Just minutes apart, the twin cities of Minneapolis and St Paul offer completely different experiences..

Veena Gomes-Patwardhan

They're twins, but not identical ones. Spawned by the mighty Mississippi that runs between them, the twin cities of Minneapolis and St Paul grew and prospered on opposite banks, maintaining their own distinct identities. Minneapolis is flashier, on-the-go and more modern. Redeveloping, redesigning, and rebuilding are the buzz words here.

In contrast, St Paul, though the state capital, is less flamboyant and exudes small-town charm.

But what unites the twins is that with beautiful lakes and lush parks dotting their urban landscapes, they're both clean and green. Scores of parks preserve green spaces for wildlife habitat as well as for recreation and relaxation.

People unwind outdoors, stroll in the parks, take riverside walks, and even canoe or swim in the lakes, many of which are fringed by beaches.

With their downtowns barely 13 miles apart, the twin cities are compact too, and reached by a short drive. Both cities have a vibrant restaurant and entertainment scene. Nicollet Mall in downtown Minneapolis, and Grand Avenue in St Paul are awash with restaurants specialising in world cuisines. At Nicollet Mall, I also saw some classy bus stops — octagonal, glass-walled and temperature-controlled!

Getting around

The twin cities are good places to explore on foot. An added option in downtown Minneapolis is the light rail, going all the way to the famed Mall of America in Bloomington. Called the Hiawatha Line, it is comfortable and inexpensive.

It follows a varied route, running above the ground partly, going underground in the airport region, and sometimes cutting through busy streets.

Another unique feature is the remarkable, miles-long network of skyways in both downtowns. Snug, temperature-controlled, glass walkways connect a number of buildings here at the first floor level, providing easy access to numerous shops and offices.

Celebrating present and past

During my brief stay in Minneapolis-St Paul this summer, the weather was great. Cool breezes, blue skies without a single rain cloud in sight… just perfect. The spacious, hands-on Science Museum of Minnesota in downtown St Paul is crammed with interactive exhibits and galleries featuring dinosaurs and fossils.

One of the huge upper floor windows offered a glimpse of the legendary Mississippi River, till then encountered only in books and songs.

There was not much activity on the river, but someone pointed to the masses of cottonwood trees flanking the Mississippi, and I realised they were puffs of cottonwood seeds swirling in the air.

Equally fascinating was the historic Landmark Centre nearby, which, with its pretty turrets, towers and chateauesque architecture, looked more like a fairy tale castle.

Formerly serving as the Federal Court House and Post Office, after massive restoration, the building is now a cultural centre, offering free tours of the exhibition galleries inside, including intricate wood sculpture exhibits in the Woodturners Gallery and an amazing collection of period keyboard and other world instruments in the Musical Instrument Museum.

After a hearty lunch at St Paul Grill just across the street, I headed back to my hotel in downtown Minneapolis. The trendy Aloft Hotel is located close to one of the light rail stations. So exploring most of the hot spots in Minneapolis was a snap.

The pride of the twin cities — the Guthrie Theatre — was just around the corner. This architectural marvel has a long cantilever bridge jutting over the street below, and a stepped outdoor terrace overlooking the historic St Anthony Falls and the Stone Arch Bridge spanning the Mississippi. Fortunately, no ticket is needed to enjoy the panoramic view.

The bridge and the defunct Pillsbury Mill visible in the background stand testimony to Minneapolis's former reputation as the flour milling capital of the world.

The railroad baron James J. Hill had built the bridge to bring grains to the city's mills by rail. Now used exclusively by pedestrians and bikers, the Stone Arch Bridge adds an attractive old-meets-new touch to the Minneapolis skyline.

A must-see in downtown Minneapolis is the sprawling Sculpture Garden home to around 40 iconic artworks. Another attraction is the Spoonbridge and Cherry fountain. The giant 52-ft-long spoon holding a 1,200-pound cherry is fast becoming a symbol for the city itself.

That night, I dined at the Chanhassen Dinner Theatres to experience the novel dinner theatre concept and watch the musical “Always… Patsy Cline”, a tribute to the legendary singer who had died prematurely in a plane crash in the 1960s and whose songs “Crazy” and “Your cheating heart” are my favourites. Walleye fillets served with fragrant wild rice pilaf, both Minnesotan specialities, were heavenly.

So much to see, so little time

The next day, I took the light rail to the Mall of America, the country's largest mall. Featuring around 500 retail outlets, dozens of restaurants, an amusement park and an aquarium, the mall is a colossal magnet for die-hard shoppers and thrill seekers.

Next came the three-hour guided “Twin Cities Highlights Tour”; the only time we could get off the luxury bus was at Minnehaha Park where we saw the magnificent Minnehaha Falls immortalised in H.W. Longfellow's famous poem, “The Song of Hiawatha”, and a short distance ahead, the life-sized bronze sculpture of Hiawatha carrying his bride Minnehaha in his arms.

My choice for dinner was the happening Dakota Jazz Club and Restaurant. Jazz luminaries routinely grace the Dakota stage and that night, Robert Everest and his troupe regaled us with some excellent Latin American music.

The next morning, as the plane soared into the sky, I waved goodbye to one of the world's great rivers, humming an old favourite, Charley Pride's “Roll on Mississippi, roll on…”, but with a lump in my throat this time.

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated February 5, 2010)
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