For many a Minneapolitan, it takes just a short bike ride or stroll to reach a lakeshore—or five. Trace the Chain of Lakes, then wade into nearby neighborhoods to explore more.
grand rounds national scenic byway bikers fall
Credit: David Nevala

An early September sunrise casts an orange glow over the lakeshore, briefly fooling lakefront power walkers into thinking the leaves have already turned. Here in southwest Minneapolis, rush hour traffic looks—and sounds—a little different. You might hear the soft whiz of a bike, the splash of a canoe paddle or the occasional roar of a plane coming in for landing at Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport. If it weren't for the Boeing wake-up calls (and the surrounding mansions), you could easily imagine the city's Chain of Lakes sitting somewhere among the northern Minnesota vacation towns of Brainerd or Bemidji. But these five oases, threaded together with bike and walking paths, lie within 5 miles of downtown Minneapolis—600 city blocks of combined land and water recreation that barely escape the shadows of skyscrapers.

Summer's final hurrah comes on Labor Day weekend, when picnickers crowd the shores. That's also last call to catch performances at the turreted Lake Harriet Bandshell, a nod to the original pavilion that hosted concerts in the 1890s. The largest link in the chain, Bde Maka Ska (Dakota for White Earth Lake) offers rentals through September to pedal boat among the early fall foliage. On brisk days, you can venture into surrounding neighborhoods for bookstore chinchillas, cinnamon buns or a Frankenstein puppet show. But even when the weather turns chilly, you may well find yourself drawn to the water. After all, this is Minnesota. No matter the temperature, the locals are on the lakes.

nice ride minneapolis bike-shake program
Credit: Courtesy of Meet Minneapolis and Gilmour Creative

1. Cruise on Land

Bikes provide the easiest way to navigate between the five lakes, and a handful of Nice Ride bike rental stations sit near parking areas for easy access and docking. (Single rides up to 30 minutes cost $2.50, but we suggest the $10 day pass, so you can zip around as much as you want.) A full loop is about 15 miles—or extend your trip along the 51-mile Grand Rounds Scenic Byway following the Mississippi River. For a quick jaunt, bike or walk the 2.7-mile shoreline of Lake of the Isles, which serves up some of the most envy-inducing mansion views.

canoeing in lake of the isles minneapolis
Credit: Courtesy of Meet Minneapolis and Lane Pelovsky

2. Hit the Water

On Bde Maka Ska, Wheel Fun Rentals can hook you up with kayaks, canoes, SUPs and pedal boats. They're open daily through September 25 (weather dependent).

sebastian joes street view
Credit: Courtesy of Sebastian Joe's

3. Order a Scoop (or Three)

Ice cream knows no season. Order a dish of ovation-worthy Pavarotti (caramel, banana and chocolate chips) at Sebastian Joe's or raspberry honey from LaLa Homemade Ice Cream.

4. Grab a Beach Read

Peruse the shelves of Birchbark Books near Lake of the Isles to discover perspective-broadening novels and nonfiction by Indigenous authors. For children's lit, try Wild Rumpus in Linden Hills. Even if you don't have a kid in tow, you'll want to visit the resident creatures, including chinchillas (Caldecott and Newbery) and cats (Booker T. and Eartha Kitt).

khaluna laotian small plates
Credit: Khâluna, Matt Lien

5. Dine Globally

Savor seafood-centric tastes of Argentina (think spaghetti Fra Diavolo with lobster) at Martina; a colorful array of Laotian small plates at Khâluna; and elevated comfort food, such as pork belly burgers with Gruyère, at The Kenwood.

6. Meet Franklin and Frankenstein

History and science join forces at STEM-focused The Bakken Museum, named for local engineering pioneer Earl Bakken. Inside the historic mansion next to Bde Maka Ska, families join Ben Franklin's hair-raising Electricity Party and bring Mary Shelley's monster to life in an immersive theater.

7. Shop the Market

On Sundays through October 30, stock up on the freshest vegetables, fruits and herbs at the Linden Hills Farmers Market. Musicians and food trucks make regular appearances here.

8. Roll through Time

Before Lyft and Uber, locals got around via a 523-mile streetcar network. For a small fee, ride along a preserved 1-mile stretch of the Como-Harriet Streetcar Line between Lake Harriet and Bde Maka Ska. Seasonal events include the Trick 'r Trolley and haunting Streetcar Named Expire.

9. Load Up on Carbs

The best way to cap off a morning lake excursion: a size-of-your-face cinnamon roll from Isles Bun and Coffee. Their Puppy Dog Tails (frosted cinnamon twists) suit smaller appetites.