Travelers who want a blend of superior outdoor recreation and unpretentious urban fun will find a real gem in Minnesota. Its main city, Minneapolis, is one of America’s coolest, supported by smaller yet equally charming towns like Duluth. Balancing this is a seemingly endless supply of lakes, rivers and forests in the state parks and national forests to provide an array of natural attractions. From the Boundary Waters to the headwaters of the Mississippi River at Itasca State Park, you can tailor the perfect outdoor vacation any season of the year.
Minneapolis / St Paul
Minnesota’s main city is actually two in one. While St Paul is the sober government branch of the capitol, Minneapolis is the creative artsy half. Visitors will likely spend their time in the latter, where a lively Theater District puts on a great show after dark and waterfront cafés along the headwaters of the Mississippi River buzz in the long summer days. Check out the slick Warehouse District for the city’s best bars, restaurants and social scene. Minneapolis has a lengthy tradition of live music, and an afternoon on the historic Minneapolis Queen paddle boat is a superb way to experience the river.
Address: Southern Minnesota
Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness
One of the last true wilderness areas in America, the country’s wildest and most adventure-bound outdoor destinations is the Boundary Waters, a million-acre maze of lakes and waterways on the Canadian border. Canoeing and kayaking are the preferred way to experience the 1,200 miles within the park, although there are also miles of hiking trails if you'd prefer to stay on land.
Address: Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, border of Canada and Minnesota
The historic port town of Duluth sits at the edge of Lake Superior, occupying the role of best small city. The locals call it Little San Francisco due to its charming mix of architecture, waterfront scenery, hilly topography, and solid variety of cool amenities. Hang around the tourist-friendly Canal Park for a mix of restaurants, bars and main attractions along the lakeside or explore the brick streets of historic downtown for a taste of Old Duluth. Enger Tower provides the top views of the city, while Split Rock Lighthouse is the perfect day drive along the lake.
Address: Northern Minnesota
Walker Art Center
Minneapolis is one of America’s hottest cities for theater and the arts and its star attraction is the Walker Art Center, where the striking architecture is just as inspiring as the collection of cutting-edge contemporary works inside. It’s a great gallery featuring photographs, multimedia installations, sculptures, and paintings. Right across the street is America’s largest urban sculpture park, the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, and between the two, you’ve got a solid half-day of cultural exposure.
Address: Walker Art Center, 1750 Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis, MN 55403
The Mall of America
Just outside the Twin Cities is the largest shopping mall in America. Perhaps it was the long, cold winters that inspired developers to build this behemoth, but whatever the reason, you can easily spend a full day exploring the 500 shops, restaurants and entertainment venues. There’s an on-site amusement park with roller coaster, mini-golf course, aquarium, NASCAR Silicon Speedway, and plenty of other fun rides. Shopping aside, it’s somewhere you have to see to believe.
Address: The Mall of America, South Avenue, Bloomington, MN 55425
Another small town worth a couple days visit is historic Apple Valley. Home to the Minnesota Zoo, 2,300 animals are viewable via a monorail that runs the 500 acres. There are also sandy beaches for summer fun and several huge public parks. Its historic downtown is packed with nice bars, restaurants and boutiques. A strong art scene ensures plenty of theater, galleries and live music for nighttime entertainment.
Address: Suburban Minneapolis.
Itasca State Park
The biggest and oldest of Minnesota’s many beautiful state parks, Itasca is the ideal outdoor destination if you don’t want to get too adventurous. A gem that embodies the classic north woods experience, old-growth forests, pristine rivers and lakes and plenty of hiking trails await. Lake Itasca is also the headwaters of the mighty Mississippi River, a unique side note. There are tons of wildlife to spot and easy access from the interstate highways.
Address: Itasca State Park, South Clearwater, MN 56470