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Wisconsin Parent

Midwest Travel: Mankato, Minnesota

Aug 04, 2014 06:00PM ● By Julie Henning
Located about 85 miles southwest of Minneapolis/St. Paul, greater Mankato, Minnesota is home to 53,000 residents and students scattered along the Minnesota River Valley. An easy drive for those of us in Wisconsin, Iowa, South Dakota, and even Northern Illinois, Mankato is another "reasonably priced and easily accessible" destination for a family vacation.

The starting off point for a "Little House on the Prairie" themed road trip, I spent two days in Mankato enjoying many of the area's summertime attractions, including some of the local (non-chain) restaurants. While Mankato has several choices for hotels with modern amenities like swimming pools and business centers, why not step back in time and stay at the Butler House Bed and Breakfast? Built in 1903, this B&B offers five bedrooms and plenty of places to sit indoors and out. A nice option for mothers-and-daughters or families with older kids who can appreciate the history and the "idea" of staying in a B&B, the Butler House is conveniently located on a quiet street within walking distance of downtown.

Butler House ExteriorPerhaps the best place for children (that I experienced, anyway) is the Sibley Park playground and Sibley Farm. Located on the south side of the park, the farm-themed storybook playground features structures for kids of all ages (and a nearby "workout" station for parents and older kids).

Sibley Park PlaygroundWithin walking distance of the playground is Sibley Farm. Maintained by the City of Mankato Division of Parks and Forestry, you'll see alpacas, calves, goats, peacocks, horses, pigs, lambs, chicks and ducklings, and koi fish in the pond. Some animals are available for petting and others are more protected from "loving" children (the pigs are really friendly and let you touch their squishy snouts—crossing this off my bucket list). During my visit, I noticed several board books on animals and farming had been spread out on the picnic table inside the big red barn.

Sibley Park Petting ZooSibley Farm is open daily from 6:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. (mid-spring, summer, and early fall). On the north side of the park (take the upper road) you'll find softball, tennis, fishing and a sledding hill. You may also want to explore some of the more landscaped areas, including a beautiful garden perfect for a family vacation photo.

City Art RadianceOne of five cities in North America currently participating in the City Art Walking Sculpture Tour, you'll find 32 outdoor sculptures located throughout downtown Mankato and North Mankato. In it's fourth season, the mediums range from from steel to marble and each piece is quite different in size and composition. City Art Polar Bear and CubsPerhaps the most "kid friendly" is Polar Bear and Cubs, by artist Dollores B. Shelledy and sponsored by U.S. Bank. From May 17-Oct 31, anyone can vote for their favorite sculpture on the 2014 People's Choice Award Ballot (available in paper format or online) and the city will contribute $15,000 towards purchasing the most popular installation.

Tandem Bagels ExteriorIf you walk the tour, make sure to stop and re-fuel at either Tandem Bagels  (a great choice for made-from-scratch bagels and fresh brewed coffee and specialty drinks) in Mankato or Dino's Pizza in North Mankato (my "lunch special" included a generous slice of baked lasagne, bread, and a house-salad for $8).

Dinos Main SignBagel and espresso:

Bagel and Coffee

Baked lasagne:

Dinos Pizza LasagneTo burn off the calories, you'll find numerous lakes and rivers surrounding and passing through the city (not to mention hiking, biking, and geocaching—my outdoor activity of choice). Options for getting on the water include recreational boating, canoeing, kayaking, and stand up paddle boarding.

Paddleboarders Meeting up with Mankado-based BentRiver Outfitter on the shores of Westwood Marina on Lake Washington, I participated in the weekly Wednesday "Paddleboard Party" for a 30 minute SUP board rental (if you are new to paddle boarding, you'll receive a quick lesson at the beginning). Everyone can celebrate with a choice of beverage or ice cream at the end of the paddle ($15/person, first come/first serve, life jackets available if you want one). This really looks harder than it is (older kids and teens will love it).

Beach at Westwood MarinaAnd, if you're already at Westwood Marina, you might as well plan to enjoy an evening meal on the deck of Westwood Marina Bar & Grill, a short beach walk away from the paddle boarding action. My meal included the Westwood Combo, a Midwestern mix of onion rings, German balls (go ahead and laugh), breaded cauliflower, and tater tots (accompanied by melted nacho cheese and 1000 island dressing), and the bacon chicken melt as the main entree. Meal at Westwood Marina

And last, but certainly not least, is Drive A Tank in Kasota, Minnesota (just 15 minutes north of downtown Mankato). The highlight of the trip to the region, Drive A Tank is the only place in the world where you can learn about the history of tanks followed by the ability to drive an authentic military tank and fire a fully-automatic machine gun. I never imagined myself driving a tank (especially as a mom of three and someone who mostly wears sensible shoes), but this was a total rush! Look for a complete (separate) story on this experience soon.

Amanda Driving TankAlso worth noting is the re-opening of the Children's Museum of Southern Minnesota in a new location that is scheduled for early 2015.