Excursion to Stillwater

This historic Minnesota river town is a favorite weekend getaway.

A trolley tour in Stillwater.
The Stillwater Trolley takes passengers through Lowell Park on the St. Croix River.

After more than 150 years, this Minnesota river town's unrefined early days are history.

Once, legions of unkempt lumberjacks mobbed the streets of Stillwater, spending their wages at saloons and bordellos. Now, mobs of weekend tourists roam through town, sipping cappuccinos, sampling wine and shopping for gifts and antiques.

Stillwater has come a long way since the days when King Pine ruled. Reminders of the era are everywhere, however, in mills that now house antiques malls and splendid Victorian houses.

Many of the lumber barons' houses now are bed-and-breakfasts and still carry their names — Bean, Sauntry, Staples.

But a walk along any Stillwater street will yield a bumper crop of other painted ladies, complete with turrets, cupolas, gables and wrap-around porches.

On Main Street, old brick storefronts showcase gift shops and restaurants, and hundreds of dealers operate out of the many antiques stores.

With its high-level shopping and high-level lodgings — most of the rooms in the town's inns are lavishly appointed, with such features as fireplaces and double whirlpools — Stillwater is a popular destination for couples.

But people of all kinds enjoy a ride on the motorized red trolleys that chug up and down Stillwater's hills.

Narrators explain the colorful history of the town, and why Stillwater calls itself Minnesota's birthplace: not because it was the first town, but because it hosted the 1848 convention that made Minnesota a territory.

Older people make return visits to the 1927 Lowell Inn, the scene of many honeymoons, anniversaries and birthdays. Stillwater still is a popular place to stage important occasions.

Eating ice cream in Stillwater.
Chestnut Street, where cars enter Stillwater from Wisconsin, always is busy.

Younger folks patronize the bars, stroll along the riverfront on warm evenings and churn up the St. Croix River on paddlewheeler party boats, which look much like excursion steamers of a century ago.

Even children like Stillwater. Up on North Second Street, they can play at Pioneer Park, a tiny square with a vast view of the St. Croix River Valley, or at charming Teddy Bear Park on South Second Street.

The park has a miniature Lift Bridge, a hollowed-out tree, a toy train and other fun play structures.

On Main Street, families can stop at sunny Leo's for a malt and a burger.

And in summer, everyone enjoys the festive air of Stillwater streets — one more thing that hasn't changed since lumberjack days.

Trip Tips: Historic Stillwater, Minnesota

Getting there: On beautiful summer and fall weekends, the stretch of Minnesota 95 that leads into Stillwater from the south often is congested. Go early in the day to avoid the worst.

People coming from the Twin Cities via Minnesota 36 can use one of two shortcuts: Manning Avenue to Minnesota 96, which leads to Minnesota 95 north of downtown; or Osgood Avenue to Third Street.

There are many parking lots along Second Street between Nelson and Mulberry streets and between Water Street and the riverfront.

Annual events: Mid-January, Snow Sculpting Championships. Mid-July to mid-August, Summer Tuesdays: Market, Music, Movies in Lowell Park. Mid-July, Lumberjack Days. Early October, Rivertown Fall Art Festival in Lowell Park.

Sauntry Mansion in Stillwater.
Stillwater is full of classic Victorians.

On every other Wednesday evenings in summer starting in June, there's Cruisin' on the Croix in Lowell Park, with vintage cars and '50s music.

Accommodations: The 40-room boutique Lora Hotel is set into the cliffside on the south end of Main Street. The Hotel Crosby is on the north end of Main Street.

Stillwater is well-supplied with inns in historic Victorians, all with luxuries that include double whirlpools and fireplaces.

Bed-and-breakfasts include the 1878 Ann Bean Mansion, the Aurora Staples Inn, Cover Park Manor and the Rivertown Inn.

The Water Street Inn is on the riverfront by the Lift Bridge. The 1927 Lowell Inn is at Myrtle and North Second Street.

There are also vacation rentals, including houses for large groups.

Dining: In the Lora Hotel, Feller has a patio and features cuisine featuring grass-fed, wild and foraged ingredients.

In Hotel Crosby, Matchstick Restaurant & Spirits features locally sourced meats and fish and small plates, with an interesting selection of spirits, wine and craft beer.

Other restaurants on Main Street include LOLO American Kitchen & Craft Bar and Marx Fusion Bistro.

On a beautiful summer day, the Dock Café on the river is irresistible, as is the big patio of the 1883 Freight House.

Domacin Restaurant & Wine Bar is just off Main on Second Street and features a Mediterranean-influenced menu.

Leo's Grill & Malt Shop is a good place to have lunch with kids. For a picnic, pick up sandwiches from the River Market deli at 221 N. Main St., and take them up North Second Street to Pioneer Park.

Bicycling the Brown's Creek State Trail.
The Brown's Creek trail connects downtown Stillwater to the Gateway State Trail.

Shopping: Main Street is lined with interesting shops, many selling antiques, gifts and home decor. For more, see Bargain-hunting in Stillwater.

Trolley tours: The Stillwater Trolley Co. offers 45-minute narrated tours daily from May through October, hourly from 10 a.m. on weekends.

Tours also are given on nice weekends in April and November. Trolleys leave from behind the Freight House Restaurant.

Boat tours: Stillwater River Boats gives public lunch and dinner cruises on four paddlewheelers.

Gondola tours: Gondola Romantica gondoliers row passengers along the St. Croix in a real Venetian gondola.

Park/playground: Teddy Bear Park is at South Second and Nelson streets. There are picnic tables and indoor bathrooms.

Bicycling: The paved, six-mile Brown's Creek State Trail runs along the river and up the bluff to connect with the 18-mile Gateway State Trail, which goes to St. Paul.

From the riverfront, bicyclists can cross the historic lift bridge and ride the five-mile St. Croix Crossing loop to Wisconsin and back over the Highway 64/36 bridge.

Information: Discover Stillwater tourism.

Last updated on January 24, 2022

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