12 Things to Do in Duluth, Minnesota

Last Updated on February 6, 2024 by Robert Wilson


Duluth is a vibrant port city located on the shores of Lake Superior in northeastern Minnesota. With its dramatic lake views, wealth of outdoor activities, and lively local culture, Duluth makes for an excellent vacation destination any time of year.

From hiking and biking the extensive trail system, to learning about local history at unique museums, to catching a show at the symphony, there is something for travelers of all ages and interests to enjoy in Duluth. The following twelve attractions and activities offer just a taste of what this charming Minnesota city has to offer visitors.

1.Take in the Views along Lake Superior

No trip to Duluth is complete without spending some time admiring and exploring its crown jewel, magnificent Lake Superior. At over 30,000 square miles, Lake Superior is the largest freshwater lake in the world by surface area. With its cool waters spanning seemingly endlessly to the horizon, the views along Lake Superior’s shoreline are second to none.

One of the most popular places to take in the vistas is Canal Park, located at Duluth’s waterfront. Offering around 1.5 miles of boardwalks, lighthouses, bridges and historic ship exhibits, as well as numerous shops and cafés, Canal Park makes it easy to access all the lakefront has to offer.

From the 1903-built Aerial Lift Bridge to North Pier Light Station to the William A. Irvin Ore Boat museum, there are many unique structures and attractions for visitors to check out as they wander the promenade along the water. On a clear day, don’t forget to look across the harbor where you can see Wisconsin just a few miles away on the other side of the vast lake.

For a more rugged Superior excursion, try hiking along the Superior Hiking Trail which traverses ridges high above the shoreline to deliver non-stop vistas. Skyline Parkway, a National Scenic Byway, also offers periodic roadside turnoff spots to stop and soak in the scenery as you twist and turn along Duluth’s hillsides.

Wherever you choose to view it from, Lake Superior’s glimmering waters and rugged coastline make an unforgettable impression.

2.Walk Across the Aerial Lift Bridge

One Duluth landmark that makes most visitors’ must-see lists is the Aerial Lift Bridge. Spanning the Duluth Ship Canal that slices through the Duluth harbor and out to Lake Superior, the bridge build in 1905 connects Canal Park with Duluth’s central downtown area.

The bridge gained its current name because of its unique ability to lift vertically to a height of over 100 feet to allow large vessels to pass under it through the narrow shipping canal. When the bridge lifts, vehicular access across the bridge gets temporarily cut off, but pedestrians can still walk across the open grated bridge deck to admire views of the harbor both east and west. Even when lowered, walking across the open-grate upper deck 140 feet above the water offers exhilarating views unmatched on most bridges.

The best place to view the bridge is from Canal Park on the lakeside, especially at night when the bridge is illuminated by artistic lighting. Check the lift bridge schedule online to see if you can coordinate a viewing during one of its lifts that occur every few hours throughout most days. As an icon of Duluth, a visit across the famous Aerial Lift Bridge should be on every sightseeing itinerary.

3.Bike along Lake Superior’s Scenic North Shore

With its paved off-road trails, quiet country roads, and endless sights, Duluth has rightfully earned its designation as one of the best biking destinations in the Midwest. One premier place to experience biking in Duluth is along the North Shore Scenic Drive, the picturesque coastal route that winds along Lake Superior’s shoreline north of Duluth.

Several bike paths allow you to pedal safely separated from vehicle traffic while never losing sight of the glittering lake waters. The 4.5-mile Leif Erikson Park Trail near Duluth’s northern edge offers beautiful river valley views in addition to Superior sights. As you head north along the lakeshore, connecting routes like the 8-mile Willard Munger Trail allow you to bike uninterrupted while gazing over the rocky beaches and coastal forests that line the lake’s shore. Interpretive panels along the way delve into geological facts and history about the region’s natural and Native American heritage.

Many small lakeside communities further up the North Shore, like Two Harbors, also offer scenic pedaling paths of their own. Reward all those miles with fish tacos and locally brewed craft beer at New Scenic Café or World’s Best Donuts in Two Harbors before trading your bike seat for the Lake Express high-speed ferry for a cool return trip across Lake Michigan back to Duluth.

4.Tour Glensheen Historic Estate

History buffs visiting Duluth will definitely want to spend some time at the sprawling Glensheen Historic Estate, one of the most popular attractions in Duluth. The 22,000 square foot Jacobean-style mansion perched dramatically along the Lake Superior shoreline was built between 1905 and 1908 by wealthy businessman Chester Adgate Congdon.

The estate’s 39 rooms opulently decorated with art and original furnishings offer an intriguing glimpse into the luxurious lifestyles of Duluth’s early 20th century elite. The main level features ornate woodwork imported from Europe and a showpiece 590 pipe organ in the expansive living room still used for public concerts. Many rooms still feel surprisingly homey despite their extravagance, like the family dining room decorated for Christmas dinner and the quaint breakfast room overlooking the lakeshore.

Glensheen’s 12 acres of immaculately manicured grounds receive as much admiration as the interior magnificence. Visitors can self-guide through landscaped features like a Historic Rose and perennial garden or hike along birch-lined trails through untouched forest tracts leading down to secluded rocky beaches on Lake Superior’s shoreline. More somber aspects of Glensheen’s history can be seen in the basement exhibit detailing the infamous double murder that occurred here in 1977.

Glensheen offers guided tours covering various aspects of the estate’s architecture and family history throughout the day. Time your visit around one of the daily afternoon teas or summer concerts on the lawn for a delightfully rounded experience at this Duluth crown jewel.

5.Attend a Show at Symphony Hall

Lovers of music and the visual arts shouldn’t miss the opportunity to take in a performance at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center’s Symphony Hall. Opened in 1966 to originally house the Duluth Symphony Orchestra, the 2,000 seat performance venue quickly established itself as one of Minnesota’s top stops for major touring productions, famous guest musicians, and beloved local performance groups.

Classical music remains at the core of Symphony Hall’s identity, with the Duluth Symphony Orchestra staging both Masterworks and lighter Pops concerts from September through May annually. Nationally acclaimed guest artists and Broadway musical touring companies also grace the stage regularly. Mid-week Matinee musicals offer afternoon show options in addition to the usual weekend evening performances.

Thanks to a major renovation project completed in early 2022, Symphony Hall feels like new while still retaining its mid-century modern architectural charm. Upgrades like improved acoustics and accessibility blend seamlessly into the original Mies van der Rohe-inspired open lobby flanked by huge glass expanses overlooking the harbor and Lake Superior. From world-class entertainment inside to panoramic views outside, an evening at Symphony Hall makes for a quintessential Duluth experience.

6.Sample Exotic Eats and Entertainment at Grandma’s Sports Garden

Ask Duluth residents where to find good food and nightlife and Grandma’s is bound to be one of the first places they mention. Part of national restaurant group Grandma’s Restaurants, the flagship Canal Park location called Grandma’s Sports Garden blends exceptional dining with a lively bar and entertainment venue under one very large and welcoming roof.

Given its name and location near downtown sporting arenas, Grandma’s offers an impressive amount of giant TV screens broadcasting ongoing games and matches. But most patrons come for the extensive menu spanning from juicy Lucifer’s Inferno burgers to exotic fare like sweet and spicy calamari, jambalaya pasta, or build-your-own street tacos. Live music, karaoke, trivia nights, and even the occasional ticketed concert add to the festivities almost any night of the week. When Lake Superior beckons right outside, umbrella-shaded deck seating allows diners to enjoy Grandma’s fare al fresco during warmer months.

The interior décor also deserves mention for its whimsical take on north woods charm, accented by carved bears, animated moose heads, and even chairs fashioned from old snowshoes. Fun, tasty, and always buzzing with activity, Grandma’s Sports Garden ranks as a must-try eatery and hang-out during any Duluth getaway.

7.Ride the Scenic North Shore Scenic Railroad

Though Duluth rose to prominence thanks to its location as a major Great Lakes shipping hub, railways also played an important part in the region’s development starting in the late 19th century. Relive Duluth’s railroading history aboard the North Shore Scenic Railroad, a heritage railway that traverses some of the area’s most jaw-dropping terrain using vintage rolling stock.

The railroad operates several routes, but its most popular is the Two Harbors Turn scenic excursion that traces an iconic section of track hugging Lake Superior’s rugged shoreline between Duluth and Two Harbors. Many car-free tunnels and bridges offering thrilling glimpses of surging waterfalls and sheer rock cliffs kept early railway engineers on their toes as then constructed what remains today an incredible feat of engineering. Wildlife sightings of bald eagles, black bears, and even the occasional moose add natural drama to the journey.

For a little nostalgia, opt for seating in one of the railroad’s fleet of meticulously restored mid-1900’s era passenger cars outfitted with glass observation domes that offer unobstructed panoramas. Or ride in style by booking your journey in The Duluth Zephyr, an elegant 1929 private railway car boasting a cozy lounge and even white-tablecloth dining onboard. With lake landscapes that leave you slack-jawed at every turn, the North Shore Scenic Railroad ranks as one of the best ways to soak in Duluth’s natural grandeur.

8.Go Skyscraping at Enger Tower

Built in 1939 by local businessman Bert Enger to honor his father and deceased partner, the 80-foot stone observation tower bearing their name still delivers some of the most stunning aerial scenes of Duluth. Perched at the top of Enger Park, the tower and its panoramic overlooks reward those willing to climb its 109 steps and even higher open-air balcony with unbeatable 360-degree views over Duluth, Canal Park, Lake Superior, and the harbor.

Interpretive displays identify visible neighborhoods and landmarks, from the iconic Aerial Lift Bridge to towering downtown buildings, while other panels delve into Duluth’s geologic and developmental history. Picnic areas in the green space below encourage lingering to enjoy views across the Saint Louis River into neighboring Superior, Wisconsin. Hiking trails weaving deeper into the park’s forested hillside offer even more opportunities for admiring nature’s handiwork featuring rocky outcrops carpeted in wildflowers and seasonal fall color.

9.Peruse Duluth’s Best Shopping Districts

Though better known for its abundant natural attractions, Duluth also boasts a vibrant local arts, dining, and boutique shopping scene with enough variety to fill several perfect shop-hopping itineraries. Two areas in particular reign as must-visit destinations for their concentration of unique retail therapy options.

Canal Park offers waterfront access matched with both national retail and local shops spread across its hotels, restaurants, and storefronts. Cobblestone landscaping, flowers overflowing from baskets everywhere, and Lake Superior views make simply window shopping here a visually pleasurable endeavor.

But fantastic stops for actual buying tempt your credit card at nearly every corner, spanning nautical and north woods-themed gift stores to indulgent candy, wine, and bake shops to outfitters carrying outdoor, fitness, and casual apparel. Start your explorations at DeWitt-Seitz Marketplace, home to two dozen vendors offering the best of Canal Park shopping under one roof.

Uphill from Canal Park near downtown, the Historic Old Downtown district compresses even more local flavor into just a few walkable blocks across several intersecting streets. Here you’ll discover more artsy boutiques like Siiviis Gallery selling handcrafted Native American art and Zenith Bookstore, an enormous shop filled floor to ceiling with used books and music.

Beyond one-of-a-kind galleries and funky cafés, you can shop small indie designers at Maurices andbasicConfig while perusing through home décor and giftware at spots like Home by the Bay and the Electric Fetus. With new stores mixed among historic buildings, Duluth’s vibrant central shopping district makes for a full day’s adventure.

10.Journey Through Time at Great Lakes Aquarium

Families visiting Duluth with kids in tow shouldn’t miss a stop at Great Lakes Aquarium, one of the city’s most popular indoor attractions. Open since 2000, this fun and educational museum leads visitors on an epic journey through time to discover the natural history of Lake Superior and its inhabitants.

Unique living habitats allow visitors to get up close with creatures like sturgeon, trout, otters and seals in realistic recreated environments. Special aquatic touch pools even offer opportunities to directly interact with rays, sharks, shellfish and more under staff supervision. interpretive displays and presentations detail how the Great Lakes formed and evolved over millennia, along with threats like pollution and invasive species affecting its current fragile ecological balance.

While kids will enjoy attractions like the daily diver show and massive, 63,000 gallon centerpiece tank swimming with green sturgeon, bowfin and giant Lake Trout, adults appreciate conservation messages conveyed with artful style and meaningful substance.

Beyond its excellent aquatic exhibits, the building itself deserves acclaim for its beautiful flow and integrated design seamlessly blending industrial warehouse structure with environmentally sustainable elements like green roofs and rainwater capture systems. For all ages insight into Lake Superior’s wonders, Duluth’s aquarium makes the perfect outing on any itinerary.

11.Paddle the St. Louis River

As avid outdoor adventurers know, some of the best sightseeing comes from exploring an area by water from the unique vantage point floating at lake or river level. Among the many ways to get out on Duluth’s iconic waters, paddling offers a peaceful perspective unmatched from faster powerboats or commercial sightseeing tours. Fortunately, several local outfitters offer kayak and stand-up paddleboard rentals and instruction for DIY maritime explorations.

The most recommended route for beginner to intermediate paddlers launches from Chambers Grove Park tracing along side the towering Bong Memorial Bridge down the St. Louis River out to Superior Bay. This protected section of water makes for relatively easy paddling except on the windiest days.

The natural scenery dazzles with thick forests towering over the crystalline river waters reflecting their autumn brilliance during fall months. Scan the shallows for herons, turtles and beaver dams amid the occasional sighting of hepatica, bloodroot and other delicate spring wildflowers along the shore.

More experienced kayakers can embark on longer half or full day self-guided journeys along the shore hugging Lake Superior or up narrow waterways into Jay Cook and Saint Louis River State Parks just south of Duluth. With the right direction, Duluth offers paddling adventures suitable for just about every skill level to encounter its scenic waterways at lake level.

12.Feast on Local Flavors

With so much hearty activity going on around Duluth, visitors rightfully work up impressive appetites demanding some serious refueling. Fortunately, Duluth delivers on the foodie front just as impressively as its more famous sightseeing. From haute cuisine to pub grub, local eateries run the gamut to satisfy any craving.

Seafood understandably features prominently on many menus, with sweet North Shore shrimp from Lake Superior finding its way into everything from pastas to tacos and po’ boys.

Locally caught whitefish and salmon also frequently appear, often enhanced by creative fusions reflecting Duluth’s cultural diversity. Other regional specialties like wild rice harvested from northern Minnesota waters adds pleasant nutty texture and flavor to many dishes.

Beyond expected waterside fare, Duluth’s cosmopolitan side shows in eateries spanning cuisines like authentic French and Spanish tapas restaurants to multiple Thai options to Tripoli’s Lebanese cafe, one of Anthony Bourdain’s favorite eats.

Locavore movements also thrive across Duluth’s food landscape, with venues like Duluth Grill, OMC Smokehouse and the New Scenic Café building entire menus focused on ingredients and producers from the immediate Northland region. From roadside diners to white tablecloth establishments, exploring Duluth by taste makes for delicious way to experience this flavorful city.

Conclusion


Lake Superior’s shores have drawn visitors to the Duluth area for centuries, from its early days as a fur trading and fishing outpost to today’s vibrant year-round destination. Fresh breezes carry the faint scent of pine forests and freshwater as travelers soak in panoramic vistas of the world’s largest lake from parks and pathways that hug the edge of its cool blue waters.

Lifelong residents mingle with curious newcomers arriving by tour bus, ferry, plane, and bikes cinched high with gear pedaling along North Shore roads and trails simply made for two-wheeled wandering. Music and murals meld industrial shipping heritage with today’s flourishing arts and innovation start-up scene.

Unknown adventures tempt around every corner, while familiar comforts like craft breweries, diners, and hometown hospitality wait at each day’s end. Duluth’s enduring and magnetic North Shore spirit makes it a city begging not just to be seen, but felt, heard, tasted and fully experienced. So come find your Duluth – you’re bound to fall in love for a lifetime.

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