Nestled up along a bend of the Minnesota River, the city of Mankato (once an important transportation hub for early settlers) is the main urban center at the heart of prairie country and ranked one of America's most livable "micropolitan" areas. In a region noted for distant horizons and sweeping carpets of grass and grains, Makato offers a pleasant cultural respite to anchor seemingly endless landscapes.
Tour historic homes like the R.D. Hubbard House, visit sights associated with beloved children's Betsy-Tacy book series (author Maud Hart Lovelace based them on life here), and enjoy a wander through the Conkling Art Gallery. Football fans can catch a Minnesota Vikings practice session for free mid-summer, or pick up tickets for a scrimage game in season.
Locals escape the city for places like Minneopa State Park, home to the biggest twin waterfalls around. Those seeking further outdoor pursuits can meander easy hiking trails in the park, or rent wheels in Mankato for access to the 39 mile-long Sakatah Singing Hills State Trail. If snowy powder shakes out during your stay, consider hitting the slopes of Mount Kato, popular with mountain bikers in warmer months.
A good chunk of New Ulm's populous (a small town just 30 miles northwest of Mankato) lays claim to Germany ancestry, and it's not hard to find reminders of this heritage here and there; probably the most entertaining is the August Schell Brewing Company, open for tours and tasting. There are an easy handful of local museums to peruse, including the Brown County Historical Museum and the Minnesota Music Hall of Fame, in addition to several historic homes.
If you're headed west, take a few hours to stop in at sights connected to author Laura Ingalls Wilder along Highway 14, and pay a visit to the ancient petroglyphs in Jeffers. Those bound north to the Minneapolis should leave time for a (bathroom) break at the historic two-story outhouse in Belle Plaine and a stroll through the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge - a different sort of communion with mother nature.
Mankato is 30 miles southeast of New Ulm and 81 miles south of Minneapolis.