10. Albert Lea. Home of the most epic highway rest stop in the state of Minnesota. There’s outsize wooden statuary, there’s a veritable football field of Minnesota-themed merchandise, and there’s a Cold Stone Creamery where at least one of the employees will toss your blended ice cream into the air behind his back, whip a 180, and catch it in your cup. What were the community meetings that led to the decision to build this majestic edifice of fun near Minnesota’s southern border, for Iowans coming north to realize they’ve discovered a new frontier of fun and to give Minnesotans traveling south one final reason to regret leaving the state, however temporarily?
9. Delano. This city of just 5,500 boasts a giant dancing chicken and the gloriously surreal Peppermint Twist Drive-In, a 50s throwback not so much to Ozzie and Harriet as to The Twilight Zone. What other delicious horrors lurk here?
8. Duluth. After a few tough decades economically, Duluth is aiming to become not just the tourist mecca of Minnesota but also its hipster haven. There’s a boardwalk, there are beaches, there are giant ore freighters, there’s a nationally-relevant experimental music scene. What’s the next trick Duluth has up its sleeve?
7. New Ulm. Minnesota is famous for its Scandinavians, but actually the single most populous ethnic group in the state isn’t Swedes, Norwegians, or Finns: it’s Germans, and the epicenter of Gopher State Germanness is New Ulm. The Hermann Monument (“Hermann the German”) is the national monument to German immigrants, and three times a day the Glockenspiel chimes downtown as figures on a rotating platter emerge to tell the story of the city’s history (except in December, when they tell the Christmas Story). Is the next step a Bavarian-themed amusement park? Let’s hope yes.
6. Winona. Stunning vistas and bucolic river idylls coexist here with knuckles-bared bar fights and strange fires. Let’s all go party there.
5. Red Wing. Best known for its pottery, for the Largest Workboot Ever Witnessed by the Civilized Public, and for the reform school that inspired a Bob Dylan song, Red Wing too is a land of contrasts. Picnic at Barn Bluff and try not to fall to your death. (It happens.)
4. Grand Marais. The Cape Cod of Minnesota, Grand Marais bustles with vacationing yuppies, wanna-be voyageurs, and bad art. If I lived up there, I’d self-publish a Gossip-Girl-style series of young adult novels about popped collars and bruised egos among Grand Marais townie youth.
3. St. Peter. You’re driving through the wide streets of south central Minnesota, past soybeans and meat markets (of both the literal and the country-bar varieties), when BAM! you run into an establishment that offers coffee cuppings, fleur-de-lis lattes, and artisan sandwiches in tinfoil boxes. Welcome to Brooklyn-on-the-Prairie, the college town that’s home to Gustavus Alolphus College. Better check your street fashion before you step out of the minivan.
2. Stillwater. What the average Minnesotan knows about Stillwater is that it’s “good for antiquing.” The more time you spend in Stillwater, though, the more fascinating it gets. Michele Bachmann’s current home town is just a bridge jump away from the back woods of Wisconsin. Its caves have been used for boozing, for theater, and for scaring the crap out of little children on pitch-black boat rides; gangsters used to hold court at the “cave view” table in the adjoining restaurant. Stillwater is home to Minnesota’s most notorious penitentiary, which also produces—as Colleen Powers notes in Bright Lights, Twin Cities—the country’s oldest continuously published prison newspaper. Intrigued yet?
1. Morris. If all of Minnesota’s college campuses were at a party together, the University of Minnesota—Morris would be the quiet character sitting out on the porch, wearing sunglasses at night and smoking an expensive clove. Bored with the jocks and know-it-alls inside, you’d go out to make conversation, but Morris would be gone, roaring away on a motorcycle as the late-night DJ on KUMM says something you can’t make out over the roar of the engine but sounds like it must have been beautiful, profound, and sad.