18 Free Things to Do in Minnesota

By Explore Minnesota

Exterior of Minneapolis Institute of Art and Children's Theatre
The Minneapolis Institute of Art is always free for visitors

Going on vacation doesn't have to mean spending a lot of money. In Minnesota, there are plenty of attractions and activities that are completely free to visitors.

From gardens and trails to museums and monuments, here are 18 free things to do in Minneapolis, St. Paul, Duluth, Bemidji and beyond.

1. Stop & Smell the Roses at Munsinger Clemens Gardens

munsinger gardenThis well-known, beautiful garden park is located along the Mississippi River in St. Cloud. With origins dating back to 1890, the gardens have been a popular respite for close to a century. Stroll the Munsinger Gardens to see annuals, perennials and shrubs shaded by 90-year-old Scotch and Norway pines, then visit the Clemens portion to see the rose garden, formal garden, white garden and several fountains. During the summer, come for free concerts every other Sunday and the annual art fair in July.

2. See the Swans at the Swan Park

Every winter, over 2,000 trumpeter swans gather along the Mississippi River in Monticello. Late November to March is the best time to see them; the park has a viewing deck overlooking the river and is wheelchair accessible. Come spring, the swans return to Minnesota's many lakes as the water begins to thaw.

3. Have a SPAMtastic Time at the SPAM Museum

The new and improved SPAM Museum in downtown Austin features interactive exhibits and galleries dedicated to the infamous canned ham's history, popularity and place in modern life, as well as SPAM-inspired artwork and a kids play area. Try a SPAMple, served on pretzel sticks by friendly SPAMbassadors, and don't leave before buying a few cans of hard-to-find flavors at the gift shop.

4. Visit the Headquarters of Marvin Windows and Doors

Experience the history of Marvin Windows and Doors at the Wm. S. Marvin Training and Visitor Center in Warroad, the biggest town on Lake of the Woods. Exhibits include company artifacts and interactive presentations to create a memorable experience for visitors of all ages. The museum and gift shop are open to the public from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays and 1-4 p.m. on weekends.

5. Learn about the Sacred Tradition of Pipemakers

pipe statue

The southwest Minnesota town of Pipestone is named for the area's soft red rock that has been sacred to Native Americans for centuries. The old Rock Island Depot, on the National Historic Register and one of very few buildings made of yellow brick, houses the Pipemakers gift shop, Indian art gallery and displays of Indian items. Open year-round and a worthy stop before or after a visit to Pipestone National Monument.

6. Go Disc Golfing

Combine golf with Frisbee and you get this fun sport! Players throw discs at a series of "holes," with the lowest number of "strokes" winning the game. Minnesota has around 200 disc golf courses, and most are free to play. For a complete list of courses in Minnesota, go to pdga.com.

7. Cast a Line at the National Trout Center

An environmental learning center in Minnesota's beautiful Driftless Area, the National Trout Center in Preston is a one-stop shop for all things fly fishing, cold water ecology, geology and local fishing information. Trout anglers should be sure to check out the nearby nine-hole fishing course on the Root River, home to brook, brown and rainbow trout.

8. Tour the Grand Rounds Scenic Byway

Minnehaha Falls in Minneapolis
Minnehaha Falls is one of the free highlights along the Grand Rounds / Photo by Kurt Carlson

As the only urban national scenic byway, Minneapolis' Grand Rounds showcases the exceptional qualities of Minnesota's biggest city. The byway is in the heart of Minneapolis, with many impressive views of the downtown skyline combined with the green, lush shorelines of the city's famous Chain of Lakes. Drive, bike, run or Rollerblade (invented in Minnesota!) along the 50-mile route, with highlights including lakeside parks, beautiful gardens, and the famous Minnehaha Falls.

9. Get Artsy at the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden

One of the country's largest urban sculpture parks, the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden features more than 40 works of art and the Cowles Conservatory. The garden was recently renovated, bringing back the iconic "Spoonbridge and Cherry" sculpture, 18 holes of artist-designed mini golf and several new works, including a giant blue rooster known as "Hahn/Cock."

10. Lose Yourself in the Minneapolis Institute of Art

Called Mia for short, this impressive attraction is regularly ranked among the top 10 comprehensive art museums in the country. With more than 90,000 works of art spanning 5,000 years and six continents, it will take multiple visits to see it all. Admission is free, with special exhibits for an additional fee.

11. Take the Kids to Como Zoo & Conservatory

Couple at Como Conservatory St. Paul
The Como Conservatory offers a tropical escape year-round

St. Paul's most-visited attraction, Como Zoo features indoor and outdoor exhibits, including large cats, an ape house, polar bears, giraffes, and a crowd-pleasing sea lion named Sparky. The adjacent Marjorie McNeely Conservatory has tropical and seasonal plants and flowers, as well as a Japanese garden. Donations are accepted for both attractions.

12. See the Ships at the Lake Superior Maritime Visitor Center

Operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, this is the most-visited marine museum on the Great Lakes. Overlooking Lake Superior and beneath the shadow of Duluth's iconic Aerial Lift Bridge, the center has exhibits on the region's historical and present-day role as a major port city. Check the website to find out when the next 1,000-foot freighter will pass right outside the building. Open daily throughout shipping season.

13. Trek the Superior Hiking Trail

Hiker on Superior Hiking Trail
The Superior Hiking Trail / Alyssa Hei

This storied 310-mile trail follows the rocky ridge line above Lake Superior, offering unparalleled views of the expansive lake and craggy shoreline along the way. Great for both day hikes and backpack camping, the trail runs from south of Duluth to the Canadian border. There are parking lots every 5 to 10 miles, and an information center in Two Harbors where you can buy the official guidebook.

14. Pedal the Gitchi-Gami State Trail

The Gitchi-Gami connects Two Harbors to Grand Marais along the North Shore of Lake Superior. This 86-mile trail will eventually connect five state parks, several communities, four Scientific and Natural Areas and numerous historic sites, and provides beautiful vistas of Lake Superior. The longest completed segment is from Gooseberry Falls State Park to Beaver Bay for over 14 miles of uninterrupted riding.

15. Climb on the Art at Franconia Sculpture Park

sculpture garden

Open 365 days a year, this quirky artists' residency in the St. Croix River Valley features more than 100 large-scale sculptures scattered across 25 acres. Free guided tours are offered on Sundays in summer and fall. Other nearby attractions include Interstate State Park, Wild Mountain ski area and water park, and boat tours of the river.

16. Dance a Polka at the New Ulm Glockenspiel

This 45-foot-tall carillon tower in downtown New Ulm, Minnesota's most German town, plays programmed music three times a day, when the clock's animated figurines come to life. The characters are replaced by a nativity scene during the holiday season.

17. See the World's Largest Boot at Red Wing Shoes

Located inside the flagship store in downtown Red Wing, the museum features brand memorabilia, a chance to dress like an iron worker and displays about how the famous shoes are made. But the biggest (pun intended) draw is the giant boot in the lobby, clocking in at size 638.5.

18. Strike a Pose with Paul & Babe

Bemidji Paul Bunyan and Babe winter
Paul & Babe on the shore of Lake Bemidji

Snap a photo with folklore's favorite lumberjack and his trusty steed, Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox. The pair pictured above can be found in Bemidji, but other statues stand tall in Brainerd, Nisswa, Pequot Lakes, Akeley and elsewhere throughout the state.

Find even more things to do in Minnesota in our comprehensive listings.