Locals in the Twin Cities of the United States will tell you that Minneapolis is for dating, but you marry St Paul. Having partied in the former, and languished in the elegance of the latter, I believe they have that right. Whether you are a family wanting to discover an exciting new destination, a holiday adventurer, or a couple looking for an amazing place to lose yourselves in, you will find so many great things to do in Minneapolis and St Paul.
Exploring these two incredible US cities in the state of Minnesota, it was a surprise to find that they give the best of cities a run for their money when laying claim to a fascinating history, dining and cultural experiences and even natural beauty.
Why Minneapolis-St Paul?
Sarah here, editor of this blog. This post is written by my friend Helen, but I wanted to interject for a moment with this introduction as this is a destination I love and that has seen some dark days recently, in the midst of dark days around the globe.
So, why Minneapolis? This is a fun question and one I’ve been asked numerous times by people in the Twin Cities: “what on Earth brings you here from England?”. I have visited the Twin Cities five times now and hold them close to my heart. But it’s fascinating how as residents in a place, we often don’t see that it offers anything that should put it on a world stage. For me though, Minneapolis in particular, has long been a place of global significance.
I’m a music lover and almost a life-long fan of Minneapolis’ hometown boy, Prince. Since Prince didn’t only sing about the city, but is renowned as the founding father of the Minneapolis Sound music genre, I long wanted to visit (there are many other famous names who took their lead from him and I’ve put a playlist together of classic songs for you below).
My friend Kristen, who lives in the Twin Cities and is much smarter than me, considers that Prince created through his work, a cultural Heterotopia of Minneapolis for fans. A Heterotopia is a space within a space that is either cultural, intense, incompatible, contradictory, or transforming to the norm. Prince was born and bred in the city and lived there most of his life so he knew it wasn’t without its challenges, but his space within the city was a beautiful, cool, multicultural melting pot as described in songs like Rock n Roll Is Alive (And It Lives In Minneapolis). Then the song Uptown, about what was at the time of release, a bohemian area of the city, has the lyrics: “Now where I come from, we don’t let society, tell us how it’s supposed to be. Our clothes, our hair, we don’t care, it’s all about being there,” and: “white, black, Puerto Rican, everybody just a freaking, good times were rolling”.
For fans, the Minneapolis Prince painted, is to a degree, what they came to see as a true representation of Minneapolis life. But even on a tour of the Northside of the city four years ago, given by Kristen – a historian in all things Prince, I learned that life wasn’t quite as harmonious and racially-integrated as he sometimes described – perhaps it was his utopian perspective he was portraying. You can learn more about things such as housing covenants (something very common in cities across the US) in a fantastic tour Kristen runs both in person (when rules allow) and virtually, Alphabet Streets: Discovering Prince’s Minneapolis Through Place.
In May 2020, the inequalities that exist in Minneapolis were brought to the fore after the murder of George Floyd at the hands of a policeman. This horrific, racially-motivated crime and the rioting and devastation that followed, hit home hard for me. This was a city I loved, somewhere where I’d always felt safe, and here it was the scene of a despicable crime against someone who lived in the same skin as I did.
It hit home, hard.
But one thing came out of this devastating period. This crime made people around the world stand up and say “no more” to racial inequality, injustice and hatred. The road to a society free of racism is challenging and long, and each battle won along the way, hard fought. Each life lost, deeply felt. But there has been some positive change in just over a year from Minneapolis to London, and right around the world. Once again, Minneapolis, this little town in America’s Midwest, that people often flyover to the gleaming cities of the west coast, has become a place of global significance. I think this meme that I spotted a few weeks ago says it all…
Make no mistake, Minneapolis is a city I have felt safe in, and one I will return to. This is a Minneapolis-St Paul travel guide so I don’t want to dwell on this any longer, and I want to hand over to Helen as she shares all the things we have grown to love about the Twin Cities. However, I’d like to provide some links here for those that would be interested in further reading on race, culture and more in the Twin Cities:
- Where Do We Go From Here – a blog post by Minneapolis Tourism’s African American CEO
- List of Minneapolis Tourism recommended support organisations
- We Need Us – a campaign to support Minneapolis’ recovery while supporting small businesses
- Travellers who wish to pay respects to George Floyd can leave flowers or messages at a makeshift memorial at 38th and Chicago, now known as George Floyd Square, it is covered in street art and is home to budding community projects. You can also visit the somber Say Their Names Cemetery in the grassy vale at 37th and Park, an impactful installation by artists Anna Barber and Connor Wright.
Listen to the Minneapolis Sound
Minneapolis is so unique and super cool, it has it’s own sub-genre of funk-rock music. Pioneered by Prince, it was further spread by Chaka Khan, and producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis who brought the sound to albums by the likes of Janet Jackson. More recently, it has inspired artists such as Janelle Monae, Lizzo and Bruno Mars. Here’s a selection of the best of the Minneapolis Sound, as well as some songs about the city, for you to listen to while you enjoy this post.
A comprehensive guide of things to do in Minneapolis
The metropolis of Minneapolis-St Paul is built around the confluence of the mighty Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers. It was therefore ideal terrain for early settlers who built their communities on the trade routes afforded by the rivers. After the settlers, came the industrialists who harnessed the rushing rivers as a natural power source for mills. Blessed with the wealth the rivers brought to the area, it was only a matter of time before the cities grew, becoming a centre for trade and, today, they make a fascinating holiday destination.
The convergence of the rivers may have provided the foundation of the Twin Cities, but from this point their stories took different paths, giving visitors two very different, extraordinary cities. They are beautiful, cultural, vibrant places where you can enjoy many unique experiences, here is a selection of my favourite things to do in Minneapolis-St Paul.
Mill City and the Guthrie Theatre
History and art meet in this area overlooking St Anthony Falls. For the early Native Americans, the Falls were of religious significance and they have been drawing an audience for thousands of years. Today, the St Anthony Falls Historic District is a special place, rich in history and stories, it is well worth taking one of the many guided tours on offer, some coming with a riverwalk food tour as a bonus.
Two landmarks stand out immediately. The towering sign of the Gold Medal Flour Mill hits you right away. The hydropower provided by the falls – the only natural major waterfall on the upper reaches of the Mississippi – fuelled the flour mills that sprung up on the banks of the river, and the economic boom of the 19th century.
Then the Stone Arch Bridge was built over this stretch of the river in 1883 by railroad tycoon, James J Hill for his Great Northern Railway. Initially viewed as ‘Hill’s Folly’, it soon proved its worth in carrying produce from industrialised Minneapolis through St Paul and out to Seattle. Minneapolis was dubbed ‘Mill City’ and at its industrial peak, 12 million loafs of bread a day came out of the mills of Charles Pillsbury, the greatest miller in the world, and famed for its legendary brand ambassador, the Pillsbury Doughboy.
The area may have lost its standing as the world’s milling capital, but it is now a flourishing cultural community. Many of the mills have been renovated and turned into homes and artists’ lofts. Gold Medal Park is a riverside recreational area, complete with sculptures, for both residents and visitors to enjoy.
The Mill City Museum
The Mill City Museum has been developed in the ruins of an old mill, taking you back to the city’s industrial boom time. Here you can see 19th century milling machinery, sit at a table set for the wheat harvest crew, and trace the journey of grains, from farm to market. A sensory experience, there are several adventures to be had, including cinematic tours to take you through 400 years of Minneapolis history and a baking lab where you can learn how bread is made today – you might even catch a baking demonstration and be able to sample bread, fresh from the ovens.
The Guthrie Theater
A two minute walk from the museum, by St Anthony Falls, the Guthrie Theater is a splendid landmark. The original theatre was built by Irish impresario, Sir Tyrone Guthrie in 1963. The wealthy community that had grown up in the area grew tired of having to head to New York for high-brow entertainment. The theatre opened with a production of Hamlet and a mission to produce great works of dramatic literature, develop the work of contemporary playwrights and to cultivate the next generation of artists.
In 2006 a new building opened its doors on this site. Designed by French architect Jean Nouvel, it is a spectacular piece of cobalt-blue architecture, with strong simple lines. Its core mission hasn’t changed, however, and theatre-goers can enjoy a mix of contemporary and classic plays on three stages, as it continues to set a national standard for excellence in theatrical production.
Entry to the building is free and once inside you’ll find art exhibitions, as well as two delicious eateries. Sea Change – there’s a clue in the name – is a seafood restaurant which prides itself on sourcing fish from sustainable fishing programmes. Level Five Cafe has a much more casual vibe and is perfect for a light bite.
Looking for the perfect place to take a selfie or capture a memorable photo? Walk along the building’s Endless Bridge. Although this spectacularly cantilevered walkway is neither endless nor a bridge, it is definitely one of the best viewing points in the area. You will have a bird’s eye view of the magnificent Mississippi River and the historic Stone Arch Bridge from the many viewing spots along its length.
Walker Art Center
Minneapolis is also home to another architectural wonder – the Walker Art Center. Though opened in 1879 by local lumber baron, Thomas Barlow Walker, the building it is housed in now was designed in 1971 by Edward Larrabee Barnes, which was then transformed in 2005 with a major expansion to include a theatre, making it a centre for all manner of contemporary art. It’s worth going to see it even just to take in the swoops and curves of its exterior. But it also has a host of fascinating exhibitions too.
Just alongside the art centre you can enjoy art outdoors at the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden where beautiful sculptures accompanied by their thought-provoking narratives are set out in a spacious urban landscape. Among the most iconic of exhibits is Spoonbridge and Cherry by artists, Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen. Leading lights of the 1960s Pop Art Movement, these artists make you look at ordinary, everyday objects through new eyes, and smile.
The gardens are open year-round, and all day, from 06:00 to midnight. They are the perfect way to broaden your mind while exploring new horizons in the great outdoors of Minneapolis. I had never seen anything like it and happily passed a morning here, simply intrigued at every turn, in the Loring Park area of the city.
North Loop and Warehouse District
Just west of 1st Avenue North, on the outskirts of Downtown, you will find this hip area which makes the best out of its repurposed, imposing old warehouses. Designer boutiques and unique shops provide a shopping experience that is quite different from that found Downtown or at the shopping malls.
Innovative and refreshingly simple, minimalist cafés like Fairgrounds Coffee, are very inviting places to take a break from the shopping for a little relaxation and to drink in the ambience.
Explore a little of the Land of 10,000 Lakes
Don’t be fooled by the fact Minneapolis is a city – nature is very much on its doorstep. The state of Minnesota is known as the Land of 10,000 Lakes but it actually has 11,842 (though I guess 10,000 was more catchy). You will find 22 of them in Minneapolis, not far from the sophisticated Downtown and buzzing Uptown areas. The Chain of Lakes is home to Lake of the Isles, Bde Maka Ska (formerly called Lake Calhoun) and Lake Harriet, and offers lots of opportunities to celebrate nature in the great outdoors. The Chain of Lakes are part of Grand Rounds Scenic Byway, designed in the late 1800s by renowned landscape architect Horace Cleveland to link the lakes on the west of the city and the Mississippi River on the east.
It also takes in the famous Minnehaha Falls in Minnehaha Park, which attracts more than 850,000 people each year, to take in the rushing falls at the confluence of the Mississippi River and Minnehaha Creek, close to Fort Snelling State Park.
Complete with its own historic fort of the same name, Fort Snelling State Park ranks among the top 10 attractions in Minnesota. It has 18 miles of hiking trails, five miles of cycle paths, plus the chance to take to the water yourself with a canoe rental, along its rivers and lakesides. In the freezing months of a Minnesota winter, the snow brings a host of new activities, and summer’s hiking trails are transformed into 12 miles of ski tracks, with dog sledding and more fun ways to enjoy nature’s bounty.
Paint the town purple
If like me, music brought you to Minneapolis, you will find the city has a whole host of venues for live music of all varieties so you can party like it’s 1999 while you’re there. Minneapolis was of course home to Prince (he grew up in the Northside of the city), another of Minnesota’s famous sons is Bob Dylan, but the Twin Cities are famed for so many other great acts such as The Replacements, Jesse Johnson, Andre Cymone, plus famed record producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis and even Lizzo once lived in the city.
Music venues range from the free and easy Bunkers Music Bar & Grill, which features all manner of acts during the week, but Sunday and Monday nights are the domain of house band Dr Mambo’s Combo – a funk band performing fantastic covers, to The Dakota, an elegant jazz bar, where you can dine by candlelight in an intimate cabaret setting while being entertained by talented musicians and singers. Both of these venues were frequented by Prince too, who was even known to take to the stage for a jamming session.
Iconic First Avenue & 7th Street Entry – a former bus depot, which became the location of Prince’s award-winning movie, Purple Rain – is home to some of the best parties in town. Its 1930s architecture is pretty much intact and a treat to see – as are the 500 silver stars that adorn the building, noting the many performers who have sold out there. One performer’s star is now a standout in gold and there are no prizes for guessing which musical wizard that might belong to.
Other foot-tapping venues to check out for live music in the Twin Cities include The Icehouse, Palace Theatre, Crooners Supper Club, Fine Line, The Hook & Ladder, Minnesota Music Café and Vieux Carré.
Then be sure to take a trip out to Chanhassen – about 40 minutes drive from Downtown and discover Prince’s Paisley Park – his studios, creative hub and home, which is now a museum. Tours run most days where you can learn about his music and films, see his costumes, instruments and his cars, and learn more about the man behind the mystique. Though I’ve done both the general admission and the VIP tours, which I can recommend – I am still hoping to return to do the Ultimate Tour, which goes into more detail and offers you a chance to sit in the studio where Prince once sat and listen to cuts of certain tracks that were found in his massive vault of unreleased music. There are also occasional evening events – dance nights in the club and huge soundstage area – and concerts from a variety of artists.
Learn more about Prince and other music created in Minneapolis – such as the world’s first digital music recording – at Orfield Lab’s Sound 80 Studios. The studios were where a very young Prince made some of his earliest music as a session musician, and artists like Bob Dylan and Cat Stevens recorded as well as the band Lipps Inc, which made the song Funky Town there. It was also here in June 1978 the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra were recorded performing Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring for the world’s first digital recording on a prototype machine made by 3M – a Saint Paul company.
If shopping is on your agenda visit one of the city’s best independent music shops, Electric Fetus, renowned as one of Prince’s favourites, with a host of hard to find albums, plus lots of music based memorabilia and gifts. And be sure to spot murals across the city dedicated to Minnesota’s musical heroes like this one on Bob Dylan.
Take in a show
A more sedate, but nonetheless great evening’s entertainment is the theatre. Minneapolis was known as the Broadway of the Mid-West in the 1920s. The famous Orpheum Theatre, resplendent in its magnificent architecture as so many Downtown buildings are, was once owned by Bob Dylan and his brother, and it now stages some fine productions under the ownership of the Hennepin Theatre Trust.
Many theatres became cinemas in the late 1920s, but with the rise of the multiplex, the theatres returned to doing what they always did best. I enjoyed a fun evening at the Chanhassen Dinner Theatres, an intimate and charming venue which has entertained in the region of 12.5 million guests. It was founded in 1968 by a couple who aimed to bring a “little bit of Broadway to the Midwest”. The performance of Mamma Mia! I saw there was a sheer joy. Lively, colourful and bursting with energy, I might have been right on that Greek island for the evening. That a delicious dinner was served at our table was the icing on the cake for me, making for a really special evening – with no effort required to find somewhere for a pre-theatre meal first either.
Minneapolis Skyways – a different way to explore
Don’t be afraid to visit Minneapolis in the winter. Prince, famously told Oprah Winfrey in an interview that he continued to live in the area because Minneapolis was so cold it kept the bad people out. But, that certainly doesn’t mean the fun stops for the good guys in the winter. Nobody dies of the cold, as one local resident told me, pointing out that it gets just as cold in New York, but New York hasn’t got the Skyway.
The Minneapolis Skyways System is an impressive 11 miles of enclosed walkways linking 80 of the city’s blocks together, high above the pavements below. Being so high, it keeps the city moving in winter when the streets are thickly blanketed in snow. It’s also a fascinating place to roam in any season, with glass sides giving fabulous vistas of Downtown life, as well as stumbling upon indoor squares exotic plantings, eateries and seating areas where refreshment breaks and luncheons can be enjoyed in this surreal world.
Its first reaches were built in the 1960s and today it links the most imposing and important of Downtown buildings, including Butler Square, the IDS Center, the 1920’s Foshay Tower, Target Center, US Bank Stadium and the US Bank Plaza, to name but a few. So if you wander the streets of Downtown and find them a little on the quiet side for the centre of a bustling metropolis, head on into the Skyways and you might find a lot of people are in there hopping between shops, bars and office blocks.
Get a taste of the Twin Cities on a food tour
Take a food tour with Twin Cities Food Tours and learn more about Minneapolis’ food as well as the city itself. Andrea, our enthusiastic guide, gave us more than just a chance to sample the city’s best eats she provided insights on the city and food for thought.
First stop was Rock Bottom Brewery a Denver headquartered chain, but the ingredients that go into its beer are all locally sourced and it is brewed in Minneapolis, where the water’s pH balance is perfect for brewing the most refreshing of beers. The on-tap fresh beer is brewed in stainless steel kettle vessels to ensure nothing can corrupt the flavour, and though its roasted grains give it a rich dark colour, it is far from bitter. It also has an impressive choice of designer bottled beers – from Kolsch which is low on hops and sweet on flavour, and a favourite complement to the food served here to a those with a stronger hop infusion, increased bitterness but yet citrus flavour, such as the Itasca Pale Ale or IPA.
If you want food to soak up all the ale, then the enticing street food menu here is perfect. I had a Thai shrimp dish which was a truly exquisite burst of ginger, lime and citrus coating juicy spiced shrimp. Hell’s Kitchen a restaurant serving food from Minnesotan produce is another great stop on the tour.
Radisson Blu FireLake Grill is an upmarket contemporary restaurant within the Radisson Blu Minneapolis, honouring both its flame room and the City’s surrounding lakes in its name. Light meals on the go, or dining for very special occasions are all catered for here. I enjoyed a light lunch of soft, melting cornbread, topped with spicy Ghost Pepper Cheese, accompanied by chicken wings grilled over wood and bathed in a maple sriracha sauce. A fun mix of sweet and spicy, this is a menu to surprise and delight.
And another delight from the tour was a stop at Candyland – a sweet shop that serves up some of the best candies and chocolates in town.
Where to eat in Minneapolis
This is, without question, one of the finest dining experiences I’ve ever had. Located a short taxi ride from our Downtown hotel, in the Mill District, ALMA proved to be exceptional in every way.
The decor is elegant, yet characterful, with wonderful touches of styling to fascinate those with an eye for interior design. Our welcome was one of the warmest, but not overly fussy, and that intelligent service from our waiters was a feature of the evening. As the evening progressed, it became clear that the waiters are very passionate about the business and have an extraordinary knowledge of the foods and wines on the menu – they are sent on courses to learn about the produce, grapes and vineyards, and it shows.
And so to the food. The menu of modern American cuisine is seasonal, changing every six to eight weeks. At the time of my April visit I savoured a tsunami of flavours and textures, starting with an amuse-bouche of white fish seasoned with dill and herbs, which was excellent. This was accompanied by an impressive selection of breads – sour dough with creme fraiche, and coriander crackers – very tasty accompaniments.
An egg starter followed, which was cooked to perfection; whites just right, while the yolks were soft and golden, then served with potato chips, adding a light crispy texture and interest to the dish, all delicately seasoned so as not to overwhelm the rich flavour of the creamy yolk.
Next was a spinach and pea pasta dish, dressed in lemon butter sauce with lime. The pasta was soft and light making a perfect bed for the creamy lemon butter sauce drizzle, while the citrus and zesty flavours added another mouth-watering dimension to this exciting fusion of flavours.
My main course came in the form of a 12-hour braised steak which melted on my fork. Once in my mouth, there was no mistaking that buttery flavour that is the mark of quality beef. A rich jus enhanced the dish, which was accompanied by a serving of sweet and flavoursome carrots cooked in the whey from ricotta cheese. A tangy fennel complemented what could best be described as a wonderful sweet and sour experience. I was grateful there were no mountains of ‘fillers’ such as fries on the plates here; simply quality, succulent meats and fish.
Fortunately, I managed to eat a dessert – a grapefruit upside down cake which was very juicy and fruity, while a blood orange sorbet was the icing on the cake. Its piquancy took the fluffy sponge to another level of taste. Even the palette cleansers at ALMA are delicious – pineapple coconut sorbet with fresh mint was a favourite of mine.
When I ate here it was $62 for a set three-course dinner and I would happily have paid more, it was such a delightful dining experience.
Open for breakfast, lunch, happy hour, dinner and an amazing weekend brunch – Hell’s Kitchen brings a totally unique and somewhat theatrical dining experience to Downtown. I absolutely revelled in a weekend brunch here, kicking off in style with the savoury Jacked-Up Bloody Mary. First they poured us each the biggest glass of chipotle pepper and orange vodka-based Bloody Mary, then you jacked it up with your own selections from a buffet of toppings. There were pickles, chipotle sausage, chicken wings dry-rubbed with spices, cheeses, and all manner of savouries. This was all savoured while listening to a three-piece musical ensemble playing country and blues music. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.
This treat was rather hot, as Mid-West cuisine tends to be – so I welcomed a cooling glass of the local Grain Belt Premium beer before starting on my cornmeal buttermilk pancakes, which had a grainy texture and were served with lemon, ginger and blackberry jelly, blood orange marmalade, or homemade peanut butter. The regular pancakes were made of lemon and ricotta, and were smoother in texture than the corn meal variety and more delicate in flavour, coming with a choice of toppings also. The blood orange marmalade made the perfect companion to the creamy dreamy lemon and ricotta pancake, for me, giving it a complex, spicy, bitter-sweet kick that I loved. The blackberry lemon and ginger jelly was such a surprise. The ginger brings a real zing to the experience, but the sweetness of the blackberry still comes through. The homemade peanut butter was the best ever! Honeyed hints among the homemade rich crunchy peanuts… I would buy this every week if it was on our supermarket shelves in the UK!
All the produce and recipes here are authentic to Minnesota. My recommendations would also include the wild rice porridge, sausage bread, ham and pear crisp panini with syrup. Started in 2002, it takes its name from its founders, two friends who came through rehab together – been through Hell and back. I was only sorry I had to leave room for my actual brunch, and couldn’t go back to the bar area for a Jacked-Up Sweet Mimosa – another option on the brunch drinks menu.
Where to stay in Minneapolis
Elliot Park Hotel, Marriott Autograph Collection:A very easy walk into Downtown, this is another location for those wanting to be close to the urban buzz of the city. I was instantly impressed by the fabulously warm welcome we got on arrival here, being met by the concierge who dealt with our luggage and offered us coffee and tea in a luxurious reception area, as we checked in. The accommodation and guest areas are simply stunning.
This classy boutique hotel has a fresh and natural approach to comfort. Natural materials abound in the beautifully crafted furnishings, and there is a generous scattering of Hygge – harking back to Minnesotan’s Scandinavian roots – with soothing natural tones, comfy blankets and bathroom products which made me feel soothed, special and pampered during my stay.
Aloft Hotel: This place gets you as soon as you walk in, with its funky industrial decor. Its community guest areas are very inviting, with a fun dining area, pool table and lounge, all flowing easily from one to another in an airy open-plan layout. If you want to chill at the hotel, then look no further than the pool and its spacious lounging area.
Our double loft-inspired room sported two really comfortable queen-size beds. It’s not in the heart of Downtown but is in a good location on the river and a stone’s throw from the Stone Arch Bridge and the Guthrie Theatre. It’s a 10-minute walk to US Bank Stadium, where you can hop on the fast Metro Transit tram and be downtown in five minutes or at Mall Of America and Bloomington in 10 minutes for just $2 (it’ll cost you $20 in an Uber). You can also visit the stately city of Saint Paul and access the airport via the Metro Transit network.
The Westin Minneapolis: The great Downtown location on 88 South 6th Street was a standout feature of this four-star hotel, especially if you intend to party every evening, as I did, just a few steps from the city’s main thoroughfare, Nicollet Mall and the Skyway, with its eateries, theatres, shops and so much to keep you entertained. Set in 1940’s former bank building, it lives up to its star rating, with spacious rooms, Egyptian cotton bedding and rainfall showers in the bathrooms. Beyond your room, you have a choice of recreational options, including a pool, gym and spa.
The walnut-panelled lobby is home to B.A.N.K. restaurant, which serves a delicious selection of quality American dishes, to diners seated near the wood-and-granite teller’s counter which looks into the open kitchen and the original chandeliers.
Unmissible things to see and do in Saint Paul, Minnesota
With the elegant Minnesota state capital just a 20-minute drive from Downtown Minneapolis, there is no excuse for not making the very rewarding trip to St Paul. An affordable cab ride or short hop on the award-winning Metro Transit system and you are in another world.
Saint Paul is approximately four years older than Minneapolis and locals like to think of it as the older, more sophisticated sibling. It was initially known as Pig’s Eye, after the nick name of the man who built a tavern there on the river. It must have been some tavern, because people started to move their homes up river just to be within easy reach. Once this river settlement grew in stature, the Catholic church renamed it Saint Paul and it went on to become the capital of the whole state.
It is a grand city, with Victorian and early-20th architecture to catch your eye, although the gradual gentrification of the city introduced a lot of newer steel and beam structures which, nevertheless, present as elegant architecture befitting Saint Paul’s grand scale and historic ambience.
Saint Paul boasts 26 miles of riverfront, more than any other US city, and is the country’s northernmost port. The river gifts the city with a unique riverside national park and recreation areas.
Downtown Rice Park is a fun place for families, with its Peanut cartoon character sculptures and ice rink in the winter months. But before you lose yourself Downtown, St Paul’s neighbourhoods are worth exploring – I did it partially in a cab to get the lay of the land, and then on foot for the parts I wanted to get closer to.
The two must visits are Grand Avenue and Summit Avenue. The former is known for its stretch of elegant shops and restaurants where tradition has been given a modern twist in a space which has evolved gently over time with some charming additions.
Take in St Paul’s historic neighbourhoods
Summit Avenue is jaw-droppingly splendid and is said to be the longest stretch of Victorian-style homes in the US. It is magnificent! You can imagine the grandeur when you learn who some of the avenue’s high-profile residents were, and are today, for these Victorian-style villas are still family homes. Residents have included James J Hill, a wealthy railway entrepreneur known for the expansion of The Great Northern Railway.
Classic author F. Scott Fitzgerald’s former home is also to be found in this leafy haven and is where, as a love-struck writer, he wrote his first novel, This Side Of Paradise. The fact that the Minnesota Governor’s private residence is at No.1006 Summit Avenue also gives this stretch great kudos.
Cathedral Hill offers one of the best vistas of the city – pick it up where Summit Avenue meets Selby Avenue and gaze out over Downtown to Dayton’s Bluff and beyond, to Cherokee Heights in the distance. The neighbourhood was established in the 1870s, with large stone houses built on plots up above the crowded lower areas. Its crowning glory is the Cathedral of Saint Paul, built in 1915. Created by Archbishop John Ireland, it is modelled on St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, and its restored copper dome stands 306 feet high and its severe stone exterior gives way to a gloriously rich interior.
The Shrine of Nations, just behind the altar, is a key feature, while each of the six chapels represents an ethnic group whose members contributed to the construction of the Cathedral. Marble saints and floors abound, while ancient murals tell the story of the arrival of Saint Paul’s first bishop. The Cathedral is open daily, and is free to enter, with free guided tours from Monday – Friday, at 1pm. It is both a visual treat and a history lesson.
Explore the Landmark Center
Known as Downtown Castle, this beautiful example of Saint Paul architecture, really does look like a castle. It is known as ‘a work of art in architecture’ and was built by the Federal Government to establish a strong presence in what was then the young State of Minnesota. Its style is known as Richardson Romanesque, after the lead architect, HH Richardson. It is intended to be in the style of ancient European landmarks, suggesting strength, history and dominance. Its exterior is built of Minnesota St Cloud granite and all the stonework being hand crafted.
When you learn about the Center itself, you can see that it needed its dominant status – it is probably most famous for the fact that gangster and prohibition history was born in the Landmark Center, as the Head of the Prohibition Bill had an office in the building. Be sure to visit the lower level to learn more about the building’s important role in Saint Paul’s gangster history. Some of the most wanted and notorious gangsters were brought to court here, while it also served as a postal hub.
Its breathtaking interior, lined with imposing classical columns, is home to many historic artefacts and you will learn much about a time that seems more fiction than fact to us today. Fiercely defended by the city’s residents, the building is now a much-loved treasure and hosts many events.
Visit the State Capitol
Minnesota’s State Capitol is another architectural landmark not to be missed. It is the seat of government for the US State of Minnesota and houses the Minnesota Senate and the Minnesota House of Representatives, the office of the Attorney General and the office of the Governor. There is also a Supreme Court Chamber there. Set in sweeping landscaped grounds, dotted with various imposing monuments, there is no mistaking its importance.
The panoramic views of St Paul from the Capitol steps is magnificent. Designed by Case Gilbert and its dome is the the second largest self-supported marble dome in the world, behind St. Peters in Rome and is quite spectacular. The building was completed in 1906 at a cost of $5 million, and is now estimated to be worth more than $500 million.
Dance with the gangster past at Wabasha Street Caves
The Wabasha Street Caves were my personal favourite spot in Saint Paul. The likes of John Dillinger, the notorious gangster, made this his party pad during the days of prohibition. Our Guide, Cynthia Smith, had a passion for the place that brought it alive for the assembled group on a tour of the caves.
It seems that when the heat from the cops got too hot in Chicago, gangsters headed for Saint Paul where, in return for a promise that they would help maintain the peace in the city, local police turned a blind eye their activities during prohibition. As a result, bank robberies in neighbouring Minneapolis rocketed, while crime rates in Saint Paul fell to an all time low. The Wabasha Street Caves became the perfect off-the-grid speakeasy for Chicago mobsters wanting to lay low. Today, not only do they run tours exploring the history but they also have a mushroom farm there. And it is believed the bodies of are three gangsters are buried under the soft limestone floors of the humid mushroom farm.
Though repaired, the tracings tracking the trajectory of three bullets, complete with bullet holes marking the final resting places of those shots, can be seen in a huge stone fireplace, serving as reminders of a time when the caves attached a very different crowd to today.
The tours run every Thursday evening, and are followed by a Swing Night. An hour’s swing dance lesson is followed by a night of dance to a live big band so you can put your lessons into practice as you swing the night away, following in the footsteps of some of the most legendary mobsters, bootleggers and criminal masterminds of the prohibition era. From fancy footwork to intimate shoe shuffles, the sheer joy of the music and movement was tangible. Smiles lit up the dance floor, with partygoers sashaying around to snazzy jazzy classics such a Sweet Georgia Brown.
Where to eat in Saint Paul
Enjoy a cocktail in style at this hotel restaurant, which was frequented by F Scott Fitzgerald himself, and his wife Zelda. Having celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2020, the Commodore bar and restaurant is one of the oldest places in the area where you can relax, enjoy quality dining and superb cocktails while taking in the stylish surrounds.
This bolthole was one of Cathedral Hill’s three great hotels and opened in an era that saw the beginnings of the Jazz Age and the Harlem Renaissance. Surrounded by the mighty stone mansions and sprawling villas of Summit Avenue, this bar and restaurant was set for lasting success. Women had just got the vote, skirts were shortened, hair was waved and the Charleston was en vogue. This was the age of stylish partying and The Commodore was the place to party. Its Art Deco decor is as luxurious and stunning as it ever was and you can imagine the sounds of the Big Bands filling the intimate lounge areas and open dance floors as flappers dazzled with the vibrancy of their dance.
The menu is expansive and to sample as much as I could, I ordered several small plates which were exquisite. The Relish Tray with its pickled vegetables and a shrimp cocktail with zingy lemon highlights went down so well with the cocktails, which ranged from classics to seasonal new creations. As with everything here, the cocktails were well crafted, quite exceptional and an experience I will remember for many years to come. Enter The Commodore to step back in time and experience the glamour and romance of a bygone era.
Head to the most famous Saint Paul brunch stop. Mickey’s Diner is a fun and quirky restaurant – set in an Art Deco railroad dining car, it is bright, shiny and a great diner experience. All the chrome and neon lighting that bedecks this dining car makes it impossible to walk on by and so it is fitting that this unusual construction was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1983, and has been featured in many films.
Mikey’s Diner opened more than 80 years ago and remarkably, until the pandemic and lockdowns struck, it had been open every minute of every day since. But when it reopens you can be sure of a warm welcome and hearty meal. I had the Small-Fry Platter which was a homemade delicious cheeseburger with the very special Mickey’s baked beans which, like the buttermilk pancakes, chilli, and other offerings are made in the diner’s kitchens from pre-war family recipes. The best side order at Mickey’s is the lashings of period ambience that you can drink in with your hot cuppa or a traditional root beer float.
A homely snug of a diner where a base ball game runs on TV, while relaxed groups of friends hang out. It would be perhaps unremarkable except for the fact that it is known as one of the best places in the Twin Cities to taste the Juicy Lucy – an iconic beef burger served medium rare, and stuffed with Cheddar and American cheese. The Juicy comes with a warning though… you are advised to take the bun off the top and give it five minutes to let it cool off – because it really is absolutely steaming hot – with all that melted cheese.
The renowned Lucy is really very juicy! The burger was so succulent and tasty. The Cheddar gave a stronger flavour to the creamy stream of American cheese running through it, while the meat, coming medium rare, gave the cheese a run for its money in terms of juice and flavour.
Downstairs there is a bowling alley which has dollar bills for wallpaper. It’s a bar and eatery with lots of character and serves burgers with so much flavour.
Where to shop – head to Bloomington
Mall Of America
Shopping in the Twin Cities is on a whole other level to anything you’re ever likely to have experienced because it is home to the mighty Mall Of America (MOA) – as the largest mall in the US, it’s a shopping Mecca. It is actually located in the neighbouring city of Bloomington, but it is within very easy reach of Minneapolis-Saint Paul. It’s just as well there is a regular bus service from Downtown out to the MOA in Bloomington, because you could visit the place every day and still have more to see and do each trip.
When the Minnesota Twins and Vikings (baseball and football teams) moved from the Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington to the Metrodome in Downtown Minneapolis, the question was what to do with the 78 acres of real estate they left behind? It was transformed into one of the country’s top shopping destinations and a tourist attraction in its own right too.
This is because the Mall is so much more than a place to go shopping – it is a retail and entertainment hub on an epic scale. It has 530 shops to choose from, and 60 restaurants with plates ranging from the most refined and upscale of dishes, to delicious and tantalising street food.
At the time of my visit I was fascinated to find the prettiest art installation. Made out of recycled materials, this giant cloud of deep orange butterflies, interspersed with some brilliant blue ones, filled the airy ceiling spaces over the shopping area. The installation was the work of a local artist, and was designed to raise awareness of the extinction of pollinators on our planet – vividly represented by the blue butterflies.
Investment in retail innovation is big at MOA and a new technology allowing you to see digital imaging of yourself wearing different outfits was a work in progress at the time of my visit. It’s also worth noting that Minnesota has no tax on clothing and shoes, so it’s makes shopping there even more attractive.
Beyond the shops though, you’ll find many other attractions within Mall of America:
Nickelodeon Universe is the largest indoor theme park in the US and, for those with children in tow, the perfect trade off for them to put up with the shopping.
Given the cold Minnesota winters, this is a terrific place to come on bad weather days, even if you don’t want to shop. Entry is free – you just buy tickets for your choice of 27 rides and attractions.
It is visually spectacular with rides of differing thrill levels for all ages. Set out with family areas for a little downtime between rides, there is a real outdoor feel to the park experience. There is also a free chaperone service for the children so you can leave them in safe hands, while you are free to browse the shops and take a relaxed lunch.
The Hard Rock Café is close by, serving up iconic rock memorabilia as a tasty side to your meal. Its speciality is of course traditional American cuisine, together with handcrafted cocktails and a laid-back rock soundtrack. Be sure to stick around to take in the collection of memorabilia that honours some of rock ’n’ roll’s greatest musicians and performers as well as Minnesota boys Prince, Bob Dylan and Jessie Johnson.
FlyOver America is an experience I long to repeat, and really wish I had done again and again during my visit. This fully immersive 4-D experience is great for the whole family and is both thrilling and relaxing at the same time. You board your ‘plane’, belt up, listen to your safety check, and then the lights go down as your seat moves forward into darkness. Suddenly, the wind is blowing through your hair, and you can smell a fresh pine forest below you, as you swoop lower – and instinctively lift your feet so you won’t catch them on the tree tops.
This is 10 minutes of sheer exhilaration during which you ‘fly’ over some of America’s fantastic destinations and see the landscapes below you. Salt-sea spray and the scent of sunscreen hits you as you glide over the beaches of Hawaii, and your breath stops when you spy high-adrenalin athletes perform death-defying stunts on the majestic mountain peaks. It took 50 hours of filming from a camera mounted on the nose of a helicopter to bring the iconic sights of the US to Minnesota and, at $19.99 for an adult ticket and $15.99 for a child, it this is one of the Twin Cities attractions you don’t want to miss.
SEA LIFE sits in the heart of the mall and takes you deep into a watery world of exotic sea creatures through its 500-foot ocean tunnel. Experience a two-and-a-half storey rainforest, complete with mists, fogs, heat and smells.
Then enter the wild Amazon experience where golden midas cichlid and catfish swim with spiny soft shell turtles. Sand tiger and nurse sharks swoop overhead and around you in the glass tunnels and though you know you’re safe, their sudden and swift appearance still has you catching a breath. From jellyfish and seahorses to rays, this really is the catch of the day and kept me enthralled for far longer than I expected to spend in these cleverly recreated ocean depths.
Once you’ve finished shopping, Mall of America has you covered for dinner too, or you could just make a trip of it and dine and stay over at the Radisson Blu Mall of America in the centre. Similar to hotel in Downtown Minneapolis, it has a FireLake Grill restaurant, which serves a tantalising menu of dishes from local produce, and is a perfect end to a day at MOA.
More Twin Cities travel tips
- If using the Metro, there are very clear maps and you get better deals by booking ahead of time using the app.
- There are direct flights to Minneapolis-St Paul airport from the UK with Virgin/Delta.
- You can get more information from the city tourist boards: Meet Minneapolis, Visit Saint Paul, and Bloomington Tourism.
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