Not long from now, the planet's space agencies will start recruiting people for the first colony on Mars. Colonists will need to be comfortable functioning in close quarters, endure extended periods indoors and survive on less-than-scintillating food options. Where will these hearty colonists be found? NASA? The Biosphere? Or some other place where tens of thousands of people happily go about their days in comparable surroundings?

Minneapolis' skyway system, long equated to a human-sized hamster run, has been transformed in recent years from a place where workers and shoppers could merely escape the elements for a few hours into a fully outfitted neighborhood, with the usual trappings and perks of being in the center of a major city.

You can see a doctor, dentist, optometrist or hairstylist. You can get your body pulverized by a masseuse, chiropractor, personal trainer or yogi. You can apply for a passport, renew your driver's license, pay back taxes, get married, get divorced and sue your ex-spouse. You can hire a Realtor, shop for a condo, engage a mortgage broker, secure a bank loan and furnish your new home. You can take your in-laws to a very nice dinner, then a live theater show, movie or sporting event, and leave them at a respectable hotel. You can buy groceries, fill prescriptions, get a tetanus shot, do your dry cleaning, go to church and outfit an exceptional wine-tasting party. You can take university classes and go swimming, art-spotting or bar-hopping. You can send a package, receive a package, gift-wrap a package and get your package waxed. All this and much more -- without ever stepping a toe outdoors.

The scope of the Minneapolis skyway system is remarkable. It consists of 83 enclosed bridges connecting 73 blocks, stretching on for 8 miles, making it the world's largest continuous skyway system and probably one of the largest contiguous indoor spaces. This is where I live, work, shop and spend unholy amounts of uninterrupted time in winter.

Map of the Minneapolis skyways

When Target on Nicollet Mall expanded its grocery and produce sections in 2008, the skyway-as-neighborhood notion was complete. Virtually all practical resources, services, merchandise and day-to-day fundamental needs are now skyway-accessible -- or so I've theorized. So in January, with a demoralizing extended weather forecast unfolding, I decided to put my skyway livability theory to the test. I resolved to stay confined to the system for two weeks straight, without any unusual outside support (i.e. pizza delivery was OK, but having a carload of groceries delivered from Lunds was not). I did not stockpile groceries before the confinement began, and though I walked past many open doors, I never broke the threshold for 14 days.

I used part of my confinement to explore parts of the skyway that I hadn't previously visited and to check out tips collected from skyway power users. Practical features aside, it must be said that the skyways are excellent strolling grounds anytime of year. If there's a larger and more tricked-out, safe, controlled and clean pedestrian-only zone anywhere else in the country, I've yet to hear about it. Typical pedestrian annoyances and hazards like cars, bikes, stoplights, the elements, construction, animals and animal waste are nonexistent. And so, enclosed in this special serenity, I launched daily excursions, all done without a jacket, hat or gloves, or on some occasions, without even lacing up my shoes.

Among my favorite discoveries were the garden and benches in the 510 Marquette Building, the adjacent atriums in the AT&T Tower and Oracle Center, the rotating art display in the Thrivent building, and the giddying amount of unexpectedly good food -- a crow-eating revelation for me after years of blindly lamenting the aforementioned "less-than-scintillating food options."

While I was well aware of the many excellent skyway-connected restaurants, such as the Capital Grille, Zelo and Cosmos, I'd convinced myself that skyway-level lunchtime fare was only a small step above truck-stop quality. Better-informed people steered me to several pleasant surprises, like the Brothers Deli (Fifty South Sixth), Sorrento Cucina (501 Marquette), Sushi Do (Baker Center) and the Burger Place (501 Marquette), to name a few. Ø

My first week of confinement zipped by. With outdoor daytime highs in the single digits, the popular opinion was that my confinement was more good fortune than hardship.

Just as satisfying were the interviews and reminiscing I did with other skyway enthusiasts. After giving birth, Alexis Greeves found the skyway to be "absolutely ideal for a mom with a new baby. We would walk for hours and she would sleep most of that time. I would invite friends to join me with their babies and they loved it, too."

Though he now works outside the skyway network, Ed Smelser, designer of the Android/iPhone app Twin Cities Skyway Tours, formerly worked within it and has been a skyway-connected resident since 2004. "I actually make a point of doing virtually 100 percent of my chores and errands within the skyway system," he explained. "Having a Target in downtown Minneapolis helps with this quite a bit. I chose my primary-care clinic for its skyway location in the Medical Arts Building, and have gone back and forth from Walgreens and Target pharmacies. I selected LifeTime gym for its Target Center location."

When I asked Smelser about his personal record for not going outside, his reply made a mockery of my two-week stunt. "Before I had a dog, I went six weeks without stepping foot outside. I was single, working a desk job way too many hours, didn't party late into the night, I was without a car, Target had just opened and I was using Simon Delivers [now Coborns]." Not wanting to sound like a "troglodyte," he added, "it was by no means intentional."

Marsha Trainer, author of the blog Skyway of Love (skywayoflove.blogspot.com) casts a less utilitarian eye on the skyway. "I realized there was tons of art that was going unseen downtown, despite the fact that many people passed by it every day. I thought by highlighting those items, I could point out something beautiful inside the network of walkways that so many find to be an unpalatable Habitrail."

The skyway world is, admittedly, a confusing place. Even with three years of skyway foraging under my belt, I became disoriented several times, usually while seeking out a new objective. It's not always obvious what building you're in or which direction you're going, not to mention the all-important can-I-get-there-from-here? conundrum. The "You Are Here" maps that keep springing up help, as do the emerging GPS-powered skyway smart-phone apps, but frequently the fastest way to get unlost in a skyway is to simply ask for directions. The hard-won skill of confidently negotiating the skyway is a source of great pride for many people, so they are likely to be more than happy to assist. Like an Amazon guide or Everest sherpa, having a skyway-savvy escort can mean the difference between life and death -- or at least the difference between staying dry or getting wet.

There are, of course, many critical things that aren't available on the skyway: family members, friends, urgent medical attention and shallots immediately spring to mind. (See "Skyway Wish List," sidebar, for more.) Outside of winter and unenviable weather conditions, no sane person would totally confine themselves to the skyway. Yet it serves an exceedingly valuable, singular and even comforting purpose, especially for the growing number of people who regularly operate within the skyway neighborhood.

It should come as no surprise that my two weeks of confinement went by painlessly. I missed a couple of social opportunities, but that was the worst of it. The confinement revealed assets that only made me appreciate my skyway lifestyle even more. Could I have gone six weeks? Could I have gone all winter? With some very generous friends and no emergencies, maybe.

Related stories

Skyway Resources

  • SkywayMyWay: Interactive map, with building-by-building directions and a growing, searchable database of skyway businesses.
  • Skyway Directory: A developing resource with printable maps and business directories for both the Minneapolis and St. Paul skyways.
  • Skyway of Love: A blog highlighting art and architecture in the skyway.

Where to live

If you’re thinking of moving into a skyway-served neighborhood, start scanning listings in the following buildings:

  • Centre Village (235 condos, plus an additional 50 condos in City Heights)
  • The Churchill (360 apartments)
  • The Crossings (302 condos)
  • Ivy Tower (92 condos)
  • LaSalle (122 apartments)
  • Marquette Place (240 apartments)
  • The Metro (112 apartments)
  • Six Quebec (21 condos)
  • Symphony Place (250 apartments)

Skyway Apps

  • Minneapolis skyway for iPhone (Frypan Digital)
  • Twin Cities skyway tours for Android and iPhone (Ed Smelser)
  • The skyway guide for iPhone (Guys in the Booth)

Skyway wish list

Although the skyway is more neighborhood-like than ever, there is room for improvement. Skyway-savvy people offered some brilliant suggestions on how to enhance the skyway experience.

  • Connect to light rail. Retrofit one of the downtown LRT stations to be enclosed and skyway-connected, effectively making the airport and the Mall of America skyway-connected.
  • Enhance the grocery options. The offerings at Target need to be supplemented with more variety. Something along the lines of a Wedge Co-op or Lunds.
  • Skyway-up the Minneapolis Public Library. Please.
  • Expand the hours. Generally closing at 10 p.m. on weekdays and 8 p.m. Saturdays and the noon-6 p.m. Sunday hours severely handicaps the skyway-as-neighborhood. Staying open until midnight, if only Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, would greatly expand entertainment options for both residents and visitors.