Imagine taking a trip through the Midwestern wasteland and many of us are sooner snoring than packing our car snacks and suitcases. But a little research reveals that there's more beyond the Chicago border than the Rockford clock tower. A three-hour jaunt west to Dubuque has you cruising through rolling hills and valleys, past vistas and bluffs, before landing along America's River. Unlike some river towns, this one houses a wealth of visible history—Civil War-era buildings, Prairie-style houses—without the filth or grit; any pretension gets left 15 miles east in Galena.
Expand Your Mind: Hit the River!
We started off our weekend by literally getting our feet wet. Boat launches and riverside parks offer access to the Mississippi, and, if you care to get some learning in while you're at it, a $10 ticket to the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium will have you up close and personal with otters, turtles, catfish and scary-looking, spongy-feeling manta rays. We wandered up to the National Rivers Hall of Fame to learn about the lives of river folk in 'dem olden days. (Note: Corncob pipes and overalls are optional.) Housed in an old boat factory, the museum aptly features exhibits about the boat-building industry in Dubuque; we wandered outside to take a self-guided tour through an old paddleboat and a walk across the ship's bridge (which promised a spittoon that was nowhere to be found). Ladies, beware of the creepy mannequin workers lurking around random corners.
A Short Break: The Busted Lift
All that time by the river made us mighty thirsty, so we were happy to find one of Dubuque's newer, and older (I'll explain), drinking establishments just across the pedestrian bridge: the Busted Lift. Our first trip to the Lift a couple months back was pretty rough; we walked through the door at the front of the building to find nothing but sawdust, an old piano and some power tools. But when we wandered downstairs, we found a quintessential hidden gem: a dank, stone enclosure that housed two bars, a stage and a back patio and felt like the basement of an ancient house. This time, a polished, too-clean bar and grill called 180 Main had replaced the upstairs shambles. The joint calls itself Dubuque's "authentic Irish Pub," but it's really just a place for drinks, appetizers and maybe some piano music. Fortunately the downstairs remains well (and shabbily) intact.
To the Bluffs!
We emerged from the black depths of the Lift feeling the need for altitude. Luckily, Dubuque has height to spare. You know that lovers-lane shot in old movies, where the couple gazes down over the entire city? Believe it or not, its Midwestern equivalent exists in Dubuque, with some bad ass transportation to boot. The Fenelon Place Elevator Company, operating since the late 1800s, charges a whopping $2 for round-trip rides on a rickety old cable car up and down the side of a huge, river-facing bluff. We climbed in at the bottom of 4th Street, rang the bell and the operator at the top started us along our way. Two hundred feet high, the smashing view showed three separate states, but even more exciting was learning that this was the site of a scene from Sylvester Stallone's F.I.S.T.
Fine Dining in Dubuque: The Pepper Sprout
Too cheap to spring for the $1 return ride, we opted to take the long way down from the bluffs. We were saving our pennies for dinner at Pepper Sprout, after all. Snobby urbanites might think that food in Iowa amounts to cornbread and sausage gravy—not that that's a bad thing—but the Pepper Sprout proves otherwise. We were a touch hesitant when we read that the menu focuses on seasonal Midwest cuisine—What the hell does that even mean? Mac 'n' cheese with potato salad and maybe a couple hot dogs?—but it turned out to be a solid selection of scallops, quail, bison tenderloin and venison, plus a nice bar. Sure the place tries bit too hard with things like the Hawaiian catch of the day, but with prices between $17-$35 it's easy enough to overlook a few missteps.
One Last Stop: Beers Amongst The Beheaded
After experiencing fine Dubuque dining, we had to tone down the culture a touch. A couple blocks walk from the Sprout, we found Paul's. I fell in love as soon as I walked through the door. Original proprietor Paul has a thing for hunting, and rather than clog up his den or living room with all of his trophies, he's hung them up for all to enjoy at this small tavern on Locust Street. We enjoyed a can of Hamm's and $1 drafts while staring at these animals (including a polar bear) frozen in time behind Plexiglass.
We were full from dinner, so we didn't indulge in the late-night eats like hot ham and cheese, that surely come with years-old grease on the griddle imparting that old-time seasoning flavor. Paul's lets you take some of Dubuque home with you, with a selection of kitschy tourist junk for sale behind the bar; we opted to take only our photographs instead.
Take this trip: If you need to, a night's stay at the Julien Inn (open since 1839, named for town-founder Julien Dubuque) starts at about $55. Live a little.