Northfield has manged to embrace its history without turning its back on the 21st century.

As you stand in the middle of downtown with its wonderfully preserved old buildings, what you see is not markedly different from what Jesse James saw on that fateful day in 1876 when his legendary band of outlaws made the misguided decision to try to rob the bank. Yet tucked out of sight not far away are the big box stores, chain restaurants and fast-food outlets associated with modern-day suburbia.

Home to two colleges — St. Olaf and Carleton — Northfield also has a unique atmosphere for a college town. Both schools put a heavy emphasis on academics. During the school year, the rowdiest places in town are the coffee shops crammed with students who are, well, cramming. The low-key aura is a source of pride. If you’re looking for a souvenir, you have your choice of T-shirts, dish towels or coffee cups displaying the town’s unofficial motto: “Cows, colleges and contentment.”

Who’s making cookies?

One of the first things you notice — especially if you enter on County Road 19, which is the road that connects Northfield to Interstate 35 — is that the place smells like your grandmother’s kitchen. The alluring aroma is courtesy of the Malt-O-Meal plant just up the hill from downtown. The plant is not a tourist stop, but it’s such an integral part of life that the locals swear they can tell what flavor of cereal is being made simply by sniffing the air. A word of warning: Driving past the plant is not a good idea if you’re hungry.

Snack attack

OK, so you drove past the plant, and now your sweet tooth has taken over. You have several options for appeasing it. The most colorful is Cakewalk (303 Division St.), a “dessert bar” featuring a display case of elaborately decorated cupcakes. They’re so pretty that you almost feel guilty taking a bite — a regret that passes as soon as you taste how rich they are. Then, being a Minnesotan, you immediately start to feel guilty about eating something that rich.

All’s fair: Once you’ve licked the frosting off your fingers, it’s time to find a way to burn off the calories. This is an easy task on Saturdays, when you can take a stroll through the Riverwalk Market Fair. From 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. every Saturday through October (except Sept. 12), the fair takes over Bridge Square, which is sandwiched between Division Street, the town’s historic main street, and the Cannon River, which bisects the downtown area. It’s billed as a “European-style market,” which means a little bit of everything: farmers selling local produce, artists selling crafts, vendors selling goodies, plus music and an activity for kids.

 

Gangbusters: Plot your course through the fair so that you finish at its southeast corner, then you’ll be near the Northfield Historical Society (408 Division St.; admission $4). The town’s history goes well beyond the famous foiled bank robbery, but it’s hard to resist the allure of that narrative once you realize that the museum includes the bank where the outlaws were confronted by angry townspeople.

The thwarted robbery is re-enacted repeatedly during the Defeat of Jesse James Days, an annual festival held on the second weekend of September. (Remember to include “the Defeat of” in any references you make to it. Calling it simply “Jesse James Days” makes it sound like the festival pays homage to the bad guys, something that the residents find irksome.)

 

Picture this: The Northfield Arts Guild (304 Division St.) is sort of a bohemian clubhouse. Artists of all media — from sculpture to oil painting — gather there. It includes a small gallery featuring the work of local artists. Listen closely, and you might hear the rhythmic thumping of a dance troupe practicing in the upstairs studio.

 

Throwback: The Depot Diner (217 S. Water St., suggested $2 donation) has nothing to do with trains or eating. It’s a science-oriented museum that features an extensive collection of fossils gleaned from Minnesota and Iowa. There’s also a collection of academic paraphernalia, including antique microscopes and slide rules; you can watch the kids’ eyes grow wide with amazement when you try to explain that was how we calculated square roots before we could ask Siri to do it.

 

Eating as an adventure: There are several restaurants with normal entryways, but where’s the sport in simply walking through a front door when you can combine a little urban exploring with your dining? The Tavern, located in the basement of the Archer House River Inn (212 Division St.), has its own entry tucked along the river, but the fun way to get there is through the lobby of the hotel and then down the stairs or elevator to a series of catacombs that lead to an arched entryway that looks like it was built by hobbits.

Finding the Contented Cow (302B Division St.) also takes a bit of nosing around. The “B” in its address comes from that fact the front door is down a sloped alley that’s easy to miss if you don’t see the sign sitting on the sidewalk. The other way to find it is to listen for music. Offering everything from rock ’n’ roll to Nordic folk tunes, it draws both musicians and fans from the Twin Cities who make the drive just for the entertainment.

For a memorable lunch, you can’t beat the trip down the wrought iron circular stairway that takes you from street level to river level at Froggy Bottoms (307 Water St.). For devotees of outdoor dining, there’s a patio along the river that, every few years during the spring runoff, ends up being in the river. The funny looking steel posts along the edge of the patio are where the owners bolt metal plates during high water in hopes of keeping the river in its place.

Go natural: The Cowling Arboretum (locals call it “the Arb”) is on the grounds of Carleton College but is open to the public from dawn to dusk. Outdoor magazines have deemed the Arb’s 15-mile trail system one of the top 10 spots in the country for running and cross-country skiing. It’s not bad for walking, either.