The more progressive of Minnesota's Twin Cities, Minneapolis has developed a strong reputation for supporting left-of-center social and political causes, including gay rights. But this dynamic city of 400,000 also celebrates the arts with extraordinary fervor - it claims among the top art museums and regional theaters in North America. The main hub of Northwest Airlines, it's a highly accessible city, with direct flights from dozens of major cities, and during the crisp and generally sunny summer and fall seasons, the weather is delightful. Throw in the city's constantly evolving restaurant scene and proximity to the nation's largest shopping mall, and it's easy to understand why Minneapolis has become one of the country's most talked-about mid-size cities.
A great way to take in the city is simply to walk around its many appealing neighborhoods. A good place for this is along the Mississippi River just north of downtown, around Nicollet Island and the St. Anthony Falls Historic District, a warren of vintage mills and renovated warehouses. St. Anthony Main, the area immediately northeast of the island, was once a Polish neighborhood. Several hip bars and restaurants have opened in these parts, and a new wave of younger residents - many of them gay - has begun transforming the area.
You can stroll along the riverbank, which has park benches, and amble across the historic Stone Arch Bridge, a former rail crossing that's now for pedestrians and bicycles. The bridge affords fine views of the roaring St. Anthony Falls and leads to the trendy Mill District, where vintage flour mills have been converted to condo lofts, restaurants, and the Mill City Museum. Next door to the museum is the new home of the prestigious Guthrie Theater, which reopened in 2006 inside a spectacular new $125 million building that has quickly become one of the world's iconic performing-arts facilities.
Farther west along the river, the historic and hip Warehouse District has approximately 150 stately buildings, many containing boutiques, cafes, design studios, and galleries. From here, you can easily walk south into the heart of downtown Minneapolis, with its many soaring modern skyscrapers. Continue south to reach Loring Park, which anchors one of the city's more gay-popular neighborhoods, and amble around the nearby 11-acre Minnesota Sculpture Garden, which is at the Walker Art Center. This estimable museum underwent a stunning expansion in 2005 and is a must for art lovers. If you have some extra time, it's worth making the 15-minute drive from here to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, housed in a 1915 Beaux Arts building. The 80,000-piece collection includes works by Picasso, O'Keeffe, and Titian.
Die-hard shoppers shouldn't miss the region's most visited attraction, the leviathan Mall of America, which is a 30-minute drive away in Bloomington (right by the airport). It may sound a bit silly to travel all the way to Minneapolis to visit a mall filled mostly with chain shops you could find anywhere, but if you're the sort of person to whom size matters, you'll likely be very impressed with this 4.2-million-square-foot shrine to retail, which contains a staggering 525 shops.
The Minneapolis food scene has really come alive in recent years - the city has some of the Midwest's most creative and talented chefs, yet prices here remain consistently lower than in Chicago or other big cities. One chef currently earning major kudos for his beautifully executed cuisine is Tim McKee, whose La Belle Vie has become a foodie favorite. In the main dining room, sample such artful fare as seared foie gras with caramelized turnips, dried apricots, and a gewurztraminer drizzle. La Belle Vie's more low-keyed lounge is helmed by locally renowned bartender Johnny Michaels - this is a fun spot to bring a date and sample colorful cocktails.
Right beside the Guthrie Theater, the bright and cheery Spoonriver focuses chiefly on organic and regional ingredients in its healthful, creative American fare. It's a lively option for brunch, or for dinner before a play. The same owner, Brenda Langton, also operates the superb Cafe Brenda in the nearby Warehouse District - it specializes in vegetarian and seafood dishes, such as soba-noodle salad with a ginger-tahini dressing.
Try Solera for memorable noshing on a wide range of artfully presented, Spanish-inspired tapas, from soft-shell crab with sweet peppers and mint aioli to grilled beef short ribs with harissa sauce and grilled scallions. The see-and-be-seen crowd is as pretty as the food. In the gay-trendy Uptown neighborhood, Lucia's is a lovely wine bar and bistro that's a short walk from Lake Calhoun and Lake of the Isles, two of the city's nicest areas for an after-dinner stroll. Overlooking Loring Park, Cafe Lurcat has a strong gay following and serves first-rate contemporary American fare. Head to Nicollet Avenue to check out its loads of great ethnic restaurants and cafes, including the tres gay Azia Restaurant and Caterpillar Lounge.
In the Northeast neighborhood, the Latin-Caribbean restaurant Babalu features top-notch live jazz and serves delicious food and cocktails. Enjoy a light breakfast at hipster-infested Vera's Cafe, a sunny coffee bar and teahouse known for its hearty egg dishes and fresh-baked scones. Uncommon Grounds is another gay-popular coffeehouse in a city with many of them.
There are just a handful of gay bars in town, but they're quite fun and consistently crowded. Popular spots include the low-keyed but cruisy Brass Rail, and the often jam-packed Saloon, which draws a yuppie-ish mixed-gender crowd. A longtime favorite that has seen better days, the Gay 90's is a rambling entertainment complex with several lounges and dance areas, plus a wildly popular show bar.
In the city's Warehouse District, consider dropping by the intimate Jetset lounge, a sleek slice of big-city sophistication that's entirely smoke-free. The clean air complements the clean lines and minimalist aesthetic. Catering to a different sort of a dress-conscious crowd, the nearby Minneapolis Eagle strongly encourages either a uniform or leather/rubber attire after 9 on Saturdays - and even at other times, the guys here definitely butch it up. Next door, Minneapolis Bolt draws a still-cruisy, rugged bunch, but you can dress as you wish. There's a small but lively dance area in the back, called the Bolt Underground.
A number of hip, stylish hotels have opened in Minneapolis in recent years. If it's a truly sexy and stylish pad you're seeking, consider the new W Minneapolis Foshay Tower. The uber-hip W Hotel chain opened this dramatic, super-plush hotel inside the city's most famous historic skyscraper, the 32-story Foshay Tower, which was built in 1929 and is the second-tallest concrete building in the country (behind only the Empire State Building). The 229 high-tech rooms contain flat-screen TVs and DVD players, down duvets, "rain" showers, and custom pillows - the W has quickly become a destination of visiting jet-setters. Other draws include the 27th-floor Prohibition lounge, and the city's retro-cool steak house, Manny's, just off the lobby.
A few blocks away, you'll find a similarly hip and arty boutique property, the Chambers Hotel, which occupies a pair of vintage buildings along Hennepin Avenue, steps from theaters and gay bars. Rooms have tall windows, sleek black-and-white color schemes, bathrooms with cavernous walk-in showers, and 400-thread-count bed linens. Set throughout the hotel are more than 200 original contemporary artworks from the collection of Ralph Burnet, the hotel's owner. Be sure to stop by the lobby to admire the art and have a drink in the sexy, gay-popular lounge, or grab dinner in Chambers Kitchen, which is run by celeb-chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten and turns out tantalizing world-beat cuisine, such as tempura salt-and-pepper walleye with jalapenos and basil.
Also check out the ultra-swanky Graves 601 Hotel, a 22-story stunner whose rooms have such artsy accents as 42-inch flat-screen plasma TVs, CD-stereos, and low-slung beds with glass-etched headboards. Bathrooms have Hermes soaps and freestanding "rain" showers. The hotel's Cosmos has become one of the Midwest's premier restaurants, thanks to a gracious, knowledgeable staff, a stunning dining room with soaring ceilings, and creative, deftly prepared food. Among the entrees, don't miss the Iowa lamb chop with cured lamb belly, fava beans, chevre foam, and fresh lavender.
Moderately priced gay-friendly Minneapolis hotels with handy downtown locations include the Aloft Minneapolis, a stylish Starwood-brand hotel in the Mill District that opened in August 2008, and the Holiday Inn Express, which actively markets to GLBT visitors.
A more intimate, romantic choice, the gay-friendly Nicollet Island Inn overlooks the Mississippi River and the downtown skyline and has 24 individually decorated rooms with reproduction antiques, four-poster beds, and French Impressionist prints. You might also check out the lavish Sunday brunch served in the historic inn's fireplace-warmed restaurant - it's a big tradition in these parts. Here you can dine on wild-mushroom crepes, bouillabaisse, and vanilla pot de creme while seated at a table overlooking the Mississippi River - there are few more romantic settings in all of Minnesota.