What looks like a supersized, sideways drop of water outside Rochester’s Mayo Civic Center conjures images of Chicago, where the iconic “Cloud Gate” sculpture (aka the Bean) fascinates tourists. The shimmering surface distorts reflections of people walking past, with splashes of bright yellow or pink coats mirrored against a blue sky and white snow in what some have dubbed the Mini-Bean.
A sharp winter breeze blows across the Zumbro River, but it’s easy to duck into the warm indoors, where whimsical, intricate mosaic sculptures by local artist Judy Onofrio catch the light in the bright lobby and tug me toward the Rochester Art Center (rochesterartcenter.com).
Art — much of it free to view — can be found throughout Rochester’s downtown, indoors and out. The global influx of patients and physicians at the Mayo Clinic’s extensive campus helps stoke a world-class collection of paintings, sculpture and large mixed-media pieces. Here, art has long been considered helpful in the healing process.
“There’s a Warhol. And Joan Miro,” my dad said with surprise on a long-ago visit to the Mayo Clinic. The art, which popped up everywhere, offered a silver lining while he kept me company through days of testing. We studied sculptures by Paul Granlund and August Rodin and the blended dots of painter Jennifer Bartlett’s “Four Houses” series, and caught an impromptu and beautiful piano concert in the Gonda Building’s atrium.
“It looks like something you might study beneath a microscope,” I quipped as we passed more than a dozen Dale Chihuly blown-glass chandeliers in shades of yellow and green, with tendrils that snake out like Medusa’s hairdo.
While downtown features skyways linking main buildings much like in the Twin Cities, the biggest hum of people and commerce thrives in the “subway,” an underground level of boutiques, galleries and cafes that bustle with Mayo staff and visitors.
It felt satisfying to return and wander these stretches as a pure tourist, admiring the work of carvers, jewelry makers and painters before heading up a level and back outside for SocialIce, the city’s winter festival.
Color-changing lights illuminate a welcoming curtain of ice cubes as bundled attendees flow into Peace Plaza. The three-night ice-bar festival started with 250 people in 2009 and grew to 51,000 last year.
A disc jockey plays “Uptown Funk” as a few people dance and others pose for photos by giant ice blocks carved into circus animals, Dr. Seuss characters and “Game of Thrones” creatures. Restaurants and pubs tempt customers with hot drinks cupped by mittened hands, steaming from chin to stocking cap.
For me, the magic lies in the lighting, and how it glows through an icy dragon in shades of purple, King Kong in fire-exit red and “Horton Hears A Who” in blue. Art crafted from ice may not last, but its ephemeral beauty makes a crisp winter’s night worth celebrating.
Things to do
SocialIce runs nightly Feb. 7 through 9. New this year will be an igloo for warming up and a Fam Jam, offering kid-friendly activities such as scavenger hunts and games from 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday (downtownrochestermn.com).
At Heritage Hall in the Gonda Building, a free exhibit tells of the Mayo brothers’ steamboat, used to entertain guests as their fame spread through treating VIPs such as Franklin Roosevelt and Lou Gehrig. Pioneering medical achievements included developing a G-suit with an oxygen mask to help pilots fly higher without blacking out, a Nobel Prize for discovering cortisone, and advances in transplants including a heart-lung bypass machine engineered in the 1950s (history.mayoclinic.org).
Mayo Clinic has one-hour guided clinic tours and guided or self-guided audio art tours on weekdays. It’s also worth checking out the third-floor Mayo Historical Suite in the 1928 Plummer Building, a National Historical Landmark. The architectural gem includes a 56-bell carillon in its tower, intricate marble mosaics in the lobby, massive and detailed bronze doors, and bas-relief caricatures on the exterior.
Quarry Hill Nature Center is a fun diversion with live snakes, turtles, fish, birds and fossils indoors, plus more than six miles of trails winding through 320 acres. The center rents snowshoes and Nordic skis (1-507-328-3950; qhnc.org).
Where to eat
Bleu Duck Kitchen, a buzz-worthy addition to Rochester’s solid restaurant lineup, opened in 2016 with a focus on seasonal ingredients and a menu that changes weekly. Look for something warm and hearty for winter such as tender pork with a smoky and sweet pearl barley risotto and lingonberry gastrique. Playful renditions of famous paintings (think “Mona Lisa” and “American Gothic”) adorn vintage brick walls, with blue ducks substituted for humans (1-507-258-4663; bleuduckkitchen.com).
Order a “proper fried chicken” with honey butter and biscuits, a house-smoked brisket or craft cocktail at Porch and Cellar, another newer restaurant which opened in the historic train depot near downtown (1-507-322-6551; porchandcellar.com).
For a warmup, try a spiced Thai coffee or a Mayan at Cafe Steam (1-507-208-4160; http://steam.coffee), or head about a mile from downtown to Forager Brewery for a cold beer, wood-fired pizzas and clever decor featuring local architectural antiques (1-507-258-7490; foragerbrewery.com).
Twigs, tucked into Centerstone Plaza Hotel, features a separate dedicated gluten-free kitchen, several vegetarian options and a popular patio when spring and summer arrive (1-507-288-0206; twigstavernandgrille.com). Another option when weather warms up: La Vetta, a seventh-floor rooftop bar and extension of Italian restaurant Terza (1-507-216-9590; terza3.com/la-vetta).
Where to sleep
DoubleTree by Hilton has modern decor, the seafood restaurant Pescara (pescarafresh.com) and skyway access to the Shops at University Square and the Civic Center (1-507-281-8000; doubletree3.hilton.com). Other familiar chains downtown include Holiday Inn, Hilton Garden Inn and Marriott. Rochester has close to 6,000 hotel rooms ranging from budget prices to luxury, with The Towers at the Kahler Grand, a five-star option on upper levels of the landmark Kahler Grand Hotel (1-507-280-6200; thekahlerhotel.com).
Follow Hwy. 52 from St. Paul for about 90 minutes to reach Rochester.
Rochester Convention and Visitors Bureau: 1-800-634-8277, visitrochestermn.com.
Lisa Meyers McClintick (lisamcclintick.com) writes for TravelChannel.com, Midwest Living and USA Today and wrote “Day Trips From the Twin Cities” and “The Dakotas Off the Beaten Path.”