Red Wing — one of our region’s prettiest showpieces of beauty, both natural and man-made — sits close. From the Twin Cities, head about an hour southeast by car and you’re there, ready to party like it’s 1875.
That’s the year the historic redbrick St. James Hotel debuted to serve travelers along the bustling Mississippi, the interstate of its day. Or fast-forward to 1905, when Red Wing’s charming railroad station opened, which today still serves visitors from the Twin Cities with Amtrak stops daily.
Today it’s also home of the Red Wing Visitor & Convention Bureau, where you can pick up self-guiding maps (and podcasts) of walking tours throughout the historical neighborhoods where brick facades of businesses front gracious homes of myriad architectural persuasions — Italianate, Victorian, Queen Anne. This is the romance of small-town Minnesota at its finest.
Some of those mansions now serve as B&Bs in this town of 16,000, such as Moondance Inn, glowing with ornate antiques and a Tiffany chandelier amid an old-time sense of hospitality that results in wine gatherings in late afternoons and bounteous, three-course breakfasts every morning.
The railroad station also serves as home to Red Wing Arts, representing regional artworks to view or purchase. It’s also a prominent stop on the levee’s half-mile riverside hiking/biking trail that curves under bluffs, where eagles perch and take in views of Wisconsin across the water.
At the turn of the century, Red Wing was a hot spot for entertainment, with the opening of the gorgeous Sheldon Theater in 1904 — a grain baron’s gift to his city.
Sparing nothing, it’s a marvel of Renaissance Revival style, flaunting ornate plasterwork, Italian marble columns and gold-leaf stencil — fun to tour and even better to experience as a performance space for local or traveling talent (closed for renovation June through September this year).
Along Central Park, a wedge of greenery leading from the river to a fringe of woodsy hills, one can linger near the park’s bandstand (free concerts on Wednesdays in summer) and count the spires of half a dozen graceful, vintage churches.
Patrol Main Street, and stretching just behind it, Third Street, to shop in a town where old-time friendliness still abides as neighbors hold the door for others and greet strangers with a smile along the sidewalks.
Uffda is the source for all things Scando, from crystal to Christmas ornaments, from cozy knits to Wilkommen mats.
Thunder Clan Trading Post is crammed with drums, beadwork, jewelry and sweet grass from nearby tribes. Fair Trade Books poses as the bookstore of your dreams with its woodplank floors and old-time tin ceilings. Bonus: First-time shoppers are given a free book.
Luya showcases high-style shoes, while the Red Wing Store and Outlet Center houses a free museum detailing the bootmaker’s history and process along with The World’s Largest Boot — the biggest “ever witnessed by the civilized public” — “fit for a 12-story human giant.” Red Wing Shoes still sells 2.2 million iconic pairs a year (180 styles, sizes 4B to 20D).
Red Wing Stoneware, on the town’s outskirts, does the same via a museum, demos and a sales gallery of its famed pottery.
And don’t miss the tiny Aliveo War Museum (open Fridays and Saturdays), an under-the-radar treasury of amazing artifacts, including local soldiers’ wartime souvenirs — a Japanese flag from Okinawa; a Nazi Stormtrooper’s cap with its scary skull emblem; a 1936 first edition of Mein Kampf; and a vintage World War I soldiers’ handbook for occupying Paris (How to Parlay Voo).
Amid newspaper headlines from the times, artifacts from Nazi armbands and medals, Viet Cong flags and scarves, Civil War rifles and Confederate currency return to life.
Treats, eats, drinks
Some of those vets, I’m betting, will be sitting right next to you in Bev’s Café, lunching on the Blue Plate special. On most mornings, Hanisch Bakery is THE meeting place — every seat filled with seniors clasping their coffee mugs and one of those doughnuts voted “Best in the Midwest.” Mandy’s is the polar opposite — a trendy coffeehouse designed to satisfy your latte addiction alongside with wraps and panini.
The most adventurous menu in town is found at Staghead, a vintage storefront where its namesake hangs above the bar. Assemble a feast of small plates, ranging from cheese and sausage platters to eggs deviled with blue cheese, garlic aioli and bacon; a classic beef tartare; chicken pate; salmon cakes; and the best Brussels sprouts of a lifetime in a warm salad with bacon, poached egg and maple-Dijon vinaigrette.
Evening entrees range from bouillabaisse to pork loin, duck breast to braised beef. Linger for live music on weekends.
Staghead’s neighbor, Oliver’s, is a wine bar that matches tapas and entrees to the grapes. Nibble on bacon-wrapped dates plump with blue cheese or artichoke dip; then proceed to flatbreads or pasta. Oh, you want hot dish? It’s on the menu, too.
The chef at The Port, the dining star of the St. James Hotel, is Adam Frederickson, an alum of St. Paul’s late Heartland, who knows how to please with apps such as mussels in coconut curry, ahi tuna with ginger-wasabi aioli and lovely raw oysters.
The Port’s Caesar is a real gem — pork belly and a poached egg lounging on leaves of romaine. Scallops, says Frederickson, are a best seller. But so’s the osso buco, I’d bet, after devouring a plateful of his pork version. You’ll find swell cocktails, too.
Wanna get outside?
Old West Main Street is the kick-off point for the popular Cannon Valley Trail, which travels 20 paved miles up to Cannon Falls. Rated as one of the best trails in the U.S., it affords gorgeous views of the Cannon River, plus bluffs, farmland, meadows and more.
On the outskirts of Red Wing lies Falconer Vineyards & Winery in a scenic valley that spreads out before visitors sprawled on the deck, enjoying vino and pizza, plus live music.
About 10 minutes away, find the home of Hobgoblin Music and Stoney End harps — housed in a huge restored former cattle barn. Visitors are invited to inspect Stoney End’s antique instrument museum and workshops to see where the fabled harps are made amid the smell of fresh-cut wood and, sometimes, live performances in the hayloft .
Carla Waldemar is an award-winning food/travel/arts writer. She edits the annual Zagat Survey of Twin Cities restaurants and writes food and travel articles for publications around the world. She lives in Uptown.