It’s easy to fall back on chain stores and restaurants when you travel. But by doing so, you miss out on the unique experiences gained from visiting locally owned and operated businesses. But more than that: When you shop and eat local on a trip to Minnesota, you invest back into the people and communities you visit.
The next time you find yourself in the North Star State, put these 12 #OnlyinMN experiences on your travel itinerary. Keeping it local never felt so rewarding.
1. Join a human foosball game.
In the state’s northwest, home to the headwaters of the Mississippi, the family-owned Summerhill Adventures in Park Rapids has multiple shops with items crafted by local artisans, women’s clothing and accessories, home décor, and more. Grab some taffy and homemade fudge from the onsite Cuzzin’s Candy.
And if the kids need to blow off some steam after shopping, the Back 40 adventure park is where to do it. Steer them toward the petting zoo, goat racing, climbing wall, and even a human foosball experience. When you’re ready for a lunch break, Café 13 serves sandwiches, wraps, and paninis, along with specialty bakery items and hand-dipped ice cream.
2. Pig out on Kansas City-style barbecue.
Not too far east of Park Rapids are the city of Walker and the shores of Leech Lake, where you’ll find The Piggy BBQ and its legendary ribs. Pair your hickory-smoked rack with a specialty cocktail like the Hog Float (RumChata and draft root beer) or the Flying Pig (Ketel One, Baileys, Kahlua, and Dr. McGillicuddy’s Mentholmint).
This restaurant has pet-friendly seating on the patio, was awarded a bronze-level award by the Bicycle Alliance of Minnesota for being a bike-friendly establishment, and has gluten-free and vegan options on the menu. Don’t forget to pick up a bottle of Piggy Sauce to take home.
3. Gear up for the great outdoors.
Duluth sits at the southwestern tip of Lake Superior, the point where Interstate 35 ends and becomes Highway 61 as it continues up the coast. The city is a gateway to adventures all along the beautiful, forested North Shore.
Wherever you’re heading along that route, a stop at Trailfitters will prep you well. This family-run business is located within the historic Fitger’s Brewery Complex and has the clothing and gear needed for outdoor excursions — from a trail run to a day of hiking to a multi-day camping trip. It carries popular outdoor brands, of course, but also items made by local artists and manufacturers like cozy apparel from DLH Clothing, backpacks by Granite Gear, art from Stained Glass by Collette, and jewelry from Oreb Lram and Silvercocoon.
4. Taste a bit of Scandinavia.
Not far up Highway 61 from Duluth, fuel up for your adventures to come at New Scenic Café. The New American-style spot is surrounded by gardens and close enough to Lake Superior for you to enjoy the sound of the waves as you dine.
The restaurant features distinctive ingredients, including items like lefse — a traditional soft Norwegian flatbread — and pickled beets, both of which hint at Minnesota’s Scandinavian history. The menu changes often, but look for the Swedish meatballs served with rutabaga potato purée, gjetost gravy, peas, buttermilk mustard, and lingonberries. Or try the Game Platter with rabbit roulade, duck breast, grilled venison, roasted carrots, medjool date and cumin purée, chocolate mole, and cashew whip.
5. Take the scenic route and stock up.
Farther north along Highway 61, not too shy of the Canadian border, is the small harbor town of Grand Marais. Take some time to explore this delightful destination, where you can taste the World’s Best Donuts or savor a slice of Sven & Ole’s pizza, then work off the calories by hiking to the lighthouse and browsing a variety of outstanding gift shops and art galleries (look for Betsy Bowen Studio, where you can admire and purchase her lovely nature-inspired woodcuts).
As you head north out of town, take the turn for the Gunflint Trail National Scenic Byway. Wilderness will soon surround you, but you’ll also find plenty of local businesses that cater to travelers’ needs. One, in particular, has been in operation since 1938: Trail Center Lodge, a landmark that started as a small store near a sawmill camp and now offers lodging, dried camp meals, a restaurant, and a small general store.
6. Dine on fun, fresh fare.
Mankato may be the state’s fifth largest metro area outside of the Twin Cities, but this is Little House on the Prairie country. Nolabelle Kitchen + Bar embraces its agricultural roots with a farm-to-table concept that delivers food made from fresh, local ingredients.
The menu spotlights specialty items like truffle chips with roasted garlic aioli dipping sauce and lemon ricotta pancakes served alongside warm local maple syrup. Vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free options are also available.
7. Pick up a prayer pipe.
Southern Minnesota is also home to sacred land of the Ihanktonwan (Yankton Dakota) people. Located in what is now Pipestone is the revered Pipestone Quarry, source of the stone traditionally used to carve prayer pipes, also known as “peace pipes.” Keepers of the Sacred Tradition of Pipemakers, a Tribal nonprofit formed to protect the quarry, provides educational public outreach and offers resources to local Native communities. The organization has a gift shop near the quarry where you can purchase pipes, Native American art supplies, and other Native art.
8. Learn about local Indigenous heritage…
The Twin Cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul are home to one of the largest urban Native American populations in the United States, and Birchbark Books celebrates this community by spotlighting Native history, authors, and artists. Its owner is the renowned novelist Louise Erdrich, a member of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa, and her independent bookstore hosts readings by Native and non-Native writers, journalists, and historians. Those traveling with the family should check out the special children’s area with a loft, cozy chairs, and a reading nook.
This is one Minnesota local treasure you just won’t find anywhere else.
9. …and then tap into the area’s Hmong culture through food.
Now in a permanent location at Graze food hall in the Twin Cities is Union Hmong Kitchen by James Beard Award semifinalist Chef Yia Vang. Order the Zoo Siab (pronounced “zhong shia,” meaning “happy” in Hmong) meal, and you’ll get a choice of pork belly, Hmong sausage, a crispy chicken leg, or grilled tofu, served with a side of purple sticky rice, pickled veggies, and lettuce wraps. Take note: They do not accept gratuities — an 18% charge is added to your bill so that each employee is paid equitably.
In addition to the restaurant, there’s a small online shop where you can purchase spices and other items to make traditional Asian food at home. You should also check out Slurp, Yia’s popup noodle shop at the Hilltribe space in Uptown Minneapolis.
10. Get yourself an (outdoor) education.
Minnesota is home to people who know how to immerse themselves in nature in all seasons. And some of the most knowledgeable people in the state include the staff at Midwest Mountaineering, a homegrown outdoor equipment and climbing business that started with the owner selling gear out of his kitchen.
Since those humble beginnings, the business has grown to carrying new and secondhand gear, providing outdoor education, and hosting the bi-annual Outdoor Adventure Expo, which includes more than 30 exhibitors and 40+ free presentations on outdoor-related topics.
11. Give a gift…to yourself.
Northwest of the Twin Cities, make a stop at Copper Pony in Sauk Rapids. The gift store features a curated mix of home goods, bath and body products, women’s clothing and accessories, and furniture pieces. Meanwhile, the café serves a variety of sandwiches, soups, salads, and baked goods as well as a full coffee and tea menu. Check the store’s website for its monthly events that partner with other local businesses and artists.
A secondary shop in Munsinger and Clemens Gardens, located in neighboring St. Cloud, is open seasonally.
12. Savor the flavors of New Orleans.
Tuck into terrific jambalaya, gumbo, and shrimp étouffée at Krewe in downtown St. Joseph, right in the heart of Central Minnesota. The dishes — inspired by Cajun, Creole, Italian, Vietnamese, and Irish cuisine — incorporate farm-fresh ingredients and are prepared using the family recipes of Chef Mateo Mackbee.
Baked goods — including turnovers, croissants, and artisan breads — are made from scratch daily by Mackbee’s partner, Erin Lucas, who runs the revelatory Flour & Flower bakery right behind the restaurant. And, of course, no New Orleans food escape would be complete without a beignet.
Whatever your reason for exploring Minnesota, choosing to shop local will leave a positive impact on the communities where you spend time, and you’ll go home with stories about what’s truly great about visiting the state.