History has a way of sneaking up on you. When we visited Dubuque, we knew we were experiencing Iowa’s first city. The moment that Julien Dubuque first arrived on the western shore of the Mississippi River, was the start of something special. It would be almost 50 years before the city would be officially chartered, and another 13 years before the territory would become a state. By that point, there was already a hotel occupying the corner of 2nd and Main. Fast forward 180 years and the Hotel Julien stands proudly on this spot overlooking the Mighty Mississippi. Over the decades this site has hosted a cavalcade of dignitaries. Our visit gave us a chance to sleep in the shadow of giants, at this elegant downtown boutique hotel.
We want to thank Travel Dubuque and Hotel Julien for their hospitality. Rest assured all opinions are our own.
When we discovered that Hotel Julien would be our home away from home for a couple of days, our first task was to find out about the hotel’s history. Way back in 1839, a building was erected on this spot. The original four-story lodging was called the Waples House, after a wealthy Dubuque merchant. Travelers coming from the east would find this building greeting them, as they crossed the river. The views from our corner room looked east across the river. We could imagine those early pioneers coming out of the fog to suddenly see this grand hotel rising from the banks.
In 1854, the building was purchased and renamed. Even in those early days, it was already drawing in notable guests. In 1859, Abraham Lincoln spent time in the hotel, during a stint working for the Illinois Central Railroad. While records don’t note which room he stayed in, he obviously used the same lobby as we did. Our room on the eighth floor brought us close to another famous visitor. We heard a variety of stories about the notorious gangster, Al Capone, and his visits to the Hotel Julien. When the heat got too high in Chicago, he would travel with his entourage to Dubuque, to lay low. It is reported that they would block off the entire eighth floor during their stays. While the renovation removed all of the old furniture, we knew that there was a chance we might sleep in the shadow of giants.
The Hotel Julien went through an extensive renovation a few years ago. Today, it has all of the modern conveniences that travelers expect, but still holds its air of historic significance. Even with a packed itinerary, we made sure to reserve some time to explore the hotel. Our goal was to seek out their indoor pool area, so we set off in search of our prize. When we happened upon the Potosa Spa, we decided to pop in to check it out. We found out that the unusual name comes from a daughter of a chief from a local Native American tribe. She was supposedly the wife of Julien Dubuque. To honor her, the spa offers treatments that draw inspiration from Native American culture.
As we continued our exploration, we came to the indoor pool area. This space is decorated in the same rich colors that are found throughout the hotel. In one corner of the room, we found their whirlpool spa. We were hoping to squeeze in a little time in the spa, to help unwind after a day of walking around town. I dipped my toe into the spa to feel the deliciously warm water. Now I was really looking forward to a late evening visit.
Hotel Julien not only had us sleeping in the shadow of giants, but it also has a restaurant with its own story to tell. Caroline’s is named for a local businesswoman with ties to the hotel’s management, but her tale comes from the late 1800s. Her husband owned an ice business but died from pneumonia after falling into the Mississippi River. With five children to feed, she took over the business and eventually invested in a variety of downtown properties. She was very diligent about her business. It is reported that she would follow her delivery drivers, to make sure they did their job correctly.
Today, Caroline’s is positioned to offer views of the harbor, where the ice was harvested. With this beautiful view laid out before us, we enjoyed a delicious American breakfast. This was one where we each ordered, but then shared dishes for more variety. My choice was the Chicken and Waffle, which is a tip of the hat to a dish popular in river towns in the southern U.S. The version served at Caroline’s offers up a crispy fried chicken breast laid out on a Belgian-style waffle. Crystal picked the Biscuits and Gravy, which is another southern dish. Another well-done dish, which disappeared in a few minutes. Now we were ready for another day of exploring.
Sleep in the Shadow of Giants
The Hotel Julien is a delightful mix of historic opulence and modern convenience. Being located in the heart of the downtown area, it makes the perfect home base for exploring the surrounding community. It maintains a prominent spot in the city’s landscape, which makes it easy to use to reset your bearings. There is a slew of restaurants, shops, and attractions within walking distance. (You can read about one at 1st and Main here.) Besides, how often do you get the opportunity to sleep in the shadow of giants like Lincoln or Capone?
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