In Minnesota, the northern midwestern state, the weekend traveler will be spoiled for choice. The state, known for its natural setting as the "Land of Ten Thousand Lakes," offers attractions for the most seasoned tourist. Outdoors enthusiasts think its natural wonderlands are some of the best in the country, while the state's history, seasonal festivals, and historic districts will leave no traveler unsatisfied. Beyond larger cities, like northern Duluth or the state capital, Minneapolis, and its Twin Cities metro area, it is the state's smaller places that may hold the secret to what makes Minnesota so popular among visitors. As this selection of small towns shows, Minnesota deserves its reputation as a top weekend-getaway spot.
Red Wing, populaton 16,700, sits south of Minneapolis along the Mississippi River, opposite the state of Wisconsin and just below its confluence with the Minnesota River. Founded in 1858, with its hikable bluff over the Mississippi, the arrival of railroads around 1900 proved decisive for the town's growth, an economic boost that later diversified and attracted the transportation and aviation industries. The Red Wing Shoe Company, a work boot brand, is also headquartered in the town.
Red Wing keeps a busy cultural schedule, like the River City Days event it holds every August, and other happenings themed with the seasons. The town's diverse museums range from military history and the Red Wing Shoe corporation (with a giant, one-story work boot) to pottery and ski jumping. The St. James Hotel, in operation since 1875, hosts couples, weddings, and society receptions by the Mississippi.
Ely, with 3,200 inhabitants, lies in northeast Minnesota in the sparsely populated Saint Louis County bordering Canada. Pronounced "Ee-lee," the town lies near Lake Superior, not far south of the Canadian border. It once attracted miners and shippers who were active in the Iron Range copper and mineral extraction industries. Ely has since evolved into a major nature tourism hub, with canoeists and other nature seekers traveling there to explore the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, a one-million-acre forest and lake region.
For those keeping out of the woods, head to Ely's busy downtown area along Sheridan Street, the town's main thoroughfare. The strip includes the Pioneer Hotel, a historic structure first built in 1887.
Grand Marais, population just 1,400, is a harbor hamlet in the state's northeast corner, on the banks of Lake Superior and less than forty miles from the Canada-US border. It is the smallest town on this list. The city has an artistic and free-spirited vibe, not least for its annual July art festival.
For nature seekers, the town has five beaches and the Devil Track River Canyon, an 8.7-mile-long river flowing southeast into Lake Superior, allowing for fly-fishing and cold-season ice climbing. Grand Marais serves as a base for the Superior National Forest, the largest national forest east of the Mississippi River. The Shoreline Inn makes a beautiful, and affordable, sleeping option along Lake Superior.
Mankato, with 45,200 inhabitants, is located in Minnesota's south-central region, 75 miles southwest of Minneapolis. Some of the town's early settlers including migrants from New England, who left their mark on local architecture that can still be seen today. Architecture fans should go to the R.D. Hubbard House and the Betsy-Tacy House, both forrmer residences of Mankato's illustrious past townspeople. Nature lovers will love Mankato's four-season mix of green spaces, with city and state parks, like the standout Red Jacket Valley Park, converted from a former gravel pit.
Mankato may just be the birthplace of Minnesota "hotdish," also called Minnesota tater tot hotdish, a culinary favorite with ground beef, tater tots, cream of mushroom sauce, and other high-calorie ingredients. History buffs should not miss the town's History Center Museum. The historic, downtown Moulin Rouge House bed and breakfast scores perfect reviews.
Situated across from Wisconsin along the scenic St. Croix River, Stillwater, population 19,300, provides abundant natural beauty and charming local stories for the weekend tourist. Stillwater's downtown is known for its historic Victorian architecture. The Stillwater Lift Bridge, a now-famous symbol of the town's industrial innovation and growth that was completed in 1931, only makes the town more interesting for history-loving tourists. In other industrial firsts, the pop-up toaster oven was invented in Stillwater in 1921.
Nature seekers should opt for river cruises and water activities on the St. Croix for a slice of nature and a nod to the town's river-based past economy. The town's annual festivals, like its German-themed Christkindlmarkt, mark the seasons in style. For accommodations, the Ann Bean Mansion bed and breakfast is a classy option, among many others downtown.
The southern town of Northfield, with 19,700 residents, is another fine choice for a weekend escape, and closer to transportation links. Just 40 miles south of the Twin Cities area of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Northfield hosts two universities: Carleton College and St. Olaf College. Each campus offers charming options for strolling, as well as gardens such as Carleton College's Arboretum. Northfield keeps a wealth of other green spaces, with almost three dozen parks, for more than 400 total acres of fresh-air opportunity.
Amateur historians should visit in September during the Defeat of Jesse James Days festival, which re-enacts the historic 1876 bank raid that took place here. The bank, which still stands, is now owned and maintained by the Northfield Historical Society. For a memorable place to stay, the Froggy Bottoms River Suites (real name) have balconies that look directly over the Cannon River in the center of town.
Named after a Native American princess of local legend, Winona, population 25,800, calls itself "the Midwest's best autumn playground" and sits along the Mississippi River. Like Northfield, it is a two-college town, and home to Winona State University and St. Mary's University of Minnesota. Its cultural menu includes two highlights: the Minnesota Marine Art Museum, and the Polish Cultural Institute and Museum.
For nature enthusiasts, Winona holds out its Prairie Island Campground, an ideal camping space on the Mississippi, as well as for activities like yoga, canoeing. and rock climbing. Fun fact: the American actress Winona Ryder, a native Minnesotan, was named after this town. Those who want to stay in the actress' namesake could do worse than the Carriage House, a reasonably priced bed and breakfast downtown.
Minnesota's Small Towns Offer The State's Famous Traits
Minnesota's small-town possibilities for the weekend tourist make the state a uniquely appealing destination for a short stay. A town like Ely promises natural surroundings of a rare and unspoiled quality. Grand Marais makes for a beautiful, and peaceful, detour to the country. Fans of made-in-Minnesota industries will enjoy Stillwater and Red Wing — and see a hard-working legacy that every Minnesotan should be proud of. And the college towns of Northfield and Winona combine green spaces and a university spirit for the visitor seeking sophistication. The Land of Ten Thousand Lakes has at least that many ideas for a weekend visit.