The oldest city in Iowa is draped over the bluff line on the Mississippi where states of Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin share a common border.
Dubuque is the anchor for the Tri-State Area and a blossoming visitor attraction mixing natural wonder with a captivating history.
This is summed up by the interesting downtown area with its grand mid-19th century architecture, old funicular scaling the bluff and a scenic walk along the riverfront.
Dubuque’s early economy was powered by lead mining, and just outside the city is the place where the lead miner and explorer Julien Dubuque established the first Euro-American settlement in what is now Iowa.
1. National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium
Bringing to life the history, culture and ecosystems of the Mississippi, this attraction on the waterfront in Dubuque combines a history museum, science center and a state-of-the-art aquarium.
There are so many facets to the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium that half a day could breeze by in no time.
You can learn about riverboats on the great river, visit an historic train depot, step aboard a preserved steamboat, discover the natural diversity of the Gulf of Mexico, touch the back of a stingray or be dazzled by a 4D presentation.
You can also see the Mississippi live from space, learn about the story of the river as a waterway, see river otters up close, gauge the astonishing extent of the Mississippi’s watershed and find out about the importance of the river to Native American culture.
2. Mines of Spain Recreation Area
You can trace the very beginnings of the state of Iowa at this 1,400-acre state park, south of Dubuque.
Mines of Spain Recreation Area is on the rugged and lofty patch of land, once owned by New Spain, where the Quebecois explorer Julien Dubuque (1762-1810) was granted the right to mine for lead in the 1780s.
Dubuque forged close ties with the Meskwaki tribe, who had arrived in the area a few years before and who honored him in death.
Today the landscape is littered with the sites of former trading posts and villages, as well as rock shelters that have stood the test of time.
There are more than 15 miles of trails at the state park, leading up to vantage points posted atop the limestone bluffs. High above the Mississippi there’s a solemn monument for Dubuque, which we’ll talk about a little later.
3. Dubuque Arboretum and Botanical Gardens
Out on Dubuque’s northwestern outskirts is a breathtaking set of gardens, growing more than 13,000 individual plants from around 700 varieties.
This attraction is on 50 expertly landscaped acres, and is staffed by a small army of volunteers, making it the largest volunteer-run botanical garden in the country.
You can visit year round to admire a mosaic of different spaces, including a Japanese garden, an acclaimed hosta garden, English knot garden, formal rose garden and Children’s flower and vegetable garden, to name a handful.
The best time to come is of course spring and summer, when there are concerts on Sunday evenings.
4. Fenelon Place Elevator Company
A wonderful piece of late 19th-century heritage in Dubuque is this narrow-gauge funicular railway, helping people up the slope at the end of 4th Street since 1893.
This is in fact the second funicular on the site, and the current Fenelon Place Elevator replaced an earlier funicular in 1882.
Measuring 296 feet long, with a vertical difference of 189 feet, the railway is partly powered by counterbalance, with both cars starting at opposite ends of the track.
There are services 8am to 10pm, April through November, and you can take in sweeping vistas of downtown Dubuque and the Mississippi at the top.
5. Eagle Point Park
Undoubtedly one of the most spectacular public parks in the Midwest can be found in the northeast of Dubuque.
On just over 160 acres, Eagle Point Park rests mostly on a bluff high above the Mississippi and Lock and Dam No. 11, first opened in the 1930s. At this height you can see for miles across parts of Iowa, Wisconsin and Illinois.
The park was created in the early 1910s and was served by the Union Electric Company streetcar. Today, a multi-use trail follows the route of the old streetcar line, from Shiras Avenue.
The 1930s brought a series of lasting WPA (Works Progress Administration) projects in the Prairie Style made famous by Frank Lloyd Wright.
6. Downtown Dubuque
Dubuque has volumes of history, as will become clear as soon as you set foot downtown. There are more than 70 listings on the National Register of Historic Places, and among them are several buildings sure to turn your head.
A few sights for amateur historians include one of the country’s last surviving shot towers (1856), the Cathedral of St. Raphael (1861), the Grand Opera House (1890) and Dubuque County Courthouse (1893).
More than a giant museum piece, downtown Dubuque has received a lot of investment in the last 20 years and has a percolating cultural scene, locally-owned restaurants, trendy bars, walls adorned with eye-popping murals and quirky stores unique to this city.
7. Crystal Lake Cave
Southeast of Dubuque, and just past the Mines of Spain Recreation Area, is a spellbinding limestone cave complex, first discovered in 1868 by the lead miner James Rice.
Known for its shimmering aragonite crystals and amazing concretions, the Crystal Lake Cave is the longest show cave in Iowa with more than ¾ of a mile of tunnels.
The cave’s numerous stalagmites and stalactites have been given whimsical names like the Lost Gardens, Soda Straws and The Chandelier.
On a guided tour you’ll learn all about the mind blowing processes that hollowed out the Crystal Lake Cave and created its stunning formations.
8. Julien Dubuque Monument
Atop a towering bluff in the Mines of Spain Recreation Area is the burial place of the city’s namesake founder, Julien Dubuque who died in 1810.
A Quebecois lead miner, Dubuque married the daughter of the chief of the Mesquakie Indians, and was placed beneath a log mausoleum with full tribal honors.
The current, cylindrical Gothic Revival monument was erected in 1897 and has a commanding view of the Mississippi, and a big parcel of the Mines of Spain property that Dubuque established in the late 18th century.
There’s an interpretive board telling Dubuque’s story, and a magnificent panorama, with modern Dubuque visible a mile or two upstream.
9. EB Lyons Interpretive Center
For some background when you visit Mines of Spain, you can head for the handicap accessible EB Lyons Interpretive Center.
Exhibits here tell you everything you need to know about this remarkable landscape and its compelling past, but there’s even more on hand.
For one, you’ve got the delightful Betty Hauptli Bird and Butterfly Garden, planted with dogwoods, arrowood, lupines salvia and shasta davies, and growing wildflowers like wild bergamot and blazing star.
This creates a playground for birds like ruby-throated hummingbird and at least seven different butterfly species.
10. Mississippi Riverwalk
No surprise that one of the world’s most famous rivers is a big attraction in Dubuque. The Mississippi brings natural majesty to Dubuque, and can be savored along a multi-use trail that links several landmarks and attractions in the city.
Embellished with public art, the Mississippi Riverwalk is just under a mile long, from the historic Dubuque railroad bridge (1868) down to the William M. Black dredge (1934), which is docked on the south side of the Port of Dubuque.
The trail is marked with red-patterned concrete and is part of the 26-mile Heritage Trail, continuing all the way to Dyersville, where the Field of Dreams was built for the namesake movie in 1989.
11. Mathias Ham Historic Site
By the entrance to Eagle Point Park is a sumptuous house built for the lead-mining entrepreneur Mathias Ham in 1857.
Maintained by the Dubuque County Historical Society, the Mathias Ham House offers a rare glimpse of affluent domestic life in the Antebellum era.
In an Italian Villa style, the residence has a lot of interesting architectural details, from the use of ashlar limestone to the hipped roof capped with an octagonal belvedere.
Inside you can check out the original plasterwork and wooden fittings, including pine flooring downstairs and walnut staircases.
The interior is decorated with elegant, period-appropriate furnishings from the United States and Europe, along with displays of costume from the mid-19th century.
12. Dubuque Museum of Art
The oldest cultural institution in Dubuque was founded in 1874 and remains a cornerstone of the downtown commercial district. Housed in a modern building completed in 1999, the Dubuque Museum of Art has a rich collection, comprising some 2,200 works.
This includes a substantial collection of works by famed Iowa artist Grant Wood (1891-1942), thought to be one of the largest in the world.
As well as shows sourced from that collection, the museum’s four galleries put on an intriguing series of temporary exhibits throughout the year, featuring regional, national and international artists.
And like the best museums, this institution schedules diverse classes, tours and other community programs for all ages.
13. Dubuque Farmers’ Market
Dubuque has had a farmers’ market since as far back as 1858, making it the oldest in the state.
This is a weekly institution in the summer, taking up three city blocks along Iowa Street, every Saturday morning, May through October.
There are more than 125 vendors at the market, representing a staggering 10,000 acres in Dubuque and surrounding counties.
This means certified organic fruits and vegetables, flowers, pastured beef and pork, herbs, free-range eggs, cheeses, honey, homemade sauces, enticing baked goods and crafts.
There are always lots of accompanying activities from children’s entertainment to live music, cooking demonstrations, seasonal events and more.
14. Stone Cliff Winery
An imposing landmark on the riverfront in the Port of Dubuque district is the old Dubuque Star Brewery building, raised in the Romanesque Revival style in 1899. Under various owners, the brewery was in production until the early 00s.
The upper stories are now mostly used for office space, while Stone Cliff Winery moved into the ground floor in 2007.
As a business, the winery goes back to 1995, and you can call in at the charming tasting room for award-winning wines, but also a selection of draft and bottled beer.
The winery has a lunchtime menu, with a tempting array of soups, wraps, paninis and flatbread pizzas made fresh.
Underlining the city’s status as a tourist destination, Dubuque has a pair of major casino complexes.
These are Diamond Jo Casino at the Port of Dubuque, and Q Casino on Chaplain Schmitt Island, northeast of downtown.
The former opened at its current home in 2008, with close to 800 slots, 23 table games, three restaurants and high-end entertainment at the Big Wheel Bar.
The Q Casino goes back to 1985 and is a racino, combining a greyhound racetrack with a modern gaming facility.
As well as that track, you’ve got some 1,000 slot machines, over 20 table games, a specialized poker room, 3 eateries and a feast of live entertainment at the Back Waters Stage and Q Showroom.