Family Vacation in Dubuque, Iowa

Built on the Mississippi River and right up the bluff, Dubuque, Iowa is progressive in addition to beautiful. Renovating the Port of Dubuque as well as the historic downtown, great vision has transformed the city into a tourist destination worth planning a weekend around. With fine dining, museums, shopping, and sports, Dubuque has not forgotten the vacationing family.

Mississippi Waterfront

A day trip for those of us living in Madison, Milwaukee, Chicago, Rockford, Des Moines, Rochester, and the Quad Cities, here are some suggestions for spending the weekend in this accessible and affordable Midwestern city.

Fenelon Place Elevator

Fenelon Place Elevator

The world’s steepest and shortest scenic railway, the Fenelon Place Elevator has been elevating passengers up and down the Dubuque bluffs for most of the city’s history. Operating on the physics of counterbalanced cars (one goes down while the other goes up), a ride to the top will cost $1.00 for adults and $0.50 for children age five and older. Offering spectacular views of the city and river (particularly at sunset) this is an adrenaline-infused adventure for those of us with lots of life insurance. Note that that stairs are located just down the street in the event you bring enough money for a round-trip fare (sigh).

Dubuque River Rides

Dubuque River Rides

In the spirit of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, a trip near the Mississippi River seems incomplete without spending time in Mark Twain’s medium. Offering both sightseeing, dinner, and themed cruises in time intervals ranging from two to six hours, Dubuque River Rides is conveniently located in the Port of Dubuque. Setting out on the SPIRIT of Dubuque, an authentic dual paddle wheeler, our family enjoyed two hours on the river. A nature cruise as much as a history lesson on the city and surrounding area, families with toddlers may want to plan ahead and pack snacks and games or coloring books.

Getting Around: Trolley Rides

Dubuque Trolley

One option for getting around downtown in style is by the City of Dubuque Trolley. Running on a 20 minute loop, visitors and residents can navigate the one way streets in style, for FREE. Catching a ride from the Grand Harbor Resort to the Fenelon Place Elevator, the ride was part of our adventure. Clean, safe, and fun, the trolley runs Memorial Day through Labor Day (with a limited schedule through the end of October). Consult the trolley map and plan to let someone else navigate the one-way streets for you.

Where to Stay: Grand Harbor Resort and Waterpark

Grand Harbor Resort Waterpark

The home of Iowa’s first indoor waterpark, the Grand Harbor Resort and Waterpark is a little bit of the Wisconsin Dells on the Mississippi riverfront. Complete with arcade, kids club, and 25,000 square foot waterpark, guests of the resort will enjoy the views as much as the convenience of the waterfront. A short walk to the National Mississippi Museum and Aquarium, The Riverwalk, shopping, area casinos, and sporting venues, note that the facility and rooms are under swank renovation.

But wait, there’s more!

River Works 3

We loved the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium and Field of Dreams movie site enough to recommend them in their own stories. Read more here and here. Geocaching at Murphy Park and/or driving up the bluff to the neighborhoods and restaurants surrounding the University of Dubuque, Loras College, and Clarke University are also worth the detour.

About the Author

Julie Henning
Julie Henning is a freelance writer and journalist based out of Eugene, Oregon. She is a member of the Society of American Travel Writers and owner of the family-travel website She is a recent past member of the Midwest Travel Writers Association and the Association for Great Lakes Outdoor Writers. Julie is the Oregon Coast destination specialist for Bindu Media, an itinerary-focused website launching in Spring 2016 and featuring the work of 200+ professional, indie travel writers. Julie has been published in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the Wisconsin State Journal, The Daily Journal (Kankakee, Illinois), the Rochester Post Bulletin, Wisconsin Natural Resources (DNR) Magazine, Sustainable Chicago Magazine, Group Tour Magazine, Student Group Tour Magazine, Silent Sports Magazine, Intercom Magazine,, and FTF Geocacher Magazine. Julie has appeared on Wisconsin Public Radio, Ohio Public Radio, and KCBX FM Central Coast Radio and is an affiliate producer with the Journeys of Discovery with Tom Wilmer, a National Public Radio travel podcast. She has blogged for, Travel Oregon, and VISIT Milwaukee. Julie travels with her three kids and black lab as much as possible and lives by the motto, "Not all who wander are lost." Check out some of her best work at

3 Comments on "Family Vacation in Dubuque, Iowa"

  1. Looks like a great place to visit….its been on my to-do list for awhile, just haven’t fit it in my plans. After reading your post(s) I think I need to may Dubuque a priority!

  2. Adam, thanks for reading the Dubuque story. We live in Madison and really enjoyed visiting the area – not only for the convenience, but for the natural beauty. If you’re looking for more ideas, Decorah (and any of NE Iowa is worth a meander). Take care!

  3. Thanks for your comment! Actually, Galena is on our list. We’re going to visit the second week in December and write about the experience. Any tips for our trip?

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