10 Ways to Celebrate the Holidays in Minnesota

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Kiwanis Holiday Lights, Mankato / SPX Sports

10 Ways to Celebrate the Holidays in Minnesota

By Caitlin Hannah

With fresh snow, towering pines, light displays, seasonal treats and festive activities, the holidays are a magical time in Minnesota. Make the most of all that the season offers with these spirited events.

  1. Holiday Light Displays
    Bentleyville Tour of Lights Duluth

    Bentleyville Tour of Lights, Duluth / Dennis O'Hara

    Holiday Light Displays

    Every winter, Duluth’s Bayfront Festival Park transforms into “America's Largest Free Walk-Through Lighting Display," shining bright with 4 million lights at Bentleyville Tour of Lights (Nov. 19 - Dec. 26). Visitors can enjoy hot cocoa, popcorn and roasted marshmallows while marveling at the brilliant displays. Admission is free, but monetary donations as well as unwrapped toys and non-perishable food items are appreciated.

    It’s also a marvelous time of year to visit  Kiwanis Holiday Lights (Nov. 25 - Dec. 31) in Mankato, featuring 1.5 million LED lights, animated displays, a skating rink, horse-drawn wagon rides, Santa Claus, live reindeer, ice sculptures and more. Or make a trip to Moorhead to see Mary's Light Tunnel (Nov. 22 - March 1). The 60-foot canopy lights up each night from dusk until dawn all winter long.

    In the Twin Cities, the Winter Lights celebration at the Minnesota Arboretum (through Jan. 1) will enhance the beauty of the natural landscape with outdoor light displays featuring flowers and wintry nature on an accessible and stroller-friendly half-mile walk. The GLOW Holiday Festival at CHS Field in St. Paul (Nov. 23 - Jan. 1) features more than 1 million lights, an ice palace and more.

    Or hop in your car with some hot cocoa and see thousands of sparkling lights at drive-through displays at Sertoma Winter Wonderland in Baxter (Nov. 24 – Dec. 31), Celebrate the Light of the World in Willmar (Nov. 24 - Dec. 31) or Sever's Holiday Lights in Shakopee (Nov. 24 - Jan. 1).

  2. Holiday Trains
    Canadian Pacific Holiday Train

    The Canadian Pacific Holiday Train visits more than two-dozen Minnesota towns on its annual trek through the northern U.S. / Canadian Pacific

    Holiday Trains

    The Canadian Pacific Holiday Train will be rolling into Minnesota Dec.11 - 16, with stops in more than two dozen Minnesota towns, including Winona, Wabasha, Minneapolis, St. Paul, Alexandria and Thief River Falls.

    In Duluth, the Christmas City Express chugs along Lake Superior select weekends through Dec. 18, to and from the Duluth Depot, passing by Bentleyville along the way. While onboard, guests will enjoy carolers, hear a holiday story and visit Santa Claus. 

  3. Holiday Events
    Holidazzle Interactive Illuminated Art moose installation

    The Wolf and Moose, a Christopher Lutter-Gardella creation / Dusty Hoskovec Photography, courtesy

    Holiday Events

    Holidazzle is back in downtown Minneapolis (Nov. 25 - Dec. 18) with free amusement rides, including a carousel and giant slide under the skyline, as well as free Santa visits, Holidazzle Yeti, Santa, fireworks, festive food and drink, shopping from local small businesses, holiday lighting and more in Loring Park.

    Over in the west metro, the Northern Express is bringing the fun to Excelsior (Dec. 3 - 18), including holiday markets, Santa Claus meet-and-greets, reindeer, Christmas llamas, festive food, drink and more.

    Or head north to the First City of Lights festivities (Nov. 25 - 26) in Bemidji to see more than half a million lights, complete with a 50-foot-tall, animated Paul Bunyan Christmas tree, live music, a parade, fireworks and more. Visitors can also tour illuminated homes and storefronts through the New Year during the Tour of Homes display contest.

  4. European Christmas Markets
    European Christmas Market at night in Saint Paul

    European Christmas Market, St. Paul / Union Depot

    European Christmas Markets

    Stroll through a European-style Christmas market to find unique gifts and holiday decorations, or sample European-inspired dishes at the European Christmas Market at St. Paul’s Union Depot (Nov. 25 - Dec. 18).

    Plan a festive outing at Excelsior’s Christkindlsmarkt’s KinderWorld (Nov. 25 - 27) to see puppet shows, storytime, alpacas, reindeer and more, or take a trip to the Duluth Winter Village at the DECC (Dec. 3 - 4).

  5. Historic Home Tours
    Holiday Decorations at Glensheen Mansion Duluth

    Holiday decorations at Glensheen Mansion in Duluth

    Historic Home Tours

    The halls of Minnesota’s historic homes are decked for the holidays. Tour the Mayowood Mansion in Rochester or Hubbard House in Mankato, see 25 decorated trees at Glensheen in Duluth or experience what the holidays were like 100 years ago at the Charles A. Lindbergh House and Museum in Little Falls. In St. Paul, travel back in time to Christmas in 1910 on a tour of the James J. Hill House, or head over to the Comstock House in Moorhead to channel holiday traditions from the Victorian era.

  6. Pop-Up Holiday Bars
    Christmas decorations at Lawless Distilling

    Sip festive drinks at the holiday-themed "Miracle at Lawless" pop-up / Darin Kamnetz

    Pop-Up Holiday Bars

    Celebrate in the city at holiday-themed pop-up bars like Miracle at Lawless Distilling in Minneapolis to enjoy festive Minnesota-made cocktails in a kitschy holiday setting. In northeast Minneapolis, Psycho Suzi's is transformed into Mary’s Christmas Palace. Guests can sip cocktails and mocktails surrounded by kitschy holiday decor and holiday tunes.

  7. Holiday Shopping
    Winter downtown New Ulm

    Downtown New Ulm looks like a winter postcard / Kyle Krenz

    Holiday Shopping

    Stroll through some of Minnesota’s most charming downtowns, find one-of-a-kind gifts from local shops and partake in festive holiday fun at Nisswa’s annual City of Lights Celebration (Nov. 25), or squeeze in a visit to downtown Stillwater from Black Friday to New Year’s Eve to find carolers, horse-drawn wagonette rides, shopping deals, live reindeer and more. Visitors can also experience Northfield’s Winter Walk celebration (Dec. 8). The street is lined with hundreds of luminaries and festively decorated shops offering holiday specials.

    If more than 500 stores and tax-free shopping aren't reason enough to visit Mall of America, several holiday activities will delight visitors, including the Festival of Trees (Nov. 16 - Jan. 4) walk-through winter wonderland of extraordinary trees, located on Level 3, Culinary on North. The display is free, but visitors are encouraged to purchase raffle tickets to win tree décor. All proceeds benefit Special Olympics Minnesota. Visitors can also pre-schedule meet-and-greets with Santa.

    Santa and his reindeer also pay a visit to the Andrew J. Volstead House Museum in Granite Falls and the Holz Farm Old Fashioned Holiday in Eagan. Meanwhile, Mrs. Claus is planning on swinging by the Taylors Falls lighting festival.

  8. You-Pick Christmas Tree Farms
    Kruegers Christmas Tree Farm in Lake Elmo

    Krueger's Christmas Tree Farm, Lake Elmo

    You-Pick Christmas Tree Farms

    Channel your inner Clark Griswold by visiting one of Minnesota’s you-pick Christmas tree farms. Each farm features its own personality, from quiet and peaceful to bustling holiday hubs with sleigh rides, family crafts, Santa Claus meet-and-greets and more.

  9. Holiday Shows
    Children's Theatre Company How the Grinch Stole Christmas

    How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Children's Theatre Company   / Dan Norman - Children's Theatre Company

    Holiday Shows

    Take in a holiday classic, including It's A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play accompanied by lunch or dinner at The Saint Paul Hotel (Dec. 1 - 23), A Christmas Carol (Nov. 12 - Dec. 31) at the Guthrie Theater, or Loyce Houlton’s Nutcracker Fantasy, (Dec. 16 - 23) at the State Theatre. The Minnesota Ballet adds a local twist (and a lumberjack) to the classic story with its performance of The Nutcracker: A Duluth Tale (Dec. 9 - 11) at the DECC in Duluth.

  10. Holiday Teas and Treats
    Saint James Hotel Red Wing

    Saint James Hotel, Red Wing / Courtesy Red Wing Visitors & Convention Bureau

    Holiday Teas and Treats

    Sip tea and enjoy treats like warm scones, canapes, cheesecakes, tea sandwiches and more. Book a tea time at the Lowell Inn in Stillwater, the Mad Hatter in Anoka or The Saint Paul Hotel. Get your fill of holiday sweets and treats and leave the baking to someone else. Visit a local bakery, café or restaurant to pick up locally made cookies, cakes and other treats this season.

Caitlin Hannah

Caitlin Hannah is Explore Minnesota's social media strategist and resident Disney expert. She grew up spending summer weekends at her family's lake cabin in Detroit Lakes, and brings that "up north" attitude to everything she does. When traveling around the state, she likes trying new restaurants and taprooms, or watching Minnesota hockey.