Swearing is not polite; your mama taught you that. So here’s a tip to save you from muttering expletives as your day’s visit to Red Wing draws to an end: think ahead and book yourself a bed, for (as you’ll otherwise discover, all too late) there’s so much to do and see and shop and eat that it takes a weekend to begin to make a dent. And I’m not even talking about the Cannon Valley bike trail. Or, come summer, boating/hiking along the Mississippi as the mighty river twists and bends its way through town. Or eagle-watching high atop Barn Bluff, overlooking those watery curves.
Red Wing’s historic downtown—all neat brick and sandstone edifices reaching back to the 1800s—speaks to the Southern Minnesota river city’s heyday as a port and, soon after, a railroad hub. You can still hear the romantic wail of passing trains (connecting daily to/from the Twin Cities). Its vintage train station of 1905 now serves as the Tourist Information office and home to Red Wing Art Association’s charming gallery honoring regional artists and gift shop showcasing their wares.
At the TI, visitors can pick up a guide for several walking tours, starting here on the levee and continuing through neighborhoods of historic mansions-as-textbooks for reigning architectural styles, from Victorian to Empire to Craftsman and more—the romance of small-town Minnesota at its finest. Along Central Park, a wedge of greenery leading from the river to a fringe of woodsy hills, one can stand near the park’s bandstand (free concerts Wednesdays in summer) and count the spires of half a dozen graceful, vintage churches.
Perhaps the most gorgeous building in the entire town rises just a block away. The Sheldon Theater, erected in Renaissance Revival style in 1904 as a grain baron’s gift to his city, dressed in Italian marble columns, fancy plasterwork, gold leaf stenciling and glittering chandeliers. Traveling and local shows perform regularly in its 420-seat auditorium.
On your walking tour, you’ll pass gracious mansions-turned-B&Bs such as Moondance Inn, glowing with ornate antiques, including a Tiffany chandelier, and an old-time sense of hospitality that offers wine gatherings late afternoons, followed by bounteous three-course breakfasts every morning. Or snag yourself a room at the venerable St. James Hotel of 1875, whose spacious halls and lofty ceilings form a backdrop for another treasure house of antiques, accented by live music at Jimmy’s Pub and dining deluxe at The Port (more on that later): romance is almost guaranteed.
It’s a treat to shop in a town where old-time friendliness still abides as folks hold the door for others and greet strangers with a “hello” nod along the sidewalks. Discover ladies’ cosmo clothes at 17 Street and Josephson’s for classy, comfy menswear. 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, from its wood-plank floor to old-time tin ceiling. Bonus: first-time shoppers are given a free book.
Luya showcases high-style shoes, while Red Wing Shoes—the brand’s mothership, selling 2.2 million of the iconic boots a year (180 styles, sizes 4B to 20D)—also houses a free museum detailing the bootmaker’s history and process. Red Wing Stoneware does the same via museum, demos, and sales gallery of its renowned Red Wing pottery.
Another don’t-miss museum: the tiny Aliveo War Museum (open Friday-Saturday)—an under-the-radar storehouse of amazing artifacts including former soldiers’ donated souvenirs such as a Japanese flag from Okinawa; Nazi Storm Trooper’s cap with its scary skull emblem; a 1936 first edition of Mein Kampf and vintage World War I soldiers’ handbook for occupying Paris, “How to Parlay Voo.” Nazi armbands and medals, Viet Cong flags and scarves, Civil War rifles, and Confederate currency return to life via newspaper headlines from the times.
Some of those vets, I’m betting, are sitting right next to me in Bev’s Café, lunching on the Blue Plate special. 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 to satisfy your latte addiction along with wraps and panini.
The most forward menu in town is yours at Staghead, a sweet storefront whose bar is ruled by its namesake. 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, here presented 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. Live music is brought in on the weekends.
Its neighbor, Oliver’s, is a wine bar that provides tapas and entrees suited to the grapes. Nibble on bacon-wrapped dates plump with blue cheese, or artichoke dip, then proceed to flatbreads or pasta such as my divine linguine dressed in more blue cheese along with arugula and toasted walnuts, then a winter-friendly squash-and-cranberry risotto. Oh, you want hot dish? It’s on the menu, too.
The chef at The Port, back at the hotel—an alum of St. Paul’s Heartland— knows how to please with apps that segue from mussels in coconut curry to seared ahi tuna with ginger-wasabi aioli among the starters (along with lovely raw oysters). The Port’s Caesar is a real gem, loaded with pork belly and poached egg lounging on leaves of romaine. Scallops, says Chef Adam Frederickson, are a best seller. But so’s the osso buco, I’ll bet, after a plateful of his pork version rich with crimini mushrooms and farro. Swell cocktails,too, to savor while whispering sweet nothings to your sweetie.
Whet your appetite? To plan your own visit, see www.redwing.org.