Legend has it that in 1885 a New York newspaper reporter labeled St. Paul, Minn., "another Siberia, unfit for human habitation." Every year since, the city has tried to live down that reputation by staging a series of events, from an ice-carving contest to fireworks and parades, known as the St. Paul Winter Carnival.
Minneapolis -- the other half of the Twin Cities -- also offers wintertime activities that can almost make you forget temperatures below 10F. Besides bundling up, the key to enjoying the experience is striking the right balance between time spent inside and outside.
The St. Paul Carnival, which runs Jan. 28-Feb. 6, gives you plenty to do in both heated and unheated venues. Outdoors, you can watch the ice and snow sculptors in action or take an evening stroll among their creations in festively lit Rice Park. When the chill is too much, warm up in the conservatory at Como Park, heated to a temperature better suited to the more than 400 varieties of orchids that will be on display there Jan. 29-30. You can also see an exhibit of Carnival memorabilia housed in the late-19th-century mansion of Great Northern Railway baron James J. Hill. For complete details, go to winter-carnival.com.
It will be easier to stay warm if you participate in the activities, not just watch them. For skaters, there's the Winter Carnival rink near Landmark Plaza in St. Paul or the rink at the recently renovated Milwaukee Road Depot, a Renaissance Revival train station built in downtown Minneapolis in 1899. Cross-country skiing is available at Theodore Wirth Park, also in Minneapolis. Downhillers can rent skis or a snowboard at the Como Ski Center in St. Paul. Intrepid joggers and power walkers may join the hundreds of locals who brave the cold to exercise on paths around some of the 22 natural lakes within the Minneapolis city limits.
If your favorite sport is shopping, you can always visit the mammoth Mall of America, which also features the Camp Snoopy theme park and an aquarium. The mall is in Bloomington, about a 10-minute drive from the Minneapolis-St.Paul International Airport. You can also get there by a 35-minute ride on the new Hiawatha Light Rail line from downtown Minneapolis.
Picking a good place to bed down for the night can make a big difference in combating the chill. Both cities have an extensive system of enclosed walkways above street level. If you choose a hotel in or close to the skyway system, you'll be able to stroll to restaurants, shops, movie theaters, and nightclubs and leave your parka and mittens in the hotel room.
Skyway-linked hotels in Minneapolis include the luxury Marquette, the Radisson Plaza, and Le Meridien. In St. Paul, hotels on the skyway route include the Radisson Riverfront and the historic Saint Paul Hotel, which overlooks Rice Park and was designed by the architects of New York's Grand Central station. Its restaurant, the St. Paul Grill, with burnished dark wood walls and a steak-and-seafood menu, is one of the area's best. Another is Fhima's, where the eclectic Mediterranean cuisine ranges from bouillabaisse to Moroccan stews.
You can start the day in Minneapolis on 10th Street, near the Nicollet Mall, at Hell's Kitchen restaurant. Choose traditional pancakes or lemon-ricotta hotcakes. On Sunday mornings, the servers wear flannel pajamas and slippers.
Like many twins, Minneapolis and St. Paul are closely related but geographically distant. Unless you want to take a 40-minute bus ride or $20 taxi to cover the 10 miles between their downtowns, you'll need to rent a car. Don't leave the lot without one vital piece of equipment: an industrial-size ice scraper.
By Ellen Hoffman