Minnesota’s Birthplace Does Not Sit ‘Still’
Photos courtesy of Mike Marcotte
Stillwater creates a perfect staycation destination only minutes from the cities.
As the host of Minnesota’s first territorial convention in 1848, Stillwater is considered Minnesota’s birthplace. The town is actually older than Minneapolis.
Nestled on the St. Croix River about 25 miles east of downtown Minneapolis, Stillwater was recently voted as having one of the top 10 Best Small Town Food Scenes by USA Today.
Between the restaurants, you’ll find an eclectic group of antique shops plus other shopping experiences showcasing makers from Minnesota and Wisconsin.
For those from the Twin Cities, Stillwater makes for a simple, yet fulfilling staycation destination.
I recently teamed up with Discover Stillwater, the city’s visitors bureau, to showcase their best, whether you’re visiting from Minneapolis or Miami.
Where to eat: Nacho Mama’s
312 Main St. S.
When I asked my Facebook fans what they love about Stillwater, Nacho’s Mama’s was the most popular response. Located right on Main Street, the eclectic vibe inside will instantly put a smile on your face.
The menu mixes authentic and modern Mexican dishes with a twist. You’ll find a hint of the Caribbean on the menu, too.
The Nacho Mama’s Nachos, on the appetizers menu, is more like a dinner entree. For $15, you’ll get a platter full of chips with pico de gallo, guacamole, lettuce, multiple types of melted cheese, sour cream, and your choice of beef, chicken, pulled pork, or a Tijuana cocktail (marinated shrimp). For two people, these nachos and a couple margaritas is all you need for a great dinner.
I also ordered The Three Amigos off the specialty entree menu. It features three stuffed bell peppers — the green has shredded beef and rice, the red has shredded chicken, black beans and smoked gouda, and my favorite, the yellow, has shrimp, crab, and jalapeño popper cream cheese.
As for other recommended restaurants, check out Phil’s Tara Hideaway, located outside of downtown along Highway 36. Situated in a cozy log cabin, the Tara offers a Greek-inspired menu with daily-sourced fish.
You also can’t go wrong with LoLo American Kitchen, right along Main Street. And inside the Water Street Inn, Charlie’s Restaurant offers weekly four-course Wine Dinners. Each course is paired with a glass of wine, and it costs less than $50 per person.
Where to shop: Smith + Trade Mercantile
229 Main St. S.
Fodor’s Travel included Stillwater in its list of the 10 Best Antiquing Towns in the United States, but there’s plenty more shopping in town. Stillwater is home to over 50 independent owner-operated stores, including Smith + Trade Mercantile, which opened on Main Street in May 2019.
Smith + Trade features the work of 60 artisans from Minnesota and Wisconsin, and once they move into the storefront next door later in 2021, they will be able to host around 90 artists.
From leather work to jewelry, wall art to glass, Smith + Trade offers a wide array of home decor, with no more than two or three artists in the same aesthetic.
Placards around the store feature the information for every artist, and you’re able to scan a QR code that takes you to their page on Smith + Trade’s website. Many of the artists can be found in the store working on their craft, and all do custom orders.
The Mercantile offers classes, including cigar rolling and bourbon tastings, along with live music. Owners hope to get those activities going again as COVID restrictions ease.
As for other shopping experiences, Reclaiming Beautiful is giving new life to furniture and other home decor. They’re open Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays a bit up the hill from downtown.
Because you deserve a treat: Candyland
212 Main St. N.
Every true Minnesotan knows about Candyland. The first location, in downtown Saint Paul, opened in 1932. It got its start by selling fudge and popcorn.
It’s that popcorn that’s a big part of Candyland’s success today. They are well known for their Chicago Mix, a combination of seasoned popcorn, caramel popcorn, and cheese popcorn. The Chicago Mix has been a staple on the Candyland menu since 1988.
The Stillwater location opened in the summer of 2012 right along Main Street. Beyond the popcorn, you’ll find hand-dipped chocolates made from scratch, along with a wide assortment of candy. You don’t have to walk into the store to catch Candyland’s sweet, sweet smell.
Because you deserve a treat (and it’s Summer): Nelson’s Ice Cream
920 Olive St. W.
Although it’s up the hill from Main Street, and only open during the warm weather months, Nelson’s Ice Cream is worth the visit. It was voted as one of the five best ice cream shops in Minnesota.
The building that houses Nelson’s dates back to 1923, but the reason why Nelson’s is so popular didn’t catch on until the 1960s. They serve very, very generous scoops of ice cream.
More than 40 flavors of ice cream are available, and you’ll also find a line on warm summer nights. When I visited to chat with the family who owns Nelson’s, the line went out the door, down the block, and wrapped around the corner. Nelson’s owners tell me they’ll go through 450 gallons of ice cream on a busy day.
Heads up if you visit: they only accept cash. Depending on weather, Nelson’s is typically open from the beginning of April until Halloween.
Down on Main Street, Leo’s Grill & Malt Shop is another fantastic choice if you’re looking for a sweet treat. They’re open year-round and offer a full menu. For a perfect summer’s evening, walk up to the Leo’s window, order yourself a strawberry malt, and enjoy it along the banks of the St. Croix River.
Where to stay: Hotel Crosby
232 Main St. N.
With its close proximity to the Twin Cities, Stillwater is the perfect spot for a weekend staycation. The town of 20,000 residents is home to multiple boutique hotels, including Hotel Crosby, located along Main Street.
The Crosby features 55 guest rooms, including five suites. I stayed in a one bedroom suite that featured a sectional couch, oversized bean bag chair, and patio.
A few rooms include a full kitchen, including ovens, refrigerators, and plenty of counter space if you want to entertain.
My room, on the third floor, was near an outdoor hot tub, which was open during the winter. The Crosby also features an onsite spa and fitness center. Plus, they offer complimentary parking for hotel guests.
Whether you stay overnight at the Crosby or not, a major highlight is MatchStick Restaurant & Spirits, located in the Hotel’s lobby. MatchStick boasts more than 700 rare and unique spirits, which are displayed behind a gorgeous bar. They also offer wine, local beers, and a selection of farm to table menu items.
What else you can do…
Stillwater sits on the banks of the St. Croix River, which provides opportunities for you to get on the water, whether you have a boat or not. The Discover Stillwater website has an On the Water section featuring unique opportunities, including gondola rides, paddleboard rentals, and boat excursions.
Make sure to visit the revamped Stillwater Lift Bridge, which is now exclusively for pedestrian and bike traffic. If you’re looking for some exercise, the Lift Bridge is part of a new 4.7 mile Loop Trail that brings you across the St. Croix Crossing Bridge, also known as the new Highway 36 bridge that goes into Wisconsin.
If you hit a rainy day, stop by the Stillwater Public Library. The restored Carnegie Library is a site to behold and its position up the hill offers a gorgeous view of the river valley.
Thanks to Discover Stillwater for their help planning Mike’s staycation. Plan your trip to Stillwater by visiting discoverstillwater.com. Read more of Mike’s travel guides on his website, givemethemike.com.