Need a Dose of Holiday Charm? Head to Northfield, MN

Cows, colleges, contentment—and plenty of charm.

Downtown Northfield feels more East Coast than Midwest, with its picturesque main street, rows of brick buildings, two prestigious colleges, and historic town square. Its most unique characteristic becomes apparent just after crossing the city border (where a sign welcomes visitors to the land of “cows, colleges, and contentment”): the smell of warm, toasty cereal from the Malt-O-Meal plant that permeates the entire town. In the wintertime, the scent is as comforting as a bowl of the hot porridge itself.

As a holiday-shopping destination, Northfield offers gifts aplenty without all of the mall’s hustle and bustle. On quaint Division Street, bells ring over shop doors, holiday music plays everywhere, and even gusty winds start to seem charming rather than just, well, cold.

Tandem Bagels

Begin your day by fueling up at Tandem Bagels, which offers a bevy of breakfast sandwiches—though all the chewy bagels really need is a thick slathering of bacon-and-scallion cream cheese.

The Local Joint

For one-of-a-kind goods, The Local Joint is packed with all things vintage: Cowboy boots bump up against Boy Scouts patches, steamer trunks, and trays of quirky jewelry. The shop is small but filled with nooks and crannies for treasure-hunting, so antique geeks should allot proper time to take it all in. For the foodie on your gift list, stop in at The Measuring Cup.

Fossil handbag from The Rair Pair

But Division Street’s most pleasant surprise is The Rare Pair, which houses a smartly curated collection of offbeat clothing brands for men and women. Trendy meets rugged at this corner shop—it’s an ideal place for those who mix boho-inspired Free People scarves with SmartWool socks and Hunter wellies.

For lunch, warm up with Indian curry from Chapati, located inside the town’s historic Archer House. Or head to Hogan Brothers’ Acoustic Café for a toasted sandwich on house-made bread, root beer, and a hearty bowl of the soup special—cross your fingers for Chicken Dumpling.

In the afternoon, if you’ve packed your skis, check out the miles of cross-country trails at cowling arboretum at Carleton College. Otherwise, tote your toboggan up the steep St. Olaf old main hill to take part in a 200-year-old sledding tradition (the college kids prefer to use dining-hall trays). Either way, you’ll want to revive yourself with a cup of cocoa at Goodbye Blue Monday, a quintessential coffeehouse with its squashy couches and chalkboard menu of bean varieties and roasts.

Reenactment at The Defeat of Jesse James Days. Photo by Joe Miller Photography

If you’d rather stay indoors, the Northfield Historical Society is just the right size to spend an hour learning about Jesse James and his cohorts’ attempted raid on Northfield’s First National Bank, which has been restored to its 1876 condition. Learn about the gun-wielding robbers who rode into town, the citizens who fought in the streets to protect Northfield, and the James boys who got away.

Nightlife in downtown Northfield is…limited, but live music and character are always in abundance at underground Brit pub The Contented Cow, where rotating taps feature local brews. Just like the town, the bar is warm and friendly, cool enough for the college kids but not too hip for the professors.

Holiday Happenings

St. Olaf Christmas Festival

Lit with twinkly lights, the town transforms during the holidays. The Northfield Arts Guild spins a classic Dickens tale with a production of Inspecting Carol this month. The first weekend in December is dominated by the nationally broadcast St. Olaf Christmas Festival, a performance by the college’s five choirs and orchestra. And in December, the historic downtown is illuminated by candlelight at the Winter Walk, an evening of shopping, caroling, and horse-drawn sleigh rides through the town square.

Overnight Options

Archer House River Inn. Photo by John Bain

Archer House River Inn is Northfield’s largest inn, a red-brick historical peek into the 1800s located in the heart of downtown. Just off the main drag, Froggy Bottoms River Suites features suites with kitchens and living areas, as well as an eponymous pub with tiered decks offering river views.

Foodie Bites from a Northfield Local

Photo by Glow Studios

Glow Studios

Jody Breathwaite (above right) opened CakeWalk bakery in downtown Northfield with her business partner, Teara Myers, (above left) just two years ago.Their cakes, from the shop’s signature Black Velvet to the more seasonally-appropriate Eggnog and Hot Cocoa variations, are the talk of the town. But when it comes to savory fare, she has plenty of recommendations.

Photo by Salina J. Photography

“I love, love Tandem Bagels. They opened up right after us, and it’s just the perfect breakfast bite. Since it’s a college town, there’s a lot of pizza, but B&L is my favorite. And we always take bakery leftovers to the Contented Cow and the Tavern. There’s a lot of really great live music there pretty regularly.”