While I was growing up in Northfield in the ’80s and ’90s, locals often reduced our community to a specific Trivial Pursuit question. It went something like, “Which Minnesota town has two colleges and only one bar?” Yep, that was us. It felt more like a punchline than a fun fact.
Though I’ve never actually seen that card, its conceit was once entirely plausible for the home of Carleton College and St. Olaf College. Located 45 minutes south of the Twin Cities, the Northfield area’s mix of homespun and transplant artisan-entrepreneurs have responded to a growing population (about 20,000, including 5,000 college students) that demands more—not just to drink, but also to taste, and to do.
Northfield’s appetizing developments extend to the mini-community of Dundas—population 1,500—on the south end of town. Past the new-ish Target, Menards, and movie theater, warmth and coffee await at Martha’s Eats & Treats, open Fridays and Saturdays on Dundas’ tiny main drag. The fresh-baked croissants, danishes, and turnovers are big, flaky, buttery, and potentially all gone if you sleep in. Fresh seasonal ingredients enhance sandwiches, soups, and more menu options loaded with scratch-made goodness.
A scant block away is diminutive Chapel Brewing, an old church building with beautifully renovated bones, which is part of a recent craft beer boom—along with Northfield’s Tanzenwald Brewing Company and Imminent Brewing. Also in Dundas is the worth-seeking-out Keepsake Cidery. Follow the signs down a gravel road to the welcoming taproom next to a scenic orchard bearing apples for Keepsake’s adventurous lineup of organic, wild hard ciders. A flight of impeccable dry varieties pairs admirably with CannonBelles cheese curds from neighboring Cannon Falls. Hungrier guests can snag a “toastie” panini sandwich.
That singular bar, of Trivial Pursuit legend, would have been the Rueb ’n’ Stein—or just “the Rueb.” It closed in 2017, and the pool tables left with it. In its prime corner location in downtown Northfield sits an airier, refined Reunion restaurant, offering up fine-dining options, craft cocktails, and stylish decor. Spirit aficionados should also visit a nondescript office building near the Malt-O-Meal plant (which often doses you with pleasant off-brand Cheerios aromas) to find Loon Liquor Co.’s cocktail room. The well-balanced, inventive drinks, created with house-made whiskey, gin, vodka, liqueurs, and mixers, deliver.
Back in downtown, the well-maintained historic buildings lining Division Street, which runs parallel to the Cannon River, spark enough winter magic that Hallmark filmed the 2016 rom-com Love Always, Santa there. There are several antique and vintage boutiques, plus the Measuring Cup for upscale kitchen accessories and the well-curated Content Bookstore. My last visit found me sipping tiny paper cups at Northfield Olive Oils and Vinegars, to sample a few of its dozens of infusions that range from blood orange to pumpkin spice, in addition to garlic and basil variants.
The pace is slower in Northfield than in its suburban cousins to the north, sure, but it’s far from glacial. If holiday-season bustle creates an urgent need to detach and interact with something that has literally come to a freezing halt (if air temperatures cooperate), it’s a 15-minute drive to Hidden Falls (not the St. Paul one). Despite its name, these falls are easy to find, and have a year-round trail leading right to it—half a mile into the forested core of Nerstrand Big Woods State Park.
It’s enough of a walk to feel immersed in nature, but close enough to retreat to a warm vehicle before you become a sort of ice sculpture yourself. If this is the journey’s final stop, expect a southern Minnesota goodbye in the form of gently rolling fields and riverside landscapes. They frame those winter magenta late-afternoon sunsets superbly.
Eat, Play, Stay in Northfield
Scarf tacos at Kahlo (named after painter Frida Kahlo), find grand bar fare at Fielders Choice Tap & Table, marvel at square-cut Greek pizza from Basil’s, and savor a white-tablecloth brunch at the Ole Store Restaurant. For lunch, try a hot hoagie from Hogan Brothers or a fresh salad from the HideAway. When it comes to caffeine, Groundwire Coffee Roasters’ Little Joy shop signals a Gen Y answer to the Gen X coffee stronghold Goodbye Blue Monday. And the Just Food Co-op is the source for organic, local groceries.
For hiking, snowshoeing, or cross-country skiing, try St. Olaf’s 350 acres of natural lands or Carleton College’s 880-acre Cowling Arboretum. Pack a sled and rip down the formidable hills on either campus. Experience the choral majesty of the St. Olaf Christmas Festival (Dec. 5-8). Northfield’s 21st annual Winter Walk spectacle takes over downtown on Dec. 12. Out at Keepsake Cidery, enjoy mulled cider and maker goods during the Thanksgiving Market (Nov. 24) and Solstice Market (Dec. 21).