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 favorite 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 the Duluth area. 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 the best memories on the north shore of Lake Superior in Duluth this winter:
10 Best Things to Do in Duluth Over the Winter Holidays with Kids & Family
Bayfront Festival Park, 700 Railroad St, Duluth, MN 55802
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 $10 per vehicle. Unfortunately, it won’t be possible to hitch a round-trip ride on the North Shore Scenic Railroad ($7/pp), departing from Fitger’s downtown, in 2021. If you are staying at one of the Duluth area hotels, be sure to check if there is a shuttle that will transport your family to the park; often this is a free service during the holiday season.
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. We rate this attraction the best thing to do in Duluth over the holiday season with your family!
Bentleyville in Duluth is open evenings November 20th – December 27th, 2021. 5-9pm Sun-Thurs & 5-10pm Fri-Sat.
2125 W Superior St, Duluth, MN 55806
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, $5/pp over age 2 (yes, this is a lower price than in years past! A great deal for hours of play.)
Get FREE Admission to Duluth Children’s Museum:
If you have a membership to a Twin Cities participating ASTC Museum, Duluth is more than 90 miles from the Twin Cities, so you can use your membership to get in FREE to Duluth Children’s Museum. Participating museums can change, but check your member benefits if you belong to:
- The Bakken Museum
- Bell Museum
- Science Museum of Minnesota
- The Works Museum
This may be a good excuse to buy a family membership to any of the above museums as this year’s family experience gift.
353 Harbor Dr #100, Duluth, MN 55802
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. Savings tips: 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. New deal in 2021: discounted admission for all ages ($4-$6/pp) is offered on Wonder Wednesdays, each week Nov-Feb, 2021.
The Great Lakes Aquarium on Lake Superior is open daily, 10am-6pm. Admission is $13-$16/pp plus $5 parking.
2400 London Rd, Duluth, MN 55812
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.
506 W Michigan St, Duluth, MN 55802
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). Trains run November 26-December 19, 2021. Tickets for this special event run $28/adults, $25/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 $12/adults. Tickets include admission to the St Louis County Historical Society Museum and the Duluth Art Institute, all housed in the Duluth Depot.
Glensheen Mansion Christmas Tour | Duluth
3300 London Rd, Duluth, MN 55804
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 (SORRY, UNAVAILABLE IN 2021) and, if weather permits, take a winter walk down at the edge of the lake. All tours beginning Friday, November 12, 2021 – Sunday, January 9, 2022 are Christmas Tours. $7-$20/pp.
CHRISTMAS & HOLIDAY LIGHT DISPLAY BONUS AT GLENSHEEN!
Glenshseen is the new home of Spirit of the Lights – a holiday lights display that decorated a private residence on Duluth’s Park Point for many years. Our family managed to visit the original location for the lights the year before they moved to the grounds of the historic Congdon estate. They’re not on the scale of Bentleyville, but we like the display for its more intimate feel. Best of all, these holiday lights are completely free (as in, you’re not required to tour Glensheen in order to enjoy.) Spirit of the Lights runs November 26, 2021 – January 1, 2022, plus Dec 19-23 & 26. Fri-Sat, 5-8pm.
906 East 2nd Street, 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. Twinkling Holiday Events at Fairlawn Mansion run select nights in December, 2021. Times have traditionally been 6-8pm and admission about $8/adults, kids FREE.
9500 Spirit Mountain Pl, Duluth, MN 55810
For the family seeking the ultimate outdoor winter adventure spot in Duluth, look no further than Spirit Mountain for downhill skiing and six lanes of snow tubing. 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 beverages 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 $22-$25/pp for all ages.
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.
- Find a map here of trails to bike, hike, snowshoe or ski.
- Alternative resort for skiers: Lutsen Mountains
With a 4th Grade Passport, your child can ski free, including two complimentary lift tickets and ski or snowboard equipment for only $5. They can even get lesson discounts. Plus their parents and siblings can get a $10 discount. Learn more here.
More savings: the best sledding hills in Duluth
While snow tubing at Spirit Mountain can be a thrill, it can also be a big pinch on the pocketbook if you’re bringing the whole family along. We did a little digging to find what locals consider to be the best FREE sledding hills in the city of Duluth:
- Duluth Heights Park
- Bagley Nature Area
Lake Superior Marine Museum Visitor Center, 600 Canal Park Drive Duluth, MN 55802
Located in Canal Park about a stone’s throw from the lake, there is plenty here to keep the kids amused indoors when the winter chill sets in: interactive exhibits on waterways, a lock-and-dam simulator game 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 Thurs-Mon, 10am-4:30pm. Admission is free or what you choose to donate.
329 S Lake Avenue, Duluth, MN 55802
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 café and head only half a block down the street to Grandma’s Saloon & Grill and enjoy a winter view of the Duluth Aerial Lift Bridge.
Bonus Duluth Winter Fun:
7210 Fremont St, Duluth, MN 55807
This is a brand new, after-hours event at Lake Superior Zoo featuring giant inflatable animals, holiday lights and more photo backdrops. Sounds like some non-inflatable animals will be on display as well.
November 26-28 & select dates December 2-31, 2021. $5/members, $10/non-members, 2 & under FREE.
350 Harbor Dr, Duluth, MN 55802
Plan your winter getaway for the first weekend in December to when Duluth celebrates local small businesses with a the two-day FREE and OUTDOOR Duluth Winter Village festival. This year’s event will be held the first weekend of December (Sat, Dec 4 to Sun, Dec 5, 10am – 5pm) in 2021. On this weekend, local small businesses set up shops in wooden cabins along Harbor Drive behind the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center (DECC) (right in the midst of several our our favorite destinations). There will also be campfires by the lake, live animals (like llamas and goats), carolers and food and beverages to purchase.
Where can I find Santa in Duluth?
Ho, ho, ho. Santa is popping up all over the place in Duluth this holiday season. A sampling of where you might track him down:
- Breakfast with Santa at Fitger’s – Featuring a breakfast buffet at the Boat House Restaurant and a chance to visit and take pictures with Santa. Plus, Fitger’s has the best festive holiday shopping in Duluth. Dates: December 11 & 12, and 18 & 19, 2021, at 9 AM. Must purchase your tickets in advance.
- Santa Photo Experience at Miller Hill Mall – photo packages available starting in early December.
Hartley Park & Nature Center, 3001 Woodland Ave, Duluth, MN 55803
The rentals operate out of the Hartley Nature Center, which is located just north of the University of Minnesota Duluth campus. The building is open weekends this winter, 9am-3pm. Please check the website for the most current information on renting kicksleds, snowshoes and cross-country skis (see more about that below) to use on the 10 miles of groomed trails within Hartley Park.
Cross Country Skiing
The city grooms natural trails in six of its parks as soon as it snows. You’ll need a Great Minnesota Ski Pass from the DNR. It is $10/day but only $25/year and can be used all over the state. Groomed ski trails can be found in these parks; our pick for gorgeous winter skiing or hiking are the trails connecting Lester & Amity Parks. There’s even a chalet to cozy up in!
- Magney Snively Park & Natural Area, W Skyline Pkwy, Duluth, MN 55810
- Piedmont Park, 2302 W 23rd St, Duluth, MN 55811
- Chester Park, 1800 East Skyline Parkway, Duluth, MN 55810
- Hartley Nature Center, 3001 Woodland Ave, Duluth, MN 55803
- Lester Park Trails, 61 Lester River Rd, Duluth, MN 55804
- Lester Golf Course, 1860 Lester River Rd, Duluth, MN 55804
- Twin Cities to Duluth: 10 Stops for Families
- The Best Things To Do in Duluth with Kids in the Summer
- Minnesota Day & Road Trips from the Twin Cities
- The Minnesota DNR shares information on hiking, including its miles of Superior Hiking Trails, here. Of course hiking depends on conditions in winter. Look for warnings before planning your route.