A riverboat plying waters downtown
Walter Bibikow/Getty Images

When you need to get away, this HISTORIC MIDWESTERN TOWN is the perfect place to escape to.

Dubuque, Iowa, was enduring double-­digit unemployment statistics in the 1980s when it began reclaiming its ­waterfront and renovating its downtown, transforming itself into a tourist attraction known as “The Masterpiece on the Mississippi.” Now, the oldest city in Iowa — named after Julien Dubuque, a French Canadian fur trader and the area’s first permanent settler — is running out of places to put the awards it’s earned for its successful revitalization. But the 60,000 locals remain eager to win over more fans, and with historic architecture, casinos and unique draws (an elevator built into a cliff, anyone?), they shouldn’t have much trouble. Here’s how to get to know this charming riverfront town in a weekend.

If You Go

National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium

350 E. Third St.
(800) 226-3369

Fenelon Place Elevator
512 Fenelon Place
(563) 582-6496

Eagle Point Park
2901 Shiras Ave.
(563) 589-4263

Paul’s Tavern

176 Locust St.
(563) 556-9944

Woodfire Grille (in the Diamond Jo Casino)
301 Bell St.
(563) 690-4755

L.May Eatery
1072 Main St.
(563) 556-0505

McCoy Goldsmith & Jeweler

261 Main St.
(563) 556-5325

Hotel Julien Dubuque

200 Main St.
(563) 556-4200

At the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium, the most popular tourist destination in the state, children learn by doing: floating on rafts as Tom Sawyer did, building small boats and climbing into caves in which famous voices from the past talk about Dubuque’s history. The museum is at the beginning of the Mississippi Riverwalk, where strollers stop to watch barges glide under the ­Julien Dubuque Bridge and admire sculptures that are part of a revolving public art show. In 1882, a local businessman, frustrated that it took him 30 minutes to reach his home by horse and buggy, built a funicular up the side of a steep bluff. The Fourth Street Elevator, or ­Fenelon Place Elevator, is the shortest and steepest railway in the world and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Visitors can ride up the hill, where they’ll get a spectacular view of Iowa, Wisconsin and ­Illinois. For a similarly great view, visit Eagle Point Park, which features a fishpond, horseshoe pits and pavilions modeled after Frank Lloyd Wright’s designs.

Old-timers say there’s a church on every corner in Dubuque and a bar on the next block — an adage that certainly seems true at Paul’s Tavern, which rests in the shadow of St. Raphael’s Cathedral’s spires. Paul, the bar’s original owner, was a hunter, and his collection of mounted critters gazes down on patrons sipping Potosi beer and eating what many say is the best hamburger in town. (The tavern’s secret: cooking the meat in a vintage Broilator.) For more upscale fare, visit steak-and-seafood spot Woodfire Grille, located in the Diamond Jo Casino. Adults can unwind with one of the dozens of wines available by the glass while the kids throw strikes at the Cherry Lanes bowling alley upstairs. Another notable nosh spot is L.May Eatery, named after the owner’s grandmother, ’Lil May. Gourmet pizzas are the specialty here, with toppings that include asparagus and artichokes.

Nestled among Main Street’s red-brick buildings with decades-old ads painted on the facades is McCoy Goldsmith & Jeweler. In addition to standard baubles and necklaces, the shop offers handcrafted charms of local monuments that make great souvenirs.

Legend has it that when notorious gangster Al Capone needed to escape Chicago, he would stay on the eighth floor of the Hotel Julien Dubuque facing the river, so that he could spot police coming over the bridge from Illinois. Today, the hotel offers four-star accommodations on every floor and an appropriately named penthouse Capone Suite, which is equipped with a vault rumored to have been used by the gangster to hide illegal hooch — as well as himself — during Prohibition.

AMERICAN AIRLINES offers daily nonstop service from Chicago O’Hare International Airport to Dubuque Regional Airport.