From the chilly waters of Lake Itasca in Minnesota, a nondescript stream of water begins a 2,300-mile descent, gathering volume as it flows, cutting southward through 10 states, until it reaches the warm Gulf of Mexico near New Orleans.
This is the mighty Mississippi River. It’s one of the largest rivers in the world and the longest in North America. It’s also a natural playground full of history, culture, and recreational opportunities.
There is so much to do and see along its couple thousand miles. Visitors often spend days exploring it on river cruises. But we’re going to break it down so you can plan to have the most fun doing the things that interest you.
We researched all the best things to do by region for families, couples, and groups, from our travels and visitor reviews. We also found some excellent hotel options for your stay.
Then we put them together in a guide you’ll find helpful as you plan your next vacation to one of the many fun and fascinating cities or towns on the Mississippi River.
As always, weather, illness, and other unpredictable events can ruin a trip faster than you can say “pass the tissues.” That’s why we always recommend TravelInsurance.com as one of the most responsive travel insurance companies available.
Read on to learn more about the best ways you can enjoy the Mississippi River. Here are the best things to do on the Mississippi River.
Best Museums for Learning the Mississippi River’s History and Culture
The Mississippi River’s history is long and storied. It’s also inspired many songs, books, and folk art. Here are the best places if you want to learn more.
1. National Mississippi River Museum
The National Mississippi River Museum, located in Port of Dubuque, Iowa, is part of the Smithsonian Institution with aquariums and other interactive exhibits that tell the natural history story of the great river.
The museum, made of two buildings, and an outdoor plaza, plus the grounds, occupy 14-acres on the banks of the Iowa portion of the river.
It houses over 100 animal species and many historic artifacts.
You’ll also get the chance to learn about the famous steam-powered dredge, William M. Black, operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, kept the navigation channels of the major western rivers clear.
Now moored permanently in the adjacent Ice Harbor, this museum ship offers a self-guided tour to show you what life was like on board for the officers and crewmen.
Besides the Black dredge, Iowa visitors also love the museum’s hands-on exhibits, including touch tanks, and knowledgeable guides.
Be aware that the observation tower and the upper deck of the dredge are only accessible by stairs.
This is an ideal place to spend the afternoon as a family.
The highly-rated TownPlace Suites by Marriott Downtown Dubuque, Iowa, is only 0.6 miles from the museum.
See Related: Best Iowa Family Vacations
2. Delta Blues Museum
Clarksdale was founded at “the crossroads” of Highways 61 and 49 and has been at the center of delta blues culture since the 1920s.
Now it’s home to the oldest music museum in the state. You’ll find it in the Yazoo and Mississippi River Valley Railroad Depot.
Muddy Water’s old shack is here and you can also see photographs, music instruments, and other memorabilia of the artists, from the obscure to the world-famous.
Here visitors get an accurate picture of the lives of their favorite artists. Many commented that the museum is better suited for real fans of blues music, rather than the casual listener.
Also, no photography is allowed and the rule appears to be strictly enforced. Couples or small groups of friends who know blues music would enjoy this museum.
3. Vicksburg National Military Park
If you’re a history buff and want to know what to see in Mississippi, go to the site of the Battle of Vicksburg, waged during the American Civil War in 1863 from March 29 to July 4.
The 1,800-acre battlefield is in Vicksburg. Besides commemorating the actual 47-day bloody battle, it also tells the history of the greater Vicksburg Campaign that preceded it.
Easily accessible by car, you can spend as much time as you want here. But if you are into Civil War history, then you may want to explore it and Vicksburg over a couple of days.
The battle of Vicksburg military history has been overshadowed by the battle of Gettysburg as both occurred over the same week.
Both battles turned the tide of the Civil War decidedly toward the Union, handing them landmark victories, and in the case of Vicksburg, control over the Mississippi.
Vicksburg is also as awe-inspiring, solemn, and beautiful as Gettysburg.
The monuments are along a winding road and while the plaques contain a massive amount of information, some people may find it hard to visualize the setup of the battle.
You also don’t get a bird’s eye view of the river or Vicksburg.
However, I recommend seeing it as a sobering reminder of what happens when a country becomes dangerously divided.
Although the Vicksburg National Military Park is educational, young kids may not appreciate its military history importance. But couples and groups of friends who are into Civil War facts will love it.
A reasonably priced accommodation with a pool and WiFi, the Super 8 by Wyndham Vicksburg is close and gets good reviews.
4. Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum
The museum dedicated to the life and career of beloved American writer and humorist, Mark Twain is in his home on the banks of the Mississippi River in Hannibal, Missouri.
The excellent Interpretative Center starts your visit with displays and a viewing of the Ken Burns documentary about Mark Twain.
Then you’ll be on your way to tour the home and other important buildings to his life where you’ll see an exclusive collection of printed stories, novels, and articles.
You’ll also find permanent and rotating exhibits. Many of Twain’s personal belongings, including his iconic white jacket and one of his pipes, are on display.
It’s an amazing place that follows a young boy named Samuel on his path to becoming one of the greatest American novelists.
Fans of his classic works, especially The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, will especially enjoy the museum.
The historic buildings have a couple of rooms to enter, but you’ll have to look through the windows at the other rooms.
Very young children may not enjoy a visit, but couples or families with older kids who appreciate Twain will gain a better understanding of his life and times.
Best Western on the River is a five-minute walk to the museum and comes highly recommended.
5. Lower Mississippi River Museum
This museum is one of the best free things to see in Mississippi and it’s also in Vicksburg. It’s all about family and community life on the river – as CCR and Lady Tina told us; people on the river are happy to give.
They also have an enormous aquarium for a close-up view of river wildlife. The Lower Mississippi River Museum is smallish so you could go through it in about an hour.
Your younger kids will find one of the more engaging attractions in Mississippi and they will love the aquarium.
The nearby Home2 Suites by Hilton offers suite rooms with microwaves and kitchenettes. The property also has a very nice pool.
Best Mississippi River State Parks for Outdoor Recreation
What better way to enjoy the great river than a visit to some gorgeous state parks. Fresh air, natural beauty, and sunshine await!
6. Trail of Tears State Park
Spreading across almost 3,500 acres bordering the Mississippi River in Missouri, the Trail of Tears State Park commemorates the thousands of Cherokee Native Americans who lost their lives on the Cherokee Trail of Tears.
The visitors center tells the account of the deadly forced march of the Cherokee Native Americans in 1838 and 1839 through poignant exhibits.
Outside are scenic overlooks of the Mississippi River and shady places to picnic. There is also hiking, horseback riding, fishing in the river, and birdwatching.
7. Perrot State Park
Where the Trempealeau and the Mississippi rivers meet in Wisconsin lies 1,270-acre Perrot State Park.
It’s known for gorgeous limestone bluffs and scenic overlooks of the Mississippi River. Visitors will find great hiking trails and access to the Great River State Trail.
Canoes can be rented to use in Trempealeau Bay. This is a great place for families.
Reserve a room at the nearby Fairfield Inn & Suites in Winona for a clean and comfortable stay.
See Related: Best Things to do in Winona, Minnesota
8. Mississippi River State Park
The whole family will enjoy boating, fishing, and taking a kayak trip on the Lower Mississippi River here in Arkansas.
9. Lake Chicot State Park
Lake Chicot is an abandoned river channel 20-miles along and is Arkansas’ largest natural lake.
In downtown Lake Village, visitors can enjoy the swimming area or take a walk along the lakeside trail. There are also picnic areas and a boat ramp.
Nearby is the Lakeport Plantation which is the only antebellum plantation home remaining on the Arkansas portion of the river.
Fully restored in the Greek Revival style, the house has exhibits for the public and is one of Arkansas State University’s heritage sites.
There are few hotel options in Lake Village, but on the other side of the river, about 13-miles away in Greenville, Mississippi, is the charming Skylight. It’s within walking distance of several restaurants and a casino.
See Related: Inspiring Songs About Traveling
Best Cities for Seeing the Mississippi River
These cities have it all, each a prime spot on the Mississippi and vibrant city attractions.
10. New Orleans, Louisiana
Part of the fun of New Orleans is its lore of pirates, ghosts, priestesses, fortune-tellers, and more. If you dare, come for Mardi Gras – the famously rowdy Louisiana carnival!
In the historical New Orleans French Quarter, the river is at its deepest of 191 feet deep and the current by this point is quite strong.
Watch the steamboats cruise by or spend an afternoon in Old Algiers and enjoy the sights of the great river where it ends its 2,000-mile journey to the Gulf of Mexico.
Close to the French Quarter and next to the river, the Westin New Orleans is the ultimate in Louisiana hospitality and perfect for couples visiting “the Big Easy.”
See Related: Do You Need a Rental Car in New Orleans
11. St. Louis, Missouri
One of the most intriguing structures in America is the mile-long Chain of Rocks Bridge with its 30-degree turn in the middle as it spans the river. It’s a landmark on Route 66 and it gets its name from the Chain of Rocks rapids just north of the city.
Since they were dangerous for boats to navigate, the Corps of Engineers built a dam to cover them. But the bridge still stands and brings visitors to St. Louis from all over. The Chain of Rocks Bridge is not the only reason to see St. Louis. Or drive Route 66!
There’s the Alton Visitors Center along the Great River Road with exhibits and information about the rivers in St Louis. You can also visit the Audubon Center at Riverlands & Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary which serves as the gateway to nature in St. Louis. There are trails and scenic overlooks here.
There is also the Columbia Bottom Conservation Area containing 800 acres of forest and wetlands which is a habitat for eagles. And, of course, the famous Gateway Arch is an incredible monument and icon in the city. St. Louis is ideal for a family vacation on the Mississippi River.
Stay in the heart so you can take in all the attractions around the river, St. Louis sightseeing, and the Arch. The Drury Plaza St. Louis at the Arch is highly rated and centrally located.
See Related: Fun & Best Things to Do in St. Charles, Missouri
12. La Crosse, Wisconsin
This picturesque city sits on the river as it starts its long journey south. River fans can visit the Riverside Museum to learn about the history of the area.
Riverboat cruises depart from Riverside Park for a different water experience. There are also numerous trails for walking and hiking in La Crosse, Wisconsin.
Overall, this is a lovely city for a relaxing getaway. The Gundersen Hotel & Suites is centrally located and highly rated.
Fun Things to Do in Mississippi
Planning a vacation in Mississippi? Here are some fun river-related options.
13. Tunica River Park and Museum
This is great for things to do in Mississippi with kids. You’ll get incredible scenic overlooks of the river and natural history education.
The museum is closed on Sundays and Mondays, but the beautiful park has very nice biking and walking trails and is open all week.
Tunica is a popular destination known for its entertaining things to do in northern Mississippi at its casinos, lounges, and resorts.
If you’re not traveling with kids, treat yourself to some fun in an exciting casino, relax by the pool, or take in a show at the Gold Strike Casino Resort.
14. River Road Queen Welcome Center & Museum of the Delta
The state’s welcome centers have been known as Mississippi tourism attractions too because of how they look like antebellum buildings and have exhibits showing river history and culture.
With a Victorian-era riverboat facade, it was part of the State of Mississippi Exhibit in the 1984 New Orleans World’s Fair.
Now it’s one of the cool free things to do in Mississippi serving to welcome visitors to Mississippi state and its portion of the river.
It can get a little busy but it makes an interesting stopping point for a break as you enter the state.
15. Grand Gulf Military Park
It’s full of Mississippi history featuring old photographs, models, and artifacts about the area and the days when the Grand Gulf was a bustling place and then a Civil War battleground.
There’s a fascinating observation tower that shows where and how the Confederate defended the site against Union shelling.
It’s small, and peaceful now, and is one of the many places to visit in Mississippi of interest to Civil War and American history buffs. Near the park, the Canemount Plantation Inn is a gracious bed & breakfast with a refreshing pool, terrace, and daily American breakfast.