I grew up in the Valley of the Jolly Green Giant — Le Sueur, Minn., a stoplight-free town of about 4,000, surrounded by cornfields. My family often drove to nearby Mankato, about 10 times Le Sueur's size, to visit my fun Aunt Ann and experience some more metropolitan offerings, namely a Mexican restaurant and a big mall with a Maurices.

A few decades later, the mall and Mexican restaurant are gone, replaced by different versions, but Annie is still there and as fun as ever. A few years back, my young kids and I kicked off a new annual tradition of visiting her, and Mankato, for a couple of nights. I was initially surprised by the Minnesota River city's strong kid-friendly options, all new to me. At each yearly visit, we discover more things to do that are, sentimentality aside, far cooler than the sheltered consumerism and fried ice cream of my youth.

Kid favorites

Sibley Farm (1-507-387-8600), in a corner of 100-acre Sibley Park, has been a hit from Visit 1. We usually start with feeding the animals, including goats, sheep, alpacas and the cutest little potbellied pig ever, and taking in the beautifully landscaped koi pond. All quarters plugged into the feed machines go toward the menagerie's care and upkeep. Then it's on to the adjacent farm-themed playground, including a silo, chicken coop and other shiny red pretend-farm structures, plus a tractor and lazing pigs to scramble on. FYI, in the winter, the park hosts the Kiwanis Holiday Lights (1-507-385-9129), a walk- or drive-through experience with 1.5 million LED bulbs, plus a skating rink, Santa visits and reindeer at the farm. It's free, though nonperishable food and cash donations are happily accepted.

The Children's Museum of Southern Minnesota, which opened in 2015, was added to our itinerary this year (1-507-386-0279). Right away, I appreciate the big, open 12,000-square-foot space — I can look over the railing in the maker's loft, where my daughter works on the day's featured art project, and see Aunt Annie at the foot of the Tree of Forts Climber, trying to spot my son above. That fort is seriously incredible, a maze of rope tunnels, tubes and even a 17-foot suspension bridge, all connecting little room-forts that are tucked up into the ceiling. At the museum's faux quarry, which is lined in real local Kasota limestone, kids instinctively form teams to move giant blocks via conveyor belt and crane. The Grow It Gallery is similarly place-setting and cooperative, with a garden of stuffed crops to be harvested, then sold at the little farm market stand or cooked up in the spacious play kitchen. There's a dedicated toddler/infant fun zone styled like a farmhouse porch and ringed by a white picket fence, an outdoor farmyard with plant beds and animal pens, and more. It's clear within the first 30 minutes that we have ourselves a new Mankato must-do.

Finding common ground

My favorite kind of kid-friendly destination has something for adults, too. The happiness I get from seeing my kids enjoying themselves goes far, yes, but when we're all having fun? That's the dream, right there.

The CityArt Walking Sculpture Tour (1-507-387-1008) does a fine job of providing common ground. Every year since 2011, the city displays around 30 sculptures from artists in Minnesota and beyond. And every year, the People's Choice Winner is purchased and made a permanent part of the city's art collection. The sculptures are grouped along a mostly walkable downtown corridor. Take the audio version of the tour by dialing the phone number and stop number listed on each sculpture's placard. Among the sculptures we love: Treasure Tower, a colorful steel structure with beads to spin and little doors to open; and Pod Stop, made from repurposed road signs, with old tires to sit on.

Old Town, too, serves as something of a generational bridge. It's the original, historic two-story brick commercial district on Riverfront Drive, home to an intriguing mix of trendy, creative and classic businesses that are the hallmark of any neighborhood in transition — a tattoo parlor; a tea house; bike, salvage, record and comic book shops; a wine bar and a long-standing tavern with a new modern look.

In the "trendy" column is Old Town Escape, one of those places where you pay to be locked in a room with a bunch of other people, then solve a series of puzzles together to get out (1-507-779-7799).

We came for the ice cream. Mom and Pop's, marked by a sculpture of a boy, dog and cone (the 2013 People's Choice Winner) out front, offers 32 flavors of Wisconsin-made hard scoop and a little courtyard out back (1-507-344-0629).

And Dino's New York Style Pizzeria hits the perfect kid/parent dining sweet spot (1-507-385-3466). We tend to arrive early for what feels like the family shift, when most every table in the comfortable, narrow room sports a kid or three. On this latest visit, the server plunked a ball of pizza dough in front of both children, as usual, plus the requisite bucket of crayons for decorating the paper-topped table. The napkins are cloth, the wine is good and the pizzas, pulled from the brick oven and then set on tall tabletop stands, out of tiny hands' reach, are delicious. I'm partial to the buffalo shrimp. And the meatball in my daughter's kids'-meal spaghetti fell apart so gracefully when prodded with a fork that I had to steal a taste. By the time we headed out for our date with the fireflies in Aunt Ann's yard, the restaurant was still full, but the kid contingent was waning.

Bike trails & bison

When we stop to admire a muralist painting the flood wall that separates the town from the Minnesota River and its adjacent bike trail, I spot a flier for the Mankato River Ramble on Oct. 9 (bikeriverramble.org). The event showcases Mankato's varied bike trails through four routes, ranging from 12 to 50 miles. Highlights include the Rapidan Dam and its namesake store (1-507-546-9997), with homemade pies that reel bikers a few miles off the popular Red Jacket Trail, and Minneopa State Park, featuring a 39-foot waterfall and a new bison herd (1-507-389-5464). We'd originally planned on both biking and bison, but time got away from us, which is fine. There's always next year.

Getting there

From the Twin Cities, take Hwy. 169 south about 75 miles to Mankato. It's about a half-hour past the big Green Giant billboard in Le Sueur. (South of St. Peter, Hwy. 169 is reduced to one lane until Oct. 15; optional detours are posted.)

More information

Visit Mankato: 1-507-385-6660.