Welcome to the Quad Cities, where the Mississippi River flows from east to west—to get from Iowa to Illinois you have to go south! The Quad Cities consist of the Iowa cities of Davenport and Bettendorf and the Illinois cities of Rock Island, Moline, and East Moline. Yes, around here “Quad” actually means five. The Quad Cities metro area also includes several smaller river towns, including the villages of Pleasant Valley and Riverdale in Iowa and Hampton, Illinois. And that’s just within the ring formed by Interstates 80 and 280, my choice as the artificial boundary for the region. Sorry LeClaire and Muscatine.
The Mississippi River cuts through the heart of the region—actually, it is the heart of the region. The cities stretch from the river’s banks up and over the bluffs that the Mississippi River excavated thousands of years ago. In the Quad Cities, downtown is literally the part of town that is down the hill. The Mississippi River is the reason that settlers put down their stakes here in the 1830s, and people still flock to its banks to fish, to walk, to gamble, or just to sit and enjoy the view. The Mississippi River unites these disparate cities into a cohesive region.
There are plenty of quality ways to pass the time and the people are among the friendliest you will meet anywhere. I know every guide makes that claim, but I genuinely mean it. So come on down. Explore the cities. Check out a festival or two. Learn about the region’s fascinating history and related stories of American expansion, industrialization, and the shifting economies that continually make and remake cities.
Check out my pics of the Quad Cities below.
Information for Visitors
Tourist information centers are plentiful in the Quad Cities although hours outside of the summer season are limited. You can call for information (800.747.7800/563.322.3911), surf to the Quad Cities CVB website, or visit one of the visitors centers. Locations include Union Station on the Davenport Riverfront (102 South Harrison St.) and the Visitor Center in Moline (Bass Street Landing, 1601 River Dr., Suite 110). The Centennial Bridge Visitor Center (Rock Island: 201 15th St.; 309.277.0937) also has a photo display about the impressive bridge. If you arrive in the area on eastbound Interstate 80, there is an Illinois Welcome Center just after the exit for Illinois Highway 84 (800.452.4368) that has information on the Quad Cities plus a decent overlook of the Mississippi Valley.
Getting on the River
It is easier to get near the river than on the river in the Quad Cities. There are no places to rent a boat in the immediate area, but you do have a few other ways to experience the Mississippi River directly. The best way to get up close and personal with the river is by riding the Channel Cat Water Taxis (details under “Getting Around”). For a few bucks you can ride all day; they even have room for a few bicycles. If you do a complete loop, the ride will take about an hour.
Another option is taking a ride on the Celebration Belle (Moline: 2501 River Dr.; 309.764.1952), which offers a variety of your standard tourist-oriented river cruises from Tuesday through Saturday, some with food, some without. Sightseeing cruises usually stick to the ten-mile stretch between the locks. The lunch cruise atmosphere was too cheesy for my tastes, but at least the food was good.
If you’d like to get on the river under your own power, check out Navarro Canoe Company in downtown Rock Island. They make several models of beautiful, functional canoes that you can purchase for your next river journey.
The Quad Cities are festival crazy. Something is happening most every time of year, especially in the summer when it seems there is a festival every weekend. Here are some of the most entertaining.
Bald Eagle Days (Rock Island: QCCA Expo Center, 2621 4th Ave.; 309.794.5338; January, 2nd weekend) in the Quad Cities is part exposition and part eagle watching. The exposition hall has conservation exhibits, animal shows, art, and Native American storytelling and dancing.
The Mississippi River Visitors’ Center (Arsenal Island: 309.794.5338; free) hosts a Bald Eagle Watch on the first few weekends of the new year except the weekend of Bald Eagle Days. The hour-long event includes a presentation on eagle biology, a tour of the Clock Tower, and eagle spotting. Reservations are required.
The St. Patrick’s Day Grand Parade begins in Rock Island and crosses into Davenport via the Centennial Bridge, thus giving the Quad Cities bragging rights as host of the only St. Patrick’s Day Parade that marches in two states, and, I imagine, that crosses a big river in the process (309.324.5000; March, generally the Saturday before St. Patrick’s Day).
Motorcycle enthusiasts gather in Davenport on Father’s Day weekend for Rally on the River (Centennial Park; 309.799.7469) to celebrate all things bike-ish with music, shopping, and camaraderie.
The Mississippi Valley Fair (Davenport: Mississippi Valley Fairgrounds; 2815 W. Locust; 563.326.5338; late July/early August) is a traditional county fair with traditional fair food like deep-fried mutant chicken breasts on a stick and traditional fair events like trying not to step in fresh cow dung.
The most well-known and best-attended festival is the Bix Beiderbecke Jazz Festival (Davenport: late July/early August), named after the renowned cornet player and jazz composer whose legend continued beyond his untimely death at age twenty-eight. The event began in 1971 when musicians from the Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Jazz Band of New Jersey came to Davenport to play on the fortieth anniversary of his death. When word leaked out that the group was going to jam at the Holiday Inn, two thousand people showed up. Thinking that this was a sign of continuing interest in the legacy of Bix, an annual festival was created. Good thinking. Concerts take place in several locations around town, including LeClaire Park on the Davenport riverfront.
In late August, Alternating Currents takes off, with live music at multiple venues across town but watch also for film screenings, visual art, and comedians at venues around downtown Davenport.
Men in skirts, whirling and twirling about, cradling large heavy objects, grunting and screaming, throwing the objects as far as they can. What is this thing? No, silly, it is not some strange S/M ballet, although it may look like that at times. This is the Celtic Highland Games of the Quad Cities (Davenport: Centennial Park; 309.794.0449; August/weekend before Labor Day), an annual event where men in kilts gather to compete in games imported from Celtic homelands, like the hammer throw, sheaf toss, and caber toss, all to the background accompaniment of roaming bagpipers. (Check out the Celtic Highlands Games photo album.)
The Antique Flattrack Motorcycles Races (Davenport: Mississippi Valley Fairgrounds; 2815 W. Locust; 515.966.9338; August/last Friday of the month) are a throwback to an earlier era. Antique bikes and some antique riders—there is at least one guy in his 80s who competes most years—race around a half-mile dirt track. I was prepared to be bored, but between the roar of the bikes, the potential for bloody wrecks from slipping on the dirt track, and the photo finishes, I found the whole thing pretty damned exciting! And, I didn’t feel the least bit out of place surrounded by a sea of middle-aged, bearded, leather-clad biker-types, except when the guy behind me kept naming off the year and make of every single bike and all I could see was that it had two wheels. (Check out my photos of the antique motorcycle races.)
Mississippi Valley Blues Festival (Davenport, LeClaire Park; 563.322.5837; Labor Day weekend) is a big blues bash on the Davenport riverfront. The festival draws top quality regional and national blues performers and big crowds.
If you are into fast cars, albeit small ones, the Rock Island Grand Prix (Labor Day weekend) is your event. Professional kart drivers (as in go-karts) from near and far zip around the streets of downtown Rock Island for a $25,000 prize. This race is a springboard to NASCAR for many drivers. Seriously. (Check out my photos from the Rock Island Grand Prix.)
Culture and the Arts
Besides the cultural institutions highlighted along the River Road, there are several others that are worth checking out. The Catich Gallery (Davenport: Galvin Fine Arts & Communications Center; 518 W. Locust St.; 563.333.6000) is a small visual arts gallery at St. Ambrose University that hosts rotating exhibits. The Quad Cities Symphony Orchestra (563.322.0931) performs several concerts a year at the Adler Theater in Davenport and Centennial Hall in Rock Island.
The Quad Cities have several active theater companies. Your best bet is to consult the arts calendar in the River Cities’ Reader, but the following venues have regular events. The Circa ’21 Dinner Playhouse (Rock Island: 1828 3rd Ave.; 309.786.7733) is a dinner theater with a very busy performance schedule throughout the year. The Quad City Music Guild (309.762.6610; summer shows performed Th–Sa 7:30, Su 2p) has been staging musical and dance entertainment in Moline’s Prospect Park Auditorium (16th St. @ 30th Ave.) for over half a century. Call or check their website for a current schedule. Because of limited parking, the Guild operates a shuttle service from South Park Mall (the southeast lot near JCPenney and Denny’s Restaurant) to the auditorium for performances. It’s a Mystery! (563.355.6100) specializes in original comedy/mystery shows that invite audience participation; they perform a few times a year in the Quad Cities.
The art deco Adler Theatre (Davenport: 136 E. 3rd St.; 563.326.8500) is a performing-arts center that opened in 1931; renovated in the 1980s, it hosts live concerts, musical theater, as well as performances for the Ballet Quad Cities (309.786.3779) and Opera Quad Cities (563.355.7737). For other arts events, don’t forget to check the calendar for the Galvin Fine Arts Center at St. Ambrose University (Davenport: 518 W. Locust St.; 563.333.6251) and Centennial Hall at Augustana College (Rock Island: 3703 7th Ave.; 309.794.7233).
Local artist Michael Blaser has been fascinated by boats since childhood. His paintings include renderings of historic steamboats on the Mississippi River and the levees where they docked, as well as images of modern towboats. Look for his work around town.
The Quad Cities River Bandits (Davenport: Modern Woodmen Park; 209 S. Gaines St.; 563.322.6348; games from April-September), a Class A minor league baseball team affiliated with the Houston Astros, play in one of the most scenic spots for a baseball game—anywhere—at a historic stadium on the Davenport riverfront.
Getting To and Out of Dodge
I bet you arrived here by car, probably on one of the major Interstates that cross through the area: 80, 88, 74, or 280. If you came on the Iowa Great River Road, you arrived either on US Highway 67 from the north or Iowa Highway 22 from the south. On the Illinois side, the Great River Road from the north is Illinois Highway 84; from the south, it is Illinois Highway 92. If you stay on any of the Great River Road routes, you will pass through the heart of the Quad Cities. If you arrive via Interstate Highway, you will fly right past the fun unless you exit onto one of these routes.
Quad City International Airport, founded as Moline Airport, began regular commercial service in 1926. It is on the southern edge of Moline, near the intersection of Interstates 280 and 74. It is served by four airlines: Allegiant, American, Delta, and United. Access to downtown Moline from the airport is quick, about ten minutes, by taking I-74 westbound. You may have to call for a taxi, as there is not always a queue at the QC Airport. Rates and phone numbers are posted by exit 7, near baggage claim. You can also take a MetroLINK bus (Route #20) from the airport to downtown Moline.
In Davenport the Ground Transportation Center (300 W. River Dr.) is the bus terminal for Greyhound and Burlington Trailways, as well as the local CitiBus. National bus lines have daily departures to the Iowa cities of Burlington, Iowa City, Cedar Rapids, and Des Moines, plus departures to Omaha, Chicago, and Indianapolis. In Moline, the bus terminal is at Centre Station (1200 River Dr.); busses from here have daily departures to Chicago, Des Moines, and Indianapolis. Specific departure times vary from day to day and change frequently. Call the bus lines or check the Internet for current schedules (Greyhound: 563.326.5127; Burlington Trailways: 563.322.1876).
Honestly, though, if you’re going to be exploring the territory along the River Road, you are better off just renting a car. Bus routes to river towns north of the Quad Cities are ridiculously time consuming, although you may have slightly better luck going south. If you want to rent a car, you can go to the airport, where several national chains have offices.
The nearest Amtrak station is in Galesburg, IL, about 45 miles south. From Galesburg, you must take a bus to reach the Quad Cities. A line extending Amtrak service to Moline is under construction.
Most every city here uses numbered streets and avenues, which means if you follow 15th Street when you really want 15th Avenue, you may end up in the Mississippi River instead of that brewpub you want to check out. It also means that when you are asking about an address, you need to know which city it is in. Asking for 14th Street isn’t good enough. You need to know that the 14th Street you want is the one in Davenport, not the one in Moline. If that’s not confusing enough, you may notice that streets go perpendicular to the river, except in Davenport where they parallel the river. In most cases, perpendicular to the river means north-south, except for Hampton where perpendicular to the river is nearly east-west, which is the direction streets in Davenport go, even though they parallel the river. I’m sure that clears up the confusion. Maybe this will simplify things. If you are like me and you use the river as a landmark to help navigate around town, remember that the Mississippi flows from east to west through the heart of the Quad Cities, so when you are driving parallel to the river, you are therefore going east or west. It takes some getting used to. I’ve been turned around many times.
Local busses can get you around town fairly well, but you may have a bit of a wait for some connections. Operating hours are very limited, however, especially at night and on weekends. It’s a good idea to call ahead to confirm times and schedules. The bus systems are: Bettendorf Transit (563.344.4085), CitiBus in Davenport (563.888.2151), and the Illinois federation called MetroLINK (309.788.3360). Transfers within the same system are usually free, but transferring busses between may cost a bit extra. You can transfer between MetroLINK and Bettendorf busses at the Centre Station in Moline and between MetroLINK and CitiBus in Rock Island’s Ground Transportation Center or in The District.
Between Memorial Day and Labor Day you can zip between cities on both sides of the river on the Channel Cat Water Taxis (309.788.3360), which operate above Lock and Dam 15. Catch a ride at one of the following stops: 1) Moline Landing (Celebration Belle pier), 2) Isle of Capri in Bettendorf, 3) Village of East Davenport, and 4) John Deere Commons in Moline. An $8 ticket buys you unlimited rides for a single day; pay as you board. You can bring your bike on the boat as long as it is not too crowded.
It is easy to explore the area by bicycle, although steep hills can make for a challenging ride. The bike paths along the river are generally flat and take you past a good cross-section of the communities. Most other attractions are within a short distance of the downtowns, but be prepared to scale those previously mentioned hills along the way. Between April and September, bicycles can be rented at the Visitors’ Centers at Davenport’s Union Station or Moline’s Bass Street Landing. There are many paved bike/pedestrian paths in the Quad Cities. On the Iowa side, the Davenport Riverfront Trail parallels the Mississippi River from Credit Island Park to Bettendorf where it ends at the Isle of Capri Casino. The Duck Creek Recreational Trail is another exceptional trail that runs twelve miles through the heart of area from Davenport’s Emeis Park to Bettendorf’s Duck Creek Park. On the Illinois side, the Great River Trail begins in Sunset Park and goes sixty-five miles to Savanna, Illinois, passing through Moline and East Moline along the way.
Ride-sharing services Uber and Lyft operate in the region, as do a couple of taxi companies.
© Dean Klinkenberg, 2009/2018