16 Fun and Festive Ways to Celebrate Winter in Minnesota

According to poet Edith Sitwell, “Winter is the time for comfort, for good food and warmth, for the touch of a friendly hand and for a talk beside the fire.” 

It’s also the time for planning getaways to cozy lodges, playing in the snow, shopping (no better time to shop than the holidays!), learning new hobbies, trying new activities, and checking out museums around town. With the right supplies, the right gear, and the right attitude, winter in Minnesota can be downright enjoyable. 

Biking in snow
Biking in Bemidji; photo by Jayme Larson


1. In Bemidji, the “First City on the Mississippi River,” many visitors trade their bikes for skis and boats for snowmobiles as the seasons change. According to Cross Country Skier magazine, the city is one of the most attractive areas to ski in the entire country—on groomed, tracked, and backcountry trails (there’s even a trail that’s illuminated at night). You can snowmobile (there are 14,000 miles of trails), go fat tire biking at Lake Bemidji State Park, and at nearby Buena Vista Ski Area, go  skiing, snowboarding, or snowtubing. One popular lodging option is family-owned (and family-friendly) Ruttger’s Birchmont Lodge, located on the north shore of Lake Bemidji. The main lodge and cottages have the history, charm, and ambiance of a resort built in the 1920s, with modern amenities. Lake Bemidji State Park is one mile down the shore (great for snowshoeing), and Itasca State Park, the headwaters of the mighty Mississippi, is a short drive away. While in Bemidji, have your photo taken with Paul Bunyan, the legendary lumberjack, and his companion, Babe the Blue Ox, named “Best Roadside Attraction in Minnesota” in a WCCO poll (and a top roadside attraction in both Time and Midwest Living magazines). It’s one of the most photographed landmarks in the state.  

2.  There are six casinos in the northwest region of Minnesota, with Seven Clans in Warroad being the newest to join the lineup. These casinos are so much more than the ding-ding of slot machines, squeals of delight, and clinks of plastic chips (although they do offer plenty of gaming excitement). Seven Clans in Thief River Falls has a waterpark, and Shooting Star in Mahnomen has a spa. Add in on-site hotels, restaurants, and entertainment, and you have a fun winter getaway under one roof.

3.  Road trip to Walker this winter and sample brews at the Leech Lake Brewing Company, get out the jigglesticks and tip-ups for phenomenal ice fishing, and check out the Leech Lake Festival of Lights, set for November 27-28 this year.  

When in the area, stay at Chase on the Lake, overlooking Leech Lake in downtown Walker, an upscale resort with an indoor swimming pool and hot tub, Aveda spa, restaurant, full-service bar, coffee shop, bowling alley, and seasonal activities. (Another great time to visit is in February, for the International Eelpout Festival.) 

4. About 50 minutes north of Brainerd, in the town of Hackensack (named after the town of the same name in New Jersey), residents and visitors have “down-home winter fun” during the Back to Hack Festival, scheduled in town and on Birch Lake from January 15-17, 2016. The celebration includes the Frostbite Your Fanny 5K race, Paul Bunyan Family Fishing Contest, Penguin Plunge, snow sculpting contest, community bonfire, and fireworks. Also returning this year? Horseracing, a silent auction, and Sleigh of Spirits Raffle.  

Aerial bridge in winter
Aeriel Lift Bridge in Duluth; Photo by John Heino


5. When visiting grand rapids, you may want to explain to friends and family that it’s the Judy Garland Grand Rapids (you know, in Minnesota) and not the city in Michigan. Judy put this city on the map by proudly claiming Grand Rapids as her birthplace. Back then she was Frances Ethel Gumm, and the late-19th-century white-clapboard house where she grew up is open to the public as part of the Judy Garland Museum, boasting a children’s discovery museum, artifacts detailing Judy’s life, and the largest Wizard of Oz collection in the world.

In the winter months, Grand Rapids, just three hours north of the Twin Cities along the Mississippi River, serves as the southern gateway to the Chippewa National Forest and nearly 1,000 lakes—the ideal playground for snowmobiling and ice fishing. One of the newest properties in the area, Timberlake Lodge Hotel, features modern and spacious rooms, a restaurant, and a lap pool with a waterslide and hot tub. According to one hotel guest, “We have stayed here four times and have never been disappointed. Grand Rapids is a beautiful area with plenty of shopping and places to dine. It’s great for a weekend getaway.” 

6. There’s something almost otherworldly about being at an indoor waterpark in the dead of winter, casually walking around in flip-flops and swimsuits while people outside your bubble walk briskly from place to place, wrapped up in multiple layers. Edgewater Hotel and Waterpark in duluth is not only a 35,000-square-foot indoor waterpark (think four-story waterslides, a 400-foot  lazy river, and a wading pool playground  “fun for even the smallest tykes,” says general manager Jesse Hinkemeyer), but also a clean and comfortable hotel—some rooms with views of Lake Superior—as well as a 40-game arcade,  fitness center, on-site bar, coffee shop, and grill. A pedestrian bridge directly behind the hotel leads to the popular Lakewalk, a scenic North Shore walking path offering dramatic vistas of the largest freshwater lake in the world. Nearby attractions include Spirit Mountain, Glensheen Mansion, Great Lakes Aquarium, Duluth Children’s Museum, Adventure Zone (batting cages, indoor mini golf, laser tag), and the Lake Superior Zoo. Stay at Edgewater on Friday and Saturday during the free Bentleyville Tour of Lights  November  21-December 27  and receive a room, waterpark wristbands, and a ride on the North Shore Scenic Railroad Train  from the hotel to Bayfront Park, featuring 4 million twinkling lights. 

7. While it’s pretty widely known that Lutsen Mountains is one of the premier skiing/boarding destination in the Midwest, with more than 90 sweeping runs and nearly 1,000 feet of vertical, it’s what fills out the vacation itinerary that surprises many. Sleigh rides, snowshoeing, comedy shows, naturalist programs, and a live music calendar that rivals popular Twin Cities nightclubs can turn a ski trip into so much more. Papa Charlie’s, one of five on-mountain restaurants, transforms into entertainment central seven nights a week from January through April. Every Monday and Wednesday there are songwriters’ sessions in a quiet, intimate theater-type setting, when musicians perform original songs and tell stories about their creative inspiration, and on the weekends, there’s an energetic atmosphere at Papa Charlie’s, with 400+ concert-goers enjoying acts ranging from Dessa to Trampled by Turtles.  

Ice fishing little boy
Photo courtesy of Chrissy Sarinske


8. If you’ve only been to the Brainerd Lakes area during the summer, you owe yourself a winter trip. People come for the snowmobiling and ice fishing, sure, but also for the fun holiday events (Holiday Arts & Crafts Festival, Sertoma Winter Wonderland, World Famous Fish House Parade, Ice Fest, Crosslake WinterFest, Gull Lake Frozen Fore weekend party) and cozy “up north” lodging accommodations. Cragun’s has a large indoor pool, sports complex, and Kids Camp; Grand View Lodge offers horse-drawn sleigh rides, spa services, weekly wine tastings and a killer brunch; Breezy Point has a pool, a lighted ice rink, and lakeside bonfires; and Kavanaugh’s has an indoor pool and cross-country ski and snowshoe rental for guests. Snowshoe along the Paul Bunyan Scenic Byway, hike at Crow Wing State Park, cross-country ski at Northland Arboretum, or take the family tubing at Ski Gull.   

9. Snowshoeing at Lake Carlos State Park followed by wine tasting at Carlos Creek Winery in Alexandria is a great way to appreciate the serene beauty of a snow-covered landscape, breathe in that fresh, crisp, clean winter air, get a little exercise, then kick back and relax with a glass of wine (and maybe even listen to some live music). The winery is open seven days a week during the winter. While you’re in the Alexandria area, visit the Runestone Museum, home to the world-famous Kensington Runestone. 

10. Located just 65 miles northwest of the Twin Cities, St. Cloud is so much more than home to St. Cloud State University (although that fact in itself gives the city a youthful, vibrant feel). In the winter months, visit for the Weihnachtsmarkt (German winter market—complete with hot mulled wine, bratwurst, and local arts and crafts), and Winter Nights & Lights Festival December 11-12. “This year’s theme is ‘All Aboard the Polar Express,’” says Pegg A.K. Gustafson, president and CEO, St. Cloud Downtown Council and Alliance Foundation. “Last year, thousands attended the Winter Wonderland at Lake George and over 13,000 attended the parade.” This year the event will feature a laser light show and polar plunge December 11, and on December 12, the Winter Wonderland with Santa and Mrs. Claus at Lake George, followed by the 5 p.m. Winter Nights and Lights Parade off West St. Germain Street, with illuminated holiday floats and festive music setting the tone for the holiday season. Other fun attractions and events in the St. Cloud area include the Stearns History Museum and Minnesota Amateur Baseball Hall of Fame, offering a fascinating glimpse of the past, and the St. Cloud Craft Beer Tour January 16, 2016, at River’s Edge Convention Center, featuring 57 breweries and 175 brews.   

Bloomington Mall of America Choir
Mall of America Bloomington; Courtesy of the Mall of America


11. “One of the greatest things about doing your holiday shopping at Mall of America is the variety and unrivaled selection—you can truly get all of your shopping done in one stop,” says Jill Renslow, MOA senior vice president of marketing and business development. The holidays are big business at MOA, and this year the mega-mall is going all-out with the Twizzard (an indoor-Tweet activated blizzard, with people from around the world tweeting #Twizzard in an effort to release a magical dusting of snow in the Rotunda over Thanksgiving weekend), live music, celebrity appearances, Santa’s arrival, and deals, deals, and more deals. Already home to 520 stores, 50 restaurants, a theme park, an aquarium, and a hotel, the mall is adding 150,000 square feet of retail space that can house anywhere from 50-75 new stores, another on-site hotel, JW Marriott (in good company with Radisson Blu), a Minnesota Children’s Museum “pop-up” play space, new restaurants, and expanded valet parking. Other fun places to do a little holiday shopping include downtown Stillwater, Grand Avenue in St. Paul, Nicollet Mall in Minneapolis, downtown Edina, and outlet centers in Albertville, Woodbury, and Eagan.

12. Tea parties aren’t just for little girls and their stuffed animals. You and your best friends can also enjoy high tea (and pretend you’re on Downton Abbey) at the luxurious Saint Paul Hotel.  

Public teas have been offered from the time the Saint Paul Hotel opened in 1910, complete with Tea Dances held in the grand ballroom (to provide social gathering opportunities during Prohibition). The hotel has been offering an afternoon tea to the public since the hotel was reopened in 1982 after a major renovation.

On average, the hotel now serves a five-course traditional English-style tea to more than 4,000 people per year in the beautiful lobby, as well as in private rooms. The appeal of this elegant and sophisticated event is more real face time; a way to practice the art of conversation. Writer Amanda Fretheim Gates and two of her best girlfriends went to the Saint Paul Hotel for tea recently and thought it was “divine.” “The service was impeccable. The food was delicious. The tea was bottomless. And they accommodate dietary restrictions, so one of my friends had a vegetarian version of all five courses.” The menu changes regularly, giving tea-drinkers an excuse to visit several times a year for a completely different culinary experience.

13. If you or your loved ones are all about trains, enjoy seeing Christmas lights, or need a reason to pull yourself out of one of those Grinchy “bah humbug” moods, then you should try your best to get to a local train stop to see the Canadian Pacific Holiday Train. Not only is the train decorated in thousands of festive lights, illuminated wreaths, and a colorful tree, it serves a dual-purpose of raising money, food, and awareness for local food banks, many of which struggle to keep up with demand during the holiday season. The Holiday Train makes its way across seven states and six provinces during its “tour,” visiting more than 140 Canadian and U.S. communities. Minnesota is fortunate enough to be part of the limited train route that collects money and food donations for those in need.

When the train is at the stop, you can go on a horse-drawn wagon ride (available at select sites), drink hot cocoa, and listen to live entertainment. Renovated boxcars are decked out with stage lights and sound equipment, meaning the free show will go on—no matter the weather.  

Winona Ice Skating
Ice skating in Winona; Photo by Cynthya Porter


14. In recent years, the charming southeastern river city of Winona has earned a reputation as an arts and cultural mecca, with four museums (the Minnesota Marine Art Museum, Watkins Heritage Museum & Gift Shop, Polish Museum of Winona, and the Winona County History Center), and Sugar Loaf Antiques & Crafts (120 vendors in one building). And the outdoor recreational opportunities are equally impressive. According to Cynthya Porter, digital communications coordinator of Visit Winona, “Thanks to Winona’s logging history from more than a century ago, the bluffs around the city are criss-crossed with beautiful, old trails that range from flat and easy to steep and challenging. As an added bonus, the cross-country ski trails behind St. Mary’s University always have groomed snow thanks to some sophisticated snow-making equipment.” Aside from cross-country skiing and snowshoeing, adventure-seekers use the bluff trails for winter mountain biking, and a local recreational group has taken to the ice flows that cascade off the bluff tops for ice climbing.  

“Everyone thinks of Winona as so beautiful in the summer, but it’s really a recreation paradise in the winter too,” Porter says. Unique lodging options include the historic Alexander Mansion, with many details similar to how they were 125 years ago, as well as The Carriage House Bed and Breakfast, Windom Park Bed and Breakfast, and the Village House Inn. When it comes to dining, Porter says foodies rave about Signatures and The Boat House. At Signatures, seasonal menus with much of the ingredient list sourced locally are served with white-linen sophistication by servers who are masterful at helping diners pair their dinner with wines from the extensive list. The Boat House has a menu designed by foodies for foodies, offering a fresh take on poutine, the Juicy Lucy, fish tacos, and other interesting dishes. They also boast a large craft beer selection. 

15. A great little college town an easy 45 miles south of the metro, Northfield is a fun day-trip destination. A great time to visit is during the Winter Walk 
December 10, showcasing the small-town charm that makes Northfield unique. The candlelight event has an old-fashioned holiday appeal, complete with a Christmas tree lighting ceremony, caroling, horse-drawn wagon rides, shopping and dining specials, and visits from Santa and Rudolph. If visiting on a Friday in January through March, head out on a moonlight snowshoe tour at The Gear ReSource Outfitters, join a Shoe & Brew Winery Tour at Nerstrand Big Woods State Park and Cannon River Winery, snowmobile along 42.5 miles on the Waterford Trail (through forests, open fields, and pastures), go cross-country skiing at the Carleton Arboretum (and follow trails along the Cannon River), or skate indoors at Northfield Arena.

16. Described by one happy visitor as “small town America at its best,” New Ulm might have made a name for itself  with its Oktoberfest celebration in the fall, but that doesn’t mean the city slumbers through winter. The town comes alive during the Parade of Lights November 27 (the parade route goes from 4th South to 4th North), Holiday Open House December 5 and 6 at Morgan Creek Vineyards, out on the groomed cross-country ski trails at Flandrau State Park (cabins are available year-round), and during Fasching/Schell’s Bock Fest, held February 6, 2016. According to the city’s website, “Fasching is an old carnival tradition that originated in the European Alps to chase away winter. Each year, strips of cloth are strung across downtown streets in the German peasant tradition, and the ‘Narren,’ masked characters in colorful costumes, walk the streets inviting people to the party. Held at Turner Hall, Fasching includes music, food and dancing, and costumes are encouraged.”

But before winter can be “chased away,” it is celebrated, especially during the holidays. According to Sarah Warmka, marketing specialist, New Ulm Chamber/CVB, the town looks beautiful around the holidays, when Christmas trees line historic downtown, and real garland and lights are hung over Minnesota Street. Even the  45-foot-high Glockenspiel Clock Tower is decorated. There’s a festive feel here, making it fun to visit for an afternoon of shopping.

“Shopping is a big deal in New Ulm,” Warmka says. When you shop at the specialty stores and local boutiques, you not only receive unique items, but “you receive old-fashioned customer service.”

Other ways to spend a winter day include checking out the Brown County Museum, indoor ice skating at the New Ulm Civic Center, or visiting the popular Hermann Monument.

Eddy's Lake Mille Lacs Resort
Courtesy of Eddy’s Lake Mille Lacs Resort 

Eddy’s Lake Mille Lacs Resort 

Since it first opened on the west shores of Lake Mille Lacs in the 1960s, Eddy’s Resort has served guests looking to enjoy the lake and get an
authentic “up north” experience. In the decades since it opened, not a lot had changed at Eddy’s—until recently.

On May 5, 2015, Mille Lacs Corporate Ventures unveiled the new Eddy’s Resort in Onamia, now including upscale fishing-style lodging accommodations in the 64-room, three-story hotel, with many rooms offering views of Lake Mille Lacs. The new Eddy’s also features a parlor room, four separate cabins, an on-site Launch Bar & Grill, and a retail/bait shop. After ice fishing, shopping, or going to the casino (a complimentary shuttle is provided for Eddy’s guests to nearby Grand Casino Mille Lacs, from 10 a.m.-2 a.m. daily), unwind in the restaurant. Favorites include the beer-battered deviled eggs with spicy Korean barbecue flair and the smoked pimento cheese served with crostinis and flatbread. People also love the Brisket Sammy, featuring house-smoked brisket and a bourbon bacon jam (enjoy it with a Mille Lacs Sunrise cocktail).  

Guests seeking a traditional northern Minnesota experience, combined with the touches of a higher-end boutique hotel, will find both at Eddy’s Lake Mille Lacs Resort. eddysresort.com