Minnesota may be known as the Land of 10,000 Lakes, but there’s so much more to this state than water recreation. In the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, visitors will find thriving art, music, and literary scenes as well as restaurants that garner national attention. Minneapolis was even named among the most bike-friendly cities in the world, meaning you could spend your entire time there outdoors, exploring the sights via beautiful “bikeways.”
Beyond the cities, the expansive region of Northeast Minnesota offers small towns and art colonies alongside the pristine nature of the Boundary Waters. And though Northwest Minnesota is often considered the path less traveled, it has a lot to give in the way of nature and culture, including lakes, rivers, and a popular arts center.
To help you have the perfect trip to the North Star State, we’ve rounded up the best things to do across Minnesota, from museum hopping and beer tasting to canoeing, hiking, camping, and more. Keep reading, then get busy planning your Midwest adventure.
In the Twin Cities
Bde Maka Ska
A trip to the Land of 10,000 Lakes wouldn’t be complete without spending some time on, well, a lake—even if you’re only visiting the cities. In Minneapolis, everyone heads to Bde Maka Ska, the largest of five in the city’s Chain of Lakes. Located in the Uptown neighborhood, the 401-acre lake is surrounded by parkland and trails, making it a favorite of locals for ice fishing in the winter and swimming, biking, and volleyball games in the summer. Along the shore are rental options for nearly every water sport, including sailing, kayaking, and paddleboarding, plus lockers for stashing your stuff when you’re out on the water. For those who prefer dry land, there are also several Nice Ride stations where you can access the city’s bike-share program, and a seasonal restaurant serving sandwiches, wings, and tacos.
Minneapolis Sculpture Garden
Located next door to the Walker Art Center, the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden features more than 60 works by big names like Alexander Calder, Sol LeWitt, and Robert Indiana. At its center stands Claes Oldenburg’s iconic Spoonbridge and Cherry, which locals regard as an unofficial symbol of the city. Perhaps the best thing about the sculpture garden, however, is that it’s free, unlike the Walker—or the surrounding parking, for that matter. It’s open 365 days a year, from 6 a.m. to midnight, and also hosts the two-day Rock the Garden musical festival in June.
Minnehaha Regional Park
One of the unique things about the Twin Cities is just how much nature is part of the urban landscape. Few places exemplify this better than Minnehaha, one of Minneapolis’s oldest and most popular parks. Here, visitors will find limestone bluffs, river overlooks, and a majestic 53-foot waterfall that freezes in winter. Explore the area via various walking and biking paths, or bring your furry friend to the epic dog park. There’s also a disc golf course, picnic area, playground, volleyball court, and wading pool, making the park perfect for family outings.
Surly Brewing Co.
One of the first breweries in Minneapolis, Surly set the stage for all the places that opened in its wake by helping to pass legislation in 2011 allowing breweries and distilleries to serve alcohol on site. It’s still going strong today and offers some of the most beloved brews in the region, like the Furious (slightly dark and hoppy) and the Hell (a standard lager beloved by locals). Surly operates out of a sprawling space near the University of Minnesota’s Minneapolis campus, where guests can sample a rotating tap list of up to 38 brews in the beer hall. Also on-site is a seasonal beer garden lined with fire pits and a pizza restaurant serving New Haven–style pies.
Minnesota’s official natural history museum, the Bell in St. Paul features a digital planetarium, high-tech exhibitions, wildlife dioramas, outdoor learning experiences, and more. Visit the state-of-the-art planetarium to explore the far reaches of the cosmos, then head to the permanent galleries to learn about the origins of the universe, the diversification of life on earth, and how University of Minnesota researchers are working to create a better future for our evolving world. Children will especially love the Touch & See Lab, where they can learn through observation and sensory engagement, while nature lovers will want to head to the green roof and observatory deck, home to native plants, a geology exploration area, and a solar station.
Unknown to many is the fact that F. Scott Fitzgerald was born in St. Paul and lived in various homes there. Several of the residences still stand, but perhaps the most prominent is the three-story town house at 599 Summit Avenue, where he finished the manuscript for This Side of Paradise. The building was officially added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1972 but remains a private home, so tours aren’t typically allowed. Simply walk by to appreciate its history, then head to nearby Grand Avenue for shopping and snacking.
In Northeast Minnesota
Superior Hiking Trail
The SHT, as it’s known to locals, is perhaps the most famous hiking trail in Minnesota—not to mention one of the most well-known in the United States. The footpath–only trail stretches for more than 310 miles from the Minnesota–Wisconsin border into Canada, offering incredible scenery and glimpses of moose and other rare wildlife. The first segment meanders 58 miles from the Wisconsin border to Duluth, with trail markers every five to 10 miles for easy day hikes, backpacking, and trail running. From Duluth, it extends along the North Shore for 255 miles, passing through charming cities like Grand Marais and Lutsen. The final, northernmost section connects with the Border Route and Kekekabic trails that take hikers through the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and the town of Ely, Minnesota.
Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness
The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, referred to as the BWCA or simply “the Boundary Waters,” draws canoeists from around the world—and for good reason. Located on the Minnesota–Canada border, the area encompasses more than 1 million acres in the northern section of the Superior National Forest and features over 1,100 lakes, 1,200 miles of canoe routes, 12 hiking trails, and thousands of campsites. The nature here is pristine yet rugged, with lakes cut from granite and surrounded by old pine growth. Since planes flying below 4,000 feet are prohibited in the BWCA, the area is also blissfully silent, offering a kind of solitude rarely found in the U.S.
Franconia Sculpture Park
Located on 43 acres in the idyllic St. Croix River Valley, Franconia Sculpture Park is a popular day trip from the Twin Cities. Open from dawn to dusk 365 days a year, it’s completely free to explore—which may be why it sees more than 60,000 visitors a year. Unlike at most art museums, guests here are encouraged to touch and climb the more than 120 sculptures on site, making for a fun, interactive way to spend the day with family. If it’s too cold to play outdoors, consider dropping by for community arts programming like kids’ sculpture classes, live music, and artists’ talks. The park also runs an active artist residency, which helps to continually supply the grounds with new, large-scale sculptures.
Grand Marais Art Colony
Artists from all over the country come to learn from the renowned teachers at the Grand Marais Art Colony. Nestled between Lake Superior and the Superior National Forest, the center offers studio instruction in painting, printmaking, clay, and glassworks, as well as tiered classes for students of all levels. While some classes run for several days, many are just a few hours long and make for a perfect afternoon activity. Practice your color theory and drum leaf binding, or sign the kids up for youth lessons in clay sculpture, screen printing, and origami. The center also holds regular open studios, when you can drop in to see work by various artists-in-residence.
The most popular historic home in Minnesota, the 27,000-square-foot Glensheen Mansion features 39 rooms, beautiful 20th-century craftsmanship, and 12 acres of gardens—but that’s not why people visit. People come to see where Elisabeth Congdon, the heiress to her family’s large mining fortune, was murdered along with her nurse in 1977. After being donated to the University of Minnesota, Glensheen opened as a historic house museum in 1979, with details like Chester Congdon’s top hat in a closet, his wife Clara’s letters in a desk drawer, and bedsheets organized in a linen closet by the Congdons’ second-floor maid nearly 100 years ago. Tours, which cover everything from the attic and third floor to the servants’ wing, respectfully leave out the murder scene, but guides are willing to share details afterward.
In Northwest Minnesota
Zippel Bay State Park
Lake of the Woods is a must-visit county for any traveler to Northwest Minnesota, especially for Zippel Bay State Park. With 3,000 acres of nature to explore, Zippel Bay boasts pet-friendly campsites and a sandy beach as well as excellent fishing, hiking, and bird-watching. The park is also popular in the colder months, when it transforms into a winter wonderland with ice fishing, seven miles of cross-country skiing trails, and four miles of snowmobiling roads. If you’re visiting in the summer and planning on doing some fishing, know that there’s a convenient fish-cleaning station where you can easily transform your day’s catch into your evening’s dinner.
Far North Spirits
Just 25 miles from the Canadian border in the tiny town of Hallock, Far North Spirits is the northernmost distillery in the contiguous United States. While you might think the distillery’s remote location holds it back, it’s actually what inspires owners Michael Swanson and Cheri Reese, who rely on northern Minnesota’s agricultural abundance to craft their premium, heritage spirits. In fact, the husband-and-wife team are among only a handful of estate distillers nationwide who also grow their own grains. Using sustainable methods, they produce a handful of beautifully bottled gins, rums, vodkas, and whiskeys, all of which possess a uniquely Minnesota character. Try them at Far North’s stylish Cocktail Room, where you can order the spirits neat or mixed into well-crafted drinks.
Watermark Art Center
A staple in Bemidji since 1982, the nonprofit, member-supported Watermark Art Center works to encourage the growth and development of visual art in northern Minnesota. Home to four galleries, it presents a variety of quality exhibitions and also hosts classes, workshops, and festivals to engage the local community. Shows have featured painting, drawing, photography, sculpture and multimedia work, while classes, which are available for children, adults, and families, focus on topics as varied as textile weaving, Saami bracelets, and garden stone art. Stop by to see what’s going on, then visit the Gallery Shop, where you can pick up ceramics, paintings, and more for unique souvenirs.
Itasca State Park
Named for its lake—which serves as the starting point for the Mississippi River—Itasca is the oldest state park in Minnesota and the second oldest in the U.S. behind Niagara Falls. During the summer, locals flock here for hiking, camping, fishing, and exploring the unique ecosystem, which features a lot of old growth. History buffs can visit the Mary Gibbs Mississippi Headwaters Center, which features interactive, outdoor displays about the river, while those eager for a good meal can grab a table at the Douglas Lodge, open from May to October. In the winter, it’s worth planning a visit around the park’s candlelight event, when you can snowshoe on trails illuminated by candles and warm up around a bonfire with marshmallows and hot drinks.
If you’re in Northwest Minnesota and the weather is warm, you’re practically obligated to tube the Otter Tail River. For help with equipment and logistics, turn to Charlie’s Tubing. The friendly outfitter is open from late May through early September and helps coordinate two-hour rides down the river for groups of up to 45 people. Simply head seven miles east of Detroit Lakes on Highway 34 and you’ll see a big pink building with a vintage truck parked out front. From there, look forward to a leisurely float down the Otter Tail with a reliable team that knows how to show visitors a good time.
Note: Though COVID-19 has stalled a lot of travel plans, we hope our stories can offer inspiration for your future adventures. Please continue to check government websites for the latest policies and restrictions.
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