The Mississippi River is the country's most iconic. It twists its way from northern Minnesota to New Orleans through the heartland, growing considerably wider (and browner) the farther south you go.
Itineraries along the Mississippi River are culturally intriguing and crammed with history. In a single day, you might witness someone being baptized in the river near your boat, learn about the worst floods in U.S. history and tour a Civil War battlefield.
If all you know is ocean cruising, be prepared for a surprise. First of all, most river itineraries are port intensive, so passengers spend considerably less time entertaining themselves on the boat. When you do find yourself with down time, the experience is more laid-back. You might attend a lecture and then spend the rest of your day relaxing on your balcony watching the world go by. Mealtimes are major focal points of each day, and evening entertainment is less sophisticated -- think performances by a small group of theater singers or local musical acts vs. high-tech song-and-dance revues.
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Mississippi River Cruise Lines
Two companies ply the Mississippi on a regular basis. American Cruise Lines operates Queen of the Mississippi (through early 2016) and American Eagle on the Lower and Upper Mississippi, while American Queen Steamboat Company operates namesake boat American Queen on all of the Mississippi.
European river cruise operator Viking River Cruises plans to sail the Mississippi, using New Orleans as its homeport, although a launch date has not been specified. The ships will not be paddlewheelers. Instead, they will have the company's signature Longship style and focus on enrichment.
Choosing a Mississippi River Cruise Itinerary
Because it is so long, the Mississippi River is usually divided into three parts. Each segment typically takes a week, or you can combine them for a three-week cruise. The scenery along the river is generally prettier and the wildlife more prevalent the farther north you are on the river. All segments can be done in either direction.
Keep in mind that sailing against the current slows the boat and generally means fewer ports or less time in port, but you'll have more time to relax onboard.
Lower Mississippi (New Orleans to Memphis): A weeklong sailing, which can run in either direction, this stretch of the river can include port stops like Oak Alley and Nottoway plantations, Baton Rouge and St. Francisville in Louisiana; Natchez, Vicksburg and Greenville in Mississippi; and Helena, Arkansas. The occasional New Orleans (round trip) cruise, which can run from five to seven days, typically visits the same ports, minus Memphis.
Middle Mississippi (Memphis to St. Louis): Also weeklong itineraries that can run in either direction, these sailings typically feature stops at New Madrid and Cape Girardeau, Missouri; Paducah, Kentucky; and Chester, Illinois. Memphis to St. Louis sailings feature more scenic sailing and fewer port stops than other Mississippi itineraries, and, as such, fewer of these itineraries are offered.
Upper Mississippi (St. Louis to St. Paul): Considered the most scenic stretch of Mississippi, these weeklong sailings stop at ports that include Hannibal, Missouri; Davenport, Clinton and Dubuque, Iowa; La Crosse, Wisconsin; and Red Wing, Minnesota. You might also find the occasional St. Louis round trip or St. Paul round trip sailing, each of which features an extra stop in either Illinois, Minnesota or Wisconsin.
Mississippi and Ohio rivers: Some Mississippi River sailings also spend time visiting Ohio River ports.
Best Time to Cruise the Mississippi River
The Lower Mississippi River has the longest season, which typically runs from November through December and April to mid-June, with most sailings on the bottom one-third of the river (New Orleans round trip or New Orleans to Memphis). In the spring and early summer, the Upper Mississippi is generally too high for riverboats to traverse, so the Upper Mississippi itineraries don't typically begin sailing until July.
With Louisiana and Mississippi at their hottest and muggiest during the summer, the bulk of the summer season is split between Upper Mississippi sailings and Ohio River sailings, with the Upper Mississippi taking over again for the most of the month of October. Even on the Upper Mississippi, temperatures can climb into the 90s, and humidity is high during the summer. Always be prepared for sudden thunderstorms brought on by the humidity. The weather cools down quite considerably (especially in the morning and evening) come fall.
Mosquitos also can be a problem in several of these states, as they all experience high humidity in the summer, so be sure to bring bug spray.
Mississippi River Port Highlights
New Orleans, Louisiana: Thick with atmosphere, New Orleans is world-famous for its annual Mardi Gras celebration, beautiful French Quarter neighborhood, great Southern and Creole cooking and some of the world's best jazz music.
Vicksburg, Mississippi: The site of a famous Civil War battlefield, Vicksburg also offers visitors a glimpse into its Southern heritage with antebellum plantations, old churches and restored train depots. A popular attraction is National Military Park, where visitors can learn about the siege and defense of the city. The park includes more than 1,370 monuments and markers, a restored Union gunboat and a national cemetery. Boat-lovers might like the Old Depot Museum, which features the world's largest collection of ship models, as well as a collection of riverboat models and U.S. Navy ships with Mississippi names.
Baton Rouge, Louisiana: Louisiana's state capital is an intriguing mixture of African-American and Caribbean cultures and a hot spot for Creole and Cajun cuisine. Visit Louisiana's Old State Capitol or new state capitol building -- or head to the LSU Rural Life Museum for a showcase of what life was like on a typical 19th century plantation. Visit the kitchen, slave cabins and grist mill before touring a replica of the town.
Memphis, Tennessee: The king of rock 'n' roll called Memphis home, and Elvis' home is the city's biggest tourist attraction. But Memphis is more than just Graceland. The National Civil Rights Museum is a must-visit, as is Shelby Farms, one of the country's largest urban parks.
St. Louis, Missouri: Known as the Gateway to the West, the iconic Gateway Arch offers great views of the city, as well as the mighty Mississippi. Other attractions include the Anheuser-Busch Brewery and Missouri Botanical Garden.
Hannibal, Missouri: Rediscover the adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn in Hannibal as you visit the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum. Other Mark Twain sites include the Huckleberry Finn and Becky Thatcher houses.
St. Paul, Minnesota: One of the Twin Cities, St. Paul offers several historic homes open to the public, as well as museums, art galleries and Indian Mounds Regional Park, with its scenic overlook. A unique attraction is the Wabasha Street Caves, a cave-turned-event hall that was once the haunt of Prohibition-era gangsters but today is used mostly for weddings.
Mississippi River Cruise Tips
Prepare for small towns. Itineraries might incorporate major cities like New Orleans and Memphis as cornerstones, but your experience will also focus on smaller towns along the way.
Prepare for calm waters. Inland waterways are much calmer than those on ocean-based trips, which is great news if you're prone to seasickness.
Listen up. Because of the short distances between ports, full days of river cruising are rare. However, when you spend time sailing, there is usually commentary from a "riverlorian" over the public address system explaining some of the sights you pass.
Mother Nature rules. The same way a hurricane might force an oceangoing cruise ship to change course, bad weather on the rivers can alter itineraries. In particular, heavy rain and droughts can make or break a river trip. For instance, one year's drought along the Mississippi River kept waters so low that riverboats couldn't sail upriver, and operators had to push some of their Upper Mississippi sailings onto the Ohio. Another year, too much rain flooded the river, making it impossible for riverboats to get under bridges and forcing the closing of several locks. The result was the same as during the drought. Boats scheduled to sail the Upper Mississippi were diverted onto the Ohio.