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Twin Cities vacation inexpensive fun

State Capitol Bureau MINNEAPOLIS - It's the Independence Day weekend and the summer seems to be zipping by way too fast. You need a vacation, but with gasoline prices hovering around $4 a gallon - and too often going above it - you can't afford t...

Como Zoo

State Capitol Bureau

MINNEAPOLIS - It's the Independence Day weekend and the summer seems to be zipping by way too fast. You need a vacation, but with gasoline prices hovering around $4 a gallon - and too often going above it - you can't afford to drive far.

One option is to stay close and drive to the Twin Cities. The upper Midwest's largest metropolitan area offers quite a few inexpensive attractions that extend beyond the Mall of America. The Minneapolis-St. Paul area has more ethnic diversity than any other regional destination, has a wealth of theaters and museums and it would be hard to find an urban area with more outdoors recreation.

"It is not a destination I would have chosen on my own," Oklahoma-based travel writer Elaine Warner said after an early 2008 visit. "But it is definitely one that I would be happy to go back to."

Restaurants in the Twin Cities are as good as anywhere, she said, and there are plenty of attractions for all tastes.

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"I think you would get more bang for your buck and less hassle," she said.

Rudy Maxa travels the world for public television's "Rudy Maxa's World," but makes St. Paul his home.

"Maybe it is a good time to appreciate what is in your backyard," he said.

Warner and Maxa agreed there is one place to start a tour of the Twin Cities: the Mill City Museum.

The 5-year-old museum is in the burned-out ruins of what once was the world's largest flour mill, one of many that lined the Mississippi River in downtown Minneapolis.

"The Mill City Museum, I think, is one of the great museums in the United States," Maxa said.

"I think you have to start there," Warner added. "It really kind of sets the scene for the city."

The museum provides visitors with agriculture and agri-business information for all ages.

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Flour can be highly explosive, visitors learn, and many mill workers lost limbs. Maxa said that is why Twin Cities' companies are among the leaders in developing artificial limbs.

The museum is at the center of a district with many attractions and plenty of sights children 6 and older will enjoy, Maxa said.

Next to the museum is the internationally acclaimed Guthrie Theater, which recently set a sales record when tickets went on sale for its premiere of "Little House on the Prairie."

Warner said that the Guthrie is reason enough to visit Minnesota's largest city.

"There is plenty of theater in Minneapolis and some in St. Paul," Maxa said. "I certainly think the Guthrie is a leading light in the theater world."

As for art, three museums stand out, but there are many smaller ones, too. The Walker Art Center has a worldwide reputation for its modern art exhibits. The Weisman Art Museum at the University of Minnesota is so popular it is expanding.

But for those who can only visit one art museum during a Twin Cities vacation, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts might be an ideal destination with its mix of art and history museums combined into one. And, like the Weisman, it is free.

Museums dot the Twin Cities' landscape, but for Minnesotans, a must-visit attraction is the Minnesota History Center in downtown St. Paul. A short walk away is the state Capitol, which isn't technically a museum, but its marble walls contain as much history as any building in the state. And tours are free.

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Also near the Capitol is the St. Paul Cathedral, which has been called one of the most impressive churches in the region.

South of the cathedral, tourists can drive along Summit Avenue, where gawking at the historic houses is a common pastime.

One of the Twin Cities' best attributes is their ethnic diversity.

Sure, the area's Scandinavian influence remains prominent. But the cities now are home to the country's largest Hmong, Somali and Liberian communities. With new immigrant populations, which include large numbers of Hispanic descent, come new cultural and culinary opportunities.

District Del Sol, south of downtown St. Paul (take Robert Street), is a hub of Hispanic activity.

El Burrito Mercado, at 175 Cesar Chavez St., is a no-nonsense restaurant with authentic Mexican favorites. For those who want to cook their Mexican food at home, there is a full grocery store adjoining the restaurant.

For those more into Asian food, head just east of the Capitol on University Avenue where there are blocks featuring one Asian restaurant after another, many of them "ma-and-pa" establishments.

One newer building with plenty of atmosphere is Mai Village, 394 W. University Ave., the eastern most of the University Avenue Asian restaurants. It features elaborate woodwork, complete with a wooden bridge over a fishpond just inside the door.

There are other Somali, Scandinavian, German and other ethnic restaurants and markets, but head to the Midtown Global Market at Lake Street and 10th Avenue south of downtown Minneapolis for a broader experience.

Its food and goods shops feature ethnic offerings ranging from Hispanic to African.

The Twin Cities are unusual because of large expanses of forested and other green space interspersed with urban areas.

A favorite area among locals also may attract visitors - the Chain of Lakes. Bicycle and walking trails abound, connecting lakes like Calhoun and Harriet, southwest of downtown Minneapolis.

In the Harriet area, for instance, visitors can see the second-oldest public rose garden in the country, a Japanese garden and a bird sanctuary.

A surprise awaits nature lovers in the middle of suburbia. The Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge, just off Interstate 94 near the Mall of America, offers a visitors' center and nature trails.

The megamall is the mega-tourist attraction, but the Twin Cities offer many other favorites, such as professional sports ranging from baseball's Twins to the Thunder soccer squad.

One unique sports event is a St. Paul Saints baseball game. Mudonna, a pig mascot is a favorite at the games and one of many attempts to make the game of summer more fun.

A quieter welcome awaits visitors in the St. Croix River town of Stillwater, with a downtown full of antique stores and what Maxa called "some fun restaurants."

Also on the quiet side, river cruises on the Mississippi are available in both Minneapolis and St. Paul, on Lake Minnetonka and on the St. Croix from Afton, Minn., and Hudson, Wis.

The Twin Cities provide a mixture of attractions that people unfamiliar with the area, like Warner, find surprising.

"St. Paul is like a fine wine and good chocolate - it is very sophisticated," Warner said. "To me, it was very European. Minneapolis is ... a pickier city; maybe has a little livelier feel, a little younger feel."

She said she is glad to have made her first visit during a magazine assignment earlier this year.

"It is an airport to fly through," Warner said. "It just never occurred to me to stop. And what a shame. I found some wonderful and interesting things to do."

A few attractions worth checking out on Twin Cities trip

- State Capitol: See where laws are made and on a good day get a rooftop view of the Twin Cities. Free. 75 The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., St. Paul. www.mnhs.org/places/

sites/msc

- Minnesota History Center: Displays dealing with Minnesota history. 345 Kellogg Blvd. W., St. Paul. www.mnhs.org/historycenter

- Humphrey Forum: From his first campaign for mayor of Minneapolis in 1943 until his last election to the U.S. Senate in 1976, Hubert Humphrey collected material that represented the culture of American politics. Many of those items are on display. Free. University of Minnesota's Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, 301 19th Ave. S., Minneapolis.

- Fort Snelling: Fort restored to its 1820s roots with soldiers, fur traders, servants, cooks, tradesmen and laundresses in costume. Highways 5 and 55, St. Paul. www.mnhs.org/places/

sites/hfs

- James J. Hill House: This former home of a wealthy railroad leader is one of the best public mansions in the Twin Cities. 240 Summit Ave., St. Paul. www.mnhs.org/hillhouse

- Chain of Lakes: Series of lakes in southern Minneapolis with walking and bicycle paths, band concerts, watercraft rentals and much more. The lakes are among 929 lakes in the Twin Cities. A Japanese Garden, bird sanctuary and country's second-oldest public rose garden are near Lake Harriet. Mostly free. www.minneapolisparks.org/

grandrounds/dist_cl.htm

- Minnehaha Park and Falls: Park overlooks the Mississippi River and features a 53-foot waterfall, limestone bluffs, river overlooks and a variety of wildlife. Falls inspired Henry W. Longfellow to write the poem "Song of Hiawatha." Free. 4801 Minnehaha Ave. S., Minneapolis. www.minneapolisparks.org

- Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge: If not for airplanes landing and leaving the nearby Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, it would be impossible to tell you are in an urban area. A visitors' center provides guidance about how to spot the abundance of wildlife. Free. Near 34th Avenue exit of Interstate 494, Bloomington. www.fws.gov/midwest/minnesotavalley

- Minneapolis riverfront: Range of attractions such as Mill City Museum, Guthrie Theater, Stone Arch Bridge, parks and lock and dam. Some attractions free. Along Mississippi River, downtown Minneapolis. www.minneapolis-riverfront.com

- Como Zoo and Conservatory: Zoo is free - although donation is requested - and since it is small it is easy to navigate. Exotic flowers fill the conservatory. Kiddie amusement park adjoins zoo. Part of large city park. 1225 Estabrook Drive, St. Paul. www.comozoo

conservatory.org

- Minnesota Zoo: Nearly 2,500 animals (not including insects) of 445 species populate the modern zoo. 13000 Zoo Blvd., Apple Valley. www.mnzoo.org

- James Ford Bell Museum of Natural History: History and art displays, emphasizing plants and animals. Free on Sundays. University of Minnesota campus, 10 Church St. S.E., Minneapolis. www.bellmuseum.org

- Minneapolis Institute of Arts: As much a history museum as an art showcase, it houses 80,000 objects from the past 5,000 years. Mostly free. 2400 3rd Ave. S., Minneapolis. www.artsmia.org

- Walker Art Center: The Twin Cities' leading modern art museum. Free on the first Saturday of the month. 1750 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis. www.walkerart.org

- Minnesota Museum of American Art: Dedicated to American art. Free. 50 W. Kellogg Blvd., St. Paul. www.mmaa.org

- Don Davis

- Minneapolis Sculpture Garden: Associated with Walker Art Center, the free outdoor exhibit features the famous overly large cherry sitting on a similarly large spoon. 1750 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis. www.walkerart.org

- Weisman Art Museum: Shiny silver exterior makes the Weisman impossible to miss on the University of Minnesota's campus. Free. 333 East River Road, Minneapolis. www.weisman.umn.edu

- Goldstein Museum of Design: Devoted to the study of clothes, textiles, decorative arts and graphic design. More than 27,000 objects in its collection. Free. 241 McNeal Hall, University of Minnesota St. Paul campus. www.goldstein.che.umn.edu

- Minnesota Center for Photography: Variety of photo displays. Free, but donations requested. (Open afternoons only.) 165 13th Ave. N.E., Minneapolis. www.mncp.org

- Midtown Global Market: More than 50 locally owned restaurants and other shops with food and merchandise from around the world. Lake Street and 10th Avenue, Minneapolis. www.midtownglobalmarket.org

- American Swedish Institute: All things Swedish. Colorful gowns of the Swedish queen are on display through Sept. 28. 2600 Park Ave., Minneapolis. www.americanswedishinst.org

- Ingebretsen's: Scandinavian marketplace. 1601 E. Lake St., Minneapolis. www.ingebretsens.com

- Karmel Center: First Somali shopping center in United States. 2944 Pillsbury Ave. S., Minneapolis

- Museum of Russian Art: The name says it all. 5500 Stevens Ave. S., Minneapolis. www.tmora.org

- Hmong market: Some say it is like visiting a Bangkok market. Northwest of Capitol on Como Avenue, St. Paul.

- Latin American market: Food, clothing and other Latin goods for sale. Mercado Central, 515 E. Lake St., Minneapolis. www.mercadocentral.net

- Hindu temple of Minnesota: Visitors welcome at the 2-year-old facility. 10530 Troy Lane North, Maple Grove. www.hindumandirmn.org

- St. Paul cathedral: The 306.5-foot cathedral dominates the downtown St. Paul skyline, challenging the state Capitol. Free tours are available at 1 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Friday. 239 Selby Ave., Saint Paul. www.cathedralsaintpaul.org

- Science Museum of Minnesota: This year's Star Wars exhibit gets lots of publicity, but the museum features many other science displays, an Imax theater and information on Mississippi River. 120 W. Kellogg Blvd., St. Paul. www.smm.org

- Minnesota Children's Museum: Hands-on opportunity for kids to learn. 10 W. Seventh St., St. Paul. www.mcm.org

- Farmers' markets: Farmers, and others, sell their goods in many places on weekends around the Twin Cities. But those in the Mill City area of Minneapolis and downtown St. Paul are among ones to check out. Mill City Farmer's Market, 704 2nd Street S. www.millcityfarmersmarket.org . St. Paul Farmer's Market, 290 E. Fifth St. www.stpaulfarmersmarket.com

- University gardens: Site for students to learn horticulture also gives visitors a free look at plants, decks, fences and walkways. University of Minnesota St. Paul campus, corner of Gortner and Folwell. www.sustland.umn.edu/design/dtgarden.html

- Cruises: Paddleford River Rides, Harriet Island, St. Paul Mississippi River riverfront. www.riverrides.com . Minneapolis Queen and Paradise Lady, Minneapolis Mississippi River riverfront. www.twincitiescruises.com . Afton-Hudson Cruise Lines, St. Croix River riverfront in Afton, Minn., and Hudson, Wis. www.aftonhouseinn.com

- Mall of America: Technically the mall is free, but most visitors end up paying quite a bit for a visit. It has more than 520 stores, a 14-screen movie theater, a walk-through aquarium and Nickelodeon Universe, which replaced Camp Snoopy. Interstate 494 and Minnesota 77. www.mallofamerica.com

Davis works for Forum Communications Co., which owns The Forum. He can be reached at (651) 290-0707 or ddavis@forumcomm.com

Como Zoo

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