Saint Paul – The historic and uber-welcoming Capitol of Minnesota – forms one half of the sprawling Twin Cities.
With a population just shy of 300,000 and all the urban areas of colossal Minneapolis just on the doorstep, the city strikes a fine balance between the laid-back and the metropolitan.
Its southern fringes are lined with the green, sometimes snow-dressed banks of the Mississippi River, while the inner streets are alive with everything from artisan coffee shops to cutting-edge museums.
Of course, the glorious Capitol Buildings draw a crowd, complete with monuments and statues aplenty.
And then there are the heritage homes of F Scott Fitzgerald and others lining beautiful Summit Avenue; a medley of pretty Victorian houses and National Historic Register architecture that’s topped with the unforgettable domes of the Cathedral of Saint Paul. Yes sir, there really is plenty to do in this buzzing hub of the North Star State.
Here’s our list of the best things to do in Saint Paul:
1. Understand state history at the Minnesota History Center
The headquarters of the state history museum makes its home in the very heart of Saint Paul, just a stone’s throw from the rises of Minnesota State Capitol buildings.
Boasting more than 4,000 square meters of museum room, the institution chronicles everything from the presence of the Hmong tribespeople in Minnesota (people who migrated here en masse from Laos and China in the 1970s) to the conflicts of the Dakota War.
The spot is also where you’ll find the sprawling book collections that form the Minnesota History Center Library; open to the public for research and learning purposes.
2. Wonder at the beauty of the Cathedral of Saint Paul
Sitting high on a hill overlooking the sprawling downtown districts of Saint Paul is where visitors will find this gorgeous church.
The fourth-tallest of its kind in the country, the building is topped with a distinctive copper dome and spire, was raised in the early years of the 1900s and is now designated as the official shrine to Paul the Apostle in the United States (a fact verified by the Vatican).
The architectural makeup of the cathedral is a wonder on its own. The façade combines elements of the Gothic, the Baroque and Beaux-Arts, while the interior boasts one beautiful bronze baldachin and several chapels dedicated to the patron saints of the city’s various immigrant communities, from the Irish to the Italians.
3. Wallow amidst the Victorian houses on Summit Avenue
Just a short walk from the beautiful Cathedral of Saint Paul, visitors to the Twin Cities will find the start of the legendary Summit Avenue.
Fringed with countless red-brick builds and beautiful mansions first raised in the 19th century, the street is now considered one of the most fashionable and stylish in town.
It’s also got a whole host of interesting historical sites to see, like the National Historic Landmark of Summit Terrace, where the famous writer F Scot Fitzgerald is thought to have scrawled manuscripts in the rooms until 1920.
Also worthy of note is the gorgeous red-bricked façade of the Frank B. Kellogg House, the erstwhile home of the famous US diplomat and Nobel Prize winner.
4. Swing and speakeasy at the Wabasha Street Caves
First carved out of the Minnesota hillsides in the 1840s by the hand of hopeful prospectors, the Wabasha Street Caves delve into the subterrane on the south banks of the Mississippi River.
Here, they’ve defied the Volstead Act and housed Mafiosos over the decades, while today they host one of the finest swing nights in America (every Thursday).
Local tour companies also offer guided walks through the complex complete with re-enactments and period-dressed characters. Oh, and there’s a fine coffee shop on-site – Grumpy Steve’s Coffee – which serves up great brews and perhaps the best Belgian waffles in town!
5. Discover wildlife and their unique habitats at the Minnesota Zoo
Opened way back in 1978, the Minnesota Zoo now occupies a whopping 485 acres of land between the leafy districts of Apple Valley, just to the south of the heart of Saint Paul proper.
The institution is known for both its wealth of animals, ranging from American fauna to exotic beasts, and for its ground-breaking organisation of creatures by habitat.
That means visitors can see wolverines, lynxes and racoons scuttling around in terrain that mimics Appalachia, while gibbons, kangaroos, hornbills and red pandas enjoy their own tropical area.
Then there’s the Discovery Bay section, which showcases the beasts of the ocean, like leopard sharks and sea dragons. A fun day out for all.
6. Learn about dinosaurs and electricity alike at the Science Museum of Minnesota
The Science Museum of Minnesota is housed in a colossal complex that sprawls out over several floors on the north banks of the Mississippi, right in the heart of this half of the Twin Cities.
It comes complete with oodles of fascinating and hands-on science-related exhibits, while there’s a special focus on evolution, palaeontology and the natural history of the Minnesota region, with a great section on the human body and one colossal fossil collection complete with stegosaurus and triceratops bones in the offing.
There’s also a seriously eclectic mix of travelling shows to enjoy here, with past exhibits ranging from Viking history to Egyptian mummies!
7. Unravel American history at Fort Snelling
The great bulwarks and palisades of 200-year-old Fort Snelling still crown the southern riverbanks of the Mississippi where the two halves of the Twin Cities join.
Raised in the early 1800s, the formidable encampment played a pivotal role during the colonial conflicts of 1812, and also helped to sure up American control of trade routes between the north-western territories and Indian lands.
Later, the site was used to train Union troops for the Civil War, and in WWII it became a language learning center for spies and soldiers heading to the Pacific theatre.
Today, travelers can delve into this rich history at the site, while kids love the period costumes of the re-enactment folk to boot!
8. Get musical at the Schubert Club Musical Instrument Museum
A great stop-off for any music lovers or travelers interested in musical history, the Schubert Club Musical Instrument Museum is awash with curious instruments from centuries gone by, the manuscripts of famous composers, and a whole host of other melodious must-sees.
Located in the Landmark Center smack bang in the middle of Saint Paul, the institution also hosts regular music learning workshops (especially great for kids), jazz piano sessions, jam sessions, world music appreciation events and regular music competitions.
Other interesting exhibits include a look at the legendary instrument maker Arthur Ferris and a chronicling of Gamelan compositions from the east.
9. Unwind and enjoy at Como Park Zoo and Conservatory
Just a stone’s throw from the Minnesota State Fairgrounds, in the northern reaches of Saint Paul, the Como Park Zoo and Conservatory remains one of the most iconic attractions in town.
The site is crowned by the gorgeous rises of the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory; a beautiful Art Nouveau construction from 1915 that houses a curious medley of bonsai trees and sansui gardens (perfect for getting your Zen on!).
Around this sprawl manicured gardens, awash with elegant bridges and busts of the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen alike, not to mention the fiberglass creations of the Como ‘zoo’, which include sculptures like Don the Gorilla and carvings of giraffes and penguins and wolves!
10. Visit the beautiful State Capitol
Aside from being one part of the great Minneapolis–Saint Paul conglomeration (the largest metro area in the State of Minnesota as a whole), Saint Paul also reigns as the State Capitol. Cue the glorious array of capitol buildings that mark the very center of the city.
Done out in neo-classical designs and elaborate baroque adornments, the domed construction was created over nine years, between 1896 and 1905, when it was completed.
Today, it’s one of the most recognisable and wonderful buildings between the streets here, and comes surrounded with countless memorials and monuments that are simply not to be missed!
11. Taste coffee with an Irish twist at Claddagh Coffee
Situated just a street back from High Bridge Dog Park and the banks of the Mississippi River, Claddagh Coffee is one of the cosiest and most welcoming coffee joints in all of the Twin Cities.
The brainchild of local owner Mary Hogan-Bard, the café’s menu touts all the usual brews – from lattes to Americanos – along with a range of curious speciality creations, like the Irish-cream-topped Claddagh and the honey and cinnamon flavoured Black & Tan coffee.
There’s also one darn good chai tea and a medley of famer’s salads, granola bowls, hummus and pita bread plates, and homemade cakes for food. Nice.
12. Get some retail therapy on Grand Avenue
Cutting its way right through the heart of western Saint Paul and shooting out to where the Mississippi Banks meander northwards to the metro area of Minneapolis proper, Grand Avenue is a long stretch of road that boasts some of the best shopping in the Twin Cities.
Peppered with shady trees and enchanting Victorian street lights, the strip hosts everything from quirky Tibetan craft stalls to whole food markets, from the artisanal Charlemagne jewellery store to the custom clothing of Atelier957.
There are also oodles of cafes and restaurants to enjoy here, making it a fine place to while away a day in Saint Paul.
13. Go urban exploring on the Gateway Trail
When all the major sights of Saint Paul are checked off, or if the energy of the big city is beginning to rub, be sure to make a beeline for this long and winding trail.
It starts in the city itself, before meandering northwards to the leafy neighbourhoods of Maplewood and Oakdale and Pine Springs, passing secluded woodlands and ponds as it goes.
The second half of the trail takes on a much more rural vibe, as the track pierces into Washington Country and ends at Pine Point County Park. Here, miles of hiking trails and bike paths draw outdoorsy types in the summer, while wintertime opens the cross-country ski routes to boot.