Mention the neighboring southern Minnesota cities of Mankato and St. Peter, and two words will immediately come up: “college town.” It’s an accurate label — Mankato is home to a MnSCU campus and St. Peter to Gustavus Adolphus College — but it’s also an area rich in history and studded with some unexpected gems.

Regional history

The Treaty Site History Center, just north of St. Peter on Hwy. 169, is a project of the Nicollet County Historical Society ( A visit to the modern and well-planned center is an ideal portal into study of the Dakota uprising of 1862. From there, travelers can visit the Traverse des Sioux historic site in the history center’s back yard, and move on to the Mayo House in Le Sueur or Fort Ridgely in Fairfax.

The journey continues to Mankato, 15 miles to the south. It’s home to Reconciliation Park, with its large sculpture that will spark a thoughtful conversation about Minnesota’s past and present cultures.

Where the locals eat

Mankato has a trio of upscale restaurants that are also casual and welcoming — Number 4 American Bar and Kitchen (, Neighbor’s Italian Bistro ( and Olives ( All three have inventive small-plate menus conducive to both intimate date nights and more boisterous group sharing; all three also have affordable lunch and happy hour specials.

Patrick’s Bar and Restaurant (, a St. Peter institution, is an Irish pub. Naturally, they’ve got 30 beers on tap and 30 kinds of whiskey at the bar, along with hearty food like a best-in-show patty melt on marble rye and something called a Chuck Norris Burger. Patrick’s is the kind of place where construction workers, small children and Gustavus faculty rub elbows as they happily dig into their baskets of cheesy garlic bread. You’re just as likely to see that mix of folks at the St. Peter Food Co-op ( After grabbing something from the deli (choose from grab-and-go, made to order, or hot bar) head for the sunny sit-down eating area. The building used to be a car dealership; the former auto showroom is now a solarium where you can get a side dish of vitamin D sunshine.

Our little secret

Our Lady of Good Counsel Chapel at the School Sisters of Notre Dame convent in Mankato boasts an opulent marble interior, making it a breathtaking place to hear classical music. The sisters graciously host the occasional concert, and the Mankato Symphony Orchestra’s Music on the Hill chamber series ( has its home here. Sunday’s “Elegant Impressions” program features MSO principal flutist Jill Mahr and a Mozart flute quartet. On May 11, the chamber group’s season closes with a concert of Beethoven, Faure and a new piece written for the group’s violinist Karen Kim.

Church cookbooks, with their plastic spiral binding, homespun wisdom in the margins and “salads” with ingredients like cookies and marshmallows, are ubiquitous in Minnesota. I confess: I collect them. My favorite is “Cooking: A Celebration of Earth’s Gifts, compiled by the School Sisters of Notre Dame.” More than just a collection of recipes, it contains prescriptive directions for a healthy relationship with the Earth. Along with hot dishes and bars, you’ll find recipes from Kenya and Gambia, poems and quotations, information on how to join a CSA farm, water conservation tips, and instructions for making nontoxic cleaning products. (It will come as no surprise that the sisters also recently allocated a 5-acre parcel of land on Good Counsel hill for a solar farm.) Sure, you can order the cookbook from Amazon, but it’s much more satisfying to buy it in person, particularly after you’ve been in the Good Counsel chapel.

Six months out

Rock Bend Fest ( takes place in Minnesota Square Park, in the heart of St. Peter’s downtown, in early September. The “rock” in the festival’s title is a geographical reference; the two-day music lineup includes an impressive variety of genres. Last year’s fest featured brass and jazz bands, indie rocker Chastity Brown, the Upper Peninsula’s Erik Koskinen Band, “new vaudevillist” Peter Bloedel, with Louisiana-based singer/songwriter Mary Gauthier as the headliner. Sponsors and grant funding ensure that festival admission is free.

Linnaeus Arboretum (, named for the famed Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus, spans 125 acres on the Gustavus campus. It’s the place to explore prairie plantings, formal gardens, a meditation area designed with yoga and tai chi practitioners in mind, wildlife (over 150 species of birds alone) and endless opportunities for formal (classes and lectures aplenty) and informal learning. You don’t need to wait for warm weather to enjoy it — it’s open all year.


Jean Sramek is a writer, theater artist and playwright based in Duluth.