Minnesota’s Twin Cities form the largest urban area in the state, both in terms of size and population. These pretty communities rest on the banks of the mighty Mississippi and boast lively food and beverage scenes, an active arts community, tons of natural attractions, professional sports teams, and more.
As fantastic as the area is, locals to the City of Lakes and the state capital as well as visitors with extra time should consider some of the great day trips the region offers.
Here are some of the best.
Sometimes considered a suburb of the Twin Cities metro area, Stillwater, Minnesota, deserves some attention from day-trippers. The charming town sits on the banks of the Saint Croix River and is only about 30 minutes from Minneapolis. Stillwater is known as the birthplace of Minnesota because, according to the municipality’s website, “in 1848 the first territorial convention that began the process of establishing Minnesota as a state was held on the corner of Myrtle and Main Streets downtown.” Stillwater is also one of the state’s oldest towns — it’s even older than Minneapolis!
The area is home to a historic lift bridge, one of only three left in the country. The bridge inspired the name of the nearby brewing operation, Lift Bridge Brewery. Now Minnesota’s sixth-largest brewery by volume, Lift Bridge is also the state’s oldest taproom still in operation today. Try its Mango Blonde, Farm Girl Saison, or Old-Fashioned Root Beer. Oenophiles can sample Saint Croix River Valley wines at 7 Vines Vineyard, Saint Croix Vineyards, and Northern Vineyards Winery. There’s a hard cider operation in town as well.
Bibliophiles should be sure to check out the local library, since the roof offers some beautiful river views. Walking tours, antique shops, and delightful restaurants also await visitors to Sillwater. It’s clear that this small river town deserves a look, and it’s close enough for even a last-minute day trip.
Lake Pepin, Minnesota
Lake Pepin is a natural reservoir that formed from glacial movement when the Mississippi River widened. In fact, it’s the widest natural part of the entire river. The lake forms the boundary between Minnesota and Wisconsin southeast of Minneapolis and northeast of Rochester, Minnesota. For a scenic day trip, visitors from the Twin Cities could check out the Minnesota side, the Wisconsin side, or drive all the way around the lake. Lake Pepin is approximately an hour and 15 minutes from the Cities.
Not including stops, the drive around the lake takes about 90 minutes and offers views of lake cottages, stately bluffs, and small river towns. I suggest starting in Red Wing, Minnesota; crossing the bridge into Wisconsin; driving down the Great River Road scenic byway through Maiden Rock, Stockholm, and Pepin; and driving through Nelson before crossing the bridge back to the Minnesota side at Wabasha. From there, wind along the Minnesota side of the lake to Lake City, where waterskiing was invented, and you’ll end up back in Red Wing.
Some noteworthy stops on the Wisconsin side of the route are the antique shops in Stockholm, Pepin’s famed Harbor View Café (only open seasonally), and the Nelson Cheese Factory. The Minnesota side is home to the National Eagle Center, Frontenac State Park, and the Treasure Island Resort & Casino. Additionally, part of the Great River Road Wine Trail falls around Lake Pepin.
Autumn is an especially scenic time to enjoy this trip as the leaves turn.
Lake Minnetonka, Minnesota
It should be no surprise that we’re recommending another of Minnesota’s famous 10,000 lakes; this time, it’s Lake Minnetonka in the ritzy western suburbs of the Twin Cities. This watery haven is located about 20 minutes from Minneapolis and 40 minutes from Saint Paul, depending on traffic. It’s a popular weekend escape and day-trip option from the metro area.
Lake Minnetonka is Minnesota’s ninth-largest lake and offers tons to do all year long. From skating, snowmobiling, and ice fishing in the winter to warm-weather favorites like kayaking, swimming, boating, and stand-up paddleboarding, this lake has it all. Be aware, however, that the lake can become quite crowded, so be sure to exercise caution when enjoying its splendor.
The Minnetonka area is also home to a number of breweries sure to satisfy thirsty travelers. Back Channel Brewing Co., Excelsior Brewing Co., and Wayzata Brew Works are just a few locally loved options. Al & Alma’s Supper Club in Mound, Minnesota, is a local favorite for its dazzling water views. The establishment also offers both public and private cruises. Foodies will want to dine at Bellecour, run by a James Beard award-winning chef. Other great options are Sushi Fix, Gianni’s, and CoV.
Those interested in a more active day trip will enjoy the 40-mile loop around the lake that includes the Dakota Rail Regional Trail and the Lake Minnetonka LRT Regional Trail. Bicycles can be rented at nearby spots like South Lake Cycle and Gear West. Some of the area’s best parks include Big Island Nature Park, Excelsior Commons, Noerenberg Gardens, and Lake Minnetonka Regional Park.
Home of the world-famous Mayo Clinic, Rochester is just over an hour southeast of Minneapolis and Saint Paul. History buffs and others interested in touring the impressive facilities should check out Mayo’s tour offerings. For those who want to see more of the city, a hop-on, hop-off trolley tour would be a good pick.
Rochester’s Thursdays Downtown (formerly Thursdays on First) celebration is another great option for day-trippers. The outdoor event takes place every Thursday from May to August and features live music plus food, drinks, and commercial vendors.
Rochester is also home to Minnesota’s first Dairy Queen, but please note that this Broadway Avenue location is only open seasonally. Visitors to the area could also try the well-loved burger at Newt’s (there are three convenient area locations), the plant-based fare and juice bar at Tonic, or the upscale cuisine and delicious wine at Pescara. Local breweries like Forager and Little Thistle could be fun to check out as well.
It’s a popular Minnesota pastime to head “up north” for the weekend or even just for a day trip. For many Twin Cities dwellers and visitors, Brainerd, Minnesota, is an excellent option in this realm. The city is just over 2 hours from both Minneapolis and Saint Paul and anchors the resort region known as the Brainerd Lakes Area. Golfers will appreciate the abundance of courses, and those looking to kick back and relax will love the area’s spas.
The town of Nisswa, Minnesota, just 20 minutes north of Brainerd proper, deserves a look, too. It is home to a lodge-inspired outdoor shopping center with great souvenirs, a coffee shop and roastery, clothing boutiques, and more. There’s even a brewery, Big Axe Brewing Co., and a famous dive bar called Ye Olde Pickle Factory in this cute town.
But of course, the area’s biggest draws are its lakes, part of the famous Gull Lake Chain. Both kayaking and fishing are great choices for visitors during the warmer seasons. Winter is also inviting in this region, since it is the least hectic time of year “up north.” Day-trippers could enjoy snowshoeing or Nordic skiing in Brainerd during this time of year.
This sleepy small town just 2 hours away from the Twin Cities is the perfect escape from the stresses of urban living. Lanesboro, Minnesota, is located on the banks of the Root River in southeastern Minnesota. It’s known for its great community theater, the Commonweal Theatre Company. It’s also known as the bed and breakfast capital of Minnesota for all its historic lodging options.
Cyclists, rollerbladers, and pedestrians can all hit the Root River State Trail for some outdoor adventure. Lanesboro and the surrounding areas also provide some fun foodie options, especially when it comes to dessert. Winners like the Aroma Pie Shoppe and the old-fashioned Another Time Ice Cream Parlor are sure to delight. Live music, craft beverages, and flatbreads can be had at High Court Pub, and fans of farm-to-table fare should check out the Pedal Pushers Café, where locally sourced ingredients feature prominently.
There are countless wonderful day-trip opportunities from the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul. These are just a few of the convenient excursions available.