Summer rediscovered

It's hard not to hang on to traditions. Some traditions deserve to stick around — like having as much milk as you can handle at the dairy booth during The Great Minnesota Get Together.

Others might need a change of pace.

In fact, it’s easy to get into a parenting rut: If something is successful and fun, common sense keeps you going back. But not me. After a few weeks of summer vacation, I start to feel like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, stuck in an endless loop of the same kid-friendly attractions and parks.

There comes a time and a need to deviate from the norm to keep things from becoming a grind. Fortunately, we live in the land of 10,000 activities, so we have no excuse for repetition or boredom.

Check out these fresh alternatives to your favorite Twin Cities destinations next time you’re feeling up for a decidedly different adventure!

Favorite destination: 

Mill City Museum

The Mill City Museum on the Minneapolis riverfront is an icon in the downtown district, with the Gold Medal Flour sign — towering over the beautiful brick ruins of the old mill, calling inquisitive visitors to learn how the city got started.

You’ll find a rich historical perspective about grain milling.

As neat as it is, especially for a history buff, you’ll want an alternative place to do a little learning and exploring this summer when the appeal of wheat and barley wear off.  

Child pointing to cow

Lesser-known fun:

Farm Visits 

In an age when we’re placing so much emphasis on where our food comes from and embracing the influence of earlier days, after you’ve had your fill of the Mill, jump on minnesotagrown.com or check out the annual Eat Local Farm Tour on July 16. (See wedge.coop for a free guide.)

Yes, channel your inner Laura Ingalls and go to an ACTUAL farm to see things like milk cows or taste hand-turned butter.

My kids love to gather eggs, still warm from under the feathered breast of a hen!

Try artisan cheeses (gouda!) at Eichten’s Cheese & Bison near Center City (about 40 miles northeast of downtown St. Paul) and literally watch the buffalo roam on native-grass pastures at a family farm. (Combine your visit with a trip to Franconia Sculpture Park five minutes down the road.)

Pick your own strawberries and raspberries in the summer at Pine Tree Apple Orchard in White Bear Lake, followed in the fall by apples and pumpkins.

During the Eat Local Farm Tour, see where local eggs and bacon come from — and what sustainable, pasture-based, organic animal farming looks like — at TC Farm in Montrose, about 35 miles west of Minneapolis (formerly known as True Cost Farm).

We enjoy farms so much that we make a point to visit more than one each year. Pull on your mud boots and get ready for life on the farm!

If you want to combine your visit with a picnic dinner, check out lists of local pizza farms at Explore Minnesota and Mpls-St. Paul Magazine.

If you want to go really in depth, browse a list of special behind-the-scenes farm tours available across Minnesota at Explore Minnesota.

Favorite destination:

Como Zoo

We all ADORE St. Paul’s Como Zoo for mid-winter. When it’s blustery outdoors, you can walk around Como and see parents with their piping hot coffees, trying to keep a tentative grasp on their sanity whilst their children play in the polar kids cave or toddle amongst tropical plants under birds and a random three-toed sloth.

Let me say it again: We love Como. However, if you’re like me, you’ve watched the Sparky the Sea Lion show enough times to do the tricks yourself — maybe you, too, are ready for a little change of venue.

Girls with alligator

Lesser-known fun:

RAD Zoo

Short for Reptile and Amphibian Discovery Zoo, this rad destination in Owatonna (about 65 miles south of downtown Minneapolis) features one of the world’s largest reptile and amphibian displays, including snakes, turtles, lizards, crocodiles, toads, frogs and salamanders — more than 150 kinds of animals from all over the world, including Big Al, a 12-foot-long alligator and Bella, a 14-foot-long python.

My kids love this interactive destination. We have a son who’s channeling the energy of the late and great Crocodile Hunter, Steve Irwin, I swear.

Getting the kids petting pythons and canoodling with crocs — while also learning about the Everglades ecosystem and other interesting beasts and creepy crawlies — means I can enjoy watching them smile and explore, without having to deal with the parking mayhem at the “free zoo.”

Exhibits and critters are just as awesome as those at the zoo, but the crowds are virtually non-existent. An afternoon of something a little different is guaranteed here.

See theradzoo.com.

Favorite destination:

Minnesota History Center

History buffs get excited about the traveling exhibits offered at the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul — my family included.

We’re all for whatever gets the kids thinking about our rich past and the events and people that shaped Minnesota as we know it today.

I particularly enjoyed a recent chocolate-focused exhibit myself!

Truth be told, I love the many of the 25-plus sites that the Minnesota Historical Society manages across the state. (See mnhs.org for a complete list.) Most are better for the older set, but they always try to have kid-friendly offerings, too. But sometimes ...

American Swedish Institute

Lesser-known fun:

American Swedish Institute 

... you need a little fika. The term, which means “daily break” in Swedish is a familiar one at American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis — a sweet respite from the hamster wheel of play dates and library story times.

Mixed in with stunning permanent and touring collections of glass, fine art, textiles and other items from Sweden, are many special activities for children, including summer day camps, third Friday play dates known as Kids at the Castle and Svenska Skolan (a Saturday morning language and culture program for ages 4–13), plus season events throughout the year.

The museum is also home to a renowned Nordic-themed cafe, FIKA.

We have a collection of handicrafts in our home thanks to the hands-on fun for kids here.

Your kids will love exploring a real castle — the museum’s home is the 1908 Turnblad Mansion — and parents will enjoy the break from routine museum outings. See asimn.org.

Favorite destination:

This is a beloved winter getaway, no doubt. It’s fun to take a weekend and thaw your nose and toes in the hot tub or simply float on the lazy river. We love the Wave Rider, which even challenges Dad! And in summer, this Bloomington park offers respite from the heat, too! (And, new this year, there’s even a Dairy Queen on site.)

But day visits here don’t come cheap. And sometimes you need to save a buck and mix up your beat-the-heat routine, especially in summer when there are so many outdoor get-wet opportunities!

Lake Hiawatha Swimming Pool

Lesser-known fun:

Splash Pads and Wading Pools

The Twin Cities is home to numerous — FREE! — water-fun destinations. And they’re particularly suited to toddlers, who can end up feeling a bit left out at waterparks, which stringently enforce height restrictions.

In Minneapolis alone, you’ll find 60 wading pools, including some with splash-pad-like bells and whistles.

The Lake Hiawatha Park Wading Pool, for example, features bubblers of all sorts that make it a next-level destination.

The Wabun Picnic Area wading pool at Minnehaha Regional Park boasts an Arch de Triumph-esque arch that sprays water in all directions.

North Mississippi Regional Park (pictured above) offers rock formations and waterfalls.

Check out our list of top splash pads in this issue — starting on Page 30 — because being out in the open air with the sun shining on your face, during these precious few warm months, is what a Minnesota summer is all about!

And with so many options, you won’t have to worry about summer ennui.


Amanda Williams lives on her small hobby farm in Greater Minnesota with her two energetic sons and husband. She is a family travel writer and considers every day an opportunity for a grand adventure — after a good cup (or two) of coffee, of course!