The Mississippi flows more than 2,300 miles through America’s heartland, and passes through ten states from northern Minnesota to Louisiana, before it finally empties into the Gulf of Mexico. The Mississippi connects cities as varied as New Orleans, Natchez, Vicksburg, Memphis, St. Louis and Minneapolis, and has served as the economic lifeline for all of them.
Mississippi River cruises offer a chance to explore the mighty waterway in a relaxing environment – perhaps even on an authentic paddle-wheeler. The most popular segment is on the southern Mississippi, between New Orleans and Memphis.
While the 2,350-mile-long Mississippi is “just” the third longest river in North America, it ranks as America’s most iconic waterway -- celebrated by author Mark Twain in the mid-19th century, continuing to play a crucial role in American commerce, and effectively dividing the United States into two regions.
“East of the Mississippi” generally denotes older America, with a long history dating back to Revolutionary War days, while “West of the Mississippi” connotes a younger, more frontier-minded America.
Of course, these are broad generalizations, but just about every American is familiar with the terms. The Mississippi is one of the touchstones of American geography, and to explore it is to explore the heart of America itself. Once you take a voyage on the “Big Muddy,” you’ll never think of the Mississippi region as just “flyover country” again.
From New Orleans to Memphis – the Lower Mississippi
The lower Mississippi offers a wealth of regional music, cuisine, history, and architecture. It’s a fascinating region that is coming to terms with its past and looking to the future. You’ll encounter impressive sights and activities in Memphis, Tennessee; Natchez, Mississippi; Baton Rouge and New Orleans, Louisiana; and some small towns along the way as well. (The lower Mississippi technically starts somewhat farther north than Memphis, in Cairo, Illinois).
In pre-Civil war days, when cotton was king, two-thirds of all American millionaires lived between New Orleans and Natchez. That all ended abruptly with the war and the abolition of slavery -- the scourge that had enabled the wealthy plantations to thrive.
French-accented New Orleans, with its iconic French Quarter and party-central Bourbon Street, is the place to down donut-like beignets for breakfast, eat fried oysters in a modest seafood “shack,” dine royally on the finest cuisine in one of the city’s world-famous restaurants, or, of course, have a drink or two, perhaps at a local jazz club such as Preservation Hall.
Memphis is another musical mecca. You can tour Graceland, where Elvis Presley lived; Sun Studio, where Elvis made his name; the Stax Museum, which tells the history of one of the great rhythm and blues studios; and of course Beale Street, with its parade of blues clubs. Begin your perfect evening with some ribs at The Rendezvous or drinks atop the Madison Hotel, complete with panoramic views.
From St. Louis to Minneapolis – the Upper Mississippi
Cruising the upper Mississippi is a very different experience – the land of cotton gives way to the land of corn, and blues and jazz make way for the traditions of descendants of German immigrants in Iowa and Wisconsin.
Embarkations for upper Mississippi cruises usually begin in St. Louis, Missouri, one of the river’s major cities and home to one of the country’s best zoos.
The swooping 530-foot-tall Gateway Arch, which sits on the west bank of the Mississippi and has become the symbol of St Louis, offers incredible views of the Mississippi and the entire area. You can ride to the top via tram or elevator, as some one million visitors do annually. Museums dedicated to westward expansion are at the foot of the steel arch.
Mark Twain – the pen name for author Samuel Clemens and the most famous chronicler of the Mississippi River -- hailed from Hannibal, Missouri, which lies north of St. Louis along the river. Hannibal is an obligatory stop for any upper Mississippi River cruise. This is where fans of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn can enjoy a literary pilgrimage to the town where Twain found most of the inspiration for his best known fictional characters.
Farther north, Clinton and Dubuque, Iowa, are paragons of Midwestern America. Clinton, a former lumber town, is now an agricultural capital, while Dubuque, one of the earliest settlements west of the Mississippi, is known for its historic homes. In LaCrosse, Wisconsin, farther north yet, you can sample the local breweries, which replaced the lumber industry as one of the city’s primary economic engines.
Upper Mississippi cruises then end in the Minneapolis area, perhaps at the historic town of Red Wing, south of St. Paul. Formerly a center for commercial shipping along the river, Red Wing is now known for its artisans and historic homes. Minneapolis-St. Paul is one of America’s most livable metropolitan areas, with plenty of museums, restaurants, and other amenities.
The Best Time to Cruise the Mississippi
One of the first considerations you need to make when planning your Mississippi River cruise is that the Mississippi River is not open year round for cruising. So before you get too far into planning, be sure to check!
As with all travel destinations there are some peak times and some low times for taking a Mississippi River Cruise, each with pros and cons.
The Lower Mississippi has the longest season - open all year except for January and February - while the Upper Mississippi has a short season, between June and October
If you choose to cruise the Upper Mississippi during the summer, there is a positive note regarding the tourist crowds. As you move further north along the Mississippi, you will be entering into the eastern edge of the American Midwest.
This region is not usually included on tour itineraries of the United States, and even very few Americans vacation here. So even during the busiest times you probably won’t experience much in the way of tourist crowds, and by extension will actually get quite an authentic feel for small town America.
If you choose to travel in the summertime, know that tt will also be incredibly hot! If you are not used to hot and humid weather, be prepared for some uncomfortable days. You can help combat the weather by dressing appropriately and drinking a lot of water.
Cruises along the Upper Mississippi portion of the river are only available between June and October, when the water level is low enough to accommodate cruise vessels.
The Lower Mississippi is open for several more months than the Upper Mississippi, which is good if you like off-season travel for avoiding crowds. Because the Lower Mississippi visits some of the most popular US cities, for domestic and international tourists alike, you will experience peak tourist crowds during the summertime. These cities include Memphis, New Orleans, and Baton Rouge.