Planning a visit to Bismarck in North Dakota and looking for things to do in the state capital? Find the best things to do in Bismarck including the North Dakota State Capitol tour, the North Dakota Heritage Center, Bismarck Art Alley, the Dakota Zoo, and more in this ultimate guide. Find recommendations on where to eat in Bismarck and where to stay in our Bismarck travel guide.
Located on the banks of the Missouri River, Bismarck is the state capital of North Dakota. We recently visited Bismarck on our summer road trip to North Dakota and were blown away by the many attractions and things to do in Bismarck.
The city is amazing to visit with kids and has many family-friendly activities. While we spent a little over a day in Bismarck, we would recommend everyone to devote at least two to three days to enjoy the many points of interest and attractions in the city.
Here’s a little history about Bismarck for the curious: Founded in 1872, the city was formerly known as Edwinton. Its name was later changed to honor the German Iron Chancellor, Otto Van Bismarck of Prussia. The city has strong German and Norwegian heritage and you will find it reflected in the traditions and cuisine of the region.
After the formation of the state of North Dakota in 1889, Bismarck contested with Jamestown for the honor of the state capital. The city won and today, the Capitol Grounds along with all its buildings are one of the premier attractions in the city.
Because of its location along the Missouri River, Bismarck played an important part in Lewis and Clark Expedition and historical landmarks related to the voyage of discovery can be found all over the city.
Fun fact: Did you know that Bismarck’s earliest name was Missouri Crossing or simply, ‘The Crossing’?
Bismarck is also a great place to learn about Native American history of the area, the state’s geology. For history buffs, the city has many interesting attractions including the North Dakota Heritage Center and the Steamboat Park.
We flew into the Bismarck airport (BIS) and began our trip to North Dakota in the city. The airport itself is worth seeing for reasons that we mention later in the post. (Hint: dinosaur alert!) Here’s a detailed travel guide to the city for planning your trip.
Best Things to do in Bismarck
Bismarck is the perfect place to explore many things that are unique to North Dakota: the prehistoric past, German-inspired state cuisine, and cultural attractions. It also makes a perfect base for day trips and weekend getaways to nearby attractions including Jamestown, Valley City, Dickinson, and Medora.
Because of its location on the I-94, it is easy to visit on a North Dakota road trip. In short, you don’t have any excuse to skip this city and you should definitely add it to your North Dakota bucket list. Here are some of our favorite things to do in Bismarck.
Tour the North Dakota State Capitol
We highly recommend beginning your Bismarck trip by seeing the North Dakota State Capitol. Located in the center of the city, the state capitol is quite unusual compared to most other white-domed Capitol buildings.
Here you will find a 21 story tower in Art Deco style of architecture. At over 241 feet, this is the tallest building in North Dakota and called ‘ The Skyscraper on the Prairie’. The Capitol was built during the Great Depression era and the architecture was chosen to reduce costs.
Visitors can take a free tour of the building to see it from the inside. An observation deck is located on the 18th floor from where you can have amazing 360 views of Bismarck. The state capitol building is usually open till 5 pm, we recommend checking the website for updated hours.
The building is also beautifully decorated during the holiday season – window lights are used to create displays of Christmas Tree and ring in the New Year – in case you are visiting during the winter.
Walk around the Capitol Grounds and the Arboretum Trail
After visiting the State Capitol, take the time to explore the Capitol Grounds. You can take beautiful pictures of the Capitol building from the grounds as well as check out the many monuments and memorials located here.
The Capitol Grounds also has two parks: the Capitol Park and the Myron Atkinson Park, named after Bismarck’s famous civic leader. The parks are great for a stroll. You can also take a walk along the Arboretum Trail which will take you past different species of plants before ending at the Pembina River Plaza.
Some of the popular sculptures and statues include the Buffalo sculpture, Sakakawea’s statue, the Pioneer Family Statue, and the Horse ‘Cortes’. You can also see the All Veterans Memorial and Purple Heart Memorial.
See prehistoric beasts at the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum
The North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum is located in the Capitol Grounds next to the State capitol and is a must-visit attraction. Entry to the museum is free and it has thousands of artifacts from around the state displayed in well-arranged galleries.
Our favorite gallery was by far the Adaptation Gallery where visitors can see skeletons of dinosaurs like T-Rex and Triceratops, prehistoric underwater creatures, and ice age mammals including a ground sloth. The giant skeletons and cast leave visitors awed and the gallery is a great place to learn about the state’s earliest residents.
Other popular galleries display the history of horses in North Dakota, the geological timeline of the state, the indigenous people, birds of North Dakota, as well as modern exhibits about agriculture and oil drilling in the state.
The museum is popularly known as the ‘Smithsonian on the Plains’ because of its large variety of exhibits and free entry.
Admire the Northern Lights Atrium
Located at the entrance of the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum, you will spot a giant steel and glass structure. Known as the Northern Lights Atrium, the architecture is inspired by early Native American tipi structures.
On the floor, you will find engraved the North Dakota state seal as well as the names of all 53 counties. The atrium is popular for events and small weddings and is a great place to take Instagram worthy shots in Bismarck.
At night, the Atrium is lit up and lights resembling the Northern Lights are projected against the glass ceiling. The view looks really beautiful and photogenic – you can admire it even from the outside. We recommend visiting again after dark just to see the lighted atrium if you have the time.
Explore the Pembina River Plaza
The Pembina River Plaza is the wide-open area located just outside the museum entrance, in front of the Northern Lights Atrium. The plaza highlights some of the most important geological events in the state.
You can spot several pieces of petrified wood found along the shores of Lake Sakakawea. This is a nearly 65 million years old petrified sequoia tree that grew in the delta that was western North Dakota.
You can also see several sandstone spheres that occurred naturally about 56 million years ago. Known as cannonball concentrations, these perfectly spherical geological landforms are found along the Little Missouri River in the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. They are also found along the Cannonball River.
You can also spot granite boulders and plants native to the prairie grasslands in the plaza. The plaza also has benches to relax. We enjoyed sitting here and reflecting on the various exhibits and artifacts in the museum as kids played around the sandstone cannonballs.
Find your favorite mural in Alley 5.5
Alley 5.5 or Bismarck Art Alley is the place to visit if you love vibrant street art and murals. The Alley is home to beautiful public art all falling under the theme ‘Reflections of North Dakota’. The murals showcase elements unique to the state such as bison, indigenous people, cows, prairies, farmlands, windmills, etc.
A project of the Dakota West Arts Council, the murals were created in partnership with the local community in 2016. They feature many local artists as well as art students. The Alley is located on 5th Street halfway between Broadway and Main and should be on the top of your list.
Some of the most beautiful murals in the outdoor art gallery include a portrait of the Lakota leader Sitting Bull, a map of all 53 counties, a beautiful mosaic of sunflowers, a wall of happy faces, and more! I loved walking down the alley and finding my favorite among the colorful murals. This is also a great background to take photos for the ‘Gram in Bismarck.
Walk around the Downtown Bismarck Historic District
While you go to Downtown to see Alley 5.5, we recommend just strolling around the nearby area. Walk along Main Ave and spot some of the iconic buildings such as the former Patterson Place hotel building. Shop in boutique stores, try some of the trendy restaurants in the area, browse through art galleries, or take a vintage family photo.
This part of the city is preserved as the Downtown Bismarck Historic District. The area is 16 blocks large and comprises many prominent buildings. You will see late Victorian and revival style architecture buildings, most of them the work of architect Arthur Van Horn. I loved the Spanish revival style Northern Pacific Railway Depot building.
See the vintage railroad engine at Camp Hancock State Historic Site
A little further on Main Street, you will find the Camp Hancock State Historic Site. The exact address is 101 East Main Avenue. This is the oldest building in Bismarck. Built-in 1872, Camp Hancock is on the National Register of Historic Places. The camp was established as a military building to protect the railroad and railroad workers.
Today, Camp Hancock serves as a museum and has many artifacts and exhibits about Bismarck’s history. The historic site also has many other attractions. You can visit the oldest church in Bismarck as well as see a 1909 Northern Pacific Locomotive Engine. The church has beautiful stained glass windows while kids enjoy seeing the engine up close.
Tour the beautifully restored Victorian Former’s Governor’s Mansion
The Former’s Governor’s Mansion State Historic Site is a great place to visit for history buffs. This Victorian mansion was built in 1884 in Stick Style and was home to the state’s governors till the 1960s. Since then, the house has been beautifully restored and is open to visitors for a free tour.
The house is 2.5 storeyed and even has a carriage house on the grounds. On a tour, you can see period furniture and decor throughout the house. You can see furniture from several eras and understand how the house changed with different governors. The house even has the reputation of being haunted and it is fun to know more about the folklore on the tour.
Visit the Bismarck-Mandan Convention and Visitors Bureau
We always enjoy visiting local tourism offices on our trips to get maps, brochures, and inquire about any special events in the area. The Bismarck-Mandan CVB is an excellent place to get the latest information on farmers’ markets, concerts, and other happenings in the city. When we went the friendly staff provided a lot of information on attractions as well as dining options in the area.
Climb aboard Lewis & Clark’s keelboat at Keelboat Park
We would highly recommend visiting Keelboat Park while in Bismarck. Not only can you admire the views of the river and the Northern Pacific Railroad Bridge but also see a replica of the keelboat used by Lewis & Clark on their expedition to discover the Louisiana Purchase territory. Visitors can actually climb the keelboat and read information about keelboat and steamboat transportation up and down the Missouri River.
You can also see Eagle sculpture and statues of Lewis & Clark with Sacagewea. The park also has benches by the riverside, walking trails, and a boat ramp. You can also see a sculpture of the mythical Native American creature, Thunderbird. The Steamboat Park and Steamboat Plaza are located adjacent to the Keelboat Park and if you have time, you should also check these out. Both the parks are located along the River Road.
Cruise down Missouri River on the Lewis & Clark Riverboat
Visitors need not admire the Missouri River only from the banks. You can also take a cruise down the river in the Lewis & Clark Riverboat. The cruises are usually an hour long and depart from May to September during the busy tourist season. On the cruise, you can enjoy views of Bismarck from the water as well as spot wildlife along the river from the open upper deck. You will also learn information about the Missouri River Valley. The cruises leave from Keelboat Park and when not in operation, you can find the steamer anchored here.
Note: The 2020 season was suspended due to current events, and the cruises will resume in 2021. You can find more details here.
Admire the waterside views from Pioneer Overlook Park
Besides Keelboat Park, Bismarck has many urban parks and gardens located along the banks of the Missouri River. From Pioneer Overlook Park, you can watch a beautiful sunset or just walk along the river. The park has beautiful views and there are hiking and biking trails to get some exercise. The park also has skating paths and volleyball courts and is a great place to spend some time in Bismarck.
Take in the panorama from Chief Looking’s Village
Just a little further from Pioneer Park, you will find Chief Looking’s Village. This Native Indian village site is located off Burnt Boat Drive. Set atop a bluff overlooking the river, it has some of the best views in the city. An interpretive trail leads around burial sites and narrates the story of Bismarck’s earliest residents, the Mandan Indians.
Continue further along the road to Pioneer Park Overlook. Here you will find a very pretty garden and an amazing view of the Missouri River Valley. Benches along the edge are perfect to admire beautiful sunsets that you see from here. When we visited the garden was blooming with summer flowers and the children’s play areas made our kids very happy.
Understand Bismarck’s history at Fort Abraham Lincoln
Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park is the oldest state park in North Dakota. Begin your visit at the Visitor Center where you can understand the cultural history of the area. You can also tour the Fort as well as military buildings surrounding the fort. Fort Abraham Lincoln was built to protect the Northern Pacific Railroad line being built west of the river.
It is fascinating to tour the fort and see the reconstructed supporting structures and military buildings like granary, barracks, and stables. You can even see Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer’s House when he was stationed here before the battle with Sioux Indians at Little Big Horn.
An ancient Mandan Indian village site is also located inside the park. Here you can see reconstructed Earth Lodges, similar to those built by the indigenous people years ago. The park is popular with outdoor enthusiasts. You can hike, bike, fish, or go horseback riding at the state park. For a unique experience, you can also camp in tipis or stay in cabins along the river.
Be awed by dinosaur skeletons at the Bismarck airport
If you are flying into Bismarck, then you will be amazed to see a Triceratops skull right after you exit the security area. I mean, how often do you just stumble upon prehistoric remains of these famed creatures?
When we embarked on our trip to North Dakota, we knew that we would be seeing a lot of prehistoric artifacts but seeing them right at the airport definitely made our kids day. You will also see the flying dinosaur Pteranodon as well as pieces of petrified wood and other fossils. The airport also has a lot of other sculptures and artwork including a beautifully painted piano which you can play.
Meet the animals at the Dakota Zoo
If you are visiting Bismarck with kids, then you should definitely head out to the Dakota Zoo. The Zoo is located on the banks of the Missouri River inside the urban Sertoma Park and has many different species of animals. On a visit, kids can see tigers, bears, reindeer, moose, and mountain lions.
The best part about the Zoo though is that you can actually take a train ride to see the different animals. The ride is about half an hour long and is perfect for hot summer days when you don’t want to walk around the area with kids.
Hike in the Missouri River State Natural Area
Just a little outside of Bismarck-Mandan, you will find the Missouri River State Natural Area. The area has scenic views and plenty of hiking trails and is a great place to spend time outdoors. The 157-acre preserve is located along the river, right next to the historic railroad bridge. The preserve has over 5 miles of hiking trails through the woods as well as plenty of backcountry trails. You can spot wildlife including deer, fox, and eagles in the preserve.
Learn about science at the Gateway to Science Museum
Gateway to Science is a kids museum with lots of interactive activities and events. The museum has many galleries and kids of all ages can have a variety of hands-on experiences in the fields of electricity, robotics, aquaponics, and more. The activities are highly educational and interesting for all ages. This is a good place to visit if you want to mix indoor activities with outdoor time.
Splash in the water at Raging Rivers Waterpark
Looking for ideas to spend a relaxing day in Bismarck? Have had enough of all the historic and cultural attractions and looking for some family fun? Visit the Raging Rivers waterpark in Mandan. This park is great for the kids and has a variety of slides, lazy rivers, and splash play area for little ones. It is a great way to cool off when the temperatures reach the high 90s in the summer.
Shop till you are tired at Kirkwood Mall
If you are tired from all the sightseeing and just want to spend a day in retail therapy or are in Bismarck for work and looking to go shopping, then you should definitely head out to Kirkwood Mall. This typical, modern mall is the second largest in the state and has plenty of popular eateries as well as retailers.
Step back in town at Buckstop Junction Historic Town
Buckstop Junction is located on Old Highway 10 outside of Bismarck. Here you can see plenty of historic buildings and listen to the stories of people of North Dakota – both indigenous and pioneers. The late 19th century buildings were moved from different areas of the Missouri River Valley to Buckstop Junction for preservation.
Visitors can see a historic schoolhouse, post office, bank, mine camp, pioneer church, and more in Buckstop Junction. There is also a railroad caboose which is an instant hit with the kids. The Gift Store and Visitor Center has souvenirs, gifts, antiques, and other relics from the past.
Kayak or canoe at McDowell Dam Recreation Area
Located 5 miles east of Bismarck, you will find the McDowell Dam Recreation Area. This is a great place to spend the day outdoors. Visitors can swim at the public beach, fish at the docks, launch their own boats, or even rent a variety of equipment including paddle boats, kayaks, etc. The recreation area also has picnic tables and a playground for the kids. A small paved nature trail that goes along the edge of the reservoir and into wooded areas is perfect for those looking for some exercise.
Where to eat in Bismarck
Bismarck has many popular restaurants that serve the regional cuisine as well as great American fare. During our visit to the city, we tried several of them including Kroll’s Diner which is famous for its knoephla soup, Space Aliens Grill & Bar, and the Laughing Sun Brewery.
Other popular places to eat include Pirogue Grill and Peacock Alley inside the former historic Patterson Hotel. And off course you must visit the Blarney Stone Pub for Irish fare and FOMO 10/40 Creamery for delicious ice cream! For more recommendations on Where to Eat In Bismarck, check out our detailed post 18 Best Restaurants in Bismarck now.
Where to stay in Bismarck
During our stay in Bismarck, we stayed at Everspring Inn & Suites. We really liked the location which was close to the airport as well as downtown and our big, spacious suite including a separate room for the kids. The hotel has good amenities including a pool to beat the heat.
Bismarck also has plenty of other accommodation options. The Radisson Hotel is located in a convenient location downtown while many other chains including Residence Inn by Marriott and Fairfield Inn & Suites are located near the Capitol Grounds.
We hope you liked our post on the best things to do in Bismarck, North Dakota. Did we miss out on any popular attractions or free things to do in Bismarck? Let us know in the comments. Planning to visit Bismarck soon? Send us your photos of favorite attractions in Bismarck!
Disclaimer: We visited Bismarck and several other destinations in North Dakota as part of a paid campaign with North Dakota Tourism. All opinions, local businesses, and activities recommendations are our own.