Minnesota's Tale Of Two Cities - My Family Travels

A trip to this Midwest hub of museums, theatres, sports and outdoor activities will keep your family busy from morning 'til night.

From malls (including the original Target store) — to mills (home of the Pillsbury Dough Boy) — to theatre (the nation’s top regional and kid’s drama companies), livelier Minneapolis and its more traditional sister, Saint Paul offer endless cultural and recreational activities for families.

Residents of Minneapolis/Saint Paul take culture very seriously and proudly present art and theatre with gusto, offering over 57 museums, and more theatre seats per capita than any other US city besides New York. With so many indoor activities, these cities have become great year-round destinations, too.

An Explosion of Fine Arts

During the city’s 2005 “Arts Explosion,” several famous architects were commissioned to design new wings or entirely new buildings for such institutions as the Walker Art Center, a stunning contemporary art museum presenting painting, sculpture, film and live performances. Be sure to stop by on the first Saturday of every month, when there is special family programming and admission is free. Architectural innovator Frank Gehry has designed the Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum of the University of Minnesota featuring 20th century American art, ceramics and Korean furniture.

Two free venues that boast noteworthy homes are the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, a treasure of an art museum which is open free to the public at all times (so you can take the kids in for a half hour or a half day without breaking the bank); and the Minneapolis Public Library, whose central branch underwent a $138 million reconstruction project in 2006.

Center of Regional Theatre

Two Tony-award-winning theatres are also part of this arts renaissance — the Guthrie Theater, ensconsed in its facility overlooking the river in an exciting architectural/engineering achievement, is the highly acclaimed regional theatre whose repertoire spans the classics to modern day drama and comedy, and the Children’s Theatre Company, a fabulous resource for resident and visiting families. I suggest you order tickets for the CTC in advance of your trip, as performances are routinely sold out.

The entire staff and company of the CTC, the first children’s theatre in the country to win a Tony, introduce kids to the excitement of the theatre with a serious commitment to their mission. Since the mid-1960s, the Children’s Theatre Company has presented several plays each season, ranging from classic children’s tales to international stories, to original works written and produced in-house. The CTC also travels their productions primarily throughout the upper Midwest, and they have been performed internationally in cities including Moscow, Tokyo, and Beijing.

In addition to performing for audiences of all ages, the organization is also committed to theatre arts education and training for young people. To this end, the theatre’s latest expansion included more classrooms, a dance studio, expanded scenic, costume and prop shops, rehearsal space and a student performance space. An additional 288-seat theatre supplements the main stage and present performances specifically targeted to teenagers as well as to pre-schoolers.


Arts, Parks & Kid-Friendly Museums

One last art experience not to miss is the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, across the street from the Walker Art Center. Here is where you will find Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen’s “Spoonbridge and Cherry,” a symbol of the garden and of the city. The complex is huge – with an expanse of lawn, trees and flowers, a pond, and a glass-enclosed greenhouse for both horticultural and artistic display. There are over 40 awesome sculptures by Frank Gehry, Ellsworth Kelly, Isamu Noguchi, Alexander Calder and others, which kids really respond to, and lots of room for them to run around. The Garden is free of charge, and WAC Packs, which are free family activity packs, are available at the Walker. With the relocation of the Guthrie,Theater, the land that it formerly occupied will soon make way for an expansion of the Garden.

When you’re in Saint Paul, other must-see sculptures are the series of bronze statues of Peanut’s characters waiting for you in Rice Park. In this greenspace in the city where Charles Schulz, creator of Charlie Brown and friends was born, your family will delight in these totally charming likenesses. Make sure you have your camera ready for this perfect photo op.

Within a few blocks of Rice Park are two kid-friendly museums, the Science Museum of Minnesota, located on bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River, and the Minnesota Children’s Museum whose mission is to “spark children’s learning through play.” Both institutions are renowned for innovation and dedication to learning through creative demonstrations and hands-on opportunities. Kids (and their parents) are never bored at these fun-filled spots.

Mill City’s Flour Power

However, as impressive as they are, the most notable museum I visited on my trip here is the Mill City Museum which tells an important story of Minneapolis – its unique role in the development of America’s economy with its history as the “Flour Milling Capital of the World” from 1880 to 1930, and its significant contribution to America’s bread basket.

Telling the story of the “power of flour,” MCM is headquartered in the restored building of Washburn A Mill, the largest of over 20 mills which were lined up along St. Anthony’s Falls, the only natural waterfall on the Mississippi River, and the singular source of power for the milling process. The 12,000-square-foot museum was recreated from the ruins of the limestone structure that was nearly destroyed several times in its history – twice by explosions in 1878 and 1928, and, finally, by fire in 1991, after it had been abandoned in the mid-1960s. In its heyday, approximately 175 railroad cars of wheat were processed every day at this facility, and more than 12 million loves of bread were made daily from the wheat milled here.

Now a National Historic Landmark, the remains of the original building have been extended with glass walls, presenting an historical preservation which includes interactive exhibit space where visitors explore waterpower in the Water Lab; view authentic milling machinery, as well as an 1879 wooden boxcar whose role included delivering grain from farms to the mill, and from the mill to the market; and a Baking Lab, where visitors grind wheat, bake bread and conduct experiments in a test kitchen.

The Flour Tower, the centerpiece of a visit to the MCM, is viewed during an eight-story, multi-media ride in a restored grain elevator. Visitors stop at tableaux of various parts of the mill on each floor, featuring stories of the employees who worked there from the 1940s through the mid-1960s with the aid of lighting, sound, special effects and the recorded voices of the workers.

Finally, there is a rooftop Observation Deck where visitors can enjoy a panoramic view of the river and the falls. This unusual museum tells the fascinating story of how this industry stimulated a boom in the region’s farms, and how the population of Minneapolis increased by 1,300 percent between 1870 and 1890 as immigrants moved to the city to work in the mills and its supporting industries, resulting in the rise of Minneapolis as a major city. To top the visit off, stop at the well-priced gift shop for lots of baking paraphernalia and Pillsbury Dough Boy memorabilia.


Land of Lakes

Visitors to these cities also have the chance to enjoy the great outdoors. Twenty-two lake-side paths within Minneapolis draw outdoor lovers to walk, jog, bike and roller-blade. Boating, swimming and fishing are also popular activities on Lake Harriet, Lake Calhoun and others in this Chain of Lakes region.

The Grand Rounds National Scenic Byway, one of the only urban scenic byways in the country, offers a 50-mile recreation loop for strolling, biking and cross-country skiing. Other favorite amusement areas include the Three Rivers Park District with facilities for every season, and Minnehaha Park and Falls.

Go Team – Sports Fans’ Heaven

Minnesota residents are avid sports fans who follow their teams loyally and enthusiastically. The Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome is the home of the World Series Champion American League Minnesota Twins, as well as the NFL Minnesota Vikings. As the headquarters of the Target Corporation (their flagship store is part of the outdoor Nicollet Mall downtown), the Target Center is the place to go for both men’s and women’s basketball teams – the Timberwolves and the Lynx. For Minnesota Wild hockey, and the Minnesota Swarm lacrosse team, make your way to the XCEL/Rivercentre. The Target Center and the Metrodome are also venues for concerts and other events.

Getting Around – By Foot, River, Trolley, Train and Segway

Concerned about freezing winters in these towns? Don’t worry about it. An intricate system of Skyways, glass-enclosed walkways one floor above ground, links hotels, shopping, restaurants, entertainment and more in a 72-block area of downtown Minneapolis and in an area of Saint Paul. Depending on your day’s itinerary, you may not even need a jacket. Just make sure of the hours your Skyway path remains open as they are connected through office buildings, and some close earlier in the evening, or may not be open at all on the weekends.

The Mississippi River has long played a vital role in the development of Minneapolis/Saint Paul, and is celebrated in the newly restored Riverfront District of restaurants, shops and outdoor venues. In this neighborhood, your family can board the Minneapolis Queen, a paddlewheeler that cruises under the Stone Arch Bridge, includes sights of St. Anthony’s Falls and the downtown skyline and goes through the river’s uppermost lock and dam. You can visit many of the city’s attractions by hopping on and off the Minneapolis RiverCity Trolley which also offers a narrated tour.

Railroad fans can dine aboard the Minnesota Zephyr, an historic dining train departing from nearby Stillwater, Minnesota. But, if you want to travel on your own two feet (sort of) the most unique tour in town is available at the Segway Tours of Minnesota.

After a donning helmets, viewing a video and receiving an in-depth training session by the enthusiastic staff, you’re off for a three-hour professionally guided tour of the historic riverfront. You may feel a bit uneasy at first, but it’s really a cinch and everyone has a great time. Riders from age 13 to 80 years are welcome.

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