Minneapolis and St. Paul may be bisected by the mighty Mississippi River, but are so inter-connected, they’re called the Twin Cities for good reason. In fact, most folks in Minnesota just call them “the cities.” Though very different in feel, they both offer a variety of free or inexpensive entertainment for locals and visitors on a budget. Between the two of them, they have free art, music and natural attractions galore — and much more. Here are (at least) 10 of our favorite free or cheap diversions.
- Art. Minneapolis Sculpture Garden and Walker Art Center are prime free attractions in the city. Starting with the famous Spoonbridge & Cherry sculpture, this is a must-see spot in the city and a great place for a photo. This is the largest urban sculpture garden in the nation and just celebrated its 20th anniversary. It’s a part of the city park system and also the Walker Art Center. The Walker has Open Field, Target Free Thursdays, Free First Saturdays and the Sculpture Garden is always free and open daily. The Minneapolis Institute of Arts is ranked among the top comprehensive U.S. art museums, showcasing art from all over the world and from every period of human history. Free general admission every day.
- Zoo. The Como Zoo & Conservatory in St. Paul gas a new Gorilla Forest exhibit; a new wing and Japanese Garden that’s been renovated. The zoo is free and includes a great carousel (for a small fee) and a gorgeous conservatory that’s also free (but takes donations at the door) along with a huge park, lake and golf course (there’s a fee to golf).
- Bikes. If you want exercise, take advantage of the Nice Ride Minnesota bike share program. It’s not free, but for just a $6 subscription for a day, you can ride these bright green bikes all over the Twin Cities for free for trips under 30 minutes. It’s currently the third-largest bike share program in the U.S. Easy to use, inexpensive and a great way to really experience the city. With over 80 miles of on-street paths and over 80 miles of off-street trails/paths, you can explore a lot on a bike here.
- Outdoors. There are nearly 200 parks, 22 lakes, and the banks of the Mississippi River to explore. All are free and great for visitors to use, whether or picnicking or swimming in summer. Between the free events and natural beauty of places like Minnehaha Park (where Minnehaha Falls inspired “Song of Hiawatha” by Longfellow), St. Anthony Falls (the only natural waterfall on the river and historic birthplace of the city) and the Minneapolis Chain of Lakes and Grand Rounds National Scenic Byway (50 mile loop of trails around the city), there is no shortage of scenery and things to do. For a fee (depending on the activity), there are water sports, Segway tours, bike rentals and kayaking, running, walking and food tours available, as well. A free fireworks display is held at the Mississippi Riverfront each July 4. The Twin Cities River Rats, the Ski Otters and the Shakopee-Prior Lake Shockwaves Water Ski Team put on free water ski shows all summer long.
- Music and movies. In the summer, enjoy Music & Movies in the Parks, free and open to the public. This summertime Minneapolis event celebrates the City by Nature by showing films on outdoor screens or having musicians perform, or both, in the city parks nightly. The Minneapolis Parks & Recreation system was recently named the No. 1 park system in the country by Park Score and the Trust for Public Land.
- Wildlife. Bloomington’s most surprising attraction is the hiking and nature trails of the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge, with its Welcome Center featuring a large window for bird watching. Its 14,000 acres of protected habitat along 99 miles of the Minnesota River make it the nation’s largest national wildlife refuge located within a major metropolitan area. Stroll along the winding paths, cross-country ski, bike, hike watch migrating birds or just relax on one of the many benches and enjoy the pristine wilderness.
- A mall. OK, the Mall of America is more than just another mall. It’s home to 520 stores that feature the widest selection, newest fashions and hottest products under one roof. On all levels of the mall, enjoy unparalleled choices for women’s, men’s, children’s and teen clothing. Choose among a multitude of stores for shoes, electronics, health and beauty and other products. It’s so big, some stores are there TWICE. The best window-shopping without snow you’ve ever experienced. And take a gander at the core entertainment options (Nickelodeon Universe). They’re fun to watch even if you don’t buy a ticket.
- Libations. Take a free brewery tour, and sample some suds at the Summit Brewery in St. Paul on selected Saturdays. Reservations are required. The Surly Brewery in Brooklyn Center has free tours, with complimentary Surly beer samples, on Friday nights. Reserve your place at Surly’s website. The Flat Earth Brewing Co, also in St. Paul, has monthly free tours and tastings. For a compilation of the newest breweries offering free tours in the Twin Cities area check out the article 10 FREE Brewery Tours in the Twin Cities.
- Festivals. The free Minneapolis Aquatennial Festival has parades, soap box boat racing, and a block party with national music acts in downtown Minneapolis each July. The cities don’t shut down in winter, however. Check out the St. Paul Winter Carnival in January. As Legend was told Boreas, “King of the Winds,” emblazoned St. Paul as his winter playground with feasting, dancing, fun and frolic for a full 10 days. The legend lives on today with ice carvings, ice palaces, parades, a snow park, a winter run, a treasure hunt and much more. But there’s still more fun to be had on Minnesota snow and ice – and even underneath it. Other fun family winter activities in the Twin Cities include ice fishing, horse-drawn wagon rides, snowshoeing, cross country and downhill skiing. But bundle up! For your summer guide to 101 festivals in and around the Twin Cities, click here.
- Tours. Designed by Cass Gilbert, the Minnesota State Capitol is considered an architectural masterpiece. Visitors can explore the House, Senate and Supreme Court chambers, see the legislature in action, visit the gold-leafed Quadriga on the roof when weather allows, stop in the restored Rathskeller Café and walk the Capitol Mall. Hourly guided tours are free with a suggested donation of $5 per person. Other free tours in St. Paul include the Cathedral, the Landmark Center and the newly renovated Union Depot. Click here for more details.