Fronting the world-famous Mississippi River, Rock Island is a historic and culturally vibrant city, and the seat of Rock Island County.
The city is also one of the Quad Cities (Pop. 400,000) that straddle the Mississippi and the Illinois-Iowa line, and contains Arsenal Island, an active U.S. Army camp for more than two centuries.
A visit to Arsenal Island is a must, even if it requires a verification process and visitor pass, as an active military facility.
Downtown Rock Island also has much to recommend it, from riverside parks and the Great River Trail to decades of sumptuous architecture and the liveliest nightlife and entertainment scene in the Quad Cities.
1. Rock Island Arsenal
The famous 950-acre island in the Mississippi is sure to occupy your attention, and is what gave the city its name.
Now known as Arsenal Island, this is an active U.S. Army facility as the HQ of the First Army and the U.S. Army’s Center of Excellence for Additive Manufacturing.
The island has had links to the government for more than 200 years, and stands as the country’s largest government-owned weapons manufacturing arsenal.
The original arsenal buildings are now a National Historic Landmark, and there are several reasons to visit.
As well as the Rock Island Arsenal Museum, which we’ll cover next, you’ve got the historic Colonel Davenport House (c. 1833), Memorial Park, a replica blockhouse from the original Fort Davenport, the Rock Island National Cemetery, a preserved Confederate Cemetery and the Mississippi River Visitor Center, which we’ll talk about later.
2. Rock Island Arsenal Museum
First opened in 1905, the museum on Arsenal Island is the second-oldest U.S. Army Museum after West Point.
This attraction sheds light on the storied history of the island, from a summer camp site for the Sauk Native Americans to Fort Davenport, the origins of the arsenal and the island’s role as a Union prison camp in the Civil War.
Outside is an impressive array of vehicles and artillery, among them howitzers, an M65 Atomic Cannon, rocket launchers, various anti-tank guns.
Inside you can cast your eyes over the second-largest collection of small arms in the U.S. Army, with more than 1,200 pieces on permanent display.
These exhibits explain the manufacturing processes used at Rock Island Arsenal and the wide array of military equipment made here.
3. Downtown Rock Island
Rock Island has a downtown area in great health, with restaurants, one-off shops, pubs, comedy clubs, galleries, nightclubs, live music venues, a microbrewery, a historic hotel and gorgeous Art Deco theater.
Home to more than 1,000 people and employing close to 3,500, this is the arts district for the Quad Cities, and has an events calendar to match, with a series of festivals attracting thousands during the summer.
Downtown Rock Island is also a joy to behold for its eclectic architecture, from the late 19th century to the mid-20th century.
Many of these charming brick commercial buildings have been converted into residential lofts, injecting even more life into the center of the city.
4. Schwiebert Riverfront Park
Slightly downstream from Arsenal Island is a waterside park with a fine view of the river, downtown Davenport, the west side of Arsenal Island and Centennial Bridge.
Schwiebert Riverfront has a little promenade by the Mississippi, as well as a pair of spacious lawns, several works of public art, a unique digital playground and an interactive fountain popular with children on hot summer days.
This is all a fitting location for outdoor concerts during the warmer months, and there’s a designated stage for such events.
In winter Schwiebert Park is a prime spot if you want to catch sight of the bald eagles that descend on the Mississippi and Arsenal Island to hunt fish.
5. Quad City Botanical Center
This major botanical attraction sits close to the riverside in Rock Island. The center opened in 1998 and is commanded by the magnificent Sun Garden conservatory.
This remarkable climate-controlled building has an atrium with a 70-foot skylight, above tropical fruit-bearing plants such as vanilla, coffee, coconut, cocoa and banana. Also inside are a koi pond, stream and a beautiful 14-foot waterfall.
Outside, the Children’s Garden is a go-to for families in summer thanks to its educational elements and water features, while there’s an important collection of rare conifers, an 800-foot model railway and seasonal gardens for perennials, prairie wildflowers, butterflies and more.
6. Great River Trail
Rock Island’s Sunset Park is the western trailhead for a 62-mile paved trail next to the Mississippi.
Open to walkers and cyclists, the Great River Trail is a useful way to discover the Quad Cities, passing close by the John Deere Pavilion in Moline, as well as the Channel Cat Water Taxi to take you across the Mississippi to Davenport.
The trail is on the right-of-way of an old spur of the Chicago, St. Paul, Milwaukee and Pacific Railroad, running along dedicated bike trails and waterfront levees through quaint riverside towns as far as Savanna.
7. The Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum
One of the head-turning landmarks in the Broadway Historic District is the First Church of Christ, Scientist church (1896), raised in the Palladian style with a majestic Doric portico.
This building is one of 17 branches of the Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum, a nationwide institution founded in 1983 by the California real estate magnates David and Marsha Karpeles.
They amassed the world’s largest collection of historic documents and manuscripts, including Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, Descartes’ Treatise as the Father of Philosophy, Handels’ Messiah, the Bill of Rights, the first printing of the Ten Commandments from the Gutenberg Bible and Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, to name a small few.
These travel between museums in rotating exhibitions, so there will be something remarkable to see with every visit. You’ll also get to see the building’s inner dome, finished with 8,000 colored fish scale glass panes on an intricate wooden structure.
8. Mississippi River Visitor Center
For well over 200 years the United States Army Corps of Engineers has helped make this stretch of the Mississippi River navigable.
You can find out exactly what this entails at the Mississippi River Visitor Center next to the river on Arsenal Island.
April through December you can come to watch barges passing through the intricate lock and dam system, and you can book a guided tour for extra insight.
January to March those locks and dams become an important feeding ground for bald eagles, providing another spectacle not to be missed.
9. Black Hawk State Historic Site
At the turn of the 19th century a band of some 4,800 Native Americans from the Sauk Nation lived at this site, on a 150-foot bluff overlooking the Rock River.
On 208 acres, the Black Hawk State Historic Site is particularly celebrated as the birthplace of the leader Black Hawk (1767-1838), a key figure in the War of 1812 and the Black Hawk War of 1838.
You can come to the site to explore the trails taking you over steep hills and along the riverbank and leading to a succession of peaceful picnic areas.
Make sure to call in at the Hauberg Indian Museum for more context on the Sauk and Meskwaki Native Americans and their displacement, with artifacts, historic accounts and a spectacular scale model of the village.
There are also exhibits on the Civilian Conservation Corps, which built the museum building and set out the park’s trails in the Depression era.
10. Broadway Historic District
A wonderland for anyone who loves 19th-century architecture, this stately residential neighborhood southeast of downtown Rock Island is primed for a self-guided tour.
Running the gamut of styles, from Greek Revival to Italianate, Queen Anne, Romanesque Revival and Colonial Revival, the Broadway Historic District has an astonishing 550 Victorian houses.
The district has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1998 and is noted for the innovative methods taken to preserve its historic character.
Among these programs is a campaign to remove artificial siding from historic houses. You can visit the district’s site to download a map for a self-guided tour, with clickable icons giving you fascinating background on the historically landmarked properties within Broadway.
11. Circa ‘21 Dinner Playhouse
One landmark that will stop you in your tracks in downtown Rock Island is the old Fort Armstrong Theatre, now called the Circa ‘21 Dinner Playhouse.
Designed in an early Art Deco style, this opened in 1921 to the silent movie Midsummer Madness by William C. deMille, Cecil’s older brother.
The film’s star, Lila Lee (1905-1973) appeared in person that night. The facade is exquisite for its polychrome terracotta panels, with Illinois and Native American motifs.
Those themes continue inside, where the proscenium arch has three large Native American heads on its extremities.
Nowadays the venue is a dinner theater staging lighthearted Broadway musicals, concerts by tribute acts and also children’s shows during the school summer and winter break.
The waitstaff, known as the Bootleggers, are one of just two troupes of performing waitstaff in the United States.
12. Whitewater Junction Aquatic Center
In Longview Park to the south of Broadway Historic District is an outdoor pool complex open during the summer.
Whitewater Junction has a pool with zero-depth entry, accompanied by four slides: Rocket (body slide), Zephyr (tube), Cannonball (drop) and Express (open drop).
The park has plenty of spray features for kids to enjoy, as well as a tumble bucket. Rock Island’s Parks & Recreation Department organizes swimming lessons and aquatics classes here, and various packages are available if you want to book a party here.
13. Fryxell Geology Museum
For something totally different, one of the largest collections of minerals, rocks and fossils in the entire Midwest is on display at Augustana College’s Swenson Hall of Geosciences.
The Fryxell Geology Museum is named for Fritiof Melvin Fryxell (1900-1973), who had a 44-year career as a geology professor at the college.
The museum’s collection dates back to the late 1880s and has grown to more than 20,000 specimens, with 1,500 on show at one time.
This includes some astounding exhibits, like the 22-foot skeleton of a Cryolophosaurus, a crested dinosaur discovered in Antarctica, as well as a whole wall of brilliant fluorescent rocks and a cast of a Tyrannosaurus skull. The museum is open throughout the academic year and closes for summer.
14. Jumer’s Casino
Just off Interstate 280 in the southwest of Rock Island is a Las Vegas-style casino and hotel, with more than 200 rooms, three restaurants, a nightclub, sports bar, a spa and 43,000 square feet of gaming.
This makes Jumer’s Casino one of the largest land-based casinos in the state, packing 1,000 slot machines, a live poker room and 18 table games including blackjack, craps, roulette, three-card poker, Mississippi stud and Ultimate Texas Hold’em.
The signature restaurant is DJ’s Steakhouse, claiming the best steaks in the Quad Cities, as well as indulgent options like scallops with smoked carrot aioli and sesame salmon in a jalapeño raspberry glaze.
15. Ya Maka My Weekend
Since 1992 downtown Rock Island has been taken over by a Reggae festival across a whole weekend in August.
Drawing visitors from across the Midwest, Ya Maka My Weekend is a celebration of Caribbean culture, promising palm trees, a tropical atmosphere, delicious West Indian street food, steel drum bands and of course a big helping of Reggae music.
Some of the past performers are Pato Banton, Taj Weekes, Dubtroni Kru, Kenyatta Hill and former members of the Wailers.