Think of your top-10 bucket list cities in North America. Good chance that Minneapolis won’t be on it. It is one of those off-the-beaten-track places that you won’t visit until you accidentally end up there for work, a conference, visiting friends or a long layover. Like most travellers know, these places are often the most authentic and surprising. Minneapolis, and its twin city Saint Paul, are no exception to that rule. I ended up in the Twin Cities in Minnesota when visiting friends, with my daughter in 2011.
Minnesota is known as the Land of 10,000 Lakes. It is mostly rural, situated in the heart of the corn belt of the Mid West. Compared to the bustling cities of the East Coast this is a very laid back and relaxed area. Despite the fact that the larger Twin Cities area is home to over 3 million people it doesn’t have a very metropolitan feel. Both city centers are small pockets of high rise buildings in a sea of wide avenues and spread out residential areas. The famous Midwestern prairie starts right outside the city limits.
Our local friends were happy to show us the surprising sights of this area. And because we only had three days, it was a full program. Let me take you on a virtual tour along the off the beaten track attractions of the Twin Cities, Minnesota:
We arrive on the smallest possible jet from Milwaukee. The smaller the plane, the more fun the ride! Welcome to Minnesota!
This is our first impression of the Twin Cities. A big prairie, with a city in the middle of it. We visit in fall, when nature is getting ready for the harsh winter season.
Saint Paul is the Minnesota state capital, with a very typical US-style Capitol Building. This building was modeled after Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome and has the second largest unsupported marble dome in the world, after Saint Peter’s!
We visit in fall, clearly visible by the bright fall colors. Why go to New England to enjoy the foliage when you can see it here too?
Both cities are located on the banks of the mighty Mississippi river. The river is very different here than it is in the deep South, but it played an essential role for the development of Minneapolis as the mill city of the United States. By the way: these waterfalls are the highest in the Mississippi!
The remnants of the milling history are clearly visible along the Saint Anthony Falls Heritage Trail, that traverses both banks of the Mississippi in central Minneapolis. The old mills, if not destroyed, are now protected landmarks, including the large signs of the famous old flour brands.
This short trail around the Saint Anthony Falls teaches a lot about the importance of the river to the city. If you include a visit to one of the museums, this is a good way to spend half a day or so.
The old signs are proud remains of the old flour mills. Driven by water power and later by steam engines, the Minneapolis mills became the US hub for corn and flour trade in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Built into the ruins of what was once the world’s largest flour mill, Mill City Museum is located on the historic Mississippi Riverfront. Here, visitors of all ages learn about the intertwined histories of the flour industry, the river, and the city of Minneapolis.
Some famous baking brands of times gone by were produced here. The museum does a great job bringing back the memory of these brands and the stories behind them. Not just a boring, dusty old mill, but an interactive and hands-on exhibit, aimed at visitors all ages. A tip for kids!
A little bit further away from the river is the business center of Minneapolis. A very noticeable feature is the Minneapolis Skywalk System, a series of climate-controlled elevated walkways, connecting 69 buildings over a total length of 18 km. No need to get outside in cold or rainy weather!
The Minneapolis street plan is very typical for a US city center: A clearly planned series of numbered roads dividing the city into rectangular blocks. This makes it very easy to know where you are and where to go. See the Skywalk between the blocks?
One of the oldest high rise buildings in the city is the 1929 Foshay Tower (now a hotel, reflected in the building to the right), modeled after the Washington Monument. You can visit the panorama deck on the 30th floor for a nice view over the city and the prairies in the distance.
Although not much is left of the older buildings in the city, you will find nice streets with old bars and nice restaurants, like these converted warehouses on the riverbanks on the Saint Anthony Falls trail.
We visit in total three great museums in the Twin Cities. This is the Science Museum of Minnesota in Saint Paul. When we visited, they ran nice hands-on exhibitions on the history of the state.
The old Greyhound bus is a great playground for kids. The highlight of our visit was the tornado simulation in a tornado shelter! Not sure if it is still there today…
I especially loved the Americana collection. Lots of old advertisement art, but also beautiful old American and Wild West landscapes and scenes.
This Native American depiction of the battle of Little Big Horn in 1876 is a rare artwork showing the Wild West from the indian side. Definitely one of my favorite exhibits and totally worth travelling to Minneapolis for!
Of course you cannot visit Minneapolis without some shopping. What better place for shopping and entertainment than the famous Mall of America? A trip to the mall is America as Americans see it every day.
How many malls in the world have a full amusement park right inside? While mom and dad shop the kids can spend money on dozens of rides! A bit tacky and commercial, but a tip for families for sure!
Coastin’ through the mall! Can it be any more American?
We finish our visit to Minneapolis at the place where it began. Fort Snelling was initially built as a military outpost, it quickly became a large fort, playing an important role in the Indian wars and the further development of the Twin Cities. Later it played an important role as a recruitment and training station for World War II soldiers, before sending them to Europe.
I love how Americans preserve their history. Not just by putting signs at old bricks (well, they do that too, a lot), but also by taking visitors back to the old times, through live demonstrations and storytelling. These soldiers did a great performance on how to shoot their old rifles. Another recommendation for kids!
Practical information: The Twin Cities are very well connected to the rest of the US and the world through MSP International Airport, one of the main hubs for Delta Airlines. Many flights connect Minneapolis directly to Europe. As in most US cities public transport is underdeveloped. Renting a car is often the best option to explore a larger area. We were driven around by our friends, so cannot give too much advice on transportation options. There are plenty of hotels in teh area, ranging from simple motels to 5-star luxury hotels, like the W Hotel in the Foshay Tower. The latter is conveniently located for most sights described in this post.