The Minnesota metro comprises two major cities on the Mississippi River—the “Twin Cities,” Minneapolis and St. Paul.
While Minneapolis has overtaken St. Paul in size and is the more modern and lively of the two cities, St. Paul holds a special place in my heart. From the riverside downtown area and stunning views of the state Capitol to the many university campuses and the history that invades every street corner, spending sunny afternoons exploring St. Paul is one of my favorite things to do.
If you’re visiting St. Paul, here are the top six places that I recommend to give you a feel for historical Minnesota.
1) The Cathedral of St. Paul
The third largest cathedral in the US and the sister church of the Basilica in Minneapolis, the breathtakingly beautiful St. Paul cathedral overlooks Minnesota’s capital city. Daily tours ($2 suggested donation) introduce you to the interesting history of the cathedral’s construction and architecture. Entrance is free.
While you’re at it, take the fifteen-minute walk to the state Capitol to admire the famous (at least in Minnesota) golden Quadriga statue and the impressive artwork inside the early-20th-century building. Here is a suggested list of stops to hit within the Capitol. Entrance is free.
2) Fort Snelling
Fort Snelling, built shortly after the War of 1812 to help protect the territory of Minnesota (not even a state yet!) and the Mendota river confluence, functioned as a frontier outpost during the fur trade and later as a training center for Civil War soldier recruits. Today, actors in historic dress demonstrate what life on the fort would have been like, from laundry and blacksmithing to medicine and cannon firing. You can explore the many types of buildings that make up the fort, such as the higher-ranking officer’s homes and the hospital. There are also museum exhibits that delve into the details of the fort’s (sometimes gritty) history.
Admission is $12. The fort is closed on Mondays.
3) The Minnesota History Center
I think every kid who grew up in the Minneapolis/St. Paul metro area remembers taking a field trip to the History Center and experiencing the tornado simulation there. (In addition, I remember them turning me down for an internship in college…I’ve since forgiven them.)
This museum dedicated to Minnesota’s history is not only housed in a beautiful building, but the inside is fascinating too. To be honest, I’m not a big museum person, but I really enjoy this one. The visually compelling and often interactive exhibits cover important moments in the US’s history and explore what life was like for people in Minnesota during those times. The museum is geared towards all ages, but it’s still interesting for adults.
Admission is $12. The History Center is closed on Mondays.
4) Minnehaha Falls
The falls and the pretty park that surrounds them are a common hangout spot for Minnesotans on a nice day—summer or winter (the frozen falls are a beautiful sight). Walk along the park’s paths and around the garden, have a picnic under the pavilion, and wander down to the falls. There are spots along Minnehaha Creek where you can wade in the water. The park also holds music events on some summer evenings.
The name of the falls pays tribute to a sometimes-forgotten part of Minnesota’s history—the Native Americans that lived here before the Europeans arrived. Minnehaha is a character from the Dakota tribe who appears in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s epic poem The Song of Hiawatha. Her name, appropriately, means “waterfall.” The name Minnesota is also taken from the Dakota language and means either “clear blue water” or “cloudy water.” Both are fitting, since Minnesota is known for its abundance of lakes.
5) Wabasha Street Caves
Arguably one of the coolest places in St. Paul, I was introduced to “the Caves” on a tour of gangster sights around St. Paul as a high school student.
In the 1920s, Prohibition Era in the US, St. Paul became known as a sanctuary for bootleggers and gangsters because the corrupt city officials and police officers did nothing to stop their crimes. Infamous gangsters like Al Capone and Bonnie and Clyde were known to make stops in St. Paul. Wabasha Street in particular was one of the more popular places in the city for gangsters to gather—you can still see bullet marks on the walls of the Caves from their shootouts, and there are plenty of ghost stories surrounding the area.
The Caves currently run some tours throughout the week that explore the history of the Gangster Era in the city. And if you’re in town on a Thursday, stop by the Caves for swing dancing with live music and a bar.
6) Summit Avenue
Beautiful, historic mansions line Summit Avenue in St. Paul. This self-guided walking tour lists the homes that wealthy and important Minnesotans built on Summit Avenue around the late 1800s and provides historical details for each one. The tour includes the cathedral as well as the James J. Hill House, the largest home in Minnesota.
Recommended dining in St. Paul
Moscow on the Hill, a pricey Russian restaurant with a vast vodka bar
Izzy’s Ice Cream (Marshall Ave.), the original location of the iconic Twin Cities ice cream brand
Cafe Astoria, a busy, trendy coffee shop with delicious (and Insta-worthy) smoothie bowls
The Happy Gnome, a cozy pub not far from Cathedral Hill (their tacos are great)
Cossetta, a classic Italian restaurant in the heart of St. Paul
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