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Minnesota vs. Wisconsin: What’s the Difference?

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Google Minnesota vs. Wisconsin, and you’ll be presented with pages and pages on a historic college American football rivalry.

The Minnesota Golden Gophers against the Wisconsin Badgers is a hotly contested ticket, and that’s before we even talk about the Vikings vs. the Packers.

But putting aside the battle of burrowing mammals, Norsemen, and meat distributors, when it comes to Minnesota vs. Wisconsin – what’s the difference?

Minnesota Welcomes You Sign in Minnesota
andreykr / Adobe Stock
Wisconsin Welcomes You Sign in Wisconsin
andreykr / Adobe Stock

We could write several articles on what separates these two famous Midwest states, including their socioeconomic status, politics, history, culture, and identity. We could talk about education, industry, and employment. We might even explore some famous Minnesotans (Judy Garland, Prince, Jesse Ventura), and Wisconsinites (Orson Welles, Liberace, Vel Phillips).

Which state has the best attractions? The more delicious food? Is it possible to go to either and not get your eyelids frozen shut in winter? Careful – that’s a trick question.

Although I live in Wisconsin, I will do my best to provide an entertaining, informative, and unbiased comparison between the two States. Is Minnestoa better than Wisconsin? Is Wisconsin better than Minnesota? And depending on my answer, will I be able to set foot outside again?

Regardless of which state you decide to visit, it’s always a good idea to be prepared for any eventuality. Travel Insurance.com makes getting the coverage you need for a worry-free trip easy. I’m just not sure if there’s a policy for death by friendliness.

Minnesota and Wisconsin – A Brief Comparison

Before sorting the cheese curds from the tater-tot hotdish, let’s put some fun facts on a bite-sized platter.

Wisconsin Minnesota
Main Nickname The Badger State The North Star State
Motto Forward L’Étoile du Nord
Abbreviation WI MN
Statehood 1848 1858
Size (mi²) 65,498 86,943
Population (million) 5.896 5.707
State Capital Madison Saint Paul
Largest City Milwaukee Minneapolis
Tourism Economy ($ billion) $23.7 $16
Midrange Meal for Two $60-70 $75-$85
Pint of Beer $5-$6 $7-$8
Local transport one-way ticket $2.50 $2.50
Ballpark average hotel price $140 $160

Minnesota vs. Wisconsin Overview

Canoe in Minnesota Lake
Daniel Thornberg / Adobe Stock

Minnesota is the most northerly of the contiguous United States. It’s famous for its four-season outdoor scene, an abundance of lakes and wildlife, music gods Prince and Bob Dylan, the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St.Paul, and people wearing plaid flannel shirts.

Wisconsin

When I first moved to Wisconsin, I was ill-prepared for how deep their love of cheese and craft beer goes. Several years and several pounds later, I’ve learned this is a wonderful state for foodies.

Famous as America’s Dairyland (it says so on the license plates), Wisconsin is also known for its rich Native American culture, Frank Lloyd Wright buildings (the iconic architect was born here), beautiful outdoors, and Harley Davidson’s birthplace.

Minnesota vs. Wisconsin: How Are They Different?

Getting to Minnesota

Here’s a map of Minnesota to help you get oriented.

Map of Minnesota

By road, Minnesota is accessed by several major highways that connect the state to its neighbors. There are eight border crossing points in Canada and five major interstate roads that allow easy access to Wisconsin, Iowa, and North and South Dakota.

For air travel, Minnesota is serviced by nine airports. The most important of these is Minniapolis-St. Paul International. Check out Skyscanner for cheap flights.

Amtrak provides rail services into Minnesota from across the country. The Union Depot in St. Paul-Minneapolis will likely be your main jumping-off point and is a historic tourist attraction in its own right. Use Omio to compare pricing and routes for Amtrak and other routes around the country.

Getting to Wisconsin

Here’s a map of Wisconsin to help you get oriented.

Map of Wisconsin

With Chicago just a few short hours away, Wisconsin is arguably easier to reach than Minnesota. Visiting the Badger State is easy and makes a great day trip from Chicago.

The Windy City (or just “the city” as it’s known in these parts) is a major transport hub for getting in and out of the Midwest. Chicago O’Hare is one of the top five busiest airports in the United States. Try Going.com for cheap deals on flights.

If you don’t have access to a vehicle and you’re not renting a car, I’ve recently discovered that the Van Gelder Bus Company provides an excellent service connecting O’Hare with Wisconsin. Pick up a ticket here.

If you prefer rail services, Amtrak operates the Empire Builder, a daily service that travels from Chicago to Seattle. It offers several stops as it passes through Wisconsin. Use Omio to compare pricing and timetables on this historic route.

We did the full route recently, but it’s certainly not the fastest way to get around—another reason why the US desperately needs a high-speed rail network.

Things to Do in Minnesota

Exterior of Minnesota State Capitol
Randy Runtsch / Adobe Stock

Your vacation in Minnesota will likely begin in the Twin Cities, Minneapolis, and St. Paul. Minneapolis walking tours are a great way to get your bearings and learn about the city simultaneously. This Twin Cities highlights tour will give you the best of both.

Sports fans should head to the US Bank Stadium and pick up a ticket for a Minnesota Vikings game. Culture lovers will want to check out the Minneapolis Institute of Art.

Close by, the town of Bloomington is (in)famous for being the home of the largest shopping center in the United States. The Mall of America has to be seen to be believed, and it boasts plenty of family-friendly entertainment options if you’re tired of retail. Get tickets to the Sea Life Aquarium or an unlimited ride pass at the Nickelodeon Universe.

Further afield, Minnesota’s North Shore is well worth a visit and offers a stunning scenic drive that is a delight to the senses. It’s widely regarded as the most beautiful part of the state, and you can try this self-guided tour to get the most out of your trip. Nearby Duluth also offers plenty for visitors to see and do.

Alternative attractions in Minnesota include the Spam Museum, the world’s largest ball of twine (boot, otter, walleye, and prairie chicken…), a Mary Tyler Moore statue, and the fascinating Mille Lacs Indian Museum.

But that’s just scratching the surface of the weird and wonderful you’ll find in the North Star state. Music lovers might also be interested in a Prince walking tour that follows in the iconic musician’s footsteps.

And if you happen to be visiting at the tail end of August, the Minnesota State Fair is an institution and one of the largest and most popular in the country. Don’t miss it for a quintessential experience of “Minnesota nice.”

Things to Do in Wisconsin

Exterior of Pabst Mansion
Stuart James / ViaTravelers

The Wisconsin Dells is a huge area of outstanding natural beauty that – for better or worse – has been turned into a recreational playground. Here, you can discover theme parks, water parks, and family entertainment galore.

Visiting the State Capital building in Madison is a must for history buffs and is one of the best free things you can do in the city. A university town, Madison is regularly included in lists of the best places to live in the US. It’s also very cycle-friendly, and you can try a downtown Madison E-bike tour to explore its vibrant neighborhoods.

Sitting on the banks of Lake Michigan, Milwaukee is Wisconsin’s largest city and beer capital. Brewery tours are highly recommended in “brew city,” as is a visit to the historic Pabst Mansion (pictured), built for the founder of the Pabst Brewing Company.

Motorcyclists won’t want to miss a visit to the Harley Davidson Museum, and this link will get you a skip-the-line ticket. The Milwaukee Art Museum boasts a huge collection of works that is a must for culture lovers.

Outside the big cities, there’s Old World Wisconsin, where you can learn about life in rural America in the 1800s. Architecture aficionados will want to visit Taliesin, the former estate of Frank Lloyd Wright.

And do not miss a trip to the House on the Rock. I’m not saying anything else about it. The less you know, the better it will be.

Check out the whimsical Fonz statue on Milwaukee’s River Walk for alternative attractions. Dr. Evermore’s Foreveratron features the world’s largest scrap metal structure. The National Bobblehead Hall of Fame and Museum has over 10,000 bobbleheads on display.

Wisconsin also boasts the world’s largest music festival. Summerfest takes place in June and July every year in downtown Milwaukee. On the go since 1968, it’s essential for live music fans of any genre.

Go here to discover more of the best things to see and do in Wisconsin.

Food in Minnesota

Statue and building of Spam Museum in Minnesota
Steve Cukrov – stock.adobe.com

Don’t be alarmed by the picture above – there’s much more to Minnesota than being the birthplace of spam! With an eclectic and extensive settler population, Minnesota’s dining table has been influenced by Scandinavians, Italians, Polish, Vietnamese, and everything.

Popular dishes include wild rice soup, walleye, Swedish meatballs, Polish sausage, pho, and pizza. If you’re a pie fan, check out this article on the best pizzerias in Minneapolis.

The largest city in Minnesota offers a diverse dining experience with cafes, bars, and restaurants to suit every palette. But it’s perhaps most famous for its unique spin on traditional American hamburgers. The “Juicy Lucy” is a must for any self-respecting meat-eater.

Matt’s Bar & Grill is a landmark and the home of this original gut-busting burger. For more artisanal creations, try Red Cow in downtown Minneapolis.

Other notable standouts include The Butcher & the Boar for smoked meats in a lively atmosphere. The Spoon and Stable for fine dining.

And Tongue-in-Cheek for sustainable and veggie-friendly eats. If you’d prefer to walk, talk, and eat, try a Minneapolis food tour to sample a bit of everything.

You can head to this link for a more in-depth look at the Top-Rated Restaurants in Minneapolis and St. Paul. We’ve also got the low-down on the best coffee shops in Minnesota, the top takeout restaurants in the Twin Cities, and the best breweries in St. Paul. And for starting your day off right, these are the best breakfast spots in Minnesota.

Food in Wisconsin

Beer Battered Wisconsin Cheese Curds with a Dipping Sauce
Brent Hofacker / Adobe Stock

This isn’t called “the dairy state” for nothing. Wisconsin is famous nationwide for its production of milk, cheese, and ice cream. So much so that Wisconsinites are affectionately known as “cheeseheads” and are outrageously snobby regarding the fromage.

The state is also home to some of the country’s finest craft breweries, and you can follow this link to check out the best breweries in Wisconsin. Don’t miss New Glarus, home of the immensely popular “Spotted Cow.”

Other local delicacies include the traditional Friday night fish fry, cheese curds, beer brats, frozen custard, and brandy old-fashioned cocktails. My wife, a native Wisconsinite, makes the best. I would invite you for a sample, but there would be less for me.

For restaurants, Madison is surprisingly eclectic. L’Etolie offers fine dining with a sustainable ethos. I love Monty’s Blue Plate Diner for classic American eats.

But one of the finest takeouts you’ll ever experience exists in the back of an Asian grocery store. Hot-n-Spicy is a Laotian restaurant hidden in Viet Hoa Market. And don’t miss a Wisconsin staple – the supper club – at Toby’s. This article on the Top-Rated Restaurants in Madison offers even more food options in the state capital.

Milwaukee also has a thriving food scene. Head to the Milwaukee Brat House, where Wisconsin meets Germany.

Buckley’s Restaurant & Bar offers delicious comfort food in an attractive setting. And rustic Morel makes use of locally sourced ingredients with a backyard patio.

Minnesota vs. Wisconsin: How Are They Similar?

Enough with the differences! What makes Minnesota and Wisconsin Midwest bros? Because they share so much in common, they’re practically twins.

Both states are famous for beautiful scenery, fishing and hunting, friendly-to-a-fault locals, two seasons (winter and construction), militant mosquitoes, and hatred for out-of-state drivers.

If you are visiting this part of the world in a vehicle, and you will drive sensibly, then I’ll allow you to look at this article on the best Midwest road trips.

And speaking of driving, you’ll know someone from Minnesota or Wisconsin loves you when they say “watch out for deer” as you leave their home. While the same can be said for almost any state in the Midwest, roaming cervids are particularly prevalent in MN and WI. Perhaps an alternative reason behind the slogan of the Milwaukee Bucks basketball team: “Fear the Deer.”

Outdoor recreation is another area where Minnesota and Wisconsin share similarities. You’ll find visitors out and about on the water or in the woods in winter, spring, summer, or fall.

Outdoors in Minnesota

Superior Hiking Trail Sign in Lutsen, Minnesota
Kyle Kroeger / ViaTravelers

Minnesota is known as the “Land of 10,000 lakes,” and for good reason. “Minnie” is the Dakota word for water, and the name Minnesota translates as “sky-blue waters.”

There are some 11,842 lakes in the state, which makes it a watersports paradise. To help narrow the selection, head to this article on the 16 best lakes in Minnesota, including Lake Pepin, pictured above.

The Boundary Waters in the Superior National Forest offers unrivaled kayak and canoe routes in stunning scenery. We’ve not managed it yet, but at some point, my wife and I will be taking our super-portable, budget-friendly inflatable kayaks out for a spin there.

Guided day trips are available departing from Lusten. Voyageurs National Park also offers a selection of calm waters to explore if you want to escape it all.

The world’s largest freshwater lake, Lake Superior, has rugged shores on Minnesota’s northern border and is a hot spot (or cold spot, in winter) for sailing, fishing, and kayaking.

The state also has thousands of miles of snowmobiling, crossing-country skiing, and snowshoeing trails, so the fun doesn’t stop when the temperature drops. In the summer, these trails are perfect for hiking and biking.

It’s not just about the lakes, as Minnesota is also the birthplace of the mighty Mississippi. For more on the state’s outdoor locations, look at this article on the six best National Parks in Minnesota.

Outdoors in Wisconsin

Wisconsin River

As with Minnesota, watersports are hugely popular in Wisconsin. And while the state doesn’t quite have the selection of routes that the Boundary Waters offer, the likes of the Wisconsin River, the St. Croix River, and the Namekagon River more than make up for it.

I recently did an MSR Gravity Water Purifier review while kayaking on the Namekagon, and there’s also the beautiful Chippewa Valley and Chippewa River to explore by hiking, biking, and boating.

Wisconsin also has the enviable position of having lengthy shorelines on two great lakes instead of one. Whereas Minnesota has a small stretch of Superior, Wisconsin has over 800 miles of coastline on Lake Superior and Lake Michigan.

For the latter, head to Door County for some outstanding outdoor experiences, including this memorable sea kayaking adventure. Door County sits on a peninsula in Northern Wisconsin, and you can go here to find the best places to stay.

Wisconsin has more than 100 state parks. Hold on, I think there’s a teatowel somewhere around here that lists all of them. If you had to choose one, I highly recommend Devils Lake.

It offers abundant outdoor activities amidst stunning views across 10,000 acres of wilderness. Peninsula State Park is a very close second. Head to the Driftless Area in Southern Wisconsin for golf, fishing, hiking, and biking, set among rolling green hills untouched by glacial drifts.

See Related: The Best Small Towns in Wisconsin

What’s Better About Minnesota?

Minnesota is better for inland lakes, buzzing urban life, and arguably the best state fair in the country. And if push comes to shove, it edges Wisconsin with its outdoor scene.

Minneapolis is one of our favorite cities worldwide, and the state’s lakeshore beaches are plentiful. There’s a sense of community among the residents of small Minnesota towns that we particularly love.

What’s Better About Wisconsin?

Food and beer pushes Wisconsin up the rankings. It has more Great Lakes shoreline than Minnesota with plenty of charming towns to visit. Madison’s rough winters are worth it because of the incredible cheese curds you’ll find when you stumble into a restaurant and out of the cold.

And… the Packers are better than the Vikings. There, I said it.

Who Should Visit Minnesota?

Minnesota will appeal to anyone into watersports, camping, and fishing. Fans of nature and wildlife will be in their element and urbanites will want for nothing in the Twin Cities.

Minnesota has a soft spot in our hearts – after all, ViaTravelers was founded in Minneapolis. We’ve been all over the Land of 10,000 Lakes, and below you’ll find our favorite hotels and accommodations in Minnesota.

Best Places to Stay in Minnesota

Hewing Hotel room interior
Hewing Hotel / Booking.com

Minnesota has its fair share of remote, secluded retreats, luxury hotels with spa treatments, and unique accommodations for a memorable stay. Try our top picks below, or check out this article on where to stay in Minneapolis.

  • Campground: Try the Split Rock Lighthouse State Park for a superior experience (see what I did there?).
  • Budget-friendly: The Madison House is your best bet for budgeting in a city that’s shockingly light on hostels and decent budget options.
  • Mid-Range: Housed in a historic building with oodles of character, Hewing Hotel (pictured) offers a truly unique, boutique experience in the city.
  • Luxury: Way up in Duluth, there’s a magical retreat called the Endion Inn. Offering five-star accommodation, each beautifully decorated room has a patio and garden views. Read our guide to the best hotels in Duluth.
  • Vacation Rental: Try that aptly named Wolf Cabin at Wilderness Wind, Ely. It is a great spot for day-tripping the Boundary Waters, and the International Wolf Center is nearby.

Who Should Visit Wisconsin?

People who would enjoy visiting Wisconsin include food lovers (particularly if you like cheese), craft beer drinkers, outdoor enthusiasts, and music fans. The Dairy State offers some of the country’s best dining, breweries rival Germany’s, and many outdoor adventures, as mentioned above.

In our opinion, Wisconsin is one of the most underrated states, and Madison is an underrated city that just about anyone would enjoy. It’s particularly appealing to college or grad school students, retirees, and anyone with a young family.

If you are planning a trip to Wisconsin, check out our lodging recommendations below.

Places to Stay in Wisconsin

The Pfister Hotel lounge interior
The Pfister Hotel / Booking.com

Wisconsin offers diverse accommodation options, including rustic cabins, romantic hotels, cozy bed & breakfasts, and beautiful campgrounds.

  • Campground: I might be a little biased, but as we visit the Devil’s Lake State Park campground every year, it would be amiss if I didn’t suggest that as one of the best in Wisconsin.
  • Budget-Friendly: For exploring the Wisconsin Dells, the All-Star Inn & Suites is ideal for a family-friendly break with simple but comfortable rooms.
  • Mid-Range: Situated in a perfect location in the heart of downtown, the Madison Concourse Hotel offers a comfortable stay with an indoor pool and on-site restaurant.
  • Luxury: Any hotel with its Victorian art collection with fresco ceilings is guaranteed to be included in a list of top luxury accommodations. The famous Pfister Hotel (pictured) in downtown Milwaukee fits the bill.
  • Resort: The Grand Geneva Resort & Spa is an institution in Wisconsin. A stone’s throw from Lake Geneva features two championship golf courses, spa and wellness facilities, and a waterpark.

FAQs

What is the oldest rivalry between Minnesota and Wisconsin?

The Minnesota Gophers vs. the Wisconsin Badgers is the oldest college-American football rivalry in the United States. It dates back to the late 1800s and has been known as the “Axe Game” since 1948.

The teams contest a giant trophy that is inspired by the axe of mythical lumberjack folk hero Paul Bunyan. There’s no love lost between them when they go head-to-head for coveted pride and prize.

Is Minnesota or Wisconsin a better state to live in?

Head-to-head, Minnesota and Wisconsin are equal regarding the best place to live. Budget-wise, Wisconsin is a little cheaper. Politically, it’s a mixed bag (“purple,” some might say), but Minnesota is traditionally more left-leaning than Wisconsin. For big-city life, I’d say Minneapolis edges out Milwaukee.

A Wisconsinonite will say Wisconsin and a Minnesotan will say Minnesota. Remember to watch out for deer no matter where you visit or live.

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