Dating back to 1947, Community Field can hold 3,200 people, without a bad seat in the house, and won awards following its most recent renovation in 2005.
The name is appropriate too, as the Bees rely on community support in every sense, and fans always feel like they’re part of the action.
Off U.S. Route 61 on the northwest side of Burlington is a large complex home to the Catfish Bend Casino (more later), two hotels and a ton of family-friendly attractions.
The latter can be found at FunCity, which has a whole day’s worth of activities for people of all ages. The headline has to be Huck’s Harbor Water Park, with indoor and outdoor elements including water slides, a lazy river and a sprayground for little ones.
Added to that you’ve got an indoor karting track with karts for kids and grownups, as well as the giant Ballocity indoor playground, a bowling alley, laser tag arena and a massive arcade.
5. Crapo Park
Pronounced “Kray-poh”, this elegant park and arboretum is on the National Register of Historic Places and rumored to be the site where the American flag was first raised on Iowan soil, in 1805.
Named for the prominent local businessman and benefactor, Philip M. Crapo, the park opened in 1895, in time for Burlington’s semi-centennial festivities.
The arboretum here has more than 200 varieties of shrubs and trees, complemented by lovely display gardens bright with annuals and perennials.
Crapo Park is for easy walks and summer picnics, and is furnished with picnic shelters, a bandshell, an ornamental lake, a fountain and a cave commemorating Chief Black Hawk. There’s also a monument for Zebulon Pike’s landing in 1805.
6. Des Moines County Heritage Center Museum
Another handsome building downtown is the former Burlington Public Library (1898), composed of dressed red sandstone blocks.
In an Eclectic style, with a design inspired by a Renaissance Italian villa, the library project was funded by Philip M. Crapo and served as the city’s main library building until 2006.
The Des Moines County Heritage Center Museum moved in straight away, and has three floors of compelling exhibits detailing thousands of years of history going back to the prehistoric Clovis culture.
The building’s fine original interior is also part of the joy, with a stunning leaded glass skylight illuminating a rotunda with an Italian mosaic floor.
7. Art Center of Burlington
A fixture of the local cultural scene since 1966, the Art Center of Burlington is located in the heart of downtown.
This is a place to discover local and regional talent at monthly exhibitions, while the store is loaded with unique work by artists and makers from the area.
The center also puts on Burlington’s Snake Alley Art Fair every June, a Father’s Day tradition for more than half a century, with more than 80 artists, live music, kids’ activities and live music.
Deeply involved in the community, the center organizes art classes for a wide range of skills and for all ages.
8. Garrett-Phelps House Museum
At the top of Snake Alley is a gorgeous six-floor mansion, built for the local merchant William Garrrett in 1851.
This residence, noted for its tower and mansard roof, was home to his descendants until the end of the 19th century when the building became a hospital and nursing school. Later, the Phelps family converted the property back into an elegant home.
This story is told at a museum run by the Des Moines County Historical Society, which moved here in 1973.
So what you get is a curious mix of furnishings and decorative arts from the 18th and 19th centuries, with a display in the third-floor ballroom featuring artifacts from the days of the Presbyterian Hospital.
9. Capitol Theater
A landmark downtown, this Art Deco movie theater was one of the most luxurious in the country when it opened in 1937.
The Capitol Theater was an entertainment go-to for Burlington until it closed in 1977, losing out to a multiplex at the Westland Mall.
As downtown Burlington went into decline, the building remained unused for almost 35 years until it was restored and reopened as a performing arts venue in 2012.
The facade is something to behold, with terracotta tiles in shades of burgundy and brown, while the original terrazzo tiles in the lobby were uncovered during the restoration.
Seating 370, this is a marvelous place to watch touring recording artists and comedians, as well as classic and independent films.
10. Mosquito Park
With a name that refers to its tiny proportions, Mosquito Park is a small park with a giant view of the Mississippi. You’ll find it atop the bluff, to the north of the Great River Bridge.
You can gaze upstream and downstream for several miles, and there’s a free tower viewer to help you savor the panorama.
No surprise that this is a popular spot for wedding photographs in the warmer months. In midwinter Mosquito Park is a great vantage point for spotting the bald eagles swooping over the Mississippi.
11. Burlington Memorial Auditorium
Owned by the city, this striking Art Deco venue by the riverside was a Works Progress Administration (WPA) project, completed in 1939.
Initially the Burlington Memorial Auditorium was used as a U.S. Naval Reserve Training Center and is now a remarkable place to catch some live entertainment.
If you’re coming to Burlington you can check the schedule for concerts, dance, talks, children’s entertainment, magic shows, as well as sports action, fairs and Halloween haunts thanks to the 6,000-square-foot arena floor.
12. Dankwardt Memorial Park
Directly north of Crapo Park is another spacious place to relax and be active. Donated by one Lydia Dankwardt in memory of her family, Dankwardt Memorial Park was founded in 1937 and covers more than 70 acres. Accessed via a meandering drive, the park is noted for its many recreation facilities.
To sum up, you’ve got the city’s outdoor pool in summer, together with a skate park, 18-hole disc golf course, tennis courts and pathways like the Sewer Trail (nicer than it sounds), leading all the way to the riverbank.
The Sewer Trail gives you a great view of the Cascade Bridge (1896), a Baltimore deck truss bridge on the National Register of Historic Places and closed to traffic since 2008
13. North Gorge Trail
You don’t need to stray far from the city for a dose of nature in Burlington. A couple of miles to the north is a trail system on the steep, wooded banks of the Flint River.
Stretching for several miles, the North Gorge Trail was completed in 2016 and is open to hikers, joggers and mountain bikers, as well as cross-country skiers and snowshoers in winter.
You can choose the route that’s right for you, traversing the dramatic terrain with the help of wooden bridges.
There are points where you can make your way down to the river and dip your toes in the water to cool off in summer. The gorge also has geological and archeological value, yielding numerous geodes and prehistoric arrowheads.
14. Catfish Bend Casino
Adjoining FunCity is a casino that first opened in 1994 and moved from the riverbank to its current spot in 2007.
Catfish Bend Casino has close to 650 slot machines, as well as a sportsbook, a designated poker room and some 25 other table games including craps and blackjack.
Along with Huck’s Harbor Water Park, there’s big-time live entertainment at the Catfish Bend Convention & Event Center, as well as a spa, two hotels and a slew of chain restaurants like Pizza Hut and Dairy Queen scattered around the complex.
15. Port of Burlington Welcome Center
On the riverfront just south of the Great River Bridge are the old Burlington Municipal Docks, constructed in 1928. This terminal was built to load the coal that mined in southeastern Iowa onto barges on the mighty Mississippi.
The dock building is now home to the Port of Burlington Welcome Center, where you can pick up tourist information about the entire state of Iowa, as well as attractions and historical sites specific to Burlington and the immediate area.
There are free guides, maps and brochures, along with helpful staff to point you in the right direction and unique souvenirs at the gift shop.
To get to know Burlington a little more, you can also get hold of free, self-guided audio tours of the North Hill and South Hill areas.