Only a 2-hour drive from our home in the Twin Cities, a trip to the city of Duluth has, over the years, found its way among our family’s holiday traditions. It began as a Christmas gift to the children, specifically my desire to accumulate less “things” and instead, more experiences together. While we tend to choose the holiday season for our visits, know that there is plenty to do and see all winter long in Duluth. If you want to be out playing in the elements, the city never disappoints. If you’re in the mind to escape the snow and cold, there are more ways to do that with kids in Duluth than you might think.
As I developed this list, our family was packed into the van and headed north. The kids, my little captive audience, chipped in their suggestions for making winter memories on the shores of Lake Superior in Duluth:
1) Bentleyville Tour of Lights | Bayfront Festival Park, Duluth
2020 UPDATE: BENTLEYVILLE IS A DRIVE-THRU EXPERIENCE THIS YEAR! THE COST IS $10 PER CAR. NOVEMBER 21-DEC 27, THURS-SUN.
This dazzling outdoor light display draws thousands each holiday season to Bayfront Festival Park in Duluth. Originally conceived on private property outside the city, the event quickly outgrew its owner’s space with busloads of tourists coming by to enjoy visits with Santa, live entertainment, hot drinks, marshmallow roasts and an ever-growing collection of holiday lights.
All of that can still be found at Bentleyville’s digs in Duluth – plus the nation’s tallest Christmas tree! – if you’re willing to bundle up the family on a cold winter night. Definitely one of the most “feeling Minnesota” moments of our year. The lights are on mid-Nov through Christmas; admission and all activities are FREE or what you care to donate. Parking in the lot is $5 per vehicle or hitch a round-trip ride on the North Shore Scenic Railroad ($7/pp), departing from Fitger’s downtown.
Tips: If there’s snow, bring a sled to pull the little ones. Plan to set aside at least 45 minutes to walk the half-mile loop with kids – you’ll want to stop often for treats, photo ops and to warm up little fingers at bonfires along the route.
2) Duluth Children’s Museum | Duluth
2020 UPDATE: THE MUSEUM IS CURRENTLY CLOSED UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE.
A visit to the Duluth Children’s Museum has been a cozy winter tradition for our family dating back to the days when it was housed alongside the locomotives in the historic Duluth Depot. We do miss our “twofer” and climbing on the trains, but there is much to love about the new(er) location in the Lincoln Park neighborhood. While some of the exhibits rotate during the year (please don’t base your trip solely on my family photos) you can bet there are permanent playthings as well for kids up to about age 10. My own kids count the children’s theater, complete with costumes, props and a soundtrack; a mock-up iron ore boat and STEM stations among their favorites. Open Tues-Sun, $9/pp over age 2.
3) Great Lakes Aquarium | Duluth
2020 UPDATE: THE AQUARIUM IS CURRENTLY CLOSED UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE.
Depending on the size of your family, the Great Lakes Aquarium can be a splurge. But on a day when the cold coaxes you indoors, it’s the perfect way to entertain a wide range of ages. We all loved the large, two-story tank of alien Great Lakes fish and getting hands-on with the dive cam. We watched otters playing in a beautiful rocky replica of their natural habitat, then wandered through the Aviary, listening to birdsong and longing for spring. Our toddler had a great time exploring nooks and crannies designed just for her: a bear’s den, a forest treehouse, a tank of fish she could touch. There are many interactive exhibits throughout the outdoorsy space, perfect for curious little hands.
Don’t miss the Great Lakes Water Table! Kids can navigate their boats from Superior to the Atlantic time and again, working the locks, running the falls, generating electricity, and getting wetter than would be comfortable on a day in Duluth that falls below zero.
Open daily, $12-$18/pp plus $5 parking. Tip: If you’ve got a kid under 3 in your party, consider visiting the Great Lakes Aquarium on a Toddler Tuesday. The program runs during the winter only, November through late March. We’ve been able to save significantly on admission as family members pay only $4-$6 accompanied by their toddler.
4) Edgewater Resort | Duluth
2020 UPDATE: THE WATERPARK CURRENTLY PLANS TO BE OPEN DECEMBER 19,.
While The Edge is not my favorite lodging in the city (I prefer something a little closer to waterfront) it is hands-down the kids’ choice and, according to them, the closest to waterfront you can get. The room rate includes waterpark wristbands (to room capacity; up to 2 extra may be purchased separately) or, if you are not an overnight guest, a limited number of day wristbands may be available.
I will admit on a frigid Duluth night it’s nice to stay in and swim. The tiki totems and South Seas motif might even trick you into believing you’re someplace much warmer. The youngest waders have a shallow splashy area to explore (just beware the mega dump bucket). Older kids will enjoy tubing down the lazy river, crossing the lily pad walk, shooting free throws and spiraling around the vortex pool. And let’s not forget the water slides – two of them to tackle, one of which is done tandem on a raft.
If you’re planning to spend the night at the resort, amenities such as large rooms with bunk beds, an onsite breakfast buffet, and a free local shuttle to Duluth attractions make the Edgewater a great choice for families.
5) Lake Superior Railroad Museum & Christmas City Express | Duluth Depot
2020 UPDATE: THE MUSEUM IS CLOSED THROUGH DECEMBER 18.
If you have but one season to pick for a trip to the Lake Superior Railroad Museum, choose the holidays. Departing from the historic Duluth Depot, a ticket aboard the Christmas City Express treats you to a 30-minute ride to the lake while you make merry with cocoa and Christmas carols. Prior to boarding, your kids will enjoy a reading of The Christmas City Express, a visit with St Nick, and clambering all over the trains (all decked out for the holidays). Tickets for this special event run $18/adults, $16/ages 3 & up.
If it’s not the in cards to visit over Christmas, a trip to the museum is a still a snug way to spend a winter day in Duluth. The trains welcome you daily from 9am-5pm and cost $6/children ages 3-13 and $14/adults. Tickets include admission to the St Louis County Historical Society Museum and the Duluth Art Institute, all housed in the Duluth Depot.
6) Glensheen Mansion Christmas Tour | Duluth
2020 UPDATE: THE MANSION IS CURRENTLY CLOSED. CHECK THEIR SCHEDULE OF VIRTUAL CHRISTMAS TOURS RUNNING THROUGH DECEMBER 31.
Historic Glensheen is a Duluth mining baron’s dream home with an unbeatable view of Lake Superior. It’s also got a sinister past (for those who like a ghost story), though the very family-friendly tour shies far away from this. Instead, it focuses on the splendor of the Congdon family Christmases and their customs. To get kids engaged, we recommend taking the self-guided Christmas tour and making the visit into a giant game of I-Spy: how many Christmas trees can they count? How many hidden elves? Don’t miss the traditional shortbread cookies in the kitchen and, if weather permits, take a winter walk down at the edge of the lake. Christmas tours run roughly Thanksgiving to New Year’s and cost $7-$18/pp.
7) Fairlawn Mansion’s Twinkling Nights | Superior, WI
Full disclosure, my kids’ first pick for a family outing is never a historic site. As an additional challenge, I had to coax them out of a swimming pool in order to get them to Fairlawn Mansion’s Twinkling Tuesday. They relented only when bribed with all the hot cocoa and Christmas cookies they could eat at the mansion – a pretty sweet perk when you factor in free kids admission these select nights. Also, out of desperation, I allowed them to wear their pajamas.
As the story almost always goes, everyone left having discovered something they truly enjoyed: interacting with the costumed interpreters, exploring the nooks of a mansion decked out for the holiday and of course, those unlimited treats. Select nights in December, 6-8pm. $8/adults, kids FREE.
8) Spirit Mountain | Duluth
For the family seeking the ultimate outdoor winter adventure spot in Duluth, look no further than Spirit Mountain. They’ve got your steep ski and snowboard slopes. A thrilling terrain park. Even something totally out of my league called winter fat biking. Our family ranks as a little more relaxed on the adrenaline scale, so you can find us over on the snow tubing hill (or, very likely, taking a warm up break with cocoa and craft beer in the chalet). The view over the bay to Lake Superior while sliding at top speeds can’t be beat. A two-hour session runs $5/ages 5 & under, $19/ages 6-12 & $29/adult.
Lisa, a Duluth native and the voice over at Twin Cities Frugal Mom, does a comprehensive job of covering the winter ski & tubing options at Spirit Mountain; we encourage you to check them out HERE. She also covers all the fun to be had on Spirit Mountain during the summer months.
9) Lake Superior Maritime Museum | Canal Park, Duluth
2020: THE VISITORS CENTER IS CURRENTLY CLOSED.
Located in Canal Park about a stone’s throw from the lake, there is plenty here to keep the kids amused: interactive exhibits on waterways, locks and dams for the older ones, a big ship’s wheel to spin for the preschoolers and the telescopes trained on the lake and lighthouses are a hit with all. This is the only destination outside the Twin Cities to make the state’s top 10 tourist attractions list, according to Explore Minnesota. Winter hours are Fri-Sun, 10am-4:30pm. Admission is free or what you choose to donate.
10) Adventure Zone | Canal Park, Duluth
2020 UPDATE: ADVENTURE ZONE IS CURRENTLY CLOSED.
At one point in time, this indoor spot fell into my last resort category (much to the chagrin of my son for many years – sorry, but Mom could handle only so many ticket-spewing junior slot machines and meltdowns at the prize counter). However, as the kids moved on in years, the sportier attractions – a mini golf course, batting cages and a Vertical Endeavors climbing wall – make Adventure Zone a solid choice on a winter day when the weather forces you inside. Purchase attractions a la carte ($2-$6 per play) or save with a multi-pass. When it’s time to refuel, skip the onsite pizza cafe and head only half a block down the street to Grandma’s Saloon & Grill.