Updated September 21, 2017
Many people associate river cruising with Europe -- no surprise there. What might surprise you is that you can find Europe right here in the U.S., along the mighty Mississippi River, which stretches from Minnesota to Louisiana's Gulf Coast. The Mississippi and its tributaries are getting a fresh new look from travelers who want to experience a river cruise without having to take a long-haul flight.
The reason for the European-esque feel in America's heartland?
Many of the river towns on the Mississippi were settled by the French, Spanish, Germans, Northern Europeans, English and Irish, and their influence is still apparent today in everything from architecture to cultural traditions. There are many discoveries with European influences, like the glockenspiel in Covington, Kentucky's MainStrasse Village, the Dutch windmills in Clinton, Iowa, and the Norwegian Norskedalen settlement outside of La Crosse, Wisconsin.
Here our seven favorite European-inspired attractions that make us long to explore America's backyard.
1. The Gateway Arch
Paris has the Eiffel Tower, sure, but St. Louis has the Gateway Arch. Designed by Finland-born architect and furniture designer Eero Saarinen, the iconic arch, just steps from the river, symbolizes Thomas Jefferson's vision of a United States that stretched from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Saarinen, now considered one of the masters of American 20th-century architecture, designed in a neo-futurist style. (He is known for his distinctive chairs, such as the tulip and womb models, along with grand buildings including the TWA Flight Center at John F. Kennedy International Airport and the main terminal of Washington's Dulles International Airport.) Regarding St. Louis' most iconic attraction, Saarinen's structure has an interior tram that carries visitors to the top of the nation's tallest manmade monument. Saarinen won the architectural competition to design the monument in 1947. As he once said: "The major concern was to create a monument which would have lasting significance and would be a landmark of our time… Neither an obelisk nor a rectangular box nor a dome seemed right on this site or for this purpose. But here, at the edge of the Mississippi, a great arch did seem right."
2. La Crosse Oktoberfest
Wisconsin's La Crosse was originally settled by Germans so it shouldn't surprise you that it wholeheartedly revels in beer. The highlight of the year is its annual Oktoberfest. City leaders are apt to boast, "Approximately 5,000 miles and over 150 years of history provide the only major differences between La Crosse, Wisconsin and Munich, Germany during late September and early October each year." Dating back to the 1960s, La Crosse's event is one of the country's most authentic Old World folk festivals. The riverside Oktoberfest features craft beers from three local breweries, bratwurst and pretzel bread, polka bands and an all-male group that sings traditional German folk songs.
Here's the thing: Even if you can't make it to Oktoberfest, the city's passion for beer takes place all year 'round. The tradition harks all the way back to the 1850s, when the G. Heileman Brewing Company, with its iconic old world-style brews, opened here. While Heileman's no longer operates in La Crosse, craft breweries now dominate the scene. Don't miss a trip to the tasting rooms at Pearl Street and Turtle Stack.
Hint: Speaking of European influences, the buoyant La Crosse also annually celebrates the spirit of Celtic traditions with its Irishfest.
3. The French Quarter
Where to find France on the Mississippi? In New Orleans, of course. The compact French Quarter, situated inside the bend of the river, has that allure, that je ne sais quois, that never gets stale. Performance artists, shops, colorful hanging gardens, Creole cottages, "shotgun" houses, restaurants and nightclubs -- they're all here. For a France fix, grab a cafe au lait and beignet at Cafe Du Monde, a landmark across from Jackson Square since 1862. Also nearby: St. Louis Cathedral, originally built in 1727 and dedicated to King Louis IX of France. The French Quarter is the city's oldest neighborhood and represents the largest and best-preserved district of predominantly 19th-century architecture in the U.S. Best yet, as in many European communities, it's all walkable. Laissez les bon temp rouler.
4. Christmas Markets
Christmas markets cruises are a staple of Europe's waterways, and they're making an appearance on the Lower Mississippi as well. Historic homes in Natchez, Mississippi and St. Francisville, Louisiana, host the holiday markets along with Nottoway Plantation in White Castle, Louisiana. Among the highlights: a holiday-style Southern ball; one-of-a-kind locally made crafts such as guitars created from driftwood, and bowls and cutting boards from area wood turners; and a post-ball menu that includes duck confit over grits with okra, cream of asparagus with Spanish saffron, and coffee-rubbed chateaubriand with Creole Bearnaise sauce. To cap things off, there's a ceremonial bonfire that extends a warm, red glow over the waters of the Mississippi. With temperatures typically climbing up into the 60's, there's no need for a parka and snow boots on these Christmas markets cruises.
5. Castle-like Mansions
Europe has castles and the Mississippi has mansions to rival them, especially in and around Mississippi's Natchez, the oldest city on the river. It's known for its historic mansions, some built by European immigrants. The showpiece, aptly nicknamed "The White Castle," is a 64-room Italianate-style home with vibrant gardens set in Nottoway Plantation. It's considered one of the most lavish and luxurious settings in the South, but it's by no means alone. Also on the shortlist of the American South's showplaces is Rosalie, an Antebellum home that became the prototype for mansions across the South; Stanton Hall, a Greek Revival-style mansion originally called Belfast, in honor of its owner's Irish roots (it occupies an entire city block); and Longwood, considered the crown jewel of Natchez's storied mansions.
6. Minnesota Marine Art Museum
What a terrific concept: great art inspired by water. The Minnesota Marine Art Museum, on the Upper Mississippi in Winona, opened in 2006 with the idea of not only presenting and preserving marine art but pushing the boundaries of what marine art can be. The museum has a robust collection of masterworks from European and American artists -- among them, Monet, Renoir, Van Gogh, Cassatt, Gauguin, Picasso, Matisse and O'Keefe. Also worth noting are the charming American Prairie-style grasses and wildflowers that connect the limestone bluff, on the museum grounds, downhill to the Mississippi backwaters.
7. Art on the River
An unexpected delight of cruising a river like the Danube, the Loire or the Seine is the public art that appears here and there along the shoreline. Likewise on the Mississippi. Art on the River, along the riverwalk in Dubuque, Iowa, pays homage to the body of water and the region with a rotating installation of 10 sculptures. Admirers can download a mobile app called Otocast to listen to an audio tour narrated by the artists. A local brewery and wine tasting room in the vicinity offer even more opportunity for lingering.