Summer always comes to a screeching halt for us in August. Band camp, teachers’ meetings, and classroom prep all hit in a hurry before we even officially head back to class. By Labor Day, we’re ready for a short getaway – one last hurrah before we really have to settle in for the semester.
We love road trips, so this year we headed to Dubuque, Iowa, for some much needed R & R and a little adventure. We had not ever been to Iowa (much less Dubuque), so we were excited to visit. With an invitation from Novelty Iron Works and without much of a plan, we set out to explore Iowa’s First City.
Exploring Dubuque, Iowa with Novelty Iron Works
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The Hotel – Novelty Iron Works
Novelty Iron Works began as a development in the Historic Millwork District of Downtown Dubuque. The buildings in this old, industrial part of the city have been turned into lofts and apartments, which then expanded to Airbnb rentals and a hotel. Investment continues to grow here, and the shopping and dining options in the area are continuing to expand as well. It’s an exciting place to explore and makes the perfect home base for families discovering what Dubuque has to offer.
The first thing we noticed about this hotel is how HUGE it is. We stayed in a two-bedroom suite with a living room, full kitchen, washer and dryer, and great views of downtown. Common areas are also enormous, with plenty of space to sit and relax, shoot some pool, play games, and just hang out with some craft (root)beer from the The Backpocket Taproom.
We absolutely loved the brand new retro arcade that just opened called the Backpocket Brewcade. It has all our favorites – Skeeball, Mrs. Pac-Man, Galaga, Street Fighter, air hockey, and tons of old pinball machines. We visited multiple times with the kids because it was so much fun!
When we weren’t playing video games, we enjoyed shooting pool, playing giant Connect Four, and even some corn hole and shuffleboard.
The Novelty Iron Works building is also home to the Iron Bar, Novelty Mart (a small grocer), and coming soon, a new stand-up comedy bar, along with a Gino’s East for some true Chicago deep-dish pizza. It’s all part of Dubuque’s Millwork Marketplace, and it will just keep getting better.
Exploring Dubuque – where Iowa started
From our home base at Novelty Iron Works, it was time to explore Dubuque. We didn’t really know what to expect here, and we didn’t have much of an itinerary when we arrived, so we did what we always do – ask a local! Once we got the low-down, we were off.
The largest feature of Dubuque is undoubtedly the mighty Mississippi River, and they have a really great museum dedicated to the river and its history here in Dubuque. The museum is actually a combination of aquarium, history museum, and science museum all rolled into one, and as a Smithsonian Affiliate, it’s well done.
In conjunction with the Dubuque County Historical Society, they have an extensive collection of artifacts and history related to the river. There is also the National River Hall of Fame where you can learn more about the pioneers, explorers, and artists in America’s river history. Robert Fulton, Mark Twain, John Muir, and Abraham Lincoln are just a few of the inductees.
Other exhibits at the museum include several aquariums and animal enclosures, featuring wildlife found along or in the river. There is the Gulf of Mexico Aquarium with salt water fish and a sea turtle, the Flooded Forest with ducks, gar, and bass, and the Backwater Marsh with birds, fish, and box turtles. A short walk outside will lead you to the aviary where you can see American Bald Eagles and Red-Tailed Hawks.
Other areas in the museum include a 4-D theater, sting ray touch pool, a wetlab and nursery (baby sharks!), a blacksmith shop, and even a couple of actual river boats to explore. The museum is a great way to spend half a day or longer), and is a necessary stop during a visit to Dubuque.
Attention National Park Fans: Many of the area's attractions are actually part of the Silos and Smokestacks National Heritage Area. This 20,000 sq. mile area of NE Iowa has been recognized by the federal government for its global significance to agriculture. The NHA is one of 55 across the United States "where historic, cultural, and natural resources combine to form cohesive, nationally important landscapes."
While not a National Park, they are an area of the National Park Service with a community-led mission to "interpret farm life, agribusiness and rural communities-past and present." You can find a list of places here to visit and even get a unique Park Service Passport stamp.
Take a cruise on the Mississippi American Lady Cruises
After learning a little bit about the history of the river, we got to experience it first-hand with a cruise on the American Lady. We opted for the sightseeing cruise, but you can also upgrade for a lunch or dinner cruise or a sunset cruise. The sightseeing cruise lasted about 2 hours and is a good way to see Iowa (and Wisconsin and Illinois) from a different perspective.
Our captain pointed out various landmarks along the way, and we got a good history lesson as well. While this tour is probably better suited for families with kids who are grade-school aged or older, it was a nice way to relax on the water and take in the sights.
After our cruise, it was time for an early dinner, and since the boat leaves from Catfish Charlie’s, we figured we’d give it a shot. Andrew and I shared the catfish, and the girls shared some chicken pasta Alfredo. It was a good meal and super-convenient. We were glad we opted to eat on shore instead of on the boat. The meal on the boat was BBQ, and while it was probably good, we liked having more choices (like the famous fried Mississippi catfish) off the menu in the restaurant.
If you build it, they will come…..from Tulsa
One thing we didn’t realize until arriving in Dubuque was that the movie Field of Dreams was partially filmed here, and the movie site (cornfield and all) is a pretty popular tourist attraction. In fact, over Labor Day weekend they play a celebrity softball tournament with former MLB stars like Reggie Jackson, Ozzie Smith (a family favorite), and Wade Boggs. This year they also had several of the cast from the movie The Sandlot. If you’ve not seen this one, you should. It’s hilarious!
While we didn’t stay for all the festivities, we did stay long enough to grab some photos of the iconic ball diamond in the middle of the cornfield and the family farmhouse from the movie. Had we planned a bit better, we might have stayed longer, but since the kids didn’t know any of the ball players, they weren’t that interested in photos or autographs. Maybe next time though.
Take a ride on the steepest railway in the world
The Fenelon Place Elevator Company boasts that it has the shortest and steepest railway in the world. While the term ‘railway’ might be stretching it a little, there is no doubt that if you want the best views of Dubuque, this is where you go.
The railway was built in 1882 as a way to quickly get up and down the hill to and from work. The eclectic Mr. J. K. Graves lived on the top of the hill, but worked at the bottom, and the length of the trip cut into his afternoon nap time (as the story goes). This just wouldn’t do, so he built the cable car like he had seen during his travels to Europe and the Swiss Alps. Quicker trips = more naps. Problem solved!
After a few rebuilds over the years, the elevator is still in operation today. They just recently introduced goats to the hill to keep the brush down, so you get goats and a beautiful sunset over the Mississippi River all in one trip. It doesn’t get any better, right? It’s the perfect way to end your day in Dubuque.
Now that you’ve worked up an appetite…
Dubuque surprised us with its variety of restaurants. It has a great mix of upscale chic and down home cookin’ sure to please every appetite. Here’s where we ate and recommend.
For the foodie: Brazen Open Kitchen + Bar
The brainchild of of ‘Top Chef’ competitor and Le Cordon Bleu graduate Chef Kevin Scharpf, Brazen is a gem in Dubuque’s Millwork District. We enjoyed one of their gourmet pizzas, along with a few appetizers for sharing, and it was all incredible. Highly recommended.
For breakfast like Mamma used to make: Sunshine Family Restaurant
This little diner was a hit with everyone. Just be warned that the portions are enormous! We recommend the biscuits and sausage gravy and some pancakes with strawberry topping. They’re impossible to finish, but you’ll certainly enjoy trying.
For brews and nibbles: 7 Hills Brewing Company
Just across the street from Novelty Iron Works is 7 Hill Brewpub. It’s a beer hall with a micro-brewery inside, along with barrels full of aging ales, picnic tables for seating, and a tasty menu with options for everybody. We shared some wings, pretzel bites with beer cheese, and jalapeno poppers which were all delicious. They also server BBQ and burgers. And Beer. Lots and lots of beer.
And a cure for your sweet tooth: Betty Jane Candies
Betty Jane is not only a Dubuque legend, they’re an Iowa icon, and have won more awards that you can shake a chocolate baton at. If you were to walk out with one of everything, we wouldn’t judge. We sampled the ice cream, the Gremlins (for the road), and a few truffles. Program their address into Google Maps right now. Seriously.
And since you’re here – a few other things you might want to do
- Take a tour of Crystal Lake Cave. Perfect for hot summer days and fun for kids.
- Chill at the Grand Harbor Resort and Waterpark. The 25,000 sq. ft. indoor waterpark is perfect for families.
- Hike through the Mines of Spain State Recreation Area. Enjoy the outdoors and pay your respects to Julien Dubuque, the first European to settle what is now modern-day Iowa. The Julien Dubuque Monument was built here in 1897 is in 1993, the Mines were designated as a National Historic Landmark.
- Take a stroll through downtown. We popped into the River Lights Book Shop because we can’t resist a local book store. We loved the back room with the jigsaw puzzle table.
- Go play with toys at the National Farm Toy Museum. Okay, I don’t think you can play, but you can see one-of-a-kind farm and ag toys which is pretty cool.
- Find the bridges of Madison County. If you’re on a road trip like we were, take a little detour near Des Moines to find the Covered Bridges Scenic Byway, which takes you past several picturesque bridges around the county that inspired the book and the movie. If you venture into the town of Winterset, you’ll find the birthplace and museum of John Wayne. How ’bout that, partner?
We loved our trip to Dubuque, and it turned out to be a really fun spot for a long weekend. Novelty Iron Works is the perfect base to explore the area, and we can’t wait to see how it grows and develops in the next few years. We’d definitely come back!
If you had a little more time, Dubuque makes a great place to stay for trips to Wisconsin Dells (the water park capital of the world), Milwaukee, or even Chicago.
Putting it all together
We were hosted for two nights at Novelty Iron Works. You can book online for as little as $89 per night for a basic loft. Family suites with bunk beds start at $129. Parking is free.
For meals, breakfast was $35 for the four of us at Sunshine Family Restaurant and included a ridiculous amount of food. This was easily the best value we encountered on the entire trip. Brazen was the priciest at $86 with tip. Everything else was around $50. We bought $30 worth of treats at Betty Jane Candies – some for us and some as a thank-you to the grandparents for taking care of the pets while we were gone.
Admission to the Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium is $18 for adults and $13 for kids 3-17. Tickets to ride the Fenelon Place Elevator were $3.00 for adults round trip and $1.50 for kids round trip. Parking at the Field of Dreams Movie Site was $10, although it is typically free to park and tour the ball field.
Have you been to Dubuque? What was your favorite thing to do?
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