I’ve just returned from a memorable two-week visit to my home state of Iowa to see family and friends. As a traveler, I believe that staying connected with a home base—be it the old hometown or a crummy “for now” apartment—makes the adventurous life just that much more rewarding. Traveling experiences are richer knowing that I am far from home, and will be returning to the old and familiar soon.
When I returned to my childhood hometown of Dubuque, Iowa, I opened my newly-found traveler’s eye and stretched my “enjoy where you are, wherever you are” philosophy, and found some surprising things. Suddenly, all the old familiar places—with the help of some new Dubuque development and gentrification—took on a new look and a new light. The iconic bridges stood out as more than simply roads across the river; the downtown landmarks looked less like mundane buildings and more like the postcard pictures they are; every street corner was familiar, different, and with its own character…and characters.
Dubuque sits directly on the junction of the US states of Iowa, Wisconsin, and Illinois; territory of all three states is visible from most of the riverside. The Mississippi—North America’s largest river, nearly a mile wide—marks the border.
The city was largely built by German and Irish immigrants, and their design preferences are still quite evident in the city today. The southern, Irish side of town is characterized by twisting streets following old cattle trails and houses built in long rows. It is dubbed “Little Dublin,” and having lived in both cities, I must say it is an apt comparison. The north side, built by the Germans, is a near-perfect grid of small, detached homes and neatly kept lawns.
It should come as no surprise that early German and Irish immigrants in Dubuque had little cultural common ground, and kept themselves largely segregated by mutual agreement. They even went so far as to build two Roman Catholic churches—St. Mary’s for the Germans, St. Patrick’s for the Irish—within sight of each other, and never crossing the religious no man’s land between.
Upon my recent return, I made a point to see the city as a tourist, noting some of my classic favorites, and finding some new ones.
The Best Views in the City
I have two favorite views of the city, each one looking at a different bend in the river. On the northern edge of the city—on the precipice of the highest riverside bluffs—Eagle Point Park offers the best views of the Wisconsin woods, the Upper Mississippi floodplain between the bluffs, and Lock and Dam no. 11. This dam, part of a river-wide system, manages the river levels to prevent flooding and keeps the river navigable for the hundreds of cargo barges chugging along every day. If you walk along the length of the viewpoint—and you should—you may be around long enough to see a barge lock through the dam, a long but interesting process.
I also visited a popular downtown landmark, the famous Fourth Street Elevator. This short rope-driven railroad was built by a wealthy businessman who worked in the river-level downtown of the city and lived at the top of the steep bluff. Wishing for an easy way to run home for a nap over his lunch hour, he built this steep cable car system first for himself before opening it to the public.
From the upper deck of the elevator, two observation decks—lower than the bluffs at Eagle Point Park—offer a commanding view of downtown Dubuque. The old town clock, the Julien Dubuque Bridge, the shot tower, and a number of other Dubuque favorites can all be clearly seen.
After admiring the view, take the elevator downtown ($3.00 round-trip) to enjoy the many bars and cafes, including…
For many Europeans, nothing says “USA! USA!” like a glass (or can) of cheap, thin lager at a seedy dive bar. In Dubuque, you can’t get much better than Paul’s Tap for the quintessential American experience.
Don’t miss the scoop, a glass goblet kept in a freezer and topped off with your tap beer of choice, and the surprisingly cheap (and surprisingly good) burgers, cooked to order on a possibly-never-been-cleaned grill. After enough burgers and beers, the many stuffed trophy animal heads on the wall might start to speak to you.
Getting on the River
Whenever you are in Dubuque, try to get in touch with its most iconic landmark: the Mississippi itself. The newly developed Grand Harbor area is full of riverside things to see and do. The National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium is worth a visit for first-timers, and gamblers will appreciate the new casino just across the parking lot. A massive hotel, resort, and convention center round out the attractions of this formerly abandoned industrial district, now booming with locals and tourists. Behind the resort and convention center, take a walk on the beautiful riverside path and enjoy unobstructed views of the Mighty Miss itself.
I was lucky enough to take a sunset boat ride south from the city to reconnect with my favorite body of water (take that, Dublin Bay!), and was flooded with 16,790 m³/s of river nostalgia.
The river ride was the perfect way to cap my return to the old hometown. I thought about how lucky I was to be out on the river with my family, enjoying their company and that of the water. I wondered how much tourists would pay to have an experience like mine, and tried to consider myself not a returning son but a visitor myself—admiring each familiar sight and sound with a fresh perspective.
With the right outlook, returning home doesn’t have to be mundane or repetitive, but exciting and fresh. Enjoy your familiar; savor the same old, same old; experience the everyday! Remember to enjoy being where you are, wherever you are, and if you can do it surrounded by long-lost loved ones, so much the better.