When media ranks North American urban areas on “quality of life,” Minneapolis-Saint Paul tend to end up near the top.
Periodically I return to my native Minnesota to assess the substance behind these judgments and to review the pleasures the Twin Cities offer the traveler. The conclusion, in short, is that this northern mid-western country is one of the better kept secrets in U.S. travel. If the U.S. heartland gets some of your travel attention, Minnesota merits a share of the interest.
The Minneapolis-Saint Paul appeal begins with the physical setting, which includes several substantial lakes whose shorelines are accessible to all residents as parks. The strong sense of a viable community can be felt by a visitor at such festive occasions as the Aquatennial Parade in July and the Block Party that precedes it on the Nicollet Mall in downtown Minneapolis.
Minnesotans are a friendly people, neither wary nor suspicious of the stranger. They tend to accept someone at face value until behavior would alert them otherwise. The Twin Cities, as Minneapolis and Saint Paul are called, have a sufficient number of well-educated and energetic individuals so that a diverse and nurturing cultural life flourishes. Yet there remains a small-town ingenuousness, which is truly refreshing.
The 5.3 million Minnesota residents spread over a large, green, wooded area, buffered by the calming influence of lakes, so a spacious feeling infuses all social relations. The Twin Cities are relatively cleaner, safer, and more orderly than other cities one could mention. Things seem to work here better than they do in other cities. The length and severity of winter, plus the high heat and humidity of summer, are the state’s major negatives.
Because Minnesota is generally such a well-organized place, the citizens were profoundly shocked and disturbed by the collapse of the I-35W bridge in summer 2007. Infrastructure deterioration that becomes dangerous is usually caught and corrected here before there is a catastrophe. There is now a memorial at the bridge to the victims.
The Nicollet Mall in downtown Minneapolis is an example showing how things work here. At a time when the inner cities of the U.S. were dying and losing their shopping traffic to suburban malls, the movers and shakers created an eight-block downtown mall for foot traffic and public transportation only, luring the shopper and cafe idler back to the downtown. Major cultural entities, such as Orchestra Hall, are on the mall. This large performing arts hall, with its movable baffles, is known for acoustic excellence. Downtown housing was also revitalized, within manageable distance, at sites such as the Loring Greenway.
The Nicollet Mall is sometime the scene of a Farmers’ Market. When you get to a Farmers’ Market, inquire if a supply of the new apple varietal, Sweet Tango, is available. The apple, developed by plant breeders at the University of Minnesota, has a beguiling mix of sweet and tart, which has made it a major hit.
A key adjunct to the Nicollet Mall is the extensive all-weather skyway system, the interlinking second-story passageways that join the buildings. Skyway here refers not to freeways, as in other cities, but to an air-conditioned and heated pedestrian passageway, above the streets, connecting the downtown buildings. Today you can find 41 skyways joining lodging, dining, and shopping establishments in downtown Minneapolis, plus some in St. Paul. The effect is total comfort control, allowing you to view from indoors the outdoor weather, which can be punishing. Minneapolis and Saint Paul have evaded the limitations of their weather with these skyways.
(An even more elaborate expression of the enclosed space, suitable for weather-proof life in a harsh weather environment, is the Mall of America, near the airport, on the south side of the city. Whether the winter wind chill is minus 50 or the summer humidity is suffocating, the enclosed Mall of America provides a shopping and recreation refuge. What is notable about Mall of America is its size and audacity. The Mall is one of the largest, fully-enclosed retail and family entertainment complexes in the U.S. The total enclosed space is said to be large enough to hold seven Yankee stadiums or 32 Boeing 747s. As you walk past 4.3 miles of storefronts on four levels, the mall could certainly be said to advance the concept of aerobic shopping.)
Some main buildings in downtown Minneapolis are the IDS Tower, with its large enclosed Crystal Court, the City Center with three levels of shops and restaurants, and the elegant Foshay Tower, once the landmark skyscraper of the city, but now a historical legacy. The Minneapolis Convention Center accommodates everything from rock concerts to auto shows.
One downtown restaurant with local flare is Hell’s Kitchen, 80 South 9th Street, located appropriately under ground. The motto is “Damn Good Food” and there is an element of mirth in the place, such as the children’s menu characterized as the Rugrat Menu. Old time movies play on the walls and live music can be heard on some evenings. The food is hearty and unpretentious. I enjoyed the Lemon Ricotto Pancakes and the Vegetable Frittata. One specialty is the house-made peanut butter, a chunky butter blended with honey, which is also sold in take-home jars.
The Cowles Center for Dance & Performing Arts, 528 Hennepin Avenue in the downtown theatre district, adds an elegant performance venue, opened in 1911. The Shubert Theatre was moved to the site and a Cowles building added, joining the Schubert with the sturdy and historic 1888 Masonic Temple, forming a block-long performing arts milieu. The setting is particular lovely at night when the Cowles Center is lit in varying colored lights.
Target Field, the new downtown stadium for Minnesota Twins baseball, is a handsome facility that adds much energy to the area. I took in a Twins game, well attended by fans on a Thursday afternoon, despite the fact that the 2011 season win-loss record was not something to celebrate. One aspect of the new stadium is how many local restaurant vendors and food purveyors participate. My hot dog was no ordinary and anonymous dog, but rather an Italian sausage dog from a restaurant known as Market Pantry. My popcorn was not a mere multi-national bland offering, but a handcrafted popcorn from the dedicated and chosen supplier, Angie’s Kettlecorn.
A bike pick-up and drop-off system, Nice Ride MN, is expanding in the urban region. Entrepreneurs with pedicabs also compete for the opportunity to take the visitor around. I engaged Ryan Dean of Shottyz.com to pedal me from Twins Baseball over to a look at Loring Park. Segway tours are also popular, offered by Magical History Tours.
One arts attraction to savor, not far from the Nicollet Mall, is the Walker Art Center, with an adjacent seven-acre Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. The Walker hosts major traveling shows and exhibits pieces from its own extensive collection, such as the pixelated portraits of artist Chuck Close. The Minneapolis Sculpture Garden is a pleasure to walk in and meditate over. It will pull you back for each future visit to the Twin Cities. The most famous sculpture is the lyrical Spoonbridge and Cherry by Claes Oldenburg. This is a large spoon with a cherry on it. Part of the humor of the sculpture is the spacial perspective of this usually small object, a spoon, seen so large, with the Minneapolis skyline quite small in the background.
The other cultural area to focus on is the Riverfront District, where you’ll find the Mill City Museum and the Guthrie Theater. This setting is adjacent to St. Anthony Falls, the only major cataract on the Mississippi River. Because of the huge energy potential of the cascading water, many saw mills and then flour mills were organized in Minneapolis, especially 1858-1930. Minneapolis became one of the world’s leading producers of flour. The Mill Ruins Park recalls this heritage, which included intricate waterways providing mechanical power to various mills. Railroads carried out the flour. Today you can walk out on the Stone Arch Bridge, originally a railroad bridge, and look back at the mill area and downtown Minneapolis. This is a remarkable urban walk, showing the Mississippi and the current configuration of St. Anthony Falls.
Back on shore, be sure to allow time for the highly entertaining movie “Minneapolis in 19 Minutes Flat” at the Mill City Museum. The Mill City Museum presents re-enactors who portray characters in 19th century milling history. There is also a notable Flour Tower tour that re-creates the mechanized world of the flour mills. You rise eight floors to the top of the mill and learn how the water power from St. Anthony Falls propelled all the intricate milling machinery.
Next door is the world-renowned Guthrie Theater, which has flourished in Minneapolis as a quality repertory company since 1963. I first enjoyed the Guthrie in the 1960s at its original location near the Walker Art Gallery. The company has resided since 2006 in a handsome new riverfront home. The building, designed by French architect Jean Nouvel, has both main stages and smaller performance spaces. There is a striking cantilever bridge outdoor overlook, called The Endless Bridge, facing the river. This outdoor platform is the perfect spot for a pre-performance pause in the twilight. A restaurant on the 5th floor, called the Level Five Café, offers elegant dinners, with no risk that you will miss the play by being stuck in traffic.
Whenever I get back to Minnesota, taking in a play at the Guthrie is on my must-do list. The 2011 performance of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, done with a clever early 20th century look, reminded audiences of how universal and timeless is Shakespeare’s genius at portraying the hopes and foibles of the human animal. One premise of this play is that wit and repartee, so fun at the onset of a love relationship, can inhibit the progression of love when delight in wit becomes an end in itself.
Downriver from the Guthrie, a new, white structure has replaced the 35W bridge that fell, tragically, in 2007. The 13 who died are memorialized at a tasteful monument of vertical posts on the river bluff near the Guthrie. The new structure is quite lovely at night when seen with its reflection in the water from the water-level park in front of the Mill City Museum, just south of the Stone Bridge. An unusual feature of the new 35W bridge is the technical ability to illuminate it at night with light of any color. During my visit a deep blue was the chosen spectrum.
Another cultural institution along the riverfront to indulged in, beyond the Guthrie, is the silvery-skinned Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum, 333 East River Road, at the University of Minnesota. The Weisman is a stunning piece of local architecture to observe. Architect Frank Gehry designed this stainless steep showplace. Proceed to the campus and get a close-up view of the building from below it, next to the river. This multi-angled architectural tour de force catches the sun on its many-plane façade. The design is a striking contrast with the usual sturdy, rectangular box look of much Minnesota architecture.
The restaurant to relish if you want some of the best in Minneapolis fine dining is chef Tim McKee’s award-winning La Belle Vie at 510 Groveland. I opted for the eight-course Chef Tasting with the Wine Flight wine pairings, which amounted to a three-hour pageant of taste sensations. Possibly the Roasted Squab With Foie Gras and Shell Pea Caramelle was my favorite course, paired with an Archery Summit Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley, Oregon. The quietness of the elegant dining room, a low decibel and chandeliered masterpiece, makes conversation possible. The wait staff have the polish of Guthrie Theater actors, except that they are dealing with fact rather than fiction. The culinary artistry on your plate will rival the quality of anything on the walls of the Walker Art Center, which is across the street.
For a Minneapolis food alternative that is economical, ethnic, and diversified, go to the so-called Eat Street district, a 17-block stretch of Nicollet Avenue south of the downtown. I parked between East 25th and 26th and looked around at the Chinese, Vietnamese, Mexican, and Arabic eateries before choosing Seafood Palace for dinner. At this Chinese place my choices were the Pot Stickers, Honey Walnut Shrimp, and Sweet and Spicy Beef Baby Short Ribs. The repast was delicious. I then walked across the street to Arabic Sinbad’s for a walnut-stuffed dessert pastry.
The Northeast Neighborhood is an up and coming area worth putting on a visitor’s radar because of its emphasis on culture, fine dining, art, and community. The cultural hub is the Ritz Theater, 345 13th Avenue NE, guided by Michael Romens. The Ritz hosts a variety of innovative shows. I caught a Middle Eastern dancing performance of the Jawaahir Dance Company during my visit.
A few steps down from the Ritz is the Northeast Social restaurant, 359 13th Avenue NE, which is booming. The innovative cuisine, an American bistro style guided by owners Sam Bonin and Joe Wagner and chef Geoff Little, shows a strong Minnesota commitment both to regional farmer-direct supplies and to sourcing worldwide when the result can be unique flavor profiles. I enjoyed a tasting menu evening. My favorites were the scallops with truffled corn puree, the heirloom tomato caprese with house pulled mozzarella, and the English pea gnocchi with fennel and grape tomatoes. The front window opens to the street in pleasant weather and a bell clangs occasionally when the order is given to raise a glass and call out “Social!” The restaurant is closely tied into the community, with many staff members living nearby. The owners characterize the Northeast Social as a “gathering place for social indulgence.” Sam Bonin’s front of the house hospitality and the good value of the menu prices are further pluses.
One big arts magnet in the Northeast Neighborhood is the former Northrop King Building (www.northrupkingbuilding.com), 1500 Jackson Street NE. This former cluster of structures for the giant seed company now houses 190 artist studios. I happened to meet ceramic sculptor Steve Hemingway, of Hemingway Ceramics, and learned about his raku-fired pieces. The First Thursdays in the Arts District open house is the best time each month for a visitor to go there and meet the artists. There are also two annual art crawl events, Art-A-Whirl in the spring and Art Attack in November. Both are good opportunities to meet artists and see their works.
Another restaurant in the Northeast Neighborhood closely tied into the art scene and the rapidly evolving farmer-direct food sourcing strategy, celebrating Minnesota and Wisconsin suppliers, is Red Stag Supper Club, 509 1st Avenue Northeast. Red Stag is the first LEEDs-certified restaurant in Minnesota. This Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design award means the building and operation conform to a high standard of environment goals. The many strategies implemented to get this best-practices LEEDs status include LED lighting, which cuts energy bills and take-out food containers that can be composted rather than thrown away. Faucets in the building turn off automatically. The cooking oil is re-processed into hand soaps used in the restrooms. The food at this light and airy space is tasty. I enjoyed the cauliflower and peas soup du jour, the red-sauce Pasta Bolognese, and the Grilled Flatbread, with walnut and spinach pesto and house made mozzarella. The décor theme is of a Northwoods-style supper club. A Friday night fish fry dish could be walleyed pike or locally-raised tilapia. “Here you can dine well, but with a conscience,” said sous chef Jerry Fodness.
The historic diversity of the Minnesota economy, making it resilient in recessionary times, contributes much to the relative social harmony that a visitor will observe. Historically, Minnesota people supported themselves first with the fur trade. The huge white pine forests of the state, once thought to be endless, propelled the second major industry, lumber. Wheat farming and milling, plus general agriculture, offered the third avenue to wealth, as time proceeded. (Some of the former Minneapolis grain elevators, which appear like cathedrals of commerce at various places in the midwest, have been transformed, ingeniously, into condominiums.) Corn and soybeans are now major crops, with the demand for ethanol increasing the price of corn and the value of agricultural land. Another major growth area is in computer and high-tech products, with companies such as Honeywell, 3M, and IBM propelling the economy ahead.
Minnesota is primarily populated by white northern Europeans, so racial and ethnic diversity is not the state’s strong point, although there is now a substantial Hispanic population, plus a smattering of other groups, from Somali to Hmong, among the Irish and Scandinavians. When you talk to individual African Americans about their situation here, they may contrast the area favorably with cities where racial hostility lingers just below the surface. Minnesota is also a relatively white-collar region, making it an attractive migratory destination for the educated and the skilled.
Exploring the Lakes
After exploring downtown Minneapolis, consider a look at the lakes of this water city. You might first want to view the lakes by car, then return to walk or bike them. Hiking and biking paths circle the main lakes and connect them to each other. You can even rent canoes at Lakes Calhoun and Harriet. There are a total of 22 lakes within the Twin Cities and 57 miles of trails. The 48 free swimming beaches on the lakes are popular in summer, when residents replenish their solar batteries in preparation for winter. As mentioned, the wisdom of the early city fathers, who set aside much of the lake-edge real estate as public parks for all of the people, creates a feeling of wellbeing and cohesiveness among the citizens.
Each lake has its own character. One of the more tranquil lake experiences is a walk around Lake of the Isles. This lake’s walking and biking path emphasizes the wild wetlands shoreline with much birdlife, including herons, Canadian geese, and mallard ducks. The setting is quiet and contemplative, a contrast with the beach exuberance of Lake Calhoun, for example. As you walk around the lake, pause at 2011 Lake of the Isles Parkway to peruse the signage about the Grand Rounds Scenic Byway, a 50-mile ribbon around the metro area, established in 1998. You can also see the route online at www.byways.org. Equipped with this information, you could drive, walk, or bike a well-chosen scenic loop in the metro area.
Lake Calhoun, especially on its south side, is the place where beautiful bodies can be seen and shown. Though all the lakes have swimming beaches, the beaches on Lake Calhoun, the largest and deepest lake, are especially salubrious. Calhoun offers good swimming, sunning, sailboat-launching, and volleyball, with a view of the Minneapolis skyline in the background. Lake Harriet has a whimsical band shell for performances, lots of sailboats, and presents a woodsy, rustic feel. Within the lakes area, the most famous street of great homes, originally those of milling magnates, is Mt. Curve Avenue.
Following a perusal of the Minneapolis downtown and the lakes, venture into Saint Paul. Stop first at the highest hills, actually large glacial moraines, overlooking the downtown. There you’ll find, within sight of each other, four of Saint Paul’s main attractions.
The handsome State Capitol Building, said to be one of the world’s largest unsupported marble domes, was built of stunning white marble. Walk inside to see the blue-painted interior of the dome.
The Saint Paul Cathedral is a monument to the Catholicism that has flourished here, starting with the Jesuit missionaries and then greatly nurtured by the huge Irish migration in the 19th century.
Between these two edifices lies a large building called the Minnesota History Center, with ample exhibits on the Gopher State. Here you can realistically experience a tornado, for example, in one ingenious exhibit.
Tucked behind the Cathedral at 240 Summit Avenue is another sort of cathedral, the monumental home of James J. Hill, the railroad tycoon who accumulated one of the largest fortunes in these parts in the 19th century. Beyond taking a look at the lavish wood-panel interior of the house, walk around to the back and slightly down the hill to view the full scope of the structure, built to celebrate its river view.
Then drive down Summit Avenue a few blocks to see the many other palaces constructed for the captains of industry who flourished in the Twin Cities towards the end of the 19th century. Novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald’s fascination with wealth in his fictions, personified in the character J. Gatsby, originated because this Minnesota-native author lived in a more modest row house on Summit, near Dale Street.
Minneapolis and Saint Paul, perennial rivals, generate jokes about “Sinning in Minneapolis, Confessing in Saint Paul” and “Cross from Minneapolis to Saint Paul and you need to set your watch back 50 years.” These jokes evoke an element of truth. The cities may be twins, but they are far from being identical twins.
After looking at these icons on the Saint Paul hills, proceed to the downtown, near the river, and start at Rice Park. This small park, dedicated in 1849, unifies downtown Saint Paul in a stylish, small-town plaza ambiance. Rice Park is the intermission strolling place for the Ordway Theater. At noon the fountain at Rice Park is a brown-bagger site, sometimes complete with a free band or orchestral performance. Opposite the Ordway is the stately Saint Paul Hotel, a 1910 grande dame property that has been restored to multi-star elegance. The hotel’s Saint Paul Grill restaurant is a fitting fine-dining site at which to savor regional specialties, such as wild rice soup, followed by walleyed pike. Scattered around Rice Park area are lyrical bronze sculptures of Charlie Brown and other cartoon characters created by Minnesota favorite son, Charles Shulz.
Also located at the Rice Park plaza is an elegant stone Victorian, called the Landmark Center, architecturally one of the treasures of the Twin Cities. This fine, spired federal structure now houses history and arts organizations. Step inside to see the four-story interior and perhaps lunch on soup and sandwich at Anita’s Cafe. When the Landmark opened in 1902, it was the scene of an historic court struggle between Teddy Roosevelt’s anti-monopoly biases and the aggressive business practices of the great railroad consolidator of Saint Paul, James J. Hill. The Supreme Court finally ruled in 1905 that Hill had restrained free trade.
The Minnesota Character
Beyond seeing the physical setting of Minnesota, a visitor who brushes elbows with enough people here will begin to get a sense of the Minnesota person. The components that went into the character of Minnesotans have produced a person who is generally progressive, well-educated, independent, outward looking, friendly, and trusting. Hubert Humphrey, Eugene McCarthy, and Walter Mondale were all known for these decent, idealistic, democratic tendencies. The local phrase “Minnesota nice” sometimes serves as a code word for such instincts. Minnesotans tax themselves heavily, at the state and local level, to maintain their quality of life.
Travelers fortunate enough to visit Minneapolis-Saint Paul are likely to echo the judgment that this northern travel destination enjoys a particularly appealing quality of life.
Minnesota: If You Go
The overall tourism entity is Explore Minnesota Tourism, www.exploreminnesota.com.
For Minneapolis info, the source is Meet Minneapolis, www.meetminneapolis.com.
An entity promoting a variety of Metro Twin City vacation options is www.mspvacations.com.