There’s a certain kind of town that people who live in big cities daydream about while they fight traffic or jostle through crowds. We want to escape to a place that’s unpretentious, charming and hygge. But at the same time, we don’t want to give up kombucha, yoga and good live music. Fictional examples of hip but idyllic Brigadoons are a staple in movies or television. Think Stars Hollow, Conn., of “Gilmore Girls,” Cicely, Alaska, of “Northern Exposure,” Ferness, Scotland, of “Local Hero,” or Portwenn, Cornwall, of “Doc Martin.” But also think of places like Red Wing, New Ulm and Winona. These Minnesota heritage towns are places where the country mice don’t have to come to the Twin Cities to appreciate art house films, craft cocktails and retrohip doughnuts. They’re making those things happen right where they are. Want to join them? Just read on.
With its dramatic Mississippi River setting, lovely bluffs capped by Sugar Loaf, and a state university campus, Winona was once known as a sleepy college town with a bevy of outdoorsy opportunities in its backyard. (It was also eclipsed by its more-famous namesake Winona Ryder, who was born nearby but left with her family for California as a kid.)
What’s changed: It’s not an exaggeration to call the city of 26,928 a cultural haven. Winona has been on a festival roll lately, coming up with original yearly events that draw tens of thousands. The city currently hosts eight annual festivals, from the Mid West Music Fest highlighting regional bands each spring, to the Great River Shakespeare Festival drawing Bard superfans from around the world every summer and the Frozen River Film Festival in winter.
There’s also a Dakota powwow, a bluegrass festival, a party to celebrate the city’s Steamboat Days, a Dixieland jazz fest and a Beethoven celebration.
All this arty fun has grown over the past decade or so, helping spur new places like a hipster music bar, a small but world-class art museum and, of course, a craft brewery — Island City Brewing Co., which is located right next to the newly revitalized Levee Park.
New spots join the so-old-school-they’re-cool places that have long drawn Winonans and visitors, like the Hei-N-Low Tap and the J.R. Watkins store, which has been selling natural remedies since 1868.
Must stop: Right on the river, the Minnesota Marine Art Museum offers an impressive collection of artwork inspired by water. “Van Gogh, Monet, O’Keeffe, Oh My!” the tote bag for sale in the gift shop exclaims, and that’s not the half of it. The museum manages to showcase a lovely collection of paintings by well-known artists that’s heavy on the Impressionists and Hudson River School while also featuring dynamic, changing exhibits in their front galleries. This spring, they’re mounting the first U.S. museum solo show of Slovakian photographer Maria Svarbova’s swimming pool pictures and showing a ceramic installation by Minneapolis artist Anna Metcalfe.
For a different kind of culture, check out Ed’s No-Name Bar. The owners like to call it Winona’s living room — and it delivers, with live music, drinks and red Christmas lights strung year-round. Every spring, Ed’s is a prime locale during Mid West Music Fest, hosting more than a few Minnesota bands getting airplay on the Current.
Must try: While the java’s good at the Blue Heron Coffeehouse, the place is much more than a coffee shop. Their counter-service cafe serves up locally sourced food prepared in delicious ways. A chalkboard artfully lists the nearby farms that supply produce, meat and eggs, like the Tomato Patch in Melrose, Wis., and Bernards Barnyard in Rushford, Minn.
Finally, doughnuts may be trendy lately, but Bloedow’s Bakery has been making them since (way) before they were cool. Since 1924, actually. The shop’s patterned mustard wallpaper is amazing, just the sort of thing that mod hotels are trying to pull off these days. Pro tip: Get the maple long john.
— ERICA PEARSON
Nestled between bluffs on the Mississippi River just above Lake Pepin, this town is famous as the home of Red Wing Shoes and Red Wing Stoneware, two venerable consumer brands more than 100 years old, both with faithful fans.
What’s changed: Lots of new downtown businesses that aren’t banking on quaint familiarity to bring in customers. Instead they’re offering products that wouldn’t seem out of place in Uptown. Take the Red Wing Olive Oils and Vinegars shop, with rows of shiny tanks of tap-dispensed olive oils displayed with “Organoleptic Taste Panel Assessment” ratings of fruitiness, bitterness and pungency. Or the Staghead Gastropub, where the sidewalk signboard boasts “Coconut lime kombucha on tap!”
Red Wing also has outposts of highly regarded pie shops: St. Paul’s famous Red’s Savoy Pizza has a branch downtown, and the renowned Stockholm Pie and General Store, headquartered just down the river in Stockholm, Wis., opened a new location in Red Wing’s Pottery Place shopping center.
The Sheldon Theatre, the town’s 115-year-old “jewel box” theater, is having a grand reopening season after a renovation. Shows there range from the Red Wing High School musical to national acts. Upcoming performances include Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, Jeremy Messersmith and the Popovich Comedy Pet Theater.
This is a small town that also knows how to get out and make its own fun. When we visited in late October, the Staghead was advertising a sold-out Halloween costume yoga class with wine, and Fair Trade Books, a local independent bookstore, was sponsoring board game nights and a spooky poetry reading.
Must stop: You can build an entire retrohip lumbersexual ensemble in just three stops downtown. First, score some flannel at the Duluth Trading Co. branch store and outlet on Main Street. Then go next door to the Red Wing Shoes flagship retail location and try on fashionable work boots with names like the Iron Ranger and the Blacksmith. Ogle the “World’s Largest Boot,” a size 638 ½, real leather Red Wing boot on display. There’s an automatic camera where you can take and send yourself a selfie. Top off your outfit by visiting Josephson’s, located just around the corner. The old-school haberdashery has an extensive selection of Stormy Kromer hats.
Then stop at Fair Trade Books to pet the resident dog, Reveler, and browse used and new books and vinyl LPs. If it’s your first visit, they’ll give you a free book. They’ve given away more than 25,000 since 2014.
Must try: At the Staghead Gastropub, they’ve got good food (pot roast sandwich with blue cheese, a Brussels sprout salad with a poached egg), fun drinks (Norwegian coffee, similar to Irish coffee only with aquavit) and hygge decor (leather easy chairs, high tin ceilings, exposed brick walls). But a particularly charming feature is its “Beer Me!” program. You can buy a beer for an absent friend, who can then later look for his or her name written on chalkboards above the bar to claim the drink. When we stopped in, there were beers waiting for “Sid from recycling center,” “a police officer,” “a children’s librarian” and Bob Dylan. Our waitress told us someone once even bought a beer for Jesus.
— RICHARD CHIN
The city is famous for its monument to Hermann the German, its German baroque cathedral, its daily glockenspiel shows — and beer. Specifically, Schell’s beer, going strong here since 1860. But there’s so much more brewing.
What’s changed: Invigorated food options, refreshed shopping and a whole new line of beer make for an updated New Ulm.
The food scene had long been dominated by hearty fare served in family-friendly restaurants. But a new restaurant, Sozial, brings dining sophistication to downtown. The decor is clean with a bit of eclectic chic. They serve a plant-based burger so tasty it draws in at least one customer who lives 30 minutes away each week, according to co-owner Jeff Overby. If you’re not feeling entirely vegetarian, they’ll load up that burger with cheese and thick, crisp bacon. Sozial’s signature cocktail is an espresso martini, and if you’re in the mood it doubles as dessert. Delicious.
They also serve the full course of Schell’s beers — you can’t get it fresher anywhere else.
Speaking of Schell’s, the brewery is responsible for another attraction, the Starkeller taproom. It started when Schell’s decided to make sour beers, which require fermentation. They didn’t have space for beer to age in barrels, so the company built the Starkeller across the way.
As you sit and sip, admire the 12-foot-tall cypress wood lagering barrels originally built during Prohibition, with soon-to-be Berliner Weisse beer inside. And check out the bar stools made from the brewery’s old copper kettles. On some weekends, visiting chefs cook for the crowds. In May, the Starkeller hosts Funk Junction, a sour beer festival, with other breweries, plus barbecue, cheese samples and music.
As to shopping, the downtown retail district has always had a distinct appeal. Though its old downtown mall perished, niche retailers have arrived, with trendy stores like Gallery 512 Boutique.
Must stops: The old Grand Hotel. Built in 1876, it suffered the usual fate of small-town hostels — neglect, ill-advised renovations, abandonment. Owner Anne Makepeace, great-great-granddaughter of the man who built it, has performed an extraordinary job resuscitating the structure, turning its three floors into what is now the Grand Center for Arts & Culture. It has a bar, cabaret, children’s activities — check their website thegrandnewulm.com for events. Soon you’ll be able to stay there in a renovated apartment you can reserve on Airbnb. Also worth a stop: the new gift shop, where you’ll find local artists’ wares.
A bright purple light is the only sign you’ll see for the Retz 227, a modern speakeasy serving craft cocktails, beer and wine on weekends. In typical speakeasy fashion, you’ll have to hunt a bit to find it. But that’s all part of the fun.
Must try: Did we mention Sozial’s plant-based burger? With bacon? Right. But we didn’t mention the sweet-potato fries and spicy aioli.
— JAMES LILEKS
The historic mill town on the Cannon River is much more than where they make those scratchy, old-fashioned wool blankets.
What’s new: They’re still carding, dyeing, spinning and weaving wool at Faribault Woolen Mill Co., but the blankets are now likely to contain soft merino or feature retro-hip designs, like throws woven with vintage maps of the Twin Cities, Manhattan, Chicago and San Francisco. The town has also acquired a spacious but hygge community gathering spot, a cocktail lounge that’s part of the new 10,000 Drops Craft Distillers.
Must stop: At the woolen mill’s retail store you can touch and buy the warm woolen goods made in the adjacent factory on the banks of the Cannon River. Products range from the sturdy blankets issued to West Point cadets to pastel-dyed merino soft enough to be used as baby blankets. The company, founded in 1865, built its reputation on making blankets for department stores, railroads and the U.S. military, but closed in 2009 and was on the brink of being shuttered permanently when it was rescued and reopened by new owners in 2011. In recent years the woolen mill has branched out into accessories like throws, hats, scarves, mittens, woolen coffee cup cozies and Christmas stockings. If you visit on a Friday or Saturday, you can tour the factory, one of two mills in the U.S. where raw wool gets turned into finished product in one plant. See their website (faribaultmill.com) for information on making reservations.
Must try: The recently opened cocktail lounge, 10,000 Drops Craft Distillers, is housed in a 102-year-old building downtown and features plenty of dark wood, bare brick, exposed beams and salvaged architectural fixtures. The 2,000-square-foot space has room to bend your elbow while sitting at the copper-topped tables or the leather couches. It was started by three 30-something friends from Hopkins who learned the hooch-making business at Moonshine University, a Kentucky trade school. They pour rum and whiskey distilled on site and eventually will be offering barrel-aged bourbon. The menu includes the Basito, a rum, basil, lime, brown sugar and ginger ale cocktail, and the Bulldog, with rum, coffee liqueur, cream and cola.
But the distillery is more than just booze. Though they don’t serve food, food trucks are available in the warmer months. The owners say they want to turn the place into a sort of community living room. Dogs are welcome, and so are kids, with crayons and board games on hand. The venue also hosts trivia contests, live music and events like the Faribault Flannel Formal, a community party featuring a hot dish competition and flannel costume contest.
More of a wine and cheese person? Hit the Cheese Cave, a restaurant and shop selling gourmet gifts, pizzas, salads, cheese plates and sandwiches using cheeses made or aged in nearby historic sandstone caves.
If you need a caffeine and sugar fix, the Bluebird Cakery is a bright, airy downtown spot for coffee, cupcakes or a chocolate caramel roll.
— RICHARD CHIN
With its olde-style downtown nestled along the St. Croix River, Stillwater has long offered a dollop of quaint, with antique shops, a river walk, riverboat rides and the venerable Lowell Inn.
What’s changed: The new St. Croix Crossing bridge rerouted much of the truck traffic around the downtown, making Main Street a lot more pleasant to stroll. But the town has also traded quaint for cool. Several sleekly designed, first-class restaurants — serving everything from bison carpaccio to catfish and grits — have transformed Stillwater into a foodie destination.
Even the coffee shops and bars have kicked it up a notch. You can still get a Leinie or a craft brew (from hometown favorite Maple Island Brewing, perhaps), but the craft cocktail offerings are inventive, tasty and decently priced. Want a latte? A caramel macchiato? You can find that, too.
The shopping has never been more varied. In addition to the requisite antique shops (there are still plenty) and T-shirt shops, there is a host of style-driven boutiques (from affordable to high-end), home decor stores, and two standout specialty shops: Modern Roots, which sells natural skin and body products; and Mara-Mi, a specialty paper store (à la Paper Source) with a studio and cafe.
It’s not like Stillwater has been overrun with lumbersexual hipsters. The town is just as charming as it ever was, maybe even more so. But now, it’s a real-deal destination, worth more than an afternoon’s stay.
Must stop: The ultrachic Lora Hotel is built into the limestone caves on the south side of town. Once home to Vittorio’s Italian Restaurant, the 40-room boutique hotel combines sleek modern design with timeworn exposed rock and brickwork. It also includes: Made, a tiny but excellent coffee shop; the cleverly named the Long Goodbye bar, serving unique takes on classic cocktails; and Feller, an innovative full-service restaurant. The entry plaza also boasts a gas fire feature where you can sip your Americano or rosé on those chilly spring days.
The Commander Grain Elevator building has served as Stillwater’s sentry since 1898. Now the iconic elevator is accessible. Its first-floor coffee shop, dubbed Tin Bins, is a welcoming, wood-hewn space that invites visitors to linger by the indoor fireplace or on its large deck, just a stone’s throw from the river.
Must try: LoLo American Kitchen & Craft Bar stands for Locally Owned, Locally Operated. Cramped and constantly crowded, it’s where locals congregate for around-the-world takes on tacos, burgers, rice bowls and more.
There are plenty of welcoming places to have a drink in Stillwater. The one you’re likely to miss — but shouldn’t — is the Velveteen Speakeasy. The underground Prohibition-style bar mixes some impressive cocktails and offers a creative, if limited, selection of upscale bar fare. Don’t cheat and look up the address. Get a true speakeasy experience by being just as friendly as the folks in Stillwater and ask around. (Hint: Follow the rabbits. If you hear gramophone music, you’re getting close.)
— CONNIE NELSON