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The Great River Road

The Twin Cities share the Mississippi River but have little else in common. In general, Minneapolis has fashion, culture, and reflective glass, while St. Paul has a greater small-town feel, more enjoyable baseball, and the state capitol. Together, the Twin Cities are a typically sprawling American metropolis with an atypically wholesome reputation: safe, liberal-minded, welcoming to strangers, and inclined to go to bed early. Don’t fret; there’s enough to keep the visitor fully entertained.

The best place to stop and get a feel for the Twin Cities is at the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden (daily 6am-midnight, free), on Lyndale Avenue along I-94. This is one of the city’s finer urban oases, with 60 works of art ranging from Henry Moore to Claes Oldenburg’s pop art Spoonbridge and Cherry. Running over the I-94 freeway, a sculptural footbridge adorned with words from a John Ashbery poem connects the sculpture garden to Loring Park and the pedestrian greenway (an in-line skater’s heaven) to downtown. Next to the garden is the Walker Art Center (612/375-7600, Tues.-Sun., $14), rightfully renowned as one of the nation’s finest contemporary art museums and an architectural marvel.

Another advantage of visiting the Twin Cities: Baseball fans have two choices, and both are a blast. The major league Minnesota Twins play outdoors at Target Field, in the lively Warehouse District on 3rd Avenue, between 5th and 7th Streets. The unaffiliated, independent, and generally anarchic St. Paul Saints play at CHS Field (360 Broadway, 651/644-6659) in the reviving neighborhood of Lowertown, near historic Union Station.

The Twin Cities are on opposite sides of the Mississippi River, at the crossing of the I-35 and I-94 freeways. (It was a bridge along the I-35W freeway that collapsed in August 2007, killing 13 people; in typically cooperative Minnesota fashion, the replacement bridge was finished in just over a year.) Located seven miles south, the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport (MSP) is served by 14 airlines, with Delta exercising the home-field advantage. Drivers here, in keeping with Minnesota’s reputation, are friendly and helpful, and the city grids are easy enough to navigate by car, although on-street parking becomes more scarce as you approach the downtown areas. There are many parking garages (called “ramps”), and rates vary considerably.

Eating is perhaps the area where the Twin Cities show off their multicultural vitality to best advantage. There are large Central American, Caribbean, Somali, Kurd, and Hmong populations here, and the traditional dominance of meaty northern and eastern European cuisine is being challenged by a bumper crop of new and different places to eat all over town. For a sample, head to Chino Latino (2916 S. Hennepin Ave., 612/824-7878), where the Sushi Loco selections capture all the complexity and contradiction underlying the Twin Cities’ calm surface.

For a taste of old-style Minnesota, Kramarczuk’s (215 E. Hennepin Ave., 612/379-3018) has fat wursts and borscht, as well as varenyky, goulash, and holubets (a.k.a. dumplings, stew, and cabbage rolls), all served up à la carte beneath coffered tin ceilings and the gaze of a giant painted Miss Liberty holding aloft her lamp.

Without doubt, the best road-food place is the decidedly ungentrified 24-hour Mickey’s Dining Car (36 W. 7th St., 651/222-5633), right in downtown St. Paul. Haute cuisine it ain’t, but this 1937 O’Mahony is a fine example of what has become an endangered species since the proliferation of golden arches, its stainless steel sparking with character compared with the anonymous corporate office tower next door.

If you’re traveling on an expense account, The Saint Paul Hotel (350 Market St., 651/292-9292 or 800/292-9292, $169 and up), across from the beautiful Ordway Music Theatre, is a 1910 gem built for the city’s rail and mill tycoons and has a rooftop gym. For a unique stay, try the Covington Inn (651/292-1411, $140-265), a towboat B&B moored on the Mississippi opposite downtown St. Paul. Otherwise, look to the interstate beltways for the national chains, particularly I-494 between the airport and Bloomington’s 78-acre Mall of America, the nation’s largest.

The Minneapolis Visitor Information on Nicollet (505 Nicollet Mall, Suite 100, 612/397-9275) can provide complete information on hotels, restaurants, and attractions.

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