At 2,320 miles long, the Mississippi River streams through multiple states, flowing from northern Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico. At the lower base of the river is the lively city of New Orleans in Louisiana, shaped by many cultures over the last 300 years. Most evident are the Cajun, Creole and French influences marking everything from NOLA’s cuisine to its music. Enjoy a tour of the historic French Quarter and Garden District, shop along Canal Street or sample beignets at one of the outdoor cafes.
From New Orleans, travel through Louisiana’s plantation country to see Vacherie and St. Francisville. In Vacherie, two rows of enormous, 300-year-old oak trees line a quarter-mile avenue leading to Oak Alley Plantation. A National Historic Landmark, this Greek Revival-style mansion was built in 1839 and is supported by 28 Doric columns and furnished with 19th-century antiques.
In St. Francisville, explore beautiful Greenwood Plantation or the Myrtles, thought to be haunted. The town also is known for its charming churches, gift shops, antique stores and historic buildings.
Traveling north along the river brings you to Natchez and Vicksburg, both in Mississippi. Founded in 1716 and perched on a bluff 200 feet above the river, Natchez is the oldest city in the state, housing more than 500 antebellum structures. Learn about the history of cotton production at Frogmore Plantation or discover the Delta Music Museum. Vicksburg was the site of a crucial 47-day Civil War siege. Explore sprawling Vicksburg National Military Park with its battlefields, statues and monuments to soldiers from both the North and South.
Continue along the Mississippi to Helena, Arkansas, of which Mark Twain wrote, “Helena occupies one of the prettiest situations on the river.” Home to seven generals of the Confederacy, it has many attractions on the National Register of Historic Places, including the Confederate Cemetery and Louisiana Purchase State Park.
Northeast of Helena is Memphis, Tennessee, birthplace of the blues and once home to Elvis Presley. Stroll among the shops, nightclubs and restaurants, take the musical “Walk of Fame” on Beale Street or head to the Center for Southern Folklore for films and exhibits about Memphis. Tours of Elvis’ Graceland are popular, as is The Peabody Memphis, a historic hotel where spectators gather daily to watch the resident ducks march down a red carpet to the lobby fountain.
Drifting upward toward Missouri brings you to New Madrid and St. Louis. In 1811, the most powerful earthquake ever to hit North America was centered in New Madrid, forcing the Mississippi River to run backward for miles. Here you can tour the Hunter-Dawson State Historic Site -- the former home of a wealthy merchant family -- and the New Madrid Historical Museum. The iconic Gateway Arch welcomes you to St. Louis; travel under Eads Bridge, a National Historic Landmark, en route to the Chain of Rocks Canal and the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers.
Just north of St. Louis is Alton, Illinois, right at the Missouri state line. Visit the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center or climb the 150-foot lookout tower for breathtaking views of the river.
Follow the waters north and you’ll land in Hannibal, Missouri, hometown of one of the most famous chroniclers of life on the Mississippi. Samuel Clemens was a riverboat pilot before picking up the pen name of Mark Twain and writing his tales of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer. In Hannibal, visitors can tour his boyhood home.
Founded in 1837, the Iowa town of Dubuque is rich in Victorian-era architecture. Other attractions include the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium and the Fenelon Place Elevator, said to be the world’s shortest and steepest scenic railway.
Traveling toward the river’s northernmost reaches, you’ll come upon Red Wing, Minnesota, which boasts a vibrant arts scene. The pottery that has been manufactured here since the 1860s is especially prized.
The Minnesota capital of St. Paul is the northern terminus for some Mississippi River cruises. Among top attractions are the Cathedral of Saint Paul, modeled after St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City, and 5-mile Summit Avenue, which links the river to downtown and is lined with grand 19th-century homes.
Riverboats sometimes venture off the Mississippi River to cities on connecting tributaries.
For example, ships might head east on the Ohio River to where it meets up with the Tennessee River in Paducah, Kentucky. It was from this city that 42,000 Union soldiers boarded 173 steamboats and 12 gunboats for a convoy up the Tennessee River to Shiloh. Browse antique shops, explore galleries around Market House Square and view colorful murals on the downtown flood walls. Farther east on the Ohio River is Louisville, Kentucky -- famed for its horse-racing heritage, Louisville Slugger baseball bats and bourbon.
If your ship ventures down the Cumberland River, it may stop at Clarksville, one of Tennessee’s largest cities. Founded in 1785, it is home to attractions such as the Cumberland Riverwalk, Beachaven Vineyards & Winery and Historic Collinsville, a village restored to demonstrate how early settlers lived.