The Mighty Mississippi stretches for 2,552 miles in length, from its source at Lake Itasca to its mouth at the Gulf of Mexico. This route focuses on the urban highlights, allowing you to experience nine of America’s great riverfront cities if you drive the entire route. This is also an road trip route that would be easy to split in half, driving some of it now and saving the rest for another drive.
Park Rapids, Minnesota
Begin at Itasca State Park in Park Rapids, Minnesota, because that is where the Mississippi begins. Itasca State Park was established in 1891 and is the oldest state park in Minnesota. With 32,000 acres and 100 lakes, there is much to see and do. Your main goal is to walk across the Mississippi at its source. It is a forty-four-foot wide dam, capped with stones, to allow you to cross the river on foot. While at Itasca, you can take the Wilderness Drive through the Wilderness Sanctuary, visit Wegmann’s Cabin and the Indian Cemetery. You can even spend the night—camping, in cabins, or in rustic comfort at the Douglas Lodge (book ahead and ask for a private bathroom). It is a peaceful, beautiful place to stay. Have a meal at the Douglas Lodge Dining Room, the large windows offer a view of the grounds. The food gets high praise, from the chicken tetrazzini to the wild rice casserole.
Travel south following the course of the river, through Little Falls, St. Cloud, Clearwater, and Monticello, to Minneapolis – St. Paul.
Minneapolis & St. Paul, Minnesota
The Twin Cities (Minneapolis and St. Paul) on the river are justly famous. Minneapolis’ skyline is dramatic and whimsical, almost Emerald City in effect. In Minneapolis, be sure to visit the Minneapolis Museum of Art, Minnehaha Park (with its waterfall, made famous by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha), and the Mill City Museum. Enjoy the great outdoors and art at the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. Dine at 112 Eatery in the Warehouse District (order the cauliflower fritters), or splurge at Spoon and Stable. While in St. Paul, see Como Park Zoo and Conservatory, the Minnesota Science Center, and The Minnesota History Museum. Have a meal at the St. Paul Grill or Cossetta’s Italian Market and Pizzeria. If you love great architecture, plan ahead to do your own tour of the gorgeous churches and cathedrals designed by Emmanuel Louis Masqueray, one of the preeminent architects of a century ago, especially, the Cathedral of St. Paul; there’s a detailed article about Masqueray on the big on-line encyclopedia.
Continue southward through Red Wing, Winona, La Crosse, Prairie du Chien, and Wyalusing, to Dubuque.
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Dubuque, Iowa, is home to the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium, where you can and should visit to learn all about life in and on the river. It has everything from dinosaurs to fish and ducks that you can touch. The exhibits detail the history of the boat works and the history of Mississippi River exploration. Hint: hold on to your receipt, and you can return the next day for free. Ride the Fenelon Place Elevator Co. for amazing views of the city and the river, at the top, and some great shopping, at the bottom. Dine at Caroline’s Restaurant (have the coconut shrimp and artichoke dip), or L. May Eatery for the bruschetta appetizer, salmon, Greek lasagna, and chicken pizza. Catfish Charlie’s has beautiful views of the river.
You follow the river southward through Sabula, Fulton, Clinton, and Le Claire, to the Quad Cities.
Quad Cities, Iowa & Illinois
Davenport, Rock Island, Moline and East Moline – the Quad Cities of Iowa and Illinois – offer a lot of options. In Davenport, head for the City of Davenport Pedestrian Skybridge, designed by Holibard and Root, an historic and future oriented architectural firm, for a great experiential view of the Riverfront and city. See the Figge Art Museum featuring splendid works from Ansell Adams and Humbert Albrizio to Andy Warhol and Grant Wood, as well as impressive traveling exhibits. Vander Veer Botanical Park offers a conservatory and outdoor wonders. In Rock Island, go to the Mississippi River Visitors Center on Arsenal Island, to learn about eagles and other birds, as well as Lock and Dam 15, and the Mississippi River Valley. An added plus is seeing the lock in operation. While you are there, also see the Rock Island Arsenal and Arsenal Museum. The John Deere World Headquarters in Moline lets you climb up into all their fabulous farming equipment; the campus is famously beautiful. If you are over 14 you can also take the John Deere Harvester Works Factory Tour in East Moline. For the best dining in the Quad Cities, head for the Front Street Brewery, housed in a hundred-year-old warehouse, the Machine Shed Restaurant with its farm equipment décor and hearty American food, or the high-end, eclectic Duck City Bistro.
Go south along the river through Burlington, and the Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn cities of Quincy, Hannibal, to St. Louis.
St. Louis, Missouri
St. Louis, Missouri, was the jumping off place for westward expansion and is known as the home of great blues music. A city of uniquely charming neighborhoods, each one invites you to stop and explore. Highlights of St. Louis include the Missouri Botanical Garden, the Gateway Arch and the Cathedral Basilica of St Louis. Have a meal at Charlie Gitto’s on the Hill for Italian, or Blues City Deli (have the Benton Park). In the right season, the Chain of Rocks Bridge, just north of the city, is a perfect place to see bald eagles. In every season, this 1929 landmark is well worth your visit, to hike or bike across. It was once the river crossing for Route 66. We consider it one of the ten best sights along the Mississippi River.
Continue southward through Festus, to Cape Girardeau.
Cape Girardeau, Missouri
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See the historic sites in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, such as the Glenn House, the Oliver-Leming House and St. Vincent’s Church. Enjoy the Missouri Wall of Fame. Visit the Cape Girardeau Conservation Nature Center to learn about the natural history of the river and the area. Riverfront Bridge Park offers great views of the new bridge. The Lazy L Safari Park is a Walk-Thru Zoo, featuring animals from alligators to zebras. Dining in Cape Girardeau? Try Broussard’s Cajun Cuisine, with selections like fried gator and crawfish etouffee. Or go to Katy O’Ferrell’s and have the Bangers and Mash, or Boxty.
Continue south through Cairo, Hickman, and New Madrid, to Memphis.
In Memphis, Tennessee, for a life enriching visit, the National Civil Rights Museum is a must-see. Elvis Presley’s Graceland is the historic house not to be missed. Then there is Sun City Studio, the birthplace of rock and roll: Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash all recorded there. Other insiders’ favorites include: the Memphis Zoo, National Ornamental Metal Museum, Shelby Farms, Elmwood Cemetery, the Greenline, and Jerry’s Sno Cones, in the eye-popping pink, aqua, and green building (get the supreme sno-cone with soft serve in the middle). The Peabody Hotel is famous for the Peabody Ducks on their daily stroll. For good eating visit: Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen, for great authentic Italian fare made with locally-sourced ingredients. Charlie Vergo’s Rendezvous for the Sausage & Cheese Plate. Or go to the One and Only BBQ, and for your sides, have the twice baked potatoes, and the the old school banana pudding with meringue.
Then follow the river south through Helena, Greenville, Vicksburg, (The section between Memphis and Vicksburg is known as the Blues Route and is 275 miles). and Natchez, to Baton Rouge.
Baton Rouge, Louisiana
To get a real sense of the history of the city, tour the Old State Capitol, which houses one of the most impressive staircases and rotundas in the USA, a marvel of mid 1800s design, with a gorgeous stained glass dome. Also visit the New State Capitol, and go to the top for the best view of Baton Rouge. Round out your political architectural tour by seeing the Old Governor’s Mansion. For dining, go to Parrain’s Seafood Restaurant. Or visit The Chimes with its pub fare such Blackened Alligator Poboy. For a sweet treat go to Thee Heavenly Donut, and don’t leave without having their fabulous fried king cakes.
Continue downriver through St Gabriel and Burnside to New Orleans.
New Orleans, Louisiana
New Orleans, Louisiana, is the last city on your Mississippi River tour, known as The Big Easy, famous for jazz. Live NOLA like a local: Take the Canal St Streetcar to Mid-City. Order cafe au lait and beignets at Morning Call. Ride the free ferry from the French Quarter across the Mississippi to Algiers Point; linger to explore The Point’s historic neighborhood. Enjoy the live music at the Spotted Cat or Snug Harbor on Frenchman Street. Frenchman Street is also your destination for the open air art market – Thursday through Saturday (7 p.m.- 1 a.m.), and Sunday (6 p.m.-midnight). Dine at The Lighthouse Bar or Landry’s for great Mississippi River views. Have a sno-ball at Hansen’s Sno-Bliz.
So that’s Ol’ Man River, or a part of its beguiling charms. Once you start exploring it, you will want to see more and more.