If you want to visit a really great downtown, get yourself to Target Center in Minneapolis.

Then head southwest and keep going for 10 miles until you reach Hopkins.

You'll find a downtown that's the envy of every suburb in the Twin Cities: a walkable, shoppable, livable heart of the city. It's not some Disneyfied re-creation of a bygone era — or a place that has survived only by going the tourist route, giving itself up completely to coffee shops and antique stores.

No, Mainstreet (they spell it as one word) is a real, working downtown where you can eat a cheap breakfast, get a clock repaired, buy a refrigerator or a hammer or some baby clothes — then relax with dinner and a drink before taking in a play.

Other cities in the western suburbs — Bloomington, Richfield and Golden Valley among them — grew up as bedroom communities without traditional downtowns. Coming of age in the postwar era when the car was king, their development was automobile-focused: busy streets, strip malls and big-box stores, acres of parking lots. Today, those cities are investing time and money trying to create town centers with the sort of atmosphere that Mainstreet exudes effortlessly.

Hopkins, by contrast, was founded more than 150 years ago and for decades was the largest community in western Hennepin County outside of Minneapolis.

It developed at a time when life was slower and cities were destinations, not places to pass through on the way to somewhere else. The core business district dates from the 1890s, with structures added in succeeding decades representing different architectural styles.

You'd never call Hopkins cosmopolitan, yet Mainstreet features both Brazilian and Russian grocery stores, as well as Japanese and Middle Eastern cuisine. On a recent visit, a large, laughing group of Muslim students headed to lunch from the Ubah Medical Academy while an Asian couple carried on an animated conversation in their native tongue.

"It's really cool. I like it here," said Chandra Fossen, 24, who recently moved to Hopkins from Uptown Minneapolis. She works at Mill City Sound, a Mainstreet record shop specializing in vinyl and CDs. "You tell people 'Hopkins' and they don't really know what's here. I was surprised."

Short on style, long on substance

With some exceptions, the buildings on Mainstreet aren't especially beautiful or architecturally noteworthy. They tend toward the sturdy and workaday, befitting the city's history as both a manufacturing center and a streetcar-era shopping destination for far-flung western Hennepin County.

But downtown Hopkins is a case where the whole is more than the sum of its parts. Even the humblest structures are generally clean and in good repair. Many have fresh paint, new awnings, attractive signs.

No monoliths draw attention to themselves; few buildings on Mainstreet are taller than two stories. The setbacks are uniform and close to the sidewalk, with windows giving views inside the businesses. The result is a cohesive streetscape that feels both intimate and open.

Mainstreet stretches for a mile, lined with faux-vintage lampposts, banners and mature trees that draw the eye down the field of perspective to open up a long view. The city has added decorative brickwork to the sidewalks at every corner and is in the process of repaving the street's entire length.

What's there? A lot

Up close, a diverse collection of storefronts invite strolling and browsing. What can you find on Mainstreet? Well, for starters: a florist and a nail salon. Sandwich shops and ice cream shops. Liquor and tobacco. Lawyers, accountants and Realtors. Antiques and acupuncture. A plethora of pubs and diners.

Toys and furniture. A maternity store and a funeral home. Two high schools. An arts center and a movie theater. A record store and a guitar shop. A tattoo artist and a dance studio. Three dentists and a hearing clinic. Auto repair and appliances. A barbershop and a beauty parlor.

In the 1300 block of Mainstreet stands what surely must be some of the most beautiful Section 8 housing around: the city's former junior high school, built in the 1920s and converted into affordable apartments in the 1980s. Its ornate brick facade, with tile inlay, overlooks the street from atop a 10-foot hill.

At the transitional western edge of downtown are several small strip malls and apartment complexes. Set back from the street, screened by large, mature trees, they manage to blend into the streetscape without sounding a jarring note. Mainstreet Hopkins is well worth a visit for students of urban design. Its buildings won't bowl you over. But its cohesive character, and intuitive functioning as a place for people, will.

John Reinan • 612-673-7402