Galena, Dubuque and the rolling terrain in this tri-state area blend history, tradition and new attractions with ease
There’s a good reason we Americans are constantly traveling west: for adventure, for the beautiful views, for new experiences and cultural awakenings.
Though the nation’s historical “westward expansion” of the early 1800s stretched far past the Mississippi River, today you only have to get to the river – not much past it – to get a taste of the West and experience an entirely different pace of life.
Fall is a great time for a getaway to Jo Daviess County in Illinois, Dubuque, Iowa, and their surrounding small towns, which are full of experiences that are as plentiful as the vibrant colors that don the trees every autumn.
“People will come to Dubuque because our landscape and makeup are unique here, compared to the other areas of Iowa,” says Taylor Kellogg, vice president of marketing for Travel Dubuque. “Dubuque is very different because of its location along the Mississippi River, so fall foliage will be huge in September and October.”
Some area attractions are old favorites, like Galena’s Goldmoor Inn, a historic bed-and-breakfast designed like a castle; the famous “Field of Dreams” movie site in Dyersville, Iowa; and Dubuque’s National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium – a Smithsonian-affiliated museum that explores and explains the contributions and inhabitants of our rivers.
But even these well-known treasures have their surprises.
In March, Goldmoor Inn welcomed new chef Brandon Veitch, who came from The Peninsula Chicago and is creating the menu for the B&B’s fine-dining restaurant.
A new major-league stadium was built feet away from the original Field of Dreams, and a new exhibit there explores the classic 1989 film by the same name.
And the river museum’s new exhibit, River of Innovation, talks about the river as an engine of economic growth, says Kellogg. A large portion of the 9,000-square-foot exhibit encompasses machinery used inside a 19th-century boat-making shop in Bellevue, Iowa.
“A family donated all of this machinery, and they have refinished it so it’s almost a working shop,” Kellogg says. “There are floor-to-ceiling belts and gears and all this stuff that’s running as it would have when it was manufacturing boats in the shop in Bellevue.”
There are many ways to enjoy Galena, Dubuque and all of the areas in between.
Galena: History and Nature Combine
The historic city of Galena is a hidden gem tucked into the rolling landscape of northwest Illinois’ Driftless Area.
When German couple Birgit and Slobo Radin were looking for a bed-and-breakfast to run as a retirement project, a real estate agent suggested they look in Galena.
“I didn’t know what Galena was,” says Birgit. “I had lived and worked in Chicago for 13 years and had never heard of it.
“We were sort of apprehensive because we didn’t really expect anything of significance in Illinois outside of Chicago,” she continues. “We were pleasantly surprised. We saw the Goldmoor and it was love at first sight – it was beautiful. The town is beautiful. There is enormous history in the town. The buildings are all kept in their original form.”
The Radins have owned Goldmoor Inn for seven years, and Birgit, a board member of Galena Country Tourism, says the area has developed tremendously during that time.
“Nature is just so beautiful around here, whether you take a bicycle ride or you hike or just walk through the vineyards, or you sit in front of the fireplace in your suite here at the inn and look over the Mississippi River,” she says.
Goldmoor Inn embraces nature because it sits on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River. Visitors who don’t want to stay in one of the 13 suites inside the B&B – all of which feature fireplaces, king-size beds, kitchenettes and either a balcony or patio space – can choose one of three cottages or two cabins on the expansive property.
Of course, Galena’s historic downtown is one of the biggest draws, and those who last visited before the pandemic may be surprised to see how it looks now.
The five-block, half-mile Main Street still boasts more than 100 storefronts with 19th-century facades, but a section of the one-way street has been completely blocked off for outdoor dining.
“Last year, they closed down most of the street for any bar or restaurant who wanted to open up outside, and the visitors loved it,” says Peggy Harmston, winemaker and owner of Massbach Ridge Winery, which has a tasting room downtown. “The ambiance is just wonderful to be able to go outside and enjoy the architecture and people watch – it’s very nice.”
Main Street remains partially closed for outdoor dining through the end of October.
While the friendly ambiance remains the same, new additions to the Galena shopping district include Galena Book and Paper, a bookstore that opened in October 2020.
There’s also Galena River Goods, featuring men’s and women’s apparel and home goods, and Birch Lounge, a romantic after-dinner bar. Located inside the Ramada by Wyndham Galena Hotel, the lounge features live music, small bites and top-shelf drinks. Both establishments opened this July.
The newest arrival is Galena Bakehouse, a grab-n-go bakery that serves up scratch-made pastries, cupcakes, coffee, salads and empanadas. Created by Alex Arroyo and pastry chef Geoffrey Karnish – former Galena innkeepers of the Inn at Felt Manor – the shop just opened this September in a space next door to Galena River Goods.
“They offer really decadent and delicious treats,” says Fallon Oldenburg, marketing and communications director of Galena Country Tourism. “They also will offer picnic baskets, where you rent a blanket and basket and pick your own food.”
Dubuque: A Modern Twist on History
While Galena is known for its history, Dubuque also embraces its long heritage – though its vibe is much different.
“Dubuque was founded in 1833, so there’s history here, but there’s also a modern something,” says Kellogg. “There are murals, people eating outside – there’s this very young, professional, up-and-coming, interesting hybrid between the history of the area and modern ideas. This energy sets Dubuque apart from these surrounding rural communities.”
Some of those modern vibes stem from the ongoing mural initiative of Voice Productions, a nonprofit art advocacy group headed by Dubuque native Sam Mulgrew.
Nearly 60 murals have been curated since 2016, painted by high-caliber muralists both local and global, and they extend across Dubuque and into surrounding communities.
Millennials and Gen X-ers love the murals because they take hold of an otherwise blank, empty space and inject it with meaning, while creating a destination of sorts where people stop, take photos and share the experience, Mulgrew says.
“Murals are effective,” he adds. “They don’t cost a lot of money. They’re entirely democratic – you’re not forcing anyone to walk through an art gallery. And people love that.”
If the murals – plus the rotating sculptures on the Riverwalk – are helping to enhance the cultural scene in Dubuque, the revitalization of the historic Millwork District is doing its part, as well.
At one time the millwork capital of the world, Dubuque had many companies that floated logs up the river to manufacture doors, trim and other millwork. But when the economy shifted in the mid-1900s and businesses closed, they left behind block-long, block-wide empty buildings.
“The area was shuttered,” Mulgrew says. “That’s all been restored now into mixed used – there are apartments up above and restaurants and bars at street level. They’ve tried to keep the historical integrity, so that’s interesting.”
With a few murals in the district, plus brick streets, coffee shops, breweries and more, the Millwork District “is a very cool area,” Kellogg says.
Enjoy the Drinks … and the Scenery
Galena and Dubuque have earned a reputation for their fantastic wineries and breweries, most complemented with amazing views of the river, historic buildings and rolling countryside.
And fall is a great time to catch a glimpse of these small businesses hard at work.
“We pick grapes in September, so that’s an exciting time, even for people who are visiting in the afternoon,” says Harmston. “We do most of our work in the mornings. Then we clean up … but you can smell the fermentations in the air, and you can peek in the back and see a vat of pressed grapes.”
The 15-acre Massbach vineyard has a street address in Elizabeth, about 20 minutes east of Galena. But the winery actually is named for its proximity to unincorporated Massbach.
“People who settled here were from Massbach, Germany,” says Harmston. “It’s five houses and a church, and we’re right beside them. At one time, it had a blacksmith and tractor dealership.”
The winery maintains a 10-year-old tasting room in downtown Galena, but Harmston has always invited people to come and appreciate the openness of the vineyard. It especially shines in the fall when the green woods turn to golds, yellows and reds.
“That is our product: for people to come out and enjoy themselves, enjoy each other,” says Harmston.
Galena Cellars is another family-owned and -operated winery. In 1976, Christine Lawlor-White opened Christina Wine Cellars in McGregor, Iowa. In 1985, she moved to Galena and opened Galena Cellars with her brother, Scott, and their parents, Robert and Joyce Lawlor.
Today, the winery is run by Lawlor-White’s children. Eric White, 33, is head winemaker; his wife, Oniqueh Giles-White, 31, is general manager and wine club manager; Lawlor-White’s daughter, Britt White, 31, is brand ambassador.
Because of its longevity, Galena Cellars has become a familiar name to fall travelers in Galena.
The winery celebrates its 11th annual Fall Harvest Festival on Sept. 25 at its vineyard, 4746 N. Ford Road in Galena.
A grape stomp – one for kids, one for adults – highlights the event, which also offers live music, food trucks and local artisans selling their wares.
“The point of the festival is that it’s the middle of the harvest, and we take a day off and celebrate the grapes we’ve picked already,” says Britt White.
Less than two months later is cause for another celebration – the end of harvest.
Galena Cellars has hosted its Nouveau Wine Weekend for nearly four decades, and it’s become a must-see event in which the first wine of the new year is released with fantastic community spirit. This year, it takes place Nov. 19 and 20.
“We pick our grapes at the end of August and into September, so we won’t release a traditional wine for at least a few months,” says White. “This wine, it’s made in about three weeks. It’s a really light, easy-drinking red wine, meant to be celebration wine.”
A handful of restaurants host luncheons and have drink specials for the occasion, White says. A main luncheon takes place at Galena Cellars’ new downtown location at 111 N. Main St., which opened this spring.
After the luncheons, the winery delivers its Nouveau Wine to downtown shops via horse-drawn carriage, in full parade style.
Across the river in Dubuque, there’s a good share of great wineries and breweries.
Travel Dubuque has put together a Brew Hop Passport for patrons to stamp at each of seven locations, with a free prize earned when the passport is filled.
Breweries include Backpocket Dubuque, 7 Hills Brewing Company and Jubeck New World Brewing in Dubuque – all within the Millwork District – plus Potosi Brewing Company, located just across the river in Potosi, Wis.
Each has its own unique vibe, but none is quite like Backpocket.
“It’s a brewery upstairs with an arcade downstairs, filled with ’80s and ’90s games like skee ball and air hockey,” says Kellogg. “Tons of families go there. Parents can have a drink, and kids can play arcade games.”
While Galena and Dubuque are the big-name cities that everyone loves to visit, the smaller towns and surrounding areas have additional attractions.
A little drive just outside of Dubuque will land you in Dyersville, Iowa, which is a hot spot right now as baseball fans recently watched the first major-league baseball game ever played in the state. It happened on a pop-up field near Dyersville’s famous “Field of Dreams,” named after the 1989 Oscar-nominated movie.
The original filming location is open year-round. Tours of the three-bedroom farmhouse also are available, as is a gift shop.
Through the end of October, you can also visit the If You Build It exhibit, a mini-museum dedicated solely to the “Field of Dreams” movie and located less than 10 minutes away.
“It has a ton of baseball memorabilia,” Kellogg says. “It discusses the ghost players and how they were put together, different things that happened during filming – you could spend an hour there and get the history of Dyersville and the baseball things that have risen there.”
One block north of the If You Build It exhibit is Textile Brewing Company, located inside a 1906 building. It opened in the summer of 2019 and is part of the Travel Dubuque Brew Hop Passport.
“It used to be an old sewing garment factory,” says Kellogg. “They reused a lot of the machinery and sewing machines, so some of the table legs are pieces of an old sewing machine.”
Dyersville also is the “Farm Toy Capital of the World,” because it hosts two major farm toy shows each year – one in June and one the first weekend in November.
Equidistant from Dyersville and Dubuque lies Iowa’s oldest continuously operating restaurant and bar, Breitbach’s Country Dining. Since 1852, the business has been through six generations of Breitbachs, two fires and two rebuilds, all without ever shutting down.
“They’re family-run; they have really great pie,” says Kellogg. “There’s a quaint, small-town feel.”
A tip: don’t be fooled by your GPS. Because Balltown is a city of less than 100 people – it’s probably closer to 70 – it doesn’t have a post office, so Breitbach’s address, 563 Balltown Road, may come up as residing in nearby Sherrill, instead.
Half an hour southeast of Dubuque lies Bellevue, an up-and-coming small river town of just more than 2,100 people.
River Ridge Brewing, which opened in 2016, recently was voted as having the best patio in the Dubuque area by Travel Dubuque. And the views aren’t to be ignored.
“Their building is literally on the river,” says Kellogg, who grew up in Bellevue.
Flatted Fifth Blues and BBQ at Potter’s Mill is a family-owned restaurant housed in a 178-year-old gristmill (the oldest gristmill in Iowa). It’s known for southern specialties and barbecue as much as its live jazz and blues entertainment.
Just last year, Flatted Fifth opened a second location at Dimensional Brewing Company in Dubuque.
Both River Ridge and Dimensional are part of the Brew Hop Passport.