The first thing to know about the Twin Cities, which beat out Tampa/St. Petersburg and two other burgs for the Republican National Convention next week, is that they're far from identical twins. • St. Paul, the state capital and host to the convention at the Xcel Energy Center, historically turned to the East Coast for architectural inspiration and has for the most part retained a human-feeling scale. Minneapolis boasts the area's tallest building, the 57-story IDS Center, in front of which TV's Mary Richards famously threw up her hat each week, and a growing number of gleaming skyscrapers. Both, however, are committed to developing their Mississippi riverfronts and have enlisted top architects to design notable cultural institutions. They also have extensive networks of second-story skyways connecting downtown buildings, offering refuge from frigid winters (or late-summer humidity) as well as good views. The following 10 things to see and do in the Twin Cities will get you started.
Cathedral of St. Paul/Basilica of St. Mary
Directly across the interstate from the capitol, the landmark cathedral modeled on St. Peter's in Rome sits atop Cathedral Hill overlooking St. Paul. Minnesota granite and travertine adorn the splendid interior, along with gorgeous stained glass, frescoes and paintings.
Emmanuel Louis Masqueray also designed the equally breathtaking Beaux-Arts Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis, which was the first basilica in the United States. Among the many statues, look for the one of Father Louis Hennepin, who brought Catholicism to the area and now gazes out eternally at the avenue that bears his name. Make time for a stroll in Loring Park across the street.
Mill City Museum
Built inside the burned-out hulk of the Washburn A Mill and opened in 2003, the interactive Mill City Museum showcases Minneapolis' "flour power," when the city was known as the "Flour Milling Capital of the World." In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Washburn A milled enough flour for 12-million loaves of bread a day. Highlights range from the eight-floor Flour Tower ride to the baking lab (ask about demonstrations).
Concerts the first and third Thursdays of the month continue through September in the Ruins Courtyard. Visit on Saturday mornings for the Mill City Farmer's Market outside the museum. Be sure to explore the historic riverfront neighborhood, especially the 1.8-mile St. Anthony Falls Heritage Trail and its centerpiece, the Stone Arch Bridge, the second oldest bridge spanning the Mississippi River. Stand in the middle for super views of the namesake falls that powered the mills, the milling district and the Minneapolis skyline.
The "Endless Bridge," jutting out 178 feet toward the Mississippi, seemingly unsupported, is just one of the dramatic features of French architect Jean Nouvel's big blue box built as the Guthrie Theater's new riverfront home. Three theaters and Cue at the Guthrie, a hot spot for seasonal local cuisine and more great views of the St. Anthony Falls, are among the amenities. The buzz is all about the world premiere musical based on Laura Ingalls Wilder's novel, Little House on the Prairie, playing through Oct. 5 with Melissa Gilbert from the 1970s TV series now in the role of "Ma." Consider local celebrity chef Brenda Langton's Spoonriver across the street for a pre-theater meal of grass-fed meats and local organic produce.
Walker Art Center/Minneapolis Sculpture Garden
A recent addition expanded Minnesota's premier modern art museum, which has a fine collection of 20th century American and international art, organizes provocative concept-driven exhibitions, and offers all sorts of cutting-edge performances and educational programs. "Eero Saarinen: Shaping the Future," a collaboration with the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, runs Sept. 13 through Jan. 4. Take a break at Wolfgang Puck's swank 20.21 (named for the centuries covered by the art), then head out to the new 11-acre sculpture garden with more than 40 works, the most photographed of which may be Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen's gigantic Spoonbridge and Cherry. Stroll through the glass-walled Cowles Conservatory, too.
Minneapolis Institute of Arts
Rembrandt's Lucretia, a small but exceptional selection of French impressionists and post-impressionists, old masters, Asian art, textiles and photography are among the high points at one of the Midwest's biggest and best museums, a 1915 Beaux-Arts marble beauty with a recent addition by Michael Graves. Besides part of "Eero Saarinen: Shaping the Future," special exhibitions include "Hail to the Chief: Images of the American Presidency" through Sept. 21.
The Minneapolis Institute is just south of downtown in the Powderhorn community, where you'll also find the Washburn-Fair Oaks Mansion District and "Eat Street," an around-the-world tour of more than 50 ethnic restaurants on a 17-block stretch of Nicollet Avenue.
Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum
Architect Frank Gehry's undulating stainless steel and brick facade makes this modern art museum on the University of Minnesota campus hard to miss. The mostly 20th century permanent collection features works by Marsden Hartley and Alfred Maurer, as well as paintings and prints by Georgia O'Keeffe, Robert Motherwell and Arthur Dove; ceramics and Korean furniture. A fascinating ongoing exhibit of paintings, photographs and prints from the early 20th century to the present examines "Who is a Citizen? What is Citizenship?" R. Luke DuBois' thought-provoking solo show, "Hindsight is Always 20/20," through Jan. 4, dissects presidential state of the union addresses. Head to the tiny balcony for a river view. Gehry also designed the forthcoming expansion.
Science Museum of Minnesota
Just east of the Xcel Energy Center and one of the Republican National Convention's official venues, the Science Museum is closed Aug. 28 through Sept. 12. After that, you can play "Disease Detectives" diagnosing mannequins in the Human Body Gallery, imagine the impact of "Questionable Medical Devices" like the phrenology machine (it looks like an old-fashioned salon hair dryer) in the Collections Gallery, and have enough hands-on experiences with dinosaurs, fossils and other scientific wonders to please children of all ages. Then it's out to the 11-acre Big Back Yard with a maze of native Minnesota plants and grasses, and best of all, EarthScapes, a nine-hole minigolf course with terrific water hazards that teach us how water moves down from the mountains and shapes the landscape. If that's not enough, the Omnitheater Film is Mysteries of the Great Lakes.
Minnesota State Capitol
Local architect Cass Gilbert designed the 1905 Italian Renaissance Minnesota State Capitol, best known for the world's largest unsupported marble dome (223 feet) and the Quadriga (four golden horses). Inside, the rotunda sports oil portraits of Minnesota's governors, and the halls of government have been restored to their original appearance, as has the Rathskellar Cafe. Take a guided tour or pick up a brochure at the entrance and enjoy the statues, murals, columns and arches on your own. To see a superb Art Deco interior, go to the black marble lobby of the St. Paul City Hall/Ramsey County Courthouse.
Starting at Cathedral Hill and running west almost 4 miles to the Mississippi River, tree-lined Summit Avenue — bastion of St. Paul's old money — is reputed to have the largest and longest collection of Victorian buildings in the country. Railroad tycoon James J. Hill built his 32-room red sandstone mansion here (No. 240), while other residents have been as diverse as Sinclair Lewis, John Dillinger, August Wilson and Garrison Keillor. The governor's residence, designed in English Tudor revival style, is at 1006. After driving or biking the avenue, you can decide whether or not you agree with F. Scott Fitzgerald, who dubbed it "a museum of American architectural failures." He lived at "Summit Terrace" (599) for a time.
Mall of America
A major tourist attraction that's billed as the largest retail and entertainment complex in the country, the sprawling mall has 520 shops, 50 restaurants, an aquarium, a 14-screen movie theater and much more spread over 4.2-million square feet. And an expansion is planned! What else is there to say? Oh, yes, it's in Bloomington and easily reachable from downtown Minneapolis or the airport by light rail (LRT) for only $1.50 ($2 during rush hour).
Anne Spiselman is a freelance writer based in Chicago.