Northfield takes pride in its history -- including its well-known defeat of the James-Younger gang in 1876 -- but its vibrancy also is tied to its identity as an arts community. Influenced by the intellectual energy and cultural diversity of its two colleges, Carleton and St. Olaf, it offers a wealth of attractions unusual for a town of 20,000.
WHAT TO DO
Explore scenic downtown: Northfield's downtown has been on the National Historic Register since 1979 and remains a bustling center of activity. Begin your tour at Goodbye Blue Monday Coffee House, where you can rub elbows with scholars, businesspeople and creative types (note: only cash and checks are accepted; 319 Division St.; 1-507-663-6188; gbmcoffee.com).
You don't have to be a history enthusiast to appreciate the Northfield Historical Society's museum. A permanent exhibit explains how the townspeople foiled the bank robbery attempt by Jesse and Frank James and their nefarious gang; the restored bank office is part of the tour. The gift shop has fun T-shirts and books about Northfield history (closed Mondays; 408 Division St.; 1-507-645-9268; www. northfieldhistory.org).
Visitors interested in art and handmade goods can spend hours browsing the downtown galleries and shops. The Northfield Arts Guild operates a gallery at its Center for the Arts (304 Division St.; 1-507-645-8877; www.northfieldartsguild.org). The gift shop sells pottery and other wares by regional artists. The Guild's year-round theater is located nearby in a former church.
Other artistically inspiring shops include the Eclectic Goat (creations by more than 55 artisans; 418 Division St.; 1-507-786-9595; www.eclecticgoatnorthfield.com); Studio Elements (fine arts and gifts; 16 Bridge Square; 1-507-786-9393; www.studioelements.net); Northfield Yarn (yarn and needlecraft supplies; 314 Division St.; 1-507-645-1330; northfieldyarn.com); the Local Joint (vintage and handmade goods; 310 Division St.; 1-507-664-9140); and the Sketchy Artist (art supplies and gifts; 300 Division St.; 1-507-645-2811; www.thesketchyartist.com).
Admire campus creativity: Venture a few blocks east of downtown to tour a model of artistic innovation and historic preservation -- the Weitz Center for Creativity (320 3rd St. E.; apps.carleton.edu/weitz/). Carleton renovated the former middle school and built 30,000 square feet of new space. The result is a collaborative laboratory featuring two art galleries, a performance theater, a 250-seat cinema, two dance studios, and a cafe and commons area with a lovely view of Central Park (for an events listing, visit apps.carleton.edu/arts/events/).
Across town, St. Olaf's top-notch music students and faculty perform throughout the school year (www.stolaf.edu/calendar). The theater department is known for its high-quality productions (www.stolaf.edu/depts/theater) and the impressive Flaten Art Museum is open daily when school is in session (www.stolaf.edu/collections/flaten).
Sample the nightlife: A Northfield visit isn't complete without a stop at the Contented Cow, a British-style pub and popular live music scene. Its name is a wink at the town's motto, City of Cows, Colleges and Contentment (302B Division St.; 1-507-663-1351). Check the Northfield Entertainment Guide at www.northfieldguide.com for music events at the Cow and other local venues.
WHERE TO STAY
Anchoring the north end of downtown, the four-story Archer House River Inn has welcomed road-weary travelers since 1877. Modern visitors will appreciate the recent renovation of its 36 guest rooms. Special packages include shopping and dining vouchers (212 Division St.; 1-800-247-2235; www.archerhouse.com).
WHERE TO EAT
The best new place to eat in town is also one of the oldest. Established in 1889 as a grocery store, the Ole Store Restaurant reopened in August under new ownership (1011 St. Olaf Av.; 1-507-786-9400; www.olestorerestaurant.com). Try the cedar planked salmon or a rustic flatbread made with local chevre, roasted shallots and caramelized onions. Breakfast is served on weekends; be sure to order an Ole roll, a nutty caramel roll that's a nostalgic favorite of St. Olaf alumni.
For a quick lunch, join the fast-moving line at Hogan Brothers Acoustic Cafe, known for fresh-made hoagies, hearty soups and generous portions of ice cream (415 Division St.; 1-507-645-6653; hoganbroscafe.com). Or try the tempting buffet at Chapati, an Indian restaurant inside the Archer House (closed Mondays; 214 Division St., 1-507-645-2462).
IF YOU GO
The Northfield Convention and Visitors Bureau has information about special events and discounts at 1-800-658-2548 and www.visitingnorthfield.com.
Joy Riggs is a Northfield-based freelance writer.