In Minnesota, you know the holiday season has begun when Bentleyville opens in Duluth, an annual tradition that draws close to 250,000 people to see the twinkling lights from Thanksgiving through Christmas.
Duluth officially kicks off the season with the Christmas City of the North nighttime parade through downtown the Friday before Thanksgiving. The parade is followed by the Christmas City Express train, the warm glow of decked-out Victorian mansions, and the bustle of holiday events ranging from comedy reviews and ballet to fairs featuring locally made gifts.
Christmas City of the North Parade
Stake out a spot downtown to watch close to two dozen marching bands, 70 organizations and businesses, visiting royalty, and two dozen dance groups who join Santa in the Christmas City of the North Parade from Fitger’s to Fourth Avenue West.
Bentleyville Tour of Lights
Bundle up and go early to join the nightly countdowns, chanting, “Five…four…three…two…ONE!” before the lights of Bentleyville go on with a whoosh and a cheer. Lighted tunnels and pathways lead visitors past themed displays depicting Split Rock Lighthouse, an ore ship, the Aerial Lift Bridge, and everything from the Nativity to the Island of Misfit Toys lit up by more than 4 million lights in a carnival of color.
Volunteers offer hot chocolate, cookies and popcorn along the way, with a mid-way break for warming up by 15 outdoor fires and roasting a marshmallow or two.
Christmas City Express
A vintage train wrapped in holiday lights rumbles and chugs into view in front of Fitger’s in Duluth from late November through December. Its lights brighten an inky night along Lake Superior as families eagerly climb up the steps and a conductor hollers, “All Aboard!”
The seasonal ride on the North Shore Scenic Railroad’s Christmas City Express travels to Duluth’s 1892 Depot, which houses the Lake Superior Railroad Museum. Kids gather for a reading of the book, “The Christmas City Express,” watch Lionel model train sets whir around their tracks, explore full-sized trains, and hear a full-sized steam engine chug to life, spewing smoke and blowing its whistle. The North Shore Scenic Railroad also offers a shuttle between Fitger’s and Bentleyville.
Christmas at Glensheen
Glensheen opens for self-guided holiday tours through the former Congdon home, which is decorated with 25 Christmas trees and other glittering decor that adds to its rich and historic surroundings. The Glensheen Estate was completed in 1908. The Congdon family's rich history and wealth dates back to the influential iron mining industry in the north. Visit in early December for the outdoor Winter Village, a holiday shopping event reminiscent of Europe's Christmas markets.
Many of Duluth’s grandest mansions were built during lumber boom years when the city claimed more millionaires per capita than anywhere in the United States. Visitors can savor the craftsmanship and architectural details of that period, along with seasonal decorations and hospitality, at one of Duluth’s other five historic mansions converted into bed-and-breakfasts.
Besides serving as a pickup spot for Bentleyville and Christmas City Express, the Fitger’s shopping complex in a former brewery brings in Santa and live reindeer on weekends in December. Families can get photos with Santa, check out the unique shops or enjoy a meal or overnight stays with views of Lake Superior.
Other popular spots for unique and regionally made products include Canal Park and downtown Duluth along Superior Street.
Lisa Meyers McClintick is a prolific travel writer for outlets including USA Today, Midwest Living, the Star Tribune and her website lisamcclintick.com. A mom of three, she especially enjoys family travel, hands-on learning vacations, local food and farms, living history and outdoor adventures.
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