Discover the stories and animals of American rivers. Explore the happy alliance of history, food, and entertainment. Ride the world’s steepest and shortest railway. All these activities—and more—are possible in Dubuque, the place where Iowa started.
This city on the Mississippi River was chartered in 1833, 14 years before Iowa became a state. It takes its name from Julien Dubuque, the French-Canadian fur trader who was the city’s first permanent settler.
As the Mississippi River could be considered Dubuque’s front yard, Julie Kronlage, vice president of sales at Travel Dubuque, says many tour groups book a Mississippi River cruise on American Lady Yacht, Riverboat Twilight, or Celebration Belle Riverboat. Groups can also experience the Mississippi River at the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium—part museum, part aquarium, and part science center.
“This Smithsonian Affiliate is on 14 acres in the Port of Dubuque and features 25,000-gallon and 40,000-gallon tanks filled with freshwater animals, along with hands-on exhibits, displays about the Mississippi River and all major rivers in the United States, and so much more,” Kronlage says. “It’s the top stop for group tours in Dubuque.”
Becky Carkeek, sales manager at Travel Dubuque, agrees that tour groups love the museum and aquarium. She advises tour planners to allow enough time to explore the exhibits and recommends tour operators schedule at least two hours for a visit.
Sometimes called the world’s shortest and steepest scenic railway, Fenelon Place Elevator is 296 feet long and is a must-do experience in Dubuque. Take a ride up the bluff to see some magnificent views of the river, downtown, and into Illinois and Wisconsin.
In fact, it’s Dubuque’s topography that often surprises group travelers. “They think it will be flat with cornfields everywhere,” Kronlage says. “Then they see the beautiful bluffs, tall hills, and look down and see the beauty of the area. It’s a different topography than most people expect.”
Another Dubuque surprise is Convivium Urban Farmstead, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to improve life through food. Carkeek says Convivium is a favorite with groups and makes for an interesting stop on an itinerary.
“Nestled in Dubuque’s north end, these former greenhouses have been turned into an amazing space for learning about food,” Kronlage adds. “The restaurant serves the items gathered from the gardens in the surrounding community. You can tour the gardens and really hear the story of this transformation from the farm manager as you go on the tour.”
Historic surprises are everywhere in Iowa’s oldest city. Travel Dubuque has put together a Historic Progressive Dinner for group tours allowing diners to enjoy a four-hour experience at Dubuque’s historic properties.
“Start out with an appetizer and history in the former offices of one of our largest manufacturers,” Kronlage says. “Then move on to the main course with musical entertainment at our historic former St. Mary’s Catholic Church. End the evening with dessert in one of our beautiful mansions. It’s one of our more popular motorcoach offerings.” A Historic Progressive Lunch can be arranged if midday works better in an itinerary.
St. Luke’s United Methodist Church was founded in 1833 as Iowa’s oldest church. The current building, built in 1897, has a huge collection of Tiffany stained-glass windows. Groups can see the 105 beautiful windows up close.
In nearby Dyersville, encounter history of a more recent vintage. The Field of Dreams Movie Site continues to draw motorcoach tour groups more than 30 years after the movie’s release in 1989. Join a Ghost Player for a site tour; the Ghost Players have been entertaining guests for years and some of them were even extras in the movie!
Travel Dubuque helps tour operators with itinerary development, welcome bags, site visits, and in-person welcomes on the motorcoach. For overnight visitors, the welcome bags hold, among other things, creamy caramels made by the nuns of Our Lady of the Mississippi Abbey.
Kronlage says what makes Travel Dubuque stand out is the staff ’s dedication to making sure every group planner is well taken care of.
“We plan the itinerary, we book locations for the itinerary, and we gather hotel room rates,” Kronlage says. “It’s our attention to detail and the amazing history of our community that keep group tour planners coming back for more!”
Tourgoers quickly realize that Dubuque was and continues to be the “Masterpiece of the Mississippi.”
For more information, call Travel Dubuque at 563-845-7698 or visit traveldubuque.com.
Main Image: Dubuque from Fenelon Place Elevator: Credit: Meghan Le