8 Cities to Visit If You Cruise the Mississippi

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Stretching 2,350 miles through 10 states, from its headwaters at Lake Itasca, Minnesota, to the Gulf of Mexico, the mighty Mississippi looms as large culturally as it does geographically. The great river ⁠(the word “Mississippi” is actually a French rendering of the Ojibwe name meaning “great river”) was prominent throughout American history, appearing in 19th-century literature and music and serving as a major waterway that transformed many of the country’s most iconic cities into boomtowns.

The great American novelist Samuel Clemens took his pen name, “Mark Twain,” from the call designating the safe depth for a steamboat, and we know Delta blues legend McKinley Morganfield by his stage moniker, “Muddy Waters.” But it isn’t just legendary writers that will find inspiration from the Mississippi. Whether you’re interested in Civil War history, wildlife, or food and music, a classic steamboat cruise is an authentic way to experience the heart and soul of the Mississippi. Although it’s possible to take a three-week cruise of the river’s entire length, most excursions explore either the upper or lower section. From north to south, here are some must-see ports along America’s river road.

Red Wing, Minnesota

Aerial view of the Mississippi river from atop of the Barn Bluff in Red Wing, Minnesota.
Credit: Joe Ferrer/ Shutterstock

Just south of Minneapolis, the city of Red Wing was named for a Dakota Sioux chief and grew around the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux reservation established in 1889. Red Wing is famous for the shoe and boot and pottery companies that bear its name. The historic downtown has museums celebrating both — be sure to get a photo with the giant boot!

Enjoy a Prohibition-inspired cocktail at The Port in the historic St. James Hotel after hiking to Barn Bluff, also known as He Mni Can-Barn Bluff by the Dakota people, for river and city views from its summit. If you have time, take a 40-minute drive to the National Eagle Center to interact with the national symbol of the United States.

Bettendorf, Iowa

View of the Bettendorf, Iowa to Moline, Illinois bridge.
Credit: MikeHardyPhotography/ Shutterstock

Part of the Quad Cities Metropolitan Area in Illinois and Iowa, the city of Bettendorf is the site of a bridge spanning across the Mississippi to Moline, Illinois. Kids will enjoy hands-on fun at the Family Museum of Arts and Sciences, while adults may want to revisit their inner child at Nerdspeak Brewery, which has retro board games; enjoy something stronger at the Cat’s Eye, a micro-distillery; or browse works by local artists at Bereskin Gallery and Art Academy. Avid baseball and film fans with sufficient time might want to make the 90-minute drive to Dyersburg, home of the famed Field of Dreams.

Hannibal, Missouri

Looking upstream at the Interstate 72 bridge over the Mississippi River in Hannibal, Missouri.
Credit: fotoguy22/ iStock

As the hometown of Samuel Clemens, the charming city of Hannibal is the setting for both The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum is a must-stop for literature lovers. (Explore the cave while you’re there!) Get a great view of the town and river while admiring the Gilded Age Rockcliffe Mansion, hunt for haunts on a ghost tour, and enjoy a scrumptious Turkish meal (or just an authentic Turkish coffee) at the upscale LaBinnah Bistro.

St. Louis, Missouri

The Saint Louis Gateway Arch, downtown skyline, and the Mississippi River with a clear blue sky.
Credit: Davel5957/ iStock

St. Louis was the official “Gateway to the West” during the westward expansion of America in the 19th century. That status is celebrated at the 630-foot-tall Gateway Arch, which comprises a U.S. national park along with the adjacent historic courthouse. Take the tram to the top for an incredible view of the city and the river. Afterward, enjoy one of the many world-class cultural offerings endowed by the prominent families of St. Louis — several of which are free and located in or near Forest Park.

Don’t miss the St. Louis Art Museum or the Missouri Botanical Garden, ranked as one of the best gardens in the world. Toasted ravioli is a St. Louis delicacy, and you can find it (along with amazing sandwiches) at Amighetti’s on the Hill, which has been serving the city’s Italian-food lovers for over a hundred years.

Memphis, Tennessee

The sunset over Mississippi river to connect Tennessee and Arkansas at Memphis.
Credit: Feng Cheng/ Shutterstock

Blues, soul, and rock 'n’ roll — Memphis can reasonably argue that it’s home to all three. Named after the majestic Egyptian city on the Nile, Memphis was home to Elvis Presley (visit his mansion at Graceland), Beale Street blues legend B.B. King, and Stax Records, second only to Motown and the recording studio of everyone from Big Star to the Staples Singers.

The city also has a rich civil rights history, admirably explored at the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel. It’s a barbecue capital, too, hosting the world championship every year in May. (Locals have their favorites, but we’re sticking with Corky’s.) And no visit to Memphis would be complete without a visit to Mud Island, where you can stroll down a scaled replica of the very river you’re cruising.

Vicksburg, Mississippi

The old Vicksburg Bridge and the new Vicksburg Bridge crossing the Mississippi River.
Credit: VisionsbyAtlee/ iStock

Since the city is the site of one of the Civil War’s most crucial battles, historians will want to visit Vicksburg. At the National Military Park, visitors can see the restored USS Cairo gunboat — one of the first ironclad warships used during the Civil War. There is also a Lower Mississippi River Museum, a well-preserved selection of historic homes, and tons of boutiques and galleries. Save your appetite for the best in old-fashioned Southern cuisine and feast on grits, vegetables, fried catfish, and pie at Walnut Hills Restaurant.

Natchez, Mississippi

A view of a beautiful sunset in Natchez, Mississippi.
Credit: Panoptography/ Shutterstock

Start your tour of Natchez by learning about the earliest inhabitants at the Grand Village of the Natchez Indians. The 128-acre site has three prehistoric Native American mounds and a reconstructed Natchez Indian house, as well as a museum. Explore the grounds further on a walking tour and don’t miss Rose Hill Missionary Baptist Church, home of the oldest organized Black Baptist congregation in Mississippi. (The building was erected in 1908, but the church was organized before the Civil War.) If you have extra time, pay a visit to Natchez Under the Hill — the once-notorious neighborhood is now home to a lively food scene, and the pan-fried redfish at Magnolia Grill will leave you with no regrets.

New Orleans, Louisiana

Crescent City Connection Bridge over the Mississippi River.
Credit: Sean Pavone/ Shutterstock

Whether you call it the “Crescent City,” the “Big Easy,” or “Nola,” New Orleans is pure magic. Simultaneously the most European and the most Caribbean of American cities, New Orleans keeps its rhythm as one of the most lively cities in the country. In the famed French Quarter, wait in line with both locals and tourists at Café du Monde for pillowy sweet beignets and chicory-infused coffee, or at Central Grocery for an overstuffed muffaletta. (Or both!)

Check out the artists in Jackson Square, home of St. Louis Cathedral, the oldest church in North America. Outside the Quarter, don’t miss the National World War II Museum, the Garden District, and the incredible Audubon Aquarium of the Americas.

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