Weaving drunkenly from its source in Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico, swallowing up ten states along its way, ‘Ol’ Miss’ flows for 3730km past deep limestone bluffs, overgrown bayous and twinkling cities. One of the biggest commercialised waterways in the world, some sections of the mighty river stretch as far as 2.4km from bank to bank. The Mississippi has a life of its own, hosting huge barges carrying cargos of coal, iron and steel across the country, as well as paddle steam boats churning their cherry-red wheels through its muddy waters. A cruise on the Mississippi will take you through some of the most thrilling cities in the US, from New Orleans and Memphis to Natchez and St Louis.
Why cruise Mississippi
It may be just one river, but cruising the Mississippi will take you through a vast and dynamic tapestry of forests, swamps, marshes, estuaries and islands. Whether you’re a Civil War history buff, a Mark Twain fan or fancy diving into the colourful, chaotic world of Mardi Gras, there truly is something for everyone along its muddy banks. Local communities are extremely proud of their relationship with the river, and warmly welcome anyone interested in spending time on its waters. There are many different cruise lines offering excellent itineraries on the Mississippi, but Viking River Cruises and American Cruise Lines are some of the best.
Ports of the Mississippi River
New Orleans, Louisiana
A trip to The Big Easy should be on everyone’s bucket list. Wander the famous French Quarter, home to Bourbon Street — the beating heart of Mardis Gras — and Jackson Square with its fairytale spires of St Louis Cathedral. Explore the fabulous Garden District, filled with oak-lined boulevards and grand mansions. And explore the beautiful Lafayette Cemetery, with its towering marble mausoleums topped with statues of angels. Listen to outstanding jazz bands play their heart out in Frenchman Street and feast on po’boy sandwiches, the unofficial New Orleans lunch staple, stuffed with fried shrimp, lettuce and mayo.
Baton Rouge, Louisiana
Set on the eastern bank of the Mississippi, Baton Rouge is the capital of Louisiana and the perfect place to learn more about Cajun people and their culture. Take a Cajun heritage tour, explore the atmospheric swamps of the Atchafalaya Basin by boat or canoe, and visit the iconic Tony’s Seafood, a heaving market offering everything from alligator, turtle, crab, lobster, oysters, shrimp, scallops, catfish, snapper, tuna, and more. A favourite Louisiana pastime is arguing over who has the best crawfish; however, in Baton Rouge, the debate is settled. Flogging up to 50,000lbs of crawfish a day, Tony’s takes the prize.
This unbelievably pretty southern town is home to the nation’s finest collection of antebellum homes - 668 in total - many of which are open for tours all year round, and evoke romantic scenes from Gone with the Wind. Under the bluff and closer to the Mississippi River, you’ll find remnants of the city's wilder past in Natchez-Under-The-Hill, including an old-style saloon, once a notorious drinking den for cutthroats, thieves and ladies of the night. For wonderful walks you’d be hard pushed to beat the Natchez Trace Parkway, with its countless scenic hiking routes.
During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln called Vicksburg ‘the key to the South’, and the battle that took place here was pivotal in turning the tide in favour of the Union. The Vicksburg National Military Park is a must-see destination for anyone interested in American history, with fascinating trenches, battlefields and monuments to explore. If you fancy a flutter when the sun goes down, hedge your bets at one of Vicksburg’s four substantial riverside casinos. The Ameristar is set on a 19th-century style paddle boat for added kitsch.
Music pilgrims flock to Memphis for its exceptional pedigree. From the electric atmosphere of the hopping blues bars on Beale Street, to the legendary Sun Studio, where everyone from Johnny Cash to B. B. King recorded hits, and Graceland, where the King of Rock’n’Roll put his blue suede shoes up at the end of a day, music is engrained in every nook and cranny of the city. Tuck into unrivalled barbecue food at one of Memphis’ many first-rate BBQ joints for a humbling lesson on grill mastery. By the end of your visit, you’ll know whether you’re a disciple of wet (with sauce) or dry (without) ribs. Prepare for a gastronomic awakening.
The great Mississippi River is as entwined with Mark Twain’s tales as the sprawling roots of the Cypress trees are with its riverbanks. To see where it all started, you’ll want to have a mosey around Hanibal, the childhood home of the author. This bucolic town provides the setting for his Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. See firsthand the fence of whitewashing fame and visit the Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum, with its extensive collection of memorabilia including Twain’s typewriter and writing desk.
St Louis, Missouri
Known as the ‘Gateway to the West’, St. Louis is a major city on the Mississippi and home to the impressive Gateway Arch, the tallest man-made monument in the western hemisphere. It’s not the city’s only colossal achievement though. Forest Park is larger, and arguably more impressive, than New York City’s Central Park, housing its own zoo, museum, sculpture garden, extensive greenhouse and boating lake. Don’t miss a tour of the Anheuser-Busch Brewery, the birthplace of Budweiser, for a chance to learn about the history of beer brewing in America and a glimpse of the natural caves where the beer was once stored before the use of refrigerators.
Best things to do
Boogie to live music
Whatever sounds get your feet tapping, from bluegrass, jazz and soul to rock and roll or zydeco (a Creole music style native to Louisiana), you won’t have to look far for incredible live music on the Mississippi. In fact, you could easily experience a different live band on every day of your river cruise. Expect sultry saxophones, blaring trumpets and twanging guitars aplenty, played by countless talented musicians delighted to share their craft.
Take a walk on the wild side
Whether you are scanning the bayous for alligators or spotting the otters, coyotes and deer that make their home on the riverbanks of the Mississippi, a cruise along the Great Muddy is guaranteed to bring you right up close to incredible wildlife. There are more than 400 species of bird in Louisiana alone. Look out for bald eagles soaring over the river, as well as colourful hummingbirds and dragonflies from your ship’s deck.
Appreciate awesome architecture
Few places on Earth tell the story of their origins so completely through its buildings. French colonial influences dominate New Orleans, grand antebellum plantation homes in Natchez speak volumes about the south’s complex history with slavery and grand hotels such as The Peabody in Memphis hark back to a time when the city was the most fashionable place to see, and be seen, along the Mississippi.
Discover Cajun culture
Today’s Cajun communities are descended from the Acadians, a people from Northern France who colonised parts of Canada before being exiled and making their way south to Louisiana and rural areas alongside the Mississippi. Today’s Cajuns have developed their own distinct lifestyle in the swamps of South Louisiana, and you can get a taste of it through their unique cuisine – try Crawfish Etoufee, a thick, spicy seafood stew – and its folk music. If you hear the sound of the accordian during your cruise, it’s likely to be a band playing zydeco, a blend of French songs and African/Caribbean Creole rhythms, popular in this part of the Mississippi.
Feast for days
The distinct influences of different communities – Creole, Cajun, French, Italian, German and countless more – felt in the south means you’ll get to experience a mouthwatering array of flavours as you cruise the Mississippi. From crispy po' boys, succulent crawfish and juicy jambalaya to oakwood-smoked brisket and ribs, you would have to eat all day, every day to experience just a fraction of what the diverse food scene here has to offer. Pack the trousers with the elasticated waistband.