Located on the banks of the St. Croix River, which serves as the boundary between Minnesota and Wisconsin, this former logging town is charming without being cloying. It’s an active waterfront city that delivers a historic downtown district and artfully restored period homes, but equally known for romantic hideaways and some surprising ways to get outdoors and enjoy nature. Not the history geek? See Stillwater through two different weekend styles named above.
Stillwater for History Buffs
Start in Lowell Park, along the banks of the St. Croix River. The mills are gone now, replaced with a mix of riverfront green space and paved trails that attract dedicated cyclists and joggers as well as strolling senior citizens and parents pushing wide-eyed babies in prams.
The focal point in every season is the Stillwater Lift Bridge, the symbol of the city since 1931. From May through October, you can perch on a park bench or watch from the waterfront gazebo as the bridge rises to let boat traffic through. When the bridge isn’t in motion, pedestrians can step out over the water on a walkway on the south side. Soon (tourism officials have their fingers crossed for the end of 2017), the bridge will be closed to vehicle traffic entirely and pedestrians can walk and bike the entire length and width of the bridge between Minnesota and Wisconsin.
Just a few blocks from the banks of the St. Croix, Stillwater’s downtown district beckons. The heart of the city boasts more than 100 locally-owned shops, restaurants and pubs with plenty of interesting nooks and crannies to explore. The nearly 11-block stretch of the Stillwater Commercial Historic District retains many of its original brick buildings and is listed on the Registry of Historic Places.
Architecture buffs will notice a variety of popular building styles, from 1870s and 1880s Italianate to 20th Century Commercial, while shoppers will appreciate the colorful window displays, cheerful flower boxes and busy sidewalk patios. A self-guided walking tour explores 14 historic and cultural sites through a series of videos and a brochure.
“If you can, take a ride on the trolley tour to see the gorgeous Victorian homes,” adds Caitlin Rick, who manages social media for Explore Minnesota and first fell in love with Stillwater and Stillwater Trolley when she visited her boyfriend’s parents. “The city has dozens of restored Victorian mansions. The tour guides are very knowledgeable and it’s a great way to explore the city.”
To step inside the city’s lumber history, book a room at the historic Water Street Inn. The former Lumber Exchange Building was constructed in 1890 and its lovingly restored lobby retains the original tin ceiling. Homebodies will appreciate that rooms offer fireplaces and luxurious whirlpool tubs, while social butterflies will make a beeline for Charlie’s Irish Pub. A saloon opened on that very spot back in 1890, and the Victorian-style interior is just as lively today. Check out the patio for views of the river and the Lift Bridge and stay for Champagne Brunch on Sundays.
For a taste of another era, head across the street to Leo’s Grill & Malt Shoppe for burgers, fries, thick, rich malts and shakes and hand-scooped ice cream in a classic American diner setting. Save room for handmade fudge, hand-dipped chocolates, pecans or cashew turtles and old-fashioned saltwater taffy at Temblay’s Sweet Shop. The shop is pure nostalgia and makes kids out of everybody.
To bring a non-edible piece of the past home as a souvenir, head to Staples Mill Antiques, where there are 10,000 square feet of antiques and collectibles to explore. Look for quilts, glassware and surprisingly affordable furniture from over 30 vendors. There’s also an art gallery, artisan shops and a yoga studio nearby, all housed in a historic sawmill built in 1860. The free coffee is always on, so stop out when you need a boost.
Then pop over to Midtown Antiques, billed as the largest antique mall in the Midwest. Over 80 vendors tempt customers with three floors of treasures, including high-end estate jewelry and vintage clothing, a great selection of Minnesota-made Red Wing Pottery and more than a thousand tools that date back as far as the 1700s.
Travel back in time to when the river boats rules the St. Croix with a Stillwater River Boats cruise. The old-fashioned watercraft offer a view of the region you just can’t get from the shore. “The scenery was so very beautiful,” say Erin Ehlert of West Fargo, North Dakota, who took a river boat tour as part of a family vacation. “Homes tucked away in the cliff hills that surround the river were stunning.”
Daily lunch and dinner cruises offer climate-controlled comfort, a buffet meal (menu options include prime rib, herb-roasted chicken and walleye) and strolling Dixieland jazz bands on Saturday nights and Sunday afternoons. The public tour season starts mid-May and private charters are available.