There are two ways to approach the weekend getaway. You can have every detail planned. Or you can fly to your destination, put on a pair of comfortable shoes and wander. And that was pretty much our strategy for a 48-hour visit to Minneapolis.
My daughter Julie and I didn't do too much planning. We booked our flights, found a hotel and perused the Internet to get an idea of what was going on in Minneapolis (and St. Paul, of course . . . you go to one and you get the other as a bonus). After that, we were game for just about anything.We flew in early Saturday morning and took a cab from the airport to our hotel, a $30 trip, to drop off our bags. We had decided against a rental car because we planned to play things by ear. Hoofing it around an unfamiliar town adds to the sense of discovery, as we would see repeatedly over the next two days. And besides, nothing screams "tourist" louder than someone doing 10 miles an hour in traffic while fumbling with a street map.
The Twin Cities are decidedly family-friendly, and there is an unlimited number of events geared toward moms and dads and small children. But my daughter is 21, and I have already served my time as Vacation Dad. So we were more interested in non-kid attractions.
There were sites we didn't care to see--the Mall of America, a Twins game at the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome, a two-story outhouse in nearby Belle Plaine. There were things we would have liked to see but couldn't--no one seemed to know where Prince's childhood home was located. There were a few cultural centers we were interested in, but there was nothing in Minneapolis or St. Paul that we had to see.
OK, that's not totally true. There was one can't-miss landmark. The Mary Richards statue.
The eight-foot bronze statue, located at 7th Street and Nicollet Mall, immortalizes Mary Tyler Moore, as Richards, throwing her tam into the air in the opening credits of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show." It's situated on the corner where the scene was shot more than 30 years ago, outside a Marshall Field's. We were staying at the Embassy Suites on 7th, only four short blocks away, so this was our first stop. Walking another block or so, we noticed police barricades ahead. Wow, sirens and police lights, and we'd been in town only an hour. What it was was the city's Aquatennial Parade. The Aquatennial, with dozens of water-related events from July 16-24, is the official civic celebration of Minneapolis. We caught maybe a half hour of the festivities--it was your standard-issue parade, although the Twin Cities Unicycle Club was remarkable --and then pressed on.
Culturally, Minneapolis and St. Paul have much to offer. Armed with a street map, we headed off toward one of the best attractions, the Walker Art Center, which is dedicated to the visual, performing and media arts. Getting there provided us one of those opportunities for discovery. Our walk took us through Loring Park, southwest of downtown, with a beautiful fountain, flower gardens, rolling hills, pond and horseshoe courts. Totally unexpected.
Across the street from the Walker is the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, with more than 40 large pieces in a beautiful 11-acre setting (our favorite . . . everyone's favorite: Spoonbridge and Cherry, by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen).
Jam-packed with culture, we resumed wandering. We ended up in the Warehouse District, a collection of restaurants and bars and small shops, "the fun part of town," according to a bartender at one of our stops. (All that walking works up a powerful thirst.) But it was early and things were quiet, so we decided to head back to the hotel to get cleaned up for dinner.
First, though, another of those interesting detours. At the IDS Center, just down the street from the hotel, a bank was sponsoring a promotion. Five hundred thousand pennies were spilled on the floor of the lobby, and kids were invited to search through them. What were they looking for? Rare coins? Prizes? Germs? I never was really sure. And I was too hungry to ask.
For dinner, someone had recommended Vincent, a French restaurant at 11th and Nicollett. We didn't have reservations but they were able to squeeze us in at a small table in the lounge. That turned out to be another stroke of good fortune--we got a closeup view of a bartender nearly as entertaining as the Twin Cities Unicycle Club. The guy was a pro, even whipping up a Sazarac with ease. As for the meal, it was the best of our visit, and that's saying something. The bill, with tip, came to $108.
While we ate, we saw a crowd across the street at Peavy Plaza. We checked it out. Several hundred people were celebrating the Minnesota Orchestra Sommerfest, listening to a two-hour show by The Mouldy Figs, a New Orleans jazz and swing band. When they finished, the Figheads and the show moved to nearby Orchestra Hall for a classical concert, which was to be followed by another two-hour performance by the Figs, this one on the stage and lasting till past midnight.
We soaked up some music and atmosphere--there were dealers selling some amazing looking pastries--before setting off again. We began walking up 11th Street and after a block came across another of those pleasant surprises--Shakespeare in the Park. In this case, "Twelfth Night" was being performed before an audience of a couple hundred people in a small park on the campus of the University of St. Thomas (the shows run through early August, all around the Minneapolis-St. Paul area).
Fearing a cultural overload, we stuck around for only a few minutes then, footsore, headed back to the hotel.
Sunday started with a big breakfast at the hotel, then a $23 cab ride to the other half of this two-fer, St. Paul. We got dropped off at the Science Museum of Minnesota, which bills itself as "Minnesota's Favorite Museum."
It's easy to see why. This place is great.
Two of the featured displays were "Circus!" a very cool look at life under the big top from a scientific perspective (learn all about circus food, and find out how pink lemonade was invented . . . you don't want to know); and "Coral Reef Adventure," which explores a coral reef on a giant screen.
Then there are wonderful permanent exhibits: the Mississippi River Gallery, describing life in the area dating to prehistoric times; the Human Body Gallery, with tests you can perform on yourself; and the Collections Gallery, with cool stuff such as preserved polar bears and items from the Museum of Questionable Medical Devices (and I thought the vibratory chair really did improve breathing and cure constipation). Elsewhere there are fossils, exhibits on everything from electricity to weather to gravity to steam power, and teaching stations where guides will, well, teach you things. And everywhere, hands-on exhibits. It may sound like the typical science museum menu, but from top to bottom, the presentation of material makes this a special museum for adults as well as children. (My daughter was moved to try every exhibit, and I was actually disappointed when I realized I'd seen everything there was to see.)
Our exploration of St. Paul continued around Rice Park, a lovely small area a block or so from the museum. It being Sunday, and this being St. Paul, numerous interesting-looking shops were closed. What was available for perusal--everywhere--were statues of Linus, from "Peanuts" fame. More than 90 of the statues are on display this summer around St. Paul, former home of the late "Peanuts" creator Charles Schulz, decorated in different ways, similar to Chicago's Cows on Parade of 1999. After seeing maybe 15 Linuses--really, after you've seen 5 of them, you get the idea--we decided to head back to Minneapolis.
Finding a cab, though, proved to be a challenge. Again, maybe because it was Sunday; maybe because it was St. Paul on a Sunday, but we walked around for the better park of an hour looking for a ride. Finally we stopped by the St. Paul Hotel near Rice Park, and asked where we could catch a cab. Must have been a slow day--St. Paul . . . Sunday . . . you get it--because the hotel's van driver offered to take us back to Minneapolis. The cost: whatever we wanted to pay.
On the way, we mentioned how we'd been walking for two days and found both cities clean, pleasant and safe. We figured we'd walked maybe 15 miles and never felt threatened. Maybe we were in just all the right places. Maybe that wasn't a factor.
"It's a pretty safe city," said the driver, Ryan Sorg. "Here, people are more apt to ask you for money rather than demand it. You'll get stories--`Can I have $50? My car got towed and my wallet and all my money were in it'--that kind of thing."
We had another section of the city we wanted to explore--Uptown, a trendy area about a 10-minute cab ride from the hotel. Second-hand book stores, sidewalk cafes, coffee shops and vintage clothing stores lines the streets, which were populated mostly by under-30s. We ate at Lucia's Restaurant and Wine Bar, a small, elegant storefront place that no Minneapolis visitor should miss. A tip: Save room for dessert.
We tried to walk off our meal, but after a mile or so threw in the towel and grabbed a cab. Full, exhausted, we had done everything we wanted to do in Minneapolis.
The next morning we were up early and out the door, skipping the Embassy Suites' free breakfast spread in lieu of a visit to the equally famous Al's Breakfast.
Located near the University of Minnesota campus, in an area of Minneapolis known as Dinkytown, Al's Breakfast has to be experienced. Only 10 feet wide with about a dozen red vinyl-covered stools, Al's has been a legend for 50 years. We grabbed two seats at the end of the counter, ordered breakfast and enjoyed the show.
Regulars come in and swap stories with the counter people. Strangers share newspapers. Diner lingo prevails ("Short blues!" "Short short black!") It's hot, it's noisy, it's busy.
Behind the counter are shelves with dozens of yellow booklets with people's names on them--there must be some sort of filing system, but it was beyond me--so customers can prepay for meals and their account is kept in their own booklet.
With all that, the quality of the food wouldn't have mattered. But it was good. The Summer Special--scrambled eggs, with chunks of fresh mozzarella, fresh basil and sliced fresh tomatoes sprinkled on top, with several slices of toast--was around $3. We had two orders of bacon, two coffees, one Special, an order of hash browns and one Frisbee-sized blueberry pancake (fresh blueberries, naturally) for about $10. This was better than the Mary Richards statue.
And the perfect way to cap a visit to Minneapolis.
IF YOU GO
United, American, US Airways, Northwest and ATA all service Minneapolis. Flights are available from O'Hare and Midway, depending on the airline. Flight time is about an hour--we were told the flight home would take 46 minutes, but it was closer to an hour five minutes because of a delay at O'Hare.
We found the best fare, $156 each, roundtrip, plus taxes and fees, through Smarter Living (www.smarterliving.com), and booked it a week before our departure.
We left about 8:45 Saturday morning and flew home at noon Monday, generally avoiding O'Hare congestion on both ends.
Poking around on the Internet, we decided the Embassy Suites was as good a spot as any to book a room. It's not as close to the heart of downtown as other hotels, but it is closer to the Metrodome and the Minneapolis Convention Center. Regardless, it's all within walking distance. Two other possibilities, the Hilton Minneapolis and the Whitney, had nothing available on Saturday night. Such can be the case when you wait until five days before your arrival to book a hotel.
The Embassy Suites rate was within pennies on Travelocity, Expedia and Quikbook, so we booked through the latter, simply because that was the last site we visited. The rate was about $260, before taxes, for the two nights.
A rental car might not be a bad idea, especially if you want to go back and forth between Minneapolis and St. Paul. But a cab works well, particularly if you're staying at one of the downtown hotels. A tip: Take a cab company's phone number with you so you can call for a taxi instead of having to hunt down one on the streets. They can be scarce. The streets are clean and seem to be safe. Street musicians of varying skill levels are present. Didn't see one mime. And don't be flustered by the signs in windows of various businesses telling patrons that guns are not allowed in the building; a new conceal-and-carry law permits people to pack heat, so business owners are merely letting them know that guns are not welcome in their establishments.
There have been rumblings that Minneapolis isn't a four-star-restaurant city, that it doesn't equal Chicago or New York or San Francisco. So what? There is a huge variety of very good eateries, from classy (Vincent, 1100 Nicollet Mall) to the cozy and elegant (Lucia's, 1432 W. 31st St.) to the most basic (Al's Breakfast, 413 14th Ave. SE). And if you want to see the inner workings of a kitchen, Vincent has a kitchen table for two that can be reserved.
With the Mall of America nearby, shopping is big. So are sports (go to the Metrodome and boo the Twins) and the arts (The Guthrie Theater, The Walker Art Center, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, the Science Museum of Minnesota and the Minnesota Orchestra all have ongoing programs or exhibits worth catching). There are also the hidden gems--walk through Dinkytown near the University of Minnesota campus, wander through Uptown and enjoy the small shops and eateries.
Three sources of information are at www.exploreminnesota.com and www.minneapolis.org/. For information by phone, call the Minnesota Office of Tourism at 888-868-7476 or the Greater Minneapolis Convention and Tourism Association at 612-767-8000.
-- William HagemanCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun