Throughout history, humans have consistently settled along rivers. From ancient Mesopotamia, wedged between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, to modern-day Chicago along the Chicago River, these surging waterways have supported some of history’s most successful communities. Rivers provide not only essential resources like freshwater, power, and transportation, but also a vast array of leisure and entertainment options, causing many riverside cities to become top travel destinations.

The two largest rivers in North America—the Missouri and Mississippi rivers—both cut through the heart of the Midwest, making the region a thriving hot spot for riverside tourism. From boating and swimming to iconic riverwalks and historic sites, there is no shortage of group activities to enjoy in the Midwest’s riverside cities.

Historic East Village, Des Moines, Iowa, Credit: Catch Des Moines
Historic East Village, Des Moines, Iowa
Credit: Catch Des Moines

On the state’s eastern border, Davenport, Iowa, has been referred to as “the most livable small city in America.” Its historic downtown provides ample opportunity to enjoy views of the Mighty Mississippi. Take a walk on the American Discovery Trail, the famous 6,800-mile-long journey that connects sites from Delaware to California. Davenport contains just one of the trail’s two Mississippi River crossing points, making it a truly unique scenic walk.

While in town, see what’s happening at the LeClaire Park & Bandshell, the city’s riverfront park and recreation center that hosts events and live performances. Group dining is made simple by the area’s abundance of craft breweries, casual restaurants, and national chains, several of which offer great river views. Also in Iowa, the state’s capitol city, Des Moines, rests along the 525-mile Des Moines River, a tributary of the Mississippi. A walk along the Neal Smith Trail offers the ideal encounter with its waters.

Speaking of, the Mississippi River is an important part of Minnesota’s story, as the state contains both the river’s headwaters at Lake Itasca and the powerful St. Anthony Falls. Minneapolis, Minnesota, was built alongside the falls, providing an important source of power and transportation for early Minnesotans in the flour, lumber, and iron ore industries.

Guthrie Theater, Minneapolis, Minnesota, Credit: Meet Minneapolis/Guthrie Theater
Guthrie Theater, Minneapolis, Minnesota
Credit: Meet Minneapolis/Guthrie Theater

Locals and visitors alike have plenty of opportunities to engage with these waters, whether it be an exploration of the charming Nicollet Island or a visit to the Guthrie Theater’s observation room, which juts out over the river and offers postcard-perfect views of the Minneapolis skyline. For dinner or drinks, lounge on the European-style patio of Aster Cafe, a bar and restaurant known for some of the best views of the river and skyline.

The indoor space also has several dining and event rooms available for large groups to rent. For a lesson in Minneapolis history, groups can take a tour of the riverside Mill City Museum, which educates visitors on the city’s historic reputation as the “flour milling capital of the world.” 

John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge, Cincinnati, Ohio, Credit: Adobe/Andreykr
John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge, Cincinnati, Ohio
Credit: Adobe/Andreykr

Cincinnati, Ohio, is situated along the 981-mile Ohio River and harbors The Banks, a lively downtown district full of a riverfront sports, dining, and entertainment. A highlight of the area, Smale Riverfront Park is a 45-acre park that offers a little bit of everything, from walkways, fountains, and gardens to event lawns, restaurants, and playgrounds.

Take a walk across the historic Roebling Suspension Bridge flanking the park, which connects Cincinnati with Covington, Kentucky. Nearby, visitors can soak in the rich history and culture of the nearly two-century-old Moerlein Lager House, which offers group brewery tours, brunches, and beer tastings. Sports fanatics will thrive in The Banks as well, as it is conveniently nestled between the Reds and Bengals stadiums. The Reds Hall of Fame and Museum operates near the ballpark and is a great place to appreciate Cincinnati’s long history in Major League Baseball.

More to Explore 

The Midwest’s major metropolitan areas aren’t the only places overflowing with riverside fun. Considering adding these smaller cities to your group’s itinerary for a leisurely look at life by the waters.

  • La Crosse, Wisconsin
  • Sioux City, Iowa
  • Winona, Minnesota

By Emma Enebak

Main Image: Downtown Des Moines skyline, Credit: Catch Des Moines