Don’t miss these fun annual events in the South

Friday, February 09, 2024

Mardi Gras, food festivals, and more—the states along the southern Great River Road offer an outstanding calendar of events all year long. Here’s a look at just a few of the annual events you’ll find in Mississippi River cities and towns in Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana.

Kentucky

  • Banana Festival, Fulton – Every September, the twin towns of Fulton, Kentucky, and South Fulton, Tennessee, come together for this fun event that celebrates the area’s history as an important railroad stop (it had the only icehouse on the way to Chicago from New Orleans, meaning fruits like bananas could make the long trip). The festival includes food vendors, craft vendors, and (obviously) lots of banana treats. 

Tennessee

  • Memphis in May – Head to the Home of the Blues every spring for a monthlong celebration of music, international culture, and food. The festivities traditionally kick off with the Beale Street Music Festival (on pause for 2024), which attracts world-famous acts from a diverse array of genres for a three-day celebration. Bring your appetite for the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest in the middle of the month and work of the calories at the annual Great American River Run over Memorial Day weekend. 
  • Let it Glow Light Show, Union City – Discovery Park of America is part of the official network of Great River Road Interpretive Centers and holds events throughout the year for school groups and other visitors. A holiday highlight is the Let it Glow Light Show, a walk- or drive-thru display that features more than a million lights spread throughout the park’s grounds, as well as live music, visits from Santa and Mrs. Clau, and other attractions.

Arkansas

  • King Biscuit Blues Festival, Helena-West Helena – Discover the sounds of the Delta at this annual event held the weekend before Columbus Day. Named for King Biscuit Time, the longest-running daily radio show (which broadcasts from the Delta Cultural Center in downtown Helena), the festival brings thousands of visitors to the banks of the Mississippi for a weekend of blues music from performers across the South and the country.
  • Lake Chicot Fall Festival, Lake Village – The community of Lake Village in southeastern Arkansas is home to not only Lake Chicot—the state’s largest natural lake and the largest oxbow lake in North America at 20 miles long—but also the annual Lake Chicot Fall Festival, which features a barbecue cookoff, a classic car show, and more fun events.

Mississippi

  • Juke Joint Festival, Clarksdale – Clarksdale is rich in blues history—it’s the site of the Delta Blues Museum and the famous Crossroads where Robert Johnson supposedly sold his soul for his legendary musical talent—so it makes sense that it’s home to lots of great opportunities to catch live music. One event that visitors shouldn’t miss is the annual Juke Joint Festival, which features a day (and night) of live music from more than 100 blues artists at venues throughout the city.
  • Spring Pilgrimage, Natchez – Every March and April, the historic city of Natchez—the oldest continuous settlement on the Mississippi River, it was officially established in 1716—opens more than a dozen of its iconic homes to the public for tours as part of the Spring Pilgrimage. The event includes guided tours of pre-Civil War homes and other properties on the National Register of Historic Places.

Louisiana

  • Christmas Eve bonfires, St. James Parish – This uniquely Louisiana tradition features the lighting of gigantic bonfires along the levees on the Mississippi River to help “Papa Noel” (the Cajun Santa Claus) navigate his route on Christmas Eve. These bonfires can be found throughout Louisiana’s river parishes but are most common in the communities of Grammercy, Lutcher, and Paulina in St. James Parish, about 30 miles upriver from New Orleans.
  • Festivals & celebrations, New Orleans – New Orleans isn’t called the Festival Capital of the World for nothing. Throughout the year, the Big Easy welcomes millions of visitors to music festivals, cultural celebrations, arts events, and much more. There’s a festival going on every weekend—visitors can find fun at Mardi Gras, Essence Fest, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, and many more.

Photo Credit: Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage & Tourism

Annual events on the northern Great River Road

Tuesday, January 16, 2024

There’s a lot more to explore along the Great River Road than just scenery and history—the cities and towns along the Mississippi River host engaging events that bring visitors back year after year. Here are some of the top recurring events you shouldn’t miss along the Great River Road in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, and Missouri.

Minnesota

  • Saint Paul Winter Carnival – Held in Minnesota’s capital city from the end of January to early February, the Saint Paul Winter Carnival has celebrated the season for more than 135 years. This 10-day festival features a wide array of events and attractions, including an ice sculpture garden, parades, kids’ activities and much more.  
  • Great River Shakespeare Festival, Winona – Enjoy the classic works of William Shakespeare under the Mississippi River bluffs in the charming river town of Winona in southeastern Minnesota every summer. The Great River Shakespeare Festival features three main stage shows during its seasonal run in June and July, as well as other activities, including free concerts and a sonnet competition.

Wisconsin

  • Potosi Brewfest – Beer lovers: Head to Potosi on the Wisconsin Great River Road, and you’ll find a historic brewery that dates to the 1850s. Potosi Brewing Company was once the fifth-largest brewery in the state and is now home to the National Brewery Museum, a restaurant and brew pub, an event space, and more. Every August, more than 60 vendors (craft breweries, distilleries, and wineries and specialty food vendors) come to the area for the annual Potosi Brewfest, which features games, live music, and food.
  • Oktoberfest, La Crosse – Celebrate German culture and the oncoming fall season at the Midwest’s longest-running Oktoberfest celebration in the Midwest every September in La Crosse. Feel the spirit of Gemütlichkeit (that’s German for friendliness and good cheer) as you enjoy traditional German food and beverages, dance along to German music, or catch some of the fun events like the wiener dog races.

Illinois

  • Great Galena Balloon Race, Galena – Look to the skies over the historic town of Galena in northwestern Illinois every June to marvel at the display of colorful hot air balloons. It’s all part of the Great Galena Balloon Race, an annual fundraiser that’s during the third full weekend of June and includes balloon races, kids’ activities, a car show, and live music.
  • Christmas Wonderland, Alton – When the holiday season rolls around, don’t miss this impressive light display, which starts after Thanksgiving and runs through the end of December at Rock Spring Park in Alton. The drive-through display features more than 4 million lights.

Iowa

  • Snake Alley Art Fair, Burlington – This annual art fair (held every Father’s Day) has taken place for more than 50 years in the welcoming river city of Burlington. Artisans and crafters from across the Midwest set up their booths on the city’s famous Snake Alley—“the crookedest street in the world”—and the event also features art activities for kids, live music, and local food vendors.
  • Dubuquefest – This August festival celebrating music, art, and culture has been held in downtown Dubuque (where else?) every summer since 1979. The free event features live music, food from local restaurants, and a weekend art fair.

Missouri

  • Art in Bloom, St. Louis – One of St. Louis’ signature events, Art in Bloom is held every March at the Saint Louis Art Museum in Forest Park. Dozens of local florists use their creativity to reinterpret art from the museum’s collection, resulting in stunning arrangements that spark the imagination. In addition to displays, the festival features special events, family activities, and food and drink.
  • National Tom Sawyer Days, Hannibal – Head to Mark Twain’s hometown of Hannibal—about an hour’s drive north of St. Louis along the Mississippi River—over the Fourth of July holiday week to join the fun at this festival that’s been going strong since the 1950s. Tom Sawyer Days features and abundance of family-friendly events, from fence painting and frog jumping competitions to live music and a carnival.

Photo Credit: Travel Wisconsin

Unique shops along the Great River Road

Wednesday, December 06, 2023

Whether you’re looking for holiday gifts or just want to visit some of the country’s most unique retailers, you’ll find outstanding shopping opportunities up and down the Great River Road. Here’s a look at some of the distinctive shops you can discover as you travel along the Mississippi River.

Northern Great River Road

Minnesota is home to some one-of-a-kind retailers, and nothing is more one-of-a-kind than the Mall of America (located in the Minneapolis suburb of Bloomington), the country’s largest shopping and entertainment complex and one of the most visited tourist attractions in the world. The Twin Cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul offer other outstanding local retailers, too, located in shopping districts like Nicollet, downtown Saint Paul, and the North Loop. Head further down the Mississippi to discover charming cities like Red Wing, where shoppers can explore the Red Wing Shoe Company store and museum and find Scandinavian gifts at Uffda Shop, or Winona, which is home to the Minnesota Marine Art Museum (which has an outstanding gift shop).

Galena is consistently cited as one of the most charming small towns in America, and this Illinois city boasts dozens of retailers in its historic downtown district. More than 125 storefronts offer a wide selection of clothing, jewelry, antiques, and more—don’t miss popular destinations like Galena Book & Paper Co. and Flashback. The Quad Cities of Illinois and Iowa provide a memorable shopping experience at stores like Antique Archaeology (featured in the History Channel series “American Pickers”) in LeClaire, Iowa, and the John Deere Store (part of the sprawling John Deere Pavilion) in Moline, Illinois.

Central Great River Road

Historic Hannibal, Missouri, is not just the boyhood home of Mark Twain, it’s also a fun shopping spot—visitors can find retailers like the Dutch Country General Store, Mark Twain Book & Gift, and Mississippi Marketplace. Travel south along the river to St. Louis, where unique locales like City Foundry STL (a former foundry building that now houses a food hall and specialty retailers) and the Cherokee Antique Row shopping district await.

In Memphis, shoppers will find interesting souvenir shops all along Beale Street, including A. Schwab’s which was established in 1876 that carries everything from clothing to voodoo supplies. (The store’s motto is “If you can’t find it at Schwab’s, you’re probably better off without it.”) Speaking of iconic shopping spots, don’t forget Bass Pro Shops at the Pyramid—a sprawling outdoors store that also features a 103-room hotel, a 600,000-gallon lagoon with more than 1,800 fish, and an amazing observation deck atop the 32-story building on the banks of the Mississippi River.

Southern Great River Road

Mississippi offers a unique shopping experience in historic downtowns all throughout the Delta region. Clarksdale—“the home of the Blues”—is home to the Delta Blues Museum (and its related gift shop) and one-of-a-kind stores like Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art. Vicksburg’s downtown and Washington Street hosts a wide variety of boutiques, antique shops, and more, including the Attic Gallery and the Levee Street Marketplace. Natchez, the oldest city on the Mississippi River, has a historic downtown filled with interesting shops like Silver Street Gallery & Gifts and Lower Lodge Antiques.

The southern end of the Great River Road travels through Louisiana, which is home to can’t-miss retailers in cities like New Orleans and Baton Rouge. Perkins Rowe in Baton Rouge has a mix of retailers, restaurants, and entertainment spaces, and the city’s massive Mall of Louisiana, which features nearly 200 stores and the world’s third-largest indoor carousel. New Orleans is an iconic shopping destination, whether you’re exploring the French Market, Magazine Street, or the French Quarter.

Photo Credit: Explore Minnesota

Holiday events along the Great River Road

Monday, October 30, 2023

There are plenty of ways to celebrate the holiday season along the Great River Road, from winter festivals and markets to light shows and parades. Here’s a look at the kinds of events you’ll find this winter in communities up and down the Mississippi River.

Light shows & festivals

Every winter in Dubuque in northeastern Iowa, motorists take a scenic drive through stunning holiday light displays at Reflections in the Park, an annual event held at Louis Murphy Park, which sits atop a limestone bluff and overlooks the city and the Mississippi River. See more holiday attractions in Dubuque here.

There are plenty of reasons to visit New Orleans any time of year, but there’s a particularly special event that welcomes guests right around Christmastime. NOLA ChristmasFest is held at the city’s Ernest N. Morial Convention Center over the last two weeks of December, and highlights include New Orleans’ only skating rink, carnival rides, a Gingerbread Village, and more.

Head to the Memphis Zoo for their annual Zoo Lights display, which dazzles visitors with more than a million holiday lights, an LED Ferris wheel, Santa’s workshop, live reindeer, holiday events and more. Zoo Lights runs on select nights from after Thanksgiving to early January.

The GLOW Holiday Festival in Minnesota’s capital city of St. Paul runs from mid-November to New Year’s Eve. The event, held at CHS Field—home of the St. Paul Saints baseball team—is a family-friendly event where you’ll find everything from a tubing hill to a zip line.

Christmas & holiday markets

For nearly 60 years every November, the city of La Crosse on Wisconsin’s section of the Great River Road has hosted its annual Holiday Fair, which is home more than 100 arts and crafts vendors who sell seasonal wares, from ornaments to home décor to apparel. (While you’re in La Crosse, don’t miss the Rotary Lights display in Riverside Park, which attracts more than 100,000 people a year.)

Belleville, a city of 42,000 in southwest Illinois—just on the other side of the river from St. Louis—holds its annual Christkindlmarkt, an open-air German Christmas market, in the public square every weekend from late November until just before Christmas. Visitors will can shop for unique European and handcrafted items and enjoy food, beverages, and live entertainment.

Other events

Natchez, Mississippi—the oldest city on the Mississippi River—rings in the holiday season every November and December with its Christmas in Natchez celebration, a monthlong event that features a tree lighting ceremony, weekly caroling and other events.

The charming town of Galena, Illinois, offers a full calendar of holiday events in November and December, including its annual holiday parade through the historic downtown, the Holiday Fire in the Sky fireworks show, and the Night of Luminaria and Living Windows, where more than 5,000 candelit luminaries light up the street and Main Street businesses display their holiday-inspired Living Windows.

Photo Credit: Travel Wisconsin

What makes the Great River Road an All-American Road?

Tuesday, October 03, 2023

The Great River Road was named an All-American Road in 2021, which means it’s been designated as one of the country’s very best National Scenic Byways. So why is this 3,000-mile route along the Mississippi River so special? Here’s a look at some of the historical sites and cultural attractions that make the Great River Road so great.

Engaging history

The Great River Road passes through 10 states and tells the story of the Mississippi River region and the country at large at dozens of museums, historical sites, and attractions along the route. Travelers will discover everything from iconic music clubs to the boyhood home of America’s most famous author.

Here’s a look at a few historic attractions along the Great River Road:

Find more historic attractions along the route here and here.

Rich culture

Another reason the Great River Road was named an All-American Road is because of its strong connection to the culture of the Mississippi River region. Cultural attractions dot the landscape and include bustling arts districts, iconic architecture, and charming river towns.

Cultural attractions along the northern Great River Road include:

Find more cultural attractions along the route here and here.

Outdoor dining on the southern Great River Road

Tuesday, September 05, 2023

Looking for a spot to grab a bite to eat outside while you’re traveling the southern half of the Great River Road? Here’s a look at some outdoor dining options in Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana.

Perhaps more of a “take it to go” place (though there is some outdoor seating outside the small restaurant), Prince Pit BBQ has two locations along Kentucky’s section of the Great River Road—one in Barlow and one in Bardwell. At both spots, you’ll find delicious barbecue, including pulled pork, ribs, chicken, and more.

Wilson Café cooks up Southern fare with an upscale twist for brunch, lunch, and dinner in a historic building in downtown Wilson, Arkansas, about a 45-minute drive from Memphis. The café is a popular spot that’s well known for dishes that use local ingredients, and diners can enjoy the outdoors (and even some live music) on The Wilson’s outdoor patio. 

Flight Restaurant in downtown Memphis offers outdoor seating right on Main Street in the heart of the Bluff City, and diners can enjoy delicious dishes like scallop caprese and lobster and crab benedict or Southern favorites like chicken and waffles and shrimp and grits. If you’re in the mood for a drink, be sure to try one of the restaurant’s white wine or red wine flights.

Take in outstanding views of the Mississippi River on the 10th floor of the First National Building as you enjoy a meal at 10 South Rooftop Bar & Grill in downtown Vicksburg, Mississippi. This casual—and scenic—dining spot serves up a wide range of tasty dishes, from blackened catfish (this is Mississippi, after all) to fried green tomatoes to burgers.

If you’re headed to New Orleans, don’t miss The Court of Two Sisters in the city’s famous French Quarter. This historic restaurant is housed in a historic 1832 building and is famous for its beautiful open-air courtyard, daily live jazz brunch buffets, and romantic ambiance.

Find more flavors of the Great River Road here.

(Photo: Wilson Café/Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage & Tourism)

Where to find outdoor dining on the Great River Road

Tuesday, August 22, 2023

There’s nothing better than outdoor dining with a picture-perfect view of the Mississippi River and its surroundings. Here are a few great recommendations from Great River Road travelers on where to grab a bite on the Upper Mississippi River.

Harborview Cafe in Pepin, Wisconsin, is located on the marina on the shore of Lake Pepin, a naturally occurring lake on the Mississippi River. Known for outstanding food made with fresh ingredients, Harborview’s atmosphere, views, and friendly service make it the perfect stop along the Great River Road. 

Bayside Tap & Steakhouse in Red Wing, Minnesota, is a gem of a place for steaks, burgers, handcrafted martinis, and other cocktails. Take a seat outside and make sure to order the seasoned fries with gouda cheese.

Huck Finn’s on the Water in La Crosse, Wisconsin, is your go-to place for a classic Midwest fish fry—all you have to do is choose between walleye and catfish. 

Reads Landing Brewery, located in a historic, two-story storefront building along the Mississippi River in Reads Landing, Minnesota, offers great views—you may just see bald eagles soaring above while you sample handcrafted beer and scotch eggs.

Grafton Oyster Bar in Grafton, Illinois, serves up unexpected Cajun and Creole cuisine from their unique floating restaurant. Check their live music schedule and pick a day to visit.

Crane & Pelican Cafe in LeClaire, Iowa, will fulfill your need for classic comfort food. It promises a one-of-a-kind dining experience in a historic 1850s home.

Circa 1888 is a Great River Road gem located in Savanna, Illinois. The menu promises something for everyone, and the outdoor deck offers a sunset to remember.

Go Fish Marina Bar & Grill in Princeton, Iowa, is a casual restaurant overlooking the Mississippi River where you can watch boaters while relaxing with good food and a fun atmosphere.

Finn’s Food and Spirits in Hannibal, Missouri is a family-friendly stop that offers outdoor dining, pub-style food, and live music.

The Cinder House, located in downtown St Louis, is the perfect restaurant for your next night out. It offers incredible views of the Mississippi River and the Gateway Arch from the eighth floor of the iconic Four Seasons Hotel St. Louis.

Photo credit: Crane & Pelican Café/Facebook

Thank you for entering!

Monday, August 21, 2023

 

Drive the Great River Road Photo Contest

Thank you for sharing your Great River Road photo! Keep an eye on your email later this fall to see if you’ve won—or submit another photo if you’ve got more to share.

In the meantime, here’s some helpful information to help you plan your Great River Road trip:

And keep an eye on your inbox for our monthly travel newsletters, where you’ll find more great tips and tricks on what to see and do all along the Great River Road.

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Where to cool down along the Great River Road

Monday, July 17, 2023

Summer heat got you beat? Don’t worry—there are plenty of places to keep it cool along the Great River Road this summer, from waterparks and beaches to exploring the waters of the mighty Mississippi River itself. Here’s a closer look.

Waterparks & other attractions

Located in Grafton, Illinois—just a short drive from St. Louis—Raging Rivers Water Park covers 24 acres and boasts multiple waterslides, a 700-foot-long lazy river, an 18,000-square-foot wave pool, and the Tree House Harbor interactive play area. 

Those looking to beat the heat in Memphis can head to Shelby Farms Park—a 4,500-acre natural area in the eastern part of the city—to find the Water Play Sprayground, a 4,000-square-foot play area perfect for kids that features a water tunnel, interactive jets, geyser boulders and more. There are also more than 20 bodies of water to explore in the park itself.

Parks, lakes & beaches

While you’ll obviously see the mighty Mississippi and other rivers as you cruise the Great River Road, the region is also home to some notable lakes that are great places to explore on a summer day. One must-see stop is Itasca State Park in far northern Minnesota, where you can walk across (or wade into) the headwaters of the Mississippi River. 

Wyalusing State Park is one of western Wisconsin’s most scenic sites, offering stunning views of the Mississippi River from the towering limestone bluffs, but head just a few minutes south and you’ll find a popular public beach along the river in the town of Wyalusing.

Head to Deep Lakes Park—the site of former sand and gravel pits that now boasts more than 120 acres of water for boating and other watersports—in Muscatine, Iowa, to find a large swimming beach on the shores of Lake Chester

Located in northeastern Arkansas, Mississippi River State Park is home to stunning Delta scenery and lots of opportunities for fun on the water, including canoeing, kayaking, and fishing, as well as two swimming beaches on Bear Creek Lake and Storm Creek Lake.

Canoeing & kayaking

Want to get out on the Mississippi River itself? Quapaw Canoe Company has locations in Clarksdale and Vicksburg in Mississippi and offers guided canoe adventures along the Lower Mississippi River, including day trips (where you can have a picnic lunch on a sandbar in the river), multi-day camping trips, public trips and more.

New Orleans Kayak Swamp Tours offers—what else?—guided kayak tours of New Orleans and its surrounding waterways, including the Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge, Manchac Swamp, and the Pearl River Wildlife Management Area.

Celebrate Pollinator Week along the Great River Road

Thursday, June 01, 2023

June 19-25 is National Pollinator Week along the Great River Road, a celebration of the pollinators—birds, insects, and other animals—that are vital to the health of the Mississippi River region’s farmlands, forests, and other habitats.

Here’s some more information about pollinators and what you can do to help them in your own backyard:

What are pollinators?

Pollinators are animals that pollinate plants by transferring pollen from one plant to another. Examples include birds, bats, bees, insects, and some small mammals.

What kind of plants are helped by pollinators?

Pollinators bring us the plants that:

  • Produce fruits, vegetables, and nuts
  • Are responsible for half the world’s oils, fibers, and raw materials
  • Prevent soil erosion
  • Increase carbon sequestration

What can I do to help pollinators and celebrate Pollinator Week?

  • Attend a 2023 Pollinator Week event (see listings by state here)
  • Build a native bee house
  • Plant a pollinator habitat (see guides here)
  • Populate your garden with native plants

Where can I learn more about Pollinator Week?

Find more information about Pollinator Week 2023 here.

(Photo: Jenna Lee/Unsplash)