Minneapolis Riverfront Walking Tour:
Location: Warehouse & Mill District Minneapolis
Cost: Free, Self-Guided (Optional Fees Listed Below)
Start: Metrodome Light Rail Stop
Stop: Government Plaza Light Rail Stop
Walking Distance: 3 Miles for the full loop
Time: Full loop takes 4.5 Hours with stops (1 Hour of Walking)
With A Car: 3 Miles for the full loop
Fun Scale: 9 out of 10
Without the Riverfront and Mill District there would be no Minneapolis and it is all centered on the Mississippi River’s Saint Anthony Falls. The Falls, which were once over 180 feet tall, served as a meeting point for local Native American Tribes for 100s leading up to Missionary Louis Hennepin visit in 1680. Heppepin was the first to write about the Falls, re-named them after his favorite saint, and inspired visits from future explorers.
Formal settlement of the area began in the early-1800s after a negotiated relocation of the Native groups. St Anthony Falls were quickly used to power many saw mills and the village of St Anthony was formed on the North side of the Mississippi River in 1848. The village of Minneapolis followed 9 years after until the cities joined into a milling powerhouse in 1872 that led the World in flour production.
Although most of the Mills are gone and the Waterfall is a shell of its old self, there are tons of historic remnants left over that make a walking tour through the River District a worthwhile experience. We hope you enjoy our Minneapolis Riverfront & Mill District walking tour!
The Riverfront & Mill District Sights:
*From the Light Rail walk toward the Mississippi River and the iconic…
1. Guthrie Theater: The most signature feature of the Guthrie Theater is perhaps the 4th floor Endless Bridge which juts out 178 feet from the side of the building. The 30 foot wide bridge and outdoor terrace give great panoramic views over the Mississippi River below as you almost hang above it. Even better than bridge is the Dowling Studio Lobby up on the 9th floor complete with floor to ceiling windows giving you amazing wrap around views of the River and Minneapolis skyline. The huge windows are tinted yellow giving the room a unique atmosphere and a section of the floor is plexiglass floor that let you peak to the 9 floors below. Even if you can’t make a show as the Guthrie, at least pop up to the Dowling Studio Lobby to take in the experience and views. You’ll be able to see the Minneapolis skyline, the Mississippi River, and the neighboring Gold Medal Park. The park is a great place to picnic before starting this walking tour.
General Visiting Hours: Tuesday-Thursday 11am-8pm, Friday-Sunday 9am-8pm, Closed Mondays. Any day there is theater performance the building stays open until 11pm and for Monday performances its opens from 2-11pm. Costume Tours: Tours of the Theater’s store house of 30,000 costumes are available the 1st Saturday of each month. Backstage Tours: At 10am Friday and Saturday mornings they have $12 guided tours of the backstage workings of the Theater which last around 45 minutes. 360 Degree Photos: (River Terrace | Endless Bridge | Pohlad Lobby). Theater Website: (HERE).
2. Mill City Saturday Farmers’ Market: Since 2006, one of the best farmers’ markets in the Twin Cities has been setting up shop each Saturday next to the Guthrie Theater. This market has a great selection of fruits, vegetables, and flowers from the best local growers which has made it very popular. Because the Market is able to spill into a covered area of the adjoined Mill City Museum, it is open rain or shine in Summer and even every other week in the Winter months. Spring-Fall Hours: Mid-April through October, Every Saturday 8am-1pm. Winter Hours: November through Mid-April it moves inside the Mill City Museum, Every 2nd Saturday 10am-1pm. Market Website: (HERE).
3. Mill City Museum: From 1848 to 1888 the Mississippi River powered Minneapolis led the World in saw mill production, but then the city quickly had a dramatic shift into the world of flour milling. Instead being limited to floating logs down the river to their mills, new railroad lines allowed millers to reach an almost unlimited amount of grain for processing. Making the transition to flour even better was when new process of separated hard spring wheat into flour revolutionizes the flour mill industry in 1870. Minneapolis was on the front lines of everything flour and quickly led the World in production with over 12 million loafs of bread a day.
Leading the way into the grain revolution were the Pillsbury and Washburn (now called General Mills) Companies. Both companies had operations on the North side of the River, but Washburn quickly expanded to the South side with their huge Washburn A Mill. Shortly after opening the Washburn A Mill was the site of a horrible disaster on May 2nd 1878 when flour dust exploded killing 12 workers and ruining nearby buildings. Within 2 years the mill was rebuilt in state-of-the-art fashion to be the highest producing mill in the World pushing Minneapolis to lead the World in flour until 1930. Washburns biggest break in the flour industry probably came at the first International Millers’ Exhibition they attended in 1880 in Cincinnati, Ohio. The company had just perfected their flour which they entered as the exhibition where they won the gold, silver and bronze medals. This victory truly established their company with World-wide exposure and their Gold Medal flour is still the #1 flour in the United States. The company continued to consolidate with other mills an became the Minnesota Milling Company. In 1928, the Minnesota Milling Company joined with 28 other mills to form General Mills which is still one of the biggest grain companies in the World.
The Washburn A Mill was finally shut down in 1965 after 85 years of service because it had become obsolete. The vacant 8 story building and its surrounding tunnels quickly became the home to dozens of homeless people and a huge fire 1991 burned down every but the shell you see today. Since 2003 the ruins of the Washburn A Mill have served as the Mill City Museum. A tour will bring you up close and personal with the history of Minnesota as well as hands on with tools from the mill era. You will visit the Baking Center, take an 8 story elevator up the Flour Tower with great River views, and you’ll watch the popular video Minneapolis in 19 Minutes Flat
Visiting Hours: Tuesday-Saturday 10am-5pm, Sunday Noon-5pm. Only open on Mondays during July & August from 10am-5pm, closed Mondays the rest of the year. Tour Schedule: The museum itself is free roaming with trips up the Flour Tower leaving every 30 minutes. Cost: Public galleries and the outdoor ruins themselves are free. To tour the museum are and take the Flour Tower Elevator it’s $11 for Adults and $6 for Kids. Museum Website: (HERE).
4. Mill Ruins Park: Resembling an ancient Roman ruin in the heart of Minneapolis, the Mill Ruins Park opened in 2001 as a great homage to the industrial roots of the City. The mill ruins making up the park ended up being completely buried under feet of sand and gravel in the early 1900s and remain entombed until the 1980s when excavations began. Mill Ruin Park can easily be seen from the Stone Arch Bridge above but is best experienced with you path the path right into them.
As you explore the ruins notice the main water power canal which was built in 1857 to draw power from the Mississippi River’s strong flow. The mill building quickly followed the power canal being built from 1859 through the 1890s. The first mills were made for saw milling before transitioning into flour milling. The success of the mills not only made Minneapolis the biggest milling city in the country but also lead to the formation of famous companies like General Mills, Pillsbury, Washburn Crosby (WCCO), and Northern States Power (Xcel Energy). Museum Website: (HERE).
5. Stone Arch Bridge: One of their biggest limitations of the early mills in Minneapolis was how fast they could get in fresh wheat for flour since they were located on the South bank of the Mississippi River. Capitalizing on the issue, James J. Hill had his Minneapolis Union Railway Company build the Stone Arch Bridge to help bring in wheat from the Red River Valley and Canada. Hill, a railroad baron from St Paul, was consider America’s Empire Builder for his railroad lines extending from the Midwest all the way to the Pacific Ocean. When Hill’s 23 arch granite and limestone bridge opened in 1883, it quickly helped the Mills on the Minneapolis side of the Mississippi River compete and grow into the World’s biggest. The bridge put the Minneapolis bridges on the map by reducing travel time from Saint Paul to just 20 minutes as the trains could go full steam the entire way even over the well-designed bridge.
Long after the Mills faded in the mid-1900s, the Stone Arch Bridge continued to thrive with trains through 1965 when it eventually closed to rail traffic. After decades as a car bridge, Stone Arch was wisely renovated into a pedestrian only bridge in 1994. Today the Bridge remains the only stone arch bridge on the entire Mississippi River and has become a focal point of the Stone Arch Bridge Festival (website) each June. If you wish to learn about James J Hill and his influence on the Twin Cities, make sure to visit his huge mansion which is the highlight of our popular Summit Avenue Walking Tour in St Paul.
As you cross the Stone Arch Bridge make sure to get a good view of St Anthony’s Falls (explained later) and the Army Corps of Engineers’ lock and dam near the start of the bridge. The locks are the uppermost of 29 locks connecting the Mississippi River with the Gulf of Mexico. The locks help boats navigate rapids and is able to change of elevation in sections of the river by lowering or raising the water inside them like a liquid elevator.
*As you reach the end of the bridge on your right you’ll see a large stone marking the spot of…
6. Father Hennepin’s Bluff: In the year 1680, explorer Father Hennepin was being shown to a nearby village by local Dakota Indians when they went past a large water they called Owamenah. With his view from this very spot, Hennepin became the first Caucasian to see the falls which had as a trading, meeting, and portage point for Native groups for 100s of years. Father Hennepin, who was a Franciscan Monk, wrote back East about the amazing falls which he renamed St Anthony’s Falls after his favorite Saint. Over the next couple centuries, many other explorers were inspired to visit from Hennepin’s account and by the mid-1800s permanent settlers arrived establishing the cities of St Anthony and Minneapolis. Coincidentally, the Father was also the first Caucasian to write about Niagara Falls in New York State.
Just beyond the maker for Father Hennepin’s Bluff sits the Southeast Steam Plant which has been open since 1903. The plant was built to power for Minneapolis’ street car system which helped the Twin Cities have one of the most extensive transit systems in the United States during the early 1900s. Even after the last of the street cars were converted to buses in 1954, the Southeast Steam Plant remained open to provide steam heating for the University of Minnesota’s boiler heating system.
*Sitting on the opposite side of the bridge from the Father Hennepin marker you’ll find wooden steps leading down to the..
7. Lower Trail & Awesome Photo Opportunity: From the time to start your journey down the steps toward the Mississippi River, the scenery just keeps getting better and better. Once at the river’s edge, the perspective you gain from the base of the Stone Arch Bridge really helps the historic structure’s power shine through. After you cross under the huge arches of the bridge your hit with the iconic Minneapolis skyline view seen in the photo to the left. This spot is one of our favorite places to take photos in all of the Twin Cities. The view is even better if you climb up the hill a little bit or if you can wait until dusk when the skyline lights up. The area is safe overall, but because the steps and trail are a pretty secluded , we highly recommend going with at least one other person if you are going for evening or night shots.
Before heading back up the steps to street level, notice the series of wooden trails heading over toward the falls. These trails aren’t very long but provide a mini-escape from the city and even have a couple small footbridges. Lower Trail Hours: Seasonally from Dawn to Dusk. We have gone down the steps after hours before even though you aren’t supposed to but you do have to be careful as the steps can be unsafe in the dark or if icy.
*Sitting just North of Main Street, behind some modern condos is the…
8. The Old Soap Factory: This sprawling, 48000 square foot wood and brick building was originally built in the early 1900s as a warehouse for the National Purity Soap Company. After years of sitting empty the building was donated in 1995 to the No Name art group who has been setting up galleries for local artists since 1988. Today the Soap Factory building houses the 3rd largest art gallery in the Twin Cities, but the biggest draw its Haunted Basement (website). Every year around Halloween the Soap Factory opens its basement as one the best organized haunted houses in the Twin Cities. Finding the Soap Factory: Don’t be scared off by the look of the side of the building facing the river, it’s there and the entrance is on the Northeast corner of the building. Gallery Hours: Thursday & Friday 2-8pm, Saturday & Sunday 12-5pm, Closed Monday-Wednesday. Factory Website: (HERE).
9. Saint Anthony Main: Nine years before the founding of Minneapolis in 1857, the village of St Anthony was already drawing in residents and industry on the North bank of the Mississippi River. The two cities merged into one in 1872 and quickly went from the World’s biggest saw mill town to the World’s biggest flour mill powerhouse. After the Great Depression the commerce started to leave the North bank of the River, but what remains on the tree lined St Anthony Main is a great look into the past.
You know you are getting close to the main drag after passing the Pillsbury A Mill which was the largest mill in the world when it opened in 1881. After the Mill the road itself steps back into time turning from blacktop to brick and narrowing as it meets a series of charming taverns. The taverns of St Anthony Main carry the perfect mix of food and drink with some of the best outdoor patio spaces in the Twin Cities. This stretch is one of our favorite areas to eat and it’s no wonder it is a hotspot for locals. Our favorite places on St Anthony Main are Aster Cafe (website) which was named the best place in the Twin Cities for a 1st date, Vic’s Restaurant (website) which has a great wine selection, the popular Tuggs Tavern (website) which has huge beer tube to refresh your entire group, and of course the Stone Arch Theater (website) which is an old school theater showing new movies. Neighborhood Website: (HERE).
*Right across from the middle St Anthony Main’s middle restaurant is a pier like path where you can get up close and personal with…
10. Saint Anthony Falls: Known as Owamenah in the Dakota Language, these falls were once one of the largest waterfalls in North America when it was carved out by a retreating glacier in 10,000BC. The original falls, located in present day St Paul, were 180 feet tall and over a half a mile wide. Over the millennium the falls have eroded upstream and gradually lost size along the way. As they worked there way toward present day Minneapolis, Owamenah became a natural place of portage it became a trading and meeting point between the Dakota and Anishinaabe Native groups.
While being led to a local village by members of the Dakota Tribe, Franciscan Monk Louis Hennepin became the first White explorer to see the large waterfalls in 1680. Father Hennepin quickly wrote about the falls he renamed after the Catholic Saint Anthony of Padua. Considered to be the 1st to write about the falls, Hennepin was also the 1st explorer to write about New York’s Niagara Falls. The Father’s account of his visit inspired further exploration although White settlement didn’t begin until the 1800s.
Once development started on mills and dams (mills in 1849, 1st real dam in 1856), the falls rate of receding sped up to 26 feet per year from the natural 4 feet per year. The first damn mainly generated power by creating a series of tunnel where the water would speed up to move each mill’s waterwheel. Finally in 1869 St Anothony Falls ran out of limestone riverbed to carve away at and it collapsed into a much smaller rapids taking the original damns with it. It was a large disaster in its day since the surrounding area was so dependent on the power. To quickly fix the problem they made a V-shaped apron, now made out of concrete, to funnel the smaller rapids and harness its remaining power. The nation’s 1st hydroelectric plant was added in 1882 and finally in 1950 the first locks are built to let large boats navigated further up the river. Photos: (Falls Circa 1680 | Falls In 1860 | Close Up Of Falls In 1860 | Falls In 1865 | The Falls Today).
Haha means falls, hahawakpa is river of the falls
11. Ard Godfrey House: The quaint yellow home sitting in Chute Square was built for the family of Ard Godfrey in 1849 making it the oldest surviving frame built home in Minneapolis. Godfrey was a mill builder who helped to build the 1st dam and sawmills in Minneapolis to take advantage of the power that could be generated by St Anthony Falls. Chute Square is actually not the original location for the Godfrey home as it was actually built at corner of Main Street and 2nd Avenue SE before being moved several times over the years and having the garage added. Today the home is managed by the Woman’s Club of Minneapolis and has been fully furnished with authentic items dating from 1849 to 1853. Visiting Hours: Saturdays and Sundays during June, July and August from 1-4pm; Group tours are available by appointment year round by calling the Woman’s Club of Minneapolis at 612-813-5300. Photos: (The House In 1936). House Website: (HERE).
12. Our Lady of Lourdes Church: Built in 1854, Our Lady of Lourdes is the oldest continuously used church in Minneapolis. While the church’s French exterior is cute, the inside is a little under whelming outside of the stained glass windows that date back to the early 1900s. Like the Basilica in Loring Park and the Cathedral of St Paul, many of the Twin Cities’ church where inspired by the French. If you have been to New Orleans you will notice the resemblance that Our Lady of Lourdes has with the much larger Saint Louis Cathedral in Jackson Square. Most of the Church’s recent fame hasn’t been for its age but instead for its amazing French Meat Pies (Tourtieres) which can be ordered right after Sunday service as well as during normal Parish office hours. Over the decades Lourdes has actually had to expand its freezer space just to account for the popularity of their traditional French dishes. Parish Office Hours: Monday-Friday 8:30am-4:30pm. Church Website: (HERE)
*At the end of the block from the Church is the popular…
13. Nye’s Polonaise Room: Often considered one of the best classic bars in America, Nye’s is a great hole-in-the-wall bar with a long history. While it has been called the Al Nye’s Polonaise Room since the 1950’s, the bar was originally opened as Hefron’s back in the 1880’s and has served as a working class bar ever since. Nye’s has done well to maintain its original working class feel even as the neighborhoods around it has been up-scaled some over time. Inside it is divided into two halves serving nightly music with one half used as a piano bar and the other for a polka band. In 2012, Nye’s Polonaise Room was featured on the popular Food Network show Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. This hasn’t been the first national exposure for Nye’s as it has also been featured on Good Morning America, Rachel Ray’s Tasty Travels, USA Today, and was Esquire Magazine’s Best Bar In America in 2006 (Article). Hours: Monday-Thursday 4pm-2am; Friday & Saturday 11am-2am; Closed Mondays. Kitchen opens at 4pm. Bar Website: (HERE).
*At the foot of the steps leading down from Our Lady of Lourdes Church, take the picturesque metal bride over to..
14. Nicollet Island: Nicollet Island feels like a little getaway from the city and if you have extra time is worth exploring. While the island has over 100 residents today a settler named Franklin Steele bought the entire island in 1848 for just $60. The island had been a multi-use retreat location for Native groups for 100s of years and we’re surprised that it was still available for Steele 10 years after other setters arrived. Shortly after Steele’s purchase the Nicollet Island Bridge was completed in 1855 as the first Riverfront area bridge to span the Mississippi. In 1869 a huge whirlpool swallowed the lower part of the island into the Mississippi River when a tunnel meant for water power collapsed. It took until the US Army Corp of Engineers completed an underwater dame in the river bed in 1876 before the Island was saved.
With the Island stable there was quite a bit a development, but sadly most of the buildings on the island burned in a large fire in the early 1900s. Only a couple originally buildings survived the fire including the Nicollet Island Inn (website) which originally opened in 1893 as the Island Sash & Door Company before quickly closing in six years later. The building went to shambles before being turning into a men’s shelter until 1973 before being turning into the current Hotel. Near the Hotel is a neat statue called Bell of Two Friends which was a gift from the city of Ibaraki, Japan which is Minneapolis’ sister city. Especially on the West side of the Island, many homes from the mid-to-late 1800s were relocated from other neighborhoods to the Island to preserve them. If you have a couple extra minutes it can be cool to drive through the street on the West side of the Island to see the historic homes.
*As you cross the bridge toward Minneapolis look back at the Iconic Grain Belt Brewery sign from the 1940 before heading to…
15. Old Milwaukee Train Depot: The 1st major train line in Minneapolis opened up as the Minnesota Central Railroad in 1864 before quickly expanding. After just 3 years it was bought by the Milwaukee Railroad and in no time was connecting Minneapolis through Mendota Height to Milwaukee, Chicago and beyond. After the opening of the Stone Arch Bridge many more rail lines came to town and joined in the Union Depot in 1885. The Milwaukee line thought it was silly to rent space in another companies depot so they with built their own Milwaukee Train Depot which opened in 1899. While the Depot’s Renaissance Revival style was considered quite conservative, the building was accented with lavish marble floors and its now iconic clock tower. The Depot became a travel center and had as many as 29 daily trains by 1920.
As cars then planes became more the norm traffic eventually slowed and with train routes from the Milwaukee Depot coming to a final halt in 1971. The building hasn’t been put to waste though as it now holds 2 hotels and the nearby freight house is considered to have one of the top Winter ice staking rinks in the United States. The rink is typically open from Thanksgiving until March each year. Time Saver: Walking along the river once over the Hennepin Avenue Bridge to go toward the Depot looks tempting, but the first few blocks along the river lack stairs to get back up to street level causing you to walk far out of the way. Just stick to the main streets and sidewalk even though it is a boring 2 1/2 block and it will save you some frustration. Depot Hotel Website: (HERE).
16. Federal Courthouse Plaza Park: Sitting at the foot of the Federal Courthouse, on the North side of the City Hall, is a functional urban landscape designed by architect Martha Schwartz from Boston. The City of Minneapolis wanted to create a unique green space for the city while being cautious of weight as there is a underground parking garage below it. What they came up with is a pretty cool series of tear drop shaped turf mounds mixed with tons of small playful statues. These mounds differ in size but are all placed at roughly a 30 degree angle on the pinstriped concrete walkways. Because they used turf mounds it enables the park to be year year round whether it is the blaze of Summer of the chill of Winter.
While the landscape may feel quite alien the turf mounds are meant to represent drumlins deposits left by glaciers in the ice age 10,000 years ago. A good mix of log of steel benched help add other elements to the part, but our favorite parts is by far the statues. We love taking photos of the cartoon-like figures which are doing everything from mowing the grass to taking photos of each other posing for the camera. Before leaving the park take note of the Minneapolis Grain Exchange to the East which was served as the city’s gateway to the commodities market since 1881.
17. Minneapolis City Hall: The the City of Minneapolis quickly outgrew their City Hall and Courthouse build in the late 1800s a new one replaced it almost to big to imagine in its day. Ground breaking took place in 1888 and it took 21 years to fully compete the huge 680,000 square feet, 5 story government building. Covering an entire city block, the powerful Richardsonian Romanesque architecture and 345 foot tall, Big Ben-like clock tower are still really impressive exterior features. The clock tower was the tallest building in Minneapolis until the 1920s and has a clock face even bigger than Big Ben in London. Since the clock tower reaches so high above you, let us give you a couple numbers to help you realize how tall it really is. The easiest way to grasp the size if through clock dial itself which sits 230 feet off the ground, is over 23 feet across and has a minute hand longer than the length of a car. In the upper part of the tower are a set of 15 bells which go off every 15 minutes which are said to be able the best in tune set of tower bells in the country and do more than just chime. At 1pm on all major holidays the bells go off in song considered part of a Bell Concert Series. In addition to holidays the bells go into go each Friday from May through September every 30 minutes between 11:30am and 1:30pm.
Once inside we love walking through the buildings main courtyard which is set up as an open sea of marble with a stained glass ceiling 5 story above. The center area being designed as a courtyard was not only meant to make the space look more vast but also was to spread out the support for the entire building. Because the weight is largely supported by the courtyard, interior walls of the building can be added and removed without jeopardizing the integrity of the building. This method of building was very forward thinking, but also paid off early as some City and County offices already needed to start moving in just 1/3 of the way through the total constructions time. After you take in the size of the interior take in the line of stained glass windows all around and the huge Father of Waters Statue sitting right in the middle of the courtyard. This gigantic statue carved of marble from Carrara Italy and weighs a whopping 88,000 pounds.
Interesting to note that there are also Peregrine Falcons that live and nest in the two towers of City Hall. You will see them from time to time and each year the Minnesota Raptor Center comes care for the Falcons and monitor them. Free Guided Tours: Meet every 3rd Wednesday of the month at the Father of Waters Statue. You can also pick up a free self guided brochure from the security desk. Visiting Hours: Monday-Friday 6am-6pm.
Other Sights Near The Riverfront:
18. Downtown Minneapolis: Downtown Minneapolis is the heart of the city. See all the best sights with our free Downtown walking tour.
19. Boom Island: In the early days of Minneapolis Boom Island served a vital roll in the lumber milling industry which helped the young city grow. The island had a series of derrick that supported long beams, also called booms, which stuck out into the water and helped in sorting the logs as they flowed down stream toward the lumber mills. Over the years sand a silt filled the channel on the North side of the island connecting it to shore. Today the island serves as a park often considered the best picnic spot in Minneapolis and still holds a light house which stands in the same spot as the island’s originally one. The light house was a very important in helping boats navigate the waters above St Anthony’s Falls. Also located on Boom Island are the docks for the Minneapolis Queen River Boat (website) which has excellent Mississippi River and Minneapolis skyline cruises. Boom Island Park Hours: 6am-10pm.
20. Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum: Great art museum on the U of M Admission Cost: Free. Free Guided Tours: Every Saturday and Sunday at 1pm. Opened in 1993
playground of curving and angular brushed steel sheets. This side is an abstraction of a waterfall and a fish.lis boom island
Hours: Tuesday, Thursday, Friday 10am-5pm; Wednesday 10am-8pm; Saturday & Sunday 11am-5pm; Closed Mondays.