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The Twin Cities, rooted in the values of America’s hardworking heartland and built around a network of parks and waterways, blend the best of small-town Midwest tradition with an active outdoor lifestyle. Throw in the energy and edge of a burgeoning contemporary city (Minneapolis) and the stately ch…arm of Minnesota’s capital (St. Paul), and you have the Twin Cities: multifaceted gems in an otherwise flat landscape. With everything from the music of Prince to the food of James Beard Award–winning chefs, the metropolis is a melting pot of innovation, yet manages to remain unassuming. The best times are still had at local dives and family-run diners.
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Summer is the most popular time to visit, when temperatures are warm and daylight lasts late. However, the best-kept secret is the beauty of early fall, with crisp air and colorful foliage. Winters are harsh, but locals still bike in the bitterest cold. The downtown Skyway systems—entire blocks of climate-controlled covered walkways—allow residents and visitors to comfortably navigate Minneapolis and St. Paul’s respective downtowns any time of year.
Take the METRO Blue Line lightrail from the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport (MSP) to reach downtown Minneapolis within 25 minutes. From here, St. Paul is only a 13-mile drive or a 45-minute METRO ride away. You can rent a car from the airport, but the public transportation system is cheap, safe, and convenient. The Green and Blue METRO lines connect the downtowns to each other and to other local points of interest like the Mall of America and University of Minnesota. If you’re so inclined, do as the locals do and rent a bike from a Nice Ride bike share station and explore the city’s substantial bicycle infrastructure. Make sure to read through the fee structure and time limits so that you aren’t surprised with additional charges.
Offering everything from kitsch to craft, the Twin Cities spike their food and drink with playful creativity. Whether sipping a margarita on a Ferris wheel at Betty Danger’s or blowing liquid nitrogen smoke with a James Beard–nominated chef at Travail Kitchen & Amusements, you’ll find that family-run diners and fine-dining establishments alike know how to add the right ratio of friendly fun to the mix. Unique variations of Midwestern classics like the Jucy Lucy (cheese-stuffed burger) and Hotdish (casserole) have become novelty favorites, so make sure to indulge. The Twin Cities aren’t all meat and potatoes, though: A large immigrant population has broadened the cities’ palette with flavors from Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Craft beer and cocktails are commonplace, with relaxed regulations incentivizing breweries and distilleries to open at increasingly rapid rates. Local coffee roasters and cafes are following a similar trajectory.
The Twin Cities are rich with well-preserved history in the form of museums, churches, and monuments honoring Minneapolis’s Mill City past and St. Paul’s dual personality of vice and virtue. However, it’s the living history of independent cultural spaces like the music venue First Avenue (of Prince’s “Purple Rain” fame) that keeps the metropolis on the cutting edge of cultural innovation. Classic jaunts include wandering the 11-acre Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, strolling the Victorian home–lined Summit Avenue, and soaking in the unobstructed views of the Mississippi River from the Guthrie Theater’s “Endless Bridge” walkway. Minneapolis-St. Paul contains the most theater seats per capita of any metropolitan area besides New York City, so you’d be remiss not to stay and enjoy a show at one of the Guthrie’s three impressive stages.
Minneapolis and St. Paul are anything but identical, but they do share one defining feature: the Mississippi River from which both cities grew and thrived. Put the power of the river into perspective by crossing Minneapolis’s Stone Arch Bridge, a 23-arch granite and limestone bridge built in 1883. Begin your crossing from the quaint St. Anthony Main side. The historic bridge, Mill Ruins Park, and St. Anthony Falls come into view as you walk, and their juxtaposition against the modern Minneapolis skyline is powerful enough to incite nostalgia as well as excite your senses. Do you keep walking into the fast-paced present or turn back to the comforting past?
There’s only one festival that matters in the Midwest, and that’s the Minnesota State Fair—the second-largest in the country. Free entertainment and endless food stands attract nearly 2 million people to the fairgrounds throughout 12 days around Labor Day each year. From candy bars to meatloaf, you can find almost anything prepared according to the fair’s signature style: fried and skewered on a stick. In January and February, St. Paul’s Winter Carnival transforms the city into a literal winter wonderland of intricate ice sculptures, including an ice palace centerpiece that’s as iconic as Cinderella’s Castle.
The Midwest is known for an endless yellow plain of fields and prairie, so it may come as a surprise that the Twin Cities are lush with green spaces. In fact, almost every resident lives within a 10-minute walk of a park, and the local network of bicycle and foot trails is one of the most extensive in the country. From the scents of floral gardens to the sounds of crashing waterfalls, the diversity of outdoor spaces will delight your senses for days. You can drive three or more hours to striking North Shore escapes like Split Rock Lighthouse, but you can also get your fill of non-urban activities within an hour’s radius. Along the St. Croix River, towns like Stillwater and Hudson offer the perfect mix of antiquing, eating, and river cruising. For hiking and paddling, head further north to Taylors Falls Interstate Park or south to Afton State Park.
Back in town, Minneapolis’s Uptown neighborhood, where the historic intermingles with the hip, has become an alternative to downtown living. The intersection of Lake Street and Hennepin Avenue is packed with cafes, shops, restaurants, and bars that bring together a diverse mix of people. Gentrification has made this once-vibrant countercultural arts district a bit more mainstream, but you’ll still find street murals at Intermedia Arts, Drag Queen Bingo Night at Liquor Lyle’s, and cult film screenings at the iconic Uptown Theater.
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Susan Mason is a producer, writer, and digital strategist who is passionate about telling stories that inspire people to connect with one another and their surroundings. She has worked with brands like National Geographic and produced the Webby Award-winning #EverestNoFilter, a breakthrough project in expedition journalism. Susan is always ready for a hike, road trip, or good meal, and you can follow her adventures at @soozyn.