Though it doesn’t get a lot of positive press, Duluth (pop. 86,265) has to be one of the most beautiful and underappreciated travel destinations in the Midwest, “a Lilliputian village in a mammoth rock garden,” the old WPA Guide to Minnesota aptly noted. Gracefully etched into the side of tough, 800-foot granite slopes and gazing over the dark harbor hues, Duluth, from the attractively redone redbrick paving of gentrified Superior and Michigan Streets downtown to the grittier heights atop the bluff, quietly goes about its business, usually with foghorns belching in the background. It is a city of maritime and timber history, but it is a city of stunning, pervasive, pristine, healthy wilderness as well.
Tracts of forest, harbor preserves, shoreline, and parks flourish in the city, and there are dozens of interesting Great Lakes or historical museums, mansions, lakefront walks, boat or foot tours, and festivals—from Native American powwows (in the summer) to midwinter dogsled races. Many visitors start at Duluth’s landmark, the Aerial Lift Bridge, a 385-foot-tall monster connecting the mainland to the mouth of the harbor. The waterfront around here has been gently redeveloped into the popular Canal Park warehouse district, with restaurants, bars, and the Lake Superior Maritime Visitor Center (600 S Lake Ave., 218/727-2497, daily, free), all within a short stroll. Best of all is another landmark of Great Lakes maritime industry, the truly huge hulk of the SS William A. Irvin (218/722-7876, daily, $12), a former U.S. Steel ore ship that stretches over two football fields long.
The Aerial Lift Bridge over Duluth’s harbor can be raised 138 feet in under a minute to let ships pass underneath. When it’s down, cross the bridge and continue for a quarter mile for a real treat: a long, clean, sandy beach stretching along the shores of Lake Superior.
Another good stop, the St. Louis County Heritage and Arts Center (506 W. Michigan Ave.), a.k.a. “The Depot,” across I-35 but walkably close to the waterfront, is an enormous, magnificently restored example of early city architecture as well as home to many of the city’s artistic and cultural centers. Around it are the historic locomotives of the Lake Superior Railroad Museum, and two dozen shops re-creating early 20th-century Duluth, right down to the old ice cream parlor.
Down in Canal Park, a fun and filling place to eat, Grandma’s Saloon (522 S. Lake Ave., 218/727-4192) serves up heaps of Italian-American food at the foot of the Aerial Lift Bridge. Another excellent option is Northern Waters Smokehaus (394 S Lake Ave., 218/724-7307), with a mind-boggling array of delicious smoked fish, ham, and pastrami sandwiches. The Canal Park area is a good bet for places to stay. Watch sunrise or sunset over the lake (while soaking in the rooftop swimming pool!) at the Inn on Lake Superior (350 Canal Park Dr., 218/726-1111, $209 and up).