A bird's eye view of Winona, Minnesota.

8 Must-See Historic Towns In Minnesota

Whether you refer to it as the land of the 10,000 Lakes, The North Star state, or simply as Minnesota, the 12th largest state in America has a past unlike any other. The official title is derived from the ancient Dakota dialect, which means "Sky-Tinted Water," and with more freshwater lakes than any other state, the translation remains true to date. Officially becoming the 32nd state in 1858 means that this historical state has long been a sought-after destination for America's earliest settlers, whose unique pasts and histories can still be explored throughout the state's many towns. Explore these must-see historic towns that tell the fascinating tales of those who helped shape Minnesota into what it is today.


Historic downtown of Stillwater, Minnesota
Historic downtown of Stillwater, Minnesota. Editorial credit: Sandra Burm / Shutterstock.com.

Regardless of the traveler, Stillwater is home to a variety of adventures, historical explorations, and scenic beauty that is sure to pack your itinerary for the duration of your visit. Placed along the shores of one of the first National protected riverways in the country, the St. Croix River is the heartbeat of the town and offers numerous opportunities for visitors to explore the river firsthand. Local shops such as Stillwater Boat Club have numerous rental options ranging from kayaks to jet skis. If you prefer the stability of staying ashore, then explore the town's unique history with a visit to the Washington County Historical Society, which showcases local artifacts and offers plenty of interesting insights into the area's past.

Don't forget to explore the one-of-a-kind Stillwater Lift Bridge. The bridge was constructed in 1931 and has been connecting Minnesota and Wisconsin ever since. Despite being repurposed, the bridge still operates today. With over 21 buildings listed on the National Historic Registry, a stroll down the historic main street of Stillwater will leave you in awe. Pop into one of the 50 locally owned stores that are sure to offer some unique goods, grab a sweet treat at Candyland, or the perfect vintage item at American Gothic Antiques. You will never know what awaits until you visit.


The charming town of Winona, Minnesota.
The charming town of Winona, Minnesota.

Settled on the historic grounds of the Dakota Nation, Winona is home to a heritage that stretches way past its original founding date of 1851. To travel back in time and learn more about the transformation of the land, its people, and the culture, visit the Winona County Historical Society, which walks you through the region's Native American heritage, pioneer settlements, and industries.

Be sure to leave enough time on your trip to also stop at the Kashubian Cultural Institute and Polish Museum. This 150-year-old museum pays homage to the region's large Polish and Kashubian population that helped industrialize the town into what it is today. Witness a Minnesotan spin on art when you visit the Minnesota Marine Art Museum, which utilizes and transforms local marine life from the nearby Mississippi River into brilliant works of art. Continue to explore the region's culture by snapping a photo of the grand Basilica of Saint Stanislaus Kostka, which dates to the early 1800's.

Red Wing

Aerial view of Red Wing, Minnesota, on the Mississippi River.
Aerial view of Red Wing, Minnesota, on the Mississippi River.

If you don't own a pair of cowboy boots, then Red Wing is sure to give you plenty of selection during your visit. The Red Wing shoe company has been making some of the best footwear since 1905. It is proudly located in Red Wing and has been the backbone of the community since its creation. Visit the Red Wing Shoe Store & Museum to learn about the company's important role in the town's history. The town also has its unique past and hosts a variety of exceptional museums, such as the Aliveo Military Museum, which hosts artifacts and exhibits that span the entirety of America's military past. Additionally, The American Ski Jumping Hall of Fame and Museum is in the town and honors the impressive past of the sport's most significant moments, figures, and origin stories. End your visit with a walk through the charming downtown area, which lies next to the rushing waters of the Great Mississippi River, and end your exploration by catching a live performance at the Grand Sheldon Theatre.

Grand Marais

Grand Marais, Minnesota, on Lake Superior.
Grand Marais, Minnesota, on Lake Superior.

Grand Marais stands above and beyond as a captivating historical destination due to its fascinating heritage combined with stunning natural landscapes. Originally a trading post for fur traders and indigenous peoples, Grand Marais retains its rustic charm while offering a glimpse into its past through landmarks like the Cook County Historical Society and the Chik-Wauk Museum and Nature Center, which showcase the area's history. The Grand Marais Harbor, situated along Lake Superior, was once bustling with maritime activity and now provides a scenic backdrop for visitors to explore maritime artifacts and learn about the region's maritime history. Additionally, numerous shipwrecks can be explored along the shores of Grand Marais as well.

The town is also placed in a unique geographical location, which allows visitors to witness one of nature's most incredible phenomena. The night skies above are filled with stunning views of the Northern Lights. Also, be sure to get out and explore the scenic beauty. Located just 20 miles north of the town, Devil's Kettle Falls is just a short trip away and serves as the perfect destination for a hike with a beautiful reward.


Dakota County Courthouse in Hastings, Minnesota.
Dakota County Courthouse in Hastings, Minnesota.

Once an agricultural powerhouse turned into a hidden ski haven in the Midwest, the town is a must-stop destination for travelers and is home to plenty of historical landmarks and legacies. As one of the state's oldest towns, Hastings offers a captivating journey through time. Visitors can begin their adventure at preserved sites such as the LeDuc Historic Estate, which reflects Victorian-era elegance and showcases the town's Civil War history. The renowned Spiral Bridge is a unique engineering marvel and stands as a testament to the city's innovative spirit and transportation history. Additionally, the Minnesota Veterans Home Museum honors the sacrifice and service of military veterans, offering insight into the community's deep-rooted patriotism. Lying in the heart of the town are the rushing rapids of the looming Vermillion Falls, which add to the area's natural beauty. Hasting also offers over 30 miles of paved trails along the banks of the great Mississippi River.


Resort Next to Historic Site in Ely Minnesota
Resort Next to Historic Site in Ely, Minnesota.

If you're seeking a place to detach from the stressful routines of everyday life, then schedule a visit to this oasis in the north country. Surrounded by beautiful forests, Ely has long been a sought-after destination for outdoor adventure, a place to build, and a place to learn. Experience some North Country culture firsthand by visiting prominent attractions like the Ely-Winton History Museum. The town is also rooted in an indigenous heritage that has helped shape the culture into what it is today. Visit the Bois Forte Heritage Center and Cultural Museum and educate yourself on the region's native history.

Each season in Ely presents new opportunities. During summer, visitors are encouraged to get out and explore the region's scenic beauty and book an overnight stay at Falls Lake Campground, which provides the perfect blend of rugged nature and the comfort of civilization. During the winter, get out on the frozen lakes and see if you can't catch a big one when you book an ice fishing excursion with the Lakeview Lodge.

Two Harbors

Split Rock Lighthouse on the shores of Lake Superior.
The historic Split Rock Lighthouse on the shores of Lake Superior.

This historic town is known primarily for its rich maritime heritage and its fortunate location along the North Shore of Lake Superior. Historically, it served as a crucial port for shipping iron ore from the nearby mines, which contributed to the town's economic development. During your visit to Two Harbors, explore exclusive attractions like the Lake County Historical Society Museum that display both sides of the area's mining and maritime past. Snap a photo of the iconic Split Rock Lighthouse as the rolling waves of Lake Superior. Get out and explore the region's scenic beauty by planning activities such as hiking along the Superior Hiking Trail, exploring Gooseberry Falls State Park's scenic waterfalls and trails, or taking a stroll along Agate Bay where you can watch ships come in and out of the harbor.


Main street in Pipestone, Minnesota, on a summer afternoon.
Historic buildings lining the Main street in Pipestone, Minnesota, on a summer afternoon. 

Pipestone has a strong connection to its Native American culture and the presence of the sacred Pipestone quarries. The quarries in Pipestone National Monument have been a sacred site for indigenous peoples for thousands of years, where they have traditionally quarried the red pipestone to craft ceremonial pipes. Schedule a tour of the Pipestone National Monument and explore the trails to see the quarries and learn about the significance of the pipestone to Native American tribes. 

Take a stroll through downtown Pipestone to visit the Keepers of the Sacred Tradition of Pipemakers, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving the art of pipe making and educating visitors about Native American culture. Additionally, spend the afternoon exploring nearby attractions such as Blue Mounds State Park, known for its Sioux quartzite cliffs and bison herd.

A trip to the "Land of 10,000 Lakes" is sure to be filled with attractions displaying the past, present, and future cultures of the state. From the ancient Dakota heritage to the lasting legacies of settlers and indigenous peoples, each town embodies a unique chapter in Minnesota's narrative. Whether exploring the maritime heritage of Two Harbors or preserving the Native American traditions in Pipestone, Each destination offers a glimpse into Minnesota's past while embracing the vibrant spirit of its historical towns.

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