Thirty years ago, motorists whizzed right through Duluth on their way to Minnesota's North Shore, putting it into their rear-view mirror as fast as they could.
That changed in the early 1990s, when the rejuvenation of Duluth's lakefront started to transform this working-class port town into the belle of Lake Superior.
Now, it's packed from summer through fall, and rooms at its hotels and B&Bs can be hard to come by. It's a Cinderella story, really.
But some people still wonder — what's in Duluth?
What to do
In summer, everyone gravitates to Canal Park for some boat-watching.
It's fun just to stroll along the Lakewalk and mill around, but if you get more ambitious, you can cross the Aerial Lift Bridge to the swimming beaches or hike the two-mile trail on Park Point.
You can also bike or skate on the Lakewalk, which follows the lake for four miles, then parallels the excursion-train tracks for another three miles, past the swimming holes of Lester Park to Brighton Beach on the lake.
Tourist attractions include the Great Lakes Aquarium, the S.S. William Irvin ore boat, Vista Fleet cruises and the North Shore Scenic Railroad, whose pizza trains and annual appearance of Thomas the Tank Engine are among the many things kids love about Duluth.
It's free to visit the Lake Superior Maritime Visitor Center next to the Aerial Lift Bridge and the playground at Bayfront Festival Park.
On the hills above town, it's fun to drive Skyline Parkway for the views and to check out the many swimming holes (summer) and hawk-watching (fall). And there's great hiking on the Superior Hiking Trail, which roughly parallels the parkway, and mountain biking on the Duluth Traverse.
East of downtown on London Road, tour Glensheen, Chester Congdon's 1908 mansion on the lake.
Nearby, explore the Congdon Park Trail, one of many lovely walks where you'll forget you're in a city.
There are more attractions along the St. Louis River in West Duluth — the Lake Superior & Mississippi excursion train, the trailhead of the Willard Munger State Trail, the Lake Superior Zoo and Spirit Mountain.
There's good shopping at DeWitt-Seitz Marketplace on Canal Park, the Fitger's complex and downtown along Superior Street.
There are many free concerts and festivals as well as performances of the theaters, symphony and opera and big-name concerts and touring shows. Downtown, see a show at the newly restored NorShor Theatre.
For more, check the calendars at Perfect Duluth Day and Visit Duluth.
In winter, there's also a lot to do: alpine skiing and tubing at Spirit Mountain, cross-country skiing on 82 kilometers of groomed trails, and snowshoeing on the Superior Hiking Trail.
Want someone to show you around? Day Tripper of Duluth offers tours and adventures.
What to know
Duluth can be chilly even in summer, so bring a jacket and long pants no matter how warm it is where you live. It’s not uncommon for the Duluth lakeshore to be 30 degrees cooler than the Twin Cities, only 2½ hours to the south.
Don't go without a reservation on any weekend or in summer and fall. Some events fill up the town, which is packed anyway in summer. Conventions and high-school sports tournaments also can take up huge blocks of rooms (and raise prices).
Festivals in 2021
May 2-9, Virtual Homegrown Music Festival.
May 22-30, Duluth Dylan Fest.
June 19, Grandma's Marathon. This is the biggest weekend of the year. Hotel rates go through the roof, and many have a three-night minimum.
June 25, Lake Superior Ribfest and June 26, Bayfront Bratfest at Bayfront Festival Park; free.
June 26-27, Duluth Airshow. The Park Point Art Fair will be held next in 2022.
July 2, Bayfront Country Jam.
July 4, Fourth Fest at Bayfront Festival Park, music and a big fireworks show.
July 17, Bayfront Reggae & World Music Festival at Bayfront Festival Park.
July 24, Festival by the Lake in Bayfront Festival Park.
July 31, All Pints North Summer Brew Fest at Bayfront Festival Park.
Aug. 6-8, Day Out With Thomas the Tank Engine at the Depot and Bike Duluth Festival.
Aug. 13-15, Day Out With Thomas the Tank Engine at the Depot.
Aug. 13-15, Bayfront Blues Festival at Bayfront Festival park.
Aug. 19-22, Duluth Superior Film Festival.
Aug. 21-22, Art in Bayfront Park Art Fair.
Aug. 26-28, Tribute Fest concerts in Bayfront Festival Park.
Aug. 27-28, Lake Superior Dragon Boat Festival in Superior.
Sept. 17-19, North Shore Inline Marathon and Skate Fest.
Sept. 18, Chester Bowl Fall Fest.
September-October, fall migration at Hawk Ridge. Birders flock in from across
the nation, and many stay for a week or more.
It's also fall-color
season. The town fills up on weekends through the third weekend in
October, when Minnesota schoolchildren have a four-day break (reserve early for that weekend).
Thanksgiving-New Year's, Bentleyville Tour of Lights in Bayfront Festival Park.
In summer, it's fun to watch the Wednesday-evening sailboat races.
Check the city's events calendar to see what's going on when you visit.
Where to stay
In summer, most people want to stay on Canal Park, where rooms cost at least $250 and often much more. For weekends from April through October, they sell out far in advance.
The Inn on Lake Superior, Comfort Suites, Hampton Inn and Canal Park Lodge face Lake Superior. The popular Inn on Lake Superior was first to include such family-pleasing amenities as s'more roasts, waffle breakfasts and loaner bikes and wagons. It's also pet-friendly and has a small outdoor heated pool on its roof.
They all have indoor pools and hot tubs and offer free breakfasts.
Right off the Lakewalk, Endion Station Inn is in the 1899 railroad depot. A block away on Lake Avenue, rooms at The Suites Hotel (formerly Hawthorn Suites) have full kitchens, and a hot breakfast buffet is included. There's a pool. The least expensive rooms don't have exterior windows.
On the harbor, the Pier B Resort is just across from Bayfront Festival Park (you will hear loud music on many summer weekends) and has a rooftop patio and outdoor hot tub.
Across the Aerial Lift Bridge, boat-watchers love the South Pier Inn, which has two corner rooms with balconies that have a view of the harbor as well as the canal. Other rooms face the canal, harbor or point. It doesn't have a pool.
Also on Park Point's bay side, four blocks from the lift bridge, the Park Point Marina Inn has 68 rooms with balconies. It includes a pool and serves a large breakfast buffet. A block away, the Fairfield Inn & Suites by Marriott also has a pool and includes a hot breakfast.
Downtown hotels are within walking distance of Canal Park. The Sheraton on Superior Street, not far from Fitger's, is poshest. The Holiday Inn & Suites is newer. The Radisson, known for its round shape and rotating restaurant, is oldest. All have pools.
Behind the Holiday Inn, the Hostel du Nord is a budget option, offering curtained sleeping compartments with lockers and shared lounge spaces, kitchenette and dining area.
Fitger's Inn is in the historic brewery complex on the Lakewalk. It doesn't have a pool, but it's under the same roof as restaurants, shops, a brewpub and a nightclub.
Duluth also has many B&Bs. Solglimt faces the lake on Park Point. Other B&Bs occupy mansions in East Duluth, where tycoons settled at the turn of the century.
The town also has many vacation rentals, including beach cottages on Park Point. Check AirBnB. Some are in quiet neighborhoods, such as the Duluth Hiker House, a block from the Superior Hiking Trail and Hartley Park.
In West Duluth, the Munger Inn is close to trailheads and a perennial good value, with loaner bikes and canoes. The Hotel Pikku is in the Lincoln Park Craft District, next to the Duluth Folk School.
There's camping at Indian Point Campground, along the river, and at Spirit Mountain. On the UMD campus, there are six rustic walk-in sites for tents.
If you'll be in town between November and April, check Visit Duluth's Hot Deals for specials.
There are chain lodgings in Superior, Wis., but they're not that much cheaper.
Where to eat
In summer, restaurants on Canal Park are mobbed. Everyone wants to have a burger and beer on the patio of Canal Park Brewing Company, though it can be tough to nab a spot.
Across a boat slip from Bayfront Festival Park, Silos at Pier B resort has the only waterfront dining.
Many of the best restaurants are downtown, including Restaurant 301 in the Sheraton and JJ Astor at the top of the Radisson. For a cheap burger and a huge selection of craft beer, take a seat at 7 West Taphouse.
Many casual but excellent restaurants are in and around the Fitger's complex, including Fitger's Brewhouse and Va Bene Caffe.
For a guide to restaurants, see Where to eat in Duluth.
Lincoln Park Craft District
This newly flourishing neighborhood just west of downtown, off the 21st Ave. W. exit of I-35, is now a magnet for anyone who likes craft beer and cider (Ursa Minor, Bent Paddle, Duluth Cider, the self-pour Duluth Tap Exchange) and good restaurants and cafes (OMC Smokehouse, Corktown Deli & Brews, Love Creamery).
There's even the three-suite Hotel Pikku, next to the handsome Duluth Folk School, where anyone can take a class and learn a craft or skill. The folk school also operates the Dovetail Cafe & Marketplace, which hosts free live music several nights a week.
Most of the district is on two blocks of West Superior and Michigan streets, between 19th and 20th avenues.
Farther west on Superior Street, closer to the 27th Ave. W. exit off I-35, Wild State Cider has a taproom. The Duluth Grill also is right at the exit.
The Twin Cities and Greater Minnesota Entertainment book offers 2-for-1 coupons for various attractions, including Glensheen. The list price is $35 when it comes out in fall, but the price quickly drops as the year goes on.
For deals at more than 25 breweries, coffeehouses and restaurants, plus a distillery and tea shop, get the $20 Portside Pass. Many of the deals are 2-for-1.
If you're a member of Minnesota Public Radio, you can get discounts at many businesses.
Visit Duluth lists Hot Deals, good mainly in winter and spring, and also offers coupons that can be printed or loaded onto a phone.
The Get Downtown card is free and will net you discounts at some downtown businesses.