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June 15, 2012 7:45 AM   Subscribe

Road trip: what should we check out in Wisconsin and Minnesota?

My friends and I are taking a leisurely road trip from Chicago to a cabin near the Ontario-Manitoba border in late August. On the way, we'd like to check out Milwaukee, Madison, Duluth, and (on the way back) the Twin Cities. What are some unmissable things to do en route? We like:

- small towns in between, and their unique attributes
- thrift stores, used book stores
- bars, drinking holes
- live music, dance nights (indie, disco, whatever)
- notable cheap motels
- also, nature
posted by Beardman to Travel & Transportation around Minnesota (38 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
If you take I-94 West from Madison, then I-90 to LaCrosse, you can hop on the Great River Road, which is one of my favorites.
posted by jicinabox at 7:50 AM on June 15, 2012

Stillwater, MN was a neat little berg when I was there years ago, and enjoyed a massive platter of food and liters of beer at Gasthaus Bavarian Hunter nearby.

Uncle Hugo's in Minneapolis is worth the trip if you like SF, Mystery.
posted by bellastarr at 7:54 AM on June 15, 2012

Voyageurs Nat'l Park is a beautiful place.
posted by Flood at 7:56 AM on June 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

Might be a little out of the way if you're going to Madison via Milwaukee, but I love going to the New Glarus Brewery.

Others: Mars Cheese Castle, Brat Stop.
posted by RabbleRabble at 7:59 AM on June 15, 2012

If you're going through Austin, the Soam Museum is interesting.
posted by Gridlock Joe at 8:05 AM on June 15, 2012

posted by nightwood at 8:05 AM on June 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

The thing I always like to recommend is the Forevertron. It is trippy and awesome.

Devil's Lake State Park is great for nature.

Madison in general has more great restaurants/bars/drinking holes than you can shake a stick at. I couldn't possibly list them all here. (Mickey's Tavern, The Weary Traveler, and The Old-Fashioned will run you the gamut of dive to nice.)
posted by altopower at 8:06 AM on June 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

Ella's in Madison and if you are there on a Saturday, the Farmer's Market.
posted by hmo at 8:06 AM on June 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

Ooh, when you're in/around Stillwater, go to Phil's Tara Hideaway. It looks like a crappy cabin on a gravel frontage road, but it's SO GOOD.

The Twin Cities have no shortage of fantastic options, but I recommend Matt's Bar (home of the Jucy Lucy -- accept no substitutes!) and Izzy's Ice Cream. Don't miss Minnehaha Falls when you're in town. Also, try Mancini's Char House for that Rat Pack sort of atmosphere with grilled garlic bread (YUM). Finally, if you can stomach a British Isles pub that is actually run by a person from the British Isles and has the menu to back it up, go to Merlin's Rest, especially for fish fry. They have live music pretty frequently, and it's very laid back.

Stillwater is pretty nice, but it runs to the "ladies who like to go antiquing" side of things. However, this would also be the appropriate time to say that there is some family restaurant or other on the main drag which has the kind of food that once inspired some kid to write graffiti on the window saying [sic] "I FUCKING LOVE YOUR GRYO OMLETE." So there's something for everyone, really :)

If you're thinking of notable cheap motels, and you aren't opposed to a slightly less than sparkling ambience, you must go to the Don Q Inn in Dodgeville. It's the perfect stop when you're going along Highway 14 to Spring Green (lovely little arty town, with a great "general store" and restaurant, that is also home to Taliesin) and/or the House on the Rock, which is crazypants.

And yes, Madison is great. Shoot us a line; my husband loves live music n stuff.
posted by Madamina at 8:17 AM on June 15, 2012 [3 favorites]

I just went through Duluth a few months ago:) Fitger's brewery is great, and very popular. We ended up waiting in the bar across the hall, which is also fantastic - they have some lovely infused whiskey drinks you should try.
posted by lizbunny at 8:19 AM on June 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

Also, the Muddy Pig for drinks.
posted by Madamina at 8:20 AM on June 15, 2012

There's a neat little town called Chippewa Falls about 4 hours north of Madison. Great ice cream at a place called Olson's Dairy, there's the Leinenkugel's Brewery, which has a great tour and wonderful gift shop with free samples. I'm in Eau Claire, which has lots of great dive bars.
posted by cosmicbandito at 8:31 AM on June 15, 2012

If you're going as far as Duluth anyway, hop on Highway 61 and drive up along the north shore of Superior for a couple of hours. It's the most beautiful part of the state, you absolutely won't regret it. At some point, you'll want to get out of the car and clamber around on the rocks; there are many opportunities to do so.

And I second the recs for Fitger's, Phil's Tara Hideaway, and Mancini's.
posted by COBRA! at 8:37 AM on June 15, 2012 [7 favorites]

Eau Claire has pretty much the cheapest beers anywhere. On Water Street. If you are into that kind of thing. And you can pick up one of the weirdest coasters at The Joynt.

Are you going to Baudette or someplace on Lake of the Woods? I'm not as familiar with that end of Rainy River, but at the other end (can be on your way!) is Ranier and Woody's Fairly Reliable pub.

Nthing Voyageurs National Park. So so pretty. Or, if you aren't up for the whole park experience, dinner at Sha Sha Resort lets you see some pretty amazing vistas. And feed chipmunks by hand.

The North Shore of Lake Superior on Hwy 61 (as said above) is gorgeous, but a long drive and is more of a destination than a pass-through. I'd definitely hit up Duluth, then take Hwy 53 up to International Falls (my familiar end of Rainy River) to see the above two places. Then head down 71/11 which turns into just 11 to Baudette or whatever place it is you're going on that end of Rainy River.

Hwy 53 will take you past the Lake Kabetogama portion of Voyageurs National Park, too.
posted by jillithd at 8:50 AM on June 15, 2012

Bald eagle viewing!
posted by *s at 8:51 AM on June 15, 2012

The museum in Austin referred to above is the Spam museum, but it will be a little bit out of your way.

Another place that isn't quite on your way but that you might like is Ely, Minnesota (pronounced "E-lee". It's a good base for exploring into the Boundary Waters, and it has a few minor tourist attractions that I thought were kind of fun, namely the International Wolf Center and Bear Center. There is lots of nice hiking all around on your way to and from Ely.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 9:07 AM on June 15, 2012

Definitely have a burger, fries, and a beer at the Anchor Bar in Superior, WI, just across the bridge from Duluth. You will not regret it. Expect the service to be a bit surly, it's all part of the deal.
posted by LowellLarson at 9:10 AM on June 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

So let me clarify the route for you here:

You will pretty much be going along Highway 61 down through the Twin Cities. From there, if you want to get to Madison, you can take one of two main routes: the interstate or continuing down on 61 to La Crosse. And even then, you get two choices: again, the interstate or Highway 14.

Traveling down 61 from the Cities to La Crosse is GORGEOUS. There are a bunch of nice little towns like Hastings and Red Wing. You'll be alongside Ol' Man River the whole way, and you can see the lift bridges, lock systems, all that. Lake Pepin (birthplace of waterskiing!) is a lovely view, too.

If you take the interstate from the Cities, you'll be right by Chippewa Falls and Eau Claire, which are maybe 1-1.5 hours outside the Cities and 3 hours north of Madison. There's also a rest stop with a giant orange fiberglass moose outside of Black River Falls that is actually quite good -- they have better-than-average selections of fine Wisconsin foodstuffs (New Glarus beer -- you must get the New Glarus beer) and a full-service coffee place.

So then you get to La Crosse, home of the world's largest six-pack. Again, the split. The interstate will take you past the Wisconsin Dells, which is a tourist trap on every level but possibly fun.

Highway 14 will take you through the hills of the driftless region and is very pretty. Highway 14 is the one that takes you to Spring Green/Dodgeville and then straight into Middleton/Madison. If you choose Highway 14, you should go to the Hubbard Avenue Diner, which is Famous For Pie with very good reason.
posted by Madamina at 9:11 AM on June 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

Oh, and also the Vince Shute Bear Sanctuary, near Orr, MN. The catch is that you have to be there in the evening or there's nothing to see. It's amazing, and I'm pretty sure you don't have one in Chicago.
posted by LowellLarson at 9:13 AM on June 15, 2012

Just being in Duluth, MN is an activity in itself and not to be missed. The quickest and easiest things to do:

Enger Tower. You may need a map for help getting up to it, but the tower is on the central/west end of the city (which looks like the southwest end on a map). You can oversee downtown, the port, and the lake. The parking lot of the old Central High School is amazing for views, too, if you can still get up there.

Skyline Parkway, but starting at the north end via Seven Bridges Road at the east end of the city--the roads are E Superior St & Occidental Blvd (again, northeast on a map). Stop at Hawk Ridge along the way southbound. You can try to drive the entire 10 mile Parkway, but you really, really have to know where you are going as the signs are TINY and the road changes names in the middle of the city.

You can always watch 1,100-foot ships come into the harbor if you time it right with the lift bridge schedule.

All of those things are completely free, don't take much time, and worth it.

Then you can head north on highway 61 as mentioned to see Split Rock Lighthouse or Goosebury Falls, but those sites are about a 40+ minute drive north of Duluth (if you don't speed).

As far as Minneapolis goes, I kind of take it for granted, but stop by one of the lakes (Calhoun--hipster, artsy, college age folks) or Harriet (families, older people, much calmer atmosphere) for a little walk. These good-sized lakes are within the actual city limits (which is pretty rare, but we have 10!) with separate walking paths and good views of the skyline while being immersed in trees.

Might as well check out the River, too--walkways along the entire length.

The only observation deck we have is the top of the Foshay tower. It's only half the height of surrounding buildings, but maybe worth a look. It's open-air, though, with an extremely narrow walkway and a grate to keep you from falling off too easily, so even people who don't have a fear of heights freak out sometimes--just a word of caution. You get up via the hotel concierge desk.
posted by TinWhistle at 9:14 AM on June 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

Downtown La Crosse, Wisconsin is like 100% bars. So you might enjoy some time there, but don't go hopping back in to your car, eh?
posted by entropone at 9:41 AM on June 15, 2012

If you go through Milwaukee on any summer weekend, there is a festival going on, guaranteed. In August alone we have African World Festival, State Fair, Jazz Festival, Rockerbox Motofest, Irish Fest, Mexican Fiesta, and the Milwaukee Rally (a huge Harley-Davidson thing). Tons and tons of live music. You basically can't throw a rock in the summer without hitting a live music festival (pls don't throw rocks kthx).

Whether it's a weekend or not, I'd spend an afternoon in the Third Ward, south of downtown.

Thrift stores: Retique and East Town Women's Shop
Antiques: Artasia (amazingly huge collection of imported furniture, clothing, etc, some new and some old) and the Milwaukee Antique Center
Eat: Milwaukee Public Market or Milwaukee Ale House (on the river!)
These are all within 3 blocks of each other.

The best used book store in Milwaukee closed, so I can't recommend one of those, but a good new independent bookstore is Boswell Book company, about 5-ish miles from the Third Ward. Drive along the lake!
posted by desjardins at 9:50 AM on June 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

Don't miss the Saturday farmer's market on Madison's capitol square! Forget Ella's - definitely overrated. Try the Weary Traveler on the near east side, and my personal favorite, Essen Haus.

More musts: sit on the Memorial Union Terrace, have an ice cream cone from Babcock Dairy and maybe a pitcher of beer. Check out Olin Park for a great view of the city and Monona Terrace (Frank Lloyd Wright building). For music, check out what's playing at the Barrymore Theatre. Walk down State Street! Shop on State Street! Enjoy!

Outside of Madison, check out Spring Green and Taliesen (beautiful area, and Wright's house); I second the New Glarus Brewery -- not only do they have great beer, but New Glarus is a fantastic town. Also check out Mt. Horeb for a truly unique small town experience (trolls everywhere!), and if you like mustard - they have an incredible museum! Also seconding the Great River Road.

About an hour outside of Madison is Devil's Lake State Park, which is absolutely beautiful, and not too far off your route.

Madison has a TON of good restaurants - more restaurants per capita than any other city in the country! Shoot me a line - I lived there for 22 years, and would be happy to point you in the right direction.
posted by eenagy at 10:10 AM on June 15, 2012

Sounds like from Duluth to the border you'll be going through the "Iron Range" area of Minnesota - cities West to East like Grand Rapids, Hibbing, and Virginia/Eveleth.

Eveleth is home to the worlds largest hockey stick and the US Hockey Hall of Fame.

Chisholm has a Mining Museum, the "Iron Man" statue, and the Minnesota Discovery Center (an attraction dedicated primarily to the history of iron mining in Northern MN.

Hibbing has the Hull Rust Mine view attraction. I forget the stats, but it's something like the largest open pit mine in the world, or the largest iron mine in the world... The Hibbing High School is very historic and they offer tours. Bob Dylan's childhood home is in Hibbing, as well as the Greyhound Origin Center (where Greyhound was born), and Old North Hibbing is where Hibbing used to be until they literally picked up the town and moved it a couple miles South because the richest iron ore deposits in the world were found under it. Oh, and Bob Dylan owns a restaurant in Hibbing called "Zimmy's."

Itasca State Park is near Grand Rapids - this is where the Mississippi River starts.
posted by thatguyjeff at 10:15 AM on June 15, 2012

If you take Hwy. 14 from La Crosse to Madison, it does indeed get you directly to the far west side of Madison and the suburb of Middleton. Hubbard Ave. Diner is excellent food, but Madamina forgot to mention the National Mustard Museum which is absolutely worth a visit (and the mustard you buy in the gift shop will make nice presents and mementos, and will survive the heat in the car just fine, unlike a lot of tourist foods you can get in Wisconsin).

Others have said plenty about my city of Madison (though I LIKE Ella's and don't at all think it's overrated--the food is great and you have to see the place at least once!), but as a former Middleton resident, I had to make sure you knew about the mustard.
posted by gillyflower at 10:25 AM on June 15, 2012

I forgot! If you are from Chicago, Bronko Nagurski was a Chicago Bear and he is from International Falls. (Not sure if you are a football fan.) But the Falls have a museum dedicated specifically to Bronko.
posted by jillithd at 10:36 AM on June 15, 2012

If you're taking 61 north from Duluth on the Minnesota side of the lake, my favorite place is Temperance river state park. Late August should be warm enough for swimming, and this is the place for it. There's a bay with nice warm water just off the lake, and as you walk up the river different swimming holes. Depending on your taste for adventure you can jump off the bridge just above the lake or from different points along a big rock formation just up from the parking area. About 15 minutes walk inland there's a great spot where the river is channeled between two big rocks and you can also jump in anywhere from a few to 15 feet above the water. Or just swim after a nice short hike in a fast clear river.

Be sure to jump into the lake as well. Wading in isn't the same as violently submerging yourself. Have a towel and warm clothes at the wait though.
posted by kjell at 11:08 AM on June 15, 2012

There is a way to cross WI from north to south using almost entirely dirt roads and scenic highways.

It's called the Trans Wisconsin Adventure Trail, and I did it a few weeks ago. I roughly followed this course.

While most people who have done it are on motocycles, it is entirely passable in a car. WI does not have a great deal of 4wd only terrain. You may have to find some alternate paths because of road closures from rain, etc. But, then that is half the fun.

Highlights - I got to watch an Amish wedding procession, and heard a loose calf back to the farm. I watched several hundered hawks circle at Wildcat Mountain State Park (Highway 33 through there is a fun ride). I shopped at an Amish Candy Shoppe, and saw a ton of wildlife.

The dirt roads as you get closer to Lake Superior are very scenic especially north of highway 2.

There are forums at UPoverland and expedition portal that will have a wealth of information as well.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 11:08 AM on June 15, 2012

In Milwaukee, driv-thru Sil's for some delicious mini-donuts!

You'd also want to walk along the lakefront and spend a few hours in the fabulous Milwaukee Art Museum -- the building itself is a work of art.

Some folks like the brewery tours, like the one at Miller-Coors (but I think it used to be better than it currently is).

Try to find a Kopp's for out-of-this-world frozen custard. And while you're at it, find a Culver's for a Butter Burger.

In Madison, you MUST MUST MUST grab a meal at The Old Fashioned -- great authentic Wisconsin food in a cool setting right across the street from the state capitol.

Finally, drive a bit beyond Madison and do the Frank Lloyd Wright stuff in Spring Green -- especially one of the Taliesen tours.
posted by tmharris65 at 11:18 AM on June 15, 2012

In Milwaukee:
Spy House restaurant is fun and silly.
Milwaukee Public Market
In Kenosha, not far from Mars Cheese Castle is the Jelly Belly Distribution plant, free samples and a cute tour.
posted by honeybee413 at 12:09 PM on June 15, 2012

I've only driven through that region once, when I detoured north on a cross-country drive so I could check out the EAA Oshkosh airshow. You'll be a month late for that this year, but The Experimental Aircraft Association has a fascinating museum there that's worth a stop. Experimental flying things can be pretty dang fascinating, even if you didn't think you were into that sort of thing.

I see the place where I stayed is still there and under the same ownership. Rural, lovely and homey sort of place. Really nice folks, with a lot of local resources (e.g. they sent me to a local cheesemaker so I could watch the process and leave with a bag of curds to sustain me on the rest of my journey).
posted by AnOrigamiLife at 12:55 PM on June 15, 2012

You really shouldn't miss The House on the Rock if you're going to be traveling near Spring Green. Or well maybe you should depending on your taste. It's pretty eccentric and not to everyone's liking, but I love it myself.

August can get pretty hot here. Duluth and anywhere on the shore of Lake Superior is a wonderfully refreshing way to cool off. You can't believe how much cooler the temps are when you're right next to a huge and very cold body of water.

The River Road is the prettiest way to travel in Minnesota/Wisconsin.

If you're coming to Minneapolis, don't miss the chain of lakes (Isles, Calhoun and Harriet) and Minnehaha Falls. You can walk from the base of the falls all the way to the Mississippi River by following a footpath on the north side of Minnehaha Creek (again, starting downstream from the falls). You might want to ask for directions, since it's not a marked trail.

(Calhoun--hipster, artsy, college age folks) or Harriet (families, older people, much calmer atmosphere) Tin Whistle got the vibe of Lake Calhoun and Lake Harriet just right, but he forgot to mention Lake of the Isles (clash of old and new money and big mansions reflecting both.) Isles is probably my favorite of the chain of lakes. Also lots of leafy green parkway and nice big old houses along Minnehaha Parkway (which follows Minnehaha Creek from just south of Lake Harriet to Minnehaha Falls), and also along West River Road from just north of the falls to Lake Street.

Minnesota, really is all about the water, especially in Duluth and Minneapolis, and especially in the summertime.

Oh, and here's a schedule of free outdoor concerts and movies in Minneapolis. I like the ones at Lake Harriet the best (look for LHB next to the events.)
posted by marsha56 at 4:55 PM on June 15, 2012

honeybee413 is thinking of The Safe House, which is a really good idea if you like quirky bars, and disappointingly, it's marked on Google Maps. (It's supposed to be a secret!!)

I agree with the House on the Rock if you have time and money to blow. It's one of those things you have to do once.
posted by desjardins at 6:05 PM on June 15, 2012

omg House on the Rock FOR SURE. It's basically insane.
posted by triggerfinger at 8:25 PM on June 15, 2012

Passing through Two Harbors you need to stop at Lou's Fish smoke house. The fish is good but the beef jerky is Amazing!Also in Duluth stop at the Northern Waters Smokhaus for a sandwich and some great bacon. Have fun.
posted by The Violet Cypher at 11:03 PM on June 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

What sorts of things do you like to find at thrift stores? I'm a fan of Milwaukee-area Value Villages, but you have to be there at the right time to get the best stuff.
posted by drezdn at 4:32 AM on June 16, 2012

There are oo-ly many threads already about the city of Madison, where I live, so I'll just say: farmer's market definitely. Live music happens, among other places, at the High Noon (bigger indie acts), the Frequency (smaller indie acts), and the Project Lodge (ultra-unknown weird student art rock / events.) Strangely, it's not a great used book town, but Frugal Muse and Avol's are probably your two best choices here. (I've also heard great things about Renaissance Books in Milwaukee.) For bars of the no-nonsense Wisconsin beer/burgers/old dudes/sports on TVvariety, I'm partial to the Caribou Tavern. For a more Madison-specific experience (walnut burgers, soccer on TV) try Harmony Bar. Olbrich Botanical Gardens is superb, if you like botanical gardens.

Small towns: For some reason I really like Sauk City, which has a sleepy little riverside downtown and a lot of stuff named after local literary hero August Derleth. Leystra's Venture is a good place to eat old-fashioned Wisconsin food here. You'll need to take route 12 instead of I-94, but you should do that anyway, because as others have mentioned you really do want to see the Forevertron.

The recommendation of Culver's if you need a roadside fast food stop is very sound.
posted by escabeche at 6:17 PM on June 16, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone! This is several road trips' worth!
posted by Beardman at 11:13 AM on June 17, 2012

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