44 Fun Things to Do in Minneapolis-St. Paul (Twin Cities) – Cheap & Free Activities

Outsiders associate the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, and Minnesota in general, with cold weather, funny accents, and perhaps the Target bullseye logo.

There are grains of truth in these cliches. Minneapolis-St. Paul is the coldest major metro area in the United States, according to The Weather Channel. Local modes of speech, particularly in rural areas, still bear the influence of the German and Scandinavian settlers who arrived in the late 19th century. And the region is home to many blue-chip corporations, including Target, General Mills, 3M, and UnitedHealth.

But Minneapolis-St. Paul – popularly known as the Twin Cities – is also a dynamic, affordable destination for both budget-minded tourists and frugal business travelers with extra time on their hands. Whether you’re visiting for a quick in-and-out weekend or visiting the Twin Cities as part of a longer vacation, check out as many of these free, cheap, or high-value things to do as possible. And to stretch your travel dollars even further, pair your itinerary with cost-conscious strategies to save money on hotel rooms and eat cheap on vacation.

The Grand Rounds

The Minneapolis-St. Paul region is renowned for its green space. According to CNN, Minneapolis and St. Paul tied for first place in the Trust for Public Land’s urban park system rankings.

The crown jewel of the two cities’ park systems is the Grand Rounds, a 50-mile stretch of contiguous parkland and trails that’s designated a National Scenic Byway. If you’re in decent shape, you can bike the entire length in a single day, or save yourself the exertion and travel directly to the major highlights. Unless otherwise noted, all sites and features on the Grand Rounds are free to enter and use.

1. Cedar Lake

cedar lake minneapolis

Cedar Lake

Cedar Lake is the northernmost body of water in Minneapolis’s Chain of Lakes, a collection of urban lakes linked by contiguous wetlands and enveloped by the Grand Rounds. The lake is nearly surrounded by Cedar Lake Park, a mostly wooded area with great trails and viewpoints. On warm days, lay out or swim at the beach near the intersection of Burnham Road and Cedar Lake Avenue.

2. Lake of the Isles

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Swinging in a hammock near Lake of the Isles

Favored by local athletes, businesspeople, and celebrities, Lake of the Isles is the ritziest of Minneapolis’s lakes. On winter weekends, pickup pond hockey is a regular occurrence here. The southwest side of the lake offers great skyline views in all seasons, so don’t forget your camera.

3. Lake Calhoun

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Lake Calhoun – photo by Brian Martucci

Lake Calhoun is home to Minneapolis’s biggest and busiest municipal beach. On summer weekends, come early to ensure a spot on the sand.

If you want to explore the lake (and the rest of the Chain of Lakes) by boat, visit Wheel Fun Rentals on the lake’s northeast shore. Wheel Fun rents out kayaks, stand-up paddleboards, and canoes, with summer rates starting at $13 per hour. Once you’ve had your fill of the water, walk over to the hip Uptown district for a drink or light meal.

4. Lake Harriet

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Sailboats on Lake Harriet

Lake Harriet is just south of Lake Calhoun, with a large wooded area connecting the two. There’s a small beach, extensive grassy shoreline, and a second Wheel Fun Rentals outpost on the northwest shore.

The adjacent Lake Harriet Band Shell features concerts and performances most summer evenings and weekend afternoons. On the northeast shore, check out Lyndale Park, a manicured parcel with a well-kept rose garden and other cultivated areas.

5. Lake Nokomis

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Downtown Minneapolis behind Lake Nokomis

A few miles southeast of Lake Harriet, along Minnehaha Parkway and beautiful Minnehaha Creek, lies Lake Nokomis. Lake Nokomis is entirely surrounded by Lake Nokomis Park, which features a moderately sized beach and a third Wheel Fun Rental hub. Spend some time walking or biking around the lake, hit the beach (weather permitting), and then head across Minnehaha to Grand Ole Creamery, which features 200 ice cream flavors in double-sized cones starting at $4.

6. Theodore Wirth Park

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Theodore Wirth Park – photo by Brian Martucci

Known as Wirth Park for short, Minneapolis’s largest park occupies a decent chunk of the city’s northwest border. It boasts several small but picturesque lakes (including one with a public beach), extensive wetlands, a 27-hole golf course, and miles of wooded walking, biking, and Nordic skiing trails. The ridge on the park’s west side is one of the highest points in the city and offers stunning, near-panoramic views.

7. Minnehaha Falls and Park

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Minnehaha Falls on a sunny summer day

Another couple miles down Minnehaha Creek is Minnehaha Park, one of the Twin Cities’ largest urban parks. The park itself is huge, with a nice mix of manicured areas (including dozens of barbecue pits and pavilions) and natural spaces. The highlight is Minnehaha Falls, a 50-foot plunge that takes Minnehaha Creek down to the level of the nearby Mississippi River. Though it slows to a trickle in late summer, the falls is often torrential in spring, and most years find it completely frozen by late December.

8. West River Parkway

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West River Parkway – photo by Brian Martucci

West River Parkway runs from the north side of Minnehaha Park, through downtown Minneapolis, to the North Loop neighborhood. It features separated walking and biking paths, plus two narrow driving lanes. West River Parkway never strays more than a few hundred feet from the Mississippi River, affording stunning views of the waterway on one side and grand, early 20th century mansions on the other.

Other Parks, Natural Areas & Excursions

Minneapolis-St. Paul has plenty of parkland not directly on the Grand Rounds. Key green spaces and natural points of interest in the cities, suburbs and surrounding areas include the following.

9. Midtown Greenway

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Midtown Greenway – photo by Brian Martucci

The Midtown Greenway is an open, sub-grade bike highway that runs parallel to busy Lake Street, one of South Minneapolis’s most important thoroughfares, and connects the north shore of Lake Calhoun with West River Parkway. The Greenway is a great way to access Lake Street’s eclectic shops and venues without braving traffic on surface streets or sidewalks. The condos, apartment buildings, and historic warehouses towering above the route make for a great ride. If your bike needs fixing or you’re in the mood for a coffee break, check out Freewheel Bike’s Midtown Bike Center near the Chicago Avenue exit.

10. Hidden Falls Regional Park

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A cottonwood tree at St. Paul’s Hidden Falls Regional Park beside the Mississippi River

St. Paul’s Hidden Falls Regional Park is just across the Mississippi River from Minnehaha Park. Surrounded by tall bluffs on either side, Hidden Falls Park is a great place for an early-morning hike, fishing excursion, or evening campfire.

11. Como Park

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The Marjorie MacNeely Conservatory at Como Park in St. Paul

Como Park is one of St. Paul’s largest parks. It boasts several miles of trails and a small zoo with native and nonnative mammals, birds, and reptiles.

The adjacent Marjorie MacNeely Conservatory has a host of lush, well-kept gardens, many in climate-controlled greenhouses. Admission to the entire complex is free, though there’s a suggested donation of $3 per adult.

12. Loring Park

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Autumn in Loring Park

Loring Park is a compact green space in downtown Minneapolis. Surrounded by trendy eateries and expensive apartments, it’s a free oasis in an otherwise exclusive neighborhood. Loring Park is a popular festival space and serves as the endpoint of the annual Twin Cities Pride parade and festival, one of the country’s largest.

13. Afton State Park

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Afton State Park in winter

Located about 30 minutes by car from downtown St. Paul, Afton State Park occupies hundreds of scenic acres along the St. Croix River, a major tributary of the Mississippi. During the summer, the park’s restored prairies come alive with colorful flowers, and the miles-long trail network is enough to keep even the most energetic hikers busy in any season. If you have a spare night, reserve a campsite in the park’s backcountry ($15 and up per site, per night).

14. Rice Creek Chain of Lakes Park Reserve

Rice Creek Chain of Lakes Park Reserve is located about 20 minutes north of downtown St. Paul. At 5,500 acres, it’s one of the largest county parks in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area. And with at least a half-dozen sizable lakes, it’s a boater’s paradise.

In winter, strap on Nordic skis and follow the shoreline trails or head straight out across the frozen water. One note of caution: The park’s extensive wetlands are extremely buggy from May through early October, so bring lots of bug spray and long-sleeved clothing.

15. Lake Superior/The North Shore

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Hollow Rock at sunrise on the Lake Superior north shore in Minnesota

Lake Superior’s North Shore begins at Duluth, about two hours north of Minneapolis-St. Paul, and extends hundreds of miles northeast into Canada. Despite the distance, it’s well worth taking a long day trip or overnight excursion (campsites start at $10 to $15 per night) to this stunningly beautiful string of jagged cliffs, pristine forests, tumbling waterfalls, and rocky summits.

Highlights include Tettegouche Falls State Park, Split Rock Lighthouse and the artsy community of Grand Marais. If possible, visit during foliage season – typically the last week of September and first week of October.

Historical Sites

Though Minneapolis and St. Paul don’t have the extensively preserved cores or historic pedigrees of Boston or Baltimore, both cities date back nearly 200 years. Their shared experiences are reflected in the various historical sites and districts scattered around the region.

16. Mill District/Mill City Museum

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The Mill City Museum – photo by Brian Martucci

The Mill City Museum, part of the larger Minneapolis Mill District, occupies the ruins of what was once the world’s largest flour mill and offers a surprisingly interesting look back at Minneapolis’s once-mighty milling industry. Highlights include a courtyard comprised of the burnt-out husk of an old mill, a 10th-story viewing platform with panoramic views of the city and Mississippi River, and a refurbished grain elevator. Admission is $12 for adults.

17. St. Anthony Falls/St. Anthony Main

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St. Anthony Falls – photo by Brian Martucci

Located just across the Mississippi River from the Mill District, St. Anthony Main is Minneapolis’s oldest intact neighborhood. Its cobblestone streets sit just a few steps from St. Anthony Falls, the city’s original source of power and sole reason for existing. Interpretive plaques identify key ruins and points of interest around the falls, which tumble in several sections. Just below the falls is a nameless hollow filled with overgrown ruins – a must-see for the adventurous urban explorer.

18. Stone Arch Bridge

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A biker on the Stone Arch Bridge – photo by Brian Martucci

The Stone Arch Bridge is a 19th-century railroad bridge, now exclusively reserved for pedestrians and cyclists, spanning the Mississippi River between St. Anthony Main and the Mill District. A great vantage point for snapping photos of downtown Minneapolis, its 2,100-foot span is also perfect for keeping track of distance on your early-morning jog. Don’t miss the Stone Arch Festival, a three-day art and music event held in late June.

19. Minnesota History Center

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The Minnesota History Center, located in St. Paul

Though the building it occupies isn’t new, the Minnesota History Center showcases two centuries of regional history. It combines permanent exhibits, mostly exploring Minnesota’s agrarian and ethnic past, with rotating special exhibits (such as a look at 20th century suburban development around Minneapolis-St. Paul). Admission is $11 for adults and $9 for students.

20. Swede Hollow

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Swede Hollow Spiraling Brick Tunnels in St. Paul

Located on St. Paul’s East Side, Swede Hollow is part park and part historic preserve. Though most of its original structures are gone, the area was a wretched, densely populated slum for Scandinavian and Northern European immigrants during the 19th century. Never electrified or connected to St. Paul’s plumbing system, the neighborhood was abandoned sometime after 1950.

21. Wabasha Street Caves

Wabasha Street Caves

Wabasha Street Caves in St. Paul – photo by Jonathunder

Technically mines excavated during the early 19th century, the Wabasha Street Caves were once the epicenter of mafia and gang activity in the Twin Cities. During Prohibition, the caves were used as fortified hideouts for mobsters and warehouses for illicit booze.

A 40-minute tour of the caves and surrounding complex costs $6 per adult. A longer bus tour, which hits other local sites popular with Prohibition-era gangsters, costs $24 per adult.

22. Downtown St. Paul

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Downtown St. Paul as seen from the Mississippi River

Downtown St. Paul probably has the Twin Cities’ highest concentration of historic structures within an easily walkable area. Highlights include the Ordway Theater, Mears Park, the Minnesota State Capitol, and the anonymous but architecturally significant old warehouses and office buildings in the Lowertown district.

23. Summit Avenue

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James J. Hill House in St Paul – photo by McGhiever

Summit Avenue is the country’s largest contiguous stretch of Victorian architecture. The street, divided in parts by a broad, tree-studded median, runs more than four miles from downtown St. Paul to the western edge of the city, at Mississippi River Boulevard.

The houses get older as you approach downtown – the area around the James J. Hill House, the street’s grandest residence, was built out well before the 20th century. It’s worth taking a few hours for a leisurely stroll or bike ride down Summit’s length.

24. Fort Snelling

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Fort Snelling

Situated on a high bluff at the strategic (and scenic) intersection of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers, Fort Snelling (circa 1820) is the oldest surviving European settlement in the Twin Cities region. Many original structures, including soldiers’ quarters and fortification, remain intact, though they’re outnumbered by post-Civil War construction. Don’t miss the reenactments and drills held most mornings and afternoons (Tuesday through Saturday).

Admission is $11 for adults and $9 for students. Because Fort Snelling is a popular school field trip destination, it can get very busy on weekdays during the academic year.

Arts, Entertainment and Culture

Minneapolis-St. Paul has all the cultural highlights you’d expect from a large urban area: top-notch museums, excellent concert venues, grant cathedrals, and fine theaters. It also has some unexpected gems, such as a gaudy but hard-to-avoid ode to consumer capitalism (Mall of America) and an all-night, all-city art festival (Northern Spark).

25. Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia)

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Minneapolis Institute of Art, also known as “Mia”

Mia is a world-class art museum in an imposing neoclassical structure south of downtown Minneapolis. Its galleries feature a comprehensive lineup of fine art from throughout human history, from ancient China and Mesopotamia, to the European Renaissance and recent American movements. The extensive permanent collections are always free, but special exhibitions may cost extra.

26. Walker Art Center

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Walker Art Center in Minneapolis

Just west of downtown Minneapolis, the Walker Art Center‘s focus is edgier and more contemporary than the MIA’s, with lots of evening and weekend programming (lectures, live performances, and short-term exhibitions). It’s a must-see if you like sculpture and installation art. Adult admission is $14.

27. Minneapolis Sculpture Garden

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The Spoonbridge and Cherry sculpture at the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden – photo by Plume Photography

The free-to-enter Minneapolis Sculpture Garden occupies a Walker-owned parcel just north of the museum. It’s home to the iconic Spoonbridge and Cherry sculpture, among other notable works, and boasts an impressive native grass garden that flourishes in the warm months. For a year-round botany experience, peek into the adjacent Cowles Conservatory, a cornucopia of succulents and tropical plants.

28. Science Museum of Minnesota

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Science Museum of Minnesota – photo by Joe Ferrer

Located in downtown St. Paul, the Science Museum of Minnesota is a kid-friendly facility with rotating exhibits focusing on space exploration, sustainable technologies, and Earth’s biodiversity. There’s a full-size IMAX theater here as well. Adult tickets start at $12, while kids get in for $9.

29. American Swedish Institute

American Swedish Institute

American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis

The American Swedish Institute is a stunning stone mansion on Minneapolis’s south side. Once a private residence, it’s now a museum and cultural center charged with promoting Scandinavian culture in Minneapolis-St. Paul and preserving connections with the old country.

The adjacent Nelson Cultural Center hosts frequent, free musical and spoken word performances and readings from Scandinavian artists, while FIKA is a renowned (and surprisingly affordable) small-plates restaurant. Admission is $9 for adults and $5 for students.

30. Northern Spark

Northern Spark

Northern Spark

Northern Spark is an all-night cultural festival that attracts tens of thousands of people each year and encompasses dozens of venues in Minneapolis proper. Art installations and musical performances abound, and many restaurants and bars stay open late or offer one-night-only specials to celebrate the occasion.

Northern Spark is free, though specific exhibits may charge admission. The festival typically occurs on the Saturday immediately before the summer solstice.

31. Mall of America

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The Mall of America is located in Bloomington, a suburb of the Twin Cities – photo by Ivy Photos

Located in the bustling suburb of Bloomington, the Mall of America is basically an overwhelming ode to consumerism. But it’s nevertheless worth a look. Instead of spending your hard-earned money here, spend a couple hours walking around the mall’s four floors of commercial space, then hit the adjacent aquarium ($15 for kids, $18 for adults) or IMAX-grade movie theater (tickets start at about $10 per show).

32. First Avenue

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Remembering Prince at the First Ave Nightclub – photo by Steve Quinlan

First Avenue and the adjacent, more intimate 7th Street Entry are probably the Twin Cities’ best venues to see low-key music acts before they hit the big time – and the occasional big-name rocker too. Prince, who vies with Bob Dylan for Minnesota’s musical crown, put First Avenue on the map in the 1970s and 80s, and the complex still retains a disco hall vibe. Today, most shows cost less than $20, with many requiring just a nominal $5 door fee.

33. Turf Club

Located in St. Paul’s unassuming Midway neighborhood, the Turf Club shares an ownership group with First Avenue. But inside, it’s a totally different era: Mid-20th century wood paneling, kitschy art, and a no-frills sound system dominate. Shows typically cost less than $15, and the club is rare among Minneapolis-St. Paul venues for its weekend evening happy hours.

Neighborhoods and Local Points of Interest

Minneapolis and St. Paul have dozens of distinctive neighborhoods, most of which are charming in their own right. If you have more than a day or two in town, pick a few of these interesting areas to check out.

34. St. Anthony Park

St. Anthony Park Branch Library

St. Anthony Park Branch Library – photo by McGhiever

Once a blighted industrial stretch bracketed by sleepy residential neighborhoods, St. Paul’s St. Anthony Park is now home to an eclectic mix of artists, tech entrepreneurs, and craftspeople. It’s also a hotbed for the local craft beer movement, with Urban Growler Brewing, Lake Monster Brewing, and Burning Brothers Brewing just blocks apart.

35. West Side St. Paul

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Historic church in St. Paul’s West Side neighborhood – photo by Joe Ferrer

So named because it’s technically on the west bank of the meandering Mississippi, St. Paul’s West Side actually sits directly south of downtown St. Paul. The neighborhood’s flat, low-lying northern half is trendy and industrial, though affordable by local standards, while the hilly southern half is more residential and boasts stunning views of downtown St. Paul and the Cathedral of St. Paul. Cesar Chavez Street has plenty of affordable Latin American eateries.

36. Frogtown

Frogtown is a large neighborhood that straddles University Avenue, a major St. Paul thoroughfare. As the heart of Minneapolis-St. Paul’s Hmong and Lao communities, it’s filled affordable, unpretentious old-country eateries and hole-in-the-wall shops. Frogtown is also a national epicenter of the local food movement, with countless farmers markets (including the unique Little Mekong Night Market), a locally sourced CSA, and a 5.5-acre urban farm (one of the country’s largest).

37. Summit Hill/Cathedral Hill

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Cathedral of St. Paul

The Summit Hill and Cathedral Hill neighborhoods sit on a steep bluff above downtown St. Paul and the Mississippi River valley, in the shadow of the awe-inspiring Cathedral of St. Paul. They’re among the city’s oldest and best-preserved neighborhoods – it’s rare to find a building constructed after 1900 here. Stroll along Summit, Virginia, and Selby Avenues, then circle back to the intersection of Selby and Western for a quick coffee and bite at Nina’s Coffee Cafe.

38. Uptown/LynLake

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A street in the Uptown neighborhood – photo by Brian Martucci

Uptown and the adjacent LynLake area comprise Minneapolis’s trendiest district, a seemingly endless expanse of upscale galleries, name-brand shops, hip venues, and pricey eateries. But there are some affordable gems here as well, such as Bryant-Lake Bowl, a relatively cheap hybrid bowling alley/restaurant/dance hall, and LynLake Brewery, which rarely charges more than $5 cover for weekend shows, and features a rooftop deck with unobstructed views of downtown Minneapolis.

39. Northeast Minneapolis

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Northeast Minneapolis Arts District

Northeast Minneapolis is a hip, artsy neighborhood with dozens of galleries, open art studios, dive bars, and craft breweries. Don’t miss Art-a-Whirl, an annual mid-May festival during which the neighborhood’s artists and artisans throw open their doors to the public and sell like mad. Local art hubs include the California Building, the Solar Arts Building, the Casket Arts Building, and the Northrup King Building; popular breweries include Bauhaus Brew Labs, Indeed Brewing Company and Fair State Brewing Cooperative.

40. North Loop

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Shops in the North Loop – photo by Brian Martucci

Formerly known as the Warehouse District, the North Loop is a rapidly gentrifying expanse of old warehouses and industrial buildings northwest of downtown Minneapolis. Avoid the area around Target Field (where MLB’s Minnesota Twins play) on game days, when nearby streets and establishments come alive with fans. Otherwise, take a ride on the Cedar Lake Trail, a sub-grade bike highway similar to the Midtown Greenway, spend an hour strolling the gritty (but safe) surface streets, and then enjoy a pint at lively Fulton Brewing Company.

41. Cedar-Riverside

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University of Minnesota West Bank office buildings at dusk – photo by Sam Wagner

Cedar-Riverside is Minneapolis’s densest neighborhood. The massive Riverside Towers housing complex and the dense network of surrounding surface streets host the region’s rapidly growing East African community, whose members have been fleeing unimaginable horrors in anarchic Somalia and Eritrea since the 1990s. Dozens of businesses catering to these folks share street frontage with hipster-friendly, super-affordable bars and music venues like Acadia Cafe, Whiskey Junction, Palmer’s, and the Triple Rock. The Cedar Cultural Center, a more respectable venue, bridges the divide between the two communities. A few blocks west, the West Bank area is the hub of the University of Minnesota’s grad student population.

42. Midtown

Midtown lies east of Uptown and LynLake. Though it’s just as busy as the trendy neighborhoods to the west, Midtown is much more down-to-earth and accessible, with an impressive array of ethnic eateries along the Lake Street Corridor.

Don’t miss the Midtown Global Market, where you can find pretty much any global food staple imaginable; the Mercado Central, the hub of the district’s Latin American community; or Eat Street (Nicollet Avenue between Lake Street and I-94), an ever-changing jumble of affordable, exotic eateries and laid-back bars.

43. Stillwater

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Bluffs overlooking the St. Croix River and Stillwater

One of Minnesota’s oldest towns, Stillwater is a beautiful, well-preserved river port on the St. Croix, a few miles north of Afton State Park. The surrounding area is very affluent, which makes dining and shopping here pricey, but it costs nothing to stroll along the riverfront, explore the precious back streets, and peek into the manicured lawns of the hillside estates above the center of town.

44. New Ulm

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Grand Hotel in New Ulm, Minnesota – photo by Bobak Ha’Eri

New Ulm is a small, well-kept town about 90 miles southwest of the Twin Cities. It features an unusually well-preserved stock of 19th-century houses and churches built by German immigrants in the mid-19th century, and doubles down on its heritage with a slew of festivals throughout the year. Unsurprisingly, the town’s Oktoberfest, held in early October, is the signature draw. Also worth seeing (and tasting) is Schell’s Brewery, a German-style facility that has been in more or less continuous operation since 1860.

When to Visit Minneapolis-St. Paul and What to Bring

Minneapolis-St. Paul is famous for its winters, which are reliably cold and snowy. On average, the region gets 50 to 60 inches of snow per year – more than New York or Chicago, but less than Cleveland or Buffalo. Average January highs top out in the low 20s, with lows in the single digits, and subzero readings occur 20 to 25 days in the typical season.

Frigid temperatures and snow are only part of the weather story here. The summer months feature reliable warmth, with average highs in the mid-80s. The hottest days top out near (and sometimes above) 100 degrees, usually with oppressive humidity.

Meanwhile, the transitional seasons bring sharp contrasts. In May or October, it’s not unusual for a bright, mild stretch of weather to be followed within hours by a raw, wretched burst of wind and ice. Though this unpredictability makes packing the right clothing and accessories a bit more challenging, it can also add some excitement to a spring or fall trip.

If you plan on traditional outdoor sightseeing or recreation, which is a major draw for many visitors to the region, schedule your trip for June or September to minimize the risk of unpleasantly cold or oppressively hot weather. On the other hand, if you plan on Nordic skiing or other cold-weather sports, December through February is the ideal time to visit.

Depending on when you visit Minneapolis-St.Paul and what you plan to do with your time, pack the following:

  • Temperature-Appropriate Clothing and Accessories. Before you leave on your trip, check the weather and pack accordingly. During the summer, breathable cotton clothing, hats, and sunscreen are essential. In the winter, bring comfortable under-layers that you can easily shed and stow in indoor settings, as well as a heavy coat, thick hat, scarf or neck cowl, long underwear or heavy tights, gloves, and possibly a face mask. In the transitional seasons, bring a fleece jacket or windbreaker, sweater, and jeans or other comfortable legwear. In winter, pair a heavy, waterproof coat with under-layers that you can easily shed as you move indoors, plus a hat, gloves, a scarf, and possibly a face mask. In spring and fall, take the layers and leave the heavy coat at home.
  • Rain Gear. Precipitation occurs regularly throughout the year here, so bring wet-weather clothing – boots, an umbrella, water-resistant bags – no matter when you come. In the winter, bring a waterproof winter coat or jacket.
  • Winter Car Safety Kit. If you travel to the Twin Cities by car during the cold months, be sure to pack a winter safety kit in your car. Include roadside survival gear, such as extra items of warm clothing, blankets, food, and an emergency radio. Pack snow- and ice-removal equipment, such as a shovel, ice melt, antifreeze, low-temperature washer fluid, and a windshield scraper as well. And don’t forget jumper cables, a necessity in subzero weather.

How to Get Around Minneapolis-St. Paul

Though Minneapolis and St. Paul proper are densely populated cities, many of the greater Minneapolis-St. Paul region’s attractions are located outside the urban core. Accordingly, your trip to the Twin Cities is likely to involve multiple transportation modes.

Personal Vehicles

Like Denver, Minneapolis-St. Paul is located in the broad middle of the United States and boasts an excellent highway network that’s accessible from any direction. Accordingly, it’s a great road trip destination or stop.

Even if you’re flying in, it’s not a bad idea to rent a car, particularly if you’re planning an out-of-town excursion. Outside of the most densely populated neighborhoods, street parking is cheap or free (rates higher than $1 per hour are rare), and only a few areas require residential parking permits. Also, many houses and multi-unit complexes have underground or off-street parking – so if you’re staying in an Airbnb or VRBO rental, you likely won’t have to worry about overnight street parking.

Parking tickets fees are reasonable, ranging from $15 to $50 for common infractions. The one major exception to this rule occurs during snow emergencies, which are typically declared after snowfalls of three inches or greater within a 24-hour period. Both Minneapolis and St. Paul aggressively ticket and tow cars parked on-street in violation of a declared snow emergency. Between the ticket fine, towing fee, and storage assessments (which accrue daily), a snow emergency tow can cost upwards of $300 per day.

Public Transportation (Metro Transit)

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A Metro Transit bus in Minneapolis – photo by Miker

Metro Transit oversees public transit for the Twin Cities and most of the surrounding region. Its network consists of one commuter rail line, two light rail (LRT) lines, multiple bus rapid transit (BRT) lines, and more than 100 regular bus routes. Many routes run all night or nearly all night, making it easy to get around cheaply after hours.

If you fly into Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, take the Blue Line LRT to downtown Minneapolis or the commercial district near the Mall of America, both of which are major bus hubs.

Fares, Tickets & Passes
Metro Transit buses and light rail vehicles follow a simple fare system. As of mid-2015, the regular fare is $1.75, regardless of how far you travel or how many transfers you make. The peak fare, which covers the morning and afternoon rush hours, is $2.25, also with free transfers. Transfers are good for 150 minutes from the time of purchase.

Commuter rail fares range from $3 to $6, one way, depending on the day of the week (they’re slightly lower on weekends) and distance traveled.

If you plan to use public transit extensively during your stay, consider purchasing a seven-day or stored value pass. Seven-day passes cost $22 and offer unlimited rides on buses and trains (except commuter rail). Stored value passes (Go-To cards) come in $5, $10, $20, $30, $40, $50, $100, and $180 denominations. All come with a 10% value bonus – in other words, a $50 pass is good for $55 in fares.

You can pay for single-ride bus tickets on board bus vehicles. Purchase multi-use passes and tickets for LRT, BRT, and commuter rail at stations or authorized vendors (typically grocery stores and drugstores).

Biking and Bikesharing

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Nice Ride Minnesota bikeshare program – photo by Brian Martucci

With an excellent regional network of bike lanes and separated bike trails, plus relatively flat terrain, Minneapolis-St. Paul is one of the country’s best metro areas for recreational biking and bike commuting.

Thanks to Nice Ride Minnesota, the local bikesharing program, you don’t have to bring your own bike to navigate the Twin Cities on two wheels. Nice Ride Minnesota has more than 1,500 bikes and nearly 200 stations in its network, which focuses on the two core cities and some inner suburbs.

Compared to some other bikesharing programs, Nice Ride is relatively inexpensive. If you’re an à la carte user, the first 30 minutes of each ride is free. After that, you pay $3 for each additional half hour. If you hold a 24-hour ($6) or 30-day ($15) pass, the first 60 minutes of each ride is free, with the same $3-per-half-hour structure after that. You can reduce or eliminate your bikesharing costs by planning routes that hit a new station before the free portion of the ride ends, then switching bikes and starting the clock over again.

Keep in mind that Nice Ride shuts down during the cold months, so winter biking enthusiasts need to bring their own wheels or rent a bike at a local shop.

Carsharing, Ridesharing & Taxis

Ridesharing is an increasingly popular transportation option in Minneapolis-St. Paul. Both Uber and Lyft operate in the core cities and close-in suburbs – roughly a 15-mile radius from each downtown. Uber’s base far is $0.60, plus $0.17 per minute and $1.30 per mile. Lyft’s fares are similar, and both are subject to change.

Carsharing is popular in the Twin Cities as well. Car2Go and Zipcar both operate here, though Zipcar is confined to a few hubs near the University of Minnesota and a handful of other local universities.

Car2Go vehicles can be found on streets and in parking lots throughout the core cities. The per-minute rate is $0.41, with an hourly maximum of $14.99 and daily maximum of $84.99, though prices are subject to change. With a daily maximum fee of about $77, Zipcar is a slightly better deal for longer excursions.

Minneapolis-St. Paul has a competitive and relatively loosely regulated taxi industry. Rather than keep the region’s dozen-plus major taxi companies’ phone numbers in your contacts, download the convenient, Uber-like iHail app for a faster and more seamless hailing experience. Taxis are available for street hailing in the core business districts and densely populated neighborhoods, such as Uptown.

Final Word

Minneapolis-St. Paul isn’t the most glamorous, biggest, or most historically significant city in the United States. It doesn’t have many immediately recognizable landmarks. And it’s certainly not the most pleasant place to be in winter.

But the Twin Cities region compensates for its dearth of glitz or cultural recognition with a great urban (and exurban) park system, friendly inhabitants, and a laid-back atmosphere that’s sorely lacking in many other places. No matter when you visit or what’s on your agenda, it’s hard to imagine a better place for a fun, budget-friendly getaway.

What’s your favorite cheap or free thing to do in the Twin Cities?