Minneapolis is a fiercely creative, passionate city, and there's plenty here to enjoy for free, from peaceful parks to top-class museums.
Though the city was officially founded in 1850, its landscape bears the marks of more than 12,000 years of human history. It's a place of contradictions and contrasts – like the way locals have embraced cycling culture despite the notoriously cold winters that necessitated the construction of the sprawling Skyway complex.
Minneapolis' free spirit speaks for itself. This is the city that produced such musical pioneers as Prince and The Replacements, Peanuts cartoonist Charles M. Schulz, and ground-shaking protest movements such as Black Lives Matter. It's the home of the first-ever Internet Cat Video Festival, with a lively theater scene and a folk music movement that once provided a launchpad for a young Bob Dylan.
Minneapolis is full of surprises, and it's easy to discover what this half of the Twin Cities has to offer on a budget. Here are the 17 best free things to do in Minneapolis.
Even if you've never been to Minneapolis, you probably know Minnehaha Falls from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's famous poem The Song of Hiawatha. There are few reminders today of what this part of Minneapolis was like before European settlers bought this stretch of land from the Dakota people, except for the falls themselves.
The falls nestle inside the country's second-ever state park, shaped by landscape architect Horace W. S. Cleveland in 1883. Many of the pretty buildings and gardens date back to the Victorian era, and the falls are a popular destination for walks. Admission to Minnehaha Park is free, and it only costs $1 to visit the John H. Stevens historic house, the first home built in Minneapolis, which was moved to this location in 1896.
In the heart of downtown, the street known as Nicollet Mall is a prime place to stroll and people watch, with good shopping, cafes and restaurants, and seasonal events such as craft and farmers' markets. Here, you’ll find a famous statue of Mary Tyler Moore, the 1970s TV icon who put Minneapolis on the pop-culture map. The cheesy monument at the corner of 7th Street and Nicollet Mall marks the spot where the all-American star threw her hat in the air during the show's opening sequence.
Minneapolis street art
Minneapolis is full of fantastic murals, from the big Bob Dylan at Hennepin Avenue and 5th Street to the Prince portrait at Hennepin and 26th Street. If you're starting to sense a geographic theme, you're right – Hennepin Avenue is full of fun street art, from Greg Gossel's comic book tribute at 930 Hennepin to the Minnesota Nice mural at 2601.
In fact, you can find fantastic works – some powerfully political and others more whimsical – wherever you roam in Minneapolis. Check out the building-sized mosaic on an auto shop facade at 3019 Minnehaha Avenue or the Pabst Blue Ribbon squirrels at 1029 Marshall Street.
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For a stunning free city view, head inside the cobalt-blue Guthrie Theater and make your way up the escalator to the Endless Bridge, a far-out cantilevered walkway floating over the parkland beside the Mississippi River. You don't need a theater ticket, as the bridge was designed to be a public space. The theater's 9th-floor Amber Box (by the Dowling Studio) is another space offering knockout views.
Minneapolis Institute of Art
The Minneapolis Institute of Art is a cultural treasure trove, offering visitors a veritable world history of art. The modern and contemporary collections are astonishing, and the Asian galleries on the 2nd floor and Decorative Arts rooms on the 3rd floor are also highlights.
It’s hard to believe that there's no fee to enter this stately building and view its 90,000 works of art. Here, you can see works from some of Europe's most famous artists, including famous pieces from Pablo Picasso and Claude Monet, without the hassle of flying to the Louvre or Uffizi. Allow at least a few hours to visit.
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Grand Rounds Scenic Byway
Like Minnehaha Park, the Grand Rounds Scenic Byway was another concept dreamed up by Horace WS Cleveland, who had quite a vision for Minneapolis in the 19th century. This interconnected chain of parks was only completed after his death, and a lot of the actual work was done by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression.
Grand Roads has 102 miles of trails to explore on foot or by bicycle, and the paths connect some of the most interesting parts of the city, including the Downtown riverfront, the Chain of Lakes, Minnehaha, the historic Longfellow House and the Mississippi River.
Minneapolis Sculpture Garden
The 19-acre Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, studded with contemporary works such as the much-photographed Spoonbridge and Cherry by Claes Oldenburg, sits beside the Walker Art Center. The Cowles Conservatory, bursting with exotic hothouse flowers, is also in the grounds. In summer (May to September) a trippy mini-golf course set between the sculptures adds to the fun.
Walker Art Center
The top-class Walker Art Center has an impressive permanent collection of 20th-century art and photography, including works from big-name US painters and pop artists. On Monday evenings from late July to late August, the gallery hosts enthusiastically attended free movie screenings and music events (head across the pedestrian bridge to Loring Park). There's usually a charge to enter the museum, but admission is free on Thursday evenings after 5pm and on the first Saturday of the month.
Stone Arch Bridge and the St. Anthony Falls Heritage Trail
Running for 1.8 miles along the Mississippi River, the St. Anthony Falls Heritage Trail provides both interesting history (information placards dot the route) and easy access to the riverbanks. The trail starts at the foot of Portland Avenue and goes over the car-free Stone Arch Bridge, which offers grand views of the cascading St. Anthony Falls. With close-up views of the city skyline, it’s one of the most popular places to hang out on a clear day, whether in balmy summer temperatures or under a light dusting of snow.
Cathedral of St. Paul
A gorgeous Edwardian cathedral inspired by the Beaux-Arts churches of Paris, the Cathedral of St. Paul is an architectural stunner and it's free to view the elegant interior. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, by-donation tours ran at 1pm from Tuesday to Friday; even if they're on hold, you can walk through on your own and admire the architecture. Just be respectful of worshipers attending morning mass at 7:30am, or confession from 3:45pm to 5pm.
Weisman Art Museum
The free-to-explore Weisman Art Museum, which occupies a surreal swooping silver structure by architect Frank Gehry on the campus of the University of Minnesota, is a highlight of any trip to Minneapolis. The airy main galleries hold cool collections of 20th-century American art, ceramics, Korean furniture and works on paper.
Gold Medal Park and the Riverfront
For cost-free riverside relaxation, join the locals strolling in Gold Medal Park, which spreads out beside the Guthrie Theater. The mound and spiral walkway at the center was inspired by the ancient Native American mounds found throughout Minnesota. From here, you can easily access the Central Mississippi Riverfront Regional Park for soothing walks beside the Mississippi River.
Prince Tribute Tunnel
There's an entrance fee to see Prince's former home at Paisley Park, but that's not the only way to get your fix of Minneapolis' favorite son. Just around the corner from Paisley Park, where the Riley Creek Underpass tunnels under Highway 5 and the Arboretum Boulevard en route to Lake Anne Field, the landscape starts to take on a purple hue. Draped over the chainlink fence and spray painted onto any exposed piece of concrete are all manner of Prince tributes. It's a contemporary replacement for the real-life Graffiti Bridge in Eden Prairie, which was a magnet for Prince fans until it was torn down in 1991.
Mall of America
America's biggest shopping center might be a palace of commerce, but the Mall of America doesn't have to cost you a penny. You can just take in the spectacle, from the zipline and twin amusement parks to the wedding chapel. Find a vantage point on the concourse for people-watching, and look out for occasional free concerts and events.
Chain of Lakes
Minnesota is called the land of a thousand lakes for a reason, and Minneapolis has more than its fair share of scenic pools. The Chain of Lakes links some of the city's best natural features, including Brownie Lake, Cedar Lake, Lake of the Isles, Bde Maka Ska and Lake Harriet, all connected by trails. There are beaches, boat docks, bike paths, hockey and ice skating rinks, playgrounds, a bird sanctuary and a dog park here. Do as locals do and bring your walking shoes, your favorite book, your camera or a canoe or paddleboard and spend a sunny day exploring.
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Northeast Minneapolis Arts District
Full of galleries, art-centric events and occasional open studios, the Northeast Minneapolis Arts District has plenty of free happenings for travelers interested in creativity and the arts. On the first Saturday of every month, you can stroll through the Northrup King Building, a former seed warehouse that has been repurposed as workspaces for more than 300 local artists. If you’re in Minneapolis in May, the Art-A-Whirl festival is a must, featuring works in every medium from more than 800 artists.
The city’s top music venue is a sightseeing destination all by itself. First Avenue has been the hub of the Twin Cities’ vibrant music scene since 1970. A roll call of local stars and big-name visitors have left their mark on the city, and you can view their names on stars painted on the exterior of the building. Come for a show, or at the very least, take a walk around the exterior to see what all the fuss is about.
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