Fall is the best time to sample the pleasures of Stillwater, Minn., a destination that’s been dubbed one of the prettiest towns in America by media outlets that include USA Today and Forbes Magazine. On a sunny autumn day when scarlet, gold, and orange hues light Stillwater’s streets and surrounding hills, you might think you’ve wandered onto a film set — and in fact, several movies have been filmed in this idyllic small town on the bank of the St. Croix River 30 minutes northeast of Saint Paul.
Settled in 1848, Stillwater lays claim to being the birthplace of Minnesota.
The frontier settlement on the west bank of the St. Croix River grew to become the center of a booming lumber industry that harvested the great white pine forests of the North Woods. By the 1880s Stillwater had become one of the largest producers of lumber in the world. Wealthy mill owners lived in elegant mansions perched on the hills overlooking the town and merchants sold their wares out of impressive brick storefronts on Main Street.
Stillwater’s fortunes declined in the early 1900s after the forests were logged out. But while many of its historic buildings fell into disrepair, most weren’t demolished, and so when a new generation of residents began to revive the town in the 1960s they were able to restore many of the grand old structures. Today Stillwater is a showcase of 19th-century architectural styles, from Queen Anne and French Second Empire to Greek Revival. About 19,000 people live here, a number that swells by the thousands on summer and fall weekends.
The best way to begin a visit is with a 45-minute narrated trolley ride. On a tour that leads up and down steep streets and through tree-shaded neighborhoods, learn about the lumber barons who shaped the town’s origins and some of the notable citizens of more recent years.
Then take off on foot to explore, because Stillwater is perfect for walking. Specialty shops, cafes, restaurants and antique stores fill its downtown, from the creatively named Darn Knit Anyway Shop to the Mad Capper Saloon & Eatery (which houses a Husband Day Care Center, according to a window sign). Foodies shouldn’t miss Cooks of Crocus Hill, while shoppers wanting to get a head start on Christmas shopping can browse the shelves at the Kathe Wohlfahrt Store for German-made collectibles.
The area’s many artists display their work in galleries and studios throughout town. Nourish your creative side by taking a hands-on class ranging from making beaded jewelry and furniture painting to wood crafting.
Recreational opportunities abound in Stillwater, from strolling the waterfront to more athletic pursuits. A network of bike trails fans out from the city, including the soon-to-be-completed St. Croix Crossing Loop Trail, a five-mile route that will take riders across the town’s 1931 lift bridge, along the shoreline on the Wisconsin side of the river, and back on the new St. Croix Crossing Bridge. From there, bicyclists can head farther afield on the 6.4-mile Browns Creek State Trail and 18-mile Gateway State Trail.
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Other ways to enjoy the scenery include hot-air balloon rides and cruises on paddle-wheelers owned by St. Croix Boat & Packet. There’s no better way to see the St. Croix.
For the ultimate in romance, book a ride with Gondola Romantica, an authentic Venetian gondola steered by a costumed oarsman. It’s just one more reason why Stillwater deserves its reputation as a must-visit destination.