"Water is the hardest thing to paint," explained curator Jon Swanson, gesturing to a painting with a stream that seemed to shimmer and flow across the canvas. "It is dynamic, translucent, reflective."

The painting Swanson was admiring — Daniel Ridgway Knight's "The Brook" (1894) — isn't hung at a museum in Minneapolis, New York or Chicago. Along with works by Monet, Van Gogh, Picasso and O'Keeffe, it resides at the Minnesota Marine Art Museum in Winona, Minn., population 27,592.

Minnesota is home to this world-class collection of marine art thanks to local collectors Robert A. Kierlin and Mary Burrichter, who founded the museum in 2006. While the museum's shingled exterior evokes Cape Cod, the building is right at home in a sea of native prairie grass along the Mississippi River. Inside, the Minnesota Marine Art Museum's mission is to showcase "great art inspired by water." Obviously, this includes traditional paintings of sailing ships and lush Hudson River School landscapes. In other cases, the connection to water is as subtle as a glimpse of a pond through a window. Likewise, the museum's definition of art is expansive: a current temporary exhibit celebrates the history of sailors' tattoos.

Many visitors make a beeline for the museum's iconic "Washington Crossing the Delaware," possibly the most famous (if inaccurate) artistic depiction of American history. Measuring nearly 6 feet across, the painting is a smaller version of its more famous sibling at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. The two works were painted simultaneously, with corrections made to one mirrored in the other. Before coming to Winona, the painting spent decades displayed in the White House's West Wing.

Other popular works in the permanent collection include Van Gogh's first oil painting (a beach scene embedded with grits of sand that blew into the work in progress) and a luminous Monet landscape. Engaging temporary galleries feature rotating exhibitions by contemporary Minnesota artists. Spanning more than 300 years and a wide range of styles, the Minnesota Marine Art Museum is a unique opportunity to see high-caliber art in a small town (1-507-474-6626; mmam.org).

Downtown diversions

After appreciating Winona's fine art, explore the historic downtown, much of which dates to the city's late-19th-century heyday as a hub for the lumber and flour-milling industries. Start at the Winona County History Center, housed in a former armory, to get local background. The "Main Street" exhibit includes a 19th-century general store, 1930s bank and World War II-era barbershop. Kids will love climbing into the pilot house of a Mississippi steamboat in the hands-on "Walking Through Time" exhibit. The armory's balcony running track has been transformed into a Winona County timeline highlighting the area's geology, Dakota inhabitants and recent events like the devastating flood of 2007 (1-507-454-2723; winonahistory.org).

Many of Winona's historic buildings feature artistic stained-glass windows, a tradition that continues today with several renowned stained-glass studios based in town. The Winona National Bank (204 Main St.), a unique blend of Prairie School architecture and Egyptian influences, is worth a visit for its intricate Tiffany windows. Noteworthy stained glass can also be viewed at the Merchants National Bank, the Winona County History Center and the county courthouse.

Natural-products company J.R. Watkins is based in Winona, with a stately administration building and a manufacturing plant anchoring the east end of downtown. A gift shop carries the full line of Watkins products, from its signature double-strength vanilla extract to richly scented hand creams and dish soaps. The adjacent museum traces the company's 150-year history with displays of vintage products and retro advertisements (1-507-457-6095; jrwatkins.com).

Downtown offers an array of shopping. Heart's Desire (1-507-452-5621) has a huge selection of home decor, kitchen gadgets, gourmet foods, clothing and accessories. Kate + Bella (1-507-452-5368) is a boutique with a trendy collection of women's clothing, shoes and accessories. Chapter 2 Books (1-507-313-9693) has a wide range of used titles and a couple of friendly bookstore cats. The rainbow-hued selection at Yarnology (1-507-474-9444) will delight knitters and crocheters.

Where to eat

Start the day at Bloedow Bakery, a Winona institution since 1924. Antique bakery cases are filled with doughnuts, cinnamon rolls and highly recommended maple Long Johns, plus unique specialties like peanut butter rolls and glazed croissants. The bakery also has a selection of cookies and breads (1-507-452-3682; bloedows.com).

As the home to St. Mary's and Winona State universities, Winona has plenty of casual cafes. The trendy Blooming Grounds Coffee House (1-507-474-6551; bgcoffeehouse.com) serves up pastries, paninis and a stellar cappuccino by day and beer, wine, pizza and live music at night. At the Blue Heron Coffeehouse (1-507-452-7020; blueheroncoffeehouse.com), the focus is on locally sourced organic ingredients, with a seasonal menu of gourmet sandwiches and salads. Many items have a global twist, from a Nepalese-style egg salad sandwich to a Szechuan noodle salad.

Open seasonally since 1938, the Lakeview Drive Inn serves classic American fare with a toe-tapping retro soundtrack. The made-to-order hamburger, ringing up at $1.90, may be Winona's most delicious bargain. Besides an assortment of burgers (with black bean and walnut versions for vegetarians), the menu includes fried chicken and plenty of sides — try the onion rings, served with a tasty housemade tartar sauce. Finish with a frosted glass mug of root beer, made from scratch. The 2016 season ends on Labor Day, with reopening scheduled for the first week of March (1-507-454-3723; lake ­viewdriveinn.com).

For dessert, stop by Nate & Ally's Frozen Treat Creations (1-507-429-7164; natenallys.com) for self-serve frozen yogurt, custard, gelato, Italian ice and gelati, a refreshing blend of gelato and Italian ice. Craft the perfect sundae with the topping bar's selection of fresh fruit, candy and sauces.

Where to stay

The Village House Inn (1-507-454-4322; villagehouse inn.com) has four cozy rooms within a few minutes' drive from downtown. Innkeeper Anne is a gracious host, and the deluxe continental breakfast includes fresh pastries and granola from the Blue Heron.

Other options range from chain hotels to historic bed and breakfasts, with a directory at visitwinona.com.

Getting there

Winona is a scenic 2½-hour drive southeast of the Twin Cities along the Great River Road (Hwy. 61).

Stacy Brooks is a Minneapolis freelance writer. She blogs at tangledupinfood.com.