The first Carnival was staged in 1886, after a few cranky East Coast newspaper writers described St. Paul as “another Siberia, unfit for human habitation.” Well, even back then, nothing got Minnesotans more riled up than exaggerated insults fired off from some snooty no-goodnick on the coast. In an act of classic Minnesota-caliber retribution, the St. Paul Winter Carnival was born.
The Carnival now attracts over 250,000 visitors a year, with events such as the Grand Day Parade, Autonomous Snowplow Competition (robots!), Outdoor Beer Dabbler Festival, Dogsled Race, Kids’ Day, Snow Sculpting, Ice Sculpture Carving and all other manner of cold weather-embracing merriment. Running from late January to early February each year, events are mostly staged around Rice Park in downtown St. Paul and the Minnesota State Fair Grounds. Many activities are free or low-cost. Check the St. Paul Winter Carnival official site for annual information and dates.
After you’ve reached Wholesome Good Time capacity, here are a few other diversions in the area.
Downtown St. Paul has enjoyed a burst of great restaurants in recent years. If your evening plans include a memorable meal, you have several options. Meritage is an upscale French bistro, serving modern preparations of dishes like steak frites, cassoulet, and moules frites (mussels). Saint Dinette has high test American fare, including tartare, poutine, bologna and one of the most talked about burgers in town. The swanky St. Paul Grill, inside the St. Paul Hotel, is the downtown stop for special occasion steaks, chops and seafood.
Ruam Mit Thai is a popular, affordable place for Thai food. Black Sheep Pizza’s St. Paul location has similarly adored thin, coal-fire pizzas as the Minneapolis original. Pazzaluna Urban Italian serves a wide variety of pizza, pasta, seafood and the other meats, along with a celiac-friendly menu. Sakura Restaurant & Bar has sushi, sashimi, bento boxes, tempura, teriyaki, sukiyaki and, of course, yaki. All the yakis.
For a different kind of memorable meal, head for downtown St. Paul landmark, Mickey’s Diner. Housed in an Art Deco style railroad dining car, the diner opened in 1939 and has operated 24 hours a day, 365 days a year ever since. It still serves a classic menu of food that sticks to your bones (eggs, hash browns, pancakes, burgers, floats), at prices from a bygone era. It’s not for everyone—the staff are famously “genuine” (i.e. they put up with little attitude, indecision or special requests) and customers are often struck by the apparent flexibility with regards to cleanliness—but it’s a meal you won’t forget. Mickey’s was placed on the National Registry of Historic Places in 1983 and has been owned by the same family for three generations. Parking is free, checks aren’t accepted and vegetarians won’t have many options.
There are, naturally, no shortage of places near the Winter Carnival to acquire tasty beverages (including inside the Winter Carnival itself) ranging from sports bars to swanky cocktail labs. Among them are The Liffey Irish Pub and Patrick McGovern’s Pub, two places for a casual drink and pub food. The Amsterdam Bar & Hall has Belgian beer, Dutch sandwiches, cocktails, lots of events and a weekend brunch.
Having completed a $30 million expansion in summer of 2017, the Minnesota Children’s Museum still has that new museum smell. The update was intended to make the museum more attractive for older kids and even adults. Highlights of the expansion include The Scramble, a four-story adventure course with towers, netted catwalk and corkscrew slide; a newly enlarged face-painting station; and The Big White Room, which can be decorated over and over with colorful stickers. There are also air-powered ball launchers, a decommissioned St Paul fire truck, a laser maze and a “wacky” car wash where kids “might get wet.”
The Science Museum of Minnesota has been blowing kids’ minds (and some parents) since 1907, with interactive exhibits on physical science, mathematics, dinosaurs, sports and live demonstrations of physics, technology, the ways humans use water and many other topics. The museum’s incredible Omni Theater has a dual-screen IMAX/Omnimax retractable dome screen which descends for a dazzlingly immersive viewing experience.
Recently reopened after a four-year restoration (the first since it opened in 1905), the State Capitol building is worthy of a good, long study. The work included completely restored artwork, the uncovering of long-hidden artwork and vaulted ceilings, an increase in public space, improved accessibility features and an information center.
The James J. Hill House, “Minnesota’s Downton Abbey,” is a 36,000-square-foot Guilded Age, stone mansion, built by the railroad magnate in 1891. It was for a time the largest home in St Paul with 13 bathrooms, 22 fireplaces, 16 chandeliers and a reception hall nearly 100 feet long. Now a historic landmark, it’s possible to tour the house (roughly 75 minutes) and learn about the house’s chandeliers, stained glass, hand-carved woodwork and the original systems that provided heat, light, water, ventilation, and security, not to mention the life of Hill himself.
The Cathedral of St. Paul opened in 1915 on Cathedral Hill, overlooking downtown St Paul. The granite church is the third largest (completed) church in the U.S., with a seating capacity of 3,000, one of the tallest churches and has a distinctive copper dome. The cathedral is open seven days a week, with guided tours available Tuesday through Friday at 1:00 p.m.
The Landmark Center is a cultural center for music, dance, theater, exhibits, museums and more. There’s a St. Paul Visitor Information Center inside which provides maps and tips for seeing the city. The center offers history tours of the building as well as a walking tour of St Paul’s gangster hangout/hideout history during the 1930s.
A little more West, eating options are either a very long walk or a short drive. Perhaps the closest place, heading east, is Delicata Pizza & Gelato, a casual neighborhood pizza joint that also has Italian appetizers, wine on tap and gelato. West of the Fair, Colossal Café is a quaint, friendly place offering hot breakfasts, sandwiches and pastries. Just a block away, Finnish Bistro Coffee & Café has self-serve breakfasts, soups, sandwiches, salads, flatbread pizzas, cakes, treats and a bunch of glutton-free options. Mim’s Café’s counter service offers Mediterranean and American sandwiches, small plates, platters, kebabs, falafel, burgers and more. South of the Fair, on Como Ave, is Nelson Cheese & Deli, which has hot and cold specialty sandwiches, pasta, box lunches, and a few healthy options. Steps away is Café 99, a good spot for casual Chinese comfort food, including healthy options. North of the Fair Grounds, Stout’s Pub & Grill has all manner of bar food, pizza, burgers, slider, wraps and a large selection of beer. A block away is New Fresh Wok, serving sushi and a marathon menu of Japanese and Chinese dishes. Mac’s Fish, Chips, Strips has baskets and platters of walleye, halibut, cod, shrimp, clams and chicken. Finally, the Insight Brewing taproom pours several year-round and seasonal brews, with regular events and free brewery tours.
The area around the Fair Grounds is a bit of an activities desert, because, well, the Fair Grounds are right there, with one huge exception. Como Park Zoo & Conservatory has animals like giraffe, bison, tortoise, gorilla, ostrich, polar bear and penguins. There are also indoor and outdoor gardens, an amusement park and the usual city park family activities and facilities.
The limited shopping near the Fair includes the Shanghai Market Chinese supermarket and, about three miles northeast of the Fair, Roseville Center mall.