Skip the tourist traps and take a hint from a local! I’ve lived in Minnesota all my life and have compiled a list of hidden gems, local favorites and attractions worth flocking to.
I recently moved from Minnesota to North Carolina and while I love it here, there are definitely a few things I miss. Food is huge for me, so there are quite a few food-related suggestions.
Just a forewarning, this is my personal opinion. I was born, raised and went to college in Southern Minnesota. I love small towns and family-owned businesses, so you may be disappointed to see that this article mainly stays out of the Twin Cities. But that’s the point! If you’re anything like me, you’ll be a satisfied traveler having known these places.
Minnesota’s Largest Candy Store
If you can dream it, The Big Yellow Barn will have it. Even old-school favorites and novelty candies. Locals know they can partake in strange flavored sodas including Bacon, Ranch, Teriyaki and Pickle flavors. Don’t worry, they have tasty ones too! And if I had you at “bacon,” they host an entire section of bacon flavored items including mints, chips and various other candies. What I like to do when I visit is grab a variety pack of sodas and a bag of taffy. The prices are great, so it makes it easy to stock up when they close up for the winter. You’ll have to head over to Jordan, MN to check it out!
Pro tip: Bring either cash or a check because they do not take cards. They do have an ATM if needed.
Mia Art Gallery
You could easily spend an entire day here. The Mia (Minneapolis Institute of Art) hosts tons of exhibits and is FREE to the public. I’ve been here multiple times and still see something different every time (whether it was there before or not). I really enjoy the Asian art exhibits including a full-size Tea Room.
Valley Fair Amusement Park
Looking for thrills this summer? This is the place. Located in Shakopee, MN. Waterpark, rollercoasters, kids rides. Valley Fair has it all and continues to grow. I suggest riding the Enterprise! There’s so much to do that you won’t have a problem staying for fireworks near closing time!
Pro tip #1: Every year that I have gone with my family we have packed a picnic. They stamp your hand if you need to leave for reentry. Fill up a cooler with ice and pick up sandwich fixings, drinks and snacks. They sell food and treats inside, but this will save you some money for more adventures!
Pro tip #2: Go early in the week, not on a weekend. There will be shorter lines or even no line at all. Hop right back in line to ride your favorite coaster again and again!
Attention climbers! This one’s for you. The rock climbing community is very strong here. People are friendly and willing to join up on climbs or let you watch. It’s a great way to meet new people. If you’re not into that, hiking Barn Bluff gives you a 360degree view of Redwing, MN. My favorite part of reaching the top of a great climb is checking out the view while you rest before the descent.
Casey’s General Store
Don’t let it fool you, this isn’t your average gas station. It’s famous for pizza! Yes, homemade pizza. You’ll have to try it to believe it! I recommend the bacon, egg and cheese breakfast pizza if you’re looking for something new. It’s now offered all day long! If that isn’t your thing, their single and specialty toppings are just as delicious. You won’t have a hard time finding a Casey’s either. Visit the link below to locate one near you!
Okaman Elk Farm
This place is a local hidden gem if I ever saw one. It’s easy to drive past since it looks like your typical farm house on first glance. But when you drive in, you’ll see that isn’t the case. Parking is directly in front of the Petting Zoo featuring donkeys, alpacas, goats, several cats and a large pig. They also feature a gift shop, art gallery and old farm buildings to tour. The best part is all of this is FREE. Even the kittens (please take one).
Pro tip: The elk are in a separate area and at times are hard to see depending on the season, but don’t let it deter you. There’s plenty more to see!
The North Shore
These sights are something you have to see to believe. If you’re a nature lover, check out these stops:
Grand Portage State Park
Northern Minnesota features some breathtaking scenery. Grand Portage State Park has a little bit of everything: trails, woods, waterfalls, rivers and wildlife. There is an amazing birds-eye view of High Falls and the Canadian border.
This location is also great for hiking and seeing some unique scenery including the Sea Caves and rock formations along Lake Superior. They also allow rock climbing.
Most would think that the main attraction of Belle Plane BBQ Days would be the barbecue, but that is far from the truth. While they have great food and music during the festival, the fireworks are drawing the biggest crowd. They have lights and fireworks that you’ve likely never seen before and it’s all set to music.
Pro tip: Get there early and set up a blanket or chairs. The field fills up fast! Pick up some sandwiches or join the other festivities while you wait for the show.
Town of Mankato, MN
If you want to stay away from the big city, this is the place to be! You’ll get the charm of a small town and all the big-city amenities. The culture is very welcoming and small business heavy, so you’re bound to find something unique here. They have so much to do beyond what I list here, but these are some hard musts if you’re coming to town!
Treats & Eats
- Bluebird Cakery: Hands-down, these are the best cakes in town. Go there for the cupcakes! I recommend purchasing a box of 4-6 in all different flavors. Cut them up and share with your travel companion(s) so you can try them all. The flavors vary every day. The cupcakes are piled high with frosting on top of perfectly moist chocolate or vanilla cake. Some have filling, though the flavor is mainly in and on top of the frosting. Every bite is worth every penny!
- Mom & Pop’s Ice Cream: This family owned and operated ice cream shop serves super premium ice cream, which is the creamiest you can find! They carry 32 flavors of Chocolate Shoppe brand ice cream at one time, but rotate from a list of over 100 flavors. My favorite is This Just Got Serious: Smooth salted caramel ice cream brimming with rich sea salt fudge and salted cashews. But hurry, it goes fast!
- China Buffet: It’s impossible to find Asian food restaurants with reviews you can trust. This place is the best tasting and, being it’s a buffet, it features a variety of options. My family has been going here since I was little and would travel an hour just to eat here.
- Mongolian Grill: Another Asian food option worth exploring. You get to choose from a buffet of ingredients and your bowl will be cooked on a giant hibachi grill. There’s little to no wait time and the food is really healthy.
- Pagliai’s Pizza: Four words: Best Pizza in Town. Order some local brew and a pizza. You’ll thank me later.
Things To Do
- Kiwanis Recreation Area: Looking for year-round entertainment? This is the place! There’s a playground for the young ones. A beautiful petting zoo featuring goats, pigs, donkeys and other farm animals. Walking trails and a picnic area along the river. And over the month of December you can walk or drive through the park to see 1.5 million LED lights, animated lights, skating rink and warming house, horse-drawn wagon rides, Santa Claus, live reindeer, ice sculptures and more!
- Cactus Tattoo & Body Piercing: In the mood or a new tattoo or piercing? Cactus features very knowledgable, fun and talented staff. I worked with Rob, one of their tattoo artists, and Brandon, their vet piercer. Rob did a great job bringing my Skullerfly tattoo to life and Brandon did a great job with my bellybutton piercing.
- Satori-Violet Belly Dance Classes: If you’re in the market for a fun new way to exercise, this is it! Blair, the 101 instructor, is amazing. There’s no pressure to perform and they take things step-by-step, so it’s easy to follow along. If you like it, they offer more advanced courses and Fly Fusion classes as well.
- Various Small Shops: There are endless amounts of small shops with great things to bring back home.
Are you from Minnesota and have something you’d like to share? Comment below!