Minnesota, from North to the South

Minneapolis-St. Paul Minnesota skyline.
St. Paul Minnesota skyline.

A Guide to Minnesota, USA, for a first-time visitor

By Oscar Davis

Minnesota was once called “minisota” by the Dakota Indians, who settled in this land over three centuries ago. The name was a representation of the numerous lakes the land has and meant “land of sky-tinted or cloudy water.”

Canoeing across the cold and massive Lake Superior near Duluth, Minnesota.
Canoeing across the cold and massive Lake Superior near Duluth, Minnesota.

Though Minnesota is often promoted as the land of 10,000 lakes, today, the state has 11,842 lakes in total. Located on the shore of Lake Superior - the largest of the Great Lakes, Minnesota is where the Mississippi – the third-largest river of the world, begins.

Apart from its sparkling blue lakes, Minnesota is famous for its splendid forests and magnificent scenery. The state has a lot to offer its visitors and striking everything off their list could be a tough task for first-time visitors.

The Hermann Heights Monument is a statue erected in New Ulm, Minnesota.
The Hermann Heights Monument is a statue erected in New Ulm, Minnesota.

So, instead of trying to fit it all in your limited vacation period, you should plan your itinerary to set a date with these must-visit places on your first visit to Minnesota.

The Minneapolis-St. Paul area

This diverse region has something for everyone. Whether you love local craft beers, are an art enthusiast, love to shop or prefer spending life outdoors in the company of nature, the region has an activity to meet your interests and budget.

With dozens of trails, parks, and green space which include the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area with a 72-mile riverfront corridor for the public, you can soak in Minnesota's scenic beauty to your heart’s content.

If you love outdoor activities, you can head to the Minnesota Valley SRA (State Recreation Area) that offers 35 miles of trail to enjoy hiking, snowmobiling (Chaska to Belle Plaine), horseback riding, and mountain biking, in addition to a 6-mile long paved bike track (Shakopee to Chaska).

If you want to camp nearby, you can head to the family campground of Minneapolis SW KOA/Shakopee/Jordan. Those looking for a luxurious stay can opt for Nicolin Mansion Bed & Breakfast.

Mall of America

During your visit to the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, make sure to enjoy tax-free shopping at Mall of America - the nation’s largest enclosed entertainment and shopping complex. With 520 stores along with 14 movie theaters, 50 restaurants, Nickelodeon Universe Amusement Park, SEALIFE Aquarium, as well as live concerts and events (that are free to attend), this gigantic mall will satisfy your needs.

Don’t miss the theaters, galleries, and museums – especially the Weisman Art Center, and the Walker Art Center, which have converted the Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington area into an arts haven. The music scene in the Twin Cities is legendary- thanks to the native superstars like Prince and Bob Dylan, to Atmosphere, The Replacements, and more.

Duluth, Minnesota skyline.
Duluth, Minnesota skyline, on Lake Superior.

You can visit some local favorites like The Amsterdam, First Avenue, Palace Theatre, Icehouse, Turf Club, Triple Rock Club, and the Cabooze to enjoy live music. If you are a Jazz fan, don’t miss visiting downtown Minneapolis’ The Dakota Jazz Club or Saint Paul’s Vieux Carré. For world music, you should head straight to The Cedar Cultural Center, while The Fine Line Music Cafe is the place to be if you want eclectic lineups featuring both international and local acts.

To satisfy your palate, you can visit:

  • Ping's Szechuan Bar & Grill that serves award-winning Asian cuisine including Cantonese, Szechuan, Hunan, and Mandarin dishes, along with specialty drinks like Ping's Mai Tai, Ping's Pleasure, and Bootsy's Best Martini
  • Fireside Social House that serves American Cuisine and has a full bar
  • Emily's Lebanese that serves delectable Middle Eastern dishes
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During your sojourn in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, you can pay a visit to Brainerd (which will take a little over 2 hours via road) to take in the lakefront view (and perhaps, rent one of the houses overlooking the Brainerd Lakes to ensure some lakeside fun) and enjoy the fresh air having a pine scent – thanks to the surrounding pine trees.

Northeast Minnesota

From the splendid Lake Superior to the BWCAW (Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness) to Voyageurs National Park (freshwater-based park spread across 218054 acres where over one-third of that acreage consists of water), this land plays host to several special places. Whether you want a luxurious stay at a lakeside lodge or camp in the unscathed backcountry, you can get it all in this region.

Some places to stay in this region are Pier B Resort Hotel (Duluth), North Star Lake Resort (Marcell), Cove Point Lodge (Beaver Bay), and Sugar Lake Lodge (Cohasset).

Thanks to the waters and woods in this region, you won’t have any dearth of outdoor recreation. From boating, fishing, and canoeing to camping, biking, and hiking, you can enjoy a wide variety of outdoor activities here. And when it comes to food, you will get to taste local farm-to-table fare and international cuisine along with a variety of Minnesota wines as well as craft beer and spirits.

You can check the fare on offer at Scenic Pines Bar and Grill (Bigfork), Zeitgeist Arts Café (Duluth), Papa Charlie's Restaurant & Tavern (Lutsen), and Grandma's Saloon & Grill (Duluth).

Duluth is a big draw in this region and you should visit it to soak up its seaport flavor. Don’t miss a glimpse of the early 20th-century architecture and life at the Glensheen Mansion in Duluth. You may even plan to visit the smaller towns in this region that house art galleries and museums, which give you a peek into northeast Minnesota’s rich ethnic tapestry.

Here is what Barbara Pelton wrote in a GoNOMAD article about Duluth. "Taking a coffee to go and then walking down to the “big” dock or the “extra walk” of the lighthouse to see these the huge freighters come through. I have seen this hundreds of times and it always amazes me as this wall of steel passes by and the men wave as it passes through." She recommends Little Angies for lake-side Margaritas and Amazing Grace, for coffee and breakfast.

Read about  Northern Minnesota's Mining Towns

Minneapolis
Minneapolis.

For instance, a trip to the Grand Rapids will let you enjoy the Forest History Center, Judy Garland Museum, Children's Discovery Museum, MacRostie Art Center, and Reif Performing Arts Center.

Southern Minnesota

Apart from the mighty Mississippi and Minnesota rivers crossing the land, this area also boasts of some quiet, small streams that flow through the scenic valleys surrounded by towering, wooded cliffs. Whether you are looking for historic architecture, fishing lakes, bike trails, trout streams, or underground caves, you will get them all here. Some of the top attractions in this region are:

  • The National Eagle Center, Wabasha, MN‎
    (for a close encounter with the majestic eagles)
  • The Minnesota River Valley Scenic Byway (that passes by 6 state parks as well as museums telling Minnesota’s history)
  • Pipestone National Monument, which was built in 1937 with the aim of protecting the local pipestone quarries
  • Minnesota Marine Art Museum, Winona, MN
  • A tour of the Niagara Cave and Mystery Cave to see underground stalagmites, stalactites, pools and waterfalls, Harmony MN
  • The Commonweal Theatre, Lanesboro MN
  • Salt Lake in Lac qui Parle County, which is the state’s solitary alkaline lake a birding hotspot.
  • Preston-based National Trout Center
  • Odessa’s Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge
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In addition to these, don’t miss the in New Ulm), and walking a bit in the largest boot of this world boasting of size 638-D and weighing 1 ton – the Red Wing Shoe (which is in downtown Red Wing).

Hermann Monument

Some accommodation options in Southern Minnesota are Kiesler's Campground & RV Resort (Waseca), Red Carpet Inn (Windom), Contented Cottage (Northfield), and Archibald Inn B&B (Dundas). To satiate your palate, you can head to Salute! Wine Bar & More (Rochester), Signatures Restaurant (Winona), Old Barn Resort Restaurant (Preston), and Bub's Brewing Co. (Winona).

Other Regions in Minnesota

If you are a golf enthusiast and still have some time left on your hands, you can head to the heart of central Minnesota that plays host to over 70 picturesque golf courses. You can even enjoy waterskiing, fishing, boat, ng and mountain biking (on the region’s top-notch mountain bike trails).

Setting a date with the historic sites dedicated to Charles Lindbergh – the celebrated aviator, and Sinclair Lewis – the famous novelist, are other activities you can indulge in. Don’t forget to pick some knick-knacks from the region’s gift shops and antique stores.

Northwest Minnesota is another region worth a visit. Apart from playing host to the headwaters of the Mississippi River and the largest lakes of the state, this region has a picturesque setting where the north woods meet the prairie. From bird-watching and golfing to biking (on beautiful paved trails), and hiking (in state parks), you will have a lot to do and enjoy here.

Tips for international travelers

Before traveling to Minnesota, USA, find if your country is covered by the VWP (Visa Waiver Program). If you are wondering "what is Visa Waiver Program?" it enables nationals or citizens of 38 participating countries to enter USA (for business or tourism) for a maximum of 90 days or less without getting a VISA.

However, to travel to Minnesota, USA on the VWP (without a visa), you must have authorization through the ESTA before you board a sea carrier or flight scheduled to reach the US. This makes it important for you to check your ESTA status by using your ESTA Application number to retrieve the details. In case you don’t have the application number, you can check the status by using other details like your passport number, its issuance and expiry dates, country of citizenship, and date of birth. 

Oscar DavisOscar Davis is a freelance writer from St. Paul, Minnesota.