Small-town charm and the abundant joys that come with being next to a gigantic body of water – Lake Superior, to be specific – have made Duluth a favorite place to visit among Minnesotans and travelers from around the Midwest.
Mention Duluth to out-of-state folks, and they might ask, “Where?” but in Minnesota, you’ll likely get an emphatic “We’re already planning our next weekend there.” Endearing restaurants and cafes, along with some of the state’s most lauded outdoor destinations, render this small city worth your while. Make the two-hour drive north from the Twin Cities to discover the top things to do in Duluth, Minnesota.
Check out the Aerial Lift Bridge and Canal Park
Framing Lake Superior by day and illuminating the harbor by night, Duluth’s Aerial Lift Bridge is the icon of the city. You’ll see it on postcards, keychains and local art. It dates back to 1905 and is easily the most tourist-frequented point in Duluth – for good reason. You’ll find plenty of people milling about, watching boats of all sizes pass by, some upwards of 1000ft long. The bridge is the center of the action, with neighboring Canal Park full of restaurants, gift shops, antique stores and several spots to grab a sweet treat like ice cream or fudge. Make an afternoon or evening out of it.
Grab a beer at a local brewery
Minnesotans take beer seriously, and if you’re unfamiliar, that probably means you’re missing out. Duluth is no exception. Join a local brewery tour or wander on your own, sipping on hoppy IPAs and other creative inventions. Duluth has more breweries than the average person should sample in one afternoon, but do try a few if you imbibe. Bent Paddle Brewing Co., Ursa Minor Brewing and Hoops Brewing are all key players on the scene.
Take a scenic drive to Split Rock Lighthouse
Not only is Split Rock Lighthouse a postcard-in-real-life type of place, but also the entire hour-long drive from Duluth is nothing short of glorious, following the shoreline with too-many-to-count stopoff areas for skyline views. This particular lighthouse happens to be Instagram famous, and it’s one of the most photographed and visited spots in all of Minnesota. Standing tall on a giant rock bluff overlooking Lake Superior, Split Rock Lighthouse is magical at all times of the day, though sunrise and sunset certainly do it some extra justice.
Head to the top of Enger Tower for city views
Of all possible reasons to walk up a five-story winding staircase, the view from the top of Enger Tower takes the cake. The climb to the top, 80ft over Duluth’s West End, yields sweeping 360-degree views of the city and Lake Superior. Built of locally sourced blue stone in 1939, it’s reminiscent of something from an old-timey period film.
It also happens to have as much history as it does people squinting off into the distance from the top level. In the 1930s, a Norwegian businessman named Bert Enger found massive success in Duluth selling furniture. After he bequeathed a large portion of his estate to the city of Duluth, Enger Tower was built as a tribute to him. Beyond the lofty heights, a handful of different gardens – including a Japanese Garden – surround the tower. When the weather is comfortable, it’s worth visiting the top and walking through the green space.
Stroll the Duluth Lakewalk
More of a hike than a walk, the Duluth Lakewalk is roughly 7 miles of pure lakeside goodness, starting with a boardwalk in town that shifts into a paved trail. Stroll, cycle or skateboard – the parallel pedestrian and bicycle paths draw all types of outdoor enthusiasts. Travelers using wheelchairs will be able to navigate the path with ease, apart from a steeper grade section at 3.3 miles in, heading northbound.
Most folks will opt for the shorter, in-town sections where the boardwalk takes you around some of the city’s most notable sights and landmarks. Head farther north for pristine beach views, quiet wooded parks and plenty of solitude. There’s pretty much a bench with a scenic view every step of the way.
Eat at Grandma’s family-run restaurant
Antique trinkets and history-filled photographs adorn the walls at Grandma’s Saloon & Grill, a family-run restaurant that dates back decades. It’s a Duluth staple, garnering statewide appreciation. You’ll find all the Midwest classics, such as Minnesota wild rice soup – a wondrously rich bowl of hearty rice and creamy broth – and cheese curds, the state’s famous deep fried pillows of mild-flavored young cheddar.
The location, steps away from the Aerial Lift Bridge, doesn’t get any better. Although, after eating your weight in crispy fried onion rings and other comfort foods, walking might feel like a bit of an arduous task. Arrive hungry, and expect to share the restaurant with most of the dining-out crowd on a typical night in town.
Hike around Jay Cooke State Park
An absolute jewel of Minnesota, Jay Cooke State Park is well-loved for good reason. A 200ft-long suspension bridge leads into the heart of the park, where roaring waters tumble over jet-black rocks and boulders of all sizes. It makes for a mesmerizing scene, and even though the park gets a solid amount of foot traffic, you’ll have no trouble getting space to yourself.
While it gets much-deserved crowds in the summer, this is a park fit for all four seasons – even the chilly months. With 50 miles of recreational paths, 9 miles of cycling routes, 32 miles of cross-country ski trails and 12 miles of snowmobile trails, its personality depends on which month you visit. At just 20 minutes from central Duluth by car, there’s no excuse to skip it.
Sail around Lake Superior
If you’d rather experience the lake from the water, hop on a 36ft-long sailboat to cruise the glassy waters for an unmissable day trip. Just beyond Duluth’s harbor lies a seemingly endless shoreline, Park Point Duluth – which happens to be the longest freshwater sandbar in the world. It’s formidable on foot, and breathtaking by boat. Full day, half day, sunset and overnight trips are available from various charters, accounting for all types of stays and budgets. For a classic cruise on a sailboat from the 1980s, contact Time Out Sailing or opt for a more modern yacht-style vessel with Vista Fleet.
Go birding at Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory
Avian aficionados flock to Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory, a top-notch spot for birdwatching on the north end of Duluth. Each fall, mass migrations make this destination a busy one, both on foot and in the sky. Hawks, owls and eagles of all types, and osprey are among the commonly sighted, and if you’re lucky, you might see a black vulture.
Even if you’re not brazenly passionate about birds, you can still enjoy the more than 4 miles of hiking trails that wind through the reserve. With some of the state’s best colors in fall and a blanket of wildflowers in the warmer months, it’s ideal for walking around on a mild day.
Admire the art and more at the Duluth Depot
Seeing as it was only a train station back in 1892, the Duluth Depot has had a major glow up in the past century. Nowadays, it holds a variety of attractions: concerts, fitness classes, festivals, art markets and more. It’s also home to the Art Institute, Railroad Museum and several performing arts organizations, including the Arrowhead Chorale. The Duluth Depot still has that historic charm, and it makes for a great afternoon hangout, especially on a rainy day, or around the holidays when seasonal concerts and markets pop up on the busy calendar of events.
Visit the Glensheen Mansion
Saunter into the early 20th century by visiting an opulent 39-room mansion formerly owned by one of the state’s wealthiest families, dating back to 1905. The Glensheen Mansion is something out of a history novel, with decadent architecture and an impressive surrounding landscape. Elegant walnut and mahogany wood panel ceilings, along with stained glass and original furniture from 1908, remain excellently preserved in this late Victorian masterpiece.
It’s like stepping into an incredibly maintained time capsule, without all the dust. On a group or self-guided tour, explore the mansion, cottage, maintenance building, carriage and boat houses, along with 12 acres of lakefront grounds and a terraced garden. The mansion has a lot to see, so save a whole morning or afternoon to do it justice.
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