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A jolly holiday in Minneapolis

A lighted parade draws tourists and locals alike into the lively heart of the city.

Block E in Minneapolis.

© Beth Gauper

Graves 601 rises behind Block E, a shopping and entertainment complex on Hennepin Avenue.

During the holidays, there's no place like home. In fact, it's the perfect getaway.

Every year, I go to downtown Minneapolis to see the Holidazzle parade. I get tickets for Handel's "Messiah" at Orchestra Hall. I hunt for stocking stuffers on Nicollet Mall.

I don't stay overnight. I live here, after all.

But looking around on Travelocity, I found a cut-rate room at a sleek luxury hotel across from Target Center. I got a two-for-one deal for a holiday ballet. I heard about a great happy hour right on the Holidazzle route.

That's how I realized I could be a tourist in my own hometown.

Minneapolis might not be Chicago, but you can park here for less than the price of a fancy dinner. Cruising into the LaSalle ramp near Macy's, I parked, hoisted my tiny bag and walked to Block E, the blocky building on Hennepin Avenue that often is maligned for its suburban look and atmosphere.

I found Graves 601, now Loews Minneapolis Hotel, around back, as far from the suburbs as Samoa. Until the Chambers opened  two blocks away, it was as hip as Minneapolis got.

It has chilly expanses of marble, glass and empty space at the street entrance and fourth-floor reception desk, framed by a sculpture aptly described as a thousand wriggling leeches by a guest in a Travelocity review.

But beyond the backlit martini lounge and up another set of elevators are the rooms, cozy nests of understated urbanity.

A switch lit an etched-glass pane behind the billowy king bed as well as two panels of a red-sheathed female torso that looked like Vogue ads; on the wall, a flat-screen plasma TV stretched from minibar to hall, and there was a baby plasma TV in the bathroom.

I figured it for guy heaven, especially when supermodel Rachel Hunter appeared on the TV to give a digital tour. But I was staying there with my friend Grace, who awaited me on Nicollet Mall.

As I headed there on Sixth Street, I was struck by the abrupt change in atmosphere on that single block from the boozy insouciance of the Warehouse District to the 1950s aura of Murray's steakhouse and the family hubbub on Nicollet, where bundled-up spectators already were staking out spots to watch the parade.

At McCormick & Schmick's Seafood Restaurant, we snagged a table from a pair of friendly Icelandic women who were leaving. For $1.95, plus the price of a drink, Grace got a half-pound cheeseburger and fries, and I got a plump pair of salmon cakes, garnished with green apple bits and crunchy strands of fried leeks.

Nicollet Mall in Minneapolis.

© Beth Gauper

Skyways connect stores along Nicollet Mall, the route of the Holidazzle Parade.

We could have seen the parade through the bar's picture windows, but there's no fun in that. Instead, we crowded in behind some little kids to watch for my favorite characters, swathed in light: the sneering Captain Hook, light bulbs bobbing on padded legs, and a Wicked Witch of the West, who was riding a tricycle that year instead of swerving along on a bike.

"Geez, you've memorized the parade," Grace said. "That's so cute."

It wasn't just me. The whole crowd was poised for its favorite moments, cheering when the giant snowman spun around and the tin soldier jumped back and forward.

Then, we walked over to Hennepin, where three restored vaudeville houses provide beautiful venues for local and traveling productions.

In the State Theatre, the James Sewell Ballet was performing a dance version of Gian Carlo Menotti's opera "Amahl and the Night Visitors," so we settled in under the beaded chandeliers and frolicking cherubs to watch the story of a boy and his mother who are visited by the Three Kings on their way to Bethlehem.

It was very sweet and very short. Afterward, we walked down the hall from the theater's lobby, past Rock Bottom Brewery and Palomino, and emerged half a block from Macy's, where we shopped for half an hour before returning to Block E.

It was time to leave the world of pigtailed little girls in red-velvet dresses. Up in our room, where elves had lowered the blinds and turned down the covers, we let Rachel Hunter give us a tour of the property, which includes Cosmos, a bar and restaurant.

In Cosmos, a young crowd was starting to trickle in from the Dave Matthews Band concert across the street. At the bar, where bottles glimmered in a wall of lighted cubes, we sat next to a young attorney who stays for weeks at a time at Graves 601 and confirmed our suspicion that this was, indeed, a guy hotel.

"It's the most comfortable place in town," he said, touting Hunter and the two plasma TVs. "I like to watch sports while I'm taking a shower, and when I was taking a shower in Florida this morning, I thought, 'Hmm something's missing.' "

Then we went for a drink next door, where Kieran's Irish Pub attracts crowds who enjoy a pint or two.

It was fun, but in the morning, we realized we had skimped on time spent in the cloud-like bed, with its custom-designed pillowtop mattress and 350 thread-count sheets. It seemed appropriate that the Graveses had sunk serious money into their beds, because Minneapolis was named "best city for sleep"  that year in a national study.

"I want to buy this bed," Grace said. "It's too nice to just get up and leave it."

The Sunday paper was outside our door, and we read it over cappuccino from the Starbucks downstairs. Then, we had to hustle to make our reservation at Hell's Kitchen, where a hopeful crowd was waiting for tables.

In the sunny back room, a waitress in flannel jammies brought us fantastic huevos rancheros, plus fresh fruit and freshly squeezed orange juice.

The State Theatre on Hennepin in Minneapolis.

© Beth Gauper

The State Theatre is one of three restored vaudeville houses on Hennepin Avenue.

But then, we had to be regular people again. We shopped for a while before going home, but the mood was broken.

Anyone can live in Minneapolis but only the lucky ones get to be tourists there.

Trip Tips: Downtown Minneapolis for the holidays

Getting there: From the airport or Mall of America, the light-rail trains go straight downtown. Get off at the Nicollet Mall stop. It's a three-block walk up the street to Macy's.

Parking: In ramps marked "Do the Town," park for free with a $20 purchase on weekends and after 4 p.m. weekdays, but the voucher must be used the day of purchase. Overnight hotel valet parking is expensive, but some hotels offer weekend packages that include free parking.

If not, try the LaSalle Ramp, on LaSalle Avenue between 10th and Ninth streets south. And parking is free on downtown streets after 6 p.m. Saturday and all day Sunday.

Holidazzle: The all-volunteer parade is at 6:30 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays from the Friday after Thanksgiving to the Sunday before Christmas.

The stretch of Nicollet Mall around Macy's is most congested; stand closer to the ends, near Orchestra Hall or Gaviidae Common, for better views (in front of Gaviidae Common, there's a large, square concrete planter with wide edges on which short people can stand).

Remember to bring food items or cash to give to Emergency Foodshelf Network volunteers who precede the floats.

Hot Seats in a heated tent are $9, including cocoa and cider; reserve in advance.

Shopping: During the holidays, Macy's is open for extended hours. At Santaland on the eighth floor, it shows the free animated display "A Day in the Life of an Elf.'' It's busiest right before and after the Holidazzle parade.

And remember, the light rail delivers weekend shoppers from downtown to the door of the Mall of America.

Holiday stage shows: Check the State, Orpheum and Pantages theaters for shows.

The Guthrie Theater's annual production of "A Christmas Carol'' runs from mid-November through December.

Buying tickets: To avoid a hefty per-ticket fee, buy tickets in person at the State Theatre, box office for Hennepin Avenue theaters.

Goldstar.com offers half-price tickets to many shows, though it charges a per-ticket fee, usually about $4.

And watch for deals on the various coupon sites.

Members of Minnesota Public Radio and arts organizations often are able to get discounts.

Holidazzle Parade on Nicollet Mall.

© Meet Minneapolis

A Holidazzle float makes its way down Nicollet Mall.

Accommodations: Many hotels advertise holiday packages, such as at the Hilton, two blocks from the start and  connected to Orchestra Hall by skyway. Check to see if they're better than those offered at Orbitz, Travelocity and other booking sites.

Loews Minneapolis Hotel is stylish and comfortable.

Le Meridien Chambers Hotel is across from the Orpheum and a block from the State Theatre on Hennepin. It calls itself the nation's first luxury art hotel for more than 200 pieces of contemporary and often edgy art, has 60 modernistic rooms and suites. Pets get their own beds, food, toys and treats for an extra $15.

There are four other stylish new hotels to try out in downtown Minneapolis. The Hotel Minneapolis is in the middle of downtown, a short walk to shops and theaters.

And there are three Starwood Hotels Hotel Ivy, next to Orchestra Hall, 612-746-4600; the art-deco W Minneapolis in the Foshay Tower, a block from Macy's and Nicollet Mall, 612-215-3700; and Aloft, on the edge of downtown but closest to the Mill District and Guthrie Theater, 612-455-8400.

Dining: Hell's Kitchen, half a block from Nicollet on South 9th Street, is a fun place to have fantastic huevos rancheros and freshly squeezed orange juice. It's always busy, so call for reservations at 612-332-4700.

The southern end of Nicollet Mall is crammed with good restaurants Brit's Pub, Vincent, the Dakota, the Local, McCormick & Schmick's and Zelo.

In Loews, the hip Cosmos serves steaks, chops and seafood with global accents, 612-312-1168.

If you want to eat well but cheaply and don't care about atmosphere, try D'Amico & Sons in Gaviidae Common at Sixth and Nicollet (closes at 6 p.m. Saturdays), Panera on Nicollet between Ninth and 10th and 700 Express in the lower level of Macy's.

Nightlife: Next to Loews, Kieran's Irish Pub hosts Irish bands. On Nicollet, the suave Dakota is a very pleasant place to listen to live jazz, 612-332-1010. On First Avenue, the Fine Line Music Cafe programs a variety of music, 612-338-8100.

Last updated on July 15, 2014

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