Called the “Land of 10,000 Lakes”, Minnesota is a state in the Upper Midwestern region of the US. Famously boasting more than 14,000 bodies of freshwater, outdoor tourism is an important part of the local economy with more than 6 million visitors traveling to Minnesota in 2021.
Another well-known destination in the state are the “Twin Cities”. Known as the Minneapolis-Saint Paul metropolitan area, these two cities are the main hub for the state’s economy, politics, and culture. It’s estimated that more than 60% of the residents live within the Twin City metropolitan area.
For those that want to head away from the urban areas, rural Minnesota is calling. Featuring a diverse topography, this state has plenty of wilderness areas to explore. Landscapes are pristine and people will have the chance to venture through thousands of acres of untouched land. By far boating is the most popular activity because of all the lakes, but there are many other ways to explore too.
A truly diverse destination, visitors can join in on the fun in this Upper Midwest state. Whether you’re immersed in spectacular scenery or cruising the urban streets, boredom is a thing of the past in Minnesota.
Livin’ La Vida Minnesota
History of “The North Star State”
Closely tied to Native American culture, the name Minnesota comes from the Dakota language. Native Americans were descended from the first indigenous people who lived in the area during the 11th century BCE.
The first culture to have emerged was the Hopewell tradition around 200 to 500 CE. One of the last cultures labeled as precontact was the Siouan speakers in 1000 CE and they were prominent during the period of European exploration.
Evidence of these ancient indigenous people exists in remains and objects found in Minnesota. The “Browns Valley Man”, found in 1933, dates back about 9,000 years and he is believed to be the state’s oldest known human remains. Just a few years prior to the man, the “Minnesota Woman” was founded in 1931 in Otter Tail County and she dates back about 8,000 years.
Evidence of early European contact also exists. Having arrived on the shores of Lake Superior in what is now Northern Wisconsin, French explorers were most likely the first Europeans to have contact with Dakota Native Americans. Much younger than the ancient remains, sites like the Fond du Lac trading post are still reminders of the days of European contact.
The land that consists of most of Minnesota was granted to the United States during the Second Treaty of Paris in September 1783. Spain owned the western portion of the land until the Treaty of Fontainebleau in 1762. Minnesota would not be granted statehood until May 1858, when it would become the 32nd state.
Capital City of Saint Paul
One half of the “Twin Cities”, Saint Paul is the capital of Minnesota. Supporting a population of 311,527 as of 2020, the capital is located on high bluffs that overlook the Mississippi River. A major hub for business, government, and tourism, it’s a fun place to visit and has plenty of attractions.
Divided into 17 districts, most people tend to gather in the Downtown area, North End, Thomas Dale (Frogtown), West Seventh, Union Park, and Highland Park. Throughout all of the districts and neighborhoods, historical architecture has been preserved. Visitors also explore along the waterfront to enjoy activities like boating and walking.
There are dozens of top attractions in Saint Paul, but the good news is that sometimes the crowds are smaller. Often overlooked for neighbor Minneapolis, people can enjoy the museums, sites, parks, shops, and restaurants without feeling too packed.
Some of the best activities in the city include the Landmark Center, State Capitol Building, Fort Snelling, Minnesota Children’s Museum, Summit Avenue, and Como Park Zoo & Conservatory. Other fun highlights are the Cathedral of Saint Paul, Grand Avenue, History Center, and Science Museum of Minnesota.
Travelers who are visiting from late August to early September will be in for a special treat as this is the time of the annual Minnesota State Fair. Drawing in big crowds, fair events include livestock competitions, games, classic car shows, roller coasters, art, concerts, and food. The fair is held on Snelling Avenue and it has been running since 1859.
Minneapolis, the Largest City in Minnesota
The other half of the Twin Cities and the largest city in the state is Minneapolis with a population of 429,954 residents as of the 2020 census. Also surrounded by water, it sits near the Mississippi River and also has thirteen lakes, a wetland area, creeks, and waterfalls. First occupied by the Dakota Sioux and then Europeans, Minneapolis has grown to become a major metropolitan area.
Whether you’re looking for indoor, outdoor, or entertainment activities, you’re guaranteed to find something worthwhile to do. here. Divided into 11 communities, each area is then further divided into neighborhoods, of which there are 83 in total. By far the busiest areas are Downtown and along the waterfront.
Educational highlights include the Minneapolis Institute of Art, Mill City Museum, Walker Art Center, and the Minnesota History Center. Around the city, many people head to the Stone Arch Bridge, Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, and the Minneapolis Skyway System. Some of the top natural parks are Theodore Wirth Park, Minnehaha Regional Park, Chain of Lakes Regional Park, and Lake Calhoun (Bde Maka Ska).
By far the best shopping is at the Mall of America. The largest mall in the US, there are more than 520 stores inside the complex as well as the Sea Life Aquarium, Nickelodeon Universe, and Crayola Experience. More than 40 million people visit the mall each year and it’s located a mere 15 minutes from the heart of downtown Minneapolis in the city of Bloomington.
Rochester, “Med City”
Known for its ties to the medical and healthcare fields, Rochester is a wonderful place to visit. The friendly community has plenty of activities based both indoors and outdoors. The city itself is mid-sized with a population of 121,395 as of the 2020 census. Although much of the city is rural outside of the downtown area, people do congregate in the urban areas to enjoy touring, shopping, and dining.
A few of the favorite places to go are the Rochester Art Center, Salem Glen Vineyard and Winery, Heritage House Victorian Museum, Douglas State Trail, Chester Woods Park, and the Peace Plaza. Special events include Rochesterfest, the Summer Market and Music Festival, and the Rochester Farmers’ Market.
Ely, “Dog Sled Capital”
Ely is a small city with a population of 3,268 people as of 2020 and is most famous for being the gateway to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Other nearby wilderness includes the Quetico Provincial Park in Canada. Many visitors also head to support wildlife conservation at the International Wolf Center and the North American Bear Center.
Within the town, the idyllic Main Street has a good variety of shops and restaurants. Additionally, many stores focus on selling outdoor goods and clothing.
In the downtown area, Sheridan Street is also a popular destination because of its coffee shops, bakeries, and all-in-one stores Other attractions include the Piragis Northwoods Company, Kawishiwi Falls Trail, the Dorothy Molter Museum, and Bear Head Lake State Park.
Grand Marais, A Lakeside Beauty
On the North Shore of Lake Superior, home to 1,337 people as of 2020 is Grand Marais. Originally inhabited by Native Americans, the French name came from French Canadians who settled in the area. Often called one of the “coolest small towns”, Grand Marais has lots of things to do.
Including exploring the arts, fishing, shopping, and even, going to the beach. Somewhat odd, the town’s location on Lake Superior means that there are quite a few beachy areas that are worth checking out. As a smaller-sized destination, many families head to the area to enjoy the freshwater lake with fewer crowds. Specific sights include Artist’s Point, the Grand Marais Lighthouse, and the Grand Marais Harbor.
Duluth, “Zenith City”
Located on Lake Superior, Duluth is a port city with a population of 86,697 as of 2020. A big destination for people from the Midwest, the city is most famous for the Great Lakes Aquarium, Aerial Lift Bridge, and Minnesota Point. Oftentimes, it’s also considered to be a gateway to Lake Superior’s North Shore, and more often than not, visitors choose to road trip their way around the area.
As one of the most popular tourist destinations in the state, Duluth has a gorgeous downtown area, unique neighborhoods, and plenty of outdoor space. There is also the Duluth Port, Canal Park, and Lakewalk, which ensures that visitors get to spend time on the waterfront. Along the lakeside, there is also a fanfastic view of the Aerial Lift Bridge, which goes across the St. Louis river to connect both sides of the city.
Additional local places to visit are the Lake Superior Zoo & Zoological Society, Glensheen, Great Lakes Aquarium, Enger Park, and the North Shore Scenic Drive. With such a diverse list of attractions, people of all ages can enjoy maritime, onshore, or in-the-city explorations.
Voyageurs National Park
Established in 1975, Voyageurs National Park is in Northern Minnesota near the small cities of International Falls. The park was named after the “voyageurs”, who were the first European settlers. Voyageurs is most famous for its water landscapes, where people can boat, canoe, kayak, and fish. Along the edges of the park, there are boat ramps and a visitor centers.
The main portion of the park, the Kabetogama Peninsula, is only accessible by boat. Although it makes up most of the land area, the best portions of the peninsula are located or are visible only from the water. Additionally, there are four lakes within the park called Rainy, Kabetogama, Namakan, and Sand Point. Each lake has boat access and walking trails.
Itasca State Park
Sitting at the headwater of the Mississippi River is Itasca State Park near the city of Park Rapids. A part of the Pine Moraines and Outwash Plains Ecological Subsection, this state park is filled with dense forests of red pine. Often described as “knob and kettle”, Itasca’s terrain varies from mounds to depressions that were formed by ancient glaciers. The unique appearance makes it one of the best state parks to visit.
There are plenty of activities permitted including camping, biking, wildlife viewing, boating, canoeing, kayaking, paddle boarding, hiking, and skiing. Educational centers include historic sites, museums, and a visitor center.
Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness
One of the most remote, but fantastic places to head is the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Accessible by canoe, the wilderness covers 1,098,000 acres and it contains more than 1,100 lakes. Canoers can enjoy 1,500 miles of water routes. Less busy than some of the other outdoor recreational areas, Boundary Waters typically attracts just over 150,000 visitors each year.
While non-motorized boating is the way to go in the wilderness, additional attractions include hiking, dog sledding, and vacationing in the local resorts. One of the most unique attractions is the Dark Sky Sanctuary, where visitors have the chance to see the Northern Lights from September to March.
North Shore Scenic Drive
Winding its way along Lake Superior, the North Shore Scenic Drive stretches for 150 miles and it is also known as State Route 61. Passing through towns like Duluth and Grand Marais, many tourists head out to the road to see the stunning scenery of cliffs, waterfalls, lighthouses, and pine forests. Along the way, you can stop in the small cities and towns to learn more about the local history and culture.
“The Star of the North” (L’Étoile du Nord)
Mother Nature reigns in Minnesota. When visiting the “Land of Sky-Blue Waters”, there is always something exciting going on. Whether heading out to enjoy the rugged wilderness or sticking close to the cities, this Upper Midwest state is an affordable and fun destination.