The massive Aerial Lift Bridge spanning the Duluth Ship Canal is as iconic to the Twin Ports as the Golden Gate Bridge is to San Francisco, but much more unusual. Instead of your standard seesawing drawbridge, a 1,000-ton central span rises 138 feet like an elevator to let ships enter the harbor. Watching one of the massive ships pass under it is a mandatory part of a Duluth  visit.
The Lake Superior Maritime Visitor Center (600 Lake Ave. S., 218/720-5260, www.lsmma.com , 10 a.m.–9 p.m. daily June–Oct., reduced hours rest of year, free admission) houses an excellent collection of Twin Ports and Great Lakes shipping past and present, including a giant steam engine (which the staff runs on request), a model of an ore dock, and lots of unique knickknacks. If you want to see a child’s eyes light up, let her spin the wheel in the pilothouse mock-up. Computer screens post ship arrival and departure times, and telescopes let you examine ships out on the lake waiting for their dock to free up.
The S.S. William A. Irvin Museum (301 Harbor Dr., 218/722-7876, www.duluthfloatingmuseum.com , 9 a.m.–6 p.m. daily May–Sept., $9 adults) includes a pair of retired ships, the 610-foot William A. Irvin and the Coast Guard Cutter Sundew. The Irvin, the former flagship of U.S. Steel’s Great Lakes Fleet, lets you see what takes place on board the monstrous ships you’ve been admiring in the port. During the hour-long tour of the former iron ore and coal vessel you’ll see the 2,000-horsepower engines, elaborate guest quarters, pilothouse, and vast cargo hold. The Sundew was a Coast Guard workhorse that tended buoys, did search and rescue, and broke ice. For Halloween, the Irvin is transformed into the “Ship of Ghouls.”
Vista Fleet Harbor Cruises (323 Harbor Dr., 218/722-6218, www.vistafleet.com , daily May–Oct., $14) let you get up close and personal with the giant ships, grain elevators, and ore docks in the harbor, and, weather permitting, you’ll even get to cruise under the Lift Bridge. The standard tour takes 90 minutes, and they also offer a variety of dining cruises.
The Great Lakes Aquarium (353 Harbor Dr., 218/740-3474, www.glaquarium.org , 10 a.m.–6 p.m. daily, $14.50 adults, $8.50 children 3–16), the nation’s largest freshwater aquarium (though traveling exhibits are often oceanic), puts you face to face with the native residents of Lake Superior, such as the five-foot lake sturgeon in the 103,000 gallon Isle Royale tank and the bizarre paddlefish, long-nose gar, and slimy sculpin in one of the 22 other tanks. Not all of the aquarium’s creatures have fins. Besides 70 species of fish there are turtles, snakes, salamanders, mud puppies, frogs, ducks, and playful otters. The Great Lakes Aquarium is actually much more than just an aquatic zoo. There are also often-overlooked historical, ecological, geological, and artistic exhibits about the world’s largest lake, spanning its glacial creation to current environmental threats. Plenty of interactive exhibits aimed at kids, such as the stingray touch tank and virtual submarine, let them learn without even realizing it.
East down the Lakewalk is picnic-perfect Leif Erikson Park, home to a stunning Rose Garden filled by over 3,000 bushes and a half-sized replica of the Viking ship that Leif Erikson sailed to North America. In 1926 this very boat retraced the route from Norway before ending up here.
There is something almost magical about watching giant ships cruise in and out of port. Things that big, it seems, just shouldn’t be so maneuverable, or even be able to float. Oceangoing “salties” stretch up to 730 feet long while the “lakers” can exceed 1,000 feet in length and weigh 100,000 tons when fully loaded — mostly with taconite, coal, and grain.
The shipping season depends on the weather, but usually runs late March to mid-January. The Boat Watcher’s Hotline (218/722-6489), a service of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, gives ship arrival and departure times for the Twin Ports and the North Shore. The wonderful Duluth Shipping News (www.duluthshippingnews.com ), a free newsletter published daily during the summer, informs the curious of what cargo individual ships are carrying on that day along with their histories and statistics.
Other articles offer an inside scoop on how the industry works and tell stories about the crews. You can pick it up just about anywhere in Canal Park or read it online.
The ultimate viewing spot is the Duluth Ship Canal. As the ships slip under the Aerial Lift Bridge they pass so close you can virtually reach out and touch them. The Lake Superior Maritime Visitor Center posts arrival and departure times. The viewing spot at the aquarium is farther away, but nearly just as good because it’s at deck level.
Also in Duluth , an elevated observation platform near the Duluth, Missabe, and Iron Range Railway Company’s 2,000-foot-long ore docks lets you see the ships being loaded with taconite pellets. From South 40th Avenue West, just south of I-35, head east on Oneota Street and follow the signs. The Vista Fleet Harbor Tours take you past these and other docks in the harbor.
The Harvest States grain elevators (some of the largest in the world), across the bay in Superior, are the best place for an up-close look at boats in dock. You’ll see them on the right as you come across the Blatnik Bridge and you can drive right up to them. You can also drive past the docks on Connors Point, a mile northwest of Superior’s Tourist Information Center on U.S. Highway 53. Although it sees much less traffic than Duluth’s canal, ships occasionally arrive and depart through the Superior Entry.
Moving up the North Shore your next best bet is Two Harbors , where you have unobstructed views of the ships pulling into Agate Bay and loading up at the ore docks. Ships can also be seen loading in Silver Bay  and at Taconite Harbor much further northeast along the coast.