Bracketing a curve in the Missouri River, Bismarck, North Dakota, looks across the water at its sister city, Mandan. This second-largest city in the state (after Fargo) is the capital. Most folks would wisely choose not to visit this northern Great Plains city in winter, as the average temperature in January is 10 degrees Fahrenheit. Better to wait until July, the warmest month, when temperatures soar into the 70s.
The city's tallest building and one of Bismarck's top attractions, the 241-ft State Capitol towers over downtown. It is not a neoclassical domed structure like so many others. Built in 1934 to replace an earlier edifice, this Capitol flaunts an Art Deco style. Weekday tours take visitors through the legislative and judicial wings, and include a stop at the 18th-floor observation deck.
Arranged around the Capitol are four tourist spots: the North Dakota Heritage Center, the North Dakota State Library, the North Dakota Governor’s Residence and the 1924 Liberty Memorial Building, the oldest structure on the park-like Capitol grounds. The Former Governor’s Residence, located nearby on East Avenue B, is open to the public as a historic home. Built in 1884, the Victorian-style house served as the governor’s residence until 1960.
Visitors to the Heritage Center unearth millions of years of North Dakota history. From the area’s prehistoric life through the expedition of Lewis and Clark and early settlement to the 20th century, exhibits recount stories of the first animals and humans to call North Dakota home.
Among the top attractions in Bismarck that highlight the region’s early days is the Double Ditch Indian Village State Historic Site on Highway 1804. The 24 acres on the river bluffs here were once the site of Mandan earth-lodge villages housing some 6,000 people. Interpretive signs on-site tell the story of how these Native Americans lived more than 400 years ago.
Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park, across the river in Mandan, is another of the top local tourist spots. Established as an infantry post in 1872, it was first named Fort McKeen. The historic fort was renamed the following year and expanded to provide barracks for Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer and his renowned 7th Cavalry. Living-history interpreters re-create what life was like for Custer and his wife in the Dakota Territory’s largest fort in 1875. Also in the park, On-a-Slant Village features six rebuilt earth lodges that stood on a slope above the Missouri River in the 1500s.
Reaching Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park can be an adventure aboard the Lewis & Clark Riverboat. The 150-passenger, flat-bottom, paddle-wheel riverboat docks at the Port of Bismarck on River Road. From there, it offers afternoon, sunset and dinner cruises on the river from April through October.
When dinnertime rolls around, be sure to try some of the local dishes in meat-centric Bismarck. Many of its restaurants feature wild game, such as buffalo, pheasant and venison, as well as northern pike and walleye hooked in area waters.