Walking tours are my favorite way to explore a new travel destination. So thought I’d explore my own backyard as a tourist. To learn more about Twin Cities history, here is a local’s guide to the Top 10 walking tours and urban hikes of Minneapolis and St. Paul. A special thank you to the Minnesota Historical Society for hosting me on these Twin Cities walking tours and urban hikes.
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Top Minneapolis – Twin Cities history walking tours
Reviews of the best history walking tours and urban hikes in Minneapolis:
- Disasters of the riverfront walking tour
- Riverfront walking tour of the Mississippi
- Historic St. Anthony Main Street walking tour
- Washburn A. Mill walking tour
- West Bank of Minneapolis walking tour
- Women’s work in living history walking tour
Disasters of the riverfront walking tour in Minneapolis
Disasters of the Mississippi Riverfront was my most memorable and top Minneapolis walking tour with the Minnesota Historical Society. I found all the setbacks and disasters along the Mississippi River intriguing, inspiring, and disturbing at the same time. Explosions. Fires. Floods. Tunnel collapses. Bridge collapses. Yet, Minneapolis survived them all. If you love history, then I highly recommend this urban hike and historical tour in the Twin Cities.
And who knew that flour dust was more combustible than gun powder. I had a vague recollection about the flour milling history in Minneapolis. But had no idea that Minneapolis served as the flour milling capital of the world for 50 years (that’s where Minneapolis gets its nickname: Mill City).
Even though I lived here in the Twin Cities when the I-35W bridge collapsed tragically killing 13 people and injuring 145 others on Aug. 1, 2007, I was not aware of its Remembrance Garden until I took a walking tour. The I-35W Bridge Remembrance Garden is located near the rebuilt bridge on West River Parkway in Minneapolis.
This location isn’t officially on the Minnesota Historical Society top walking tours; however, the I-35W Bridge Remembrance Garden is within walking distance of several of the history tours in Minneapolis. Check out my related post, Riverfront disasters walking tour: I-35W Bridge Remembrance Garden, to learn more.
Minneapolis riverfront walking tour of the Mississippi River
One of the best walking tours in the Twin Cities is the Mississippi riverfront walking tour in Minneapolis. While this history tour reinforced some of the key messages of the Disasters of the Riverfront walking tour, it was not redundant. This urban hike is also one of the best hiking trails in the Twin Cities.
On the Minneapolis riverfront walking tour, I learned St. Anthony Falls is the only major waterfall on the Mississippi River – the longest river in the U.S.
We strolled around the historic Minneapolis neighborhood and learned about the early industries of the area, which generated more flour, lumber, furniture, blankets and artificial limbs than anywhere else. Artificial limbs were necessary as Minneapolis was home to some of the most dangerous industries at that time like logging.
Top scenic photo-op stop on a Twin Cities walking tour: Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis
Today, the Minneapolis riverwalk is a lively recreational area with bike trails and a pedestrian bridge (Stone Arch Bridge with James J. Hill ties), trendy condominiums, a cultural center with the Guthrie Theater and MacPhail Center for Music nearby.
What’s great about walking tours is that the local guides will share some insider tips. For example, that’s where I learned about one of my favorite Minneapolis photo op tip. No filter required when you visit the Amber Box and Endless Bridge at the Guthrie Theater – and it’s free.
How do I get to the Amber Box and the Endless Bridge for the best views in the Twin Cities?
You can find the Amber Box on the 9th floor of The Guthrie Theater, providing a ~360-degree view of Minneapolis. Insider tip: While looking out the Amber Box, close your eyes for a few seconds to experience an entirely different color!
The Endless Bridge, located on the 4th floor of the Guthrie Theater, is a cantilever that extends 178 feet from the building where you can walk outside to a viewing area and enjoy the beautiful Minneapolis skyline, Stone Arch Bridge, St. Anthony Falls, and more.
Access to these viewpoints in the Guthrie Theater is free while open. I highly recommend enjoying a live production at The Guthrie Theater. One of our favorites is The Christmas Carol during the holiday season. See my related post on the top holiday events in the Twin Cities.
After entering the Guthrie Theater, take the escalator up to the fourth floor and walk up the ramp to the Endless Bridge. Then take the elevator up to the ninth floor to access the Amber Box.
Historic St. Anthony Main Street walking tour in Minneapolis
I absolutely loved this neighborhood – the historic St. Anthony Main in Minneapolis. It’s also featured as one of the top hikes in the Twin Cities. Located right on the Mississippi River, this Minnesota Historical Society walking tour takes you so close to St. Anthony Falls that you can actually feel the spray on your face. At least we did the day we took the tour on a windy day.
On this top Minneapolis walking tour, you’ll learn about the Pillsbury Flour Mill’s history, how St. Anthony got its name, and how it was absorbed into the city of Minneapolis. You’ll also stroll by several historic buildings that now house cute shops, trendy restaurants with sidewalk seating as well as bike and walking paths.
While not on the historic St. Anthony Main Street in Minneapolis walking tour itself, our guide did let us know about the oldest Minneapolis church in continuous service – Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church – which was nearby.
Washburn A Mill walking tour in Minneapolis, Minnesota
One of the best walking tours in Minneapolis highlights the history of the Washburn A Mill factory. When my son was in elementary school, I remember signing a lot of field trip permission slips over the years for him to visit Mill City Museum. This top museum in Minneapolis is built on the ruins of the historic Washburn A Mill factory. If I had any idea how cool Mill City Museum was, I would have signed up as a chaperone each time.
Not only do you get to learn about the history of the Flour Milling Capital of the World and about Washburn A Mill and Gold Medal Flour (that should sound familiar even if you don’t know any flour history), you get an in-depth look into the nooks and crannies of the museum. The Mill City Museum is another one of my favorite walking tours in Minneapolis that I highly recommend.
Bonus: Take the Flower Tower ride at Mill City Museum
After the walking tour of the Mill City Museuem, you can watch a film on the history of Minneapolis and go on the Flower Tower ride. It’s one of the best things to do with kids in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Don’t worry. It’s not like Disney’s Tower of Terror thrill ride. But you do get to ride up and down eight floors and learn more about Minneapolis’ legacy.
And if that wasn’t enough, I was this many years old when I learned that there’s a rooftop observation deck at the Mill City Museum. Just check out this view of the Minneapolis skyline (that’s across the river). Absolutely stunning! One of my favorite views of Minneapolis.
West Bank walking tour in Minneapolis
Another top walking tour and urban hike in Minneapolis is on what’s known as the West Bank. What a cool and eclectic neighborhood with a mashup of many different cultures that’s been home to immigrants from all over the world for more than 150 years. On the Minneapolis West Bank walking tour, you’ll learn about its culture from theatre to its famed folk and blues scenes of the 1960s and 1970s and how grassroot efforts by residents successfully thwarted urban renewal plans to destroy their cherished neighborhood.
We also stopped into local businesses such as a really cool bookstore, a bike shop and a couple of neighborhood bars, and heard from a couple of locals.
Women’s work living history walking tour in Minneapolis
Loved this living history walking tour with the Minnesota Historical Society where our costumed guide shared stories about labor activist and investigative reporter Eva McDonald Valesh (aka Eva Gay). She was way before her time – going undercover in Minneapolis factories and writing expose pieces about the horrible working conditions for women, which appeared in the Saint Paul Daily Globe in 1888 and 1889.
It’s said that her articles prompted the first women’s strike in Minneapolis where they protested about their treatment (low wages, unsanitary environment, etc.).
You can find a transcript of Eva Gay’s first-in-a-series of articles describing the working conditions for women in local factories on the Minnesota Historical Society website.
St. Paul – Twin Cities walking tours
Reviews of the best walking tours and urban hikes in St. Paul, Minnesota:
- Summit Ave walking tour – prettiest street in Minnesota
- F. Scott Fitzgerald walking tour – St. Paul, Minnesota native
- Hill District walking tour
- James J. Hill House historic home tour – a behind-the-scenes walking tour
Summit Ave walking tour in St. Paul, Minnesota
Summit Ave. in St. Paul Minnesota – beautiful in every season
Just go. Any time of year. You will be mesmerized by one beautiful historic home after another along Summit Ave., the iconic and historic street in St. Paul. Summit Ave features the most Victorian homes along a five-mile stretch. See my related post: Local’s guide to the prettiest street in the Twin Cities, Minnesota: Summit Ave.
F. Scott Fitzgerald walking tour in St. Paul, Minnesota
Loved this walking tour where we explored St. Paul, Minnesota native F. Scott Fitzgerald’s old stomping grounds in the beautiful and historic Hill District / Summit Ave neighborhood. Pictured above is located at 513 Summit Ave. Formerly known as Mrs. Porterfield’s Boarding House, F. Scott Fitzgerald visited friends here often.
Our tour began where the Fitzgeralds lived at one point, The Commodore. While our walking tour did not take us inside to experience the cool art deco bar, my husband and I stopped in afterwards. Lots of mirrors and jazz music. I do believe, however, the Commodore Bar and Restaurant in St. Paul is now only open for events.
Other photo stops on this top St. Paul walking tour included where Fitzgerald wrote his first novel, This Side of Paradise. It was an overnight success selling out in three days. I was surprised to learn that his more-known classic, The Great Gatsby, was not well-received or well-liked initially. The Great Gatsby only became critically acclaimed after Fitzgerald’s death.
Hill District walking tour in St. Paul, Minnesota
I’ve driven through and past the Hill District In St. Paul, Minnesota over the years, so was so happy I finally took this historic urban hike in the Twin Cities. I actually got out of my vehicle to walk through the historical Hill neighborhood and admire all the beautiful homes and buildings. Loved this walking tour hosted by the Minnesota Historical Society.
We walked along old streetcar lines (the first ones were horse-drawn) on the St. Paul Hill District walking tour. We learned about the rise and fall, and the rise again, of St. Paul – from a rural summer retreat for the wealthy, to its not-so-glamorous days. And then this walking tour took us on St. Paul’s journey to restore its status as an upscale historical neighborhood.
Stories and the homes of Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald (St. Paul native) made its way into the narrative and photo op stops as well (see the F. Scott Fitzgerald walking tour section above).
Points of interest on one of St. Paul’s best walking tours: Saint Paul Cathedral and Shrine of the Nations
Although not part of the Hill District walking tour, we walked near the Cathedral of Saint Paul, where I later returned to take a self-guided tour of this beautiful church in the Twin Cities. See my related post: Guide to the Saint Paul Cathedral and the Shrine of the Nations.
James J. Hill House nooks and crannies walking tour in St. Paul, Minnesota
Tour the James J. Hill House, Minnesota’s own Downton Abbey, in St. Paul. This 36,000+ square-foot home of James J. Hill took three years and 300 workers to build. Completed in 1891, the home was named a National Historic Landmark in 1961.
James J. Hill was a railroad magnate back in the day. The Minnesota Historical Society now operates the home and the three acres it sits on.
This particular walking tour of the James J. Hill House with the Minnesota Historical Society gives visitors behind-the-scenes access to a back staircase, dust chutes, secret panels, a silver safe, gatehouse, the huge attic with its original theatre stage, and more.
Check out my walking tour experience post, Behind the scenes of the James J. Hill House – St. Paul’s own Downton Abbey.
Minnesota Historical Society walking tours
Most of the Minnesota Historical Society walking tours I took and described in this post were seasonal. However, you can find all upcoming tours and more detailed information about the history of Minneapolis and St. Paul on their website.
While the Minnesota Historical Society generously hosted me on all 10 of these walking tours in Minneapolis and St. Paul, all opinions are my own.