A guide to give you inspiration & ideas for planning your vacation in the midwest state of Minnesota.
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Minnesota became the 32nd state of the United States on May 11, 1858. The state of Minnesota is located in the Midwest of the United States boasting a landscape full of more than 11,000 lakes. Commonly used nicknames for the state of Minnesota include: Land of 10,000 lakes, North Star State, Gopher State & The State of Hockey.
Geography of Minnesota
Minnesota is located in the Midwest of the United States. The state is bordered by North and South Dakota to the West; Iowa to the South; Wisconsin and Lake Superior to the East & Canada to the North. When you look at the shape of the state of Minnesota, the small little “nub” on the very top of its unique shape makes Minnesota the most northern state within the lower 48 states of the USA. So when we say “up north” we really mean it!
Why a Minnesota vacation?
Minnesota is such an underrated state! From all of the lakes and outdoor activities in all seasons to the Minneapolis/St. Paul metropolitan area Minnesota truly has something to appeal to everyone. Read on to help you start planning to give you Minnesota vacation ideas to explore beyond what you might already know about this Midwestern state.
How to get to Minnesota
If you’re flying into Minnesota, there are two international airports. Minneapolis/St. Paul & Rochester. Minneapolis/St. Paul services the majority of air traffic for Minnesota having the most passengers. The other airports I list below are small hub and non-hub USA airports. American Eagle, Delta and Allegiant Air are the most common airlines at these smaller airports. When planning your travel to Minnesota, passengers should consider Minneapolis as it’s the main international airport in the state.
MSP (Minneapolis/St. Paul) International Airport is comprised of two terminals. Terminal one being the main terminal and where most of the International flights leave out of. A majority of the restaurants, shopping & amenities are located in terminal one. If you go through the south security checkpoint in terminal one my favorite restaurant at the airport is located right on the other side. Stone Arch focuses on pub fare and having an extensive MN craft beer draft list. MSP is a huge hub for Delta flights. Metro Transit and Light Rail Transit options offer public transportation from and to the airport. From the airport there are also, taxis, shuttles and there are designated app based transportation pick up spots available.
There are several other smaller regional airports across Minnesota, however, availability and timetables are much more limited. Many of these regional airlines you will fly into MSP (Minneapolis/St. Paul) and have a connecting flight to your final destination. Regional airports within Minnesota include: Bemidji (BJI), Brainerd (BRD), Duluth (DLH), St. Cloud (STC), International Falls (INL), Chisholm-Hibbing (HIB).
Depending where you hail from and what your thoughts are on road trips, you could definitely drive to Minnesota on vacation. Even in the metro area of Minneapolis/St. Paul, the public transportation options here aren’t as robust compared to other metropolitan cities in other states so keep that in mind when planning. Typically having your own car would be great! If you do fly, I would definitely recommend renting a car if you’re planning to travel to the northern part of Minnesota. As it will be a lot easier for you to get around.
Located in St. Paul, MN, Amtrak trains leave and arrive from the historic Union Depot from many different destinations. There are several Amtrak stations in both central Minnesota as well as in the southern part of the state. You can navigate from MSP (Minneapolis/St. Paul airport) to Union Depot via the light rail system.
When to go to Minnesota
Minnesota experiences all four seasons. Don’t let that deter you, there are plenty of vacation ideas in Minnesota year round! While it can be difficult to predict the weather at times, the most mild weather is typically experienced in the spring and fall. Summer can get extremely hot and humid. After enduring long cold winters native Minnesotans welcome the short stint of warmth.
Minnesota summers are enjoyed by long weekends at many lakes, camping, boating & generally enjoying many of the outdoor activities the state has to offer. Typically the best weather in Minnesota is from May-September. September and October are absolutely gorgeous with the fall foilage. Depending on where you are in the state, peak fall colors usually occur between September and October. This largely depends on the weather and the part of the state you’re planning on visiting.
Check out more in depth information on what to pack when visiting Minnesota by season in my Minnesota packing guide. (It even includes a free checklist!)
Minnesota is so diverse in the activities you can enjoy all year round. It really creates a lot of vacation ideas within the state of Minnesota. Here are some examples of activities for your trip.
In the winter: skiing (cross country and downhill), snowboarding, curling, skating or playing hockey, snowshoeing, and ice fishing.
In the fall: hiking, biking, leaf peeping, stretching out patio season, camping or glamping.
During the summer: long days boating or fishing on many of the lakes and rivers, having a drink or food on one of the many outdoor patios, biking, golfing, barbecues, camping glamping or staying in a cabin, kayaking/canoeing and stand up paddle boarding.
In the spring: hiking, getting outside more as the snow melts. (Spring activities are very dependent on the snow and mud level but many summer activities will start at the end of the spring season.) In 2021, it was 80 degrees Farenheit hiking at Tettegouche State Park the first weekend in May. For the record, that is extremely warm that far north for early May!
Minnesota experiences all seasons. We have what can be a really long winter, a crisp fall with beautiful fall colors as the leaves change, a brisk and vibrant spring and an absolutely unforgettable summer. Summers tend to be short, but absolutely worth braving some of the colder months for.
Average temperatures by month can greatly vary. Typically January is the coldest month of the year with July being the hottest month. Spring and fall in Minnesota are somewhat subjective. We’ve been known to have gorgeous pre-summer weather in April and there have been some years where it snows a foot or more in April! There are many Minnesota vacation ideas that can be amazing during all seasons. (Including winter!)
If you’re planning on spending any time in Minnesota, before you pack definitely check the weather. We’re one of the lucky states where you can experience harsh extremes within the same day.
Minnesota’s landscape includes over 11,000 lakes that are 10 acres large or more. Another idea to add to your Minnesota vacation ideas is renting a houseboat to actually stay on a lake for an extended period of time. According to Minnesota’s DNR, the ten largest lakes that are within the borders of the Minnesota include:
1) Red Lake (both upper and lower)
2) Mille Lacs
3) Leech Lake
4) Lake Winnie (Winnibigoshish)
7) Mud Lake (in Marshall county)
8) Cass Lake
9) Lake Minnetonka
10) Otter Tail Lake
While the largest lakes crossing the Minnesota state border are Lake Superior & Lake of the Woods.
The largest lake located in the city of Minneapolis is Bde Maka Ska (formerly named Lake Calhoun). This lake is a part of the chain of lakes including Lake Harriet, Lake of the Isles & Lake Nokomis. This popular chain of lakes have an extensive biking and walking path system around them. This is a very popular part of Minneapolis to enjoy the many parks dotted along their shores to stop and relax.
MN Vacation Ideas: Minnesota State Parks
There are 66 state parks across Minnesota. The oldest being one of my favorites, Itasca State Park. Itasca State Park is where the Mississippi River starts. Believe it or not, you can actually walk across the river here! I grew up a little over 30 miles from this state park so personally Itasca State Park holds a lot of great memories for me and is my favorite. I remember in elementary school we would come here on field trips and I’ve camped here numerous times with friends over the years. Itasca also has several cabin lodging options as well so definitely check those out!
Other than Itasca State Park, some of my other favorite state parks are mostly on the North Shore. I actually got engaged at Gooseberry Falls State Park in the fall! The state parks located on the North Shore are especially popular during the Spring & Fall. During the spring for waterfall chasing and in the fall, for seeking out the gorgeous fall foilage.
National Parks & Monuments in Minnesota
Another Minnesota vacation idea includes visiting the National Parks and monuments recognized by the NPS within Minnesota. The most well known National Park in Minnesota is Voyageurs National Park (BWCA) Boundary Waters Canoe Area.
There are several other monuments and areas in Minnesota that are recognized by the National Park Service. My favorites include the Saint Croix River & Mississippi River which are close to the metropolitan area of the Twin Cities.
Vacation ideas: Where to go in Minnesota
The Twin Cities have an abundance of vacation ideas for your time in Minnesota. From sampling some local beer at a Minnesota craft beer brewery, going on a brewery crawl using only public transportation, eating at one of the local burger restaurants to determine who truly has the best juicy lucy, taking in the best view of the Minneapolis skyline, enjoying some street art to biking around the lakes on Minneapolis/St. Paul’s extensive trails there’s sure to be something for everyone in this metropolitan area.
The skyway system in downtown Minneapolis is the world’s largest continuous indoor pedestrian pathway. It stretches over eight miles and connects 73 blocks. You can sleep, eat, work and shop without ever needing to step foot outside. (Which is a great perk considering how cold MN winters can get!)
Twin Cities suburbs
The state of Minnesota is home to the largest mall in the United States, Mall of America. The mall opened in 1992, which has over 400 stores and attracts nearly 40 million people each year! Mall of America, is located in the southern suburb of Bloomington and isn’t far from MSP airport. In fact, you can even take public transportation to get to the mall from the airport. Prior to living in the metro area, I’ve done this on longer layovers at MSP.
There is so much to do in the large metropolitan area of the Twin Cities. From Minneapolis to St. Paul and all of the sprawling suburbs in between. One of my favorite memories growing up was always going to “The Cities” and doing some fun things such as the Mall of America, sporting events, the MN Zoo or the MN State Fair. It’s just such a fun memory of getting to spend a weekend before school started shopping and spending time with my family. Although now my yearly trips to the Minnesota State fair look a little bit different as I’m scoping out the new and state fair exclusive craft beers. For more detailed information check out this post that has tons of suggestions for Things to do in the Twin Cities. It includes both Minneapolis, St. Paul and beyond into the sprawling suburbs in the surrounding area.
Day Trips from the Twin Cities
If you’re in Minnesota for more than a week, I suggest at least taking a day trip away from the metro area. There are several great day trips located only a short drive away. Some of the best day trips (or weekend trips) from the Twin Cities include: Stillwater, the Cuyuna/Crosby area or Brainerd area, several state parks such as Afton, Nerstrand Big Woods, William O’Brien, St. Croix & Interstate State Park.
“Up North” Minnesota (Bemidji, Walker)
Beyond the metro area there are many vacation ideas within Minnesota located up north. As an original “Up North” dweller growing up here there are definitely a lot of things to take advantage of that I took for granted growing up. The north woods has a lot of opportunity for time outdoors whether hunting, fishing, hiking, biking or spending time on the lakes. Some of the best places to spend time up north in Minnesota include: Bemidji, Walker & Itasca state Park. More details on things to do in the Bemidji area are located here.
Way Up North (bordering Canada)
I haven’t personally spent a lot of time in this area of the state. Popular locations include: Lake of the Woods, International Falls & Rainy Lake or Ely, Minnesota.
Along the North Shore, closer to Canada than the United States sits Grand Portage which is a part of the National Park System. Grand Portage State Park is a day use only state park featuring hiking trails and stunning waterfall views. From the parking lot you can actually see just down the road border control for Canada.
The Boundary Waters (BWCA) Canoe Wilderness Area is partially located in Minnesota and in Canada. This is a very remote and outdoor experience but there are also many resorts and less roughing it options available. So it truly is a location for everyone. Especially if you’re looking to really unplug and relax.
I consider Duluth to be the “gateway” to the North Shore as it’s always a stop for me whether it’s a few hours or a day before heading to the smaller towns and more of a remote experience on the North shore along Lake Superior.
There’s a lot to do in Duluth whether you’re planning on staying there for a weekend or longer or if you’re continuing on along the North Shore. Check out my post that goes more in depth on Things to do in Duluth, and of course, you always have to stop at a few breweries. Here’s the scoop on the best breweries in Duluth to help you to drink local wherever you are!
North Shore of Lake Superior
Past Duluth, up along Lake Superior to Canada is what makes up the North Shore in Minnesota. This is one of my favorite parts of the state. There are so many gorgeous state parks to hike in with waterfalls abundant and views of Lake Superior for days! Some of the more popular destinations along the North Shore include Grand Marais, Tofte, Lutsen, Grand Portage, Tettegouche State Park, Gooseberry Falls, & Split Rock Lighthouse.
The drive from Duluth up the North Shore has received the national designation of “All American Road”. There is an abundance of things to do along the North Shore. It really is a great destination within Minnesota to slow down and relax. Of course, you will want to have some great beer on the North Shore. One of my favorite cities along the North Shore is Grand Marais, MN.
Central Minnesota: Cuyuna/Crosby
Another great Minnesota vacation idea is Cuyuna or Crosby, Minnesota is practically located right smack dab in the middle of the state of Minnesota. It’s an easy day trip from the Minneapolis/ St. Paul metro area but an even better destination to spend a weekend.
Downtown Crosby has several restaurants, bars & even a brewery. But, what they’re the most well known for is their biking. Throughout Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area there are 50 miles of mountain bike trails. Not only that, but the iron ore lakes in this area are absolutely stunning with the most beautiful crystal clear water. So taking a kayak or stand up paddle board out after biking is the perfect end to a great day in Cuyuna.
Central Minnesota: Brainerd & Brainerd Lakes area
Brainerd is a very popular destination from the metropolitan area as well. It’s a short drive and there are many resorts and golf courses making it a great vacation spot within the state of Minnesota. Between mini golf and full courses there are 16 within the Brainerd area! There are also many resorts along the lakes so you could fit in some golfing or just lake and cabin or camping time.
Southern Minnesota: New Ulm
New Ulm is a smaller MN town that’s well known for its German heritage. So, it should come as no surprise that August Schell Brewing Company is a German craft beer brewery located in New Ulm. August Schell’s is America’s second oldest family brewery. Since August Schells acquired Grain Belt, it’s the largest brewery in Minnesota.
Other points of interest in New Ulm include Flandrau State Park & the Glockenspiel that chimes at noon, 1, 3, 5 & 6 PM daily. True to its German heritage many shops downtown carry authentic German goods & food.
Southern Minnesota: Mankato
Mankato is located just about an hour south of Minneapolis/St. Paul. It has a state college Mankate State University and is well known for Minneopa State Park, Mankato brewing & during the holiday season Kiwani’s holiday lights. Prior to 2018, the American NFL football team the Minnesota Vikings held their training camp at Mankato State since 1965.
Southern Minnesota: Rochester
Just a short distance from the Minneapolis/St. Paul metropolitan area, Rochester is most well known as the birthplace of the Mayo Clinic. The city of Rochester boasts over 100 city parks with 85 miles of bike trails so it’s a great location in Minnesota to get outside. After your bike ride, Rochester has some great breweries to enjoy as well. We spent some time at said breweries during a road trip. Read more about the specific breweries here.
Western Minnesota (Moorhead & Fargo, NoDak)
Moorhead is actually located in Minnesota & Fargo is just over the border into North Dakota. But it’s a great vacation idea, especially if you’re a craft beer fan like me! Honestly, one of the main reasons I travel to Fargo/Moorhead is for beer. Two of my absolute favorite breweries are located in the Fargo/Moorhead area. Luckily, they also distribute to the Minneapolis/St. Paul metropolitan area but road tripping to visit their taprooms every once in awhile is fun. It’s literally a straight shot from MSP to Fargo/Moorhead north on I-94. On your way there you pass through Alexandria & Fergus Falls which are
“Bluff Country” from Red Wing to Winona
Red Wing is located south east of the Twin Cities metropolitan area and is most well known for being the birthplace of Red Wing shoes. It has a very cute downtown area and an awesome historic hotel, St. James Hotel. A long weekend or mid-week stay any time of year is a great idea.
The Cannon Valley Trail is a paved bike trail that connects Cannon Falls, Welch, & Red Wing. It’s 20 miles one way and is available for year round use for biking, hiking/running & cross country skiing.
This southeastern stretch of the state is along the border of Minnesota and Wisconsin which is carved out by the Mississippi River. The dramatic limestone bluffs and views out over the river will be sure to leave a lasting impression. There are many popular hikes to take in these impressive views in this area. One of the most well known in Winona is Sugar Loaf because of the amazing view at the top.
Most Well Known Minnesota Vacation ideas
Some of the most well known attractions that easily come to mind in Minnesota for vacations include: Voyageurs National Park (Boundary Waters Canoe Area- BWCA), Mall of America, and the North Shore of Minnesota along Lake Superior from Duluth, Minnesota north to the Canadian border and hiking the Superior Hiking Trail.
Minnesota in the fall truly is so colorful and beautiful. Especially in the northern part of the state. It’s always my favorite to make it up to the North Shore or my hometown of Bemidji to hike and take in all of the foilage changing colors.
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