20 Top Things to Do in Minnesota
Top attractions in Minnesota
Minnesota is known as the "Land of 10,000 Lakes," though it actually has 11,842. Water defines this state, and visitors will find charming lakeside resorts as well as wilderness to be explored only by paddlers. Even the Twin Cities can claim to be lakeside destinations, although Minneapolis' and Saint Paul's big-city attractions (not to mention the Mississippi River) usually outshine the 929 metro-area lakes.
Click ahead to find out about 20 of our favorite experiences in Minnesota, from Brainerd's lakeland fun to Minneapolis' theater scene.
Pictured at left: Gooseberry Falls plummets through a rocky gorge on Minnesota's North Shore.
Minneapolis Sculpture Garden
The star attraction in the free Minneapolis Sculpture Garden is Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen's Spoonbridge and Cherry, with its 5,800-pound spoon and 1,200-pound cherry. More than 40 other works are on view, including Kinji Akagawa's Garden Seating, Reading, Thinking bench and The Irene Hixon Whitney Bridge designed by Siah Armajani. Tours are available in summer. The sculpture garden is part of the Walker Art Center, a recently expanded museum of contemporary art. (612) 375-7600; walkerart.org
Brainerd's lakeland fun
Just 125 miles north of the Twin Cities, Brainerd (population 13,700) is firmly in the lakelands—lots of pine trees and plenty of Paul Bunyan kitsch. The shores here are sprinkled with resorts (from old-school to woodsy chic), shops, restaurants, state parks and trails. Tee off on one of the Brainerd Golf Trail's courses (brainerdgolftrail.com), or relax at Glacial Waters Spa at Grand View Lodge (pictured; grandviewlodge.com).
North Shore state parks
North of Duluth on State-61, the turnoffs for fabulous state parks come one after another, like Burma Shave signs flashing past your window: Gooseberry Falls, Split Rock Lighthouse (left), Tettegouche. All told, eight parks sit along the North Shore, loaded with waterfalls, forest trails and achingly beautiful Lake Superior views (40 miles northeast of Duluth). (651) 296-6157; dnr.state.mn.us
Retro chic at Detroit Lakes
Tucked among north-central Minnesota's trees and lakes, you'll find generations-old resorts built around screen-door cabins and a refusal to gentrify. Downtown Detroit Lakes (population 8,100) features a mile-long beach near streets of everyday shops, not just gift stores. Throw in simple pleasures like water-skiing lessons, a huge flea market and a county fair, and you don't get much more Parent Trap (Hayley Mills version) than this—and that's why people love it.
Pictured: Canoe at Detroit Lakes' Fair Hills Resort.
Lanesboro's Root River charm
Three words best describe this Root River Valley town of 750: outdoors, agriculture and arts.
Mostly, visitors come for the trail system (left). Lanesboro (120 miles southeast of the Twin Cities) stands at the heart of the area's paved multi-use trails, including the 42-mile Root River Valley Trail and the 18-mile Harmony-Preston Trail. Many travelers bring their own bikes, but you also can rent them at the Little River General Store. (507) 467-2943; lrgeneralstore.net
Be sure to get a trail map before heading out. (507) 206-2841; rootrivertrail.org
Art galleries, a seasonal farmers market and a professional theater round out a weekend trip here.
Grand Marais' art scene
Tucked into a natural Lake Superior harbor (110 miles northeast of Duluth), this town of 1,400 has a surprising arts scene. You can poke around shops downtown such as the Sivertson Art Gallery, where the creations of regional artists reflect the influence of the lake. Pictured at left. (888) 880-4369; sivertson.com
Or head to the North House Folk School for classes (topics include boat-building and basket-weaving), films and even concerts. (218) 387-9762; northhouse.org
The creative spirit extends to area restaurants, where chefs work culinary magic with fresh-caught lake fish.
Minneapolis' theater scene
Want a glam night out at the theater? Look no further than Minneapolis, home to more theater seats per capita than any city outside of New York. Our pick: The legendary Guthrie (left), now housed in a spectacular complex on the Mississippi River. (612) 377-2224; guthrietheater.org
Take an architectural tour during the day, and then come back at night for a play and dinner or drinks in one of the Guthrie's restaurants.
- Photo Courtesy of New Ulm Chamber of Commerce
Minnesota River Valley Scenic Byway
This lovely 287-mile route, which parallels US-169 on its east end, starts in a broad valley near Belle Plaine (population: 6,600; 45 miles southwest of Minneapolis), then heads south before veering west at Mankato (population: 36,200). Apple stands and a soda fountain await in Henderson (population: 900), while New Ulm (population: 13,000) has handsome Germanic brick architecture (including the 1885 August Schell mansion at left) and a working glockenspiel. Morgan Creek Vineyards, just east of town, opens for tours and tastings on the weekends. (507) 947-3547; morgancreekvineyards.com
Eagles in Wabasha
Situated on the Mississippi, Wabasha (population 2,800) is famous for its wintering eagle population (and as the setting for the 1993 movie Grumpy Old Men). At the National Eagle Center (nationaleaglecenter.org), you can learn about resident eagles and see live eagles up close. Hour-long educational feeding programs are held several times a day.
If you want to spot eagles in the wild, winter's the best time to visit. Eagles migrate from more northern homes as their feeding sites freeze. The big attraction in Wabasha: A stretch of the Mississippi River near Lake Pepin that usually stays ice-free—and has plenty of gizzard shad, one of eagles' favorite foods.
Itasca State Park
Twenty miles north of Park Rapids, old-growth forest holds the burbling, clear source of the Mississippi river. Most people come to Itasca State Park to walk the Mississippi headwaters, but the forest's massive pines, sparkling Lake Itasca and miles of hiking trails and paved bike paths might steal the show. Visit both the Jacob V. Brower Visitor Center and the Mary Gibbs Mississippi Headwaters Center, which offer exhibits, maps and gift shops. dnr.state.mn.us
- Photo Courtesy of Mall of America
Mall of America
More than 40 million people visit the Mall of America, 10 miles south of Minneapolis, each year. (952) 883-8800; mallofamerica.com
The nation's biggest mall has more than 500 stores, dozens of restaurants, an indoor amusement park, an aquarium and a butterfly garden.
A little planning before your outing will ensure you're not overwhelmed. Go to the mall's website for information on store locations, hours, parking, events and promotions—and a handy coupon book. Be sure to wear comfortable shoes, and leave your coat in the car (the mall is 70 degrees year-round).
Duluth's Great Lakes attractions
Duluth's Aerial Lift Bridge rises more than 20 times each day for boats—and skyscraper-size ships—traveling between Lake Superior and Duluth Harbor. No matter how many times you see it, the scene never gets old. At the Lake Superior Maritime Visitor Center, learn about the lake's shipping industry and try your hand on a pilothouse wheel (lsmma.com). The Great Lakes Aquarium is home to playful otters, gigantic sturgeon and more (glaquarium.org).
Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness
At the northeastern tip of Minnesota, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness qualifies as a backpacker's paradise, where paddles and boots replace motors, campfires replace ovens, and loons provide the background music for all. Travelers paddle from lake to lake, portaging gear in between. Solo trips are common, but outfitters in getaway towns, including Ely, Crane Lake, Grand Marias and Tofte can provide able guides and supplies to orchestrate the trip. Sharp-eyed visitors spot moose, black bears and bald eagles. (218) 626-4300; fs.fed.us/superior
The spirit of Jesse James
Townspeople in Northfield gunned down most of the Jesse James gang when it attempted to rob the First National Bank in 1876; only Jesse and brother Frank escaped. Now, some 100,000 celebrate the victory at the annual Defeat of Jesse James Days event in September, with bank raid re-enactments, a parade, arts and crafts show, antique tractor pull and other events. djjd.org
Northfield (population 19,600; 44 miles south of Minneapolis) also is home to the Northfield Historical Society Museum, which includes the restored office of the First National Bank. (507) 645-9268; northfieldhistory.org
The outlaw spirit also lives on at The Hideaway Coffeehouse and Wine Bar, where a bistro-style menu includes items named for Jesse and his gang. (507) 664-0400; thehideawaynorthfield.com
Minnesota's bear market
Think our winters are a bear? In Apple Valley (about 20 miles south of Minneapolis), the Minnesota Zoo's $24 million Russia's Grizzly Coast offers a taste of Siberia. (952) 431-9200; mnzoo.org
Steaming geysers and erupting volcanoes evoke the wild Russian Far East, and you'll watch 1,000-pound grizzlies roam the Apple Valley grounds and catch live trout. (Neighbors in the exhibit include sea otters, leopards and wild boar.)
More than 200 miles north, Ely's North American Bear Center offers an educational center and rehab facility for injured and orphaned bears named Ted, Honey and Lucky. (218) 365-7879; bear.org
Forestville/Mystery Cave State Park
Around 1900, a forward-thinking farmer bought up the dying town of Forestville and patiently waited for the state to recognize what he had saved. Today, interpreters chat with visitors in this beautifully resurrected pioneer town (120 miles south of Saint Paul). The village shares a park with Minnesota's longest cave, open for tours in the summer. (507) 352-5111; dnr.state.mn.us
Mill City Museum
The world's largest mill -- the Washburn A. Mill -- ground enough flour in a day to make 12 million loaves of bread. The Minneapolis building now houses the Mill City Museum, which re-creates old-school flour production days with period equipment, railroad cars and a floor-by-floor tour in a giant freight elevator. The glass elevator rises from the rubble of Mill Ruins Park, with the iconic Gold Medal flour sign overhead. millcitymuseum.org
Minnesota State Capitol
The architect of the U.S. Supreme Court building designed this 1905 stunner in Saint Paul. Among its impressive features: the quadriga, or golden horses, on the exterior of the building. Designed by Daniel Chester French (sculptor of the Lincoln Memorial), the figures are made of copper and covered with gold leaf. Indoor access is limited until a $270 million restoration is completed in 2017, but visitors can take self-guided or cell phone tours of the grounds. (651) 259-3473; mnhs.org
Blue Mounds State Park
Blue Mounds offers a change in landscape from most Minnesota parks: wide-open spaces. Visitors come for simple prairie pleasures, like prickly pears blooming in June and July, bison grazing on wild grasses and quiet hikes along windswept trails (35 miles northeast of Sioux Falls, South Dakota). (507) 283-6050; dnr.state.mn.us
Voyageurs National Park
How do you get around a 218,000-acre national park that doesn't have any roads? The answer is the main reason people visit this park on the Canadian border: boats.
To explore Voyageurs' 30-some lakes (Rainy and Namekan are the biggest) and find the solitude this park is famous for, you need something that floats. Some folks spend a day on a guided walleye fishing trip and stay at a resort in one of the shore towns of International Falls (population 5,900) or tiny Ranier (population 200). Others motor around on houseboats, watching for moose by day and anchoring at a different island each night for sunset and a campfire. nps.gov/voya
Pictured: Rainy Lake's numerous bays and islands provide plenty of private berths for houseboats and campers.