When I visited St. Paul this summer, I was vaguely aware of another city nearby. I saw skyscrapers in the distance and heard mention of a twin - a sparklier, sassier, busier, bigger city slightly to the west. A city that gets first billing and all the love.
I registered that other city in my mind and then dismissed it altogether. Because St. Paul, I discovered, is more fun than second fiddle and too important to be an afterthought.
St. Paul is the capital of Minnesota, the older and smaller of the Twin Cities. It's quieter and more relaxed, wholesome and family-friendly, with an air of romance, as though it's winking at a bygone time. It's F. Scott Fitzgerald's birthplace and boasts one of the country's best-preserved neighborhoods from the Gilded Age. St. Paul is hardly a sleepy town - it attracts big-name entertainers, goes hockey crazy in the winter and this year opened Allianz Field, a gleaming world-class soccer stadium. I ran out of time during my visit before I ran out of highly recommended restaurants.
St. Paul may be accused of being the buttoned-up sibling, but it doesn't take long for a visitor to see the city's silly and spirited side: Take the baseball team's SpongeBob SquarePants promotion; the croquet group that plays in Victorian dress; the watering hole called Bad Weather Brewing Company; or the beloved Winter Carnival, featuring a legendary fight between King Boreas and the firetruck-riding Vulcanus Rex. Of course, if a SpongeBob-celebrating, croquet-playing, Vulcan-fighting city isn't your jam, there's always the other city. For the rest of us, there's St. Paul.
What do you expect when Bill Murray is involved? The philosophy of the St. Paul Saints, an independent professional baseball team, seems to be that no matter what happens on the field, a night of fun and wackiness is a win. (According to the website, Murray, one of the owners, is the "team psychologist.") This past season, when the Saints had fun and won the league championship, promotions included Star Wars Night, Food Allergy Awareness Night ("Not a peanut in the park!"), and celebrations for the anniversaries of "The Office" and "Sesame Street." The team plays at CHS Field in Lowertown, and over the years its pig mascot has been named Hammy Davis Jr., Garrison Squeallor, Stephen Colboar and Porknite. The well-attended games are wildly popular with locals, particularly for the $1 beers on Thirsty Thursdays, $5 same-day tickets and bleacher seat massages.
No matter the season or the reason, locals unwind at Como Park. The sprawling park, northwest of the city, includes a free zoo and conservatory, open year-round. The Marjorie McNeely Conservatory, one of the few remaining glass-domed Victorian-style gardens in the country, was built in 1915 and is home to permanent collections as well as five seasonal flower shows (the Fall Flower Show runs through Nov. 24). You'll find a Japanese garden, a bonsai collection and a fern room with more than 100 species. Visitors often stroll, run or skate around the lake (1.67 miles) and grab a beer and burger at the pavilion, which hosts yoga and live music in the summer. In the winter, cross-country ski or sled at the Como Golf Course and take ski and snowboard lessons at Como Park Ski Center.
If you can't strut out to Paisley Park in Chanhassen (about 30 minutes southwest of St. Paul), hit the Minnesota History Center to see Prince's famous "Purple Rain" get-up. The suit (fab ruffled white shirt, long purple gloves, knee-length jacket) is part of "First Avenue: Stories of Minnesota's Mainroom," an exhibit celebrating the 50th anniversary of the legendary Minneapolis music club Prince called home (through May 3, 2020). After you've binged on music videos and artifacts, head to "Weather Permitting," a permanent exhibit that will prepare you for small (and large) talk about weather with locals. Turns out the Twin Cities, equidistant from the North Pole and the equator, have some of the world's most volatile weather. I sat through a six-minute tornado simulation - re-creating one that hit the region in 1965, killing 14 - with "Purple Rain" looping in my head.
Downtown's Rice Park, splendid and lively in all temperatures, unveiled its $2.35 million facelift this summer. The park, which features a stunning fountain, is bordered by the Saint Paul Hotel, the George Latimer Central Library, the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts, and Landmark Center, an arts and history center that has several micro-museums (including the Schubert Club museum, filled with historic instruments and correspondence from famous composers). Rice Park, designated a public square in 1849, is home to a bronze statue of St. Paul native Fitzgerald. Nearby are statues of hometown hero Herb Brooks, the hockey coach behind the "Miracle on Ice" win over the Soviet Union in the 1980 Winter Olympics, and Peanuts characters, an ode to St. Paul's Charles Schulz. In the winter, Rice Park becomes a twinkly, magical wonderland and hosts the uber-popular Winter Carnival.
"One bite. Like an oyster." The friendly bartender at Tongue in Cheek instructed me on how to eat the "teaser," or amuse-bouche, I'd ordered - a large spoon artfully packed with colorful ingredients. "You should get it in four flavors: basil, blueberry, toffee peanuts and then the funk of the blue cheese." He was right. It was the most interesting single bite I'd taken in recent memory. The rest of the meal at this cozy spot on the gritty east side of town was just as flavorful: a pea shoot and burrata salad with stone fruit and pine nuts; zucchini pad thai. The menu also has meat options, such as fried chicken ramen. Five-course "carnivore" and "herbivore" tasting menus, $70 and $65, respectively, are available for dinner; brunch is served daily.
If you're looking for more taco than the overpriced, dainty "street style" options that have been popping up everywhere recently, head to El Burrito Mercado, an institution on St. Paul's West Side (confusingly on the south side of town). At the cafe (there's also a sit-down restaurant), I ordered two huge tacos for $6 and sat, listening to salsa music and talking to a mustached Mexican man who works at Vietnamese and Chinese restaurants. Located in an area that's called District del Sol for its many Latino-owned businesses, El Burrito Mercado has been a fixture for decades. At the market, piñatas hang from the ceiling and shoppers read signs in Spanish, buying souvenirs; Fanta bottled in Mexico; freshly made tamales, empanadas and guac; and bakery items like tres leches cake and cookies the size of portobello mushrooms. Return in May for the neighborhood's Cinco de Mayo celebration, one of the largest in the country.
I was eating my mushroom toast on the patio at Holman's Table one morning when a small jet landed nearby, taxied down the runway and stopped on the tarmac, mere feet from my breakfast. What a way for an aviation geek to start the day! Holman Field, the onetime headquarters of Northwest Airlines, opened this all-day restaurant before the 2018 Super Bowl to feed hungry VIPs arriving in their private jets. Now, most of the 100-plus daily takeoffs and landings are corporate aircraft (no commercial flights means no security hassles), and the restaurant is a great spot for pilots and passengers to grab a bite. Let's just say I was mesmerized by every little plane that landed before me, wobbling down the runway. A floatplane took off, a Black Hawk helicopter was towed into the Minnesota Army National Guard hangar, and I couldn't imagine being more delighted if a Richard Scarry book came to life. Eventually, I realized my toast was cold - a shame because the food is too good to be forgotten. Insider tips: Bring binoculars and download the LiveATC app to listen to air traffic control. Ask to sit in the viewing area on the tarmac, and order a Red Eye or Airmail cocktail around the firepit.
Step back in time at the Commodore, an art deco and Jazz Age restaurant and cocktail lounge in the Cathedral Hill neighborhood. Perhaps best known as a favorite spot of Fitzgerald's (the writer and wife Zelda lived upstairs in the early 1920s), the legendary restaurant has its own colorful history - home to a basement speakeasy during prohibition and a destination for Chicago mobsters. Beautifully restored and glamorous, with a killer bar, the Commodore serves starters including lobster deviled eggs and Waldorf salad and entrees like seven-spice cauliflower and beer-battered walleye. You'll want to dress up here, to honor the history and romance of the Commodore, which turns 100 in 2020. Toast the Fitzgeralds with a gin cocktail named for him and a sparkling wine concoction named for her. (In the summer, take a Fitzgerald walking tour with the Minnesota Historical Society.)
Channel your inner homesteader and trot over to Egg|Plant Urban Farm Supply, which sells all sorts of seeds, kits, books and tools for the inspired city gardener. I scanned titles like "Attracting Beneficial Bugs," "Epic Tomatoes" and "Good Mushroom, Bad Mushroom" and contemplated all the ways I could procrastinate on work back home - with DIY goat cheese or bitters kits and supplies for canning and pickling. The shop sells handmade brooms and canvas aprons and offers Saturday classes on topics such as cheesemaking and chicken-keeping, which has become more commonplace here (Egg|Plant even sells chicken harnesses). I bought a vegetable-themed pack of temporary tattoos and picked up a brochure on raising chickens, which points out that hens are quieter than dogs. Also in the brochure: "Take a class on chicken keeping. They depend on you for their comfort and safety."
On Grand Avenue, a shopping district where many of the independent retailers operate out of little houses, Red Balloon Bookshop was my favorite. The 35-year-old store not only offers weekly story times, author readings and a thoughtful collection of titles for kids, it also has a small section of books for adults and sells some of the best book-related merch I've seen for both small and large readers: "Goodnight Moon" tees, "The Very Hungry Caterpillar" socks, "Make Way for Ducklings" zipper pouches, "Corduroy" onesies and "Blueberries for Sal" tote bags. Local reads: "Goodnight Minnesota" and "Boundary Waters ABC." Also on Grand: Mischief Toy Shop, the Yarnery and Northern Brewer Homebrew Supply.
Keg and Case West 7th Market, a food and retail hall that opened last year in the old Schmidt Brewery, was described to me by St. Paulites as a little "too hip" and "too glossy" for St. Paul, maybe more at home in that other city to the west. I predict even the locals who said this will, in time, come to love the market. Entering, you see a dazzling, 15-foot-high mushroom grow chamber at Forest to Fork, a shop that sells wild foraged and cultivated mushrooms (more than a dozen species at any given time, counting the 800 pounds that grow in the chamber each week), foraging supplies, books and tools. You can find an "Edible Mushrooms of Minnesota" calendar, mushroom cocoa mix, a "brushroom" for mushroom cleaning and "Mush love" stickers. Also at Keg and Case: House of Halva, where you can order a tahini smoothie and halvah in unexpected flavors like coffee; Spinning Wylde, offering cotton candy in more than 50 flavors (black licorice, rum and coke); and In Bloom, which cooks all its food over fire.
It's easy to forget, when you're walking past the crowded indoor stalls or outdoor vegetable stands in Hmongtown Marketplace, that you're in the American Midwest. The sounds, smells, voices on TV and faces proclaim, "Southeast Asia!" St. Paul is said to have the nation's largest Hmong population, and when locals shop here, it feels like home. Hundreds of vendors pack the market with trinkets, soaps, bowls, cosmetics, traditional Hmong headdresses and robes, platform shoes, DVDs, fake eyelashes, knockoff designer handbags and cheap toys. You can also find 50-pound bags of jasmine rice (for that friend who has everything) and another section with Asian produce like rambutan (a relative of the litchi), jackfruit and ginger root knobs the size of my fist. There are plenty of authentic and flavorful street food spots to try here and countless ethnic restaurants nearby. Favorites are Ngon Bistro (Vietnamese-French) and Trieu Chau (Vietnamese).
The city's first boutique hotel, the Davidson, is scheduled to open this month in a century-old Tudor mansion on stately Summit Avenue, said to be the nation's longest stretch of Victorian-era homes. The nine-room, 1915 house was originally home to real estate magnate Watson Davidson and his wife, Sarah, and later home to the College of Visual Arts. Guests have access to a fitness center, outdoor pool, restaurant and social events at the nearby University Club. Rooms start at $249; all have kitchens or kitchenettes, soaking tubs and smart TVs. A couple of blocks up Summit, tour the 1891 James J. Hill House, Minnesota's own Downton Abbey - a 36,000-square-foot mansion built for railroad titan James J. Hill. Around the corner from the Hill House, tour the Cathedral of Saint Paul.
The Saint Paul Hotel doesn't need to drop names - the doorman's stovepipe hat and hotel's ornate decor speak volumes - but what the heck. Charles Lindbergh dined here, Lawrence Welk regularly played here and Gene Autry and his horse stayed here. Overlooking Rice Park and a short walk from the Xcel Energy Center, where the NHL's Minnesota Wild play, and Meritage, a favorite French brasserie, the hotel offers a five-course afternoon tea and private etiquette classes. At the lobby bar, find live jazz and handcrafted cocktails. Rates for the 255 rooms and suites (some look out to the cathedral) start at $149. If you'd rather rock to sleep on a boat, check in at the Covington Inn, a year-round floating, three-story bed-and-breakfast on the Mississippi just across the Wabasha Street Bridge from downtown. The four staterooms all have private baths and working fireplaces.
Don't let the jargony name scare you away from the Creative Enterprise Zone, a neighborhood of artists, makers and entrepreneurs near Raymond and University avenues, between downtown St. Paul and Minneapolis. Shop for records at Aghart and Barely Bros., vintage clothing at Shag Studio, and mid-century modern at MidModMen+friends (if you love the colorful handmade lamps, also check out Modilumi) and Succotash. Fuel up at Caffe Biaggio, a simple, old-school Italian restaurant. If you're ISO a taproom, visit the Lab, a new test facility for alcoholic and nonalcoholic drinks; Dual Citizen, a kid-friendly brewery where you can order food from the Naughty Greek; and Urban Growler, which hosts, along with Dual Citizen, a monthly public book club called Books & Bars. Stop at Can Can Wonderland for a vintage arcade and mini-golf like you've never seen. This walkable neighborhood is accessible by light rail, so be green and hop on the Green Line.
Looking to eat or shop downtown? Head to the old warehouses and artists' lofts of the historic Lowertown neighborhood, established in the late 1880s to support Mississippi riverboat traffic and rail commerce. Start off any Saturday with free yoga at the historic train station, Union Depot, then head to the farmers market (the summer market runs through October; a smaller one is held in the winter). Grab an egg sandwich with Gruyere and a hot cocoa at Salty Tart, grapefruit brulee made with a blowtorch at Saint Dinette, or loaded hash browns at the Buttered Tin. Walk to Mears Park, a favorite spot for locals, and plan your visit around Lowertown First Fridays, when artists open their studios. The Black Dog Cafe, a Lowertown old-timer, is open all day and has live music (jazz, roots, bluegrass) most nights.