Often referred to as “St. Small,” today’s City Guide takes us to the capital of Minnesota — Saint Paul — which, although a large metropolis, still boasts a small-town feel. “Everyone seems to be connected in some way,” Erica Dao, the writer of today’s guide, remarks. “The laid-back vibe is apparent and appreciated.” Filled with friendly locals, historic charm and endearing, tree-lined streets, Saint Paul’s Mac-Groveland neighborhood has been home to Erica for nearly a decade, and to her husband Dave for most of his life.
Despite having traveled to many fantastic states, the couple always draws the same conclusion: that “St. Paul is where it’s at.” With a bustling arts and culture scene and plenty of bike paths that overlook the Mississippi River, summers are paradise — and in the winter, St. Paul’s Winter Carnival is worth braving the cold for. In between, Erica and Dave love exploring masterpieces at the St. Paul Art Crawl or grabbing a cone at Izzy’s Ice Cream. From old school supper clubs to new school eateries, there’s never a shortage of tasty choices. Today, with help from her husband, Erica has put together a guide encompassing her ideal 24 hours in this great city, saying, “We are pretty much enamored with the capital of Minnesota and think you will be, too.” –Sabrina
9 am: The best way to start off the day is by walking down Summit Avenue. The morning air is invigorating and the sights are stunning. This street is the largest stretch of Victorian houses in the US. No matter where you start your walk along the 4.5-mile street, you’re sure to see remarkable, turn-of-the-century architecture. Dave and I started east of Dale Street so we could see the row house F. Scott Fitzgerald once lived in with his family.
10 am: We make our way to the Cathedral Hill area and make a stop at Nina’s Coffee Café (pronounced Nye-Nah’s) to fuel up.
It’s located on the corner of Western and Selby in the Blair Arcade Building, my absolute favorite structure in St. Paul.
It’s a picturesque, Queen Anne-style building built in 1887 that always seems to captivate us with its ornate façade. I order the two items I consider to be the best on the menu, which are the oatmeal and the chai. Dave orders a breakfast sandwich and a coffee. Another great option for breakfast in this neighborhood is The French Hen Café, an adorable restaurant with Parisian flair that’s attached to a floral shop called Fleur De Lis.
11 am: Our next destination is Idun, which is just a few blocks west of Nina’s on Selby.
Aesthetically minimal, this boutique features a tightly curated selection of simple yet structured silhouettes and neutral tones. The clean white walls and exposed brick lend to a modern setting that’s a pleasant departure from the historic neighborhood it’s located in. Shoppers will find brands not found anywhere else in the Twin Cities, like Eytys, Kaarem and Won Hundred. Owner Dahlia Brue’s keen sense of style is clearly reflected in this high-end, fashion-forward shop.
11:45 am: Now it’s Dave’s turn to shop. We head a few more blocks west on Selby to BlackBlue.
Classic, tried-and-true designs and raw denim are the foundation of this quaint boutique. Owner Steve Kang curates a medium to high-end selection of local, national and international heritage-strong brands. If you want to know anything and everything about raw denim, like why it should be worn for months without washing, this is the place. It’s primarily a men’s shop, but there is also a small selection for women. St. Paul-based brands like J.W. Hulme and Leatherworks MN are intermixed with A.P.C., Barbour and The Hill-Side, just to name a few. And here’s a fun fact: BlackBlue dressed Justin Vernon of Bon Iver for the Grammys back in 2012.
12:30 pm: It’s lunchtime, and we’ve worked up an appetite from shopping. We roll over to the Frogtown neighborhood and hit up Ngon Bistro.
This modern Vietnamese restaurant uses local and sustainable ingredients, and features a full bar with Minnesota craft beers as well as craft cocktails. The bar also has an extensive vinyl record collection and turntable, which is cool in my book. The menu features French-Vietnamese fusion dishes alongside traditional Vietnamese fare. Dave and I opt for the latter, so I order the bún with shrimp eggrolls and Dave orders the mì with chicken. We leave feeling satisfied as usual and ready to take on the rest of the afternoon.
2 pm: The Marjorie McNeely Conservatory in the Como Park area is our next destination.
Growing up, we both went to Como Park on a regular basis. Now it’s a nostalgic experience that we like to relive every now and then. The conservatory is a free attraction, but donations are accepted. As we enter the main entrance, we are pleasantly greeted by tropical temperatures and luscious plants. I always forget how awesome this place is, and I am elated to spend part of the afternoon taking in the beautiful sights and sounds of the six indoor gardens. There are also three outdoor gardens during the summer and fall. If you have extra time, you may also want to check out the Como Zoo and the Como Lake.
4 pm: After a relaxing stroll through the conservatory, we head over to Grand Avenue to do some more shopping. The first shop we visit is Golden Fig.
I absolutely love this shop and always leave with brilliant gift ideas for the foodies in my life. Aside from carrying a wide assortment of epicurean goods, owner Laurie McCann Crowell also stocks her own creations. You’ll find a massive selection of Golden Fig-branded vinegars, sugars and spices, all blended and bottled in small batches on a weekly basis. Another fun fact of the day: Laurie has worked with Ina Garten and Martha Stewart.
4:30 pm: Next door to Golden Fig is Foxglove Market and Studio.
It’s a darling mercantile, flower shop and studio all under one roof. The selection of party goods, stationery, vintage tabletop items and décor, and home essentials is thoughtfully curated by owner Christine Hoffman. Her experience as a longtime stylist and working on the HGTV show FreeStyle definitely shows through in the impeccably styled in-store displays. Christine is also dedicated to sourcing flowers from local farmers who are growing organically and sustainably.
Bonus: If you’re looking for a quick pick-me-up, I’d suggest Quixotic Coffee in the Highland Park neighborhood. This place just got an overhaul and serves a great handcrafted latte using local roaster Bootstrap Coffee Roasters.
5:30 pm: It’s time to head downtown. Our first stop is Rice Park.
Every winter, this downtown park transforms into a dazzling light display. During the rest of the year, there are fun events like Oktoberfest and the Ordway Theater’s Summer Dance Series. My favorite part about this little park in the city is its surroundings. Several historic buildings including the James J. Hill Reference Library, The Saint Paul Hotel and the Landmark Center envelop the park, which definitely gives you a taste of St. Paul’s historic charm.
6:30 pm: We are famished at this point and decide to have dinner at Saint Dinette, which is located in the Lowertown district of downtown St. Paul.
Lowertown is a burgeoning area and awesome new restaurants are popping up left and right. All you really need to know about Saint Dinette is the cheeseburger. I mean, everything I’ve tried at this restaurant is delicious, but the burger is a knockout. The chef makes the cheese in-house and the ratio of meat and cheese to bun is perfect. In addition to the cheeseburger, we also order the carbonara and a side of crinkle-cut fries to split.
8 pm: We’re tired from a full day of activities, but decide to stick around Lowertown for a bit longer. We walk over to The Dark Horse to each grab a drink before we call it a night. This bar and eatery also has a sister location in Minneapolis called Muddy Waters, one of our favorite places on the other side of the river. The Dark Horse has an extensive whisky list, but we opt for our usual– a glass of red for me and a local brew for Dave. We love the chill atmosphere and the industrial design with exposed brick walls and cool chandeliers.
Bonus: For those who are thirsty for more, head back to the Cathedral Hill area and have a classic cocktail at W.A. Frost or a vodka flight at Moscow on the Hill. For the beer drinkers, check out Lake Monster Brewing Co. It’s located in a very industrial area, and the 100-year-old structure it’s in used to be a railroad exchange building. For live music, head over to the Midway area and check out a show at the Turf Club, which is owned by the iconic First Avenue.