Explore the Banks of the Mighty Mississippi.
The vibrancy on both sides of the Mississippi River includes activities, eating and drinking options, scenic areas for walks and picnics and places for both adults and children to unleash pent up energy.
Minneapolis grew around St. Anthony Falls, the only naturally occurring falls along the entire length of the Mississippi River. This infinite source of kinetic energy powered the flour mills on both banks of the river that made Minneapolis the flour milling capital of the world for 50 years. These days, the river serves as a defining part of the city’s geography and a lovely green space where people flock for fun and exercise.
Fun in the Sun (and Shade): Things to Do
The Mississippi River Boulevard is a key link on the Grand Rounds National Scenic Byway, a 51-mile loop composed of parkways, boulevards, trails and lakes. It’s the only scenic byway in the country located entirely within an urban area.
Visitors and locals alike descend on the many parks along the river for some good old fashion frolicking. Chief among these options is Fort Snelling, located at the junction of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers, the keystone of what eventually became the settlement that is the Twin Cities. The fort is now a historic landmark and designated national treasure. The $12 adult admission fee ($10 for seniors, veterans, active military personnel and students, $6 for children ages 5-17) gives access to information on the fort’s two centuries of history and 10,000 years of human habitation on the site before that through tours and demonstrations.
Minnehaha Regional Park
Extremely popular Minnehaha Regional Park is best known for its modest, yet highly photogenic 53-foot falls. There are numerous playgrounds, picnic areas and trails, some of which go right down to the river where people sunbathe and fish. There are wacky four-person bike-carts available for rent, a wading pool for kids, a disc golf course and occasional live music. The notably long lines at Sea Salt Eatery (open seasonally) are an indication of its flair with fast-casual seafood and the appeal of its inviting patio. Across the river is the less busy Hidden Falls Park, which dates back to 1887 and has additional trails, grassy expanses and places to picnic.
If you need a fascinating place to cool off on a hot day, the Mill City Museum is Minneapolis’ wonderfully designed history museum, highlighting the flour milling industry that defined the early years of the city.
Just down the street is the crown jewel of the Twin Cities’ distinguished theater community, the Guthrie Theater. Founded in 1963 and relocated to its current site in 2006, the Guthrie stages performances year-round in its three-theater complex and has the outstanding Sea Change seafood restaurant on-site. The public can access the conspicuous 178-foot cantilever known as the “Endless Bridge” for photo opportunities. Nearby is the St. Anthony Falls Visitor Center for more information on the history of the river.
The only paddle share program in the Western Hemisphere is developing on the east side of the river on Boom Island. Simply reserve a kayak on their website, pick it up at one of the stations and hit the water.
Or, try out Mpls Water Taxi and cruise downstream to the Upper Lock and see, hear & feel the energy and power of St. Anthony Falls. You can also venture upstream to the Lowry Ave. Bridge & see the amazing Blue Heron Rookery! Returning downstream you will see an incredible seldom seen view of the city from the river.
For an active option, embark on a 2.5-hour out-and-back guided paddle on the Mississippi River through the historic heart of the city with Paddle Bridge Kayak Tours. You'll begin the tour at the Boom Island marina, a railroad tie factory-turned green space just northeast of downtown. Then, you'll head upriver, under bridges old and new, the old industrial Port of Minneapolis on the Northside. On the way back down, enjoy the current and one of the most distinctive skyline views from anywhere in town.
If it’s Instagram wins you’re looking for, there are several places where the photo opportunities are heart-worthy. The aforementioned Boom Island Park (which is not on an island, by the way) has nice views of the river’s west bank and the distant downtown skyline. However, the hands-down best view of the downtown Minneapolis skyline is from the east side of the Stone Arch Bridge. The bridge is also an excellent place to capture fall colors and the Guthrie Theater. The pleasing snarled metal and concrete backdrops at Ruins Park, below the Stone Arch Bridge, are a popular place for wedding and prom photo shoots. Views from Gold Medal Park on the west side, near the Guthrie, are also nice.
Sure, you can get pretty good photos from just about any bridge crossing the Mississippi, but the thickly wooded shores on both sides of the river around the Lake Street Bridge make for epic views of fall colors. You can also get shots of the bountiful greenery in summer and the surreal blanket of white after heavy snowfall in winter. If you descend down to the shoreline in this area, apart from the bridges, you can barely tell you’re in the middle of a city.
In addition to its many other enticements, Fort Snelling is just plain pretty. To get far enough away to capture its beauty, you need to cross the river on Highway 5, get on Shepard Road, then pull off and park on either South Prior Road or Crosby Farm Road in order to get the shot.
River Food: Where to Eat
Across the river from downtown, Pracna on Main, opened circa 1890, is Minneapolis’ oldest continuously running tavern and café. Common ownership means you can bring your wine over to the first-run films in the neighboring St. Anthony Main Theater.
The riverfront’s Main Street has shoulder-to-shoulder bar and restaurant terraces with outdoor seating with views of the lazy action on the cobblestone street. Among these options is the tranquil Aster Café, where their outstanding food and happy hour make it a prime first date locale. The happy hour at Wilde Café & Spirits, situated in a Victorian dinning room that would make Oscar proud, is also notably generous. They serve individual pizzas and sandwiches or just stop in for a cup of refreshing gelato.
A James Beard award winner, Isaac Becker, is responsible for Bar La Grassa, serving a wide variety of pastas and other crowd-pleasing Italian staples. Smack Shack is known for their lobster-spiked dishes as well as oysters, crab, scallops, calamari, walleye (a local white fish) and other varieties of seafood.
If there’s any memory left on your phone after all those river pictures, the much-awarded Borough serves up some of the city’s most Instagramable food that also happens to be toe-curling delicious. Parlour, downstairs, is one of the city’s top cocktail labs, most notably “The Parlour Old Fashioned,” and then there’s “The Burger” (two ribeye/chuck/brisket patties infused with garlic, shallots, and thyme with American cheese on an egg bun), widely regarded as one of the best burgers in the Twin Cities.
If you’re river walking on a Saturday (9 a.m. to 1 p.m., May-October), the Mill City Farmers Market draws in a good crowd looking to buy seasonal produce, prepared food, or wanting to take in the live entertainment and cooking classes. There’s also a Tuesday night market (3:30 p.m. – 7:30 p.m.) for about eight weeks, July through September.
Shut Eye: Where to Stay
The second Radisson Red in the world opened in East Downtown in 2016, catering to the wave of millennial visitors descending on the city. The art/music/fashion inspired hotel is Skyway-connected and only three blocks from the river. Also exquisitely placed for river touring is the boutique-style Aloft Minneapolis, with a pool, bar, restaurant and a 24/7 gym. The Residence Inn by Marriott extended stay hotel is only a block off the boulevard, with rooms equipped with kitchens and separate living areas.