Twin Cities: the charms of winter, beyond Mall of America

Mall of America photo.

Why visit the Twin Cities in the dead of winter? Last week, I promised to offer good reasons. Here are eight.

Glistening outside of Mall of America this winter is a 1-acre and 40-foot-tall ice castle with 50 towers of ice. Many thousands of multi-colored lights brighten the hues of the structure at night.

Visitors follow a maze of caverns, tunnels and archways to find “throne rooms” that each contain a giant chair made of ice. Outside of the castle is a snow park for making snowmen and playing on large mounds of the white stuff.

The ice castle stays open until Feb. 20 or as weather permits. Hours depend upon the day. Tickets are $10 ($5 for ages 3-12, $25 for a family of four). Dress warm, in case of a wait to enter, and allow 30 minutes to explore the frosty palace., 952-883-8800

Indoors, it’s always 70 degrees at Mall of America, which retains its allure because of its reputation as the nation’s biggest shopping and entertainment complex. Minnesota’s tax-free shopping on clothing purchases is another reason to visit.

Expect more than 500 retail shops, but check hours of operation for theme parks when visiting with children. Several indoor attractions were not open during my weekday evening visit in December.

Plans for the four-level mall were hatched in the 1980s, after the Minnesota Twins and Vikings moved from Bloomington’s Metropolitan Stadium to the Metrodome in Minneapolis. Mall of America opened in 1992, and today it is big enough to house seven baseball stadiums.

In addition to shopping and amusement rides, the facility has a wedding chapel, aquarium with sharks to sea turtles, movie theater, miniature golf course, jet flight simulator, comedy club and restaurants.

Light rail connects Mall of America to downtown Minneapolis, but not St. Paul. The dozens of motels near the mall offer free shuttle service to the shopping mecca., 952-883-8800

For authentic ethnic flair, head to Midtown Global Market, a prime place in Minneapolis to try new foods – like a camel burger at Safari Express – and shop for indigenous arts and crafts from dozens of countries. Holy Land Grocery, Cafe Finspang, Simba Craftware, Panaderia El Mexicano and more sell specialty products. When vendors participate in a winter soup cook-off from noon to 2 p.m. Jan. 27, you can bet they’re dishing out more than chili., 612-872-4041

The Packer-Viking rivalry isn’t the only intense one involving Wisconsin and Minnesota. The Wisconsin Badgers men’s basketball team could use a little moral support when heading to Williams Arena to play the Minnesota Gophers at 6 p.m. Feb. 14, Valentine’s Day. A game ticket is $50. The Gophers were No. 9 in NCCA rankings at the start of Big Ten play., 800-846-7437

Add a Minnesota Timberwolves National Basketball Association game at the Target Center. On the team roster are former Badger Greg Stiemsma and Lazar Hayward, a Marquette University alum. When the Wolves play the Utah Jazz Feb. 13, tickets begin at $16., 612-673-1234

Competitive snow plowing, disc throwing, snow sculpting, ice carving, curling and geocaching are a part of the annual St. Paul Winter Carnival, Jan. 24 to Feb. 3 at Rice Park and other venues. Add dog sledding, a cat show, music, parades, art shows, card playing and pageantry. Most events are free at this self-described oldest and biggest winter festival in the U.S., 651-223-4700

The carnival intersects with the outdoor Beer Dabbler Winter Carnival, 3:30-7:30 p.m. Jan. 26 at the downtown St. Paul farmers’ market, where music plays on two stages and icy taps of 300 craft beers from 100 breweries are poured. The show goes on regardless of weather conditions. Tickets are $35 in advance, $45 on the event day (if tickets remain). The Beer Dabbler also is the name of a St. Paul store for home brewers., 651-528-8752

At least 80 performers – drag queens, comedians, aerial artists and musicians – from the U.S. and Canada entertain at the first Minneapolis Burlesque Festival, Jan. 31 to Feb. 2 at the Ritz Theater in Minneapolis. Tickets to these adults-only, evening shows are $30-150., 612-436-1129

For more about tourism in the Twin Cities, consult, 888-676-6757;, 800-627-6101; or, 952-858-8500.

To expand a getaway into outlying areas, check out the many options at Icebox Days in International Falls is Jan. 17-20; Fasching, a German Mardi Gras with an outdoor Bock Fest for beer drinkers, is Feb. 9 in New Ulm; and the International Eelpout Festival (for competitive ice drilling, on-ice auto racining and more) is Feb. 14-17 in Walker Bay.