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Twin Cities full of short trip possibilities

It's getting to be the middle of summer and you still need to find that perfect vacation destination.

You cannot afford $4 a gallon for gasoline for that Yellowstone trip you wanted. Look closer. Look at the largest metropolitan area in the Upper Midwest.

Minneapolis, St. Paul and environs are much more than the Mall of America. The cities feature more ethnic diversity than any other Upper Midwest destination, there is a theater or museum everywhere you turn and it would be hard to find an urban area with more outdoors recreation.

"It is not a destination I would have chosen on my own," Oklahoma-based travel writer Elaine Warner said after an early 2008 visit. "But it is definitely one that I would be happy to go back to."

Restaurants are as good as anywhere, she said, and there are plenty of attractions for all tastes.

"I think you would get more bang for your buck and less hassle."

Rudy Maxa travels the world for public television's "Rudy Maxa's World," but makes St. Paul his home.

"Maybe it is a good time to appreciate what is in your backyard," he said.

Warner and Maxa agreed there is one place to start a tour of the Twin Cities - the Mill City Museum.

The 5-year-old museum is in the burned-out ruins of what once was the world's largest flour mill, one of many that lined the Mississippi River in downtown Minneapolis.

"The Mill City Museum, I think, is one of the great museums in the United States," Maxa said.

"I think you have to start there," Warner added. "It really kind of sets the scene for the city."

The museum provides visitors with agriculture and agri-business information for all ages.

Flour can be highly explosive, visitors learn, and many workers lost limbs. Maxa said that is why Twin Cities' companies are among the leaders in developing artificial limbs.

The museum is center of a district with many attractions and plenty of sights children 6 and older will enjoy, Maxa promised.

Next to the museum is the internationally acclaimed Guthrie Theater, which recently set a sales record when tickets went on sale for the "Little House on the Prairie" premier.

Warner said that the Guthrie is reason enough to visit Minnesota's largest city.

"There is plenty of theater in Minneapolis and some in St. Paul," Maxa said. "I certainly think the Guthrie is a leading light in the theater world."

As for art, three museums stand out, but there are many smaller ones, too. The Walker Art Center has a worldwide reputation for its modern art exhibits. The Weisman Art Museum at the University of Minnesota is so popular it is expanding.

But for those visiting just one art museum during a Twin Cities vacation, make it the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. It is the best of art and history museums combined into one and, like the Weisman, it is free.

Museums dot the Twin Cities' landscape, but for Minnesotans, a must-visit one is the Minnesota History Center in downtown St. Paul. A short walk away, the state Capitol technically is not a museum, but its marble walls contain as much history as any building in the state. And tours are free.

Be sure to swing by the St. Paul Cathedral, near the Capitol. It is one of the most impressive churches in the region.

Head south from the cathedral for a drive along Summit Avenue, where gawking at the historic houses is a common pastime.

One of the Twin Cities' best attributes is their ethnic diversity.

Sure, the Scandinavian influence remains prominent. But the cities now are home to the country's largest Hmong, Somali and Liberian communities. With new immigrants, which include large numbers with Hispanic background, come new cultural and culinary opportunities.

District Del Sol, south of downtown St. Paul (take Robert Street), is a hub of Hispanic activity.

An eatery and grocery store is a good starting point. El Burrito Mercado at 175 Cesar Chavez St. is a no-nonsense restaurant with authentic Mexican favorites. For those who want to cook their Mexican food at home, there is a full grocery store adjoining the restaurant.

El Burrito Mercado is one of several Mexican restaurants in District Del Sol.

For those more into Asian food, head just east of the Capitol on University Avenue. For blocks, there is one Asian restaurant after another, many of them ma-and-pa establishments.

One newer building with plenty of atmosphere is Mai Village, 394 W. University Ave., the eastern most of the University Avenue Asian restaurants. It features elaborate woodwork, complete with a wooden bridge over a fishpond just inside the door.

There are other Somali, Scandinavian, German and other ethnic restaurants and markets, but head to the Midtown Global Market at Lake Street and 10th Avenue south of downtown Minneapolis for a broader experience.

Its food and goods shops feature ethnic angles from Hispanic to African.

The Twin Cities are unusual because of large expanses of forested and other green space interspersed with urban areas.

A favorite area among locals also may attract visitors -- the Chain of Lakes. Bicycle and walking trails abound, connecting lakes like Calhoun and Harriet, southwest of downtown Minneapolis.

In the Harriet area, for instance, visitors can see the second-oldest public rose garden in the country, a Japanese garden and a bird sanctuary.

A surprise awaits nature lovers in the middle of suburbia. The Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge, just off Interstate 94 near the Mall of America, offers a visitors' center and nature trails.

After watching the loons, a visit to the Mall of America just down the interstate may be in order.

The megamall is the mega-tourist attraction, but the Twin Cities offer many other favorites, such as professional sports ranging from the baseball Twins to the Thunder soccer squad.

For a unique sports event, try out a St. Paul Saints game. Mudonna, a pig, is a favorite at the games, one of many attempts to make the game of summer more fun.

A quieter welcome awaits visitors in the St. Croix River town of Stillwater, with a downtown full of antique stores and what Maxa called "some fun restaurants."

Also on the quiet side, river cruises are available on the Mississippi in both Minneapolis and St. Paul, on Lake Minnetonka and on the St. Croix from Afton, Minn., and Hudson, Wis.

The Twin Cities provide a mixture of attractions that people not familiar with the area, like Warner, find surprising.

"St. Paul is like a fine wine and good chocolate -- it is very sophisticated," Warner said. "To me, it was very European. Minneapolis is ... a pickier city; maybe has a little livelier feel, a little younger feel."

She said she is glad to have made her first visit for a magazine assignment earlier this year.

"It is an airport to fly through," Warner said. "It just never occurred to me to stop. And what a shame. I found some wonderful and interesting things to do."