Tony Bennett famously left his heart in San Francisco, but we have our own city by the bay to capture our hearts. In all of Minnesota, there’s not a cityscape quite so breathtaking as the sight of Duluth and Lake Superior’s St. Louis Bay from the overlook of Thompson Hill on the freeway south of town. Lake Superior is, of course, the world’s largest freshwater lake. And it is Duluth’s raison d’être—from its establishment by its namesake French explorer, to its growth as an iron ore and grain port, and finally to its existence as one of Minnesota’s prime tourist destinations today.
Begin your explorations at Canal Park, the heart of Duluth in so many ways. At the Lake Superior Maritime Visitor Center (600 Canal Park Dr., 218-720-5260, lsmma.com), stand within yards of mammoth 1,000-foot ore-laden lake carriers and foreign ocean-going freighters as they enter and leave the harbor beneath the arc of Duluth’s signature Aerial Lift Bridge. This boat-watcher’s headquarters, operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, is open free of charge year-round. For a rundown of ships coming and going, check the Boatwatchers Hotline (218-722-6489).
While you stroll Canal Park, check out the shops and galleries. Favorites include Duluth Pack (365 Canal Park Dr., 218-722-1707, duluthpack.com), which sells high-end canoes, camping gear, and home furnishings, as well as Sivertson Gallery (361 Canal Park Dr., 888-815-5814, sivertson.com) and Blue Lake Gallery (395 Lake Ave. S., 218-725-0034, bluelakegallery.com) for paintings, photography, sculpture, and gifts.
Hike the Park Point Nature Trail to enjoy Minnesota’s best beach. Cross the Aerial Lift Bridge and follow Minnesota Avenue to the Sky Harbor Airport. Park your car and walk the trail along the sandspit past beach grasses and native plants, including scattered old-growth pine and tamarack. The sandy point is a magnet for spring and fall bird migrations. Total hike out and back is about four miles.
For dinner in Canal Park, try Bellisio’s Italian Restaurant (405 Lake Ave. S., 218-727-4921, grandmasrestaurants.com). Dine outside in the summer, but bring a jacket. You know what they say in Duluth: It’s colder near the lake!
Spend the night at Canal Park Lodge (250 Canal Park Dr., 800-777-8560, canalparklodge.com), with 116 upscale units, many directly fronting the lake.
On the Waterfront
Along Harbor Drive, you’ll find more attractions. The roughly 611-foot S.S. William A. Irvin ore boat (350 Harbor Dr., 218-722-7876, decc.org/william-a-irvin), once the flagship of U.S. Steel’s Great Lakes Fleet, is now permanently moored here and open for guided tours May through September.
The Great Lakes Aquarium (353 Harbor Dr., 218-740-3474, glaquarium.org) is devoted to exploring freshwater ecosystems around the world. A two-story tank holds lake trout, whitefish, giant lake sturgeon, and mammals, plus residents of the Amazon River.
To see the harbor from water level, take a tour with Vista Fleet Sightseeing and Dining Cruises (323 Harbor Dr., 877-883-4002, vistafleet.com).
Though breathtaking from a distance, the water lapping at Duluth’s doorstep also invites a more intimate view. For a get-down-and-get-wet look, rent a kayak from the University of Minnesota Duluth Outdoor Program (1216 Ordean Court, 218-726-7128, umdrsop.org). UMD also can help get you canoeing, surfing, stand-up paddleboarding, or rock climbing.
If the winds are favorable, there’s no more relaxing way around Superior and St. Louis Bay than by sailboat. Carriage House Charters (1204 Lake Ave. S., 218-727-1052, carriagehousecharters.com) carries up to six aboard the nearly 33-foot Aeolos. Pitch in to learn a bit about sailing or sit back and enjoy the ride.
Superior’s big fetch and deep waters require some special boats and tackle, but the reward can be big lake trout and salmon. Several charters will take you out, including Action Sportfishing Charters (Water Front Plaza Marina, 218-390-4522).
Duluth has a vast system of parks and trails that lace the steep hillside. For a bike trip that’s all downhill, call Munger Trail Bike Rental and Shuttle Service (7408 Grand Ave., 800-982-2453, mungerinn.com) to set up a trip on the paved Willard Munger State Trail. Folks at the Willard Munger Inn will rent bikes and set up a shuttle, whether you’re a guest or not.
More to See
On the University of Minnesota Duluth campus, the Tweed Museum of Art (1201 Ordean Court, 218-726-8222, d.umn.edu/tma) has a permanent collection of more than 8,000 works from a range of cultures and periods.
At Lake Superior Railroad Museum (506 W. Michigan St., 218-727-8025, lsrm.org) in the Depot, you can sit in the cab of a Yellowstone Class Mallet, one of the most powerful and massive steam engines ever built. Minnesota’s first steam locomotive, the William Crooks, is also on display.
Railroad fans can depart from the Depot aboard the North Shore Scenic Railroad (800-423-1273, northshorescenicrailroad.org) for a round trip up the North Shore to Two Harbors.
Amicus Adventure Sailing (218-290-5975, amicusadventuresailing.com) offers “rail and sail” cruises on Lake Superior. Ride the North Shore Scenic Railroad to Knife River. Eat lunch aboard Amicus II, sail for two hours, and then take the train back to Duluth.
Glensheen, the Historic Congdon Estate (3300 London Rd., 218-726-8910, glensheen.org), is famous as the site of a grisly and mysterious murder, but you’d never know it by the tour of the mansion, which focuses on the architecture and history of this home of Duluth businessman Chester Congdon.
Stop for lunch or dinner at Tycoons Alehouse and Eatery (132 E. Superior St., 218-623-1889, tycoonsalehouse.com) in Duluth’s one-time city hall, built in the late 1800s, a period when the Zenith City was reputed to have more millionaires per capita than any other city.
In keeping with the historic theme, check in at the award-winning A.G. Thomson House Historic Bed and Breakfast (2617 E. 3rd St., 877-807-8077, thomsonhouse.biz), a 1909 Dutch Colonial Revival mansion in East Duluth’s Congdon Park neighborhood.
For a small-town baseball fix, watch the Duluth Huskies of the Northwoods League play from late May into mid-August at Wade Stadium (34th Ave. W. and Grand Ave., 218-786-9909, duluthhuskies.com).