Our state is simply loaded with hole-in-the-wall attractions and other idiosyncratic treasures. Care to sample these far-flung institutions? We’ve plotted four all-American road trips.
A romantic tour of Bluff Country
Go south on Hwy. 61, where glacial meltwaters carved the prairie into dramatic valleys and bluffs. Once a magnet for American Indian settlements, it’s now dotted with pretty little towns such as Red Wing and Winona that boast caches of historic architecture, storefront galleries and charming country museums.
1 Red Wing Shoe Museum. Check out the world’s largest boot, not to mention an exhibit on the 100-year history of Red Wing Shoes (plus a few notes on the art of cobbling). Don’t leave without a trip to the attached store, featuring closeout kicks and factory seconds. (315 Main St., Red Wing; 1-651-388-6233)
2 Wind Whisper West Kimono Gallery. This modest storefront in downtown Wabasha boasts the nation’s biggest collection of Japanese wedding kimonos — masterworks of silk and embroidery. (128 Main St., Wabasha; 1-651-565-2002; windwhisperwest.com)
3 National Eagle Center. Located in one of the country’s finest eagle-watching spots, this interpretive center is home to four bald eagles and one golden eagle, plus displays on eagle science and history. (50 Pembroke Av., Wabasha; 1-651-565-4989; nationaleaglecenter.org)
4 Lark Toys. This family-owned business favors handmade pull toys. The in-house museum offers plenty of low-tech wooden toys along with a cheeky assortment of antique tin robots, ’80s-era Transformers and model cars of varying vintage. (63604 170th Av., Kellogg; 1-507-767-3387; larktoys.com)
5 Minnesota Marine Art Museum. This seven-year-old museum features four galleries with rotating exhibits of water-themed art, but the showstopper is the permanent collection featuring works by Monet, Matisse, Picasso, O’Keeffe, Renoir and Van Gogh. Bonus: The museum resides on several beautifully landscaped acres with native prairie plants. (800 Riverview Dr., Winona; 1-507-474-6626; minnesotamarineart.org)
6 Winona History Center. Well-curated exhibits cover everything from Prairie School furniture to Winona natural history, from prehistory to the present. Located in the city’s 1915-vintage National Guard Armory — styled after a medieval fortress — the museum now has a sleek copper-clad addition designed by architect Joan Soranno, the Star Tribune’s 2012 Artist of the Year. (160 Johnson St., Winona; 1-507-454-2723; winonahistory.org)
Quirks and gems in southern Minnesota
Perfect for family road trips, southern Minnesota offers attractions to suit any whim or fancy. New Ulm, with its Teutonic edifices, is particularly rich with landmarks. Also, this region has produced more than its share of children’s book authors, so get the kids reading in advance, then take them to the writers’ childhood homes.
1 Spam Museum. There’s nothing canned about the history of Spam. This free museum treats visitors to vintage radio and print ads, a World War II exhibit (when Spam began its cultural ascent), even a gift shop stocked with Spam-themed knickknacks. (1101 N. Main St., Austin; 1-507-437-5100; spam.com)
2 Betsy-Tacy Houses. Visit the restored childhood homes of Maud Hart Lovelace, author of the 1940s-vintage “Betsy-Tacy” books, and her best friend, Bick, who inspired the “Tacy” character. Both are filled with photos, turn-of-the-century antiques, even early Lovelace manuscripts. (332 and 333 Center St., Mankato; 1-507-345-9777; betsy-tacysociety.org)
3 Wanda Gág House. See where the creator of the 1928 children’s classic “Millions of Cats” grew up. View Gág’s lithographs while learning about the other free spirits in her family, including her father, Anton, who hand-built this wacky, almost gingerbread-style house. (226 N. Washington, New Ulm; 1-507-359-2632; wandagaghouse.org)
4 Brown County Historical Society Museum. Don’t miss “Never Shall I Forget,” a definitive exhibit on the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 that features personal narratives, portraits and biographies from hundreds of survivors. (2 N. Broadway St., New Ulm; 1-507-233-2616; browncountyhistorymn.org)
5 Harkin Store. Think of it as a building-size time capsule. The proprietor of this general store and post office closed shop in 1901, simply locking the door and leaving piles of unsold merchandise and undelivered mail for the ages. (66250 County Rd. 21, New Ulm; 1-507-354-8666; mnhs.org, under “historic sites”)
6 Fagen Fighters World War II Museum. A collection of fully functioning World War II aircraft — including a P-51 Mustang that helped raid Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest — is on display along with 1940s-era ground equipment and original art. Check out the cargo glider, the only aircraft manufactured in Minnesota during the war. (Granite Falls Airport, 2450 540th St.; 1-320-564-6644; fagenfighterswwiimuseum.org)
Northern outposts and pioneers
Northern Minnesota has always been a magnet for dreamers, from its 18th-century fur trappers to the mineral prospectors who arrived on the Iron Range in 1860. Museums Up North honor the travelers and titans who settled a region long known for its wildness.
1 Lake Superior Railroad Museum. “Here you can see the trains and ride the trains,” says museum director Ken Buehler. Start by ogling the collection of locomotives dating to the Civil War, including an imposing World War II-era Mallet, the most powerful steam locomotive ever built. End with a vintage train ride on the North Shore Scenic Railroad. (506 W. Michigan St., Duluth; 1-218-727-8025; lsrm.org)
2 Split Rock Lighthouse. Learn about the life of a lighthouse keeper and the Lake Superior shipping industry. Linger in the visitor center for an eyeful of artifacts and underwater footage exploring the Madeira shipwreck of 1905. Tip: Plan your trip for July 13, when the beacon will shine for an hour at sunset in honor of the lighthouse’s 103rd anniversary. (3713 Split Rock Lighthouse Road, Two Harbors; 1-218-226-6372; mnhs.org, “historic sites”)
3 Johnson Heritage Post. Housed in a charming log-cabin-like lodge, this small museum is dedicated to Anna C. Johnson, a Swedish immigrant, art teacher and all-around Renaissance woman who showered Grand Marais with painting, pottery and ceramics during the early 20th century. Look for her painting of the Gunflint Trail’s virgin pines, a work beloved by locals. (115 Wisconsin St., Grand Marais; 1-218-387-2314; johnsonheritagepost.org)
4 Chik-Wauk Museum and Nature Center. Everything you ever wanted to know about the Gunflint Trail. Are you as strong as a voyageur? One hands-on exhibit replicates a typical 90-pound pack used in the fur trade two centuries ago. Learn about trees, wildflowers and wildlife, or hunt the nearby footpaths for blueberries. (28 Moose Pond Dr., Grand Marais; 1-218-388-9915; chikwauk.com)
5 Dorothy Molter Cabins and Museum. Molter, a k a the Root Beer Lady, was a North Woods icon, the last remaining non-indigenous resident of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. See artifacts from her life (she passed away in 1986), including the equipment she used to make root beer for thirsty canoeists, and 27 years of condemnation notices from the federal government. (2002 E. Sheridan St., Ely; 1-218-365-4451; rootbeerlady.com)
6 Soudan Underground Mine State Park. Descend via elevator into the state’s oldest iron mine (1882), traveling a half-mile underground into total darkness. Science buffs can tour the University of Minnesota’s Soudan Underground Laboratory — like Minnesota’s own CERN. (1302 McKinley Park Road, Soudan; 1-218-753-2245; dnr.state.mn.us, under “state parks”)
Culture and art in the Northwest
From the Brainerd lakes to Fargo-Moorhead, the state’s Northwest corridor courses with a surprising amount of culture and art. Here you can sample traditional Ojibwe beadwork, visit two of the state’s most obsessively detailed tributes to Scandinavian ancestry or even study a set of 17th-century Dutch paintings.
1 Bemidji Community Art Center. One of the artiest cities Up North, Bemidji has a vibrant cultural clique. This summer, view museum-quality solo shows featuring midcareer oil painters and watercolorists, or wait until fall for the national ceramics competition “It’s Only Clay.” (426 Bemidji Av., Bemidji; 1-218-444-7570; bcac.wordpress.com)
2 Nemeth Art Center. Sixteenth-century Italian Renaissance paintings in Park Rapids — how’s that for juxtaposition? Located in the city’s 1911 courthouse, above the Hubbard County Historical Museum, this teensy museum features a world-class “study collection” of European paintings from the workshops of such masters as Rubens, Rembrandt and Bosch. (301 Court Av., Park Rapids; 1-218-237-5900; nemethartcenter.org)
3 Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County. This Moorhead museum has two impressive permanent displays: a full-scale replica of a Viking ship, built by a local guidance counselor who dreamed of sailing the world, and an exact copy of Hopperstad, Norway’s 12th-century stave church, created by a local woodcarver. This summer, catch “Prairie Daughters,” an exhibit dedicated to women artists from the area. (202 1st Av. N., Moorhead; 1-218-299-5511; hcscconline.org)
4 Rourke Art Gallery Museum. Another Moorhead gem, founded by a local collector, this has a strong collection from artists with connections to Fargo-Moorhead, including Fritz Scholder, plus prints by 20th-century masters (Rauschenberg, Rosenquist, Warhol), Japanese woodcuts, African masks and other global works. (521 Main Av., Moorhead; 1-218-236-8861; therourke.org)
5 Mille Lacs Indian Museum and Trading Post. More than 2,000 American Indian artifacts are on display, including a rich collection of birchbark basketry and beadwork. The “Four Seasons Room” has a life-size diorama depicting Ojibwe life in the 1700s. Shop for fine crafts by local band members at the 1930s-style trading post. (43411 Oodena Dr., Onamia; 1-320-532-3632; mnhs.org, under “historic sites”)
6 New York Mills Regional Cultural Center. Best known for the Great American Think Off, an annual philosophy contest for the masses, it just opened its own farm-to-table restaurant. Also: Take a spin through two intimate storefront galleries, featuring folk and fine art from regional artists. 24 Main Av. N., New York Mills; 1-218-385-3339; kulchur.org)