Minnesota runs deep in my veins. My mother’s family immigrated to the northern, iron ore country in the first decades of the last century. Those of the remaining clan who didn’t move to California settled in the Twin Cities area. When my 90 year old aunt suddenly asked me to help her make one last trip back from Southern California, I jumped at the chance to finally be visiting Minneapolis.
Four short days later we were flying non-stop into Minneapolis and my cousin, Tom, whisked us away from the airport to his farm in the countryside. Between startling swaths of green and grand, stone buildings, fair trade coffee roasters and pizza joints, lofty mansions and worn Victorians, ghost signs and state-of-the-art museums, visiting Minneapolis left my head and heart spinning.
There’s nothing better than discovering a place in the company of locals. While I had a chance to hang out with long-lost cousins, I also buddied up with long-time friend, Laura Zahn, who has been living in Minnesota for decades. Laura was my patient guide, squiring me through St. Paul and Minneapolis as I repeatedly asked her to stop, back up or wait as I take a picture. I only wish we’d had more time to play during a short trip full of revelations.
It shouldn’t be a surprise but the ‘Land of Ten Thousand Lakes’ is verdant to the extreme in the milder months. I hail from a region of California that is parched with spotty green, so the effortlessly verdent, open fields I witnessed as we sped away from the airport were a shock.
The trains were the backbone of early industry in the Midwest. St. Paul has one of the grandest train stations imaginable, but when I stopped by late on a Sunday afternoon it was nearly empty. The few people I saw were strolling to a Twins game at the stadium downtown. We also passed the Fitzgerald Theater, which will sound familiar to fans of the long-running radio show, A Prairie Home Companion.
In the 1920’s a tower was built that put the city on the map. An Art Deco beauty, Foshay Tower remains but is dwarfed by the newer skyscrapers around it. I was drawn to the Observation Tower on the 30th floor. The entrance is through the luxurious W Boutique Hotel and past their lounge where they serve Prohibition era cocktails. That was a glamorous temptation but nothing compared to slipping past the ornate elevator doors and up into the penthouse museum for a 360-degree view of the city beyond.
During the Prohibition Era, there was lots of money to be made, ‘off the books’ and the Mississippi River made transporting contraband tempting and easy. Twin City mobsters, Ma Barker, Baby Face Nelson, and John Dillinger took advantage of what they could and were responsible for some of the most notorious crimes in the 1930’s. Today in St. Paul’s Wabasha Street Caves, once the site of the Cafe Royale Speakeasy, there are several tours about the gangster days.
The city is fairly flat so it’s easy to get around by trolley or bike on a sunny day in Minneapolis. At the Harriet Lake Boat House kayaks or small boats are available for rent. While following the lakeside trail, we enjoyed watching a Tango group warming up for a performance in the bandshell. The Lake Café makes a great spot to brunch with friends or nosh over a good book.
One of the finest regional theaters in the United States, the Guthrie, calls Minneapolis home. The controversial and lovely building reaches towards the river on one side. Like a black box stage, the building is darkly colored, the better to reflect it’s rotating showcase and there are many other small theaters and historic movie houses scattered throughout the area. The Walker Art Center is a contemporary art mecca.
It’s going to be hard to unseat the Mill City Museum as my favorite historical museum in the country. Built from the ruins of the old flour mill it’s a spectacular homage to the men and women who ground flour, who sold flour and established the ‘largest mill in the world.’ The building itself is a wonder as you enter either on street level or from the riverfront below. The ruins left after two fires and abandoned for years have been incorporated into a vigorous new design.
Don’t miss the elevator ride. While sitting on benches inside an enormous grain elevator, you witness a multi-media historical review while riding between the six floors. Interviews with mill workers, found footage, recreations of the fire and the mill social life are part of the show. The program is capped with an invitation to ride a newer glass elevator to the top floor deck where you can take in the sweep of the Stone Arch Bridge. It’s stunning. (See more about the Stone Art Bridge from my earlier post.)
While the Mill City Museum has play spaces for little ones, adults won’t be disappointed with the historical displays, the bakery and cooking collections. Another feature you won’t want to is the small theater dedicated to a nineteen-minute movie about the growth of Minneapolis.
There’s a bustling craft brew scene to be sure but innovative restaurants and cool cafes abound. A few I’d recommend:
As refugees have found solace and made new homes across the United States, Minneapolis has taken in thousands. On Sunday I watched graceful women swathed in full burkas cross the street and sweep into the gigantic, Sunday morning Minneapolis Farmers Market downtown. I followed them to discover Cheese Curds and the joys of freshly grilled corn, fresh lemonade and all kinds of crafts in too few minutes spent strolling through the marketplace.
At the end of the long weekend, I returned to the countryside and hung out with the cousins. A half dozen Canadian Geese shared the field with the horses that my cousin Tom boards. He revved up a couple of his hot rods and my Aunt rode in the rumble seat. I tried my hand at wrangling the chickens back into their pen at dusk and watched my Aunt glow as she told stories, laughed and pointed out details in family pictures. It was a priceless visit.
Minneapolis and St. Paul have so much to offer the adventurous traveler. The area deserves more than a few short days to really take advantage of all that is there. Visiting Minneapolis with friends and family will stay in my heart forever.
Like this post? I hope you’ll share it.