The busiest thoroughfares in downtown Minneapolis don't have any cars. Every day, thousands of people traverse glass-enclosed pedestrian bridges that crisscross the streets―keeping everyone moving in climate-controlled comfort.
Minneapolis sprang up along the Mississippi River and reinvented itself as it grew, first as frontier outpost, then milling superpower. Today it's home to such corporate giants as General Mills and Target. Four farmers' markets and a slew of new restaurants make dining an adventure. Miles of trails around the city's 22 lakes provide recreational opportunities. With more theater seats per capita than any city except New York, three art museums, and four major sports teams, Minneapolis has a hip, cosmopolitan vibe wrapped in Midwestern friendliness.
Minneapolis earned the 4th spot on our list because it ranked highly in the following: percent of the population in good or better health; money spent per capita on parkland; and the percent of the population that participated in exercise in the past month.
Best healthful fare: Chef Brenda Langton's emphasis on healthful, creatively dressed ingredients makes Spoonriver (612-436-2236), located in the old flour-milling district, a great spot for lunch. In the bright orange dining room, popular dishes include wild mushroom and pistachio terrine, local walleye, and free-range smoked chicken quesadillas with cranberry coulis. Langton is also cofounder of the adjacent Mill City Farmers' Market (612-341-7580), where you'll find only locally grown, sustainably produced and organic foods.
Best picnic supplier: Opened as a liquor store in the 1930s following the end of Prohibition, Surdyk's (612-379-3232) is still owned by the same family, and has since expanded to include an impressive array of wines, beers, and specialty groceries. Select a gourmet picnic of fresh bread still warm from the oven, slices of prosciutto di Parma or Kobe roast beef, and a hunk of one of the hundreds of regional artisanal cheeses, such as Pastureland Gouda with herbs from southeast Minnesota.
Best splurge: James Beard Award-winning Chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten's Chambers Kitchen (612-767-6999) is a food lover's dream. While the seven-course tasting dinner, priced at $85 per person, is a splurge, you can also order à la carte from the Asian-inspired menu (standouts include thyme-Parmesan edamame soup and seared tuna in a spicy-sweet Sriracha and citrus sauce). For dessert, try the raspberry chile sorbet, packed in a tiny Chinese take-out box. Its sweet-tart first impression is followed by the lingering kick of hot chiles.
Best place to stretch your legs: The Grand Rounds National Scenic Byway (612-230-6400), is a system of trails and roadways that loops more than 50 miles around the city. Walk, bike, or inline skate (a sport invented here) along the Chain of Lakes, a series of natural lakes-including Cedar, Brownie, Lake of the Isles, Harriet, and Calhoun-that dot the southwest side of the city. Lake Calhoun's beaches attract runners and swimmers; canoers prefer the more secluded Lake of the Isles.
Best place to putt: Minnesota's climate typically limits golf season (mid April through October), but the state still claims more golfers per capita than any other. With five courses inside the city limits and more than 170 in the metropolitan area, there's no shortage of places to play. Theodore Wirth Golf Course (763-522-4584) is one of the oldest in the state. The front nine offer impressive views of the city skyline.
Best place to return to nature: Picnicking and hiking the trails in 193-acre Minnehaha Park (612-230-6400) is a low-key way to spend an afternoon. The 53-foot-high Minnehaha Falls pours over limestone bluffs, surrounded by thick forest. There's also a 1893 Chicago World's Fair statue of the fictional character Hiawatha and his love, Minnehaha, in honor of poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's 19th-century epic, "The Song of Hiawatha." The poem, loosely based on Native American history and legends, immortalized the beauty of the falls as well as the Minnesota forests.
Best history lesson: Not many museums are situated on sites that exploded once and caught fire twice. The Mill City Museum (612-341-7555), built on the ruins of the 19th-century Washburn A. Mill, tells the story of milling and Minneapolis with interactive exhibits and oral histories. At peak production, the mill ground enough flour each day to make 12 million loaves of bread. (All that flour dust was highly explosive; thus the site's colorful past.)
Best art museums: In a town with nearly 60 museums, several stand-out. Just at the edge of downtown, the Walker Art Center (shown right middle, 612-375-7600) showcases contemporary artists in visual, performing, and media arts. Across the street, wander through 40 outdoor artworks at the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, a nice place for a photo op on a sunny afternoon. Across town overlooking the Mississippi River, the Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum (612-625-9494) houses a significant early-20th-century American collection. Check out the untitled "chicken painting" near the entrance, in which Minnesota-born artist Doug Argue offers a dizzying perspective down the seemingly endless aisle of a chicken barn.
Best live theater: Founded in 1963, the Guthrie Theater (612-377-2224) has three stages, offering venues for a variety of audience sizes and productions. The theater's deep blue metal exterior and cantilevered lobby, which extends nine stories toward the river, are worth a visit even if you aren't seeing a show. The lobby is open daily to the public, but it's most spectacular after dark when views of city landmarks are framed by strategically placed windows. This fall, performances include classics such as Jane Eyre, gems by Noel Coward, and the Royal Shakespeare Company's productions of King Lear and Chekhov's The Seagull.
Quick tip:To explore the city sans auto, hop the Hiawatha Light Rail Line, a 12-mile ride from the Warehouse District downtown to the Mall of America in Bloomington, with stops at major shopping and tourist areas. Round-trip fare is $2 during rush hour, less during off times.
Where to Stay
Best luxury hotel: Located in the heart of downtown, Graves/601 Hotel (866-523-1100), has a chic, boutique feel. Service is top-notch, while glass-etched headboards, fluffy duvets, and a pillow "menu" contribute to the luxurious feel.
Best art experience: Adventurous travelers and art lovers will be dazzled by Chambers (877-767-6990). Its minimalist design is the backdrop for 250 pieces of contemporary art, collected by the hotel's owner, Ralph Burnet.
Best views: The Nicollet Island Inn (612-331-1800) offers the intimacy of a traditional inn with just 24 cozy rooms, located on an island in the middle of the Mississippi. Check into room 309 for views of the river, or 203 for sparkling night views of the city.