ST. PAUL, Minn. – 2008 marks the year that the Republican National Convention comes to Minnesota’s capital city, and it may also mark the year that folks around the country realize that city is Saint Paul.
Minneapolis’ overlooked fraternal twin is a lovely urban center on the banks of the Mississippi, with stately stone buildings, green little pocket parks, and plenty to see and do.
Visitors looking for the action may first discover what the city shares with politics — it can leave you with the nagging sense that there’s more going on than meets the eye, but it would take one well-embedded insider to help you figure out exactly what.
Consider this a quick connection to your style of leisure in Minnesota’s capital, from downtown to four widely varied avenues that lead right into it.
5. Small Shops on Grand Avenue
A handful of miles from the beacon of consumerism that is the world-famous Mall of America, Grand Avenue delivers a totally different vibe, with 20 blocks lined in leafy trees, single-story brick storefronts and homes now zoned as businesses.
The political battle being fought along this popular strip of St. Paul asphalt? Chain vs. local. Though the big guys such as J. Crew, Pottery Barn and Restoration Hardware have a strong presence here, they’re still outnumbered.
A few choice independent retailers worthy of your hard-earned cash: Bibelot (1082 Grand Ave., 651-222-0321), one of those something-for-everyone gift shops; Karma (867 Grand Ave., 651-291-1997), with trendy but totally wearable women’s clothes; and Creative Kidstuff (1074 Grand Ave., 651-222-2472), packed with toys so right-on kids tend not to realize they’re educational.
There are plenty of decent dining options too, but out-of-staters should head for Tavern on Grand (656 Grand Ave., 651-228-9030) for Minnesota’s requisite walleye meal. Our state fish is served here as a sandwich, deep-fried bites, cakes and more, and the jalapeño tartar sauce is clearly the correct condiment choice.
4. Victorian Secret on Summit Avenue
Before Minnesota was even a state, area promoters talked up the bluff crowning the burgeoning Mississippi River town, predicting it would soon be overrun with mansions. Right they were. Eminent settlers — pastors, merchants, lawyers and businessmen, including one of the state’s first senators — built estates on what was eventually dubbed Summit Avenue.
Granted the same thing was happening in new cities across the country. The thing is, while others fell victim to neglect or the wrecking ball, Saint Paul’s has been preserved and protected. Its meandering four-and-a-half miles stand as the nation’s longest stretch of intact residential Victorian housing. Thanks to a small southward jog in the Mississippi here, it even begins and ends with river views.
Summit is a well-used street with bikers, runners, folks driving to work and gawkers on foot wondering who could afford to buy such a house, let alone heat it.
The governor, for one. At least since 1965, when the 20-room Tudor was donated for this purpose by a longstanding Summit family who likely never imagined their gift would welcome the likes of a bald, boa-wearing former pro wrestler to the ‘hood for a time. Governor’s Residence (1006 Summit Ave., 651-297-2161) tours take place during the summer only.
Your odds are better with a walking tour of Summit Avenue in general, since they run Saturdays and Sundays, May through September. They start from the James J. Hill House (240 Summit Ave., 651-297-2555), itself a massive Summit Avenue attraction, completed in 1891 by a railroad magnate and tourable year-round. At 36,000 square feet, it only recently forfeited the title of largest home in the state.
3. Supper and Shopping on Selby Avenue
The Cathedral of Saint Paul presides over downtown, punctuating one endpoint of Selby Avenue. The street changing moods often during its four-plus miles. At this end, called Cathedral Hill, it’s decidedly charming, with comfortably upscale restaurants and pubs clad in vine-covered brick. One standout: W. A. Frost & Company (374 Selby Ave., 651-224-5715), once a drug store said to have been visited by F. Scott Fitzgerald in the 1920s, when the novelist lived down the street.
Now it’s popular for an artisan and globally influenced menu and chameleon-like ability to thrive in all seasons. Though the tiered, twinkle-lit patio is known as one of the best in the Twin Cities, it’s hard to beat a snowy winter evening spent lingering over a cheese plate and a single-malt scotch under the high ceilings and polished woodwork inside.
The action is spotty between here and the other end of Selby, where a nice cluster of shops with vintage and antique wares dot the blocks between Ayd Mill Road and Fairview Avenue. Lula (1587 Selby Ave., 651-644-4110) is a long-running standout for the proprietor’s uncanny talent at not only acquiring fantastic clothes but also matching them with appreciative new owners.
2. Urban Adventure on University Avenue
Just because University Avenue has yet to transition into a clean, tourist-friendly street does not mean it’s without charm — depending on your adventure threshold. Some worthy surprises wait among the hole-in-the-wall ethnic markets, used bookstores and check-cashing storefronts.
Big Daddy’s Saturday BBQ (609 University Ave. W., 651-222-2516) serves up straight-from-the-smoker meats so good that the place is open on Fridays now, too. Since this is the heart of the city’s Asian community, it’s no surprise some of the plentiful Asian restaurants have evolved into places such Ngon Vietnamese Bistro (799 University Ave. W., 651-222-3301), a sleek and airy venue with a menu full of seasonal, local ingredients in dishes both traditional and contemporary -- think pho soup made with Minnesota beef or lemongrass -- and wild rice-crusted local duck in a curry and sweet potato puree.
University also boasts the city’s most rockin’ live music venue. Bands at Turf Club (1601 University Ave. W., 651-647-0486) draw in-the-know music lovers from Minneapolis and beyond. Check out the basement bar, called the Clown Lounge, with a well-curated jukebox and a book exchange run by a local poet next to the couches in the corner.
1. The Heart of it All, Downtown Saint Paul
Downtown holds the most viable options for lodging in Saint Paul proper. Over the last century, presidents, royalty, movie stars and musicians have chosen the Saint Paul Hotel (350 Market St., 800-292-9292), where a doorman in full uniform and top hat welcomes guests, and a horse and buggy can often be found out front along the pretty Rice Park square. Even if you stay elsewhere, it’s worth dining at the hotel’s Saint Paul Grill (651-224-7455) or grabbing a drink in the Lobby Bar. There’s no telling whom you’ll run into.
To stay with the old-school theme — stop by Heimie's Haberdashery (400 St. Peter St., 651-224-2354), where you can pick up a bowler to match your overcoat, learn the proper way to light a cigar or procure a hot-lather, straight-razor shave from a man appropriately named Moustache Jim.
Then there’s Mickey’s Diner (36 Seventh St. W., 651-222-5633), a family-run art deco dining car open 24-7-365 since 1939. News reporters often stop by to take the pulse of the city, given its widely varied clientele, from street dwellers to rock stars fresh from a show at the nearby arena.
All come for the no-nonsense service and locally sourced, homemade diner food including fluffy flapjacks, hand-dipped malts and Mulligan Stew from an original 1940s recipe, no matter if you’re Arnold Schwarzenegger, who visited pre-governator days, or just a traveler looking for an authentic taste of Minnesota’s capital city.