10 best outdoor music venues near the Twin Cities

CHRIS RIEMENSCHNEIDER | Updated 7/2/2013

Here are our picks for the 10 best outdoor music venues in or near the Twin Cities, from Big Top Chautauqua to the zoo's lil' ol' amphitheater.

Northern Lights over Big Top Chautauqua.
Photo by George Eggers

When Wilco played Duluth’s Bayfront Festival Park last summer, the sound, the light show and overall intensity of the performance all fell short compared with the band’s two shows at the pristine State Theatre in Minneapolis seven months earlier. So why did nearly everybody who saw them both places rave more about the Bayfront gig?

It’s all about the venue, stupid. Even a theater as ornate as the State is never going to beat a good outdoor concert in the hearts of cooped-up Minnesota music fans, especially not one surrounded by Twin Port harbor lights and ironclad bluffs and that iconic Lift Bridge.

With that in mind, here are the 10 best outdoor venues within a half-day’s drive of the Twin Cities.

Note: We limited this list to venues within a 4- to 5-hour drive from the Twin Cities (i.e., no Alpine Valley). We also discounted sites that hold just one or two events (i.e., We Fest grounds) or that only seem to book Kenny Chesney shows (i.e., Target Field).

1. BIG TOP CHAUTAUQUA

Where? Overlooking Lake Superior near Bayfield, Wis., about four hours from the Twin Cities.

What? Named after traveling shows that date back to the late 1800s, the Big Top Chautauqua (“sha-tah-kwa”) is housed in a striped circus tent erected every summer at the bottom of a ski hill. About 900 fans can sit in the old, wood movie-house chairs and bleachers inside the tent, and more spread out under the stars in lawn chairs. There’s also a chalet/bar and large dining tent.

Why go? Going there feels like a trip to the county fair circa 1908. The views of the lake below and stars above give it a timeless summertime charm. Just add fireflies.

What’s around? Across a bay from popular vacation haven Madeline Island, Bayfield itself is a picturesque town with the historic Greunke’s Inn and Ethel’s for popular local hangs, plus the big lake’s usual outdoor fun. Good campsites are nearby at Apostle Islands Area Campground.

Who’s playing this summer? Kevin Kling (June 29); Brandi Carlile (June 30), Great Big Sea (July 6), Beach Boys (July 14), Merle Haggard (July 25), Gordon Lightfoot (Aug. 2), BoDeans (Aug. 11), Joan Osborne (Aug. 17), Robert Randolph (Aug. 18), Lyle Lovett (Aug. 22), Low and the Pines (Aug. 30), Leo Kottke (Sept. 1), Jonny Lang (Sept. 6) and more.

2. BAYFRONT FESTIVAL PARK

Where? Downtown Duluth, next to Canal Park.

What? In the shadow of the Aerial Lift Bridge, the Bayfront bandshell is itself an impressive structure with its looming, pointed spires. It’s surrounded by a gradually sloped grass lawn big enough to host 20,000 people for the annual namesake blues fest. Outlying stone mezzanines accommodate food trucks and other concessions.

Why go? There aren’t many venues where giant ore ships float within guitar-pick-throwing-distance. The layout also offers ample room for spreading out, and it’s great for families — kids under 12 always get in free, per city regulations.

What’s around? Canal Park restaurants and hotels are a short walk away, and the music-centric Pizza Lucé and other hip night spots are a work-off-one-beer hike up the hill. It’s accessible by bike, too, via the Duluth Lakewalk.

Who’s playing? Trampled by Turtles and Atmosphere (June 29); Twin Ports Bridge Fest with Cloud Cult, Mason Jennings (July 6); Bob Dylan with Wilco, My Morning Jacket, Richard Thompson (July 9); Bayfront Reggae & World Music Fest with Richie Spice, Everton Blender (July 20); Bayfront Blues Fest with Robert Cray Band, Marcia Ball (Aug. 9-11).