2018 Year In Review


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Nick & Neil’s Best of 2018


Presenting the 2018 edition of the best things we ate and drank on our 2018 travels. (Ordered chronologically)

1. Six course tasting menu – The Lakely : Eau Claire, WI
2. Umami Mama Pizza – Young Joni : Minneapolis, MN
3. Duck – Bardo : Minneapolis, MN
4. Hot Smoked Salmon Dip – Margot Cafe : Nashville, TN
5. Prime Rib Sausage – Von Elrod’s : Nashville, TN
6. Vidalia Pizza – City House : Nashville, TN
7. Scallop Cevice – N7 : New Orleans, LA
8. Little Gem – Bywater American Bistro : New Orleans, LA
9. Fried Chicken Sandwich – Toup’s Meatery : New Orleans, LA
10. French Toast with Fried Chicken – Paloma Cafe : New Orleans, LA
11. Chicken Roulade – Cafe Dodici : Washington, IA
12. Chinatown Sliders – Maven : San Francisco, CA
13. Tuna – Passionfish : Pacific Grove, CA
14. Fries with Aioli – Alaro Brewing : Sacramento, CA
15. Spicy Bolognese Pizza – Kerouac’s : Baker, NV
16. Crispy Pork Lettuce Wraps – East Liberty Tap House : Salt Lake City, UT
17. Mary’s Chicken – Pago : Salt Lake City, UT
Best Food City: New Orleans, LA


1. Koldt Vinter – The Lakely : Eau Claire, WI
2. Peanut Butter Porter – Dangerous Man : Minneapolis, MN
3. You Can’t Beet This – Bardo : Minneapolis, MN
4. Epiphone – Tattersall Distillery : Minneapolis, MN
5. The Mack – Parlour : Minneapolis, MN
6. Daredevil Pour Over Coffee – Barista Parlor : Nashville TN
7. Jack McCoy – Gray and Dudley : Nashville TN
8. Don’t Abandon the Ship – Attaboy : Nashville TN
9. East Bay Bruto – Bacchanal : New Orleans, LA
10. Ramos Gin Fizz – Bar Tonique : New Orleans, LA
11. Resting Haze – Black Sands : San Francisco, CA
12. California Cooler – Horsefeather : San Francisco, CA
13. Old Prophet – Horsefeather : San Francisco, CA
14. Fruition IPA – South Gate Brewing : Oakhurst, CA
15. The Firecracker – Kerouac’s : Baker, NV
16. Rolling Waves – East Liberty Tap House : Salt Lake City, UT
17. Warrior Poet – Death & Co. : Denver, CO
18. Phil Winkelstein – Mississippi River Distilling : Le Claire, IA
Best Drinking City: Minneapolis, MN


Best Overall Meal
Bywater American Bistro – New Orleans, LA
Other Best Restaurants
The Lakely – Eau Claire, WI
Young Joni – Minneapolis, MN
Bardo – Minneapolis, MN
Margot Cafe – Nashville, TN
Maven – San Francisco, CA
Kerouac’s – Baker, NV
Pago – Salt Lake City, UT

Best Hotels/Inns
Oxbow – Eau Claire, WI
Grand Hotel Minneapolis – Minneapolis, MN
Hotel Metro – San Francisco, CA
Sunset Inn – Pacific Grove, CA
Stewart Inn – Wausau, WI

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Hiking in Yosemite National Park

During our three week vacation in June/July we hiked a grand total of 102.5 miles, 33.9 of which were in Yosemite National Park. This park contains an incredible 800 miles of trails, so we’re just scratching the surface here, but we still covered quite a bit of ground and elevation. There are practically limitless options for future visits. Here is a description of the best of this summer’s Yosemite hikes:

Hetch Hetchy:


We began our Yosemite visit in the Hetch Hetchy Valley. Near the Big Oak Flat entrance on California Highway 120, Evergreen Road winds 14 miles to the Hetch Hetchy Backpackers Camp via the Mather Ranger Station entrance. The valley and the controversial Reservoir it contains come into view as the road descends the side of a steep mountain. Despite John Muir’s calls for preservation, the valley was flooded by the O’Shaughnessy Dam in 1923 to provide power and water to the growing San Francisco Bay Area. 


Wapama Falls from the bridges.

Today the dam serves as the trailhead for routes along the lake and backcountry points to the north and east. The most popular hike in the area is a 5.5 mile out-and-back to Wapama Falls along the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir Trail. We selected this option because we were arriving in mid-afternoon (after driving from San Francisco) and it only takes a few hours to complete. If time allows, a 13-mile hike can be made by continuing along the same trail to Rancheria Falls. Wapama Falls is visible across the reservoir from the trailhead and the dam, giving a nice reference point for your final destination. The trail actually crosses the top of O’Shaughnessy Dam and then goes directly into a 500-foot tunnel. The next mile of trail is a wide, mostly level former construction road. After the junction with the Miguel Meadow Fire Road that heads into the backcountry, the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir Trail narrows to a more typical width and gets a bit rockier. There are a few minor ups and downs, but it’s an easy hike with continuous views of the reservoir and Kolana Rock towering on the other side. There is a seasonal waterfall along the route called Tueeulala Falls, but it was already dry during out late June visit. Wapama Falls itself is not visible from most of the trail, but rounding a slight curve just before it creates a grand reveal of the lower portions of the 1,100 foot drop. A series of footbridges cross the cascades and rock rubble at the base, giving close up views through the mist. We returned on the same route and arrived back at the trailhead about 2.5 hours after we departed. Overall it was a good warmup for the much more strenuous hikes we had planned in the near future. That night we had a site with our names on it at the Hodgdon Meadow Campground back near the Big Oak Flat Entrance.


Hetch Hetchy Reservoir viewed from O’Shaughnessy Dam. Wapama Falls is visible in the shadow left of center.

The Valley:
Yosemite Falls Trail 


“This trail is a bitch,” we said after what felt like the 1,000th switchback of the Yosemite Falls Trail. At 7.2 miles round trip and 2,700 feet of elevation gain, we weren’t expecting it to be easy, but we’ve hiked those distances and heights many times before without feeling so exhausted.


Looking toward Half Dome from Columbia Rock, just over a mile into the hike.

On our first full day in Yosemite Valley (staying in the rustic tent cabins at Half Dome Village), we decided to hike to the top of one of the most famous sights in all of Yosemite National Park, Yosemite Falls. This is usually considered the tallest waterfall in North America. It has a total drop of 2,425 feet, consisting of an initial 1,430 foot plunge, 675 feet of cascades and one last 320 foot drop. We stocked up on lunch and snacks in the main village store before taking the shuttle to Camp 4 and the Yosemite Falls Trailhead. From the beginning, this trail has a pretty constant and steep vertical rise. Countless quick switchbacks weave through a shady oak forest for about the first mile. After that it takes a more direct route traversing the north wall of the valley with views of the meadows and forests below. Columbia Rock provides a good resting point with views that extend from Half Dome in the east to Cathedral Rocks to the southwest.



Upper Falls reveal.

About a mile and a half in, the first view of Upper Yosemite Falls is revealed. It’s a stunning sight with ribbons of water alternately floating and crashing down the sheer rock face. Up to this point, the trail has a fair amount of hikers, but many turn back after the viewpoint and it got a little more secluded from here on. After climbing relatively gently for a while, the route doubles back away from the falls and begins a zigzagging ascent that feels like it will never end. At this point there are also no shade trees, leaving us in the full heat of the midday sun while climbing a very steep incline. This is the portion where we decided this hike was a bitch. I checked the trail map on the AllTrails app and counted nine switchbacks before the summit. We began counting down the turns before we’d reach the intended picnic spot. Finally we crested a ridge and had a gentle walk down to the brink of the upper falls. The best plan here is to find a slightly shady spot on the rock for lunch. We refueled and then explored the steep staircase that leads to a ledge with a direct view of the river tumbling over the edge.


Overlooking the brink

The route back down is the same, but fortunately for us the advancing afternoon sun was hidden behind the cliffs for most of the way. Total hiking time was about 5.5 hours start to finish. At the Yosemite Valley Lodge, we chugged sodas before catching a shuttle back to our tent cabin. This is where the novelty of the shuttle system wears off. We were disgusting and exhausted from our long day and then had to wait for a bus with enough room. 

In the aftermath we were starting to wonder if we’d lost some of our hiking mojo, but after talking with other experienced hikers who had taken the same trail, we confirmed that it’s not just us, this trail is in fact, evil. But it’s definitely rewarding in return.


Mirror Lake:


The day after our Yosemite Falls hike we decided it was best to stay at lower elevations in the valley to give our legs a chance to recover. Heading toward Mirror Lake seemed like the perfect option. This popular destination sits toward the head of the valley directly under Half Dome. A small, seasonal pool in Tenaya Creek reflects the surrounding rock faces in its calm surface. From the trailhead at shuttle stop #17 there are two options for reaching Mirror Lake. The most direct route is a 2 mile round trip walk up the paved Mirror Lake Trail, but the more interesting route is a 5 mile loop accessed by veering onto the unpaved trail before the first bridge.

MirrorLakeBobcatWe circled the loop in a counter clockwise direction, first walking through the woods on the south side of the canyon. Less than a mile in, we encountered a bobcat sitting in the center of the trail. An oblivious, coffee-carrying couple coming the other direction didn’t see it until they were almost in front of it. The cat calmly left the trail, but lurked alongside us in the trees for about five minutes as we continued on our way, allowing me to get several good photos. Soon after, we reached the shore of Mirror Lake, which in late June was already shrinking from its peak size due to dwindling runoff. The surface was still large enough to offer some impressive reflections, but by late summer they say it’s usually more meadow than lake. Up to this point there had been a few other hikers on the trail, but few go beyond Mirror Lake, so we had a good portion of the loop all to ourselves. The trail continues a little more than a mile on the south side of the canyon before crossing a picturesque bridge and turning back toward Mirror Lake on the north side. The woodsy area back here was buggy, but otherwise pleasant. On the return trip, we saw the more heavily visited side of the lake, where there are interpretive signs on the area’s geology and early 20th century tourist visitation. The way back to the trailhead and shuttle stop is on the previously mentioned paved walkway. With only a couple hundred feet of total climbing, this easy trail was perfect for our “day off” and is also great for families or anyone not willing or able to scale 3,000 feet of canyon wall.

We also spent the rest of the day with lower-elevation activities, like an architectural tour of the historic Ahwahnee Lodge (Majestic Yosemite) and a visit to the base of Lower Yosemite Falls.


The appropriately-named Mirror Lake with Mount Watkins in the background.

Glacier Point via 4-Mile, Panorama, Mist:


After staying on mostly level ground for a day, we were again prepared to tackle the full height of Yosemite Valley. This time we’d be ascending the south face, making our way to the Glacier Point overlook, 3,200 feet above. The most direct route to Glacier Point is by hiking up the Four Mile Trail. We rode the shuttle from Half Dome Village to Camp 4 and then walked across the “Swinging Bridge” to reach the Four Mile Trailhead along Southside Drive.


Ascending the shady Four Mile Trail.

This trail is nearly as steep as the Yosemite Falls Trail directly across the valley, but seems less demanding. It’s probably because in the morning it is mostly shady and doesn’t contain nearly the number of monotonous switchbacks. It does its fair share of winding back and forth, but each turn seems to offer a new view of the surrounding landscapes. El Capitan and Cathedral Rocks rise prominently to the West during the early miles and the entirety of Yosemite Falls is nearly always visible on the opposite side of the valley. About 3.5 miles up, Union Point offers a nice lookout spot to take in the view and rest a bit before ascending one more set of switchbacks and then following a relatively level trail to the overlook at Glacier Point.

Since Glacier point is also accessible by road, there are suddenly throngs of people milling around. It’s a bit of a buzzkill to be surrounded by the car-dependent masses after putting in the hiking effort, but as an upside there’s a snack bar up there, so we didn’t have to carry up our lunch. We grabbed sandwiches and found a semi-secluded rock to lounge on. The presence of so many people makes for bold woodland creatures. A ground squirrel circled the area several times, and during a moment of distraction stole the top bun off Nick’s sandwich. It’s proof that sometimes the most memorable moments are not what you’d expect.

After lunch, we went to the Glacier Point overlook to take in the view. This is one of the most expansive views in the park, with nearly all of the upper Yosemite Valley visible. Our tent cabin village was directly below us, with earlier destinations like Yosemite Falls, Mirror Lake and the Ahwanee Lodge all visible. From this vantage point, Half Dome is straight ahead and looks stunning. To the right, we also got our first view of Nevada Falls and Vernal Falls, future destinations on this hike.


View of Half Dome, Nevada Falls and Vernal Falls from Panorama Trail just below Glacier Point.

From Glacier Point we made the first part of our return trip to the valley on the Panorama Trail. The first 2.4 mile section of this trail makes a single, gradually descending traverse across a grassy hillside toward Illilouette Falls. This 370 ft waterfall is mostly obscured from view except for one overlook just off the trail. After crossing Illilouette Creek just above the brink, the trail begins a long climb back up 800 vertical feet over the next 1.5 miles. Yosemite Falls returns to view, this time off to the distant west, reminding us how far we had hiked since the morning. At mile 9.5, Panorama Trail levels off and then begins a descent to Nevada Falls, where the Merced River plunges 700 feet down a rock face. An overlook adjacent to the Nevada Falls brink gives a dramatic view of the dizzying height. We took a snack break here along with several other hikers. A few major trails converge in the area, including the routes to Half Dome, Clouds Rest and the High Sierras to the east, so after seeing only a handful of people since Glacier Point, we were back in more trafficked territory.


Going down the rocky steps next to Nevada Falls.

Just beyond the falls, we took a left onto the Mist Trail and descended a section so steep it is carved into a set of rocky switchbacking steps. Knee abuse aside, this section is fun to climb down, with the roaring falls just off to the side. Further along through some forest the gorgeous Silver apron and Emerald Pool provides a brief pause for the water before it careens off the edge of the last waterfall of this hike, Vernal Falls. At 317 feet it is short compared to Nevada, but in the fairly heavy flow of early summer it creates a near perfect curtain of water. Below this point is where the Mist Trail really earns its name, with a continual rain of tiny droplets swirling through the valley. The more than 600 granite stairs are slippery and all the vegetation is a well-watered bright green. The Mist Trail soon merges into the


Vernal Falls viewed from the Mist Trail

John Muir Trail which becomes a smooth, paved downhill to the valley floor. From the trailhead we were just a short 0.4 mile walk from our tent cabin and a much needed shower.

In total this route was 14.4 miles with a total climb of 4,564 feet, which puts it among our longest day hikes of all time. We highly recommend it because it hits some popular sights but also offers long stretches of seclusion with breathtaking views the entire time. 

Mariposa Grove:

On our way out of Yosemite’s South Entrance, we stopped by Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias for a quick hike. The area was recently reopened after a three-year restoration to make visitation more environmentally sensitive. Guests no longer drive right into the big trees, but park at a new visitor center and then board shuttle buses that make the 5-minute ride to the edge of the grove. This was our first experience with Giant Sequoias of the trip, we’d later see many more (and larger) trees at Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks, but this was a good introduction to the habitat.


The Grizzly Giant

There are several linked trails hikers can make through Mariposa Grove, ranging from a half mile to seven miles. We chose a medium length route of 2.3 miles on the Grizzly Giant Loop Trail. The early parts of the trail are accessible boardwalks, and the route up to the Grizzly Giant is only slightly inclined and well-worn. On the way there are several examples of mature sequoias towering overhead. The Grizzly Giant at the far end of the loop stands 209 feet tall and is the 25th largest living tree in the world by volume. Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir famously camped in its shadow during their 1903 Yosemite excursion. The nearby California Tunnel Tree was hollowed out in 1895 to allow a horse and carriage to drive through. Not very environmentally sensitive, but it makes for a cool photo op these days. Completing the Grizzly Giant Loop Trail doesn’t lead to a whole lot of other sequoias, but it is gently sloped and a pleasant walk back to the shuttle stop.

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Statistics: 2018 Summer Road Trip


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Summer 2018 Gallery


Images from our epic 2,682-mile road trip through five national parks: Yosemite, Kings Canyon, Sequoia, Pinnacles and Great Basin. Also featuring San Francisco, California coast, Cedar Breaks and Timpanogos Cave national monuments, Salt Lake City and Denver. June 22 – July 15, 2018.
Click to enlarge, read captions and view slideshow.

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Upcoming Travel: Five More National Parks


It’s hard to believe, but in just a week and a half, we’ll be embarking on our yearly summer road trip. This one is marking a major milestone for us as we will be visiting the final five national parks we have yet to visit in the continental United States. After checking off Yosemite, Kings Canyon, Sequoia, Pinnacles and Great Basin in the next few weeks, our total will stand at 51 of 59 (I’m not yet ready to acknowledge Gateway Arch as a National Park). We’ll also be stopping by Cedar Breaks and Timpanogos Cave National Monuments in Utah and too much scenery to mention. We’re still sorting through hiking options, but we’ve planned for plenty of time in each park to hit some of the best trails, and we always make some of those decisions on the fly anyway.

Our route begins with a flight to San Francisco, where we’ll spend a weekend (my birthday weekend, woohoo!). Then we pick up a rental car and drive in a spiral pattern through central California over the course of two weeks before slingshotting back east via Nevada, Utah, (possibly Wyoming) and Colorado. We’ll ditch the car in Denver, spend a couple days with friends and then board the eastbound California Zephyr back home to Chicago.

In all, we’ll spend 7 nights in our trusty tent, 3 “pseudo-camping” in Yosemite’s Half Dome Village, 7 in motels, 2 in an Airbnb and 1 in a cabin. Time to inventory the camping supplies!

If you’d like to follow along, Instagram and Facebook is where we’re most likely to be visible while on the road.

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New Orleans 2018 Gallery

Images from our return to New Orleans and some stops along the way in Columbus, IN, Nashville and Birmingham. March 24 – April 1, 2018.
Click to enlarge, read captions and view slideshow.

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Upcoming Travel: New Orleans & Nashville

After several years in a row of busy spring break trips with multiple destinations, we’re changing gears a bit and staying in one place for a extended period of time to live like locals. New Orleans is our primary destination, but we’ll also be making our first visit to Nashville on the way down and spending a night in Memphis on the return. Between Tennessee and Louisiana we’ll even dip our toes in our 49th state, Alabama. After this trip, Hawaii will be the last one to check off.

We last visited New Orleans seven years ago in spring 2011. That was pre-blog and before either of us even had a smart phone or tablet … how did we do it?! It’s easy to stereotype New Orleans as a party town that doesn’t extend beyond Bourbon Street, but in reality it’s one of the most historic cities in the country, and offers cultural experiences far beyond drinking from a plastic cup draped around your neck. Last time we stayed in downtown hotels within walking distance of the French Quarter but explored some other Crescent City neighborhoods and even took an overnight trip out of town to go on a swamp tour and stay at a plantation.

We covered a good amount of New Orleans last time, but there’s plenty more on our to-do list this time around. Our base will be the Bywater neighborhood just downriver from the French quarter. We scored a charming apartment in a double shotgun house that we’ll call home for five nights. This will be our first trip exclusively using Airbnb for lodging. We used the service for the first time last summer, and it worked so well we think we’ll be incorporating it into our lodging options regularly from now on (We’ve already set up an Airbnb stay for one of this summer’s pass-through towns).

The tentative to-do list in Nashville includes the Lane Motor Museum, the Frist Center for Visual Arts and the Parthenon. We’ve been doing some research to see what’s new and exciting in the local dining scene as well.

In New Orleans our must-sees this time around include the New Orleans Museum of Art, National World War II Museum, the Museum of the American Cocktail and partaking in as  many dining and drinking establishments as possible.

A few scenes from our 2011 trip: Street band, cocktails at Cure, Natchez paddlewheeler.

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Travelogue: Twin Cities Weekend

We kicked off our travel season early this year. Both of us had some free time on the first week of the year so we were looking for a destination within easy driving distance that we hadn’t visited in a while. Ultimately we selected Minnesota’s Twin Cities and hit the road on January 2nd for a four-night Tuesday through Saturday getaway.

On the way up we planned a one-night stop in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. This small city of about 68,000 has been experiencing a renaissance, with hometown band Bon Iver and the yearly Eaux Claires music festival bringing added attention. We chose the ultra cool Oxbow Hotel for our accommodations since it looked right up our alley. It is a thoroughly remodeled mid-century motor court full of thoughtful details for today’s trendy travelers. Rooms are contemporary and spare, with functional furnishings and local screen print artwork. It’s like Etsy meets IKEA. Each room also contains a record player for which guests can check out albums from a collection in the lobby. It’s a nice touch, and there are instructions in the lid to remind those of us who are just barely young enough to forget how to use a turntable. We spun Fleetwood Mac, Sufjan Stevens and The Highwaymen.

Just a 20 minute drive away in Chippewa Falls is the famous Jacob Leinenkugel brewery. We arrived at the Leinie Lodge tasting room and gift shop just in time to join the day’s final brewery tour. Our guide led us through the historic multi-floor complex explaining the brewing process and the company and family history. It ranks among the oldest brewing companies in the country today and despite being owned by MillerCoors, still has Leinenkugel family members running the show. As far as brewery tours go it was pretty typical, but the real highlight was seeing the bottling and packaging process in operation. Frequently when we tour breweries it’s during non business hours when nothing is moving, but here we got to see the bottles getting filled, pasteurized, labeled and boxed, ending in a giant room with hundreds of thousands of bottles of beer stacked to the ceiling. Back at the Leinie Lodge our tour wristbands allowed us 5 sample pours of any Leinenkugel beers currently on tap.

Back in Eau Claire, the Oxbow Hotel is also home to what could be the trendiest restaurant in northern Wisconsin, The Lakely. The concept is advertised a midwestern comfort food featuring locally sourced ingredients, spirits and beers. The regular menu looks delicious, but we inquired about the six-course chef’s tasting menu and were instantly sold. Our server informed us that this option is so unique and variable that different tables ordering the menu on the same night might receive very different dishes. It’s all determined by how much of any given ingredient is available and how many are in your party. The whole Oxbow/Lakely complex is going to be a strong contender for best lodging and dining of the year … and we stayed there on January 2nd.

The following morning we walked a few blocks south on Barstow Street for breakfast at The Informalist before driving the last hour to the twin cities. Our first stop after crossing the St. Croix River was the Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul. Free Guided tours of the ornate 1905 building start at the Information Center at the top of the hour (schedule varies seasonally). At the turn of the 20th century, Minnesota wanted to make a statement with their new capitol building, so architect Cass Gilbert designed the world’s second largest self supported marble dome in gleaming white and dressed the interior in multi-hued varieties of Minnesota stone. The informative guided tour took us through the major parts of the building, including the House of Representatives, Senate and a chamber used by the Supreme Court. After it was over, we were encouraged to continue to wander about the building to check out more artwork. With that welcoming introduction to Minnesota, we got back in the car and headed west.

It’s unusual to see two large downtown skylines so close together, but just over eight miles away from St Paul lies the larger and more famous of the twins, Minneapolis. The buildings sparkled as we drove in on that frigid day. There must be more reflective glass per capita in Minneapolis than any other city in the country. The last time we were in town was on a couple of balmy days in July 2009, so this season was a marked contrast. Unsurprisingly, hotels are extremely cheap during the first week of January in these parts. Through Hotwire, we were able to stay in the very center of Downtown in the swanky Kimpton Grand for under $100 per night. We basically had our own apartment, with a comfy bedroom and an enormous marble-tiled bathroom at least three times the size of ours at home.

The mesmerizing patters of glass and steel at Crystal Court at the base of the IDS Center.

The Kimpton is connected to one of Minneapolis’ most unique features, the skyway system. Throughout downtown, more than 9 miles of glassed-in, second story passageways connect 80 blocks of buildings and allow residents and workers to go about their business sheltered from any sort of inclement weather. It was a brisk 5 degrees outside, but office workers hustled around without jackets. Each building has its own skyway design, with some leading into huge atriums lined with shops and restaurants and others twisting and turning confusingly. My first attempt at a skyway shortcut involved getting slightly disoriented and ending up on the street just one block from where I started. Once we got the lay of the land, we used the system to get to many of our destinations, even throwing in a quick shopping trip to the Target “mothership” and stopping to marvel at the IDS Center‘s Crystal Court atrium.

Our cultural calendar was more packed than on our average city visit. The Mill City Museum is a great place to get an introduction to Minneapolis and the major industry that made it a boomtown. The museum envelops the ruins of the Washburn A flour mill that was once the largest in the world before deteriorating for years and then burning in 1991. Displays educate visitors on the history of Minneapolis, the milling process and harnessing water power. A freight elevator called the “Flour Tower” lifts guests up and down past historic re-creations of a working mill. It culminates at a 9th floor viewing platform overlooking the mill ruins and the Mississippi River. From the 1880s to 1930s, Minneapolis milled more flour than any other place on earth. Wheat flowed in from farms on the western plains and St. Anthony Falls created the power to run the mills that refined it into flour. For decades, a mill district flanked both sides of the river in the center of the growing city. The industry decentralized and drifted away from downtown Minneapolis when electricity and improved transportation systems allowed factories to be located anywhere, but the industry and financial institutions that followed them to Minnesota left a strong business foundation that today makes the twin cities the largest business center between Chicago and Seattle and home to a high concentration of Fortune 500 companies totaling 17.

All that business power has fostered strong cultural institutions. Minneapolis is said to have more theater seats per capita than any U. S. city other than New York. On that note, we planned ahead and bought tickets to an evening performance of Blithe Spirit at the renowned Guthrie Theater. The Guthrie was founded in 1963 as professional theater company performing in a repertory style with a resident acting troupe. The play we saw was classic farce, but the Jean Nouvel-designed building is all drama, resembling a futuristic factory overlooking the River (right next to the Mill City Museum). Three different stages fill the building, with public spaces and lounges connecting them and offering unique views on the city outside.

Orchestra Hall lobby and concert hall.

On a whim, we checked the Minnesota Orchestra schedule and discovered they were performing a Tchaikovsky symphony and piano concerto on Friday night. We bought upper balcony tickets for a very reasonable price. Orchestra Hall lies at the southern end of Nicollet Mall in downtown, and was recently remodeled and expanded. A modern, multi-level glass lobby overlooks the surrounding streets and holds spaces for hosting pre-concert discussions. The concert hall interior features a mesmerizing pattern of three dimensional polygons on the wall and ceiling for acoustic purposes. It’s definitely not your typical stuffy classical concert venue. Our seats were all the way toward the front, nearly above the musicians, which wasn’t ideal for visibility, but was a unique vantage point on the audience and concert hall. Checking out the local symphony might become one of our go-to cultural activities while traveling.

Last time we were in town, we visited the Walker Art Center (Contemporary) and Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, both must-sees. This time we instead spent a morning at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, located just south of downtown in a Beaux Arts building dating from 1915. With additions made over the years it is currently the sixth-largest art museum in the country. The 80,000-piece collection spans 5,000 years of paintings, drawings, prints, textiles, architecture and more. As an added bonus, admission to the general collection is free every day.

In between all our exploring, we spent a lot of time eating and drinking. Minneapolis could have one of the most underrated dining and cocktail scenes in the country right now. On our first evening, we headed to Northeast Minneapolis (which is actually located just north of downtown) and started with a couple pints at Dangerous Man Brewing. We had reservations next door at Young Joni, which has been getting a lot of attention for their wood fired pizzas and crossover Korean dishes. The Umami Mama pizza was fantastic and they also have a list of creative cocktails. We experienced the first of several cocktails in Minneapolis featuring aquavit, an herby dill-flavored Scandinavian liquor we enjoy (that should appear on menus more frequently than it does). Don’t pass it up if you see aquavit on a menu. Speaking of Joni’s cocktails, there is a back bar cocktail lounge that is open late, that we unfortunately didn’t have time to check out.

Dessert at Bardo.

On night two, we caught happy hour at the speakeasy-themed Prohibition Bar atop the landmark Foshay Tower. Before completion of the IDS tower in 1972, the obelisk-shaped Foshay stood as the tallest building in the city for 43 years. Today it contains the W Hotel Minneapolis and the bar now offers an eye-level vantage point on glassy downtown skyscrapers and beyond. Our dinner reservations that night were at Bardo, again in the Northeast Minneapolis neighborhood. Again we enjoyed all-around great food and atmosphere.

L to R: Prohibition Bar, Bardo, Tattersall Distilling, Parlour

For after dinner drinks we headed to Tattersall Distilling, which we read had a tasting room bar in their production facility. When we arrived we were surprised to find not a typical tasting room, but an enormous bar with a lengthy cocktail list featuring both classic and creative concoctions made with their own spirits. We again had drinks with vegetable juice as ingredients (beet and carrot), so we figure Minnesotans have found the secret to balancing booze and health. Post symphony on Friday night, we headed to the Warehouse District for a nightcap at Parlour, where we found a cozy vibe perfect for some cocktails and their tasty bar bite menu.

On Friday afternoon after some shopping in the Uptown neighborhood, we were in the mood for beer and found our way to Lakes & Legends Brewing, a recent addition to Loring Park. You can’t go wrong with $3 happy hour drafts in a dog-friendly bar. Bonus points go to the teacher grading papers while drinking a beer. A+ execution, my friend.

Since we were not practicing moderation at dinner and cocktail hour, we took it easy on breakfasts and lunches. We found a great little skyway coffee shop by our hotel called Peace Coffee and enjoyed donuts from Bogart’s Doughnut Co. in the IDS center Crystal Court. When we just needed a quick bite for lunch, Hen House Eatery hit the spot with soups. To fuel ourselves up for the long drive home, we googled “brunch St. Paul” and followed the directions to The Buttered Tin, which was crowded like a local favorite.

We always take pride in finding the essence of everywhere we visit. Maybe the most quintessentially Minnesotan experience we had was ice skating in Loring Park. It was exactly 1 degree Fahrenheit but we dressed appropriately, lapped the rink for a half hour and had a blast. That’s the great thing about Minnesota, even during the historic cold of our visit nobody was complaining. Everyone was out enjoying the art, culture and dining their city has to offer, and for that we’ll happily make a return visit anytime.

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2017 Year In Review

Last year was another big travel year for us. In April we explored more of the desert southwest, adding three national parks to our total. In July and August we set a personal record for longest trip yet by driving all the way from Chicago to Nova Scotia and back.

Get more information on our big 2017 trips here:
Southwest: Photos / Travelogues / Statistics
Northeast: Photos / Travelogues / Statistics

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