In the suburbs of Minneapolis lies the Mall of America, a megalith of a mall that is the country’s largest retail and entertainment complex, and one of the most-visited tourist destinations in the U.S. Metro Transit, Minneapolis’ light rail system, connects the Mall of America with the Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport, allowing visiting shopaholics to head straight from the airport to the mall without even going outside — or taking a detour to Minneapolis. But anyone planning on traveling to the Minneapolis area and passing on the City of Lakes entirely is making, well, a mega mall of a mistake.
Minneapolis is defined by so much more than its proximity to the mother of all shopping malls. It’s a city of lakes, neighborhoods, art, culture, cuisine and other cool things. Miles of futuristic climate-controlled skyways connect high-rise hotels to restaurants, stores and coffee shops in downtown Minneapolis. Lakes pool within peaceful city neighborhoods, offering sun-soaked beaches in summer and frosty natural hockey rinks in colder months. Chefs cook up avant-garde dishes, creating meals one would expect to find in the restaurants of New York or L.A. rather than a mid-size Midwestern city. A word of advice: Those gourmet dinners pair wonderfully with an evening show. A town with a big and bright Theater District, Minneapolis is second only to New York in terms of theater venues per capita. (“A Prairie Home Companion,” Garrison Keillor’s famous variety show, originates from nearby St. Paul’s Fitzgerald Theater.)
Minneapolis’ twin city, St. Paul, is located just across the Mississippi River. Think of St. Paul as the historic, refined capital city, and of Minneapolis as the more youthful, hip and energetic twin. Soon, it’ll be a cinch to travel from one twin to the next. A light rail line connecting the two cities is scheduled to open in June 2014.
Though not technically in Minneapolis, the Mall of America is, for many travelers, the focal point of a Minneapolis vacation. (The mall is located in Bloomington, a 20-minute drive outside the city.) The mall is most famous for its mind-boggling girth. It’s the country’s largest shopping and entertainment complex, housing more than 500 stores within a 4.2 million-square-foot expanse. Those who aren’t inclined to test the boundaries of their credit limits will find plenty of attractions within the mall that have little to do with shopping: an amusement park, an aquarium, a 3-D movie theater, a mini-golf course and a comedy club, to name a few. Plus, getting to the mall is child’s play. Metro Transit, Minneapolis’ light rail system, runs from the airport (and numerous points in the city) straight to the mall for just a few dollars each way.
Minneapolis’ fascinating history as the 19th century’s “Flour Milling Capital of the World” is brought to life in the Mill City Museum, an attraction built from the ruins of an old flour mill that exploded in 1874. Mill City visitors will learn the story of the famous flare-up (flour dust is more combustible than you might expect), as well as the history behind Minneapolis’ beautiful Riverfront District, where Mill City is located. The museum features the Ruin Courtyard, a lovely enclave set amidst the crumbling walls of the 19th-century mill, where concerts and other events take place on evenings and weekends.
You know that iconic Minneapolis photo of the big-as-a-car cherry atop the massive spoon? You can come face to face with the real thing at the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. “Spoonbridge and Cherry” by Claes Oldenburg is the focal point of the outdoor museum, which houses more than 40 works of art within 11 acres of gorgeous gardens. (Admission is free.) The Minneapolis Sculpture Garden is part of the Walker Art Center, which features several modern and contemporary art galleries. A range of exciting happenings fills the Walker Art Center’s calendar of events, so we recommend taking a look at what’s going on when you’re in town if you’re planning a visit to the museum. Concerts, craft workshops, dance performances, film screenings, lectures, special tours and other events are offered on a regular basis.
Pretty river views, lush hiking trails and a cascading waterfall draw nature enthusiasts to Minnehaha Park on pleasant days. The park offers a volleyball court, an off-leash dog park, biking paths, hiking trails, picnic areas, sculpture gardens and playgrounds for children. A seafood restaurant, Sea Salt Eatery, which serves cold oysters, ice cream and frosty beer, is open seasonally. Rent a bike for the day at Wheel Fun Rentals, located within the park, and hit Minnehaha’s picturesque trails. The highlight of the park is Minnehaha Falls, a gorgeous 53-foot waterfall on Minnehaha Creek, a tributary of the Mississippi.
Minnehaha Falls is certainly a pretty sight, but it’s got nothing on St. Anthony Falls — the only major waterfall on the Upper Mississippi. The waterfall is the main attraction in the St. Anthony Falls Historic District, a scenic section of the Riverfront District. The best way to see the sights by the river? Walk the 1.8-mile St. Anthony Falls Heritage Trail, which loops around the falls — as well as directly over them on the Stone Arch Bridge. The trail provides stunning views of the Mississippi and passes near historic homes and factories, as well as several tree-lined riverfront parks.
Not far from the St. Anthony Falls Heritage Trail sits the Ard Godfrey House, the oldest frame house still standing in Minneapolis. The house, which was constructed in 1849, has been fully restored and is outfitted with authentic 19th-century period decor and furniture. Visitors can stop by for a free tour on Saturday and Sunday afternoons during summer months. (Private tours for groups of 10 or more people are available year round.)
With more than 22 shining lakes within city limits (and dozens more outside the metropolis), Minneapolis offers miles and miles of shoreline. (In fact, one could argue that Minneapolis is a “beach town.”) The most popular spot to enjoy Minneapolis’ lakes is the Chain of Lakes, a residential community that encompasses five wide city lakes: Cedar Lake, Brownie Lake, Lake of the Isles, Lake Calhoun and Lake Harriet. An extensive range of aquatic activities is on offer in the Chain of Lakes, including swimming, sunbathing on lakeside beaches, volleyball, water sports and, during the winter, ice skating and hockey. The whole place is connected by 13 miles of walking and biking trails. And it’s convenient to get there, too. The trip from downtown Minneapolis to the Chain of Lakes neighborhood takes just 10 minutes by car.
Catch a ballgame at Target Field, home of the Minnesota Twins, or take a behind-the-scenes tour of the popular open-air stadium. Located in Minneapolis’ Warehouse District, Target Field offers guided tours on game days and non-game days during the season. Tours taking place on non-game days feature access to exclusive areas like the dugout and clubhouse seating, whereas game-day tours are more limited. Getting to the stadium is simple; there’s a Metro Transit stop right in front of it.
Admission is free at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, a massive museum where an art lover could easily while away a day or two. Collections in the museum, which span roughly 5,000 years of history, range from contemporary art to photography to textiles.
In a city that takes theater quite seriously, a traveler would be remiss to forgo a visit to a theater venue — even if he or she has no interest in sitting through a show. The Guthrie Theater is an excellent place to catch a performance, but the venue is a popular spot for just, well, hanging out as well. There’s a bar, a store, a restaurant, a cafe and a series of comfortable lounges where travelers armed with laptops can hook up to free Wi-Fi (and avoid those pricey hotel Internet fees), or take in absolutely amazing views of the Mississippi. (In this writer’s opinion, the views alone make Guthrie a must-visit.) Various tours of the theater are available, including backstage tours, architecture tours and costume tours. And, of course, there are the shows. If you’re interested in tickets, check GuthrieTheater.org for schedules and prices.
Foodies will feel right at home in Minneapolis. Farm-to-table meals, award-winning dishes cooked by internationally renowned chefs and unique, trendsetting entrees can be found around town. For a true Minneapolis experience, grab a meal made with locally sourced ingredients. The Minneapolis region produces honeycrisp apples (this type of apple was developed at the University of Minnesota), a variety of lake fish and wild rice, which is the Minnesota state grain.
James Beard-award-winning La Belle Vie is perfect for special occasions or a memorable evening of wine and fine dining. Authentic French fare fills the menu, and an extensive wine list features a wide variety of bottles from wine-growing regions around the world. This restaurant isn’t a good choice for travelers on a budget, but patrons watching their wallets can choose to eat in the lounge as opposed to the dining room, as the lounge offers a less expensive tasting menu and more affordable meal options.
Find delicious, inventive food for affordable prices at 112 Eatery, a popular spot downtown that gets pretty packed during peak lunch and dinner hours. The restaurant stays open late (till 1 a.m. on weekends), so it’s a great option for night owls feeling peckish. Menu offerings include foie gras meatballs, duck and radicchio salad, and roasted barramundi with chickpea stew.
Food from the “hot zones” peppers the menu at Chino Latino, a restaurant that takes trendy to new levels with original dishes, pounding music and eye-popping decor. Part nightclub (on Friday and Saturday nights, noisy flocks of 20-somethings in designer jeans crowd the large bar), part Asian/Latin fusion bistro, Chino Latino dishes out imaginative fare from inside-out tempura shrimp sushi rolls to Senegalese peanut curry. (Dieters beware.) Expect plenty of skewered seafood, slow-cooked beef and spice.
Diners seeking healthy, organic dishes should check out Spoonriver, a Mill District restaurant that serves heaps of vegetarian fare alongside grass-fed beef and seasonal specials. (The menu is inspired by the fresh offerings at the nearby Mill City Farmer’s Market.) Stop in on weekend mornings for brunch and dine on tofu Thai curry vegetable scrambles or seasonal quiches. Or visit for lunch or dinner, when salads, sandwiches, quesadillas and burgers are on offer. Additionally, Spoonriver has an extensive bar menu featuring creative cocktails, wine and locally brewed beer.
A stroll around the Mall of America is bound to make one hungry. Whiffs of movie theater popcorn and fried foods tend to waft through certain parts of the mall, and all that walking really stirs up an appetite. But you’ll have no trouble finding a spot to fill your stomach — the mall has dozens of great restaurants, from familiar chains to original eateries. Our pick? Those seeking steak and seafood should head to Twin City Grill, a casual American restaurant serving cocktails and draft beer alongside large portions of homemade meatloaf, fish fries, burgers and steaks. Vegetarians can order large salads and veggie flatbreads off the menu.
Shopping in Minneapolis
The Mall of America is shopping central — and if you’re looking to buy something in Minneapolis it’s a safe bet that the Mall of America has it in stock. Need another reason to shop? There’s no sales tax on clothes and shoes in Minnesota. But it’s important to note that there are other worthwhile, and a little more unique, shopping spots in the City of Lakes. If you’re not a fan of mega malls, you’d do well to investigate the shopping opportunities in downtown Minneapolis and its surrounding neighborhoods.
Minneapolis may have the world’s largest mall — but it also boasts the world’s oldest indoor mall, the Southdale Center Mall. The Southdale Center opened in 1956 and houses more than 120 retail stores and a 16-screen movie theater.
If you’re strolling around downtown Minneapolis, you may feel the urge to snap a photo with the Mary Tyler Moore statue in front of Macy’s on Nicollet Mall. The statue stands on the exact spot where Mary tossed her hat in the air during the show’s opening sequence. (Traveling alone? Ask a local to take your picture. They’re used to it.) After your photo op is complete, investigate the myriad spots to shop on Nicollet Mall, an 11-block pedestrian thoroughfare brimming with clubs, restaurants, shops and sidewalk cafes, plus the aforementioned Macy’s and a two-story Target. During warm-weather months, the Minneapolis Farmer’s Market opens on Thursdays on Nicollet Mall, where vendors hawk everything from fresh produce to crafts.
Another fantastic market is the Mill City Farmer’s Market, which is generally open on Saturdays from May through October. You’ll find this market in the Chicago Mall near the Guthrie Theater in the Riverfront District. Vendors include local farmers, artisan chocolate makers, bakers, flower sellers and more.
Twenty-five blocks of boutiques and charming coffeehouses line Grand Avenue in Saint Paul. The Grand Avenue promises a “small-town feel” — expect lots of locally owned businesses and one-of-a-kind specialty shops. Events like live music, sidewalk sales and summer festivals regularly take place on Grand Avenue. For an updated listing, visit GrandAve.com/events.
The Midtown Global Market in South Minneapolis is the prime place to find interesting and unusual arts and crafts from around the world. Vendors sell produce, handmade imported jewelry, fresh produce and more from tables and stands set up within the market. More than a dozen restaurants and bars are located in the market, so come hungry.