SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — The first time I visited Sioux Falls, it was as an overnight stop on the way from St. Louis to the Badlands and onto Mount Rushmore. We ate dinner and walked around downtown admiring the sculptures that lined the streets. Since then, I’ve longed to go back and see what the rest of the city has to offer.
It’s not a quick trip: eight hours by car. But it’s a perfect place to spend a few days on the way to those other destinations, or it could be a destination itself.
Sioux Falls is named after the giant cascading waterfalls that first drew Native Americans to the land years ago. Settlements grew up around them and the Big Sioux River, and today, the falls make up 123-acre Falls Park in the heart of the city. An average of 7,400 gallons of water drop more than 100 feet over the course of the falls each second, making for a dramatic view from a number of bridges, overlooks and other viewpoints.
You can even walk along the rock formations and down by the edge of the river (my sons loved all the bubbles created by the force of them). In Falls Park, you also can visit the remains of the Queen Bee Mill, which used the falls to power it and operated from 1881 to 1956, when a fire destroyed it. A horse barn built in the late 1800s is now used as a mini museum to explain the history and significance of the area’s stockyards. At the western edge of the park, find the new Levitt Shell amphitheater, which hosts 30 free concerts a year with food trucks and family fun. And be sure to grab lunch at the counter-service Falls Overlook Cafe. You can sit on the terrace with most of Falls Park in view while sipping a coffee or a local beer.
On our first day, we decided to head downtown a little after 9 p.m on a Friday for ice cream at Parlour Ice Cream House, product of Bravo’s “Top Chef Just Desserts” star Chris Henmer, who also has a patisserie just a few blocks away. The line was long, the restaurant full of young adults eating the Parlour Journey, a five scoop chef tasting ($15). Families with young kids were getting cones filled with one of the gourmet flavors of ice cream, gelato or sorbet. The town seemed full of millennials either having fun in groups or millennials with kids, also having fun in groups.
In fact, the financial website SmartAsset just named Sioux Falls the top city for young professionals, based on factors such as unemployment rate for young people, rent, job diversity, fun establishments and cost of living. Wells Fargo and Citibank have major hubs there.
We took our treats — I had a scoop of Opening Day, brown butter ice cream with lemon pound cake and blueberry jam — outside to walk around. Across the street we came upon a car on blocks with a pulley system and rope so that when my 12-year-old pulled on it, the car lifted off the blocks. “Physics,” he told me, and moved along to look at the two large dinosaur statues my husband and 14-year-old were snapping photos of. We were in front of the Washington Pavilion, a mixture of cultural offerings (more on it later).
As we walked around downtown, a series of sculptures caught our eye. In fact there were dozens. This year, 59 sculptures made up the annual SculptureWalk, an art show in its 16th year where sculptures are installed mostly along Phillips Avenue, which is bustling with restaurants and small shops like the adorable Mint + Basil women’s clothing boutique and the fun gift shop Sticks and Steel.
There are permanent sculptures around the downtown and Falls Park area, too, including a full-scale casting of Michelangelo’s David in Fawick Park. The newest installment is the glorious Arc of Dreams. It’s a massive steel sculpture that spans the Big Sioux River. This part of the river was especially beautiful on our July visit, with lilies blooming everywhere and the temperature topping off around 70 degrees. Cyclists rode the paved path along the river, and kayakers launched under the arc. Sculptor Dale Lamphere’s crew was putting on the arc’s finishing touches during our visit. At the center of Arc of Dreams is a 15-foot gap 85 feet above the river, representing the leap of faith dreamers take to see their dreams come true.
Other things to do in the area
Good Earth State Park: Even if this new state park were just a series of gorgeous trails, some with beautiful overlooks, it would be worth the visit to this piece of land just southeast of Sioux Falls. But it’s so much more. I’m usually not a fan of videos at visitors centers; I just want to get on the trails. But the 20-minute movie here explains that the area was inhabited from about 1300-1700 A.D. by a variety of Oneota tradition tribes (Omaha, Ponca, Ioway and Otoe). It explains the park’s significance and why even though its archaeological site is called Blood Run, it has nothing to do with a battle (it’s named after the iron-rich soil). A display in the center reveals what life was like then, complete with a re-creation of living quarters that had the faint smell of wood smoke. Hike the trails to see how the prairies and the rivers would have informed life for the Native Americans. And search for pitted boulders, probably marked from tools being driven in them over and over, though archaeologists don’t know why. Throughout the summer, the park hosts special events, such as ice cream-making the day I was there, or meteor shower parties or campfires. In the winter, you can rent snowshoes. ($6 per vehicle; gfp.sd.gov/parks/detail/good-earth-state-park/)
Stensland Family Farms: Hang around Sioux Falls long enough and you’ll see signs for Stensland Dairy everywhere. Its ice creams are sold in the Falls Overlook Cafe, there’s an ice cream shop in the western part of town, and you can find its cheese and milk among other things at the local Hy-Vee. Its ubiquitousness might lead you to believe Stensland is a huge conglomerate. But really, it’s a family farm just across the border in Iowa where Doug Stensland’s 15-year-old grandson works the farm along with Stensland’s 80-something dad and other family members, some of whom lead tours. We gathered with about 40 people divided into two groups. Our group started by visiting — and petting — baby calves. Then we got to feed others a bottle. Next we toured the main barn where 165 cows live and work. Work means going into a milker where they get a sweet treat as the mechanical milker does its business. After the tour, we got to sample chocolate milk, a variety of cheese and a full scoop of ice cream each. Try the fresh mint chip ice cream, made from the oils of mint leaves steeped on the family’s kitchen stove, or the amazing salted caramel pecan. ($12.50; stenslandfamilyfarms.com)
Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS) Center: This had my kids at Earth and science. The U.S. Geological Survey center is open to the public for free tours, but be sure all adults have an ID and expect your car to be searched before you enter the gates. Here, you learn about the Landsat satellites (operated with NASA) that send images back to antennas at the center, allowing researchers to study changes in the Earth’s topography. The center also maintains the largest civilian collection of pictures of the Earth’s land surface, including tens of millions of satellite images. See images, maps and the hub where all the data storage happens. And if you get on an extended tour, you may be able to see an antennae in action, a much more impressive display than it sounds. Tours at the center, which is about 20 minutes outside Sioux Falls, are available every weekday at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Extended tours are available upon request. (usgs.gov/centers/eros)
More things to do
The one stop you must make is Washington Pavilion. It’s like a science center, art museum, sculpture garden and theater venue all in one. Remember the car with the pulley system and dinosaurs, those were in front of this massive building that was once a school. If you have younger kids, the Kirby Science Discovery Center is a must-stop with rooms on prehistoric life, space exploration and one even my bigger kids liked, Grossology, the science of bodily functions.
On the art side, halls explore a variety of national and local artists with 1,600 permanent pieces plus exhibitions. Currently you’ll find an exhibit on Northern Plains Tribal Arts and an exhibit detailing how the Arc of Dreams came together. There’s also a giant room that is every kid’s dream — a stage with play clothes and wigs and tables full of art materials. It’s a lively room filled with light that even my big kids loved.
The theater has Broadway shows ranging from “Rent” and “Waitress” to national tours such as music group Chicago and Bill Maher. (prices vary; washingtonpavilion.org).
Other fun things to do around town (which I ran out of time for but would have loved to have visited) include a Butterfly House and Aquarium (butterflyhousemarinecove.org) and the Great Plains Zoo (greatzoo.org).
If you happen to be in town on a Friday night in the summer, Catfish Bay Water Ski Park holds a show, “The Greatest Show on H20” that showcases stunts on skis. You sit on bleachers and for the first 45 minutes or so the announcer explains stunts and tricks as performers demonstrate. Then, after a short intermission, the real show begins with some pretty impressive displays plus a family-friendly (and frankly corny) interlude while performers set up. ($12; catfishbay.com)
Where to eat
There is certainly nightlife befitting the younger demographics of this city. In the past few years, it has seen an increase in the number of craft breweries and wine bars as well as festivals geared toward music. Remedy Brewing Co. offers some delightful options, especially the Queen Bee Imperial Honey Cream Ale. The Source offers a taproom and coffee bar where you can refill your cup as a bracelet keeps track of the ounces poured and where you can find live music on the weekends.
It seems that wherever you go — from the fanciest restaurants to the diviest bars — one thing is on the menu in Sioux Falls (really most of South Dakota): chislic. It’s basically some variation of cubes of salted meat. Sometimes, it’s lamb, sometimes beef, sometimes grilled, sometimes seared in a skillet. Most locals tend to eat it as an appetizer, almost like a snack. According to USA today’s 10 best list, the best places in Sioux Falls to get it are the Attic Bar & Grill or the Barrel House.
We also had it at the upscale Minerva’s restaurant. I asked two local women to name the best place to eat in town, and they said “Minerva’s” in unison. It was a gorgeous day so we headed there for steak on the patio. Those women were not wrong in their assessment of the place.
We enjoyed several other meals during our time there, particularly the newish Crave, which has an expansive menu that includes sushi, steak and paella. But the best thing about it is its location across a pedestrian bridge from downtown and right on the Big Sioux River. Sit on the patio.
The Phillips Avenue Diner, which locals seem to call just the Diner, is fashioned out of an old Airstream trailer. Inside is a cute ‘50s style space where you can get an Elvis waffle (peanut butter, bananas, pecans) or an SD Martini (Coors Lite, tomato juice, olives) all day. The patio looks out on the shops and sculptures of Phillips Avenue.
For a taste of something different, head to Sanaa’s Gourmet, a vegetarian Middle Eastern restaurant run by cookbook author Sanaa Abourezk. Sanaa’s was selected by Food and Wine as one of the best vegan and vegan-friendly restaurants in the country.
Where to stay
The downtown area of Sioux Falls is full of charm and character, much of it originating from the pink quartzite quarried in abundance in the region. You can find the stone on museums, schools, funeral homes, churches and more throughout town. But as you head outward, Sioux Falls looks like most Midwestern towns, full of chain hotels and strip malls. It’s there we found our hotel for our trip. Staybridge Suites allowed us to spread out in a lovely two-bedroom suite, and though probably considered the suburbs, it was only 10 minutes from just about everything in town.
That said, a new boutique hotel is expected to open next month from Kelly Inns, which operates a handful of hotels in the city, including our Staybridge Suites. The Hotel on Phillips was once Sioux Falls National Bank, built in 1918, and will feature 90 upscale guest rooms and suites. On my next trip to Sioux Falls, I will stay there.
IF YOU GO
Sioux Falls is about an eight-hour drive from the western parts of the metro area. Delta and United fly out of its airport there, but not Southwest.
More info: visitsiouxfalls.com