Duluth, Minn: Top Things to Do for Holiday Fun

Bentleyville lights up Duluth’s Bayfront Park. Photo by Lisa MeClintick
Duluth, Minnesota, with the magical backdrop of Lake Superior, has always been a favorite summer and fall getaway for Twin Cities residents and others across the state.
If you need another enticement to head north, here are the top things to do for the holidays in Duluth. It’s a winning weekend getaway with its own Christmas train, a superb Christmas light show with Bentleyville, excellent shopping and the always scenic allure of Lake Superior. Here’s a run-down of Duluth’s best holiday events:
1.    Stroll through Bentleyville Tour of Lights.
With a visual whoosh, Bentleyville Tour of Lights lights up as a waiting crowd cheers. Three million lights in a carnival of colors transform damp foggy December evening at Duluth’s Bayfront Festival Park into a festive wonderland.
Duluth Christmas lights with Up North themes

Volunteers pass out cups of cocoa and cookies, and crowds amble forward through tunnels of lights to gaze at the 12-story tree that looms above Bentleyville. It occasionally flashed in patterns, pulsing to holiday music that ranges from acoustic guitar carols to Jimmy Durante’s “Frosty the Snowman.”
The Bentleyville light displays outgrew founder Nathan Bentley’s Esko home and debuted in Duluth in 2009. It takes more than 900 volunteers almost two months to set up decorations that fill nine semi-trailers.
Displays range from dinosaurs and erupting volcanoes to the Nativity scene and Noah’s Ark. There’s a distinctive Northern flair, as well, with Santa on snowmobile, ore tankers and tall ships, a dogsled team that seems to surge forward, fish and frogs that appear to jump from lakes and a moose and an elf that portage a canoe.
Nice surprise–halfway through Bentleyville you can roast marshmallows while wrapped in the warmth and wood smoke from several bonfires.

Duluth’s shipping celebrated at Bentleyville.
Bentleyville opens the week of Thanksgiving and runs nightly through Dec. 26. It takes about 45 minutes to see the displays, but you’ll need at least an hour if you have kids under 10 who want to visit Santa. The first 15,000 kids receive free knit Bentleyville hats. Admission is free (including cookies, cocoa, popcorn and marshmallows), but monetary donations are welcome, as well as food or unwrapped toys. Nearby parking is $5.
2. Ride the holiday train
Duluth’s 2012’s Polar Express pulled into Fitger’s.

A conductor yells “All Aboard!” and kids (sometimes in pajamas) scramble to climb into the illuminated train cars of North Shore Scenic Railroad. The event has been known as the Polar Express in the past few years, but includes a new story as the Christmas City Express in 2013. The journey begins with boarding at the landing below Fitger’s where you can hear Lake Superior’s waves. The train then rumbles to Duluth’s 1892 Depot. Inside the Lake Superior Railroad Museum, a Lionel model train set whirs to action and a full-size steam engine chugs to life, spewing smoke and blowing its whistle as kids gather for an interactive reading of the book, “The Christmas City Express.”

Each child gets to visit with Santa before heading back to cookies and cocoa at Fitger’s ($16/person; 1-800-423-1273; www.northshorescenicrailroad.com).
North Shore Scenic Railroad also runs trains from Fitger’s to Bentleyville several times a night for $6/person.
3. Kick off season with a parade
Duluth’s holiday events kick off with a Christmas City of the North Parade the Friday before Thanksgiving. The illuminated parade with about 70 units begins around 6:20 p.m. and heads up Lake Avenue.
A.G. Thomson House, Duluth.
4. Duluth mansions dress up for the holidays
December may be the best time to admire Duluth’s many mansions, a legacy of boom years when it claimed more millionaires per capita than anyplace in the United States. If you’re traveling without kids, you can stay in one of seven historic homes operating as Duluth’s bed and breakfasts.
Each has its own charm and characteristics, but among our favorites are the Firelight Inn for its fireplace and spacious porch; A. G.Thomson House for its overall charm and hospitality and Olcott House for its unique music room. Solglimt offers another spectacular option with modern, artsy décor and fantastic location along the lake just past the Aerial Lift Bridge on Park Point Drive.
Firelight Inn B&B in Duluth.
5. Glensheen holiday tours

Glensheen Historic Estate, Duluth’s most famous mansion, opens for holiday tours through Jan. 5 with volunteers in period costumes and a self-guided tour that recreates a guest’s holiday visit to Glensheen in 1912. There’s a photo area also set up for families who want a memorable portrait and good excuse to wear fancy Christmas dresses.

6. Savor scenic slopes
Overlooking the city and the lake, Spirit Mountain offers 22 downhill ski runs and claims the Midwest’s largest terrain park. The resort also grooms 22 km of Nordic ski trails and tubing runs and operates the Timber Twister alpine coaster and double-seat Timber Flyer zipline year-round. Just be aware of the windchill.
7. Hit the Edgewater Waterpark
Edgewater Resort and Waterparkprovides free bus shuttles to Bentleyville, and you also can board the Bentleyville train here. All rooms include passes to the tiki-themed activity pool, lazy river and slides, and you can pay extra for lakeside suites with balconies.

 8. Shop at Fitger’s and Canal Park

The easiest place to stay if you’re riding the train is Fitger’s Inn, a converted brewery above the tracks and overlooking the lake. The Fitger’s complex includes a few levels of boutique shopping, including a toy and book store, outdoorsy gear stores and women’s fashions. You’ll find more shops and a handful of impressive galleries at Canal Park, as well.
9. Learn about shipping
Ore tanker, Duluth, MN
If the lake hasn’t iced up—and chances are it won’t by early December—you can watch for iron ore tankers heading east from the Duluth Harbor. Let kids get behind the wheel in a pilothouse and explore the rich legacy of shipping at the free U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Maritime Museum.
10. Check out the new children’s museum
Check out the new location for the Duluth Children’s Museum, which moved from its location at the historic Depot to Clyde Park in 2012. It’s an up-and-coming area of the city with funky converted warehouses and lots of space for colorful, hands-on learning.
For more information and details, check out Visit Duluth.
St. Cloud-based Lisa Meyers McClintick wrote the guidebook “Day Trips from the Twin Cities” and “Minnesota Lake Vacations” mobile travel app.