What to do in Duluth?
June 20, 2011 9:15 AM   Subscribe

What's a life-long city boy to do in Duluth?

So, in a few months, my awesome girlfriend and I are going to be taking a vacation to her hometown of Duluth, Minnesota. Discounting some miserable camping in my youth and some road trippin', I've never been set put that far outside of a big city. Seriously, outside of firing guns, which I am really looking forward to, I have no idea what to even want to do.

It'll be nice to relax as I haven't had a vacation in about two years, but I get antsy and usually have more fun in going somewhere and doing something (I don't even like sightseeing very much, truth be told.) Now I know there's the charms of the natural world, but I'm not really a nature guy and my girlfriend isn't the outdoorsy type either. So outside of the charms of the countryside, what's there to do in Duluth?

(NB: I don't drink, so drinking-oriented things are right out.)
posted by griphus to Travel & Transportation around Duluth, MN (26 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Fishing. Seriously, if you have fished or if you have never fished, there is not really a (fresh water) fishing experience like bringing in a pike off a canoe in some glass-smooth remote lake.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 9:46 AM on June 20, 2011

Small town life tends to be about drinking and doing outdoor activities (off-roading, skidooing, hunting, etc.). If none of that interests you, I'm not sure what you'll find interesting. However, your girlfriend is from Duluth. Why not ask her what would be fun/interesting?

At the very least, getting to see the place where she grew up should be fun.

For what it's worth, here's some info from a Duluth Tourism portal: Duluth Attractions.
posted by asnider at 9:48 AM on June 20, 2011

Now that I think about it, I've got to agree with Slap*Happy. Duluth isn't a backwoods town. It's a city. Sure, it's a small city, but it has all of the amenities that cities typically have.
posted by asnider at 9:51 AM on June 20, 2011

Duluth is also my hometown, and while it's certainly not a big city, it isn't a small town, either. The Duluth "metropolitan area" is nearly 300,000 people. (I have no idea what the metropolitan area encompasses, but the city and immediate surrounding area is an easy 100,000 people.) You have to LEAVE Duluth to do any of the small-town stuff. I have grown into an avowed city girl, but I love going back to Duluth. I have lived in small towns, and Duluth was not one.

It's actually a tourist destination for a lot of the midwest during the summer because it's so picturesque. Go down to Canal Park, watch some big ships come in under the lift bridge, get an ice cream cone and walk down to the lighthouse, skip stones along the lakewalk. While there is plenty to do for nature lovers around there, you definitely do not have to do any of that to have a good time in Duluth. If it's her hometown, she already knows what's fun to do there.
posted by adiabat at 9:57 AM on June 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Sure, it's a small city, but it has all of the amenities that cities typically have.

Yeah, she's got ideas and family to keep us occupied plenty, I just want to survey the hivemind for any local secrets that the family might not have access to or something. Like I said, I don't know how these things work too well. I'm hailing from somewhere everyone has their own little thing that they love and want to show you.

I guess I wasn't clear but I'm looking for advice on where you can go to this place and do this thing whether it is a rifle range (shoot!) or an awesome little fresh-game restaurant (eat!) or a folk art museum (appreciate!) or something. I know it isn't Death Valley With Trees or that town from Deliverance.
posted by griphus at 9:59 AM on June 20, 2011

Duluth is actually a pretty fun little town. You aren't really specific about what you DO like to do, here are some suggestions of things you might enjoy while you're there:

There is some decent shopping. If you're a music fan Electric Fetus is one of the best record stores around and can point you to any good shows that would be happening during your stay.

The Glensheen Mansion is a cool tour in a pretty part of town and sight of an infamous murder.

Just outside of the city there are some great, easily accessible parks and hiking trails Gooseberry Falls and Splitrock Lighthouse are two that come to mind.

Drive along Highway 61 (of Bob Dylan fame). A really gorgeous drive along Lake Superior.

There is the Lake Superior Marine Museum along the lakeshore in town. Nice views and a good history of one of the main industries in the area.

It's also a college town, so there are usually various sports, cultural or other similar events. Just depends on the time of the year.
posted by goggie at 10:01 AM on June 20, 2011 [3 favorites]

OH! I almost forgot the Duluth Curling Club. You can watch or even try it yourself.
posted by goggie at 10:03 AM on June 20, 2011

I am from a large town in Mississippi, so my experience of Duluth was that it is pretty big :) This city is gorgeous. Just walking about, going to the Marine Museum and taking in Lake Superior is tons of fun. One suggestion, though. If you are there on a Sunday night and want to eat out, go early. I was shocked that we could find nothing open after about 8pm, IIRC. We had to default to the Red Lobster, which was a miserable experience, with the staff literally sweeping under our feet as we had our coffee.
posted by thebrokedown at 10:12 AM on June 20, 2011

Response by poster: There is some decent shopping

Shopping would be awesome. Especially for things/foods that are locally-made or somehow unavailable elsewhere. Some sort of Duluth (or that-part-of-MNw)-specialty, maybe?

I guess I should have mentioned that I really like food.
posted by griphus at 10:20 AM on June 20, 2011

You'll be at the west end of Lake Superior, one of the most fickle, unpredictable and mysterious bodies of water on the planet. A lot of people who are first time visitors to the Great Lakes get stuck looking at Erie, or doing a bit of boating on Ontario, or just a bit of walking along Michigan in Chicago. But you, you lucky stiff, get an opportunity to know Superior, and the sturdy folk who live by it, from the most inland seaport in the world. Hopefully, you'll have a big blow from the west, and get to see Superior whipped up high and mighty by winds, but even if that doesn't happen, watching the lake can get to be a full time thing. For sure, get yourself some smoked lake trout.

So, don't muff your big chance. Relax, take your camera, be unironic, and open your eyes and ears. We're expecting great things, and a full report from you, later.
posted by paulsc at 10:21 AM on June 20, 2011

Predicate this with the caveat that these are all through the perspective of someone with a young boy to entertain, but I felt like they held up pretty well on their own, and perhaps will appeal to your inner young boy.

The Lake Superior Railroad Museum is pretty interesting if you like trains, in that you get to clamber around in actual rolling stock in an actual old depot. It gives you a feel for the scale of the height of the U.S. railway era that pictures never will. I was also impressed by my first visit to the Great Lakes Aquarium. Impressively scaled freshwater exhibits, quite a bit different from the usual aquarium fare. The Zoo is small but it has some interesting animals, we were there in winter (visiting a mostly outdoor zoo is pretty insane in winter but, you know, we're Minnesotans) and the polar bear, brown bear and snow leopard were very cool (being half-frozen, they may have seemed more interesting by virtue of simply being outside).

Shopping of the antique, agate and curio variety and dining of the woodsy cafe and "famous pies" variety can be worth a drive up the North Shore to places like Two Harbors, Silver Bay and Grand Marais. If you (or someone in your party) like to "just drive" the North Shore Scenic Drive is a nice one, good views and reasonably easy-going traffic.

Dining seems to be making inroads in the Duluth area, but I have to admit we have yet to have any experiences that really cemented that "you gotta go there" experience, and it is still the sort of area where Red Lobster makes it onto the "Fine Dining" list. I'm hoping others will note some standout restaurants we haven't tried yet! We have always enjoyed our meals very much at Fitger's Brewhouse, and though as a teetotaler you won't get the benefit of their main product, they produce a very decent root beer and orange cream soda as well.

Duluth is a fun town with a lot to do, you won't have any trouble filling up a vacation with active, non-outdoorsy stuff. If you're not a complusive tag-follower, previously, and one of my own on food thereabouts.
posted by nanojath at 10:37 AM on June 20, 2011

When, exactly are you going to be in town?

I live in Duluth and what I can recommend, depends a lot on what time of year you will be here.

That said:
Independent cinema downtown (you can drink beer while watching a film)
We have a number of (stage) theaters in town, including Duluth Playhouse, and Teatro Zuccone.

Plenty of microbreweries: Fitger's Brewhouse, Carmody's, The Thirsty Pagan (over in Superior, just across the bridge).

Food: in town Zeitgiest, Bennett's On The Lake, Cylde Iron, Va Bene, Hanabi, Pizza Luce... honestly this list can go on for quite awhile, each one of those has pro and cons depending on what you like and what atmosphere you crave. A few restaurants not in Duluth but worth the drive: New Scenic Cafe (1/2hr-40 mins northeast), Delta Diner (1hr -1 1/2 hours S/SE)...

Duluth has A LOT of music, when they can be bothered to update it online, you can find events here(.pdf). Lot of tourist stuff if that floats your boat. Can kind of get the feel for the area at PerfectDuluthDay (local community blog).

If I am in town when you are here, feel free to drop a note and I can expound on what to do with a bit more precision based on your desires.
posted by edgeways at 11:33 AM on June 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

Oh and that goes for any of you Twin Cities folks as well.
posted by edgeways at 11:36 AM on June 20, 2011

Last post... FWIW the attitude in Duluth is pretty casual. A good portion of the residents look like they are just moments away from hiking up a mountain. Most restaurants, even the more fancy ones, won't bat an eye at hiking boots and clean flannel.

As to shipping/harbor activity, check the video out on this page, kind of cool.
posted by edgeways at 11:43 AM on June 20, 2011

I am the girlfriend-

I just want to add that while it is technically my home town- I moved away at age ten and have only been back for weddings and funerals. I have no idea how it will be to be a tourist.

We're going in late September. We're going to hit the Depot and the boardwalk, and go to see my family's cabins, but after that I'm at a loss. Especially since we will not be drinking.

thanks so much for all of this!

Quick addition to things we'd totally dig- anytihng with history, animals (...i seem to remember the zoo being.. sad. so maybe not that) Wasn't there a buffalo farm near Cloquet or Esko?

When our dietary restrictive powers combine we are virtually vegans- so any recs for veggie friendly eateries would also be totally appreciated.

AND hotel recs? something cozy and downtown since niether of us drive?
posted by Blisterlips at 1:06 PM on June 20, 2011

Food ideas:

Seconding New Scenic Cafe. Smallish menu in the $20+ entree range. Worth the short drive up the shore. On preview.. if you're not driving it might be tough to get up there.

At Sara's Table is out of the touristy area and has some good choices. Not so great if you're not driving.

In the Canal Park area Lake Avenue Cafe is worth a try.

You said you don't really care too much for sightseeing but if you can make it up to Enger Tower, it's a very cool overlook.
posted by starman at 1:13 PM on June 20, 2011

There are a number of really nice bed and breakfast places. We stayed at the Ellery House for our anniversary one year and really loved it. There are quite a few more in that area of town as well. There is also the Radisson with it's revolving restaurant (quite the attraction to my sixth-grade self).
posted by goggie at 1:49 PM on June 20, 2011

After fourth of July weekend, I'll be able to tell you all about Hillside Cottage.

Meanwhile, this question is very conveniently timed, I was about to ask something quite similar!
posted by desuetude at 2:15 PM on June 20, 2011

Canal Park Lodge was a nice hotel, and conveniently located.

Since you like history, I'll second the recommendation for the Glensheen Mansion, and also you could tour the William A. Irvin, a fairly large ore boat.
posted by castlebravo at 2:21 PM on June 20, 2011

Thirding New Scenic Cafe. Hits a nice compromise between casual and upscale. There are a fair number of playhouses in town if you want to go see a show. The Tweed Museum of Art at UMD is smallish, but has some nice pieces (right now there's an exhibit on mounties!). Shopping wise, Duluth Pack sells some pretty nice stuff including their signature bags for all occasions.

Duluth is a nice enough city in the usual sense, but where it excels is as a place for urbanites who also want to live amongst beautiful natural surroundings. For instance, you don't have to be too much of a woodsman to appreciate the trek along the Superior Hiking Trail in Duluth which goes right through the city limits.
posted by Winnemac at 3:48 PM on June 20, 2011

I've only been to Duluth once but it's an awesome city to visit. There are tons of quirky little shops, bars, and restaurants in buildings that look like they haven't changed for 100 years. The views of the lake are amazing, and so are the forests around the city that go on for hundreds of miles. There are much larger cities that have far less fun stuff to do, even if you don't like the outdoors.

Be careful about traffic -- in the summer, approximately the entire population of the Twin Cities heads north for the weekend, so you should try to avoid driving in on Friday evening or leaving on Sunday afternoon.
posted by miyabo at 6:54 PM on June 20, 2011

I guess I should have mentioned that I really like food.

Do you like water? because I visited 10 years ago and still remember the outstandingly delicious, refreshing tapwater. If you normally drink bottled, drop that like a bad habit while you're in Duluth.
posted by palliser at 7:08 PM on June 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

Ok.. vegan... Pizza Luce has plenty of vegan options, and most restaurants will either have options or be accommodating. Hotels... hotels are hotels, anything in Canal Park area will be fine and shouldn't be too expensive. The Holiday Inn downtown is ok, but wouldn't be my first choice, The Sheraton is the newest hotel and is right smack in the middle of things. If your budget is bigger there are nicer places as well.

Animals... the zoo was pretty sad at one point, they are better now, still not a knock your socks off place so tbh I'd give it a miss. Aquarium is kind of cool. It is a freshwater aquarium so adjust expectations accordingly.

End of Sept might be cool, but we do have one of the longest freshwater sand beaches in the world.

History: yeah Glenshine, and the W.H Irvine ore boat is fun to tour. Also tucked away we have the Karpeles Manuscript Library, which gets overlooked because most people are not interested in looking at old dead trees nowadays, Depot yes. Also a small Maritime museum in Canal park.

There is a place called the Buffalo House near Cloquet. Don't know if they use to have Buffalo there or not, but it is mainly a restaurant nowadays (that serves buffalo meat)... no live buffalo.

Sept 16-18 is Hawk weekend up at Hawks Ridge, lots of migratory raptors pass through the area that time of year. Hit it right and you'll see dozens, maybe hundreds of raptors.

End of Sept traffic will not be too bad. Not sure if they will be done with the Interstate construction or not, but the main bulk of tourists will be gone
posted by edgeways at 8:30 PM on June 20, 2011

September is truly gorgeous in Duluth. The Hawk's Ridge weekend is awesome, but you can go up there anytime around then with binoculars and see tons of migratory raptors.

If you're not huge on hiking but you like seeing nice waterfalls and pretty trees, you can hike up Chester Park Trail or Lester Park Trail (both in the city limits and accessible by city bus or hike) or go out a little into Jay Cooke Park. If you catch a good evening, a picnic and fire on the beach are awesome.

Also, apparently our historic train museum in the basement of The Depot has a world class collection of trains. (A train buff friend of mine was blown away.)

I recommend staying at the Sheraton, since it's right downtown in the arts district with plenty to do right around there. And pick up a copy of the Transistor (a quirky little calendar mag that has all the goings-on) at Carmody's across the street. If you like cozy, you could go for Solglimt instead, which puts you on the beach next to the lift bridge, and across from the tourist district in Canal Park.
posted by RedEmma at 8:31 AM on June 21, 2011

I came here to recommend Gooseberry Falls (which we visited on the way to hiking Isle Royale), and came away reminded of how awesome northern Minnesota is.

A friend of mine is doing rescue horse therapy outside of town. My aunt & uncle & cousins lived there for years. And I may even go back this summer for an afternoon (so I can possibly hit the Duluth Pack Company store).
posted by wenestvedt at 12:03 PM on June 21, 2011

Pizza Luce has live music frequently too, if you're into that. Have fun!
posted by the young rope-rider at 8:58 PM on June 25, 2011

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