MidwestWeekends.com — Your Travel Guide to the Upper Midwest

Shopping towns

A jolly holiday in Minneapolis

Christmas draws tourists and locals alike into the lively heart of the city.

During the holidays, there's no place like home. In fact, it's the perfect getaway.

Every year, I go to downtown for the festivities. I get tickets for Handel's "Messiah" at Orchestra Hall. I hunt for stocking stuffers on Nicollet Mall.

I don't stay overnight. I live here, after all.

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Old World Christmas markets

Local versions of the traditional German Christkindlmarkt are a hit during the holidays.

For 500 years, Germans have done their holiday shopping at open-air Christmas markets in town squares.

Named for the Christ child, the markets traditionally start on the first Sunday of Advent, with shoppers warming up with hot spiced wine while browsing at garland-draped timber kiosks.

It's a tradition worth importing, and that's what Chicago did in 1996 with its Christkindlmarket, where two-thirds of the vendors come from Germany.

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20 great shopping towns

Few shoppers can resist these Shangri-Las of spending.

Some people may guess that lakes or bicycle trails are the chief attraction for travelers in the Upper Midwest. Other might say museums, state parks or stadiums.

Wrong, wrong and wrong. The No. 1 attraction in travel is . . . shops.

Shopping is sightseeing for a lot of people. On vacation, they shop not as they would at the local mall, but as if had all the time in the world to browse, stroll and sample.

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Shopping in Madison

In this colorful college town, materialism and muckraking co-exist.

In Madison, a visitor is exposed to many messages: Resist corporate globalization. Fight for social justice. Housing is a RIGHT!

But when I was there one November, no one said anything against materialism.

Madison — sometimes called the People’s Republic of Madison — is so anti-establishment and anti-corporate that a Starbuck’s caused an uproar when it opened on State Street.

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Chicago at Christmas

During the holidays, this glittering, festive town becomes the City of Broad Smiles.

Visiting Chicago during the holidays, I'm always bowled over by how merry everyone is.

Can it be . . . Chicago Nice? It's either that or pixie dust.

Chicago is an exciting place to be any time, but at Christmas, it pulls out the stops. The Magnificent Mile sparkles. Ice skaters do pirouettes in Millennium Park. There are free concerts everywhere.

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Old World Christmas at the Osthoff

On the shores of Elkhart Lake, a luxury resort imports a slice of Germany.

No one knows how to celebrate Christmas like the Germans.

It's thanks to them that Americans decorate Christmas trees, hang wreaths and put nutcrackers on mantels. Because of them, we bake gingerbread men, open Advent calendars and fill stockings with treats.

Still, not every German Christmas tradition has crossed the Atlantic.

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Scrappy Northfield

As outlaws discovered, this Minnesota college town is small but rarely sleepy.

Northfield always has been shaped by newcomers.

First the Yankees came to town, then the Norwegians. Each started a college, and the Yankees built mills, whose flour won international prizes as the Minneapolis mill were just getting started.

Missourians arrived in 1876 for a brief but memorable visit; the violent bank raid by the James-Younger Gang is called "the seven minutes that shook Northfield.''

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Truly Amana

The busiest of Iowa's seven Amana Colonies is both a living historic monument and a shopping heaven.

It's obvious from one look at the shop-lined streets of Amana, the largest of the seven Amana Colonies, that modern commerce is in full flower there. Even so, the first question asked about the villages is: Are the Amana people Amish?

And no wonder — the people of the Amanas spoke German, lived simply and adhered faithfully to Scripture. Many still do. But no, they never were Amish.

The first people of the Amanas were German immigrants who came to Iowa in 1855.

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Getaway on the St. Croix

The Wisconsin river town of Hudson has a treat for every visitor.

From the beginning, the St. Croix River has shaped Hudson's identity.

The first settlers came by canoe on the fur-trade highway. The first steamboat docked in 1847, and soon logs were floating down the St. Croix to sawmills in Hudson and its neighbor on the Minnesota side, Stillwater.

Hudson's 1913 toll bridge became a landmark on the St. Croix, fattening town coffers after the lumber boom ended. The bridge closed in 1951, but its raised bed still stretches partway over the river, giving residents and visitors a place to stroll on warm summer evenings.

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Galena getaway

In northwest Illinois, this historic village is a favorite destination.

In the grand scheme of things, Galena, Ill., was destined to be a flash in the pan.

The flash came from the shiny lead sulfide upon which the town's fortunes were built in the 1830s, '40s and '50s; galena is the Latin word for the ore.

It made many people rich, and in the 1850s, Galena, three miles from the Mississippi, was the busiest port between St. Paul and St. Louis.

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Jolly Cedarburg

In southeastern Wisconsin, a historic village has perfected the art of the party.

When a small town is about as pleasing as can be, what else can it do?

Why, make sure everyone notices, of course.

In 1972, an old Yankee mill town just north of Milwaukee started a Wine & Harvest Festival. Two years later, it started Winter Festival.

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Browsing in Boulder Junction

A fishing mecca in northwoods Wisconsin has become a fashionable place to shop.

In a little village in northern Wisconsin, muskie probably is still king.

Back in 1971, city boosters got the U.S. Patent Office to make Boulder Junction the official Musky Capital of the World. After all, the surrounding two counties have the world's densest concentration of lakes, and they still yield 4-foot fish.

But times change. Now, this former logging town deep in the middle of state forest has gained fame as a playground for another kind of trophy hunter.

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Beauty in Mineral Point

In southwest Wisconsin, artists and shoppers alike are drawn to a lovely village.

Since its earliest days, the people of Mineral Point have created beauty out of nothing.

Lead first drew eager frontiersmen, who often lived in the "badger holes'' they dug in their search for "mineral.''

The territory later became known as the badger state, and the town became Mineral Point, the nucleus around which Wisconsin developed.

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Roaming in Red Wing

A scenic Mississippi River town is a magnet for day-trippers from the Twin Cities.

For many years, Red Wing has been Twin Citians’ favorite day-trip destination.

It’s adorable, with its brick storefronts, flowering planters hung from lampposts and rows of stately Victorian houses in three historic districts.

Sitting on a sharp elbow of the Mississippi, it’s a small town that still looks the part — it has a bakery, a barber shop, a homespun café — and it was the first  Minnesota town on the National Trust for Historic Preservation's list of Distinctive Destinations.

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Spring weekends for women

In shopping towns and woodsy retreats, April and May are prime time for girlfriend getaways.

In spring, women's weekends pop up like daffodils.

Chalk it up to cabin fever — women just want to get away. Or, perhaps more accurately, tourist-starved destinations want women to get away.

In 2017, the Lake Michigan town of Holland is first out of the pack with Girlfriends Weekend March 3-5. The famous tulips won't be out, but hotels offer specials, and a package includes a breakfast buffet, champagne brunch, fashion shows, concerts, clinics and swag bags.

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Fish Creek in Door County

In this historic resort town, crowds come for the shops and the scenery.

Few tourist towns are more blessed than Fish Creek.

It's known as Door County's shopping town, and if people think that's too much of a good thing — well, they're in the minority, judging by throngs on the streets.

It's also the gateway to the wildly popular Peninsula State Park. This big park is more like a resort, with a beach, boat rentals, playgrounds, tennis court and golf course, plus a theater, lighthouse, bike trails and one of the state's best-known hiking trails.

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Power shopping in southwest Wisconsin

On a late-fall foray, six bargain hunters find treasure amid scenery.

Down comforters, to nestle all snug on a bed. Fleece stockings, to wear with care. Bowlsful of jelly, and a shop full of toys.

These visions were enough to draw six Minnesota women toward the rolling folds of southwest Wisconsin, holiday lists in hand. Until that trip, my friends and I never had thought of ourselves as power shoppers.

"Wow, I've never done this before,'' marveled my friend Mary, looking on as three of us tried futilely to close the lid of the bulging car-top carrier. "I've heard about women who do this.''

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Bicycling and shopping vacations

She likes to explore the shops and he likes to sweat? No problem.

As often as not, vacationing couples find they're in a mixed marriage: One likes to shop, one likes to bike or hike.

What to do? I've seen dozens of men patiently waiting on benches as their wives and girlfriends scour the shops.

But it needn't be an either/or proposition. Pick one of the destinations below, and you'll find both great shopping and great riding (or running, or skating) routes, plus great restaurants in which to relax afterward.

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Prize-hunting in Princeton

In central Wisconsin, shoppers flock to a flea market like bees to clover.

In an up-and-down economy, people still like to shop, even if they can't spend much.

That's turned out pretty well for the town of Princeton, which operates Wisconsin's largest outdoor weekly flea market in its tree-shaded City Park.

The last years have been busier than ever for the market: For a buck or two, anyone can find a treasure, even if it's a bag of marbles or a freshly baked pastry.

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Shopping at the Megamall

The Mall of America is huge, but take your time and you'll find its heart.

Twin Citians can boast all they want about their quality of life, their lakes and their urban civility.

But the only thing most people in other states and countries really want to know about is the Mall of America, and the very interesting fact that there's no tax on clothing and shoes in Minnesota.

Opened in 1992, the megamall was an instant hit, attracting eager shoppers from all over the world, most arriving with empty suitcases they can stuff with deals.

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10 tourist traps to love

These roadside attractions dole out equal portions of schlock and awe.

Americans have a love-hate relationship with their tourist traps. They’re so uncool . . . but so irresistible.

What makes something a tourist trap? It’s a place that’s so cheesy you have to see if it’s really as cheesy as it looks. A place so iconic you’ve seen a million pictures of it. A place plugged by thousands of highway billboards.

Mostly, it’s a place everyone else has seen — so you have to, too. We can’t help ourselves, especially when it comes to anything that’s odd or oversized.

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Kohler's luxuries

In a tidy Wisconsin town, a family's reach stretches far beyond plumbing fixtures.

It all began with an enameled horse trough/hog scalder.

It grew into an empire that includes a five-diamond resort, a collection of upscale shops, an innovative art center, a foundation that rescues Wisconsin folk art and, in fact, an entire town that's so perfect it's almost eerie.

That horse trough evolved, too, into such products as the Body Spa, a futuristic shower stall with a waterfall and 10 jets that pummel tired muscles with 80 gallons of water per minute.

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Bargain-hunting in Stillwater

In this St. Croix river town, shops harbor all kinds of treasures.

When spring is a tease and days are gray, only one sport always comes through: Shopping.

And where better to shop than Stillwater? The little village on the Minnesota side of the St. Croix River has a Main Street that’s chockablock with antiques, books and bibelots from around the globe, filling every inch of storefronts once occupied by the blacksmiths and haberdashers and apothecaries of the logging era.

In summer, its streets are clogged with tourists, out to enjoy the riverside ambiance as well as the merchandise (See Summer in Stillwater).

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Wisconsin's birthday town

In laid-back Spring Green, any day is worth celebrating.

People converge on Spring Green, Wis., for many good reasons: To admire Frank Lloyd Wright masterpieces. To hear Shakespeare at American Players Theatre. To see world-class kitsch at House on the Rock.

But what brought me to Spring Green? Free stuff.

Spring Green calls itself "The Birthday Town,'' because people celebrating birthdays can go around to its businesses collecting free loot, like trick-or-treaters. It's like having another holiday, except you're the only one who gets to celebrate it.

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Best shopping towns for weekenders

Cute, compact, accommodating these are good spots for girlfriend getaways.

There are certain towns that are so adorable and have so much that appeals to tourists that you just have to call them show towns.

They're real towns, of course, but they're always on their best behavior because tourists are always watching, and many have evolved in lockstep with tourism.

There's no question about what goes on the top of this list — Galena, Ill. This 1850s lead-mining boom town snoozed for a century before it was rediscovered  and turned into a playground for weekenders, especially from Chicago.

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Fast times in Nisswa

Swift turtles mix with power shoppers in a Minnesota lake-country oasis.

As soon as we turned off the highway into Nisswa, my children’s heads began to swivel.

"Souvenirs . . . Gift Shop . . . Moccasins,’’ read my daughter Madeleine. "And look — Candy Store.’’

"This is a cute town,’’ said my son Peter, noticing the covered sidewalks. "It’s like a cowboy town.’’

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