Updated September 21, 2017
Sure, marquee ports on cruises along the Mississippi and tributaries like the Ohio and Tennessee rivers -- St. Louis, New Orleans, Memphis, Louisville and Minnesota's St. Paul -- are likely the biggest draw for river cruise travelers. And yet, on our own river trawls, the ports that have the most potential for enchanting and surprising tend to be the smaller, more offbeat towns whose charms are a bit of a secret.
Favorites? See our picks (and please let us know which are your top choices).
Typically, Lower Mississippi River cruises steam between New Orleans, Memphis and St. Louis.
What's there? This prosperous 19th-century cultural hub, located on a bluff high above the Mississippi, is best known for its collection of antebellum (pre-Civil War) mansions and historic structures. There are some 1,000 buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places so there's a lovely ambiance. About a dozen are open to the public.
Absolutely don't miss: Natchez is ripe with antebellum mansions to check out, such as Dunleith, Linden, Stanton Hall, and Auburn. The exhibits at the William Johnson House offer context and insights into life in the African-American community in the mid-19th century. Johnson was born as a slave but became known as a master barber and dedicated his life to teaching the craft to other free black men.
The Charboneau Distillery, known for its rums, is part of famed Southern chef Regina Charboneau's menu of businesses; tastings are held here. We also love her King's Tavern restaurant for craft cocktails and casual southern fare.
At the African-American History & Culture Museum, check out the folk art collection.
The Natchez Trace Parkway, which extends some 400-plus miles along the river to Nashville, offers beautiful nature immersion.
The museum at the Grand Village of the Natchez Indians features the region's indigenous history.
What's there? Vicksburg is a magnet destination for Civil War buffs, playing a pivotal role in the War Between the States. It was the site of a major battle of strategic importance, considered the Civil War's Gibraltar, in which the Union army aimed to take control of this Confederate stronghold, which lies halfway between Memphis and New Orleans. As such, it's natural to expect to find attractions and activities around the Civil War. There's more to Vicksburg than its military history, however; the city has fine antebellum mansions and museums as well.
Absolutely don't miss: Check out the Anchuca Museum, which dates back to 1830, and is one of the most significant antebellum homes in town.
Did you know that Vicksburg was the first city to bottle Coca-Cola? The story is told through the Blendemham Coca-Cola Museum, which features an authentic candy store and a classic soda fountain.
For maritime aficionados, the Lower Mississippi River Museum offers a huge collection of ship models -- both riverboats and naval vessels.
No trip to Vicksburg is complete without a visit to the Vicksburg National Military Park, where you get the whole story about the siege and defense of the city via 1,370 monuments and markers and an important cemetery. Lesser known about the park is that it's a great place for bicycle riding.
The Old Court House Museum was, ironically, one of the few significant structures left standing during the Civil War siege because the confederates housed Union prisoners on its sixth floor (it also showcases valuable artifacts).
Hungry? The southern comfort food at Rowdy's Family Restaurant has been a dining mainstay since 1917; order the catfish.
For those looking to tempt Lady Luck, Vicksburg has four floating casinos.
Ohio and Tennessee Rivers
These itineraries, which often incorporate historically, culturally and spirit-rich themes from America's presidents to bourbon, cruise between Memphis or St. Louis eastward, to Cincinnati and Louisville.
What's there? Located at the confluence of the Ohio and Tennessee Rivers, Paducah is designated by UNESCO as a Creative City. It's an honor that pays homage to the role the city plays in crafts and folk art -- particularly when it comes to quilting. Certainly a passion for arts, whether performance art or craftwork, is evident all throughout downtown. Like many historic downtowns that have been revitalized, a lot of credit is due to artists who were lured by inexpensive housing and given low-interest loans to refurbish homes and create studios.
Absolutely don't miss: The National Quilting Museum is a magnet for visitors to Paducah who come from near and far, ranging from the Midwest to China.
The mural panels that adorn the floodwall between the riverfront and downtown showcase Paducah's history. We love the LowerTown Arts District, with artist-in-residence studios and galleries.
The shops downtown, particularly around Market Square, are unique and funky, ranging from artisan galleries to antique stores.
Railroad aficionados should seek out the Paducah Railroad Museum, which has a simulator that allows you to ride in a locomotive.
The Hotel Metropolitan, an African-American heritage museum, celebrates famous entertainers such as B.B. King, Tina Turner and Duke Ellington, who stayed there while performing.
For the best pastries and pies in town, try Kirchoff's Bakery.
What's there? At one time a rival in size and influence to nearby Cincinnati, Madison was a national hub for pork production. The city's current claim to fame is the innovative revitalization of its 133-block downtown district: the largest, contiguous historic district in the country. Madison, which dates back to the early 19th century, had (like many historic downtowns) ultimately fallen into disrepair when river traffic declined and railroads subsequently bypassed the city. In 1977, it was one of just three American downtowns to participate in a successful pilot program to reinvigorate lost cities.
Absolutely don't miss: The circa-19th century Schroeder Saddletree Factory, which made wooden frames for saddle makers, might have closed in the 1970s, but was left intact. The factory now makes a compelling example of a vintage workplace.
The downtown center is a day's visit on its own; terrific pastimes include shopping and dining at the town's locally operated boutiques and restaurants, and a stop at the ornate Broadway Fountain, in the heart of the area. Among the intriguing boutiques include Something Simple for gifts, Blush for on-trend fashion and Fine Threads for kids' clothes. Local chocolatier Cocoa Safari has amazing toffee and truffles. Hinkle's Sandwich Shop is worth a visit for its 46 different milkshake flavors ("Cocopuffs" is an interesting choice, and its sliders are out of this world).
The Lanier Mansion State Historic Site, a Greek Revival-style manse built in 1844, is open for tours.
The tasting room at the family-owned Thomas Family Winery, located in an old stable and carriage house, is comfortingly pub-like; it's known for its Gale's Hard Cider, blush, and zinfandel.
Bourbon-lovers can head out to Buffalo Trace Distillery, which offers tours and tastings.
Upper Mississippi River Towns
These voyages typically run between St. Louis and St. Paul, and are famous for their stunning scenic bluffs and nature appreciation.
Red Wing, Minnesota
What's there? Listed on the National Trust for Historic Preservation for its "impressive architecture and enviable natural environment," Red Wing, just 45 miles from St. Paul, is actually the region's embarkation port. An earlier distinction for Red Wing came about in the 1800s, when it was known as the world's largest wheat market. Today, travelers are more likely to be checking out its more contemporary claims-to-fame -- you can see the world's largest boot at the Red Wing Shoe Museum, and Red Wing Pottery showcases vintage stoneware once produced here. The city's also a prime destination for nature-lovers.
Don't miss: Head out to the bluffs for pleasant views across the Mississippi; favorite spots include Barn Bluff and Sorin's Bluff. At the river itself, check out Bay Point Park for a different perspective. Consider a hike along the 19.5-mile Cannon Valley Trail or rent a bike at the historic St. James Hotel (also worth a venture inside).
Did you know that Red Wing was the birthplace of ski jumping? You can learn all about it at the American Ski Jumping Museum & Hall of Fame (located in the St. James hotel).
At the Pottery Museum of Red Wing, you can watch potters create ceramics.
The Red Wing Brewery has been brewing beer since the 1950s, and today it's a highly regarded maker of craft ales and root beer.
The Red Wing Marine Museum spotlights the history of riverboats, steamboats, tugboats and barges.
What's there? Dubuque itself is a lovely town, but Illinois' Galena, some 12 miles away (and across the river) is one of the largest, historically intact towns in the United States. Home to president Ulysses S. Grant, Galena was at one time larger even than Chicago, and rumored to be named the state capital (in fact, Abraham Lincoln, when planning his presidential run, spent a lot of time in the city courting local leadership). Prosperous as a result of its lead mining industry, the town's preservation is due in part to the fact that lead fell out of favor, and railroad development bypassed the town. It was by and large abandoned. In the 1970s, a movement by artists to preserve the historic city began and continues to this day.
Don't miss: A shopping magnet, Galena's downtown is peppered with local retail shops (few chains) that celebrate the region's fascination with wine-making, spirits and the culinary arts. Check out Galena Cellars' downtown tasting room for its award-winning red wines. At the Blaum Bros. Distilling Co. you can taste products ranging from gin and bourbon to moonshine and vodka.
Many historic attractions are located in the town center, including the Ulysses S. Grant Home State Historic Site, the Washburne House and Belvedere Mansion. Grant Park is an idyllic refuge that has a few antique cannons.
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--By Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor in Chief