As a historic river town less than an hour's drive from the Twin Cities, Faribault seems like a logical destination for weekend travelers. But its charms have remained relatively undiscovered compared with tourist-heavy places like Stillwater and Red Wing. The recent restoration of the old Paradise Theater has helped bring new life to the architecturally significant commercial district, which suffered after highway traffic was rerouted away from downtown in the mid-1970s.

Return to Paradise

The $2.1 million restoration of the long-vacant theater in 2007 has been the catalyst for much of the revitalization along Central Avenue, the city's main street. The project was a joint effort of the Faribault Art Center and the Faribault Area Community Theater, which merged to form the Paradise Center for the Arts (321 Central Av. N.; 1-507-332-7372; www.paradisecenterforthearts .org). Built in 1929, the Paradise was an atmospheric theater, designed to make it appear that patrons were sitting outside under the stars in a Moorish courtyard.

The restored Paradise is now a venue for regional theater, music and art events.

Sample specialty cheeses

Across the street from the Paradise is the Cheese Cave (318 Central Av. N.; 1-507-334-3988; Although it's been open only since June 2009, the Cheese Cave already is drawing regular customers from places like Northfield, Owatonna and the Twin Cities. Part retail store, part restaurant, it's operated by the Faribault Dairy Co., which was just purchased by the Swiss Valley Farms cooperative of Davenport, Iowa.

Faribault Dairy is known for its award-winning Amablu blue cheeses, aged in local sandstone caves. The Cheese Cave sells the Amablu brand and about 40 other kinds of specialty cheeses. Employees are generous with advice and samples, telling visitors, "We don't believe in someone buying cheese without tasting it."

Customer favorites include a cranberry white cheddar from Wisconsin and an herbed gouda. People wait in line to buy the fresh cheese curds made in the store on Monday and Thursday mornings.

The Cheese Cave serves sandwiches, salads and pizzas, all featuring -- what else? -- cheese. The store also offers wine and cheese tastings and gourmet cooking classes.

Buy seasonal sweets

Visitors who can tear themselves away from all the cheese sampling can find more sampling opportunities a block away at the Sweet Spot (209 Central Av. N.; 1-507-334-0600). The husband and wife team of Kerry and Marie McCarthy makes ice cream, fudge and kettle corn in the store, which opened in June 2008. They also sell hand-dipped chocolates and old-fashioned candy.

The McCarthys change the flavors of the ice cream and fudge depending on the season; summer flavors include sherbet and key lime; fall means the return of apple pie and pumpkin. The McCarthys try to bring in items that people won't find anywhere else; if you're looking for a mass-produced item like a Nerds rope, "Come back in 20 years when it's vintage," Marie joked.

Hit the shops

Milltown Cycles (311 Central Av. N.; 1-507-331-2636; carries a large variety of bicycles and accessories -- which you may want after all the food sampling. Owner Ben Witt can provide expert information about local trails, such as the 40-mile Sakatah Singing Hills Trail that connects Faribault and Mankato.

Several craft and gift stores have opened along Central Avenue in the past few years, including the Crafty Maven (212 Central Av. N.; 1-507-331-2703; and Focus on Fabric (218 Central Av. N.; 1-507-331-7500; www.

Visitors can also find specialty stores that have served customers for decades. Burkhartzmeyer Shoes (128 Central Av. N.; 1-507-334-7774; www.burkhartzmeyershoes. com) offers a wide selection for everyone in the family. Eastman Music (303 Central Av. N.; 1-507-334-5434) carries sheet music, band instruments, guitars and cute ukuleles. Architectural salvage store Peterson Art Furniture Co. (28 NE. 4th St.; 1-507-581-6322; sells antiques, furniture and restored lighting fixtures.

It's a good idea to call ahead and check the hours of stores you plan to visit, because hours can vary depending on the day. Some stores are closed on Sundays and Mondays.

Find sanctuary

Those who tire of eating and shopping can find sanctuary a few blocks away at the Cathedral of Our Merciful Saviour (515 2nd Av. NW.; 507-334-7732;, the first Episcopal cathedral in the United States. It's also a monument to Henry Benjamin Whipple, the first Episcopal bishop of Minnesota, who worked to secure the rights of Dakota and Ojibwe Indians. Completed in 1869, the cathedral is on the National Register of Historic Places. Tours are available.

Another type of sanctuary can be found at the River Bend Nature Center (1000 Rustad Road; 1-507-332-7151;, a 750-acre site that has 10 miles of hiking trails and an interpretive center.

Joy Riggs is a freelance writer based in Northfield, Minn.