The North Star State is home to many activities ranging from winter sports to mountain hiking, urban excursions, and almost everything else. Frequently overlooked and written off as flyover country, Minnesota is bursting with top tourist attractions, making it an awesome vacation destination.
Minnesota is truly a hidden gem in America. Don’t believe me? Ask anyone outside the U.S. about Minnesota and I’ll wager some folks don’t even know it exists!
Being Minnesota based, we’ve come up with an entire list of the best places to visit and things to do in Minnesota. I may be biased, as I’m Minnesotan born and raised. But I’ll never hide my passion for my home state.
It’s the “L’Étoile du Nord” or the “North Star State” for a reason. The true beauty of Minnesota and the great people make it a destination that should be on any person’s bucket list for traveling to the United States.
- Most significant landmark – Fort Snelling
- Best park – Minnehaha Regional Park
- Best free activity – Minneapolis Institute of Art
- Best activity for kids – Nickelodeon Universe in the Mall of America
- Best activity for adults – Brewery Tours of the Twin Cities
- Best food – Jucy Lucy/Juicy Lucy (it’s a whole thing)
- Best nightlife – Drinks at Foshay Tower
- Best place to stay – The Saint Paul Hotel
Things to Do in Minnesota & Best Places to Visit
1. Hike around Tettegouche State Park
Address: 5702 MN-61, Silver Bay, MN 55614
One of my favorite state parks in Minnesota is Tettegouche State Park, just north of Silver Bay. This state park is located along Lake Superior and is one of the best ways to see the shoreline on the North Shore.
Tettegouche State Park is full of things to do including hiking, swimming, and photography. On a clear day taking photos and capturing the outstanding views is amazing. I would recommend camping out at Tettegouche for a night or two — make sure to take plenty of supplies, wet weather, and safety gear with you in case things go wrong!
There are many options for activities close by Tettegouche State Park, such as visits to Lutsen and Grand Marais to the north. Lutsen is a favorite destination for winter sports enthusiasts. There are great opportunities for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing here.
Grand Marais is a beautiful place with a sort of edge-of-the-world feel that sits on the shores of the largest of the Great Lakes. It’s home to things like fishing, hiking, and kayaking, as well as the country’s densest population of Ph.D. holders!
2. Visit Minnesota’s North Shore
The North Shore Scenic Drive is on Minnesota State Highway 61 in Northern Minnesota, along Lake Superior just past Duluth. The North Shore is made up of several small towns, including Grand Marais, Two Harbors, Lutsen, and Silver Bay.
There are countless things to see and do here for people of all ages and interests like leafy hiking trails, beautiful waterfalls, bike roads through pine forests or savannas, and historic sites such as:
- The Apostle Islands National Lakeshore
- Grand Portage State Park and Pigeon River Country State Forest
- Kayaking on Lake Superior or canoeing the St. Louis River Estuary
- Paddling around the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness
- Skiing around Lutsen Mountains Ski Resort
The North Shore deserves its write-up, as this is home to some of the best state parks, waterfalls, fall colors, wildlife habitats, and campsites in Minnesota.
There are iconic landmarks and trails to enjoy, with Grand Portage State Park being a personal favorite. On top of the aforementioned outdoorsy activities along the North Shore, you should check out the Split Rock Lighthouse, Gooseberry Falls State Park, the Gunflint Trail, and so much more.
3. Hike the Superior Hiking Trail
When you’re hiking in this state, you can typically expect things like quiet trails that are often out in the unspoiled wilderness, and not crowded at all. The Superior Hiking Trail along Lake Superior’s shore is a perfect example.
You’ll also find things like campgrounds close to your trailhead, which you can use if you’re planning on staying overnight during your hike. Make sure you bring a water bottle, especially during summer hikes. Water is important because it can get hot on the trail, and you’ll want to stay hydrated!
This is a great place to come and experience true peace and quiet, as well as things like adventure and fresh air that you won’t find in a crowded city.
See Related: Best Day Trips from Rochester, Minnesota
4. Visit the Boundary Waters Canoe and Camping Area
The BWCA is one of my personal favorites to visit in Minnesota. It’s completely off the grid and an amazing place to explore the wilderness. I absolutely love the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in Minnesota.
Among the reasons the BWCA is one of my favorite places to visit in Minnesota is because it offers an incredible wilderness experience. It’s best explored on a beautiful multi-day canoe trip and camping excursion. You don’t need to own a canoe, as numerous sites rent them out.
If you decide to go, I highly recommend going during Labor Day weekend because it’s just generally a great time there as the mosquitos have calmed down a bit and the weather is tremendous. It’s always fun to go around that time of year and it’s an experience you won’t forget.
Even if you don’t have the time to explore in a canoe, make sure to stop and visit Gooseberry Falls State Park (pictured in this piece) on your way into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. It’s about a 45-minute drive from Duluth down the Superior Hwy 1 and it’s absolutely worth the stop.
Gooseberry Falls State Park is free to visitors and is one of the best tourist attractions in Minnesota that just can’t be missed, particularly in Autumn. The falls are everything you want in a beautiful waterfall: tall, roaring, majestic, and surrounded by trees dressed in fall foliage with plenty of hiking trails and outdoor recreation.
See Related: Cascade River State Park
5. Rent a Houseboat or Canoe at Voyageurs National Park
While home to numerous, breathtaking state parks, Voyageurs National Park is Minnesota’s only National Park. Just east of International Falls, it’s a place to experience the real outdoor adventure of wetlands, pine trees, and serene lakes that do not have the boat wakes common to many lakes in Minnesota. Here, it’s just calm, crystal-clear waters.
One of the most popular things to do in Voyageurs National Park is to rent a houseboat. Since there are so many waterways and interconnecting lakes, it’s a spot that warrants a way for you to cruise through the lakes without having to “rough it” by camping.
Of course, if you are a camping enthusiast, this will be a great spot. It’s one of the least-visited national parks given how North it is relative to the rest of the continental United States.
Voyageurs National Park is on the Canadian border and offers some of the best northern outdoor pursuits and adventures anyone could ask for, making it one of the best Minnesota attractions.
See Related: Best National Parks to Visit in November
6. Pretend You’re in the Alps at Lutsen Mountains Resort
Address: 467 Ski Hill Rd, Lutsen, MN 55612
Minnesota is not known for having a ton of rocky or mountainous terrain it’s known for being the opposite, but believe it or not, you can still find some excellent skiing resorts. Lutsen Mountains ski resort is the most well-known and can be found in Northeast Minnesota along the North Shore scenic drive.
It’s a right of passage to ride the gondola for residents of this fine state (after all, we don’t have many gondolas to speak of). If you are in this part of Minnesota in winter, make sure you go on a classic Nordic skiing adventure.
Visiting in the summer? No problem. This is still a great spot to visit during summer since the mountain has an alpine slide and a golf course. The ski area is conveniently close to Lake Superior’s North Shore, just 20 minutes south of the iconic Grand Marais.
Consider staying at Lutsen Resort, which offers a great alpine lodge feel and shuttles you to the mountain. Lutsen Sea Villas is another great option, especially if you’re more interested in access to Lake Superior.
Want to learn more about this stunning corner of Minnesota? Watch our view of the Lutsen Mountains from our YouTube channel to get a visual experience of the mountain.
See Related: Best Things to Do in Hinckley, Minnesota
7. Lose yourself at Glacial Lakes State Park
Address: 25022 Co Rd 41, Starbuck, MN 56381
Glacial Lakes State Park is one of the best places to visit that won’t break the bank. This park features a massive lake known for fishing, boating, and other water sports.
The site also has an abundance of hiking trails so you can hike to a scenic lookout where you’ll get some nice views of the lake. It’s also a great place to pitch a tent if you feel like sleeping under the stars. Alternatively, you can source more solid accommodations in nearby Glenwood (like the GrandStay Hotel & Suites – Glenwood) or Starbuck (such as the Lakes Area Inn).
See Related: Minnesota Renaissance Festival
8. Snap pics at the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden
Address: 725 Vineland Pl, Minneapolis, MN 55403
This is one of the quintessentially Minnesotan spots of the Twin Cities where you can see iconic landmarks like the Cherry and the Spoon as well as great views of the Minneapolis skyline. As well as being a top photo op, the sculpture garden is free and a great place for a stroll or a picnic with the family.
The Sculpture Garden is located adjacent to and is a part of, the Walker Art Center (we’ll get onto that later) which is one of our favorite museums in all of the Midwest and is another fun thing to do in Minnesota.
It’s also a great place to start or end a day wandering Minneapolis. There are tons of great attractions and restaurants nearby, and no shortage of hotels, like 300 Clifton, a stunning historic BnB, just a few minutes walk away.
See Related: Things To Do in Maple Grove
9. Check out the State’s First City, Stillwater
If you enjoy the outdoors, you’ll be able to find a nice park or the greenway along the Saint Croix River. The 25-mile-long trail is one of many lovely things about Stillwater, with its natural setting offering great views of the city’s downtown and St. Croix River Valley.
The small, picturesque old town will definitely surprise you with things to do, things to see, things to eat, and things to buy! Check out the downtown shops, boutiques, and antique stores for clothing, gifts, or home decor.
The restaurants have something for every palate – Mexican food, pizza places, hot dogs, a few popular breweries and even a winery are just some options. Check out these best things to do in Stillwater if you like what you are hearing.
10. Spend the day at the Minneapolis Institute of Art
Address: 2400 3rd Ave S, Minneapolis, MN 55404
The Minneapolis Institute of Art is an outstanding museum for contemporary and modern art. When it comes to 20th Century art, as well as vast collections of Asian, African, and pre-Columbian art the museum has one of the largest collections in the United States.
Inside the museum, you can see works by legends such as Vincent van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Renoir, and Monet as well as educational exhibits. The museum also has many sculptures on display and sketches such as Rodin’s original sketch of what would become the celebrated “Rodin’s Thinker”.
If you want to learn more about the Minneapolis Institute of Art, watch our YouTube video covering everything you need to know about the museum. It’s centrally located in Minneapolis and is free and open to the public.
While you are visiting the Minneapolis Institute of Art, make sure you stop at nearby Eat Street Crossing (on Nicollet Avenue) for some of Minneapolis’ best restaurants.
See Related: Best Museums in the USA
11. Admire the Minnesota State Capitol
Address: 75 Rev Dr. Martin Luther King Jr Boulevard, St Paul, MN 55101
Wanna learn more about what makes Minnesota so special? Go see the “L’Étoile du Nord” for yourself. It’s simply sitting in the lobby and main rotunda of the Minnesota State Capitol in Saint Paul, the other half of the Twin Cities.
Yeah, Minnesotans have a ton of pride over our North Star, and you’ll see it everywhere, particularly in this grand old building. Visiting the Minnesota State Capitol is an excellent free thing to do as you can tour it at any time, and it appears on many walking tours of the city.
Check out the Supreme Court Chambers, the capitol’s various exhibits and trophies, and get some awesome views of downtown St. Paul from the top floor.
See Related: Best Things to Do in Chaska, Minnesota
12. Take the kids to Como Park Zoo & Conservatory in St. Paul
Address: 1225 Estabrook Dr, St Paul, MN 55103
Como Park Zoo is a free zoo and conservatory located in Saint Paul. It’s a great activity to do with kids and a firm favorite day out for the people of St. Paul. Plus, the Como Park Zoo is centrally located between Minneapolis and St. Paul proper, so it’s easy to access if you aren’t staying on the St. Paul side.
For a free zoo, there are a ton of wild animals to see such as polar bears, lions, tigers, flamingos, and gorillas. During the summer, the zoo hosts an enchanting butterfly garden. There’s nothing like being surrounded by bright blooms and hundreds of dainty, vibrant butterflies wafting around you.
The conservatory is filled with plants from across the world, and it’s fascinating to see the changes these plants go through over the course of a year. Como Park Zoo also features a pretty decent fairground, and the huge park itself is the perfect place to throw a pigskin or frisbee or settle down for a picnic.
Given that it’s so kid-friendly and completely free, it gets very busy, particularly in summer and fall, so plan accordingly. The area around the park is pretty quiet, so if you’re looking for a relaxing neighborhood to hang out in St. Paul, book yourself a room at the Best Western Plus Como Park Hotel, just across the street.
See Related: Things to do in Waconia, Minnesota
13. Get Lost at Franconia Sculpture Park
Address: 29836 St Croix Trail N, Shafer, MN 55074
Another sculpture park? Why not?! We love art here in the North Star State! Franconia Sculpture Park is a play on alt-art and modern sculptures. It’s completely free and always open. Franconia Sculpture Park is located in Shafer, just over an hour’s drive from Minneapolis, making it a great day trip idea.
Franconia Sculpture Park is a great place to walk around and lose yourself for the day. The park features over 100 creations that are sure to inspire and impress.
Since it’s a sculpture park, you can expect things like massive things in the ground, things made of metal objects, and things that will make you say “Huh?” and wonder “Why?!” If nothing else, it is an interesting spot to see things free of charge.
See Related: Things to do in New Ulm, Minnesota
14. Be Enchanted by Minnehaha Falls at Minnehaha Regional Park
Address: 4801 S Minnehaha Dr, Minneapolis, MN 55417
Making a list of things to do in Minneapolis with kids? Or perhaps in search of a tranquil slice of heaven? Minnehaha Falls and the nearby regional park is a local favorite and a true hidden gem – heavy emphasis on “gem.”
The waterfall consists of two levels, the Upper Falls and the Lower Falls. The Upper Falls are only one mile from downtown Minneapolis but provide a stunning view of nature running wild year-round. The lower falls are just a short hike from the top and are perfect for kids to splash around. Be sure to bring your bathing suit!
Minnehaha Park is a great place to visit in Minneapolis, and you’ll have a blast even if you are visiting by yourself. And you can learn more about this gorgeous corner of Minneapolis from our Minnehaha Falls video on Youtube.
See Related: Best Waterfalls in Minnesota
15. Learn About Milling at the Mill City Museum
Address: 704 S 2nd St, Minneapolis, MN 55401
One of the most important historic landmarks in Minneapolis is the Mill City Museum. This is a true symbol of historic architecture and industry in Minneapolis and can be found along the Minneapolis Riverwalk.
The museum is a centerpiece and tribute to what made Minneapolis, well, Minneapolis; flour milling, as well as the other industries that surrounded the hydropower plant from Saint Anthony Falls right nearby.
Historically, the flour mill was operated by Washburn-Crosby along with several others in the area, which eventually became General Mills, yes, that General Mills. With this legacy, it’s easy to see how Minnesota became one of the world’s largest producers of popular breakfast cereals!
If you’re considering touring the museum and the Mill Ruins, I highly recommend you do it as part of a guided tour along the Riverwalk. You’ll learn about Minneapolis’s milling history and several other key historic sites.
See Related: Best Things to Do in Cottage Grove, Minnesota
16. Explore little Lanesboro
Lanesboro is one of Minnesota’s most charming small towns – seriously, it’s too cute. The town is about two hours from Minneapolis, making it an excellent day destination. The city is a destination for outdoor activities such as biking, hiking, and rock climbing.
The Root River runs along the main downtown creating a scenic, calming environment, and you can enjoy it by walking riverbank trails. Lanesboro is home to some amazing hotels and bed and breakfast spots along with an excellent main street with great food, breweries, and local museums.
See Related: Best Hotels in Lanesboro
17. Admire the views and the Historic Architecture of the Split Rock Lighthouse
Address: 3713 Split Rock Lighthouse Road, Two Harbors, MN 55616
The Split Rock Lighthouse is a really big deal. I’m not just saying that. The iconic shot of Northern Minnesota paints a picture in your head of the pure bliss of being Minnesotan…the majestic lakefront, thick pine trees, and standing alone, resolute, the lighthouse, guiding ships away from the rocky coastal shoreline.
Located on Minnesota’s beautiful North Shore, Split Rock Lighthouse was vital for safely guiding ships coming into Duluth. Today, it’s a great historical landmark, museum, and state park.
I’m a big fan of the North Shore, and it’s a beautiful place to stay if you’re exploring North Minnesota. If you feel like staying the night, there are tons of campsites in the neighborhood.
Alternatively, a short drive north will land you at the cozy Cove Point Lodge resort in Beaver Bay, and a short ride south to Castle Danger (home to an AMAZING brewery) will land you at Grand Superior Lodge.
See Related: Best Things to Do in Detroit Lakes, Minnesota
18. Take a Guided Tour of Old World Saint Paul via Summit Ave
Ah, Saint Paul, the “other” Twin City. St. Paul doesn’t get as much love as it should, but that’s how residents like it. As many locals will tell you, Minneapolis is where you want to work and have a night out, and St. Paul is where you want to live.
Summit Avenue is one of the most well-known streets in the state. It’s home to the longest stretch of Victorian and Edwardian-era houses in the country, and it’s where the Governor’s Mansion resides amongst the rows of mansions from “old” money.
It makes you feel like you are returning to the Great Gatsby days. Speaking of Gatsby, right nearby Summit Avenue is the birthplace and childhood home of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Perhaps, Summit is where he got some inspiration in writing The Great Gatsby.
Join a Summit Avenue walking tours to see the coolest spots, learn some history, and have a little fun along the way. You’re just one street from Grand Avenue, home to fantastic restaurants, cafes, and boutiques.
See Related: Best Tours in Minnesota
19. Attend the Minnesota State Fair – The Great Minnesota Get-Together!
Address: 1265 Snelling Ave N, St Paul, MN 55108
There’s no state fair like my state fair! The Great Minnesota Get-Together, otherwise known as the Minnesota State Fair, is a staple of Minnesotan life, and it’s one of the most Minnesotan attractions that will surely make a lasting impression.
The Minnesota State Fair is held for 12 days every year, beginning in August and ending on Labor Day in September. Now while every state has a state fair, Minnesota is no joke. This enormous frequently jostles with Texas for the title of the biggest state fair in the whole country!
There are tons of things to do at the Minnesota State Fair, featuring all things summery. Amazing food (much of it fried and on a stick), drinks (beer and lemonade), countless souvenirs to buy, livestock, rodeos, live acts, live music, fairground rides, and tons of other things to see and do, including the famous Minnesota State Fair Lottery.
The Minnesota State Fair is an institution – there are many things to do here, and you cannot miss it. From baby rabbits to bullfighters and bacon on a stick, everything is bigger at the state fair. You will see things here that you won’t find anywhere else in Minnesota (or the rest of the U.S.) – unless it’s located on a farm or some regional fair, which isn’t the same as The State Fair.
The good news is, if you’re not in town for the fair, there’s a good chance some other fun event will happen at the fairground. With such a huge permanent facility to accommodate thousands of people with all sorts of needs, the fairground hosts numerous events throughout the year, from concerts to marathons, to classic car shows, and (my favorite) the Winter Beer Dabbler.
See Reared: Best Things To Do in Hibbing, Minnesota
20. Go “Up North” to Brainerd
Do as the locals do, right? If you’re a Minnesotan, you know the lingo of “going up North.” Brainerd is a staple for the Minnesota Northwoods and cabin life. There are hundreds of lakes and small towns surrounding the greater Brainerd area with towns like Nisswa and Walker, located a bit further north.
The Brainerd area is extremely popular for relaxing summer breaks and family vacations. Love fishing? Hiking? Swimming? Boating? Sunbathing? Eating like a king? Yeah, this is the place for you. And don’t get me started on the golf!
See Related: Best Resorts in Minnesota
21. Enjoy music at Lake Harriet and the Bandshell Park
Address: 4135 W Lake Harriet Pkwy, Minneapolis, MN 55409
Lake Harriet is one of Minneapolis’ top lakes. If Minnesota is known as the Land of 10,000 Lakes, then Minneapolis is known as the City of Lakes with bodies of water coming in all shapes and sizes in and around the metro.
Lake Harriet is a bit different. Among its beautiful green setting with the city in the background, this lake features an amazing rose garden as well as a massive castle-like bandshell that features live music concerts and events.
The lake is nestled in southwest Minneapolis with relatively close proximity to fancy-schmancy Edina and the historic Linden Hills neighborhood. Linden Hills is gorgeous, and home to some terrific restaurants if you’re peckish. Edina is…fine. There’s a pretty decent golf course there, but you probably know it as the home of the spoilt “cake eaters” team in The Mighty Ducks. But that’s neither here nor there.
There’s no shortage of water sports that you can do at Lake Harriet – you can rent sailboats, kayaks, canoes, and stand-up paddleboards. And if getting wet isn’t your jam, Lake Harriet is the perfect place to enjoy a picnic or a romantic stroll. Check out our full YouTube video highlighting some scenic views and the history of Lake Harriet.
See Related: Best Parks in Minneapolis
22. Go on a Brewery Crawl in either Saint Paul or Minneapolis…or Both!
Minnesotans love their beer. There are over 10,000 lakes in this state, which means a ton of freshwater – perfect for brewing quality beer. Plus, Lake Superior is one of the cleanest freshwater lakes in the world. This translates into VERY good beer.
Heck, let’s lobby for a new Minnesota nickname of the “Land of 10,000 Breweries” because there will be no shortage of options while you are visiting. There are a ton of great breweries all over the state, catering to all sorts of tastes, but if you are limited to the Twin Cities, plan a bar and brewery crawl around Northeast Minneapolis or St. Paul.
Hey, why not just tour both cities? There’s no shortage of amazing brew houses and watering holes in the Twin Cities and tons of locally run brewery and bar crawl tours to help you discover the best of the best and even the history behind them. Here are our guides on the breweries in these two cities:
And for those of you out there wanting a more robust tipple, consider checking out some of Minnesota’s growing number of distilleries or THC seltzer producers. And hey, if you’re worried about building a beer gut, there’s always the pedal pub!
See Related: Best Breweries in Duluth, Minnesota
23. Get Patriotic at the National Eagle Center in Wabasha
Address: 50 Pembroke Ave, Wabasha, MN 55981
Want to see true All-American patriotism in a life form? Head over to Wabasha, like the good little flag waiver you are, and check out the National Eagle Center. Among other hawks, raptors, buzzards, and eagles, the National Eagle Center is home to bald eagles you can meet close and personal.
While seeing them on screens or in print may stir feelings of pride in your breast, there’s something extra special about seeing these magnificent birds in the flesh. Beyond that, Wabasha is a great city to visit along the Great River Road. While in town, check out these other top things to do in Wabasha.
24. Learn about Minnesota’s Military History at Fort Snelling
Address: 200 Tower Ave, St Paul, MN 55111
Fort Snelling is located along the Mississippi River, near the Mall of America, and adjacent to the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. There’s a chance if you are flying into town, you can spot it while you are landing.
The fort was constructed in 1819 by the U.S. Army as a fortified trading post, bordering contested territory between the U.S. and British colonies in Canada shortly after the War of 1812. When Minnesota achieved statehood in 1858, the Army transferred it to the State of Minnesota.
Fort Snelling would be the home base and muster point for Minnesota’s fighting men during the U.S. Civil War. It was here that the famous 1st Minnesota Infantry Regiment was formed.
This regiment was the nation’s very first regiment of volunteers formed to fight for the Union. It would be one of two Union regiments that helped turn the tide at Gettysburg, securing victory for the Union and ensuring the Confederacy’s defeat.
Fort Snelling is now part of the National Park Service and has been recognized as a National Historic Landmark. It is home to a museum, and a gift shop, and the old fort has been preserved to show what life was like for the garrison back in the day.
Reenactments are also hosted every year, featuring hundreds of reenactors in period dress and uniform. Live close-order drill, musketry demonstrations, and even light artillery are making a terrific boom!
See Related: Best Military Museums in Europe
25. Visit the International Wolf Center
Address: 1396 MN-169, Ely, MN 55731
Who doesn’t love wolves? I mean we love our Timberwolves… including the basketball team that perennially lets us down. Real timberwolves are well-known throughout the state and are frequently spotted in North Minnesota, particularly at Voyagers National Park.
At the International Wolf Center, you can get up close and personal in learning more about these fascinating animals, the conservation efforts led throughout the state, and what huge impact wolves have on the health of our environment and local wildlife.
The center is located up north in Ely, a great small lake town on the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Like what you are hearing? Check out these other top things to do in Ely while you are in town.
26. Drive the Great River Road
The Great River Road is one of the most scenic drives in all of America, spanning 2,061 miles across Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana.
Minnesota’s portion is over a quarter of this vast road, with the Great River Road National Scenic Byway ranging 565 miles along the Mississippi River. The drive takes you through some idyllic small Minnesotan towns and countless glorious sights.
The drive is beautiful in every season and the sights you’ll see are worth it. Every year visitors come here to cruise up and down the river and Lake Pepin through Hastings, Red Wing, Frontenac, Lake City, Wabasha, and Winona.
You don’t need a boat to experience these riverfront towns. The drive is just as good, if not, even better than boating. Each city along Great River Road boasts its own culture and history.
Want some of our guides on these cities? Learn more during each of our stopovers in these great cities from our YouTube videos on these locations like our full Great River Road trip and scenic drive.
27. Visit a Scandinavian Sister City such as Lindstrom, Minnesota
Despite being mostly descended from German immigrants (which is painfully obvious if you know any actual Germans), Minnesota has a decent-sized Scandinavian population and something of a fascination with this corner of Northern Europe. This fascination can be seen in the state’s food, sports, and small towns.
One of my favorite day trips from Minneapolis is heading to Lindstrom. This small town, located just slightly over an hour from the metro area is a Swedish sister city (twinned with Tingsryd in Sweden) and is home to many Scandinavian-themed shops and restaurants.
Lindstrom is also the home of one of my favorite foods in Minnesota – a traditional, thin Swedish pancake, an aromatic Swedish coffee, and a slice of apple pie, which isn’t as American as you might think).
See Related: Best Restaurants in Rochester, Minnesota
28. Make a trip to the Minnesota Marine Art Museum
Address: 800 Riverview Dr, Winona, MN 55987
The Minnesota Marine Art Museum located in Winona is a great place to visit when driving through the southern border city or even makes for a great day trip from Minneapolis. The museum features local and regional artists and you’ll find things like handmade jewelry, pottery of all kinds, oil paintings, and wood carvings.
The Minnesota Marine Art Museum is a must-visit, especially if you appreciate art. You can also take in breathtaking views of the Mississippi River from their museum overlooking the Mississippi Riverfront.
29. Spot a Moose on the Gunflint Trail
The Gunflint Trail is a must-see destination on your way up North. Historically a trade route for trappers and fur traders, the Gunflint Trail is the gateway to some of Minnesota’s untouched wilderness areas, particularly the BWCA.
At this scenic trail and wildlife area, you’ll find things like a 19th Century lighthouse and chapel, but most importantly – moose! Yes, there’s a good chance you’ll spot one of these creatures on this trail through countless acres of unspoiled natural beauty.
The last time I was here, we actually tracked a moose while we did a portage (carrying your canoe/kayak and all your other stuff across dry land from one body of water to another). We were no more than five minutes behind it, following HUGE hoofprints in the mud until they stopped at the water’s edge. It was here I learned that moose are great swimmers!
30. Wander the Walker Art Center
Address: 725 Vineland Pl, Minneapolis, MN 55403
The Walker Art Center is a very well-known modern art museum, famed throughout the states and the art world at large. This photogenic museum of many angles and curves has some of the best exhibits of modern art you can find anywhere in the world.
The museum is wildly interactive as well. You’ll find yourself dipping into audio, video, and sculpture-based art at each exhibit. In the summer, the Walker features mini-golf on the roof of the museums, boasting excellent views of the Minneapolis skyline.
You’ve also got the aforementioned Minneapolis Sculpture Garden right outside, along with the Spoonbridge and Cherry. Don’t forget your camera!
See Related: Best Things to Do in Willmar, Minnesota
31. Shop Until You Drop at Mall of America
Address: 60 E Broadway, Bloomington, MN 55425
Malls are generally not what I look for when visiting a destination. However, in the North Star State, it’s different. Indoor malls were actually invented here.
That’s probably not all that surprising considering how cold it gets in the winter. So why not double down on that and build the largest mall in the entire country here? Sure…why not?
The Mall of America is not just a mall – it’s practically its own ecosystem. There are a ton of things to do beyond shopping, like get married (yes, there’s a chapel), bar hop your Jimmy-Buffet-Margaritaville-loving heart out, beat an escape room, shoot your friends in laser tag, race go-carts, or check out the nation’s largest indoor amusement park in the form of Nickelodeon Universe.
Mall of America is a top thing to do with kids as they can let out all of their energy at spots like SEA LIFE Minnesota and the Crayola Experience, an awesome interactive playpen of crayons (yeah you heard that right).
Heck, you may need some time at Margaritaville after… If your kids have next-level energy, consider staying at the Great Wolf Lodge Water Park adjacent to the mall, or one of the malls adjoining hotels – the JW Marriott Minneapolis Mall of America and the Radisson Blu Mall of America.
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32. See Broadway Quality Theater at the Guthrie Theater
Address: 818 S 2nd St, Minneapolis, MN 55415
People might not know this, but right after New York and Chicago, the Twin Cities is the country’s most important hub for professional and amateur theater. In fact, you’ll see a lot of current and popular Broadway productions pass through the cities as part of national tours.
Both Minneapolis and Saint Paul reliably present excellent theater productions. The Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis is the most well-known spot, rebuilt in 2006. The rebuild is a towering modern complex overlooking the mighty Mississippi River and the iconic Stone Arch Bridge.
The Theater is strategically located next to the Mill City Museum, so you can double up on a museum tour with a night at the theater. What’s not to love about that?
See Related: Do You Need a Car in Minneapolis?
33. Purify Yourself in the Depths of Lake Minnetonka
As Prince famously said, “purify yourself in the depths of Lake Minnetonka.” That may not be totally purifying these days, as Lake Minnetonka is one of the state’s most populated and busiest lakes, which unfortunately does mean more pollutants.
That doesn’t mean Lake Minnetonka isn’t worth visiting – or that Prince was wrong. The lake is massive, and several channels connecting the various bays mean you can get lost, forget the city, or escape the crowd.
The Lake Minnetonka area is worth visiting in summer or winter. In winter, the lake is a haven for ice fishing.
In the summer, the lake is home to just about any water sport you can think of, as well as tons of festivals and activities. Minnetonka, Wayzata, and Excelsior are well-known and affluent towns located right on the bay of Lake Minnetonka that host many of these events.
34. Pay Paisley Park Museum a Visit
Address: 7801 Audubon Rd, Chanhassen, MN 55317
Speaking of Prince, if you are a fan or want to take a trip down memory lane, be sure to pop down to Paisley Park in Chanhassen. Prince’s estate, including his former home and recording studio, is now a museum and it’s an interesting place to visit and get into the mind of one of Minnesota’s greatest musical talents.
I mean, where else can you see Prince’s iconic purple chair and where he famously held wild, late-night parties? This is one of the best museums in Minnesota and the one place where you get a glimpse of the more private side of this genius of pop.
While Chanhassen isn’t exactly in the sticks, it’s far enough outside the metro area to warrant finding a place to stay – especially if you want to explore the town’s yummy dining scene. If that sounds like a plan, get yourself a room at the AmericInn by Wyndham Chanhassen.
35. Eat a Juicy Lucy Burger
The Twin Cities were the birthplace of the Juicy Lucy burger (or Jucy Lucy, depending on who you ask). In case you didn’t know, a Jucy Lucy in Minnesota is a cheeseburger with cheese stuffed inside the meat patty itself. It’s a glorious, delicious mess of a burger.
While there are tons of restaurants repping this delicious Americana food item, the title of creator is hotly contested between Matt’s Bar who spells it as “Jucy” (their motto being “Remember, if it is spelled correctly, you are eating a shameless rip-off!”) and The 5-8 Club who spell it “Juicy” (their motto being “if it’s spelled right, it’s done right!”).
Both joints claim that they are the true founding fathers of this delicious concoction, and both make an excellent stuffed burger. No matter which one you visit, or if you head to another top Lucy spot like The Blue Door or The Nook, you will have a meal to remember with a Jucy/Juicy Lucy!
See Related: Minnesota Foods You HAVE to Try
36. Grab a Drink Atop Minnesota’s First Skyscraper, The Foshay Tower
Address: 821 S Marquette Ave, Minneapolis, MN 55402
The Foshay Tower is an iconic piece of the Minneapolis skyline. The historic stone-built tower with a red and white spire was the first real piece of action in the Minneapolis skyscraper game when it was erected in 1929.
The tower is now home to The W – Minneapolis, which makes for an awesome place to stay, as it’s centrally located downtown and features some additional activities on-site, like the action you can find on the tower’s top floor. At the top is a bar and observation deck with great views of the buildings and the modern metropolis surrounding this old skyscraper, the perfect accompaniment to a strong, prohibition-style cocktail.
37. Learn about Native Animals at Minnesota Zoo
Address: 13000 Zoo Blvd, Apple Valley, MN 55124
While Como Zoo is a super little zoo to visit if you’re in the cities, the Minnesota Zoo offers a much larger wildlife viewing experience. It’s a great place to see native animals in their natural habitat.
This zoo features a ton of Minnesota-based wildlife like lynxes, wolves, and bears. There is no shortage of non-native animals, and even visiting animals from other zoos, aquariums, and sanctuaries.
If there are any drawbacks, the Minnesota Zoo is a little spendy compared to Como and is a bit out of the way if you are pressed for time. It’s located in Apple Valley, about a 20-minute drive from downtown Minneapolis.
See Related: Things to Do in Shakopee, Minnesota
38. Go Green at Minnesota Landscape Arboretum
Address: 3675 Arboretum Dr, Chaska, MN 55318
The Minnesota Landscape Arboretum is a celebration of all things floral. Located in Chaska, the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum opened its doors in 1993. To get a true taste of the Arboretum’s beauty, you must visit during springtime when all things floral are blossoming or during autumn to bring in the fall colors.
This should be on your Minnesota bucket list if you are a nature lover. You should also check out these top things to do in nearby Victoria while you are in the area.
See Related: Beautiful Sunflower Fields in Minnesota
39. Learn the Secrets of the Universe at the Science Museum of Minnesota
Address: 120 W Kellogg Blvd, St Paul, MN 55102
We’d recommend the Science Museum to any visitor to Minnesota with kids – or without, for that matter. It’s a damned good day out. You’ll get the facts on the science of short-lived life, like four-generation mutations, and the fact that they’re not so simple.
You can learn more about the history of boating along the Mississippi River and Lake Superior. Or you can even learn about dinosaurs and their presence in Minnesota before the glacial melt. And don’t forget the GIANT astronaut!
This museum is a great thing to do with kids in Minnesota as they’ll learn from interactive exhibits that allow them to get that energy release fix in. There are new and rotating exhibits here, as well as camps, classes, and seminars, so there will probably be something new for return visits!
You’ll also find that this marvelous museum is close to some of Saint Paul’s other top attractions, such as the historic Landmark Center and the Xcel Energy Center – home of the Minnesota Wild! Chances are, then, you’ll want to stay close by, and you could do far, far, worse than checking into the famous Saint Paul Hotel.
See Related: Best Museums in Minnesota
40. Go Wild at the North American Bear Center
Address: 1926 MN-169, Ely, MN 55731
As a massive fan of bears, this is like heaven on earth for me. Like the International Wolf Center, the North American Bear Center is located in Ely and features an amazing collection of all things bears.
The center is almost like a typical zoo, just with fewer animals but more to do in terms of educational tours. When you visit the North American Bear Center, you can get up REAL close to the bears without wearing heavy gloves or being behind enclosed glass.
The North American Bear Center is a great place to observe and learn about the bear population in Minnesota as well as the conservation efforts for these tremendous creatures. Don’t miss the bear cubs!
41. Hunt for Ghosts at Glensheen Mansion
Address: 3300 London Rd, Duluth, MN 55804
The Glensheen Mansion is located in the northern city of Duluth and is a massive display of Edwardian architectural beauty. The mansion was built in 1905 for the wealthy Congdon family, who made money from lumber imports.
The Glensheen Mansion and the historic Congdon estate are now considered by ghost hunters as one of the most haunted places in all of Minnesota, possibly due to the high-profile murders that happened under the mansion’s roof!
Wealthy resident Elisabeth Congdon and her nurse Velma Pietila were found murdered here on June 27th, 1977. Elisabeth had been suffocated with a satin pillow in her bed and Velma, who was found lying on a window seat, had been savagely beaten to death with a candlestick.
Although there were suspects, the murders remain unsolved. Since then, witnesses have reported things such as lights turning on, doors opening themselves, things being thrown around, and music playing. It’s one of the best museums in Duluth, Minnesota to visit, especially if you’re a fan of architecture or the macabre.
See Related: Most Haunted Hotels in Minnesota
42. Gawk at the James J. Hill House
Address: 240 Summit Ave, St Paul, MN 55102
During his time, Canadian-American railroad baron and Saint Paul transplant James J. Hill was one of the wealthiest men in America. His enormous house, located on a hill at the end of Summit Ave, overlooking downtown St. Paul and the Mississippi River, is simply an amazing piece of architecture.
Today the house is open for tourists to explore and features heavily in a ton of popular Saint Paul walking tours. The interiors are also exceptionally well-preserved, giving visitors a peek into how the other half lived in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries.
A visit to Hill House provides a fascinating insight into what life was like for some of the wealthiest people in America during the late 1800s, as well as some lovely views of Saint Paul.
43. Learn about the state’s history at the Minnesota History Center
Address: 345 W Kellogg Blvd, St Paul, MN 55102
The Minnesota History Center is located in downtown St. Paul. It features everything from exhibitions, hands-on activities, and a large vault of historical relics preserved for generations to come. As well as being beautifully laid out, featuring all manner of fascinating exhibits, it’s also home to a vast research library.
This is one of the country’s best and most comprehensive history centers. If you want to learn anything and everything about Minnesota, from its natural history from millions of years ago to the present, this is the place to do it.
Here you can learn about everything from Minnesota’s native tribes, to the effects of tornadoes, the state’s contributions to the war effort during WWII, to how grain elevators work.
44. Get inspired at the Weisman Art Museum
Address: 333 E River Pkwy, Minneapolis, MN 55455
Minneapolis has some superb art galleries and museums, but none are more striking than the Weisman Art Museum. Finished in 1993, the building itself is a work of art!
This enormous art museum is one of Minnesota’s most incredible architectural treasures, designed by famous Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry and named after art collector and philanthropist Frederick R. Weisman.
The Weisman Art Museum is located at the University of Minnesota and is another top free thing to do in Minnesota. It features over 6,000 paintings and sculptures from artists around the world.
Of a total collection spanning over 20,000 pieces, the Weisman Art Museum features Renaissance, Gothic, and Baroque paintings and many other exhibits that are well worth checking out.
45. Tour the Mayowood Mansion in Rochester
Address: 3720 Mayowood Rd SW, Rochester, MN 55902
Chances are that you’ve heard of the historic Mayo Clinic – for better or worse, the clinic is one of the main reasons people visit Minnesota. The Mayowood Mansion in Rochester (aka Mayowood Historic Home) is the estate of the co-founder of the world-renowned Mayo Clinic, Dr. Charles H. Mayo. This is one of the best museums in all of Rochester – and Rochester has a few.
The great thing about this attraction is that it’s free, not too far from Saint Paul, and features an art gallery, a twenty-room mansion, nature trails, and more. The Mayowood Mansion is tailored for things to do with families, groups, and even solo visitors looking for things to do in Rochester. This is one of Southern Minnesota’s top attractions to visit.
If you have the time, Rochester is something of a hidden gem worth exploring. Check out these top things to do in Rochester while you are there, such as the Quarry Hill Nature Center and SPARK, Children’s Museum.
See Related: Best Breweries in Rochester, Minnesota
46. Go Shoe Shopping at Red Wing
Red Wing is a top destination for anyone taking a Great River Road trip – and anyone who knows the value of a solid, well-made shoe! Red Wing is a little city that’s filled with culture and history – and shoes.
You may have heard of Red Wing, primarily for their boots. The historic shoe and boot maker Red Wing Shoes is a local and national institution. If you’re looking for the ultimate Minnesota souvenir, look no further! But apart from fancy or functional footwear, you should pay Red Wing a visit for its history, which can be experienced through its diverse architecture.
The long history of Minnesotan settlements throughout the years has left the area with a wide variety of interesting historical buildings found in the Old Town of Red Wing.
See Related: Best Things to Do in Alexandria, Minnesota
47. Wander Downtown Minneapolis
If you’re ever stuck for things to see and do, downtown Minneapolis is a great source of fun and inspiration. Here you’ll find sports fields, restaurants, a giant ice rink, theaters, museums, parks, music venues, photo ops, galleries, cafes, record stores, skyscrapers, malls, and stunning, hip, street art.
It’s also one of the greenest downtowns in America, in terms of green spaces, public transportation, and bike-ability. Downtown has several sweet spots beside the aforementioned Foshay Tower that make for great landmarks to visit such as Nicollet Mall, the Mary Tyler Moore statue, and the enormous Skyway System – the most extensive of its kind in the world.
You’ll also be spoiled for choice when it comes to accommodation, as some of the best hotels in the state can be found right here. I could go on about Minneapolis forever – and I kinda have already. See for yourself in this post I wrote about the best things to do in Minneapolis.
See Related: Is Minneapolis Safe for Travelers?
48. Watch the sunset at Lake Bde Maka Ska
Formerly known as Lake Calhoun, hanging out by Bde Maka Ska (pronounced buh-day muh-ka skah) is one of my favorite things to do in Minneapolis. Here you can relax, watch the ducks swim around, take pictures, or catch one of the three annual festivals held here, like the Aquatennial.
Bde Maka Ska is one of Minneapolis’s top places to visit for water sports. There’s fishing and kayaking, and if you’re lucky enough to score a parking spot right next to the lake in the evening, you’ll get a view that most people don’t get, as the sunset reflects off the buildings from downtown.
This lake, part of the city’s “Chain of Lakes” is also located nearby some of Minneapolis’s top local restaurants, not to mention the exceedingly interesting Bakken Museum and Garden.
49. Find the Edge of the World at Grand Marais
I mentioned it earlier, but Grand Marais deserves a second mention. This tiny, remote town in Northeast Minnesota is one of my favorite cities in the entire state. It’s home to the famous Gunflint Trail, which is a gorgeous scenic highway and drive, and it’s located right on Lake Superior.
In Grand Marais, you’ll find things like Java Moose Espresso Cafe (I LOVE this place), a lighthouse from 1922, plenty of parks to visit with kids, tackle and canoe shops, and many things for adults like Voyageurs Brewing Company, where you can sample some of Northern Minnesota’s best beers.
Grand Marais has the feel of Maine, but at this lake port town, you’ll find lutefisk rather than lobster. It’s great for iconic Minnesotan activities like ice fishing, moose spotting on the Gunflint Trail, cross-country skiing, and the Superior National Forest hiking. It’s also a famous retreat for writers!
See Related: Best Minnesota Road Trip Ideas
50. Take a day trip to Lake Pepin
Lake Pepin is a great destination and it’s relatively close to Minneapolis and St. Paul, only about an hour or so away, located just south of Lake City on Highway 35.
It’s near interesting places like Lake City Winery and Estate, a great place to stop for wine tastings, the Hok-Si-La Park, and Campground (formerly known as Calhoun Beach State Park). The area around Lake Pepin is a great place to stay for a quiet summer retreat or a top day trip destination from the metro area.
See Related: Best Things to Do in Wisconsin
51. Visit Artsy Northfield
Northfield is a beautiful town in Southern Minnesota where you’ll find a ton of appreciation for the arts! This is the ideal day trip destination for anyone looking to gawp at local and international works of art once they’ve exhausted the plethora of art museums and galleries in the Twin Cities. For a town of around 20,000, there is a decent number of art galleries and a busy local theatre scene.
For art buffs, you’ve got the Flaten Art Museum, the Northfield Arts Guild Gallery, and the Perlman Teaching Museum and theatre fans can enjoy the Northfield Arts Guild Theater and the performances run by the St. Olaf College Theater Department.
If Northfield is famous for one thing though, it’s home to the legendary First National Bank, known for the bank robbery led by Jesse James in 1876!
See Related: Best Indoor Activities in Minnesota
52. Enjoy a Duluth Vacation
I’ve touched on it a few times, but if you’re visiting Minnesota and wondering where a good chunk of the locals go for their vacations, you’ve gotta check out Duluth. I, like most other Minnesotans, LOVE Duluth.
It’s a remote harbor city that really shouldn’t be as awesome as it is. If you’re approaching from the south, you’ll be greeted by the grim sights of Duluth’s industrial side. As well as being a significant port town on the banks of Lake Superior, Duluth is also a major rail hub, and you’ll see a lot of raw materials mined from the Iron Range here.
But once you get through the grimy, industrial part of Duluth, you’ll find yourself in a charming coastal city, full of great restaurants and bars, and interesting museums and attractions like the Great Lakes Aquarium and the William A. Irvin Museum, not to mention art galleries, great shopping, fantastic entertainment options, some genuinely incredible hotels, and breathtaking views of the surrounding hills and Lake Superior.
One of the best attractions in Duluth is totally free and that’s the Duluth Aerial Lift Bridge on Lake Ave. This awesome historic lift bridge is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It is in an area known as Canal Park, home to some of the city’s most popular eateries like Grandma’s, Little Angie’s, and Lake Avenue Restaurant and Bar.
You’ll also find other points of interest, such as Duluth’s Ten Commandments and the Lake Superior Marine Museum, plus you’re just a stone’s throw from the South Pier Inn, one of our favorite small hotels in the state.
53. Take a trip to Park Rapids and Itasca State Park
The Mighty Mississippi River gets a lot of love in Minnesota. Heck, it’s getting a lot of love in this article! But have you ever wondered where this enormous river starts? If that question is on your lips, you must head north to Park Rapids and Itasca State Park.
Itasca State Park is Minnesota’s oldest state park and one of the most beautiful. It’s also the starting point of the Mississippi River. This is a prime destination for lovers of kayaking and fishing.
You can also enjoy hiking the many leafy trails throughout the park. If you want to learn more, visit Jacob V. Brower Visitor Center.
Once you’ve had your fill of this beautiful park, do yourself a favor and spend some time in Park Rapids. This lovely small town is a great little retreat for young families, featuring attractions like Jasper’s Theater and Evergreen Fun Park.
54. Visit the Spam-tastic SPAM Museum
Address: 101 3rd Ave NE, Austin, MN 55912
Have you really been to Minnesota if you haven’t been to the SPAM Museum? No, no you haven’t. This is certainly one of the more niche and most entertaining museums to visit in Minnesota and the ultimate authority and educational center concerning everyone’s favorite (or least favorite) luncheon meat, Spam.
Learn the history of “Spiced Ham,” how it came to be, and its impact on the world – including how it helped us win the war! Best of all, this kooky museum is free, and it’s honestly one of my top Minnesota attractions for the gift shop alone.
The last time I was there, I grabbed a pack of playing cards, each with a Spam-centric recipe on the front. I would have tried some of them, but I hate Spam.
55. Restaurant Hop on Lake Street
Hardcore foodies visiting Minneapolis will want to take a jaunt over to Lake Street for all kinds of incredible cuisine. You’ll find Lake Street in south Minneapolis, a long stretch between 31st and 29th street, spanning nearly the entire length of Minneapolis from east to west. It’s a fascinating place, with a different feel and culture with every block.
But what doesn’t change is the quality of the food here – holy mackerel! You can find just about any kind of cuisine here, from Tex-Mex to classic Brasserie fare, from casual brunches and nachos with beer to a traditional British Pub.
And if you can’t find it on a menu, you can always head to the awesome Midtown Global Market and grab ingredients to cook it yourself…which probably means you’ll need a kitchen. Luckily, there is a great vacation rental market in this neighborhood, including gems like this Minneapolis condo.
What is Minnesota Known For?
Growing up in Minnesota, I can confidently say that we’re known for our friendly people, outdoor recreation opportunities, stunning nature, and incredible lakes. Minnesota offers a perfect getaway for water enthusiasts with over 10,000 lakes to explore, including the famous Lake Minnetonka.
Plus, if this is your first visit, don’t miss out on the Mall of America, the largest shopping center in the U.S., for a day filled with shopping, dining, and entertainment.
What are some unique things to do in Minnesota?
As a lifelong Minnesotan, I can vouch for our state’s one-of-a-kind experiences. You’ll definitely want to check out the quirky Franconia Sculpture Park, an outdoor museum displaying fascinating sculptures in a beautiful setting.
Again, the Mall of America is great, as is exploring the Minneapolis Skyway System. Visiting Grand Marais is also a unique experience. Don’t forget the SPAM Museum!
Other Minnesota Guides
- Best Beaches in Minneapolis
- Best Pizza in Minnesota
- Best Things to Do in Fergus Falls
- Best Things to Do in Edina
This article was originally published by Minnesota resident Kyle Kroeger. Reviewed by Minnesota resident, and editor, James Oliver.