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Family Favorites: Fun Places to Take the Kids

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Get up close and personal with grizzly bears at the Minnesota Zoo / Minnesota Zoo

Family Favorites: Fun Places to Take the Kids

By Erica Wacker

When it comes to family fun, Minnesota is second to none. New kid-friendly attractions open every year, joining an already impressive roster of museums, amusement parks, zoos and more that cater to kids by making history, science, nature and culture fun for the whole family.

So pack up the car, grab the kids, and point your GPS toward Minnesota, where family fun awaits at every turn.

Minneapolis-St. Paul Area

Mall of America

If you've never been here before, your first stop should definitely be Mall of America in Bloomington. Home to an indoor amusement park, aquarium, movie theater, arcades, mini golf, virtual reality experiences and a whole lot more, you could easily spend a whole day here and not do it all. Some of the newest attractions include the Crayola Experience, where your kids can name and wrap their own crayons along with two dozen other colorful activities. For older kids and teens, The Void lets you dress up as a Stormtrooper or enter the Marvel galaxy through the magic of virtual reality.

Learn more about what's new at Mall of America.

Exterior Minneapolis Institute of Art and Children's Theatre

The Children's Theatre Co. shares a building with Mia / Courtesy Mia

Minneapolis

Find two attractions in one at the Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia) and the Children's Theatre Co., which share a beautiful building just south of downtown. Mia hosts family days one Sunday a month, and the venerable Walker Art Center does the same the first Saturday of the month. At the Walker, the adjoining Minneapolis Sculpture Garden is always free, and a great place for kids to run off some energy.

In the picturesque Mill District adjacent to the Mississippi River, you'll find the Mill City Museum. A Minnesota Historical Society site, the museum tells the story of the city's flour-milling history in a fun and entertaining way. Don't miss a ride in the eight-story Flour Tower for an interactive look into the past.

Boy looking up at a woolly mammoth replica at the Bell Museum

The larger-than-life woolly mammoth is just one of the amazing exhibits at the Bell Museum in St. Paul

St. Paul

Downtown St. Paul has long been home to a trifecta of Minnesota’s best-known family attractions, all within blocks of one another—the Minnesota Children’s Museum, the Science Museum of Minnesota and the Minnesota History Center. The newly renovated Children’s Museum features over a dozen exhibits, including a four-story indoor playground called "The Scramble."

Outside of downtown, the newly reopened Bell Museum tells the story of the area's natural history through lifelike wildlife dioramas, a massive woolly mammoth replica, and the country's first seamless dome planetarium. Nearby, Como Zoo & Conservatory has been welcoming families for decades, and will open a new sea lion exhibit in 2020.

Suburbs

Elsewhere in the region, kid-friendly favorites include Valleyfair in Shakopee, the upper Midwest's largest amusement park; Cascade Bay Waterpark in Eagan; The Works Museum in Bloomington, which is all about engineering and other STEM subjects; the Minnesota Zoo in Apple Valley; and SeaQuest, a new aquarium at Rosedale Center in Roseville.

Find places to stay in the Twin Cities.

Greater Minnesota

Ely & Lake Vermilion

Reconnect your kids with nature at the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Ely, where a duo of wildlife centers teach visitors about this special area. At the International Wolf Center, four-legged residents Boltz, Denali, Grayson and Axel live on-site to further the public's education about this magnificent species. Daily educational programs are included with admission, and special evening and weekend adventure programs offer additional immersion into the lives of wolves.

Ely is also home to the North American Bear Center, the only black bear and wildlife educational facility of its kind. The center helps dispel the many myths that people believe about bears as ferocious animals to be feared. Four resident bears live in 2.5 acres of natural forest that includes man-made dens and a pond, where they roam freely and forage for food.

About 20 miles west of the Bear Center, the Soudan Underground Mine is another family favorite. Travel a mile underground to experience what it was like to work in Minnesota's first iron ore mine, which closed in 1962. In addition to learning about mining, you can see bats who winter in the mine, or take the science tour to learn about the physics lab that, until recently, conducted major experiments underground.

Find places to stay in Ely.

National Eagle Center in Wabasha

National Eagle Center, Wabasha

Wabasha-Kellogg

Two top-tier attractions draw families to this scenic stretch of the Great River Road. Less than two hours south of Minneapolis-St. Paul in downtown Wabasha, the National Eagle Center is perched on the bank of the Mississippi River, where bald and golden eagles nest outside the center's floor-to-ceiling windows. Inside, resident eagles are on display and part of daily educational programs.

The center also hosts many special programs, including eagle field trips and the Soar with the Eagles series in March, when visitors can see other birds of prey that are brought in from around the region.

Continue about 10 minutes south and you'll hit Lark Toys in Kellogg. In addition to the store's handmade wooden toys, this popular destination has a museum of classic toys, an indoor carousel and cafe, and mini-golf outside in the summer months. Good luck leaving empty-handed. 

Find places to stay in Wabasha-Kellogg.

Woman posing with the Paul Bunyan statue at Paul Bunyan Land

Head to Paul Bunyan Land in Brainerd, where the giant lumberjack will greet you by name

Brainerd Lakes Area

Families flock to this lakes area, especially in the summer, where lazy days at area resorts are coupled with amusement park and zoo visits, trips to the ice cream shop, and weekly turtle races in downtown Nisswa. The classic Paul Bunyan Land in Brainerd will leave a lasting impression on your kids as soon as they arrive, where the giant lumberjack may greet them by name. Nearby, Safari North Wildlife Park is home to bears, big cats, giraffes you can feed and camels you can ride.

Nisswa turtle races

Summer turtle races have been a northern Minnesota tradition since 1963

For a true "up north" experience, head to downtown Nisswa on Wednesdays and enter the turtle race. For $5, your kid can pick their turtle and try to coax it to cross the finish line first. Win or lose, a stop at The Chocolate Ox for candy or a cone is a post-race must-do.

Find places to stay in the Brainerd Lakes area.

Erica Wacker

Erica Wacker is a Midwesterner through and through, growing up in Illinois, going to college in Wisconsin, and settling down in Minnesota. She loves to run, travel with her family, and go to concerts to relive her youth.