“No way!” my 13-year-old daughters blurted as we drove to the base of the Fenelon Place Elevator in Dubuque, Iowa — claimed to be the shortest and steepest railway in the world.

With the cable car’s dizzying, almost vertical trip up a steep bluff and the added gloom of heavy rain, it did look like a setting from Lemony Snicket’s “A Series of Unfortunate Events.” But while seeming to defy gravity, it also offered a scenic alternative to a long, winding drive or wheezing climb to the top of bluffs found here in the unglaciated Driftless Area.

I stared longingly upward as windshield wipers swished, remembering a cogwheel train that climbed the mountainside to Château Gütsch in Lucerne, Switzerland. I didn’t expect to find another one in Iowa, of all places. But Dubuque — the state’s oldest city — offered several surprises during a late-summer road trip.

Some were right outside the windows of Hotel Julien, a historic property on Main Street in the heart of downtown. Baltimore-based street artist Gaia painted wild roses across a mural with a portrait commemorating Ada Hayden, Iowa botanist and preservationist. On another building, Gaia painted realistic black-and-white portraits of autoworkers.

Gaia was one of several artists who converged in Dubuque last summer to use its historic brick buildings as giant canvases for 18 murals. It was inevitable that some would dip into history, given that Dubuque’s story began in 1833. French Canadian fur trader Julien Dubuque negotiated with the Mesquakie Indians for lead-mining rights. The town later boomed as a river port with a legacy of historic neighborhoods, a grand gold-domed county courthouse, revived riverfront warehouses, and historic boatbuilding structures on the harbor that became part of the National Mississippi River Museum.

At the museum, kids explore an outdoor steamboat and beeline to an outdoor play area anchored by a giant catfish. Older visitors linger over blacksmithing and boatbuilding shops and exhibits about native tribes that first settled along rivers and left ancient burial grounds.

The museum’s many aquariums feature river otters, ancient-looking sturgeon and catfish, an alligator and tropical fish from the Mississippi Delta and the Gulf of Mexico. My daughters fall in love with a goofy-nosed softshell turtle and suddenly don’t mind getting a little wet while stretching hands to touch a stingray in its tank. We leave feeling a longer, stronger connection to the Mississippi River, from our own northern community of St. Cloud, Minn., to high-bluffed Dubuque to the tropical depths of the Gulf more than 1,000 miles away.

Attractions

Allow a few hours for the National Mississippi River Museum. Hands-on exhibits such as a RiverWorks Splash Zone and 4-D theater offer diversions for cold, rainy days, while play areas, a resident bald eagle and red-tailed hawk in aviaries and wetland interpretive trails provide things to do outdoors (rivermuseum.com).

Gamblers can find more than 900 slot machines, table games, various restaurants, a bowling center and live entertainment at the sprawling river­front Diamond Jo Casino (diamondjodubuque.com). It’s an easy stroll from the casino to the Port of Dubuque Riverwalk, which features public sculptures and leads to Stone Cliff Winery’s tasting room in the historic Star Brewery building (stonecliffwinery.com).

Eagle Point Park’s 164 acres have one of the best Midwestern overlooks of the Mississippi River, with views of Iowa, Wisconsin and Illinois, and Lock & Dam No. 11 (cityofdubuque.org). Its prairie-style park building also elevates this park’s allure. Mines of Spain, a 1,380-acre park overlooking the Mississippi south of Dubuque, offers more hiking options through several habitats (minesofspain.org).

Several shops rent stand-up paddleboards and kayaks for getting on the river. A handful of companies offer historic riverboat cruises, from a few hours to one- to three-day trips. Among them are the paddle wheel boat Celebration Belle (celebrationbelle.com), which can hold 750 passengers.

Where to eat

L. May Eatery on Main Street offers nice ambience for date-night dining and creatively eclectic fare such as lamb meatballs with curry sauce, beer and brats pizza, Philly cheesesteak lasagna, turkey bread pudding and a vegan stew with cornbread (lmayeatery.com).

In the heart of the historic brick millwork district, Brazen Open Kitchen relies on its own community garden and local sources to offer seasonal takes on dinner items such as duck tacos, pizzas, salads, short ribs and vegan items such as stroganoff with sweet potato noodles and walnuts. Sunday brunch features carrot cake pancakes, pork belly Benedict and house-made versions of Pop Tarts (brazenopenkitchen.com).

For more old-fashioned fare, take a detour about 16 miles north to Breitbach’s Country Dining. The sixth-generation restaurant in Balltown is on Iowa’s Pork Tenderloin Trail for huge sandwiches that may require sharing to leave room for homemade pie (breitbachs­countrydining.com).

Serious chocolate fans flock to Chocolaterie Stam for its inviting and cozy decor, handmade chocolates (some shaped like corncobs), coffee and wine bar in downtown Dubuque (stamchocolate.com). Another option for chocoholics: Betty Jane Homemade Candies, which has built a loyal following since 1938 with their popular gremlins, a version of Turtles with nuts and chocolate-covered caramel (bettyjanecandies.com).

Where to sleep

Hotel Julien’s 133 rooms and comfy suites fill the floors above its well polished and handsome lobby on Main Street (1-563-556-4200; hoteljuliendubuque.com).

Grand Harbor Resort and Waterpark offers a riverfront location for its 193 rooms that are ideal for families focused on the Mississippi River museum or adults who want to gamble at Diamond Jo’s (1-563-690-4000; grandharborresort.com).

Fans of Victorian bed-and-breakfast mansions rich in antiques and stories can look for rooms at Redstone Inn and Suites, the Richards House, Hancock House or the Mandolin Inn.

Getting there

Dubuque lies about 250 miles downriver from Minneapolis on the Mississippi. It takes about 4 hours and 40 minutes to drive there, following Hwy. 52 as it links Rochester to Decorah and Guttenberg, Iowa (don’t miss the Mississippi overlook), before reaching Dubuque. Go in daylight, when you can appreciate the pastoral hills that roll for miles toward the horizon.

More information

Travel Dubuque: travel­dubuque.com.

St. Cloud-based Lisa Meyers McClintick (lisamcclintick.com) wrote “Day Trips From the Twin Cities” and “The Dakotas Off the Beaten Path.”