Visiting Minnesota—A Drawing Student’s Question

April 13, 2022
A gorilla at Como Zoo. Drawn from life with a Staedtler Pigment Liner (calligraphy tip), and Daniel Smith Watercolors in a hand-bound journal.

Recently a former Sketchbook Skool Student wrote to me asking me what to see when she was in Minnesota. (Evidently she was traveling here to go up north in Wisconsin for a drawing class at one of the resorts.)

Of course whenever you ask someone a question like that you are taking into account their interests and preferences, so I assumed she wanted to know where she could go and find things to sketch.

I spent a little bit of time mulling things over and then produced the following list that completes this post. (I added a couple extra things that came to me after I wrote back to her.)

I wanted to post it here for other traveling students. 

You can easily google any of the items that interests you. If I put links in and time passes and the links break, well you get the idea…

You can also use my blog’s search engine to look for Urban Sketchers, Urban Sketchers Twin Cities, MetroSketchers, Minnesota State Fair Sketch Out, Sketch Out—you get the idea. I’ve posted about a bunch of places that are easily found under those key words.

Seasonal Awareness

Regardless of the time you show up in Minnesota be sure to bring some warm clothing—a sweater, a hat or earband, even some fingerless gloves perhaps.

Even in the summer the evenings may turn chilly. And if you are near a lake there could be strong winds. Wind blowing across still frozen areas of Lake Calhoun has provided me outdoor air conditioning when I’m cycling as late as June or July some years. 

Rain gear is also a great idea. Gortex outerwear and boots are great. A neck gaiter (or since “Survivor” a buff) is always great under rain gear if you go hiking in the summer in the woods with the mosquitoes. Nothing is worse that mosquitoes flying down your back, wait there are things worse than that but I prefer not to talk about leeches.

Sunhat, sunscreen, water, you know the drill.

Don’t forget your Tick Tool anytime from March through first snowfall. Heck bring it whenever you show up and intend to go outside. If we have a warm spell and a snow melt in February the little guys like to pop out.  (I like this one the best. The point is to get the embedded tick out without squeezing it or leaving the head—once out you can squash it.)

What You Can Do If You’re Reading This

If you’re a Minnesotan, and a sketcher, please write in and list other sites of interest for sketchers in the comments. I don’t know what time of the year someone might be coming to Minnesota so please list any events you love to sketch at, including winter events (because you know we have them!).

My Favorite Places for Sketching (or Getting Sketching Supplies)

Wet Paint on Grand Ave. in St. Paul. They are open daily from 10 to 6 p.m. (currently). Drive right there from the airport if you time your landing correctly. Everything you need for a sketching adventure is there.
I have no financial relationship with Wet Paint or any of the other places named here (though I am a member of some museums and such…). These are just places I enjoy going for supplies, food, and sketching possibilities.

The Twin Cities

Chances are, wherever you stay in the Twin Cities you won’t be too far from the Parkway system. This is miles of walking and biking paths that will take you along the Mississippi River, around the lakes in Minneapolis, to Fort Snelling in St. Paul. In other words you should be able to find open and interesting spaces to sketch wherever you are. (If you want to cycle for a bit we have those rent-a-bike stations dotted throughout the cities.)
The Mall of America: even if you don’t enjoy shopping (and I don’t) is an impressive structure/concept. And there are always people to sketch. I recommend you go up a level and look down at the other shoppers milling about and lounging. Some interesting angles.
The Minnesota Zoo which is in a southern section of the Twin Cities. The animals are in large enclosures so you might not always see what you want, but there is a Tropics section  inside and it affords lots of sketching opportunities.
Como Zoo (my favorite) is right in St. Paul near the Minnesota State Fairgrounds. (Some exhibits are inside so you can go even on a rainy or cold day.) It’s free (you can give a donation and join if you want), and open 365 days a year.
If you’re going to be here between the end of August through Labor Day (first Monday of September) in any year, remember those 12 days leading up to Labor Day are always the Fair! It’s a great place to sketch live animals! But remember even if you aren’t going to the Fair you’ll need to be aware that traffic going to the Fairgrounds will slow travel in the Twin Cities at some pinch points on 94 as it runs through St. Paul, and on 280 and on Como Ave. So go in those areas during those dates only if you have extra drive time.
If you want to go to the Minnesota State Fair for sketching I have a whole series on sketching prep for this event, like #7 Sketching Live Animals (or People) at the Fair.
Just use the blog’s search engine. I even have a dressing for success when sketching at the Fair post!!!!! (Yes, I think way too much about the Minnesota State Fair, but until the Pandemic it was the main event of my yearly calendar!)
The Guthrie if you like theatre. (We also have the Fringe festival here, if you plan your trip accordingly.)
Mia (Minneapolis Institute of Art) now simply called Mia—as a word, not an acronym. It houses a wonderful collection. I’ve written blog posts on stuff I’ve seen there. Check their site to see what’s available. Don’t overlook their Asian and 19th Century permanent exhibits. I’ve sketched and made light watercolors in all of the permanent galleries for decades, but I’ve also been sketching 2 exhibits away from a friend who was asked to leave? Maybe I do have a cloak of invisibility. When in doubt just work in pencil, or stay in the guest services area to sketch? 
The Walker (Contemporary art) also wonderful.
Mill City Museum—which is in one of the old mills that was actually partially blown up when in use, and they have interesting history and a view of the ruined part.
On the University of MN Minneapolis campus  you’ll find the Katherine E. Nash Gallery and the Weisman Art Museum—both good collections, the latter is housed in a Gehry designed building on the east bank of the Mississippi River.
If you go to the Weisman, allow time to walk across the river on the Washington Ave. Bridge, cut through the West Bank Campus, and head back to Franklin Ave. Bridge to return to the East Bank, and walk back to the Weisman. It’s about a 3 mile loop and it’s a lovely parkway walk. Once off Franklin Ave Bridge take the stairs on the south side of the bridge to the bottom of the cliffs and walk along the path back to the Weisman. That’s a thin strip of parkland there where you’ll see all sorts of animals and bird life.
On the St. Paul Campus we have the NEW Bell Museum of Natural History. The Goldman, a design Museum, is also on the St. Paul Campus. 
The American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis is the historic Turnblad Mansion that is STUNNING. It’s an experience.
In St. Paul you can tour the James J. Hill House on Summit Ave. The famous railroad magnate finished the house in 1891. 

Driving North

Duluth. It’s a fun place with an interesting riverside including an Aquarium. I haven’t been in a couple years, but there are various fish and animal exhibits. There’s also a small zoo. It’s the site of Grandma’s Marathon in the summer.
On the way to Duluth you can stop in Jay Cook State Park which if you enjoy wilderness type parks is a good one to stop and take a hike in and stop for some sketching.
Beyond Duluth, up highway 61 it’s scenic and wonderful and everything is like a Jaques drawing. There are little towns along the way. A giant chicken in Two Harbors; lots of places to buy polished rocks from the area (agates and Thomsonite); smoked white fish, trout, etc.; and then of course my favorite place Grand Marais.
Before you reach Grand Marais the Cascade River State Park is fantastic. Take a quick but scenic hike to a lovely waterfall.
If you drive past Grand Marais towards Canada you can stop at Grand Portage the site of an old trading fort, where you can learn a bit of history. 
If you are driving here and coming from the west I would suggest you go through the Black Hills in South Dakota, and visit Pipestone, Minnesota. In Pipestone you’ll be able to see petroglyphs.
A book on Minnesota roadside attractions will show you that there are hundreds of large statutes like the Prairie Chicken up in Rothsay, etc. (Paul Bunyon and Babe are in a couple places, but Bemidji is best in my opinion). I could go on because I’ve stopped at all of them. Just a tip—always include a person for scale you might be underwhelmed when you look at your sketch with a fresh eye at home.)
If you’re coming from the south west through Iowa then a stop in Cedar Rapids, home of painter Grant Wood, has a city Museum, a site devoted to Wood (which has odd, seasonal hours so plan ahead), and a really lovely National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library. (There I learned that the Czech made early sequins out of fish scales, and saw original Mucha posters with gold ink—how they must have glowed in the street gas lights!)

Eating in the Twin Cities

We have great restaurants all around the Cities so you can pick a type of food you like and find something. I haven’t eaten out since the start of the Pandemic in 2019 so I can’t provide names of restaurants that might still be open. 
Basically, because we have always been a city to host new immigrants we have a vast range of wonderful eateries serving up just about anything you can imagine. 
Café Latte on Grand Avenue is a great place for Chocolate Chocolate (not a typo) cake, other great desserts, salads, soups, and also in the evenings a pizza/wine bar.
If you go to the American Swedish Institute when their restaurant is open you can get a plate of Swedish Meatballs with mashed potatoes, that lingonberry stuff Swedes love, some mustard, and the most incredible lightly pickled cucumbers. Other friends I’ve eaten with at the restaurant in the past all claim what they had was great, but I’ve never even thought of trying anything else. It’s a plate of perfect bites, over and over.
I’m pleased to see that Everest on Grand, my favorite restaurant, is still open. If you go order the samosa, the Chicken Chhoyla, and the Naan. I would eat this meal every day if I could.
    • Tyanne Agle
    • April 13, 2022

    For gardens and botanicals, structures and people too, the arboretum in ChanHassan is not to be missed for someone coming late spring onward, Also if visiting in the same time frame a smaller, quiet but still beautiful and free garden is Arneson Acres park at the Edina Historical foundation on 70th street. Also the Japanese Garden at Normandale community college

    1. Reply

      Tyanne, thanks for jumping in with the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum! There is lots to see there. And the other gardens you’ve mentioned.

      And that reminded me that people who are coming in winter and want to see plants can stop in at the Conservatory part of Como. I don’t go in there very often, but it’s quite lovely to sit on a bench and sketch the exotic trees in there.

    • Kathy
    • April 13, 2022

    Roz, you’re an angel to post this! I visited the twin cities area a couple times recently (from Seattle) and give two enthusiastic thumbs up to the list! Tyanne, thanks for your suggestions as well – adding them to my list for my next visit.

    1. Reply

      So glad you found this list helpful. I hope that other people will jump in and make suggestions. Tyanne’s were really great. There is just so much to see here.

    • deb
    • April 13, 2022

    well thanks girls!! so much to see and experience!!! now I feel the burning need to visit from all the way down under…. *sighs at the tyranny of distance

    1. Reply

      You totally need to come—and it needs to be during STATE FAIR!!!! That would be so fun. I’d show you all around.

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