Duluth: From the lake to food, the city is fun to explore

The coast along Lake Superior.

With its famous aerial lift bridge anchoring the canal, Duluth annually welcomes more than 1,000 ships and freighters to its port on Lake Superior. Watching the behemoth cargo ships as the aerial lift bridge rises and lowers with each entrance and exit the canal is a popular tourist attraction. Standing close to the ships, you feel like an ant, as they slowly move along, sounding their horns as they near the lighthouses at the entrance and then as they approach the bridge.

A freighter heads to port through the canal, as the Aerial Lift Bridge is raised.

You never know the fun you’ll find when you visit Duluth, anchor of the scenic North Shore drive, and gateway to history, nature, and great food. The northeastern Minnesota city of about 86,000 people expands to nearly 185,000, including the surrounding communities.

Disclaimer: Thank you to Visit Duluth for hosting our visit. But, all views and opinions are ours.

While this was our third visit to Duluth, it as the first time we stopped during fall. Lisa, as many people are aware, is a huge leafer. She loves seeing the change of color each fall, so we thought a drive along Minnesota’s scenic North Shore would be the perfect getaway. With mostly outdoor activities planned, we planned a physically-distanced trip. Following two days in Duluth, we would move north to the Lutsen area on the North Shore scenic drive.

Canal Park and Lakewalk

Canal Park is always a popular area, with sculptures telling the city’s history, Lake Superior Maritime Museum showcasing the region’s ship history, and the William A. Irvin freighter museum offering a firsthand look at life on the lake. Gulls flock to the area, anticipating popcorn or other safe treats from visitors.

The Canal Park area is ripe with attractions and fun.

The Canal Park anchors the Lakewalk, a 7.5-mile-long lakeside trail, where you can enjoy magnificent views of Lake Superior, as well as impressive flower gardens and botanical attractions in Leif Eriksen Park and the Rose Garden.

Glensheen Mansion

Often compared with the fictional Downton Abbey, Glensheen Mansion is far from a television series set. Nearly 40 rooms make up the century-old mansion, built by Chester and Clara Congdon in 1908. The couple and their seven children lived in the mansion that hugs Lake Superior. The mansion, with the family’s entire collection, was donated to the University of Minnesota and opened as a museum in 1979. Self-guided tours through the four floors offer a unique look at early 20th-century life.

Glensheen Mansion has the look of a British estate.

Originally situated on 22 acres, the estate is now 12 acres, and includes a beautiful botanical garden with a water fountain, as well as a boathouse and walking trails. The view of Lake Superior from the Glensheen estate is amazing.

Public parks

It seems as though no matter where you go in Duluth, you’ll find beautiful views of the lake, as well as forests. Enger Park is home to Enger Observation Tower, an 80-foot-tall stone tower that offers an impressive view of the area. With walking trails, Enger Park is an excellent spot to spend a couple of hours or a day.

Enger Park observation tower offers an excellent view of Duluth and Lake Superior.

Duluth is home to about 130 city parks and more than 125 miles of hiking trails. So, we knew we needed to check out more areas. Birding enthusiasts enjoy lining the road and watching the sky for signs of birds, such as eagles, red-tailed hawks and falcons, at Hawk Ridge. The park, which overlooks Duluth, also has hiking trails that will make you feel like you’re walking through a maze.

North Shore Scenic Railroad

For a relaxing ride along the North Shore, reserve a seat on the North Shore Scenic Railroad. The train travels northbound, from downtown Duluth, taking you on a 75-minute excursion featuring Lake Superior on one side and forest on the other. Operating summer through fall, the North Shore train includes passenger cars, a refreshment car, and an open-air car, where we spent our ride. You can also buy a first-class ticket, where you sit in a bubble-top car. The train ride takes you to a stopping point, where the engine travels along a side track, eventually reconnecting to the open-air car. It’s interesting watching the crew connect the cars for the ride back downtown. The North Shore Scenic Railroad also offers special train rides, such as a Two Harbors trip and a pizza/music ride, as well as seasonal tours.

The train depot museum includes exhibits, such as the Northern Pacific snowplow.

The downtown depot is also home to a museum, featuring older rail cars, such as a caboose, engine and snowplows. Artifacts and exhibits highlight rail history in the northland.

Native American art

A downtown mural highlights the region’s Ojibwe history and culture.

I love how some Native American artists have turned to art to help tell the history or share culture. A few murals are located around Duluth, including a jingle dress dancer on the side of the American Indian Community Housing Organization Galleries. She looks over the Duluth area, protecting the Ojibwe land and water. The mask is symbolic of the water protectors who were at Standing Rock, North Dakota, in 2017. A second mural at the Seafarers Center features a large hand offering tobacco, with dragonflies flittering about. It also includes underwater scenes.

Impressive lodging

Cottom Mansion Bed and Breakfast

We had the fortune of being hosted by two outstanding facilities. Our first night was at the Cotton Mansion in northeast Duluth. The bed and breakfast is immaculately decorated with accessories that beckon to the early 1900s. With fireplaces, beautiful furniture and impressive décor, the mansion felt like spending the night in a museum.

Cotton Mansion is exquisitely decorated.

We stayed in the Rose Room, which featured a queen-size four-poster mahogany bed. While it was too warm to use, the room includes a fireplace original to the mansion. The Cotton Mansion has five rooms and suites in the main building and two suites in the carriage house, a few steps from the mansion.

You’ll be challenged to find a better breakfast outside of a B&B. As our host said, if you run a bed and breakfast, you better create an amazing breakfast. Oh, were we impressed! A cinnamon-flavored stuffed French toast entrée, topped with fresh peaches provided a delicious start to our day. With a cooked Swedish sausage and fresh fruit cup as sides, the breakfast was wonderful. The morning coffee had a nice, mild aroma.

Breakfast at Cotton Mansion.

The Cotton Mansion sits in a classic neighborhood, with other mansions and vintage homes lining the streets. Flower beds and bountiful trees add to the estate’s historic setting.

Fitger’s Inn

Our second night in Duluth included a suite at the historical Fitger’s Inn. Located along the Lakewalk, we enjoyed a view of Lake Superior and the Canal from our balcony. Watching the sunrise the next morning added to a wonderful experience.

Sunrise from our balcony at Fitger’s Inn.

The hotel’s lobby reminded me of a scene from a noir film. I half-expected to see mobsters walkthrough44441 in their suits, carrying violin cases with Tommy guns inside. Fitger’s Inn features 62 rooms and suites inside the renovated 1885 Fitger’s Brewery. With shops, a craft brewery and a restaurant onsite, you may not want to leave the hotel.

Fitger’s Inn is housed inside a vintage brewery.

But, just a few steps away is Duluth’s famous Lakewalk. A boardwalk, as well as a paved path, leads you south to Canal Park or north to Leif Eriksen Park, offering spectacular views of Lake Superior.

The boardwalk in front of Fitger’s Inn.

Our suite was impressive. With a king-size bed, comfortable work desk, kitchen and sitting area featuring a sofa and chairs, as well as a whirlpool bath, the suite included a scenic view of Lake Superior from the balcony. Vintage items, such as whiskey barrel and suitcase served as an end table and coffee table, respectively.

Our suite at Fitger’s Inn.

Great food

Duluth has an amazing culinary scene. From fresh seafood to impressive American fare with a spin, don’t ask me for a favorite dining spot. I’d feel like I betrayed one place if I chose another. Lisa and I both enjoyed every meal we had during our visit. Each restaurant was unique with its menu, but great service was a common denominator. We were fortunate to dine at locations that feature outdoor seating. If you are hesitant to dine indoors, a little research helps find outdoor options.

Grandma’s Saloon and Grill

While it has three locations within an hour of Duluth, we enjoyed lunch with a view at the original Grandma’s Saloon and Grill at Canal Park. A short distance from the aerial lift bridge, it’s common to watch the freighters move about, which happened during our visit.

When we mentioned we were dining at Grandma’s, people strongly suggested trying the onion rings. The large, handmade onion rings reminded us of the ones that we used to get at a former Omaha restaurant. With a variety of dipping sauces, we chose ranch and Carolina Mustard BBQ. Adding them to the crispy O-rings was a perfect combination.

The Pork-n-Burger at Grandma’s was delicious.

Lisa ordered the pulled pork hoagie with Carolina Mustard BBQ sauce and fries for her main dish. I went with the Pork-n-Burger and fries. Of course, I added a side of the Carolina BBQ to dip the fries in. We thoroughly enjoyed our lunch on the upstairs patio. Grandma’s uses a different menu for the patio, so you can’t order pasta or steak, as you can do when dining indoors.

Tavern on the Hill

Our first night’s dinner was at Tavern on the Hill. Located near the University of Minnesota-Duluth, we agreed that we can see the tavern as a hangout for students on weekends. It has an inviting ambiance, with big-screen televisions in the bar area, while the patio features stringed lights and fire pits. We started with a couple of craft beers, including Castle Danger Cream Ale and Lift Bridge Mango Blonde ale.

Castle Danger Cream Ale was a nice kick-off to dinner.

We shared an appetizer of the charred bacon Brussel sprouts. Caramelized in garlic butter, with pieces of bacon and red onion, the Brussel sprouts are topped with grated parmesan cheese.

The Brussel Sprouts as an appetizer was an excellent choice.

Lisa chose the “healthy” option for dinner, going with a maple-glazed Canadian salmon atop a bed of lettuce, with cucumbers, cherry tomatoes and craisins, with asiago cheese grated over it. I went with the server-recommended Midnight Cubano. With pork carnitas, shaved ham, swiss cheese and the Tavern’s Bang-Bang sauce on Cuban bread, it exceeded expectations with great texture and flavor. Adding a sliced of the tangy “cuke” (cucumber) slices, it was a great meal. Oh, the sweet potato fries were delicious, too.

The Midnight Cubano was a delicious choice for dinner.

We enjoyed our visit to Tavern on the Hill so much, we came back the next day for lunch. Since Lisa didn’t try the sweet potato fries the previous evening, we ordered a basket to start. She liked them as much as I did.

Bison burger at Tavern was tender and flavorful.

We each went with a burger; Lisa had the turkey burger and I opted for the bison burger. Both were tender and juicy. Burgers come with beet chips. If you haven’t tried them, I recommend it. I like beets, so I may be biased, but beet chips may be the best kind of chip.

The Boat Club

Dinner at The Boat Club was amazing! With a table for two offering an impressive view of Lake Superior, the upscale restaurant located at Fitger’s Inn capped a great visit to Duluth. While the sunset in the west, Lake Superior still featured an inviting view.

Starting with fresh crab cakes, accented with citrus remoulade and arugula and shaved radish, we knew we were in for a special evening. Our server brought a basket of freshly-baked popovers. Butter melted as we spread it on the rolls. I added a bowl of tomato bisque to my order. So good!

Crab cakes as an appetizer always a great choice.

Lisa ordered the seafood linguine, which included jumbo shrimp, scallops and lobster meat on a bed of linguine with garlic, white wine butter sauce with fresh herbs.

The Bat Club has a delicious selection of fresh seafood.

My choice was the seafood trio of jumbo shrimp, scallop and a four-ounce lobster tail. Brittany, our server, added the king crab leg to the entrée. Hoo boy! With two medium Yukon boiled potatoes and a vegetable medley, I struggled to finish the dish. I was determined not to leave any of the seafood on the dish.

For dessert, we shared a trio of churros.

Visit Duluth

While it was our third visit to Duluth, we visited new spots and tasted new food. It’s fun visiting an area that offers so much to see and do that it requires return visits. We definitely started our fall road trip to the North Shore on the right foot. Since we obviously like Duluth, do I really need to recommend it? But, you know I will. We strongly recommend visiting Duluth. I think next time, we’ll add an extra day to the Duluth leg of our North Shore excursion.