Although this college town may sound cold, isolated, and a bit mundane, it actually does have a bit of a summer. Just kidding. Bear with me, though — driving 45 minutes into the cornfields south of St. Paul, I promise you’ll find that Northfield is just perfect. Home to two liberal arts colleges and a picturesque pedestrian main street situated cozily alongside the Cannon River, Northfield effortlessly makes you feel at home. Here you’ll find everything from cutesy coffee shops to greasy late-night chains, all of a quality and variety impressive for a town with a year-round population of 15,000. The self-proclaimed town of “Cows, Colleges, and Contentment” also offers winter and summer opportunities for outdoor recreation along the river and in the snow. This list is a college student-catered guide to eateries and activities that will probably even make your Minnesota winter cozy and fun-filled.
Rated #2 on “Top 100 Best Hikes” by the Thoos “Social Guide to Adventure,” “the Arb” is a lovely rectangular mix of forest, farmland, river, and native prairie. On the end that abuts the college is the watertower, an excellent landmark in case you get so carried away with Minnesota’s natural beauty that you get lost. On the far end is “The Iron Bridge,” Minnesota’s most dangerous bridge second only to the one that collapsed. It is no longer used by cars, but you can still make it dangerous with a mid-run plunge into the Cannon River. The 10-mile dirt trail network, aside from being confusing, will sometimes reveal a charred field (a controlled burn to mimic natural patterns) or, just as surprisingly, a couple of deer at dusk.
Best TGIF Celebration
On Friday morning, when texting that cutie you met last Saturday has gotten old and you want to revive your romance in time for the weekend, stop by the campus center, where a florist facilitates classy college romance every week. Dropping a dollar on a carnation buys your secret admiree (or dear friend) the ineffable excitement of a highly visible gift in their mailbox, and the lasting satisfaction of carrying said gift around campus for the rest of the day, fielding wistful comments and envious inquiries. Big spenders may choose to splurge on a lily or a rose.
Best Odd-Hours Outdoor Excursion
The Wind Turbines
Both colleges, Carleton College and St. Olaf College, pride themselves on their forward-thinking energy initiatives. This has resulted in 2 beautiful landmarks: turbines standing sentry on either side of town. The most awe-inspiring time to take them in is at twilight or sunrise when they loom against a dark sky. You can pick your way through a field to stand at the base of the turbine to watch the enormous blades swoop towards you and hear and feel their growl-y whoosh through the tower. The 2.5 mile journey to the site is inconvenient, but the view from Carleton College catches the sun rising directly behind the turbine.
Best Birthday Outing
Hogan Brothers Acoustic Cafe
“HoBros” serves the best basic sandwich a student could wish for as well as the best ice cream in town. Select any combination of fixings, from banana peppers to hummus, for their homemade bread subs and maybe a regional Beer Cheese soup (with popcorn!?) or spicy Vegetarian Chili. Warning: The ice cream is homemade, reasonably-priced, and served in generous portions. HoBros also hosts live music sessions with local bands, so if your sandwich hunger brings you downtown late, hang around with a coffee and enjoy. On your birthday, bring your ID and your sandwich is on them!
Best Coffee Shop
Goodbye Blue Mondays
Blue Mondays, with its 50s era decor and eclectic music, is the place off campus to hang out and feel classy doing your homework. You can choose from the normal array of cosmopolitan coffee drinks, with extras such as soy milk and flavor shots, but their staff is student-based and game for improvisation: order a “Dirty Chai” and, depending on your barista, you might or might not get a chai tea latte with a shot of espresso. Deadliest catches include their Mexican Hot Chocolate and their brownies. Although by getting off campus you may be less likely to run into Mr. or Mrs. Last Night, you are more likely to run into your professor. So don’t bring that reading you meant to do last week.
Best Hangover Cure
The New Buffet
Innocuously clinging to the outskirts of town (incidentally, also a 2 minute walk from the center of town), the updated version of the China Buffet is well worth the walk of shame on a Sunday morning. Enjoy, for a fixed price, everything under the sun that is greasy and random. Make sure to maintain consciousness long enough to watch where you scoop, as watermelon, though situated between General Gao’s chicken and curried carrots, doesn’t mix well. If you’re not feeling up to it, don’t worry about topping it off anyway with one of their generic brand Jell-O cubes. Hurry over there; it is only a matter of time before a case of food poisoning shuts them down. Nom!
The Pizza Bar
Every Wednesday night when the weather is nice, a welcoming Northfield family lights a fire in its stone hearth oven and props open its garden gate. Northfield residents trickle in to the makeshift “pizza bar,” where they proffer a “suggested donation” and cluster in the family’s vegetable garden to enjoy homemade, wood-fired pizza. Spontaneous live music, starry skies, and a BYOB policy give this community gathering a campy vibe. However, the most enjoyable aspect of the evening will undoubtedly be the company of the other gracious guests, and their tacit actualization of an idyllic night under the stars.
Best General Good Restaurant
One of the things about a small town is that the limited numbers of businesses fill multiple roles. Therefore, The Tavern is a great place to drag yourself on Sunday morning, but also to bring your parents for a classy dinner. Tavern breakfast runs just until noon on Sundays, so set your alarm! For just $4 you get eggs, hash browns, meat or fruit, and toast—better than a $4 piece of toast in NYC any day. They have a huge variety of dinner food as well, from quesadillas to burgers, paninis and pastas.
Best Summer Activity
Minnesota (doncha tell anyone, now) does get hot in the summer, and the best way to combo cool off-and-tan is a ride down the infamous Cannon River. The river ranges seasonally from ankle-deep to full-on flooded, but regardless you will need a flotation device. The experts recommend using neither an empty keg nor a log, because you can find floaties with a warranty, and perhaps cup-holders to boot, at nearby Target. If you are vigilant, you may find the rope swing; if you fall asleep, you may snag a fishing line. After ending at the Iron Bridge, the walk upstream back to town may be taxing enough that a second go is necessary.
Best Fall Activity
Fireside Orchard and Gardens
Before you batten down the hatches for the long winter ahead, commandeer a car and go apple-picking just outside of town. A lovely family orchard awaits, exuding smells of fresh apple donuts and fallen leaves. Fireside Orchard has homemade jams, cheeses, honey, raspberries, pumpkins, and, of course, 19 varieties of apples! You can either pick your own, or pick out your own from the store. Be that kid on your floor who brings back bushels of apples to share, and then makes a huge apple crisp, and then makes a lot of friends.
Best Winter Activity
Do it! It’s incredibly stupid, quite dangerous, and best with large groups of people in small spaces—all things college kids excel at. If you’re really committed and have a shovel handy, an igloo, quigloo, or quinzhee is the warmest option (exactly 32°F). Bring several sleeping bags per person (the amount of warm layers around you should make your size comparable to that of a polar bear), and definitely have a drink before you go—it will give you an illusion of warmth that will last for a couple hours. But as temperatures in the winter in Minnesota drop to -15°F or so at night, your best bet is a cuddle puddle of your warmest friends!
Best Music Venue
The Cave is America’s oldest student-run pub, and it’s on Carleton Campus! It’s a free music venue that attracts people from as far as the cities, sometimes. It hosts everything from sweaty techno dance raves to low-key open mic nights. Some of the rowdiest performers have included Dan Deacon and Big Freedia, but The Cave is open every night for hot chocolate and homework while listening to the student workers’ iPods. The eclectic decor of cozy couches, pool table, popcorn machine, old posters and low stage make The Cave an intimate space for any event.
Best Northfield Event
Defeat of Jesse James Days
This event commemorates the day in 1876 when Northfield put a stop to the Jesse James Gang, an all-American troupe of villains that had robbed and murdered across the country for 10 years. Their final bank raid in Northfield resulted in a shootout on the main street, and heavy losses for the Gang. Today, Northfield celebrates their defeat of the Jesse James Gang the Thursday through Sunday after Labor Day. Northfield hosts a carnival, rodeo, square dance, parades, bands, tractor pull, and running races. Don’t miss any of the country fun, especially the Professional Rodeo and the Deep-Fried Cheese Curds at the Carnival. For students, it occurs the weekend before school starts; it’s a great welcome-back-to-the-Midwest festival.
Best Spring Activity
Carls are so confused when the snow melts that they seek to release their consternation by means of this vaguely dangerous and dirty activity: mudsliding. Any steep, grassy hill, slicked with even just an afternoon of heavy spring rain, takes on the accelerating potential of a greased luge track. Carls assemble at the peak, exposing winter-white skin in clothing chosen for its durability and aerodynamics. Then, with a running start, they throw themselves down the hill, lemming-like. The outcome is unbeatable smiles grinning from behind a unrecognizably muddy body, and the exhilaration to fuel a second go.
Hands-Down, Best House in Town
Dacie Moses House
The “cookie house” was bequeathed to Carleton by a former librarian, Dacie, along with enough money to keep the house stocked with chocolate cookie supplies for a short eternity. Every Sunday from 10 until 12, Dacie’s tradition of welcoming college students into her house is continued by student bakers, who produce a brunch spread that always includes Dacie’s famous Beer Muffins. The cozy house is still furnished in the green and blue pastels of Dacie’s choosing, and dated newspaper cuttings, empty coffee mugs, and worn board games punctuate the house with true character. The house is open all day, all year, to anybody; visitors come to take advantage of the baking supplies, listen in on the a cappella practices that take place inside, or simply curl up with a book on a homey armchair.
Best Cutesy Cafe
Jesse James Gang Hideaway
The Hideaway cafe has everything one would require of a cute sandwich shop. The interior decoration is sweet, with murals on the wall, tables tucked into corners, and a couch so easy to sink into that you cannot reach your food from it. A split-level space makes the little restaurant feel even nookier. The food is fresh, interesting, and awesome, especially the paninis, which include several innovative vegetarian options. The menu may even be open to tweaking because of the exceptionally personable staff; once, someone made me a peanut butter panini.
Erbert’s and Gerbert’s
Everybody in town should mourn the loss of Erbert’s and Gerbert’s, the most delicious Subway-like sandwich chain ever known. Erb’s and Gerb’s, as they were affectionately called, delivered, which was already enough to endear them to every college student in Northfield. Their fresh ingredients included sprouts, hummus, and avocado. Their signature touch nation-wide is to partially remove the “guts” of the sandwich bread roll to make room for more ingredients, but then to include the guts alongside the sandwich with your order. Look for them nearby in the Twin Cities.
Best Stress Reliever
Jesse James Lanes
Jesse James Lanes in Northfield offers $1 Mondays, where each game is one dollar! It seems the whole town gathers to bowl at 9, so arrive early or the wait for a lane may be 2 hours—but apparently, it’s worth it. While you wait, and because you will have change to spare, you can enjoy their other Monday specials: one dollar off of all drinks and appetizers. Make sure you finish your game by 10, though, when the lights turn off and the music turns up.
Northfield Gymnastics Club
The local gymnastics club welcomes kids of all ages into its studio to jump, stretch, climb, and tumble during certain hours of the week. For $5 on Wednesday from 8-10, anybody can enjoy the squish of its foam pits, the spring of its trampolines, the bounce of its floor, and the challenge of its rope and bar elements. An instructor is on hand for the duration of the romp, to facilitate fun and make a stand for safety.
Best All-Around Bar
The Rueb ‘n’ Stein
Although Northfield’s many bars vie for distinction in the close race for Best Bar, I have decided rather arbitrarily that the Rueb ‘n’ Stein comes out on top. It has something for the preferences of each student: cheap beer, interesting beer, revolting mixed drinks, cheap food, and odd arcade games. A pitcher of Natty Ice is just $5, but conversely a delicious local craft brew on tap can cost just as much. For parties, an appetizer deal advertises 25 cent chicken wings from 9-11 every night. For birthday parties, surprise your birthday buddy with such novelty drinks as the Maxi Pad or Lemon Drop, or simply ask for “something fruity with vodka” and see what the bartender comes up with—they tend to be generous.
Sarah Trautman stays busy at Carleton College, telling English majors that she prefers Biology classes and Biology people she prefers the humanities. While attending school in Minnesota, the Midwest is the best; but when she’s home in Boston, Beantown is her favorite. All of these things are great, but she is also really excited to explore New York City this fall.