Last Updated on August 6, 2022
The National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium in Dubuque is one of Iowa’s top tourist attractions! It is one of only a handful of establishments that is accredited by BOTH the American Alliance of Museums and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums! The museum is split into 2 main sections, the National River Center and the Mississippi River Center (which focuses on the history and wildlife found along the Mississippi) and today I share my favourite must see areas of the museum!
Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium Dubuque, Iowa
Rivers to the Sea – Gulf of Mexico Aquarium
All rivers eventually end up in a sea. The Mississippi River’s final destination is in the Gulf of Mexico! Did you know, it takes 90 days for a single drop of water to travel the length of the Mississippi River and reach the Gulf of Mexico! The River Museum is home to a giant floor to ceiling salt water aquarium, full of tropical fish and even a sea turtle!
Dot the turtle is a much loved attraction by herself! She was rescued after being hit by a boat. Her back ‘legs’ are paralysed and she now suffers from Bubble Butt Syndrome (real life scientific term), which means she struggles to release gas which makes her bottom float upwards! I could spend HOURS sitting in front of the aquarium!
Sting Ray Touch Tank
This is a brand new exhibit to the National River Museum! The tank is full of sting rays that absolutely love receiving attention! It’s hard to describe how the sting rays feel to touch…kind of like wet felt! If you’re wearing royal blue, they’ll get really excited because this is the colour that the ‘keepers’ wear so they think it’s food time! For $10 per person, they offer a sting ray feeding experience. This is in a limited capacity though and takes place at 2.30pm.
There is a staircase that leads up to the second floor of the museum (in the National River Center building), however if you take the lift/elevator, there’s a button that goes up to an observation deck! It looks out over the Mississippi River and Downtown Dubuque!
William M. Black Steam Boat Tour
The William M. Black is a paddle steamer boat that once upon a time used to dredge the Mississippi River. It was built in 1934 and is now a National Historic Landmark. It was taken out of service in the 1970’s due to the cost of the amount of oil it used to burn. It is now permanently docked at the Dubuque Harbour and is open for guided tours during the weekend. The tour literally takes you around the whole boat, you get to see everything from the engine rooms, to the helm, right up to the cabins where the crew used to sleep!
3D/4D Digital Theater
The National River Museum has Iowa’s ONLY 3D/4D digital theater! People may be familiar with 3D cinemas, where visitors wear glasses to give the movie another dimension. 4D adds other elements to give a full sensory experience. I was lucky enough recently to have a behind the scenes look at all the different 4D capabilities of the theater, including lightening, rain, wind, seat movements and different scents. These help to fully emerge the viewer into the movie! The museum is partnered with National Geographic and usually has 2 different, 45 minute movies showing throughout the day. The movies change every couple of months.
Woodward Wetland & Mississippi River Center
The outside area of the museum is home to some bald eagles, river otters and large exhibits such as boats and steam boilers. There is also a Wetland area where you can follow a boardwalk and feed the fish! There are fish food machines dotted around, for 1 quarter you’ll get a handful of food.
Inside the Mississippi River Center you’ll find animals that are found along the Mississippi River, such as Alligator Snapping Turtles and American Alligators (the alligators aren’t necessarily found in the Iowa section of the river!!).
You can find more information about the National River Museum and Aquarium website. I have only touched on a few of the exhibits on display, there’s so much more to see, including travelling exhibits!
Entrance fees are anything from $6 for one film in the 3D/4D theater up to $21 for an adult ticket that includes museum admission and 2 films.
Opening times vary depending on the season:
9am – 6pm during the summer
10am (9am in the fall) – 5pm during the low seasons.
Mississippi Riverwalk & The Port of Dubuque
While you’re at the Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium, you can combine it with a walk along the Port of Dubuque Riverwalk! The car park at the port is free, so it’s a nice place to park up and explore Downtown Dubuque! The Port of Dubuque is the main dock for multi-day river cruises that have an overnight stop in Dubuque. Many guests will then stay the night at the Grand Harbor Resort which overlooks the Mississippi River. The Grand Harbor also has an indoor waterpark and a kids arcade.
The Riverwalk is part of the cities flood defence barrier but it’s actually a really nice walk! It’s home to the ‘Art on the River’ sculpture exhibit which changes every now and then. It’s quite a short walk, starting at the River Museum you’ll pass the Grand Harbor Resort, the Grand River Conference Center and then finish up at the Stone Cliff Winery and the old Dubuque Shot Tower.
Set back from the river (but still opposite the Dubuque River Museum), is the Diamond Jo Casino. The lower level (mostly over 21s only) has the casino, the Mississippi Moon Bar music and entertainment venue and some dining options. Upstairs is the Cherry Lanes Bowling Alley which is open to all ages.
The Port of Dubuque makes up a small section of Downtown Dubuque. If you are looking for a guide to the area, check out my huge things to do in Dubuque post! I share all my favourite attractions, places to eat and drink and more!
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I have visited the National River Museum 3 times. Once in the summer, once in the winter and one complimentary visit during the Distinctively Dubuque programme. As always, opinions are my own.