These 7 historic sites in St. Paul are worth the visit

Image by Jeremy Nelson

By Charles Brandt

Whether you live in St. Paul or are just visiting, diving into the history of our city can be quite entertaining and fun. If you do your research, you’ll hear about everything from the Union Depot railroad hub to madame Nina Clifford and her early 1900s brothel. Or how under both Police Chief John O’Connor and “Dapper” Dan Hogan, our city was a safe haven for gangsters between 1900 and 1935. John Dillinger, “Babyface” Nelson, Ma Barker and her Boys, have all left their mark on St. Paul’s history. Others, like railroad baron James J. Hill, played a large part in building our capital city into what it has become today. There may be numerous books and blogs on the subject that are worth checking out, but why read about it when you can see the remnants of history in person? For history buffs and the curious at heart, here are 7 places in St. Paul worth visiting to get a more hands-on introduction to this city’s rich history.

Outside the historic James J. Hill house in St. Paul on a sunny day.

Image by Teemu008/flickr

James J. Hill House

Builder of the Great Northern Railway, James J. Hill and his family were very prominent members of St. Paul. Today, the family’s large stone mansion is a historic landmark in Minnesota, and is a very unique tourist destination. The 75 minute tour begins every half hour, Wednesday through Sunday, and includes a 10-minute video history of James J. Hill. Though reservations are recommended, walk-ins are welcome. The Summit Avenue Walking Tour, which is a great way to see all of the beautiful architecture on Summit Avenue, understandably uses the James H. Hill house as a starting off point. Another way to experience the elegance of this house is by attending a special event hosted in the mansion, such as Victorian Ghost Stories, or a performance by the Hill House Chambers Players.

James J. Hill House Hours:

Sun: 1:00 p.m. – 4:00 p.m.

Mon/Tues: 10:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m. (Art gallery only)

Wed through Sat: 10:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m.

The Minnesota History Center with a finely manicured, green lawn in front on a sunny day..

Image Courtesy Minnesota Historical Society

Minnesota History Center

Home to the Minnesota Historical Society’s library and archive, this building has both a permanent collection and special exhibits. It’s not only for academics though, throughout the year the Minnesota History Center also hosts concerts, lectures, family days and special events. Live performances in the museum’s theater are a fun reason to come out for a visit as well. The museum also puts together bus tours that focus on a number of different topics, including the history of religion in our capital city, or my personal favorite, the Bars and Bootleggers Tour. Learn about St. Paul while having a few pints along the way.

Museum Hours:

Tues: 10:00 a.m. – 8:00 p.m.

Wed-Sat: 10:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.

Sun: Noon – 5:00 p.m.

Union Depot

The original Union Depot was built near the edge of the Mississippi river in 1881. After being destroyed by fire, the newly constructed depot was built in 1913 in conjunction with James J. Hill, under the architectural vision of Minnesota-born Charles Sumner Frost. This was the largest construction project the city would see in the whole of the 20th century. With over a third of the passenger tracks ending at the Union Depot, and the remainder continuing on toward their final destinations, Union Depot in St. Paul became a hub for the area. It would also play out as a strategic location for the USPS in the midwest. More recently, the Ramsey County Regional Railroad Authority purchased the property and began extensive renovations in 2011. This was a massive undertaking, and the result is a fully restored Union Depot as it was in 1920, fitted to handle St. Paul’s modern transit system. The space is available for private event reservation, and is open to the public for game nights on Wednesdays and free yoga classes throughout the week. Either way, it is a unique piece of St. Paul’s rich history, and is worth a look around while you are downtown.

An overhead shot of historic Fort Snelling, one St. Paul's historic places.

Image Courtesy Minnesota Historical Society

Fort Snelling

The fort strategically sits overlooking the crossing of the Mississippi River and the Minnesota River, making the hiking trails around it ripe with opportunities for some great summer pictures. Fort Snelling played an important role in the fur trade, Native American affairs of the time and in Minnesota’s military history. The fort itself is available for tours during the warmer summer months, and hosts symposiums and round table discussions on different topics throughout the year. It is currently closed for tours until May 27th, but is still hosting special events.

A close up of the Quadriga at the Capitol building, one of St. Paul's historic places.

Image by Tony Webster/flickr

State Capitol Building

First off, the State Capitol has the second largest self-supported marble dome in the entire world. The building is quite stunning, has free admission and 45-minute guided tours at the top of every hour. Suggested donation for guided tours is $5. Whether you take a guided or a self-guided tour, there are some building features you shouldn’t miss. First up, The Quadriga, better known as “the golden horses”. You’ll only be able to get up close on guided tours, but you can also see them from afar from outside the building. The first floor rotunda gives a great view of the dome, and is surrounded by flags from the Civil War and the Spanish-American war. The Governor’s Reception room is another can’t-miss stop. It is heavily gilded and decorated with ornately carved woodwork. Also, make your way up to the second floor, where both the state’s House and Senate chambers are located. Lastly, don’t forget to tour the sculptures on the grounds surrounding the Capitol, including the Minnesota Korean War Memorial.

State Capitol Hours (tour hours vary):

Mon through Fri: 8:30 a.m. – 5 p.m.

Sat: 10:00 a.m. – 3:00 p.m.

Sun: 1:00 p.m. – 4:00 p.m.

Alexander Ramsey House

Built by Minnesota’s first territorial governor, Alexander Ramsey, the house is open for group tours during the Christmas season, on Saturdays in the summer from 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. through Labor Day, and also plays host to special events throughout the year. These events, known as Ramsey After Dark, touch on different aspects of life throughout the Victorian era such as mental illness, crime and justice, angels and madams and Victorian superstitions. The house has preserved the glory it held in 1870, and is filled with thousands of original family heirlooms. The property has even been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1969.

The Landmark Center in St. Paul. One of St. Paul's historic places.

Image by Bri Weldon/flickr

Landmark Center

The aged-copper roofs of the Landmark Center can be seen throughout Landmark Plaza and Rice Park. Inside, the building serves as a cultural center, and is no stranger to hosting a wide variety of activities, including public forums, dance, theater and music performances, museum exhibits and special events throughout the year. Though it is owned by Ramsey County, it is operated by the non-profit organization Minnesota Landmarks. Through them, you can check out different spaces in the center for weddings and special events. Some events at the Landmark Center worth noting for future St. Paul exploration are the annual St. Patrick’s Day Irish Celebration, Ballet Tuesdays, Trial Reenactments and the annual Ghost and Gangster Tour.

Landmark Center Hours:

Mon – Fri: 8:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.

Thurs: 8:00 a.m. – 8:00 p.m.

Sat – 10:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.

Sun – Noon to 5:00 p.m.

Wabasha Street Caves

12,000-square feet of cavernous fun. The Wabasha Street Caves have been finished over with brickwork and stucco, but still have a truly unique feel. They are available for private event booking, and are offered for a number of public events. If you’re looking to have a blast, stop by on Thursday nights for Swing Night. The Caves open at 6:00 p.m., with free swing dance lessons at 6:15 p.m. by Arthur Murray Studios, and live music beginning at 7:00 p.m. The cover for live music is only $8, and be sure to remember the speakeasy password, “Gus Sent Me.” Want to see who’s playing? Check out the Wabasha Street Caves calendar. On top of that, the Caves also offer St. Paul walking and bus tours, including the famous Gangster Tour.


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