Minnesota—the land of 10,000 lakes—is know for its rugged heroes like Paul Bunyan and its deep love of hockey. But Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota, two side-by-side cities, are the Midwest’s best-kept secret. If you’re craving an affordable, kid-friendly destination that is equal parts cosmopolitan and down-to-earth with a diverse selection of activities, cultural exhibits and public art, you’ve found your match. Plus, “Minnesota nice” means that children are not just tolerated, they are truly welcome everywhere. So read on to find out where your next metro vaycay should be.

photo: Amber Guetebier 

St. Paul

A short stay in St. Paul is probably going to just leave you wanting more, so we’ll give you the highlights and you can plan to add on extra days when you realize you need to extend! If you are in St. Paul for 24 hours, here’s your itinerary. We recommend a rental car, although much of this itinerary can be done on foot or public transit.

photo: Minnesota Children’s Museum

Fly into MSP and head into downtown St. Paul. For a budget-friendly hotel with perks like cookies upon check in and an indoor pool, we recommend The DoubleTree by Hilton (411 Minnesota St., St Paul). The hotel offers a free shuttle service within a 3-mile radius to its patrons, and overnight parking is one flat rate no matter how often you take your car in or out. This hotel also has the added bonus of being within striking distance of the Minnesota Children’s Museum (10 W. Seventh St., St. Paul) which is your first stop. Recently completely revamped (re-opened June of 2017) with a ton of new awesome exhibits, kids can do everything from water play and bubble science to car wash and firefighting. Give yourself at least a couple of hours to explore. Grab some lunch just steps away at Afro Deli & Grill (5 West 7th Place, St. Paul—closed Sundays) a local’s secret for sandwiches and wraps that include falafel and hamburgers.

photo: Amber Guetebier

Now that you’re topped off, head up the hill. Cathedral Hill, that is. This neighborhood is graced by the namesake St. Paul Cathedral (5 West 7th Place, St. Paul. Take a few minutes to admire the mansions along Summit. If you’ve got time, get a tour of the James J. Hill House (240 Summit Ave., St. Paul) an impressive mansion just steps from the Cathedral. Whether you consider yourself a big fan of history or not, it’s just a  short walk (less than 10 minutes) to the Minnesota History Center (345 W Kellogg Blvd., St Paul). Don’t be fooled by the name: this museum is not just for Minnesotans. It is incredibly interactive, with multiple floors covering different eras. Start with the third floor, which is totally geared towards kids and super hands-on. Kid can run on treadmills to “plow” a field, kick it inside a Native American teepee by Dakota artist Bobby Wilson, explore a mine and more. Other galleries hold weather displays, a WWII exhibit complete with a bullet-making factory line built for kids and a classic ice cream parlor where kiddos can serve you a fake a (fake) egg cream ‘40s style while you get lost in a retro comic book. Since you’ve been so busy, snag a coffee and a quick bite in the museum’s cafe before heading back to the hotel for a some pool time. For dinner, keep it simple by hitting up the Rival House Sporting Parlor (411 Minnesota St. St Paul), located adjacent to the Doubletree’s lobby. Here you’ll find plenty to amuse the kids including skee ball, shuffleboard, a huge selection of board games and more while you wait for a wood-fired pizza, burger or gooey mac ‘n’ cheese. The best part? Just hit the elevator a few steps away when your carbo-loaded exhausted kids are ready to go to bed.

photo: Amber Guetebier

St. Paul Hidden Gem: Can Can Wonderland (755 Prior Ave N, St. Paul) is one of the most unique amusement centers not only in St. Paul, but arguably in the United States. A converted canning factory, you’ll pull up to it thinking “this can’t be right.” Take the elevators down to the bottom level, where industrial abandon gives way to murals and the distant sound of pinball. When you enter, you will be amazed. Not only are there dozens of pinball and arcade games, including a ton of vintage ones, there’s an entire indoor mini golf course created by artists. Not your average pee-wee golf—unless you mean Pee Wee’s Playhouse—think couches, musical instruments, brightly colored pipes and props sculpted together to make a pretty challenging golf course. If you need a snack, try one of several cotton candy flavors and a fancy malt drink. Craving something more sit down? Grab a seat at the on-site restaurant where you’ll nosh on elevated carnival fare while mom and dad can knock back a boozy milkshake on the side.

photo: Amber Guetebier

Minneapolis

Your next 24 will be Minneapolis-bound, and there’s a lot to see and do so head over to grab some brunch at The Bachelor Farmer (200 N 1st St., Minneapolis). If it’s super crowded try Spoon & Stable (211 N. 1st St., Minneapolis) which is right across the street and has the advantage of being able to order pastries while you wait for your table (and the kids fell silent). You’ll be just a couple blocks from the Mississippi so head down for a stroll along the Parkway, toward the iconic Stone Arch Bridge and Gold Medal Park. After taking in the scenery, zip into the Mill City Museum (704 S 2nd St, Minneapolis). A former flour mill (the iconic Gold Medal Flour sign is a staple of Minneapolis-skyline shots), this place is not only a cool bit of Midwestern American history, it is the showpiece of Minneapolis’ long-standing dedication to preserving historic landmarks and keeping public spaces and art alive. The then-shuttered mill caught fire in the 1991 but the city saved the facade and after an extensive renovation, created the museum. Kids will adore the water play area, where they can make logs go down the river and play with pressure, and the Baking Lab where you can grab a sample to snack on while you roll and cut out dough. Check the events calendar for the museum before you go: they offer an array of family-friendly walking tours and more. For eats near the museum, try Day Block Brewing Company for craft beers and elevated pub eats (105 S Washington Ave., Minneapolis).

photo: jpellgen via flickr

Your next move should be the Walker Art Center (725 Vineland Pl., Minneapolis). Even if you don’t spend time in the museum, you can’t pass up a visit to the new Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. It’s just undergone an extensive renovation but you’ll still find the world-famous Spoonbridge and Cherry. Plus, this summer (through Sep.3)  the garden is the location for this artist-designed miniature golf. You can stop by the Minneapolis Institute of Art (2400 3rd Ave S, Minneapolis). It opens at 10 a.m. most days and 11 a.m. on Sundays and you’ll be delighted to find several floors of art spanning cultures and time periods. The Mia is free (special exhibits have a fee) and select Sundays are family days which means crafts, performances and more. Stop by the front desk and ask for a scavenger hunt for the kids.

Spend your last night in the Twin Cities in style at the Loews Minneapolis Hotel (601 N 1st Ave., Minneapolis) the perfect blend of urban chic with kid-friendly comforts. This luxury hotel is anything but pretentious, and most rooms afford a city view so kids can observe all the action (and the tall buildings) while you unwind in the comfy contemporary settings. There’s no pool, but with all the nearby action the kids won’t miss it, because the heart of the city is at your fingertips. And did we mention the world-class spa on site? Embury Spa offers in-room massage treatments as well as a variety of luxurious treatments that range from concise 25-minute neck and shoulder rubs to languid 80 minute candlelight massage. There two onsite restaurants (Apothecary right next to the lobby and Cosmos on the second floor. We loved Kieran’s Irish Pub (85 N 6th St., Minneapolis) right next door to Loews. In spite of its modern outward appearance, Kieran’s is all old-world Irish charm inside, with plenty of seating, live music and kids-welcome service, including a kid’s menu.

photo: schwa021 via flickr

Don’t Miss: Most locals will tell you if you visit one city park, make it Minnehaha Park (4801 S Minnehaha Dr., Minneapolis) and a walk to Minnehaha Falls. One of the area’s oldest public parks, it features a 53-foot waterfall as its crowning jewel. A hike through here is refreshing and rejuvenating. Go super-tourist and get a surrey rental from Wheel Fun Rentals to see more of the park and burn off that donut energy (see below). It’s on the way to the airport, so we suggest making this a stop before you head out. Allow yourself at least an hour though!

Tip: Before you head to the Falls, swing by Mel-O-Glaze Bakery (4800 S 28th Ave., Minneapolis).

Special thanks to Visit St. Paul and Meet Minneapolis for assistance with travel arrangements. Learn more about the many adventures you can have in Minnesota at Explore Minnesota. All opinions expressed here in the story are the writer’s own.

There’s plenty more to see and do in the Twin Cities and surrounding area. What are your favorite “can’t miss” spots?

—Amber Guetebier