Minnesota, USA: home to the Twin Cities, an adorable lilting accent, delicious local craft beer, and an annual frozen tundra barely changed since the glaciers melted in the last Ice Age. Minnesota is located so close to Canada that the people are insanely nice and all love hockey. Dontcha know, there’s SO much to see and do in Minnesota! You might be familiar with Minneapolis, but have you visited the rest of this underrated state? Hop in the car and take one of Minnesota’s many scenic road trips to explore these 8 incredible places to visit in Minnesota.
This guest post was written by born and raised Minnesota local Cassie of Cassie Abroad. Take it away, Cassie!
Why you need to visit Minnesota
Minnesota is undoubtedly one of the best states in the country (this may be biased!).
Minnesota is home to some of the nicest people (“Minnesota nice” is actually a thing), the best natural sites, and the future of the NHL. Minnesota is the “Land of 10,000 Lakes” and the “State of Hockey”, and some would say that’s pretty much all we have to offer.
However, Minnesota is perfect for your next relaxing, outdoorsy trip. The beauty of this state extends past its sites and historic cities, and right into the the people that live here.
From the hipster Minneapolis, to the beautiful old lighthouses of Split Rock, to the rugged Boundary Waters in Duluth, Minnesota is ready for any type of trip you’re looking for.
This undiscovered gem of a state is perfect for your next trip as you won’t have to deal with crowds of tourists, and you’ll get gorgeous spots all to yourself. Here are my top 8 places to go in Minnesota!
Here’s what you’ll find in this giant guide to the best places to visit in Minnesota.
Table of Contents
- 1 Why you need to visit Minnesota
- 2 8. Duluth, Minnesota
- 3 7. The Boundary Waters, Minnesota
- 4 6. Bay Lake Township
- 5 5. Bloomington, Minnesota
- 6 4. Itasca State Park, Minnesota
- 7 3. Lake County, Minnesota
- 8 2. The Twin Cities: Minneapolis & St. Paul, Minnesota
- 9 1. Stillwater, Minnesota
8. Duluth, Minnesota
Duluth, Minnesota sits on a beautiful hill overlooking the vast Lake Superior. Gorgeous in any season, and barely discovered by tourists, Duluth is the perfect place for your next trip to Minnesota. Duluth is an outdoor adventure lover’s paradise: it’s a jumping-off point for the Boundary Waters, a massive protected wilderness riddled with canoe routes and hiking trails through land that has barely been touched in thousands of years – but that’s got its own entire section, below. In winter, Duluth is right next to the perfect place to ski or snowboard, Spirit Mountain. For the less athletically inclined, Duluth is full of unique boutiques, breweries, and sights to see. Duluth is also home to the University of Minnesota Duluth which boasts one of the best hockey teams in the country- the Bulldogs. So while this city is beautiful in any season, my suggestion is to visit during winter and catch one of the teams home games. (Yes, it’s true: the “State of Hockey ” is totally crazy about hockey, CRAZY). Whether you’re exploring the rugged wilderness or cheering on the sidelines of a hockey game, Duluth is my personal favorite city to escape from the suburbs! Check out this article if you’re planning a weekend trip to Duluth.
What to Do in Duluth
- Canal Park is the hub of Duluth with restaurants, bars, and boutiques. It sits right on Lake Superior and should definitely be one of your first stops in Duluth.
- Spirit Mountain is the place to go in any season: whether biking trails in the summer or skiing slopes in the winter, its offers endless outdoor adventure!
- Take a scenic drive along the 20-mile Skyline Parkway and witness the natural beauty of Duluth. Grab a warm coffee and drive this road in Autumn for mind-blowing beauty.
- If you’re up for a longer road trip, Minnesota’s North Shore Scenic Drive is a stunning, 142-mile wilderness adventure from Duluth to Grand Portage. Bordered by Lake Superior on one side and the Sawtooth Mountains on the other, you’ll be driving through lush forest and past jaw-dropping cliffs!
- If you’re a nerd like me and into the story of the railroads then check out the Lake Superior Railroad Museum!
- In the spring and summer, take a romantic walk through the Duluth Rose Gardens, stuffed with flowers and the perfect garden to sit on a bench and take it all in.
Where to Eat in Duluth
- Get breakfast at either Sara’s Table (Chester Creek Cafe), or Amazing Grace, both DELISH cafes with the best coffee (and vegetarian dishes)
- Canal Park Brewery for incredible Minnesota made beer and some great food like Pan Fried Fish, fished fresh from Lake Superior. YUM.
- Grandmas Saloon & Grill for some classic American food and drinks! Locals and tourists alike LOVE this place right on the lake.
- Black Woods Grill And Bar is the perfect place for a romantic dinner. This fancy spot has huge windows facing the lake and candles to set the mood.
7. The Boundary Waters, Minnesota
The Boundary Waters is the best place to visit in Minnesota if you really want to get away from people and focus on nature and yourself. Head to the Boundary Waters with nothing but your favorite outdoor gear, a map, a compass, and a permit (because you’re adventurous, not a rule-breaker). Camp, canoe, hike, and get in touch with your inner explorer in this rugged wilderness. You have the option to camp… or stay in lodges or B&Bs in nearby Duluth or Ely, Minnesota and be a daytime adventurer (no judgement). The Boundary Waters offer adventure or relaxation … or some of both! This Minnesota nature destination is the perfect spot for adventure-loving outdoorsy travelers.
Side note from Lia: my mom, who is low-key badass, did a 30-day canoe trip through the Boundary Waters years ago. She says to bring a LOT of mosquito repellent if you visit in the summer – like, head to toe clothing coated with Permethrin plus some really good bug repellent (this is my absolute favorite) for your 3 inches of exposed skin.
What to Do in the Boundary Waters
- Canoeing is the best way to explore the Boundary Waters. Also: ADVENTURE! Hire a canoe outfitter and get ready for one of the most exciting outdoor adventures of your life.
- The North American Bear Center is one of the only places in the United States where you can see a bear up close and personal. Yes, like, alive. The Bear Center aims to educate humans about bears, which are actually just as cuddly and adorable as they look when they’re at a safe distance and not trying to steal your food or maul you. The resident bears meander through a 2.5 acre forest and if you’re lucky, you’ll be able to see one of them.
- In between canoeing and watching bears and sleeping on the ground, stop into the Pebble Spa to rejuvenate your tired body. Also, this spa is cute AF.
Where to Eat in the Boundary Waters
Huge disclaimer here: options are limited, so for this spot you may want to pack your own food and do some cooking yourself. That said, there are some legit spots to eat in Ely, Minnesota, the town right next to the Boundary Waters.
- There is nothing as wonderful as warm, cheesy comfort food after a long day of camping, hiking, canoeing, and being outdoorsy and adventurous. So head to Gator’s Grilled Cheese Emporium and eat all of the carbs.
- The Front Porch Coffee & Tea Company is an outdoorsy coffee shop with live music and yummy coffee. You’ll definitely meet a ton of locals here.
- Rockwoods isn’t far from the campgrounds and offers delish American food!
- You’ll find incredible fresh made dishes using local foods at Organic Roots Bistro.
6. Bay Lake Township
Bay Lake is one of my all time favorite lakes in Minnesota … and that’s saying something, because there’s 10,000 freaking lakes here. Bay Lake Township is gorgeous, super relaxing and is home to only 900 people. The main attraction in this small spot is Rutgers Bay Lake Lodge, one of the most Minnesotan places you may ever stay. This cute cabin lodge is right on the lake and offers a bunch of great restaurants on and off the property.
What to Do in Bay Lake
- Obviously there is Bay Lake, which is HUGE, with tons of cool islands to explore. If you go over the 4th of July there’s an island party with fireworks!
- Traditions Mini Golf Course is so much fun. My family’s favorite tradition is to hash it out on the mini golf course, and this is seriously an awesome course. But if you’re not feeling mini golf, try Human Foosball. Or how about decking your friends, family and significant other in the face with water balloons? Admit it, you want to.
- Challenge yourself on the high ropes course at Clearwater Forest Camp! I used to go to this camp as a kid, but today it’s open to everyone. And trust me, the ropes course is JUST as fun and thrilling as a grown-up!
- Cuyuna Lakes Mountain Bike Trails are only 8 miles away from Rutgers Lodge. The trails used to be used for iron mining, but today, you can careen down them on a mountain bike.
Where to Eat in Bay Lake
- Auntie M’s Cafe is actually where I started my blog Cassie Abroad. This place has the friendliest staff ever, delicious coffee, yummy bakery items and awesome ice cream. Make sure to stop by!
- Zigs overlooks the golf course so you can see people golf right into the lake (and judge their form from afar). Important note: the sweet potato waffle fries here are to die for.
- Lonesome Pine is off the beaten path and offers a full bar for those after dinner drinks. They also serve delish food.
5. Bloomington, Minnesota
Bloomington, Minnesota is most famously known as home to the Mall of America, the largest mall in the USA. Now many people think that this tourist trap would be in one of the big cities, but they’d be wrong. The mall is actually located in the otherwise totally average suburb of Bloomington. And while I could talk about Bloomington, it’d be boring, so I’m going to give you a guide on what to do inside the Mall of America instead! Before you get all judgey like you’re too cool to visit a mall, you don’t even know how next-level the Mall of America is. The mall is four stories, with a movie theatre, an aquarium, an entertainment center, and A FREAKING AMUSEMENT PARK (“Camp Snoopy” turned “Nickelodeon Universe” and locals are still bitter). This mall is the closest IRL you’re ever going to get to living that amazing 90’s computer game with Mary Kate & Ashley in the world’s most ridiculous mall (you know, this one. Nostalgia time!) Here are the highlights.
What to Do in the Mall of America
- I don’t give a s**t how old you are, you have to visit Nickelodeon Universe in the center of the mall. Don’t act like you don’t want to ride the “Rock Bottom Plunge.” It’s a Spongebob themed roller coaster! Nobody is EVER too old for roller coasters & Spongebob. Ever.
- See the huge aquarium “Sea Life” under the mall. It has a walk through tunnel, and if you’re certified they offer a swimming with the fishes ~adventure.
- The brand new entertainment center has virtual reality an a bunch of other games, for when you need to give your poor voice a break from screaming on the Spongebob roller coaster over and over and over again.
- Visit Lego World, because you don’t have to be a kid to enjoy playing with Legos and ogling the huge Lego sculptures.
Where to Eat in the Mall of America
- Tiger Sushi is my absolute favorite sushi place in Minnesota, and sometimes I walk the whole mall just to eat here.
- Magic Pan Crepe Stand in on the first floor and has cute tables to sit an enjoy a savory or sweet crepe while people-watching.
- Crave is a little fancier and is one of my favorites. It has delicious food, drinks, and a patio that overlooks the amusement park, so you can make believe you’re playing Roller Coaster Tycoon. Side note from Lia: Roller Coaster Tycoon was THE BEST GAME EVER, can we all agree?!
- Rustica Cookies & Creamery is new and serves homemade in Minnesota cookies. Ice cream and famous cookies? Yes.
4. Itasca State Park, Minnesota
Itasca State Park is Minnesota’s oldest state park, and is home to the start of the famous Mississippi River. It’s also got more than 32,000 acres and more than 100 lakes. Sooo many lakes. Here you can relax and unwind and enjoy the beauty of nature. Itasca State Park is an amazing place to camp, or you can stay in the historic Douglas Cabins or even in a hostel. This is a super popular destination for many Minnesotans. It’s definitely a hot spot to see and can easily be a day or weekend trip from Minneapolis or St. Paul!
What to Do in Itasca State Park
- You’re in a state park: there is so much nature to explore! Go on a hike, swim at the swimming beach, fish in he river or one of the 100 lakes, rent a bike or a kayak or a paddle-board or a canoe!
- Itasca State Park is an excellent place to go camping.
- After all of that connecting with nature, Church Street Brewing Company will get you out of the wilderness and connect you with a cold beer.
- There’s awesome Geocaching within Itasca State Park, if hunting for treasure is your thing.
- Itasca Water Park is a great place to have fun and relax in a sparkling pool.
Where to Eat in Itasca State Park
- Fox & Turtle has all the good stuff- calamari, guac, and spinach dip, yum – and it will all taste even better after camping.
- If you’re looking for something a little fancier to escape the wilderness, check out the Y steakhouse.
- For some delish coffee, especially if you forgot to bring the coffeepot, head over to Summerhill Farmshop. Be sure to stop into the boutiques, too!
3. Lake County, Minnesota
Lake County is a tiny town, perfect for travelers looking to reconnect with the outdoors through hiking and camping. This county has sprawling lakes – you are in the land of 10,000 lakes, after all – historic shipwrecks, lighthouses (ironic, eh?) and gorgeous natural beauty. The best place to stay while visiting Lake County is in a campground. This must-see place to visit in Minnesota is definitely off the beaten path!
What to Do in Lake County
- Gooseberry Falls State Park is my favorite place to hike, camp, and jump in waterfalls! Pack your car with camping gear and drive up the scenic Minnesota Highway 61 to reach this beautiful park located on the Gooseberry River. Some of the hiking trails connect to the epic 326-mile Superior Hiking Trail thru-hike, but don’t worry, you can just hike the bits with waterfalls.
- Split Rock Lighthouse on the shores of Lake Superior is beyond gorgeous and has an amazing backstory, which I’m not going to spoil for you here. Go visit! It’s worth the detour for the pictures alone. Split Rock is gorgeous any time of the year!
- Palisade Head is a stunning overlook, and a must-visit place to stop for an incredible photo of Lake Superior.
Where to Eat in Lake County
- Lemon Wolf Cafe is hella eclectic, but has incredible fish and meat offerings and is nestled in the woods.
- Rustic Inn Cafe offers relish homestyle meals for the days you make it out of the camp site.
- Cedar Coffee Company is only a few miles away but is beloved by locals (um, like ME).
- Lake county might also be the perfect place to try out your own camp cooking skills… good luck!
2. The Twin Cities: Minneapolis & St. Paul, Minnesota
Minneapolis and St. Paul -the Twin Cities – are located right next to each other, and they’re home to about 50% of the Minnesota population. You’d be right to assume that this is the hub of all the urban fun. These cities have incredible places to drink coffee and meet locals (I lay out the best ones in my locals guide to the best coffee shops in the Twin Cities). The Twin Cities are also home to some sick rooftop bars, breweries, and museums. If you’re visiting Minnesota for any reason, it’d be hard to miss passing through these cities. I’ve got tips for both Minneapolis AND St. Paul. There’s so much to see, so use this guide to make sure you manage your time wisely!
What to Do in Minneapolis
- Explore the Twin Cities by bike! Pick up a bike at one of the 150 bike share locations in Minneapolis and Saint Paul and hop on one of the many free self-guided bike tours.
- Explore Minneapolis by … sky? That’s right, the Minneapolis Skyway runs above downtown Minneapolis. You can actually walk through most of downtown and never go outdoors, which is amazing if you happen to hate things like dead-of-summer heat or frigid winter cold. This is the future, people!
- Catch some modern art and that famous Cherry in a Spoon sculpture at the Walker Art Center.
- StoneArch Bridge: This bridge is architecturally beautiful and has gorgeous views of St.Anthony Falls.
- See the famous Minnehana Falls at Minnehaha Regional Park. Locals come here every summer to ride bikes and take Instagram pictures in front of the stunning falls. Do it for the ‘gram!
- Grand Avenue has the BEST shops and restaurants in the Twin Cities. You could spend a whole day here shopping and eating and never get bored.
- Catch a football game at the new US BANK stadium or a baseball game at the outdoor Target Field. The beauty of this is that none of the tickets are very expensive because honestly our teams are not that good. But that means you can enjoy a game for less, soooo… worth it!
Where to Eat in Minneapolis
- Union Rooftop: Stop by this 3 level restaurant right next to the theatre district for stunning views of downtown. The clear windowed roof opens anytime it’s nice, but also closes to allow you to enjoy the view even when it rains! Union Rooftop also converts to a bomb AF club for special events like New Years and Pride.
- Surly Brewery: A must see HUGE brewery that also serves incredible food with their beer. Try the Coffee Bender & Salmon Toast. YUM.
- SpyHouse Coffee: Four different locations, and still the freaking best coffee and atmosphere. Grab a coffee, soak up the Minnesota vibe and chill for a while.
- Spoon & Stable: Local, delicious and chic French cuisine in an adorable vintage spot.
- You have to order a Juicy Lucy at Matt’s Bar or The 5-8 Club, both of which claim to have invented it. It’s like a cheeseburger, but the cheese is INSIDE THE BURGER. Like cheeseburger-ception! So good.
What to Do in St. Paul
- The historic St. Paul’s Cathedral is visible from the Xcel Center, but I recommend that you drive on up there and take a real tour of this stunning architectural masterpiece.
- Grand Avenue has the BEST shops and restaurants! You could spend a whole day here shopping and eating and never get bored!
- Catch a hockey game at the Xcel Energy Center. You’re in the State of Hockey, after all!
- Como Park Zoo Conservatory: This gorgeous plant and flower filled greenhouse is FREE and the perfect place to stop and smell the flowers … and get an awesome Instagram photo.
- Rice Park: This place is gorgeous in winter especially, with festive holiday lights and ice skating!
What to Eat in St. Paul
- Pizza Luce: My favorite pizza place! They offer vegan and gluten free pizzas, as well as pizza for the meat lover. Super hipster and comfortable feel here. Me and my girl friends favorite pizza place! They offer vegan, and gluten free pizzas, as well as pizza for the meat lover. Super hipster and comfortable feel here.
- Mickey’s Diner: a perfect classic diner. The vibe is totally 1950’s Americana, and the food is too!
- Public Kitchen + Bar: Perfect place for those after dinner cocktails, with a view!
- Black Coffee and Waffle Bar: The BEST place for brunch and classic black coffee. This is a local favorite.
1. Stillwater, Minnesota
My family has been visiting Stillwater at least once a year since before I can remember. It’s a historic little town that runs alongside the St. Croix River and borders Wisconsin. This city is modernizing with delicious restaurants and wine boutiques, but holds onto its heritage with old school candy and antique shops. You can spend a few pleasant hours just wandering up and down Main stopping in any shop that catches your fancy, or explore all that Stillwater has to offer. Stillwater is only about an hour from the Twin Cities so it makes a perfect day trip from Minneapolis or St. Paul. And I promise it’s worth it!
What to do in Stillwater
- The beautiful St. Croix River runs straight through Stillwater. You can explore the river by boat, canoe, kayak, stand-up paddleboard, or even gondola (what is this, Venice?). In my opinion, the river is at its most beautiful in autumn, with the bright colors of the leaves reflecting in the water.
- Drive the St. Croix Scenic Byway, also known as State Hwy. 95 (but its other name is much more exciting). The stunning 124-mile route dream crosses right through downtown Stillwater!
- Stillwater is on Minnesota’s oldest wine trail, and was recently ranked one of the Best U.S. Beer Cities. So get your booze traveler on! Explore the many wineries and breweries in the St. Croix Valley.
- Take a tour on a trolley! The Stillwater Trolley is the cutest way to see Stillwater. The trolley offers everything from historical tours to kayak tours.
- If you visit Stillwater in the winter, be sure to go to the river to check out the hand carved ice sculptures.
- Hike up the 5 sets of Stillwater Stairs for the best view of Stillwater – and don’t forget your camera! The 3-mile hike is totally worth it.
- Visit Tremblay’s Sweet Shoppe to watch fresh fudge and other goodies made right in front of you.
Where to Eat in Stillwater
- LOLO American Kitchen has the best fish tacos I’ve ever had AND serves craft cocktails (that are pretty heavy on the alcohol) for under $10! What more could you want?
- The Dock Cafe sits right on the river. Relax on its gorgeous deck strung with lights and watch the sun set. This is a tradition for my family and me each year.
- Tin Bins is my favorite coffee shop in Stillwater because they offer alcoholic coffee drinks! Score. This is the perfect place to warm up if you’re visiting in the winter, AND it’s in a really cool renovated tin building.
- Mara Mi is a surprisingly rad stationary store that also serves coffee, and fresh-made cupcakes!
So there it is: 8 incredible places to visit in Minnesota, land of lakes and hockey and lighthouses and you betcha. Thanks so much, Cassie! Check out her blog, Cassie Abroad, for more fantastic posts.
I don’t know about you guys, but I’m entirely inspired to visit Minnesota! Which place in Minnesota has you ready to pack up your car and go? Leave me a comment below!
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Photo Credit: “Beautiful Split Rock Lighthouse” (CC BY 2.0) by m01229
Huge thanks to Cassie for writing this guest post. Want to see your writing on Practical Wanderlust? Take a look at our Guest Post guidelines!