K.C. was a featured writer for Yahoo! Travel before joining trips to discover in 2013. She is the author of Best Travel Guide for First Time Visitors to Ireland, an Amazon bestseller every year between 2013 and 2016. She has been a featured expert on Newsweek, Travel + Leisure, Travelocity, among others.
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When visiting Minnesota, most people will at least pass through the Twin Cities, but it’s worth sticking around a little while. Minneapolis is the trendier, hipper city, while St. Paul is a bit more subdued but has a number of interesting attractions of its own. There’s lots in the way of art and culture, like the Walker Art Center, which houses an impressive collection of contemporary art, as well as an outdoor sculpture garden. The Guthrie Theater sits on the banks of the Mississippi River – even if you don’t have time to catch a play, you might want to visit just for its cool architectural design and river views. The Mall of America offers the chance to take a thrilling ride on a roller coaster, dine in a rainforest, watch sharks, and of course, shop. The mall is home to more than 500 stores, including a four-story Lego store. After dark, Minneapolis has a hopping live music scene.
Minnesotans often refer to Winona as one of the state’s true hidden gems. This town that’s known as America’s stained glass capital has an 11-block area downtown that’s on the National Register of Historic Districts, and its streets are lined with 19th-century buildings. History buffs will enjoy taking a walking tour to explore it, strolling by the gorgeous stained glass of the Winona National Bank and other glittering jewels, including the Polish-designed Basilica of St. Stanislaus Kostka. Take a river cruise to view the town from the water, enjoy paddling a canoe or kayak in the calm Mississippi backwaters or on Lake Winona. Lake Park, the city park that surrounds Lake Winona, hosts a beach, rose garden, a Frisbee golf course, five miles of walking and biking trails, and more.
Most visitors head to Two Harbors for the chance to explore this incredibly scenic area, including Split Rock Lighthouse State Park, just a short drive north. At this top-rated state park in Minnesota, you’ll find some of the most magnificent views of the north shore, including the historic lighthouse which rises from a 130-foot cliff. In addition to checking out the lighthouse, visitors can search for agates on the beach, paddle the waters by kayak, or dive in to explore the Madeira shipwreck. There are also lots of hiking opportunities, including the Superior and the Gitchi-Gami trails. Before you go, stop into the Superior Hiking Trail office in Two Harbors to pick up hiking maps, souvenirs, books and gifts, and if you need to fuel up, Vanilla Bean Bakery & Cafe offers delicious baked goods and coffee.
Lanesboro is Minnesota’s self-acclaimed bed and breakfast capital. Stay at one of its many charming B&Bs and take advantage of the wide variety of outdoor adventures in the surrounding area, found in state parks, along the National Scenic Byway and more than 60 miles of the Root River Trail. In town, the historic district offers a glimpse of days gone by. There are no fast food outlets, no stoplights and no chain stores. There is, however, lots of art and culture. Visitors can take in a drama or a comedy at the art theater, check out the work of talented regional artists, attend gallery openings and even catch a live concert. Lanesboro is also home to a historical museum that hosts a collection of a variety of items of the past, including the famous Buffalo Bill memorabilia.
Grand Marais may be a small town, but it has a whole lot to offer. Tucked within the northeastern tip of the state along the banks of Lake Superior, this vibrant arts community hosts year-round festivals, numerous hiking trails, fabulous outdoor cafes, and the opportunity for boating or a host of other water sports. It even managed to be named America’s coolest small town by Budget Travel, which noted its close proximity to recreational adventure, cozy B&Bs, its annual Fisherman’s Picnic, which celebrates its logging and fishing trades with a shoreline picnic of lake-caught herring, and outstanding restaurants like the Angry Trout Cafe. If you visit in July, you can catch the annual Dragon Boat Festival, where dragon-shaped boats manned by a crew of 20 race each other on Lake Superior.
Located just outside Minneapolis-St. Paul, Stillwater sits along the St. Croix River, and despite its close proximity to the state’s largest cities, it offers the feel of an old historic river town. Voted one of the prettiest towns in America by Forbes magazine, visitors can enjoy gazing at the historic architecture by taking a walk down its streets, riding a bike or boating down the river. It’s home to more than 100 independently-owned boutiques and lots of antique shops to satisfy shopping enthusiasts. There are also plenty of restaurants, pubs, spas for indulging in relaxing treatments, and no matter what the season, it seems there is also some kind of live music to enjoy and fun festivals in which to participate.
Taylors Falls is another easy escape from the Twin Cities, situated on the Dalles area of the Croix River. One of the best ways to experience this small, historic village and its scenic surroundings, is by taking a boat tour on the Taylors Falls Queen or the Taylors Falls Princess. You’ll see the unique rock formations left behind when glaciers retreated thousands of years ago, including the massive stone cross for which the river was named – St. Croix means Holy Cross. You’ll encounter the world’s largest glacial kettles, Turk’s Head, Lion’s Head and The Old Man of the Dalles, one of the most stunning natural rock faces you’ll ever see. The town also hosts a number of quirky, historic buildings, like Minnesota’s oldest public school, built back in 1852, as well as a jailhouse turned B&B.
Elba is a tiny town tucked deep within a valley just north of Whitewater State Park in the southeastern part of the state. Its quaint, secluded feel and steep bluffs offer the chance to leave worries far behind, as the chaotic modern world seems a million miles away. One of its allures is the Elba Fire Tower located just outside of town. It has stood over the Whitewater River Valley for over 70 years and can be seen for miles. If heights aren’t a concern, it offers amazing panoramic views of the bluff country, after a 637-step climb to the top. The vista includes hardwood-forested bluffs that are splashed with the ever-changing colors of the season, while the town of just 152 people below, looks as if it’s a train set.
Founded by Swedish settler Daniel Lindstrom, this Minnesota town is loaded with Scandinavian charm in both culture, local architecture and its modern-day relationship with Sweden. The highlight of your trip will include a visit to antique stores and the Swedish Coffee Pot Tower. Surrounded by picturesque lakes and nature, when your days in Lindstrom aren’t spent antiquing you’ll have your choice of parks and trails to explore.
Ely is the gateway to the Boundary Waters, a one-million-acre area filled with endless streams, glistening lakes and lush spruce forests, offering some of the best canoeing in the country. It covers 1,200 miles of canoeing trails that lead to centuries-old cliff paintings, and countless bodies of water where you’ll hear the echo of the loon calling. While this is the main attraction in the region, the town of Ely is a destination in itself. It’s home to the International Wolf Center, which explores the symbolic power of the wolf on human folklore, from Little Red Riding Hood to the Three Little Pigs, as well as the social dynamics among wolves in an effort to ensure their survival. Its biggest allure, however, is the resident gray wolves.