Since the beginning of August, I’ve been spending time back in my home state of Minnesota. As soon as I got home I knew I wanted to explore places I hadn’t been to in a long time, the historic city of Duluth being at the top of that list.
A lot of people think of Duluth as being this cold place nestled against Lake Superior. It does get cold in the wintertime. But my favorite times of year to visit Duluth are in the summer, or Autumn when the leaves are changing color. We visited mid-August, which is still considered summertime here, and believe it or not, our first day in Duluth it was 90+ degrees – A rare moment on the calendar when it was hotter than most of the state! So, that’s all to say you will find all kinds of weather in Duluth.
But let’s get back to the history. Duluth is an old city that was built by tycoons, barons, and millionaires of yesteryear. You’ll hear about great names like John D. Rockefeller and J.P. Morgan, or more locally known names like Chester Congdon (who built the Glensheen Mansion) and Joseph Cotton. These great men of 19th-century commerce built up the ports, timber, and iron ore infrastructure that continues to define this wonderful city.
While Rockefeller and J.P. Morgan later took their fortunes back to the East coast, other titans like Congdon and Cotton, stayed behind to carve a legacy of their own. And their masterpieces are what I got to see during my trip to Duluth!
Their influence is all over the city. There are neighborhoods that still look like they are right out of the early 1900s, and you wouldn’t be surprised to see old Chester or Joe drive by in a horse-driven buggy with a tip of their hat to welcome you to Duluth. The vibe is absolutely charming.
So what can you do in historic Duluth? Well, the lakeside city has so much to offer. Just read on for a partial list of things to do while you’re in town.
Things To Do In Duluth, Minnesota:
Tour the Glensheen Mansion. This was at the top of our to-do list. The stately 39-room mansion was built from 1905 to 1908. You can do a variety of tours based on your travel budget, but whichever one you pick, you’ll get mesmerizing info about the imposing, old mansion and grounds, as well as the Congdon family themselves, who resided there.
We did the Full Mansion Tour, which lets you explore every level of the house. But you can do shorter tours like Nooks + Crannies, which lets you get behind all the locked doors and balconies at Glensheen. This one is the one that I’d do next!
Psst! If you’re into ghost stories, make sure to look into the mysterious Congdon murders, which gives an interesting modern-day twist to the old mansion.
Glensheen also offers a holiday tour, where they put up 25 Christmas trees and thousands of colorful lights in the public rooms in the mansion. Extra fun is that you tour the place at night, being guided only by the glow of the festive holiday decorations. How cool is that!?
Walk around Canal Park. This is ground zero for all kinds of fun in Duluth. There’s so much to do in this area, so make sure you give yourself a few hours to explore. Here is a good start point for a walk along the lake on the impressive 7.5-mile Lakewalk. We saw so many happy visitors and pets here.
From Canal Park, you can also head to one of the museums in the area, watch ferries, or if you’re lucky, a massive ore carrying ship as it goes through the canal and under the iconic Aerial Lift Bridge, or stop in for a quick bite at one of the signature restaurants in the neighborhood.
Pro tip: Make sure to go on a weekday. The weekends can get very busy and parking can be hard to find.
Head to the Arts + Entertainment District. You can find this on 2nd/3rd Avenue and Superior Street. Here, there are so many unique restaurants, cafes, and even the grand NorShor Theatre, if you’re looking to take in a play.
Hike the area. Duluth is a hiking wonderland! In Duluth proper, you can find a variety of parks that have easy hiking trails to local waterfalls, including Congdon Park, Lester Park, and Chester Park. And fun fact: The Superior Hiking Trail (SHT) goes right through Duluth, which will let you walk 310+ miles right to the Canadian border.
According to Backpacker Magazine, the SHT has been rated as the most scenic long trail in America, beating out the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail, and the Continental Divide Trail. That’s pretty impressive!
If you’re up for traveling a bit more, head farther north to find Gooseberry Falls State Park and Split Rock Lighthouse State Park. Both offering great hiking trails with breathtaking views and vistas that you’ll never forget. At Gooseberry Falls State Park, you can walk right up to the beautiful 70-foot high waterfall – which is a must see. I didn’t do that on this trip, but on my last trip to Duluth (which is about 6-7 years ago!), I hiked to the falls. I only wish I had photos from that trip to show you!
Then head to the Split Rock Lighthouse State Park, where you’ll find the gateway to Split Rock Lighthouse. Once you get your ticket, you can tour the 109-year old landmark. You can even go up into the tower of the lighthouse to see the beacon, which I thought was pretty cool.
And of course, the views of the cliffs along Lake Superior are pretty amazing, too.
Fun fact: The Split Rock Lighthouse is widely regarded as one of the most beautiful lighthouses in the United States.
Take a train ride up the North Shore. This was by far one of the most fun things we did during my most recent stay in Duluth. We bought very reasonably priced first-class tickets for The Duluth Zephyr, which is an old train that follows the shoreline of Lake Superior.
If you get first class tickets, you can sit in their Dome Car – a plexiglass encased car which gives you memory-making views – while enjoying two complimentary drinks and a small snack.
You can take the Duluth Zephyr all the way up to Two Harbors, or take a shorter one-and-a-half hour ride that will bring you just out of Duluth proper.
I’m told that there’s a Fall Foliage ride coming up soon. Which I can only imagine is incredibly beautiful!
Or drive up the North Shore. You can do this via the North Shore Scenic Drive. We took this on our way to see the Split Rock Lighthouse, and I’d highly recommend taking this route and not the Highway 61 four-lane that runs parallel to it. On the Scenic Drive, you’re closer to the shoreline, and it allows for some majestic views and ship watching on the gigantic lake.
The farthest we went is just past Two Harbors, but this fun route will take you all the way to the Canadian border past Grand Marais, which many people say resembles an old Maine seacoast town. Yes, please!
Stroll around Leif Erickson Park. This is a lovely spot right in the middle of Duluth. We were running out of time, but we did get to spend a moment in the beautiful rose garden that is part of this park.
What surprised me that most was all the different species of roses – I didn’t realize there were that many!
Over 3,000 colorful plants are in this garden. Being a flower lover, as you can imagine, I was in heaven.
Psst! If you take the Lakewalk trail, you’ll go right through it!
And my goodness, there’s so much more! You could jump on a ferry and take a tour of the lakefront, go fishing on a charter boat, go to a concert, take the kids to the Duluth Adventure Zone (yes, they have one!), just to name a few.
Where To Stay In Duluth, Minnesota
If you’re heading to Duluth, make sure to make it more than just a day trip. Because, as noted above, there’s so much to explore. Which is why I’d recommend staying a minimum of two days.
During both of my trips to Duluth, I’ve had the opportunity to stay at bed and breakfast inns. And that’s what I would definitely recommend you do, too. Many of the beautiful mansions built back in the early 1900s have been converted into charming inns that you won’t soon forget. Imagine spending a few nights in a stately mansion that local legends like Congdon and Cotton helped build!
For my trip in August this month, I had the opportunity to stay at the beautiful Cotton Mansion, which is located near the iconic Congdon Park neighborhood, designed and built by old Joseph Cotton himself. It’s a three-story house with stunning commons areas taking up the first floor, and five spacious guest rooms on the second floor.
The third floor is reserved for the family, where the friendly and caring owners, Ken and Kim, call home. Besides the mansion, you can rent in the Carriage House out back, which holds two more guest suites.
As you enter the Cotton Mansion, you really do feel like you’ve stepped back in time.
Throughout, you’ll find classic Italian Renaissance architecture, exotic wood built by 19th-century Swedish woodworkers, and huge Italian marble fireplaces.
But my favorite feature of the mansion is the stained-glass dome that you’ll find as you climb the stately grand staircase.
I got the opportunity to view three rooms and stay in two of them during my stay. Which was great because I really got a feel for the variety of rooms that the mansion offers.
My first night, I stayed in the Garden Suite, which is one of two HUGE rooms that you’ll find inside the Carriage House.
It has a king-sized bed, a fireplace, a coffee bar, a jacuzzi, along with a bath/shower in the bathroom (with a raindrop shower!).
Book your stay in the premier Garden Suite here. Midweek rates are $245 and weekends are $265. Make sure to mention that you heard about the place through my blog, please and thank you!
My second night, I stayed in the Bell Cotton Suite in the main mansion.
This room was Mrs. Cotton’s room, and it too has been outfitted with a jacuzzi in the main sitting room, and a bath/shower in the bathroom. There was also a beautiful fireplace, a little seating area, and a pillow-top queen-sized bed that was so comfy!
The room really does have a cozy, romantic vibe to it. Book your stay in the stately Bell Cotton Suite here. Midweek rates are $245 and weekends are $265. Make sure to mention that you heard about the place through my blog, please and thank you!
I also got to view the Lillian James Suite, which is a smaller room inside the mansion, but very cozy and intimate. I loved the light blue floral wallpaper, the artwork hung with gold frames, and the little coffee nook by the window.
This room doesn’t have a separate bath/shower, but it does have a jacuzzi in the bathroom with a handheld shower head included.
The room also has a wood burning fireplace (a lot of the other rooms now only have gas) and a small built-in vanity where you can sit and get ready in the morning. Book your stay in the romantic Lillian James Suite here. Midweek rates are $225 and weekends are $245. Make sure to mention that you heard about the place through my blog, please and thank you!
So, as you can imagine, the Cotton Mansion is a great destination for a romantic getaway. During my stay, a number of couples were there celebrating their honeymoon or wedding anniversaries, young and old alike.
And if you’re someone like me, who’s single, I think the Cotton Mansion is a great spot for a personal getaway, too! It offers such a feeling of privacy. I remember thinking while walking through the common areas of the mansion – Regardless of there being 10+ guests occupying the house, it was always so quiet in the mansion. Guests are really only mingling in the common areas in the morning for breakfast, and then again at night before bed, so I’d think it would be a great spot for writers (or bloggers!) looking for a spot to garner inspiration.
Speaking of breakfast, make sure to hold all of your questions until the morning meal, because your host, Ken, is such a great storyteller while serving up the morning meal! He’s more than happy to give you all the historical details of the mansion, from its origins all the way through to its restoration, all while enjoying a scrumptious breakfast with the other mansion guests.
Our first meal included fresh pineapple, sausage, and french toast. Our second breakfast included a melon and other assorted fruit, yogurt, a unique Eggs Benedict over a croissant, and a blueberry muffin. Yum!
Some of my favorite spots in the mansion:
- Grab a cup of coffee (waiting downstairs for you at 8am) and take it to the beautiful sunroom while you wait for breakfast. You won’t be able to have a bad day after you start it out in this exquisite space.
- During the evenings, head out to the seating areas on the porch in front of the house to enjoy a glass a wine and a good book. If the weather is nice, this is also a great spot to relax in the morning before breakfast.
- The living room areas both had little nooks to play chess atop lavish armchairs, which I adored.
Where To Eat In Duluth:
- Grandma’s Saloon + Grill: If you’re looking for something casual and fun, head over to Grandma’s, which is right in Canal Park by the Aerial Lift Bridge. We stopped in quickly for lunch. If it’s a nice day, head up to their outdoor patio. Otherwise, sitting inside is well worth it, too, as they’ve decorated it with all kinds of old antiques that are fun to browse.
- Fitger’s Brewhouse: If you’re a beer lover, this place is for you! Every time I go to Duluth, I stop at Fitger’s to try one of their award-winning craft beers. If you’re not sure what to try, order their tasting flight to get a small glass of each!
- Pickwick Restaurant + Pub: Right across the way, Pickwick is a good spot to meander over to after you’ve had a beer or two at Fitger’s. Around since 1914, this is a landmark Duluth eatery that serves traditional entrees, so you really can’t go wrong. Plus, the inside looks like you’re in an old hunting lodge, which adds to the North Shore vibe.
- Va Bene Caffe: If you’re craving Italian, you have to make reservations at Va Bene. Centrally located just above the Lakewalk, you have the option to sit indoors or outdoors. With an open-air grotto, you’ll get some of the best views of Lake Superior in town. Which makes it a perfect spot for a romantic dinner!
- Portland Malt Shoppe: This cute place is right next door to Fitger’s. You’ll know it when you see it because it’s a tiny brick building that used to be a gas station. Today, it’s a 1950’s style malt shop, window-serve and all. On a hot day, this is a great place to stop if you’re looking for delicious malts or ice cream treats.
- New Scenic Cafe: If you’re heading up towards Two Harbors, make sure to stop at this new “foodie” place along North Shore Drive. It’s a great little spot for lunch, with New American entrees, lake views, and a garden to enjoy.
- Betty’s Pies: If you have a bit of a sweet tooth, or you’re just looking for some dessert, stop in at Betty’s for a sweet treat on the way to Two Harbors. Just one glance at the menu will show you just how many variations of pies they offer. We didn’t stop, but when we told someone that we were in Duluth, the first thing they asked is “Did you go to Betty’s Pies!?”, so I guess it’s a thing!
It was so nice to make the trip back to Duluth. The last time I went, which was about 6-7 years ago, I feel like I didn’t appreciate it the way that I do now. And I also feel so incredibly lucky and grateful to have been able to stay at one of Duluth’s historic mansions, which was so rich in the vibrancy that you still feel from yesteryear.
As I mentioned early, if you’re heading to Duluth, definitely stay in a bed and breakfast inn like the Cotton Mansion. It will definitely enrich your experience as you explore this lovely historic city.
Let’s go places,
All photos on this blog are mine. Feel free to share but please credit me with a link back to the blog. Much appreciated and thank you for your support!
I have collaborated with the Cotton Mansion for this post, but all opinions are mine.