The Sleepover: Duluth’s Canal Park

Canal Park has become Duluth’s playground and a weekend get-a-way for people from across the Midwest.
The Arial Lift Bridge at dusk

Nestled on the Southwestern tip of Lake Superior, under Duluth’s iconic Arial Lift Bridge, Canal Park has become the city’s playground and a regional get-a-way.

There is something special about sitting outside watching 1,000 foot freighters pass by so close that it feels like you could reach out and touch them.  When you watch the ships come in from the lake, they start out so small that it feels like they appear straight from the mist as they sail towards the harbor.

Ship sailing outside the harbor
Ship sailing outside the Duluth’s harbor

One thing that makes Canal Park special is that Duluth is still one of the busiest ports in the U.S. and it’s common to see massive ore boats pass by throughout the day during the shipping season.  Watching the ships come in is a big enough draw that the South Pier Inn has a wake-up service that will ring you in the middle of the night when a ship comes through the canal.

Surrounded by the blue waters of Lake Superior the historic shipping district has found a second life as a tourist destination. As the old warehouses and historic buildings have been turned into hotels, restaurants, and shops people have flocked to an area that feels a long ways away from the Twin Cities and the farmland covering the southern part of Minnesota.

A big part of Duluth’s appeal is Lake Superior itself. When you start talking to people about Lake Superior they talk about how the lake draws them in and use the word mystical to describe how the lake changes from calm to rough, from blue to gray, from friendly to deadly as the winds and weather shift.

In addition to being a fun place for a weekend escape, Duluth serves as the gateway to the North Shore which is home to stunning pine forests, lakes, and waterfalls that stretch from Duluth to the Canadian border.  For many people traveling North a visit to Canal Park is a stop on the way to Superior National Forest or the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA), two remote wilderness areas that are a magnet for people looking for a rugged, outdoor experience.

One way to think of Duluth, at least for Game of Thrones fans, is it is like passing through the neck and into the North where the people are proud of where they come from and like to tell you what its like to come from a better place.

Places to Eat & Drink

White fish sandwich from Lake Avenue
White fish sandwich from Lake Avenue

The Lake Avenue Restaurant and Bar is one of those gems that keep on giving.  For years I’ve tried to stop and eat there anytime, I’m passing through Duluth.  Light and airy inside with the type of service that makes you feel like they are genuinely glad to see you, it’s one of my favorite restaurants in Minnesota.

What makes Lake Avenue stand out is how creative they are in using local ingredients such as lake trout and white fish.  Their bar menu is focused on local beers and Midwestern spirits, which is an every growing category of interesting flavors. A standout on this trip was a Norwegian Lemonade that starts with Aquavit made down the street at Vikre.

If you’re looking for a fun place to visit while drinking interesting gins stop by the Vikre Distillery for a tour or grab a drink in their cocktail room.  You can read all about them in our profile Vikre Distillery Creates Gins from the North Shore.

A great place to stop for lunch or a late afternoon snack is Northern Waters Smokehaus.  The shop is tucked into a small corner of the DeWitt-Seitz Marketplace.  Northern Waters specializes in smoking and curing local meats and fish.  The shop has a rock-n-roll hipster vibe to it as if everyone spends their days trying to perfect traditional Charcuterie and smoking fresh fish straight from the lake in their backyard.

There are a lot of reasons to stop by including sandwiches named the Hedonist and the Gorilla as well as a great cheese selection; but the best reason to go is for what’s in the glass cases, the salumi and smoked fish filling the cases are packed with interesting flavors and are simply amazing.

Located just off the canal is a Duluth institution that once had regional aspirations. Grandma’s was one of the first restaurants to move into Canal Park and has developed a bit of an empire with Grandma’s Sports Garden, several other restaurants, and as the main sponsor for Grandma’s Marathon.

The original still has some charm, especially if you’re a fan of American Pickers since the entire inside is covered with old signs, pictures, and assorted bric-a-brac.  I’ve always enjoyed the food, particularly their chicken wild rice soup.

The area around Canal Park also has a number of craft breweries worth checking out including Fitgers, Lake Superior Brewing, and Bent Paddle.

Things To-Do in Canal Park

Lake Walk Outside Duluth
One of the best things to do in Canal Park is to walk along the boardwalk

Right next to the canal is the Lake Superior Maritime Visitor Center.  This has been one my favorite places in Duluth since I was a kid and is a fascinating place to go if you’re interested in learning about the shipping side of Duluth’s history.

Part of what makes it fun is how different it is than so many museums.  Here the engineers take center stage in a celebration of the power of big machines. They still have some of those old Troy McClure style movies that extol the power of industry and how it can transform the earth.  In addition to letting you know that dredging is never done, the center also has an in-depth collection of historic ship models, pictures, and displays that help give an idea of the importance of shipping to Northern Minnesota.

If you want to get a feel of what it’s like to be on one of the big ships you can take a tour of the William A. Irvin.  The 600 foot former flagship of U.S. Steel’s Great Lakes Fleet offers surprisingly interesting and compelling tours about life on the water.  If you visit in October, you can play Scooby-Doo when they turn the ship into a haunted ghost ship for Halloween.

There are several excellent galleries in Canal Park that specialize in artists from around the region.  Waters of Superior has stunning work from a variety of artists that include paintings, photography, pottery, and woodworking.  Its large open space is filled with natural light, which is a great way to see work focused on nature.

The Sivertson Gallery is located in a long narrow space that is filled with “Art of the North.”  This includes some beautiful Inuit stone carvings, colorful natural landscapes, and striking photography.

If you feel the need to shop in Canal Park stop by the Duluth Pack store.  Famous for their Duluth Packs they’re the oldest leather and canvas bag making company in the U.S. When you wander through the store you get the feeling that it’s the kind of place where Indiana Jones would have bought all his luggage.

Duluth Pack
Where we think Indiana Jones bought his luggage

The best thing to do in Canal Park is to walk around.  The entire area is connected with a long boardwalk that stretches from the inner harbor to downtown and is a great way to spend time with the lake.

The area also has a long list of festivals and special events including the Bayfront Blues Festival and every few years is a stop on the Tall Ships Festival.  For more information about special events check out Visit Duluth.

The Sleepover are short stories about the places we get to visit in our travels.

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