Towns are like people—even the familiar ones can surprise us. The southeastern Minnesota city of Winona is best known as the home to several colleges and universities, including St. Mary’s and Winona State. Nestled along the Mississippi River and lined by towering bluffs, the quaint town also offers a wealth of natural beauty and historic charm.
Like many smaller Minnesota towns that enjoy summer tourism, Winona partially shuts down during the wintertime season. But that’s beginning to change, thanks to a wealth of cold-weather attractions and recent developments in culture and dining. They include the Minnesota Marine Art Museum (mmam.org), which houses works by Picasso, Van Gogh, Renoir, and Matisse alongside local folk art depicting maritime scenes.
For lunch, head down the river to the recently renovated Boat House Restaurant (boathousewinona.com), situated across from the scenic Latsch Island at Levee Park. Its menu features bistro-like offerings, such as steak frites, poutine, and salmon niçoise salad, alongside dishes that wink to local heritage. We tried the Boat House Lucy, which is filled with cheese curds in lieu of American cheese. There’s also a decent selection of craft beer, wine, and cocktails, including “The Up North”—a blend of bourbon sweetened with maple syrup that comes garnished with two warm strips of bacon.
Afterward, hop aboard the vintage Trester Trolley (trestertrolley.com) for a crash course in Winona history. Clarence Russell, a longtime Winona resident, offers year-round tours of the city via the refurbished trolley—from its historic architecture, including the Basilica of Saint Stanislaus Kostka, to the stunning views of the Garvin Heights Overlook.
Get some downtime at the Blue Heron Coffeehouse (blueheroncoffeehouse.com) and the Book Shelf (bookshelfwinona.com), a conjoined coffee shop and bookstore that serves vegetarian-friendly breakfast and lunch made from organic, locally sourced ingredients. While you’re in the area, stop by the brand-new Mid West Music Store (facebook.com/midwestmusicstore), an offshoot of the city’s annual Mid West Music Fest.
For dinner, head to the new Signatures Restaurant (signatureswinona.com), located on the Bridges Golf Club grounds. Winona’s first fine-dining restaurant features an American surf ’n’ turf menu made with many ingredients from local farms. We opted for a custom chef’s tasting menu, which comes with optional wine pairings, and were treated to three perfectly seasoned, tender meat dishes: pan-seared duck breast, wood-smoked salmon, and marinated sirloin, each paired with roasted root vegetables, as well as a dessert that deconstructed and elevated the humble s’more into something heavenly.
End the night at Ed’s (no name) Bar (edsnonamebar.com) for a nightcap and live music. The quirky bar, founded by the Boat House co-owner and artist Ed Hoffman, features a great selection of beers on tap, including Minnesota’s own Grainbelt, Summit, Fulton, and Bent Paddle, plus wines and cocktails. And the walls are festooned with artwork by Hoffman and other area artists.
When staying overnight in Winona, shacking up in one of the town’s many B&Bs is a must. We stayed at the Carriage House Bed and Breakfast (chbb.com), the carriage house located behind an 1870-era Victorian mansion once belonging to lumber baron Conrad Bohn that is the oldest single-owner bed-and-breakfast in the state. We woke up to a delicious home-cooked egg soufflé with grilled sausage, potatoes, and diced red peppers.
After breakfast, work off those calories with Winona’s favorite winter pastime: cross-country skiing. St. Mary’s University and Great River Bluffs State Park each offer up to a dozen kilometers of scenic, groomed skiing trails—but I suggest asking a local for their favorite spots. (Head to visitwinona.com for a full list of trails.) You can rent snowshoes for up to 24 hours for use on local trails with a membership to the Lake Lodge Recreation Center (cityofwinona.com), where you can enjoy hot cocoa over a fire, go ice skating, or play broomball. (An annual membership is a steal at only $10.) Adventure Cycle & Ski (178 Center St., 507-452-4228) also offers showshoe and ski rentals for $10 a day.
The city hosts its own annual Winter Carnival, complete with a Goose Bump Jump polar plunge and snowshoe race (Feb. 12–14, cityofwinona.com), as well as the Frozen River Film Festival (Feb. 24–28, frff.org), which features documentaries on world cultures and the natural world.
Classic Winona Favorites
Enjoy the new additions, but don’t forget these classics:
- In 1885, Plainview businessman J.R. Watkins moved to Winona, where he began selling his liniments and tonics. Today, the company he founded is one of the country’s oldest apothecaries. Pay a visit to the J.R. Watkins Museum and Gift Shop (visitwinona.com) to see historical relics from the manufacturer and shop its full product line. (Photo courtesy of J.R. Watkins)
- For a town so closely identified with its relationship to water, it’s no surprise that it’s home to one of the world’s largest canoe and kayak manufacturers. Founded in 1980 by competitive paddler Mike Cichanowski, Wenonah Canoe (wenonah.com) offers public tours of its two production facilities by reservation.
- Brush up on your history at the Winona County History Center (winonahistory.org), which examines Winona’s natural geology, Native American heritage, architecture, and lumber industry.
- The Polish Cultural Institute & Museum (polishmuseumwinona.org) celebrates Winona’s unique Polish heritage through historical artifacts, photographs, textiles, arts, and crafts.
- Voted the best donut shop in Minnesota by WCCO-TV viewers in 2012, Bloedow’s Bakery (bloedows.com) offers more than 30 kinds of donuts, as well as a large selection of other baked goods—and still uses many of the bakery’s original recipes dating all the way back to its 1924 opening.
- After incurring damage from a 2013 fire, a renovated Blooming Grounds Coffee House (bgcoffeehouse.com) reopened a year later with an expanded lunch menu featuring gourmet pizza and sandwiches, a beer and wine list, and live music.
A Winona Local’s Favorite Winter Pastime: Snowshoeing
“Snowshoeing here is magical. It’s a big thing in the valleys and backwaters, which are really flat. It’s also fun to snowshoe all the way up to the top of the bluffs. There’s something really peaceful about it. And when it’s 10 degrees and sunny, snowshoeing gets you really warm, fast.” –Maryann Frietsche, Designer, Silver Studio Jewelry
1. Minnesota Marine Art Museum
2. Latsch Island
3. Boat House
4. Blue Heron Coffeehouse, The Book Shelf
5. Winona County History Center
6. Blooming Grounds Coffee House
7. Adventure Cycle & Ski, Beno’s Deli
8. Silver Studio Jewelry
9. Mid West Music Store
10. Ed’s (No Name) Bar
11. Polish Cultural Institute & Museum
12. J.R. Watkins Museum and Gift Shop
13. Carriage House Bed and Breakfast
14. Bloedow’s Bakery
15. Basilica of Saint Stanislaus Kostka
16. Lake Lodge Recreation Center
(Map by Mandy Finders)