The view from the bluffs in Dubuque offer amazing views across the mississippi River valley.

Discover Dubuque – Iowa’s First City

To gain a true history of Dubuque, you have to go all the way back to the 1700s. The first European settler arrived in the region in 1785. Julien Dubuque had received permission from Spain to mine the lead-rich deposits in and around the bluffs of the Mississippi River. The ownership of the territory would change hands after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. In 1837, more than two decades after Dubuque’s death, the city would be officially chartered and named after the original pioneer. Having a chance to discover Dubuque attractions, eateries, and sights was an opportunity we were not going to pass up.

We want to thank Travel Dubuque and the local businesses for their hospitality. Rest assured that all opinions are ours.

We found the Dubuque CVB to be a welcoming and helpful partner during our visit to Iowa's First City.

Howdy Partner!

A big part of a successful blogging trip includes establishing a working relationship with the local tourism bureau. Travel Dubuque helped us identify key destinations, that would be a perfect fit for our audience. After a quick stop at their downtown location, we had all of the information we needed for a successful visit. Always remember to check out the local visitors’ center for brochures, tips, and even coupons for local businesses.

Strolling the streets of downtown Dubuque offers a walk back in history.

Iowa’s First City

As we began to explore Dubuque sights, we discovered that it is not just the oldest city in Iowa. In fact, it is one of the oldest settlements west of the Mississippi River. This river city was built by hard-working immigrants, who came to the region in search of a better life. While early commerce focused on mining, the city would later become an industrial mecca. Some of the main industries were logging, mill-work, meat packing, and even button making. We found out that this particular industry derived from the mother-of-pearl that was harvested from shells gathered from the nearby river.

The history of Dubuque can be traced to the Mines of Spain, which is close to Crystal Lake Cave.

Getting Back to Nature

Since the best way to discover Dubuque history is from the beginning, it just makes sense that we head to the Mines of Spain. This area was originally inhabited by the Mesquakie tribe. Evidence shows that they were working lead mines prior to the Revolutionary War. They also dealt with fur trading with French trappers who visited the region. The area is covered with hiking trails and offers a chance to get back to nature. A visit to the Mines of Spain also brings with it plenty of amazing views from the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River. While we were in the neighborhood, we decided to add a visit to Crystal Lake Cave. This spelunking venue was accidentally discovered by a lead miner in 1868. A brief history of the cave can be found in one of our previous articles, along with some photos from the underground. (Explore the cave here.)

A ride on the Fenelon Place Elevator gave us a chance to discover Dubuque views that aren't available at the bottom of the bluffs.

Bird’s Eye View

Now that we had explored the underground world on which Dubuque lies, it was time to see it from a different perspective. A visit to the Fenelon Place Elevator offers an opportunity for a historic ride up the bluffs. Touted as the “World’s Shortest Railway”, we found that it is extremely popular with locals and visitors alike.  We have to say that the views found above are fantastic. From the top, we could see out across the downtown area and over the Mississippi River Valley. You definitely want to include this stop on your itinerary. (Take a ride here.)

The National Mississippi River Museum is the perfect place to gain a new perspective on the importance of our waterways.

A River Runs Through

With all of these wonderful views of the water, it was time to get a little closer perspective. A visit to the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium would give us an inside view of our nation’s waterways. This Smithsonian affiliate complex is filled to the gills with exhibits and artifacts. Be sure to block off some extra time, so that you can explore all of the buildings, as well as the extra exhibits out back. (Explore the River Museum here.)

When we discovered that the Dubuque Botanical Gardens is run entirely by volunteers, we knew we would find a space filled with love.

Slowing Our Pace

With all of this running around, we needed a chance to slow down for a bit. A visit to the Dubuque Botanical Gardens was the perfect solution. This volunteer-run attraction offers tranquil settings and peaceful places to relax. During our time there, we noticed others must have had the same idea. We even saw some local artists painting landscape scenes in the gardens. (Take a walk through the gardens here.)

Our stay, at Hotel Julien, let us experience a historic location with over the top amenities.

Historic Lodging

Speaking of getting some rest, let’s discuss finding the perfect overnight lodging location. Hotel Julien was a great solution, as it allowed us to stay right in the heart of all the fun. This historic hotel has been the temporary dwelling of some big names, through the years. As we explored the spaces, we imagined that we were walking in the same steps as Abraham Lincoln and Al Capone. We were beginning to discover that Dubuque has been a hot spot for visitors for decades. It was definitely an experience that we will remember. (Explore Hotel Julien here.)

Inspire Cafe was a good choice for starting our day in a relaxed and zenful manner.

A Fresh Start

While breakfast at the Hotel Julien was a convenient way to start the day, we also wanted to sample the local flavors of the Millwork District. Located near the downtown, it is an area that is seeing a flurry of revitalization, much as we have found in other downtowns. We visited this cute coffee shop, which offers a tranquil, relaxed way to ease into the day. Inspire Cafe is certainly well named, as it inspired us to discover Dubuque districts outside of downtown. (See inside Inspire here.)

When we discovered that 1st & Main had a PB&J version of a hamburger, it rose to the top of our lunch list.

A Nod to the King

The task of researching potential itinerary stops allows us to envision the flavor of a new destination. What that can often lead to, is the struggle with paring down our choices that can be visited in the time allowed. This really comes out when the subject is dining. It never fails that we find tons of interesting eateries, but we can only eat so many meals. When we found a spot that offers a PB&J burger, at 1st & Main, well it jumped up to the “must try” list. (Check out 1st & Main here.)

A stop at L. May Eatery proved to be a social gathering spot that serves up cool cocktails and delicious edibles.

Cutting Edge

We always look for at least one stop that is on the cutting edge of the local social scene. In Dubuque, we chose L. May Eatery, and we were not disappointed. The locals flock to this urban eatery for cocktails, consumables, and conversation. Located in the heart of downtown, it offers indoor and outdoor seating options. We would soon discover Dubuque is a great choice for people watching. (Step inside L. May here.)

You will discover Dubuque is filled with friendly dining destinations like Vinny Vanucchi's.

One of the Family

Since we had the people watching spot covered, we wanted to find a dining option that brought some comfort food to the table. When we spotted Vinny Vanucchi’s, it immediately caught our attention. The idea of dining in a family atmosphere should elevate comfort to the highest level. When we arrived, it went well beyond dining with family and ended up feeling like they adopted us into their clan.  (Check out Vinny’s here.)

Betty jane Candies offers delectable Iowa made treats that ship worldwide.

It’s the People

Speaking of family, we found the most amazing chocolate maker, while exploring Dubuque, Iowa. Betty Jane has been a Dubuque landmark for many years. When it changed hands, some people were worried that the original recipes would be replaced. No worries here, the new owners have focused their energy on making the brand recognizable worldwide. After some taste testing, we knew that their sweet treats were too good to be kept a Dubuque secret. Besides, the new owners are amazingly friendly folk, that welcome the chance to show off some Iowa products. (Read more about Betty Jane here.)

A visit downtown will allow you to discover Dubuque has a variety of murals.

Farewell for Now!

Our visit had allowed us to discover Dubuque treasures, that are fun for all ages. With all of these memories in the bag, it was time for us to make our return to our hometown. As we made our last trip through the downtown, we took the last chance to check out all of the cool wall murals. Our time in Iowa’s first city had opened our eyes to a wide variety of entertainment and dining options. We didn’t get to see all of the places we had researched, but we were happy to have an opportunity to savor a taste of Dubuque. Which of these stops would you add to your vacation itinerary?

the authors signatures.

14 thoughts on “Discover Dubuque – Iowa’s First City”

  1. Iowa is one of the few states I haven’t traveled to. I assumed it was a bit boring. Apparently I was wrong! Dubuque looks charming and a place that I’d like. I’m definitely going to schedule a road trip in 2020!

  2. I’ve been to Iowa, but never Dubuque and now I know what I am missing. I am impressed with its quaint and historic beauty and its variety of things to see and do. I will definitely try to get there soon!

  3. Carole Terwilliger Meyers

    Who knew there are so many interesting things to do in Dubuque?! I’d most especially like to visit the National museum and botanical garden.

  4. Wow! I am completely shocked as l would have never pictured Iowa being like this. It’s absolutely beautiful and thanks for highlighting it. I think the National Museum is a must visit. we’ve been playing around with visiting new places on our next visit back home, and l think l might have to add Iowa to the list :-).

  5. Pingback: 2020 Best Midwest Destinations Recommended by Travel Bloggers - O the Places We Go

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