I think this is a byproduct of a life spent living in California, but I’ve always had a fascination with the Midwest. That fascination has only grown as I’ve gotten older, now that I spend most of my days either sweating on a couch or listening to sad Midwestern pop-punk bands like Banner Pilot and House Boat (or sometimes doing both activities at the same time).
I know a few things about the Midwest:
- They have actual seasons there, not just summer and then “less hot summer.”
- The winter brings the sort of sadness that artists crave, and can wallow around in and really be sad about for a while.
- It’s a real feast or famine as far as your favorite baseball team goes.
- There’s good food, good music, and good art, just like everywhere else.
That last bullet point is an important one, especially when you start talking about “coastal elites” and other such nonsense. Whatever you’re into, whatever you love, however you feel, whatever you believe … you can find likeminded folks of your exact type pretty much anywhere in this country.
So yeah, I’ve been itching to try out the Midwest and a real winter for a good long time. Then, last month, I had the chance to spend three days in Minneapolis, while researching a story about the quietest place on earth. I was excited to go, especially during the winter. Again, since I live in California, I even bought a winter coat for the occasion. Before I set out, I made a list of all the things I knew about Minnesota, specifically.
- “Minnesota nice”
- A million great bands are from there.
- The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
- Prairie Home Companion.
- It’s a real feast or famine as far as being a Twins fan goes.
- Prince is from Minnesota.
I mean, I knew other stuff about Minnesota, but those were the big ones. As I believe is the case with most human beings, we think we know certain things about a place because of the media we consume. People probably think they have a good idea of Portland based on Portlandia, of Texas based on the works of Richard Linklater, and of Los Angeles and New York based on every other bit of television, film, music, or literature ever made. (The dark secret of Southern California is that if you watch Real Housewives or The OC, you’ve actually nailed it.)
Anyway, off I set for Minneapolis, full of excitement and wonder and an eagerness to explore. I was only there for three days, but as it turns out, that was the exact amount of time I needed to fall head-over-heels in love with the city. For your enjoyment, here is a step-by-step guide to letting Minneapolis capture your heart:
1. Stay downtown
From what I was able to gather during my stay, there’s quite a bit of brand-new construction in Minneapolis’ Downtown East, cropping up around U.S. Bank Stadium, the new home of the Minnesota Vikings (and built on the same ground where their previous home, the Metrodome, once stood).
The newer buildings and businesses of Downtown East have a definite bent toward young, hip, and upscale. To wit, it’s the location of the only Radisson Red in the United States (so far). The über-modern hotel is marketed mainly toward 20-somethings, and features a unique mix of high-tech and artisan offerings. You can unlock your room with your smart phone, grab locally-brewed Kombucha or fresh sandwiches from a kiosk with a swipe of your credit card, or relax for a spectacularly tasty meal in the ground-level restaurant.
While you relax with some duck fat popcorn or a fresh grilled beet salad, you might also take in the expansive mural painted by a local graffiti artist, jam-packed with references to local Minneapolis landmarks and heroes. The hotel is an extremely short walk away from the Vikings’ stadium, or to local eateries of every stripe. It’s also remarkably close to the Armory, the historic building the Minneapolis Lakers called home for a time.
Just on the other side of downtown, you have the legendary 1st Avenue club, where concert scenes from Purple Rain were filmed, the Twins’ stadium, and the Target Center, where the Timberwolves and the Wild both play their home games.
Also a short walk away is … well, anywhere in downtown Minneapolis, thanks to the Minneapolis Skyway System.
2. Use the Skyway
You’ve probably heard of the Skyway if you know anything about Minneapolis. An 11-mile system of pedestrian footbridges that covers 69 city blocks, and winds more or less anywhere you’d like to go in downtown Minneapolis, while spending the least time possible outside in the actual elements. This can be a real boon in the winter months, or just a hell of an experience if you want to dive in and start wandering around town.
I took the Skyway from the Minneapolis tourist center, “Meet Minneapolis” — where the Mary Tyler Moore statue is temporarily housed, and where I met a trio of individuals who convinced me that “Minnesota Nice” is far from a myth — back to my hotel. But I allowed myself to get lost and turned around by the labyrinthine route, and took a rather circuitous path over the course of nearly three miles. I was in heaven.
The Skyway meanders through office buildings and apartments, with the paths inside the buildings running past indoor bodegas, restaurants, dry cleaners, and convenience stores. You’ll pass by atriums and grand entries, seeing a fascinating array of indoor architecture and ornamentation … as well as just “the inside of office buildings.”
It’s a cross-section of the city you should allow yourself time to experience. And you’ll find it quite easy to let your brain slip into how the Skyway might help or hinder survival in a hypothetical zombie apocalypse. I mean that in the best possible way.
3. Visit Paisley Park
Less than a half-hour drive from Minneapolis proper is the enormous Chanhassen complex (which looks like a light industrial building from the outside) that His Royal Badness used as his headquarters and home from 1988 until his death last year. With the exception of a few rooms, much of Paisley Park has been left exactly as it was when Prince lived and worked there … which is even more interesting, since it appears he set up a huge portion of the building as a museum and trophy room even during his life. Hey, when you’re Prince, you can do whatever you damn well please.
The tour is wonderful, as you get to see plenty of rooms and artifacts (no living quarters, but that’s understandable), including Prince’s Oscar, a couple of his most famous guitars, his Grammys and MTV Video Music Awards, a few of his cars, his purple grand piano, and even the iconic motorcycle from Purple Rain.
The VIP version of the tour isn’t that much more expensive than the standard version, and if you spring for the VIP experience on a Thursday, you get a chance to use one of Prince’s own studios to lay down lyrics for a snippet of a song, with Prince as your backing vocalist, which you then get to keep. I recommend going that route, obviously. (If you do the VIP tour on Sunday, you get brunch featuring some of Prince’s favorite foods.)
Everyone in the world is at least a little bit of a Prince fan, and this is one of the most Easter egg-filled museum tours you’re going to experience. Of course, if this doesn’t float your boat, there are a great many other museums in Minneapolis, plus a sculpture garden featuring the iconic Spoonbridge and Cherry.
4. Eat a Jucy Lucy
Every city has a signature food … or at the very least, a signature indulgence. The Minneapolis “you-gotta-try-it” dish is the Jucy Lucy — a cheeseburger grilled with the cheese on the inside of the beef patty. I asked around about the best place to get one, and every one of the over a half-dozen locals I consulted had only one suggestion: Matt’s Bar, which claims to have created the burger.
Matt’s Bar is a true dive in the best fashion: dingy tables, a clientele full of regulars bellying up to the bar, underlit and with no frills or pretense whatsoever … plus a great jukebox. When they serve you your Lucy, they make sure to warn you that it is EXTREMELY hot inside, and if you dive right in, you risk burning your mouth. So word to the wise: give it a minute of resting. Trust me, it’ll be just as good after a short wait.
5. Take a walk
Just a short jaunt from Downtown East and the Vikings’ stadium is the Stone Arch Bridge, the second-oldest bridge crossing the Mississippi River. A former railroad bridge, it has since been converted to a footbridge and bicycle path. The bridge passes over the ruins of an old saw mill and connects downtown to the outskirts of “Dinkytown” on the other side of the river.
The bridge is also right next to the Guthrie Theater and the Mill City Museum, brochures for which claim it is “the most explosive museum tour in the world,” because, well, the flour mill once exploded.
Walking the Stone Arch Bridge was one of the highlights of my trip, if not the pinnacle. Hearing the roar of the partially-frozen Mississippi as I took in the ruins, and the view in general, as the lightest possible rain tried its damnedest to become snow, and failed to do so, or to even cause me concern. I hoped to find the time to make a second walk over the bridge during my trip, but was unable to. That’s okay, though; it just gives me something to look forward next time.
So if you go to Minneapolis — and it it isn’t clear enough by now, I encourage you to do so — make sure you get in a walk. Drink in that modest, but somehow aesthetically-perfect skyline. Open your heart to Minnesota, and you will be sufficiently rewarded.