20 Top Things to Do in Minnesota

Gooseberry Falls State Park
Gooseberry Falls State Park.

Minnesota is known as the "Land of 10,000 Lakes," though it actually has 11,842. Water defines this state, and visitors will find charming lakeside resorts as well as wilderness to be explored only by paddlers. Even the Twin Cities can claim to be lakeside destinations, although Minneapolis' and Saint Paul's big-city attractions (not to mention the Mississippi River) usually outshine the 929 metro-area lakes.

01 of 20

Brainerd's lakeland fun

Grand View Lodge
Grand View Lodge.

Just 125 miles north of the Twin Cities, Brainerd is firmly in the lakelands—lots of pine trees and plenty of Paul Bunyan kitsch. The shores here are sprinkled with resorts (from old-school to woodsy chic), shops, restaurants, state parks and trails. Tee off on one of the Brainerd Golf Trail's courses or relax at Glacial Waters Spa at Grand View Lodge.

02 of 20

North Shore state parks

Split Rock Lighthouse, Minnesota's North Shore
Split Rock Lighthouse. Jay Wilde

North of Duluth on State-61, the turnoffs for fabulous state parks come one after another, like Burma Shave signs flashing past your window: Gooseberry Falls, Split Rock Lighthouse (pictured), Tettegouche. All told, eight parks sit along the North Shore, loaded with waterfalls, forest trails and achingly beautiful Lake Superior views.

03 of 20

Retro chic at Detroit Lakes

Canoe at Detroit Lakes' Fair Hills Resort

Tucked among north-central Minnesota's trees and lakes, you'll find generations-old resorts (like Fair Hills Resort, pictured) built around screen-door cabins and a refusal to gentrify. Downtown Detroit Lakes features a mile-long beach near streets of everyday shops, not just gift stores. Throw in simple pleasures like water-skiing lessons, a huge flea market and a county fair, and you don't get much more Parent Trap (Hayley Mills version) than this—and that's why people love it.

04 of 20

Lanesboro's Root River charm

Lanesboro's Root River charm

Three words best describe this Root River Valley town of 750: outdoors, agriculture and arts. Mostly, visitors come for the trail system. Lanesboro (120 miles southeast of the Twin Cities) stands at the heart of the area's paved multi-use trails, including the 42-mile Root River State Trail and the 18-mile Harmony-Preston Valley State Trail. Many travelers bring their own bikes, but you also can rent them. Be sure to get a trail map before heading out. Art galleries, a seasonal farmers market and a professional theater round out a weekend trip here.

05 of 20

Grand Marais' art scene

Grand Marais' art scene

Tucked into a natural Lake Superior harbor (110 miles northeast of Duluth), this town of 1,400 has a surprising arts scene. You can poke around shops downtown such as the Sivertson Art Gallery, where the creations of regional artists reflect the influence of the lake (pictured). Or head to the North House Folk School for classes (topics include boat-building and basket-weaving), films and even concerts. The creative spirit extends to area restaurants, where chefs work culinary magic with fresh-caught lake fish.

06 of 20

Minneapolis' theater scene

Minneapolis' theater scene
Photo courtesy of Meet Minneapolis

Want a glam night out at the theater? Look no further than Minneapolis, home to more theater seats per capita than any city outside of New York. Our pick: The legendary Guthrie (pictured), now housed in a spectacular complex on the Mississippi River. Take an architectural tour during the day, and then come back at night for a play and dinner or drinks in one of the Guthrie's restaurants. Other popular Minneapolis theaters include The Cowles Center and Orpheum Theatre.

07 of 20

Minnesota River Valley Scenic Byway

Minnesota River Valley Scenic Byway

The lovely 287-mile route of the Minnesota River Valley Scenic Byway, which parallels US-169 on its east end, starts in a broad valley near Belle Plaine (45 miles southwest of Minneapolis), then heads south before veering west at Mankato. Apple stands and a soda fountain await in Henderson, while New Ulm has handsome Germanic brick architecture (including the 1885 August Schell mansion pictured) and a working glockenspiel. Morgan Creek Vineyards, just east of town, opens for tours and tastings on the weekends.

08 of 20

Eagles in Wabasha

Eagles in Wabasha

Situated on the Mississippi, Wabasha is famous for its wintering eagle population (and as the setting for the 1993 movie Grumpy Old Men). At the National Eagle Center, you can learn about resident eagles and see live eagles up close. Hour-long educational feeding programs are held several times a day.

If you want to spot eagles in the wild, winter's the best time to visit. Eagles migrate from more northern homes as their feeding sites freeze. The big attraction in Wabasha: A stretch of the Mississippi River near Lake Pepin that usually stays ice-free-and has plenty of gizzard shad, one of eagles' favorite foods.

09 of 20

Itasca State Park

Itasca State Park

Twenty miles north of Park Rapids, old-growth forest holds the burbling, clear source of the Mississippi river. Most people come to Itasca State Park to walk the Mississippi headwaters, but the forest's massive pines, sparkling Lake Itasca and miles of hiking trails and paved bike paths might steal the show. Visit both the Jacob V. Brower Visitor Center and the Mary Gibbs Mississippi Headwaters Center, which offer exhibits, maps and gift shops.

10 of 20

Mall of America

Mall of America
Photo Courtesy of Mall of America

More than 40 million people visit the Mall of America, 10 miles south of Minneapolis, each year. The nation's biggest mall has more than 500 stores, dozens of restaurants, an indoor amusement park, an aquarium and a butterfly garden.

A little planning before your outing will ensure you're not overwhelmed. Go to the mall's website for information on store locations, hours, parking, events and promotions-and a handy coupon book. Be sure to wear comfortable shoes, and leave your coat in the car (the mall is 70 degrees year-round).

11 of 20

Duluth's Great Lakes attractions

Aerial Lift Bridge

Duluth's Aerial Lift Bridge rises more than 20 times each day for boats-and skyscraper-size ships-traveling between Lake Superior and Duluth Harbor. No matter how many times you see it, the scene never gets old. At the Lake Superior Maritime Visitor Center, learn about the lake's shipping industry and try your hand on a pilothouse wheel. The Great Lakes Aquarium is home to playful otters, gigantic sturgeon and more.

12 of 20

Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness

Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness
Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. PER BREIEHAGEN

At the northeastern tip of Minnesota, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness qualifies as a backpacker's paradise, where paddles and boots replace motors, campfires replace ovens, and loons provide the background music for all. Travelers paddle from lake to lake, portaging gear in between. Solo trips are common, but outfitters in getaway towns, including Ely, Crane Lake, Grand Marias and Tofte can provide able guides and supplies to orchestrate the trip. Sharp-eyed visitors spot moose, black bears and bald eagles.

13 of 20

The spirit of Jesse James

The spirit of Jesse James

Townspeople in Northfield gunned down most of the Jesse James gang when it attempted to rob the First National Bank in 1876; only Jesse and brother Frank escaped. Now, some 100,000 celebrate the victory at the annual Defeat of Jesse James Days event in September, with bank raid re-enactments, a parade, arts and crafts show, antique tractor pull and other events.

Northfield (44 miles south of Minneapolis) also is home to the Northfield Historical Society Museum, which includes the restored office of the First National Bank. The outlaw spirit also lives on at The Hideaway, where a bistro-style menu includes items named for Jesse and his gang.

14 of 20

Forestville/Mystery Cave State Park

Forestville/Mystery Cave State Park

Around 1900, a forward-thinking farmer bought up the dying town of Forestville and patiently waited for the state to recognize what he had saved. Today, interpreters chat with visitors in this beautifully resurrected pioneer town (120 miles south of Saint Paul). The village shares a park with Minnesota's longest cave, open for tours in the summer, and is 16 miles west of Lanesboro.

15 of 20

Stillwater's river charm

Ways to water in the Midwest
Gondola Romantica, Stillwater. Ackerman + Gruber

As a quiet neighbor to St. Paul, historic Stillwater lures Twin Cities locals and vacationers to the scenic banks of the St. Croix River. The 5.9-mile Brown's Creek State Trail leads bikers and walkers to the heart of Stillwater and connects to other trail systems. Shoppers will find plenty of stops on Main Street; when you're ready for a rest, check out Gondola Romantica for a soothing ride along the river. For a taste of the countryside, buy (or pick) apples at Aamodt's Apple Farm.

16 of 20

Mill City Museum

Mill City Museum

The world's largest mill— the Washburn A. Mill— ground enough flour in a day to make 12 million loaves of bread. The Minneapolis building now houses the Mill City Museum, which re-creates old-school flour production days with period equipment, railroad cars and a floor-by-floor tour in a giant freight elevator. The glass elevator rises from the rubble of Mill Ruins Park, with the iconic Gold Medal flour sign overhead.

17 of 20

Winona's culture and nature mix

Garvin Heights Overlook

A mix of culture and nature flows through Winona, on a Mississippi River sandbar about 120 miles southeast of Minneapolis. Take in marine art such as Emanuel Leutze's famous Washington Crossing the Delaware at the Minnesota Marine Art Museum, then dine on fish tacos while savoring river views at the Boat House. A bluff-top perspective from Garvin Heights Overlook and Park (pictured) reveals why Winona is known as The Island City. Victorian antiques keep things authentic at the Alexander Mansion Historic bed and Breakfast.

18 of 20

Voyageurs National Park

Voyageurs National Park

How do you get around a 218,000-acre national park that doesn't have any roads? The answer is the main reason people visit this park on the Canadian border: boats.To explore Voyageurs' 30-some lakes (Rainy and Namekan are the biggest) and find the solitude this park is famous for, you need something that floats. Some folks spend a day on a guided walleye fishing trip and stay at a resort in one of the shore towns of International Falls or tiny Ranier. Others motor around on houseboats, watching for moose by day and anchoring at a different island each night for sunset and a campfire.

19 of 20

Minnesota State Capitol

Minnesota State Capitol

The architect of the U.S. Supreme Court building designed this 1905 stunner in Saint Paul. Among its impressive features: the quadriga, or golden horses, on the exterior of the building. Designed by Daniel Chester French (sculptor of the Lincoln Memorial), the figures are made of copper and covered with gold leaf. The interior reopened after a three-year, $310 million restoration. Check website for tour availability.

20 of 20

Minnesota's bear market

The Midwest's bear market

Think our winters are a bear? In Apple Valley (about 20 miles south of Minneapolis), the Minnesota Zoo's $24 million Russia's Grizzly Coast offers a taste of Siberia. Steaming geysers and erupting volcanoes evoke the wild Russian Far East, and you'll watch 1,000-pound grizzlies roam the Apple Valley grounds and catch live trout. (Neighbors in the exhibit include sea otters, leopards and wild boar.)

More than 200 miles north, Ely's North American Bear Center offers an educational center and rehab facility for injured and orphaned bears named Ted, Honey and Lucky.

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