I’m constantly traveling around the world, but there is no place I would rather be than my home state, Minnesota. What makes the land of 10,000 lakes so great? Check out just some of my favorites things to do only in Minnesota.
MINNESOTA STATE FAIR
I love the Minnesota State Fair so much that I try to go all 12 days. What could be better than eating every food imaginable on a stick, flying down the giant slide, critiquing seed art, people watching, downing an ice cold lemonade, dangling over tractors and trucks on the Sky Glider, then devouring a tower of Sweet Martha’s cookies (washed down with a big gulp of milk)… for 12 days in a row? Absolutely nothing. Don’t skip Gizmos’ ground beef and Italian sausage sandwich covered in their secret red sauce, topped with melted mozzarella. It’s like an Italian sandwich torpedo.
ITASCA STATE PARK
Established in 1891, Itasca is Minnesota’s oldest state park. And while the 30,000-plus acre park is filled with more than 100 lakes, towering pine forests, marsh lands and a massive wilderness sanctuary, the main attraction is the stepping stones of the Mississippi River at its headwaters. It’s pretty crazy to think that the mighty Mississippi comes from such humble beginnings.
Photo Credit: Deborah Rose
Lake Pepin is a short and scenic hour-and-a-half drive south from St. Paul. It’s the largest lake on the Mississippi, and as summer turns to fall the surrounding bluffs light up with beautiful red, orange and yellow trees. There are a few charming shoreside towns on both the Wisconsin and Minnesota sides, with art galleries, B&Bs, restaurants and shops. Perfect for a weekend getaway. Fun fact: Ralph Samuelson from Lake City, Minnesota invented water skiing on Lake Pepin in 1922.
Home to a vibrant Vietnamese community, the Twin Cities are a pho-lover’s paradise. Quang Restaurant is family owned-and-operated, always packed and serves some of the best brothy and herby traditional Vietnamese beef noodle soup in America. Try the pho thap cam combo beef noodle with sliced beef, tendon, brisket, tripe and meatballs.
Photo Credit: Sen Reed
Minneapolis is home to one of the country’s largest indoor rock climbing gyms. Housed in a historic Ice House building, Vertical Endeavors has nearly 28,000 square feet of climbing walls, some reaching 60 feet in height. Yikes! First-timers can rent equipment and take a lesson.
Photo Credit: Vertical Endeavors
Yeah, I know what you’re thinking: Aside from being just a really big shopping mall, what makes the MOA so special? Well, for starters, there’s the stellar Sea Life Aquarium with all sorts of cool creatures, an indoor amusement park, the American Girl store for doll aficionados, and a massive Lego store with larger than life Lego sculptures for those kids of all ages. Oh, and did you know Minnesota has ZERO sales tax on clothes?
Originally built in 1882 as a part of the Milwaukee Railroad’s main line to the west coast, the Greenway is now a year-round, 5.5 mile bicycling and walking trail. You’ll probably spot a few cyclists touring around on one of the city’s green and blue Nice Ride bikes. Rent one for yourself from dozens of kiosks around the city.
Isles, Calhoun and Harriet are just a few of the urban lakes the Twin Cities boasts. More than mere bodies of water, there are miles of trails that encircle the lakes. Hit the pavement and run, walk, rollerblade (they were invented here!) or bike your butt off. If you want to get fancy (and wet), rent a paddle board/canoe/kayak at Lake Calhoun.
BRAVE NEW WORKSHOP
Second only to New York in live theater per capita, there’s no shortage of great theater in the Twin Cities. One of my favorites has to be Brave New Workshop, the longest running satirical theater in the nation.
A shout-out to one of the best rehab centers on the planet. I’m proud to live in a state that has a huge support system for those battling addiction. Thousands of people got a second chance at life through this amazing organization, myself included.
If you hang out long enough in Minneapolis, you’re bound to bump into Scott Seekins—a mustachioed artist with wild black hair and circular spectacles who dresses in all-white suits in the summer, and all-black suits in the winter. He’s been a fixture for over two decades. He considers himself a walking, living breathing art piece; he’s pretty spot on.
Food freaks have no shortage of options in the Twin Cities, home to five James Beard Award winners. You can’t beat La Belle Vie’s killer cocktails and stunning food (their lounge is one of my favorite dining destinations, period). Isaac Becker’s 112 Eatery is my go-to for late night eats and Restaurant Alma is a favorite for date night with my wife. The Twin Cities is also home to two Beard American Classic winners—Al’s Breakfast (go early to try and nab a seat at their counter) and Kramarczuk’s Sausage Company, perfect to stock up for your next backyard cookout.
Photo Credit: La Belle Vie
Yes, we are aware Minnesota is a long way from the mountains. However, you can still find some pretty amazing skiing at Lutsen. A two-hour scenic drive north of Duluth, this ski destination offers gorgeous vistas of Lake Superior. When the snow melts, trade in your skis for hiking boots.
Regarded as the most bike-friendly city in the country, there’s no shortage of excellent bike shops, gear and activities in Minneapolis. That said, I can’t get enough of the gorgeous two-wheeled masterpieces at Handsome Cycles. They’re the perfect mix of functional, stylish and yes, handsome.
About an hour north of the cities, you’ll find one of the quirkiest sites this side of the Mississippi. Up to 40 emerging and mid-career visual artists create large-scale sculptures at the 25-acre sculpture park and artist residency in Franconia, Minn. It’s basically a field in the middle of nowhere, and tons of fun to explore.
You’ll find a giant collection of hockey history in the heart of the Iron Range. From memorabilia from the Miracle on Ice to a replica rink you can test out for yourself, this Eveleth, Minn., gem is the perfect pit stop on your way to the Boundary Waters… or as a family-friendly destination all on its own.
We Minnesotans love to debate who does the best Jucy Lucy (or is it a Juicy Lucy). Matt’s is the quintessential dive bar: no frills, crabby waitresses, no ice (seriously, no ice). But I think 5-8 Club does the superior Juicy Lucy. A half-pound burger stuffed with a molten-hot cheese center (I like mine with American cheese); you will not be disappointed. Then you have Blue Door Pub, an ever-crowded burger joint that’s touting traditional cheese-stuffed patties (called Blucy’s, naturally) alongside outrageous combos–think mozzarella soaked in coconut milk stuffed into a burger that’s topped with pickled carrots, cucumbers, red onions, and ginger. Another iconic St. Paul joint, The Nook is a viable contender for the city’s best stuffed burger with their Juicy Nookie: a quarter-pound patty stuffed with American cheese on a fresh baked bun. This type of old-school spot never goes out of style.
On weekends, visit St. Paul’s Hmongtown Marketplace, when a lumberyard turns into little Asia. This is the country’s best little-known ethnic market, with countless fruit and vegetable stalls, and insanely delicious dishes in the food court. Head to Hmong Express Cuisine and queue up for made to order papaya salad. They take their spice seriously and no one will give you an award for ordering a mouth-burning five out of five stars… choose wisely.
Living in Minnesota, you gotta learn to embrace the long (and often harsh) winters, and festivities like the Winter Carnival are a good place to start. In 1886, the city set out to disprove a New York newspaper reporter who had described St. Paul as “another Siberia, unfit for human habitation in the winter.” So they came up with the Winter Carnival, a celebration with a giant ice castle, toboggan slides, contests and parades. 125 years later, it’s as popular as ever attracting nearly half a million visitors a year. These days, there’s a Royal Coronation, outdoor Beer Dabbler, snow and ice sculptures, dogsled races, and a medallion scavenger hunt. The best part? No matter how cold it is, Minnesotans rally together to celebrate our heritage. We’re a hearty breed.
Midtown Global Market is like a food court on steroids, offering some of the city’s best ethnic eateries and bakeries. A visit to Salty Tart is a must. I love Michelle Gayer and her 400-square-foot bakery located inside MGM. She does incredible specialty cakes, savory baked goods, breads and my personal favorite, coconut macaroons. Holy Land, the city’s best Middle Eastern restaurant and grocer, also has an outpost here with a plethora of fetas, olives, pita bread, naan, you name it. In the mood for Korean comfort food? Put The Rabbit Hole on your list. Try the rice cakes with duck confit or the poutine with pork curry gravy, kimchi and a soft poached egg. They’re marrying Korean flavors with late-night stoner food, and it’s delicious.
ST. CROIX VALLEY POTTERY TOUR
Driving through the St. Croix River Valley on a warm spring afternoon is an essential Minnesota activity. Every Mother’s Day weekend, seven pottery studios in the area open their doors to the public, offering work from artists from across the country. The self-guided ceramic tour makes for a great day trip from the Twin Cities with food, beverages and often live music at each stop. It’s been a spring tradition for a few decades now, and it’s earned quite a national reputation for it’s high-quality functional ceramics.
Located in Northeastern Minnesota, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area is one of the nation’s great natural wonders. It’s more than 1 million acres in size, pockmarked with thousands of lakes and streams, rocky shores, hiking trails and more than 1,200 miles of canoe routes. And with a limited number of permits allowed each day, canoeing the expansive wilderness feels much like it would have when the French Voyageurs explored this land 200 years ago. For outdoorsy folks it’s an ideal vacation, and hey you may even lose a few pounds after some lengthy portages.
It’s easy to kill an afternoon perusing the Walker Art Center’s Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. Just south of downtown, the garden is home to 40 works of art from the Walker Art Center’s renowned collection. It’s free and open from 6 a.m. to midnight. So grab a cup of coffee, stroll through the 11 acres of sculptures, and don’t forget to snap that obligatory photo with the Spoonbridge and Cherry.
Izzy’s Ice Cream is my favorite scoop shop. Even if it’s 20 below zero, I still crave Jeff Sommers’ amazing frozen treats. He’s created a huge catalog of 150 adventurous flavors, ranging from chocolate to lemon buttermilk and hot brown sugar and cantaloupe. And since I am a coffee freak, I rarely pass up an opportunity to try one of their coffee flavors. They even update their website every three minutes to keep patrons informed of what’s currently available. And let’s be honest, the true selling point is their trademarked Izzy scoop–a free mini ice cream scoop that tops every cone.
Minneapolis has emerged as a destination for craft beer, with a high concentration of one-off breweries in the city’s Northeast neighborhood. Dangerous Man Brewery is known for their experimental taps, such as chocolate milk stout and toasted hemp brown ale. Just a few blocks east, Indeed Brewery is in a beautifully restored warehouse building along the train tracks. Or for something a little different, check out Sociable Cider for a pint of Midwestern dry-hopped hard cider. On any given day, you’re likely to find a food truck parked outside (keep your eye out for Andrew Zimmern’s Canteen, we hear the goat burger goes well with a pale ale).
One of the best aspects of the Twin Cities is the abundance of green spaces, parks and lakes. Located along the Mississippi River, Minnehaha Falls is certainly a highlight. The main attraction is the 53-foot waterfall, which is just as majestic in the winter when the water turns to stalactites of ice, as it is in the summer. Head down the steps and follow the winding path along the creek to the Mississippi River. Or skip the hike and order some fish tacos and fried walleye from the park’s resident snack shop Sea Salt. During the warmer months, they’re serving some of the city’s freshest seafood, so grab a table under the towering oak trees and chow down.
Located just an hour and half north of the Twin Cities, Lake Mille Lacs is an angler’s paradise. Minnesota’s second largest lake, just more than 200 square miles in surface area, is known for its world-class walleye, pike and bass fishing. As the lake freezes entirely over by Christmas every year, it becomes populated with ice fishing shacks… because why would a little cold weather stop you from catching a few walleye?
There is so much more to discover in Minnesota. Check out Explore Minnesota to find more things to do, see and explore in Minnesota.