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The St. Louis Cathedral on New Orlean's Jackson Square (Photo:f11photo/Shutterstock)

The 10 Best Mississippi River Cities and Destinations

The St. Louis Cathedral on New Orlean's Jackson Square (Photo:f11photo/Shutterstock)
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Kyle Valenta

Last updated
Jul 20, 2023

Read time
12 min read

Mississippi River cities are some of the coolest parts of a cruise along the most famous waterway in the United States. New Orleans, Memphis and other major cities are a staple on most Mississippi River cruises. But there are plenty of other ports that are perfect for history buffs, culture lovers, and those looking to explore the smaller towns and cities of America's South and Midwest. That includes amazing destinations like the Field of Dreams in Dubuque, Iowa; one of the definitive battle sites during the Civil War, at Vicksburg, Mississippi; and the sobering Whitney Plantation in Louisiana.

Whether you want to sample local barbecue, tour antebellum homes, get lost in jazz clubs, or take in the scenery, the Mississippi River's cities and towns are packed with plenty to see and do. To help you pick the right itinerary for your cruise through America's heartland, we've rounded up 10 of our favorite Mississippi River cities and destinations. Read on and get planning your next cruise.

If you're after more information on planning your Mississippi River cruise, check out our Mississippi River cruise tips.

New Orleans: Bustling Jazz Clubs and Awesome Creole Food

Floats in a Mardi Gras Parade in New Orleans (Photo: GTS Productions/Shutterstock)

A Mississippi River city that needs no introduction, New Orleans is in a category all its own. And that's not just because it's the largest city along the Mississippi River's banks. Jazz, beignets, nightlife, Mardi Gras, and a history rooted in Indigenous, Black, French, Spanish and countless other cultures -- there's too much to New Orleans to cover in a day or two. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't try.

New Orleans will be the most likely city at the beginning or end a Lower Mississippi River cruise (check out our guide to Upper and Lower Mississippi cruises). That's perfect, as you can add a couple of days to your vacation to soak up the city's incomparable vibe. Whether you're a big drinker or not, a visit to Bourbon Street in the city's raucous French Quarter is obligatory (even when Mardi Gras beads aren't flying through the air). Your cruise will likely include a free tour of the neighborhood. Other typical shore excursions include local history tours and a visit to the city's WWII museum.

But New Orleans is far more than the French Quarter. Music has been a major part of the city as well. Frenchmen Street in Marigny is a mainstay of the local music scene, and you're likely to find blues or jazz on almost any given night at spots like The Spotted Cat or d.b.a. The area is only a 10-minute cab ride from the Port of New Orleans. If you're in the French Quarter, head to historic Preservation Hall. The Garden District, which you can reach by riding the city's iconic streetcars (with a little walking), is where you'll find beautiful mansions along with fancier cafes, shops and restaurants. Of course, you'll want to save room for the city's legendary creole cuisine and a stop for beignets at Cafe du Monde is obligatory.

Vicksburg, Mississippi: Civil War History and Ghostly Encounters

A Civil War reenactment at Vicksburg National Military Park (Photo: Visit Vicksburg)

Vicksburg is a magnet for Civil War buffs, though there's plenty more in store for those stopping here. This Mississippi River city was the site of a successful Union victory after 47 days of war at this Confederate stronghold, which lies halfway between Memphis and New Orleans.

The Vicksburg National Military Park is the destination atop most history-lovers' lists. Here you'll find the story of the siege and defense of the city across over 1,400 monuments. The site also includes the U.S.S. Cairo Museum (the ship is the only surviving gunboat of its class left from this era) and Vicksburg National Cemetery. Check ahead as the park offers programming early every summer around the anniversary of the battle and Confederate surrender.

If you're hoping to encounter history of another stripe, take your luck among the ghosts of McRaven House. Construction began on the home in 1797, with additions added over the years. These days, both haunted and historical tours are available, and the house hosts monthly ghost investigations as well as seasonal candlelight tours.

Whitney Plantation, Louisiana: A True Depiction of Slave Life in the South

View of slave quarters at Louisiana's Whitney Plantation (Photo: Elsa Hahne via Whitney Plantation)

The Whitney Plantation is the only plantation in Louisiana that provides tours that's centered on the slave experience. Visiting here means sidestepping the mint julep-clinking, big house-focused entertainment found at other plantations across the South. Instead, tours and exhibits make the connection of the U.S. history slavery to legacies of inequity today, and past visitors find the site to be one of the most impactful in the region.

Located about 45 minutes west of New Orleans by car, shore excursions offered on some Viking River itineraries on the Mississippi bundle the Whitney and St. Joseph's Plantations together. If you're planning to visit from New Orleans before or after your cruise, independent tours can be easily arranged as well.

Dubuque, Iowa: The Field of Dreams and Local Spirits

Downtown Galena, Illinois, near Dubuque, Iowa (Photo: Dirk DBQ, Flickr)

Dubuque is a lovely town with a nice collection of shops and restaurants. It's also a great jumping-off point to explore the region. One of the most famous sites in the area is the Field of Dreams movie site, which is about 40 minutes west of Dubuque by car and is offered as a shore excursion by river cruise lines like American Queen Voyages. You'll also find the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium right in town.

Illinois' Galena -- 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 than Chicago, like most industry towns (lead mining was the focus here), Galena declined over the ensuing decades. However, in the 1970s a movement by artists to preserve the historic city began (and continues to this day).

About 85% of Galena is a preserved historic district, and major attractions right in town include the Ulysses S. Grant Home State Historic Site, the Washburne House and Belvedere Mansion. And while those historic sites are certainly worth a visit, Galena is a Mississippi River city with more modern trappings as well. Galena's downtown is peppered with local retail shops that celebrate the region's wine- and spirit-making, 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.

Hannibal, Missouri: Mark Twain's Home and Cool Caves

The Mark Twain Boyhood Home in Hannibal, Missouri (Photo: Terry Ballard/Flickr)

Perhaps no American author has more famously documented life on the Mississippi River than Mark Twain. Born Samuel Langhorne Clemens in 1835, Twain -- the writer's pen name -- lived in Hannibal, Missouri, for 13 years in his childhood. That makes Hannibal one of the most important Mississippi river cities for literature lovers (pro tip: a Mark Twain book can make the perfect travel companion for a Mississippi River cruise). Make a beeline for the Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum, which features interactive exhibits and even a handful of Norman Rockwell paintings.

The city of Hannibal is considered Twain's Mississippi River muse, and a trip just outside of town to the Mark Twain Caves will drop you right inside of five Mark Twain stories, in which it's featured. That same cave was used by Jesse James as he ran from the police in 1879. Cruise lines generally offer hop-on, hop-off tours or walking tours of the town including these major destinations, though you'll also find options that include other fascinating sites like excursions offered on Viking to Jim's Journey: The Huck Finn Freedom Center, which is dedicated to African-American history in the region (and also includes a city tour).

Memphis, Tennessee: Elvis and Graceland Plus Legendary Ribs

View of Memphis, Tennessee, and Mississippi River (Shutterstock)

The Mississippi River is lined with too many music cities to count. But nowhere else on its shores is as important to the blues and early rock music as Memphis.

Elvis' Graceland is here, as is Sun Studio (where he first recorded). You can stroll Beale Street and take your pick of numerous blues and rock halls. Or step into the Stax Museum of American Soul Music or the Memphis Rock 'n Soul Museum. Most cruise lines that port in Memphis offer shore excursions that include the city's music history.

But it's not all live shows and music history in Memphis. If your tastes are more culinary, you've come to the capital of dry-rub ribs.There are numerous locally famous spots around town. Charlie Vergos' Rendezvous is one of the oldest and wins raves for their dry rub (though plenty of newer spots score great reviews, too). You'll find it right downtown.

It's also worth a detour to the Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum. The former antebellum home was a stop on the Underground Railroad and visitors can tour the tunnels used by escaped slaves.

Madison, Indiana: Shopping, Dining and a Great Winery

The Jefferson County Courthouse in Madison, Indiana (Photo: Warren LeMay, Flickr)

Madison's claim to fame is its 133-block downtown district: the largest, contiguous historic district in the country. Your best bet for exploring the town -- technically on the Ohio River -- is to hop aboard an itinerary with American Queen Voyages or American Cruise Lines.

The downtown center is worth a day on its own; shopping and dining at the town's locally owned boutiques and restaurants is a highlight, and it's worth a stop at the ornate Broadway Fountain in the heart of town. Most of the action centers on (or just off of) Main Street, which is divided into east and west sides. Befitting a city with over three centuries of history, you'll find numerous iconic eateries in town. One of the most famous is burger joint Hinkle's Sandwich Shop, which opened in 1933 and has survived to this day.

If you've had enough historic strolling and want to kick back with a drink, head to the Lanthier Winery, right in the center of town. It's 18th-century home comes with plenty of history of its own and may or may not have once been a fort, but the winery cranks out solid reds, whites, and fruit wines. The winery also includes stunning gardens and artist programs. Tours are available.

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Natchez, Mississippi: Black History and Elegant Mansions

The Mississippi River at Natchez at sunset (Photo: David Sanchez/Flickr)

Of the Mississippi River's cities, Natchez is hardly the biggest. But this 19th-century cultural hub is a great destination for an upfront view of both historic and contemporary life along the Mississippi.

In Natchez itself, you'll find the compact Natchez Museum of African American History and Culture. It's an important counterpoint to a city that's full of reminders of the wealth accumulated by Southern slave owners at the expense of human life. While displays can be packed, docents are on hand to help guide you. Entry is free and you'll see artifacts and folk art from several centuries right up through the Civil Rights Movement.

For even more historical context about the Black experience in the antebellum South, cross the Mississippi to Frogmore Plantation in Louisiana (30 minutes by car). Unlike the Whitney Plantation, Frogmore isn't exclusively dedicated to the slave experience, but does include tours of and information about slave quarters and slave life as part of its historical tours. Guests can also try picking cotton at Frogmore, which provides just the smallest taste of how grueling the work was. Keep in mind that Frogmore isn't usually included in Mississippi River shore excursions in Natchez, so you'll need to arrange an independent visit.

On the flipside, the antebellum mansions of Natchez are one of its claims to fame. Dunleith, Linden, Stanton Hall, and Auburn are all excellent stops as you tour the town. Most Mississippi River cruise lines include walking tours of Natchez on your itinerary (if it's a stop), and you'll see plenty more historic homes throughout towns. There are some 1,000 buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and a good handful are open to the public.

Red Wing, Minnesota: Famous Pottery and Great Mississippi Views

The Mississippi River from atop one of Red Wing's many bluffs (Photo: Joe Ferrer, Shutterstock)

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 cruise embarkation port. Today, the small Mississippi River city is known for local stoneware pottery, the original Red Wing Shoes, antiques and some great natural scenery.

Red Wing has been famous for its stoneware and pottery since 1877, when Red Wing Stoneware & Pottery opened for business. These days, the pottery scene centers on antique purveyors and local artisans. You can find the former at the historic Pottery Place in town (next to Red Wing's museum dedicated to local pottery). Contemporary artisans sell their wares at places like the Red Wing Arts Clay and Creative Center, which also offers pottery classes. Red Wing is equally well known for the eponymously named Red Wing Shoes, whose iconic boots have graced the feet of everyone from factory workers to big city fashionistas since 1905.

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. If you're after something a little more active, 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).

Greenville, Mississippi: Blues Music and B.B. King

This under-the-radar port is a more intimate stop for blues enthusiasts, and an alternative to the blues scene found in cities like Memphis.

Greenville hosts the Mississippi Delta Blues & Heritage Festival, the oldest blues festival in the United States, late every September. If you're lucky, your Mississippi cruise will stop in this city while the festival is happening. The city's blues credentials arose in the late 19th century and were in full swing by the 1950s, when Nelson Street was one of the major epicenters of blues music in the country.

Most shore excursions in Greenville also include a visit to Indianola, the former hometown of blues legend B.B. King. Today, the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center is one of the most popular spots to visit in the region, and a side trip to Club Ebony is likely in order for true blues fans.

Publish date September 21, 2017
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