27 May 2016

#TBEX 2016: A Minneapolis Guide From An Authentic Local

Hello there, Travel People. Welcome to the MallOfAmericaville, also known as the Twin Cities.

You may be wondering: If I leave the Mall, will I have to get around via sled dog? Do all the local restaurants serve Jell-O or just most of them? How do I get to Prince's house (#RIP #PurpleRain #WaitHeLivedHereNotIndianapolisRight)? 

Well. I’m Doug. I’ve lived here my whole life, and I have answers and guidance for you. 

I trust that the following goes without saying ... but I still need to say it: Take some time to get the hell out of the Mall and go see Minneapolis and Saint Paul proper. It's your duty as Travel People. Hop on the light rail--there's a station at the Mall--and you can get to Minnehaha Falls, one of our showcase parks (discussed below), in fifteen minutes, and all the way to downtown Minneapolis in about half an hour.

Basic Info

  • The local time zone is Central, GMT -5. 
  • The local currency is the US dollar ... folded into origami versions of our state things: a loon (state bird), a showy lady's slipper (state flower), a blueberry muffin (state muffin). Start practicing your folding skills; we won't accept your money otherwise. Just a weird local tic.
  • Some key phrases in the local language: 
    • Saint Paul is, to hear most Minneapolitans describe it, a mythical land at the edge of the known universe, rumored to hold such enchantments as the state capitol, professional hockey, and unicorns. I can verify that, in fact, Saint Paul is both real and wonderful. You should take the time to head east and explore Minneapolis's twin city (see "Other Things to See and Do). To get there via light rail, take the Blue Line from the Mall into downtown Minneapolis, then transfer to the Green Line, heading east.
    • Nicollet Mall is the main downtown eating/shopping street, near the Convention Center. Say it the local, definitely-not-French way: "NICK-o-lit" or "NICK-uh-lit."
    • A Jucy (or Juicy) Lucy is the local contribution to the culinary universe. Basically, a cheeseburger with the cheese inside. Do eat one, even if you're a hard-core granola-and-sprouts type. They're greasy manna. Don't make the rookie mistake of biting into it immediately after it arrives, unless you want third-degree burns on your tongue. Wait a minute. 
    • Nordeast is the area just across the river from downtown Minneapolis. 
    • Uptown is actually south of downtown by a few miles. I know, New Yorkers. Hush. 
    • The River is the Mississippi. It's a great place to go and brood and calm your neurotic, bookish mind. 
    • "That's interesting" or "That's different" are our passive-aggressive ways of saying, basically, WTF. These are both strong, negative reactions, though only when said with a particular flat tone or a big, fake smile. If it's a genuine smile, we probably mean it's actually interesting or different. Good luck trying to discern between the two.
  • Getting around: We've got buses and light rail (see Metrotransit.org for schedules). Buses require exact change (or rather, they don’t GIVE change, so if all you’ve got is a fiver, it’ll be an expensive trip). Each light rail stop has ticket kiosks that accept credit cards. Once you've paid for a ride, you're good for unlimited rides on all buses and trains for two and a half hours. 
  • You tend to find cabs only at designated taxi stands, e.g. at hotels.
  • Get on a bike. The Nice Ride bike-sharing program just reopened for the season. We’ve got a (really, truly) world-class system of parks and parkways and trails, so it’s a great town for two-wheeled exploring.

Touristy Places You Should Visit Anyway

Hey, sometimes the beaten path is pretty awesome. (If you're new to my writing, that's a recurring theme of this blog, as well as my book Europe on Five Wrong Turns a Day.) Around here, the beaten path runs straight through the Mall of America, but I'm just gonna assume you're already planning to spend some time there. Outside the Mall, here are the popular touristy things that are pretty damn sweet and more than worth your time.

  • The Mill City Museum is right along the riverfront, in the ruin of an General Mills "A" Mill, which was once the largest flour mill in the world. A genuinely fascinating and well-curated sort of place, it tells the history of Minneapolis, the history of milling, and how those two histories are intertwined. Also, they have a baking lab, where you get to sample the end result of the milling process: cookies.
  • The Stone Bridge and Mill Ruins Park, just outside the Mill City Museum, offer the city's best scenery on their own terms, plus stellar views of the downtown skyline and Saint Anthony Falls, which is pretty much the reason Minneapolis exists at all (the falls powered the mills that drove the city's economy ... again, go to the Mill City Museum). 
  • The Walker Art Museum, at the very edge of downtown is One of the Finest Modern Art Museums in the World. For real.
  • Matt's Bar and the 5-8 Club each claim to have invented the Ju(i)cy Lucy. President Obama ate at Matt's a couple of years ago, Persepolis author Marjane Satrapi went there every day on a trip to Minneapolis and now cooks them for her friends in Paris, and one or both of the restaurants is featured in every other travel story about Minneapolis. And you know what? They should be. Matt's has a smaller menu--the Jucy Lucy comes in one format, American-cheese-filled--and a longer wait; the 5-8 Club has more offerings. Both spots are agreeably dive and the burgers are crazy-greasy and crazy-good. Protip: let the burger cool off a bit before you bite into it, lest you get third-degree cheese burns on your tongue. (By the way, the Blue Door Pub is your go-to for gourmet versions of the Juicy Lucy.)
Juicy Lucy. The specific grease alchemy going on here actually makes it
good for you. True. Kim via Wikimedia Commons

Our Versions of the Things They Have in Every City 

A big art museum. A craft cocktail emporium. The hot new restaurant by a chef who made his or her name out east, then moved back home to give a new twist to local classics, etc, etc. The neighborhood with the cheap eats from around the world. The bar known for its association with some sorta famous band. The old-school deli. Every city has them, and so do we. And I love them and they make the city great ... but if you're visiting from out of town, you'll probably find them pretty similar to the versions you've seen elsewhere.
  • Our big museum: The Minneapolis Institute of Arts is . . . honestly, not that different from other big-city museums. Greek statues, European Master paintings, some American stuff. World-class, don't get me wrong, but not necessarily more exciting than other museums you've seen. But, ahem, admission is totally free. And the Prairie School design section shows off our iconic homegrown aesthetic. So there's that.
  • Our public market: Midtown Global Marketwhich has tons of food stands, with solid representation from the city's large Mexican, Vietnamese, Somali, and Indian communities. (True fact: Anthony Bourdain says we have the best Vietnamese food in the USA.)
  • Our cheap-eats zone: Nicollet Avenue south of downtown, all the way to Lake Street, is known as "Eat Street" and also has a long, long roster of restaurants. Hop on the 18 bus on Nicollet. Try Quang or Jasmine 26 for Vietnamese, or Harry Singh's Original Caribbean Restaurant (get the roti) or Glam Doll Donuts.
  • Our old-school deli: Kramarczuck's, over in Nordeast Minneapolis. Try the house-made sausages at the adjoining cafeteria-style restaurant.
  • Our bar associated with a band: The CC Club, made somewhat famous by the Replacements in their song "Here Comes A Regular."
  • Our local-boy-goes-East-then-comes-home-to-great-acclaim restaurant: Spoon & Stable
  • Our local cocktail emporium: Marvel Bar. (I adore Marvel Bar; it's somehow supremely chic while also identifiably Minnesotan, a hard combo to pull off. The drinks are pricey but worth every penny. Buuuut ... if you've been to a hip cocktail lounge in any other city, know exactly what you're getting into here. Good stuff but nothing unique.)

Things I Think Are Actually Pretty Special and I Really Want You to See Them, Please and Thank You 

  • Minneapolis has a world-class park system--truly, I mean it, and it's something I didn't appreciate until I started traveling the world--and one of the very best is Minnehaha Park. It's an easy train ride from the Mall, so no excuses for not going. The park itself is lovely, with its landmark waterfall (Longfellow gave it a shout-out in "Song of Hiawatha") and sprawling grounds. Head down the stairs near the waterfall and then follow the path along the creek all the way out to the Mississippi River. If you have some time to kill, linger at the park's cafe, Sea Salt, which is the local answer to Munich's beer gardens. Seafood is the main event, and worth the two-hour wait in line. But you can also get excellent ice cream and craft beer via much shorter lines. 
  • Nicollet Island, which looks like a twee little village hidden in the shadow (almost literally) of downtown Minneapolis. Most locals don't even know about it. (Here's a thing I wrote about it.)
  • Bike. Like our parks, our bike path system is genuinely world-class, and the best way to see the city is on two wheels. There's the Grand Rounds, following the parkways that encircle the city (including the chain of lakes at the southern end of town); the Midtown Greenway, a rails-to-trails corridor that cuts across the west-east width of the city; the Kennilworth and Cedar Lake Trails, which together link the lakes to downtown and Target Field ... and that's just the off-street trails. I'm convinced that Minneapolis should promote itself as a bike-tourism destination, like Copenhagen. Help me test this theory, won't you? 
    • Here's the city's biking web page, including a good map.
    • The easiest way to pedal is with the Nice Ride bike share program. Take the train to Minnehaha Park, where there's a kiosk; from there, head west on Minnehaha Parkway to the chain of lakes, or north on East River Parkway to explore the neighborhoods and link up with the Midtown Greenway. Thank me later. 
  • A Baker's Wife's Pastry Shop is about a mile off Minnehaha Parkway and an easy ride from Minnehaha Park. It's my favorite bakery in the world, and I say that as a pastry fiend (it's right there in my Twitter bio) who once ate his way around Paris. There are far fancier bakeries in town (Patisserie 46, Rustica, Salty Tart); this is not the nouveau French bakery you'll find in every big city. It's old-school American baked goods, including the best damn cake doughnuts you'll have anywhere (note: I also spent a long weekend eating every doughnut in NYC; DO NOT QUESTION MY PASTRY JUDGMENT). They have just the right slightly-crispy exterior and pillowy interior and the chocolate ones have this deep, hypnotic ganache that invites odes, nay, arias. And those doughnuts are cheap--like, 55 cents apiece. Everything is cheap, everything is phenomenal, nothing is fussy (the decor is grandma's-basement levels of kitsch, none of it ironic). Cash or check only, don't go there with just a card.  

And I Should Also Note

  • Go to Saint Paul. Best thing to do, if you have a few hours and want to explore our twin to the east, is to take the Blue Line into downtown Minneapolis and then hop on the Green Line and head down University Avenue. For an offbeat experience, get off at Snelling and go to Ax-Man Surplus Store, purveyors of all manner of odd and wonderful and just plain confusing stuff. It's like Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore crossed with a Radio Shack crossed with some sort of surrealist toy store. Also: lots of delicious food nearby, like On's Kitchen Thai Cuisine.

Finally, a Word About the Locals

  • Minnesotans are friendly, so don’t hesitate to ask anyone for directions and such.
  • We’re also not yokels and though we can joke about eating Jell-O and living in igloos, we'd rather you didn't make Flyover Country quips or, worse, express astonishment that there's diversity and culture and even ONE OF THE BEST MODERN ART MUSEUMS IN THE WORLD OUT HERE IN THE HINTERLANDS, WOW! Seriously, if anyone says anything like that, I swear to God we'll . . . scowl imperceptibly as we give you directions and welcome you to our city and tell you about last night's hockey game. 
  • We're also quite defensive and passive-aggressive.
  • If you say stupid shit about the Twin Cities in a travel article or blog post, people will notice. 
    Just ask the Reuters reporter who came here in 2013. Or see the infamous New York Times #grapegate scandal of 2014. I'm not saying you have to be nice or that you should sugar-coat your experience, but I am saying--and this is just general best practice--you should be at least sorta kinda informed, like maybe don't say that the best lake in Minneapolis ("the City of Lakes") is one that ... isn't even in Minneapolis. 

    Let's close with a message from a local sage named Slug, who ably explains Minneapolitans' low-key pride in their city:

Want to know how to get Twins tickets, where to find the best Jucy Lucy, or why you must never, ever utter the word "casserole"? The comments are open; ask away!


  1. As a native Minnesotan this was a great post, very informed and mentions many great places/things without overwhelming the reader with everything that Minneapolis/St. Paul has to offer.

    One small correction, you noted on the Biking bullet that the other option is to head "South" on East River Parkway to explore the neighborhoods and connect to Midtown Greenway. I believe you intended to say North to get to the Greenway.

    1. Good catch! Yes, of course, north. This post was adapted from one I wrote last year for a different conference, which was held downtown. I thought I’d edited all geographical notes to reflect the new starting point (MOA), but clearly this slipped past me. Thanks and cheers.

  2. Anthony Bourdain is woefully mistaken if he says Minneapolis has the best Viet food in the US.

    1. Technically, he said the Twin Cities; I'd say St Paul is superior to Mpls in this respect. But what city gets your vote?

    2. Technically, he said the Twin Cities; I'd say St Paul is superior to Mpls in this respect. But what city gets your vote?


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