Minneapolis Makes a Cheap and Cheerful Vacation Destination—in the Summer

Mill City is more than Mary Tyler Moore and the Mall of America. (But also that too.)

By Bill Wiatrak July 7, 2017

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The Spoonbridge and Cherry at the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, one of the largest urban sculpture gardens in the country

To be honest, Minneapolis wasn’t high on my travel list until I came across a Spirit Airlines promotion that seemed to good to be true. From Houston, the round trip fare was $46. I can’t even get an Uber to the airport for that.

I tweeted the deal and asked my friends and followers if there was anything worthwhile to do there. The response was fast and positive. Within moments, I had 10 things to see that sounded pretty interesting. First on the list was Prince's home (and Minnesota's own Graceland), Paisley Park. Additionally, as someone who always visits famous graves, I was delighted to find that I could add Tiny Tim and Hubert Humphrey to my kicked-the-bucket list while I was visiting.

Minneapolis is a great town to walk around. At the moment, the city is kicking up its game at an accelerated rate with a giant facelift, so a lot of streets are under construction as new buildings pop up all around. Because the weather can turn wet and freezing for a disproportionate part of the year, architects have connected many of the buildings together with skyways. There are miles of passageways linked together so that you can get around almost the entire town without going outside. Regardless, if you don’t like the cold, head to Minneapolis in the summer.

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Downtown Minneapolis at sunset framed by the historic Stone Arch Bridge, the only stone bridge of its kind across the Mississippi River

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The Mary Tyler Moore Show was filmed in Minneapolis, so Mary herself has a statue in the heart of the city. But hers is only the second most recognizable statue in the area: It’s not easy to beat out the giant spoon in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. The mammoth-sized piece of cutlery with a cherry perched on top  has become an unofficial icon for the city. Downtown also is home to the free Wells Fargo History Museum that you’re likely to run into if you’re in the skyway. You may not think that a bank museum would be that fun, but there’s a real 19th-century stagecoach in the lobby that just begs to be photographed. You can even send a telegraph to another branch using their Morse code setup, as well as grab an eyeful of real gold.

Downtown is also home to a collection of cool bars and restaurants, but the most picturesque part of town is right on the Mississippi River. The only waterfall on the Mississippi River is St. Anthony Falls, at the end of the line if you are heading upstream. The historic Stone Arch Bridge overlooking the falls and crossing the river is one of the most popular scenic areas in town. And from the waterfront, it’s obvious where the city got one of its nicknames: Mill City. Flour mills historically made Minneapolis what it is today, while its strategic position on the Mississippi helped make it into the largest producer of flour in the world. Right in the heart of the remaining factories and preserved factory ruins is the Mill City Museum.

This little gem of a museum brings to life the city’s love affair with “white gold.” Even if you aren’t really interested in learning about flour, you’ll love the giant photo props and the free samples. Where else can you find a 20-foot-tall box of Bisquick? The elevator ride even provides an unusual approach to learning the history of the area. You sit in a giant freight elevator that bounces from floor to floor with film clips, sets and recorded dialogue on each floor to get an idea of what the mill was like in it’s heyday. At one time the production of flour was so great that the dust from the mill created dough islands in the river.

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Also worth a visit: the wonderfully weird Weisman Art Museum on the campus of the University of Minnesota, designed by architect Frank Gehry in 1993.

Twenty minutes southeast of Minneapolis is the infamous Mall of America. It’s not the biggest mall in the world by any means (that's either the Persian Gulf Complex or the New South China Mall depending on how you're measuring "biggest"), but it is the largest in the U.S. and a tourist destination unto itself. It was built on the site of the former Metropolitan Stadium and even has a plaque where home plate was located—which is now right in the middle of the Nickelodeon Universe amusement park.

This is the largest indoor amusement park in the U.S. and it’s buzzing with roller coasters and other attractions that you don’t usually expect to find in a mall. The Sea Life Minnesota Aquarium and the Crayola Experience are also housed inside this giant shopping center alongside 530 retail stores (this is a mall after all). There are several hotels attached as well, so you really don’t ever have to leave if you’re really into shopping. Every store you’ve ever heard of seems to have staked its claim in the mall, including, of course, a Hard Rock Cafe.

In addition to being the City of Flour, Minneapolis is the home of Land O’ Lakes dairy products. The brand name was inspired by the amount of lakes in the area—and there are quite a few. Many of the 13 large lakes in Minneapolis are connected, and you won’t have a problem finding something to do involving water. The word Minnehaha may literally sound like a “little joke,” but Minnehaha Park is a beautiful area with a pretty waterfall and a nice natural area for walking or a picnic. Everything is so green it’s hard to believe that the same area can become miserably cold as soon as summer starts to fade. Minneapolis really is a nature lover’s paradise—when it's warm outside.

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Scenic spots like Minnehaha Park make Minneapolis a nature lover's destination too.

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Minneapolis and its twin city of St. Paul aren't famous for their cuisine, per se. However, you can thank them for almost anything made with flour (including Cheerios and Bundt cakes), your favorite candy bars (Snickers, Three Musketeers and Milky Way bars are all made by Minnesota's own Mars), and it’s reinvention of the cheeseburger: the wonderfully messy “Juicy Lucy” in which the cheese is cooked inside the burger patty. Never heard of it? Don’t worry, someone there will be more than eager to explain it to you. If that doesn’t impress you, Spam was created in Minnesota as well. Happy now?

In short, there are lots of fun things to do in the Minneapolis/St. Paul if you go at the right time of year. The history is fascinating and most people you meet don’t sound like they were in Fargo even though parts of the movie were filmed there. And if you’re a Prince fan, you can't miss a tour of his former home, Paisley Park. Keep an eye out for cheap airfare deals from

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