Yes, Saint Paul is the mellow sister city to Minneapolis, prime family-raising territory and, from the mansions on Summit to the bluffs gazing over the river, a place to walk and contemplate. But whether you’ve got a week or four years here to explore, Saint Paul is also a place where you can be adventurous, curious, and free.
Whether moving through the urban or open landscape, you’re gonna need a metal horse to cut it up. Zip over to Capital Deals on the West Side for colored rims and banana seats; this all-kinds-of-reused-stuff and tune-up shop will have what you need to pave new lines across the city. Cycles for Change on University Avenue offers tools if you want to do the work yourself. From fixing a flat to doing a complete overhaul, Cycles has courses and staff to support you in greasing your gears. It also hosts a Women and Transgender Night every Tuesday from 5 to 8 p.m.
In the territory of the University of St. Thomas and many a student residence there, careen down Marshall Avenue, past Izzy’s Ice Cream and Rising Sun Martial Arts Supply, then hang a left onto East Mississippi River Boulevard via Otis Avenue. Along the boulevard, note a series of parks and unmarked spots to traverse with a best friend, lover, or pet, all reliable companions for working out those existential crises that tend to accompany deep discussions. Stop at Hidden Falls for a close look at the Mississippi River or continue for a couple miles along the boulevard’s massive oak trees to Crosby Regional Park. There, shaded pathways wrap around lakes and wetlands and ultimately lead to Fort Snelling State Park.
Returning from the wilderness—or avoiding it altogether—you can find plenty more places to get away from the classroom. Paul Ndayizeye, a 2012 University of Minnesota graduate who grew up in Saint Paul, says, “If I were to pick one strip of Saint Paul to visit, it definitely would be Grand Avenue.” Ndayizeye suggests Billy’s, Bonfire Wood Fire Cooking, and Tavern on Grand if you’re over twenty-one. The best date spot has got to be the Barbary Fig near Dale. Head chef and owner Boss Hadj, in addition to offering meticulously prepared Moroccan cuisine, will indulge you in saucy conversation better than fine wine. You can chill on the patio or take the meal upstairs, and afterward enjoy waffle cones at the Grand Ole Creamery. Further north, on Selby Avenue, you’ll find the Muddy Pig and the Happy Gnome, which serve a large selection of local brews, craft beers, and good eats. If you want a martini or a fancy place to let your parents take you for dinner, there’s Moscow on the Hill or W.A. Frost. With senses mildly impaired, be sure to explore Subtext Bookstore downstairs in the Blair Arcade building for that treehouse-feel reading space of your childhood. Boys, girls, and gender non-conforming folks are all allowed!
Shaquan Foster, a student at Saint Paul College, recommends Saint Paul coffee shops and cafés as “great for thinking and finding yourself, reading, or writing.” Many cafés offer music, poetry readings, and meeting spaces as well as good coffee. Selby Avenue traditionally has been home to Black-owned businesses. At Golden Thyme Coffee on Selby and Milton, you can sit down with Billie Holiday—that is, an espresso with dark chocolate, caramel, milk, and whipped cream. Golden Thyme reflects the intergenerational clientele of many Saint Paul places: here you can overhear community elders and even legislators discussing politics and sit beside teachers from the local high school grading papers. On Thursday nights, performance poet Tish Jones hosts Soul Sounds performances, an open mic, and music. Be prepared: the atmosphere, including discussions, can be electric. Nearby is the Hallie Q. Brown/Martin Luther King Community Center, home of the Penumbra Theater Company. Founded in 1976, the theater is dedicated to stories told by, for, and about African Americans. It has helped to launch the careers of various playwrights, including Pulitzer Prize winner August Wilson, and its performances reach over 40,000 people each year.
Other cafés to try: Kopplin’s on Marshall near St. Thomas; the original Dunn Brothers on Grand near Macalester; Expresso Royale on Fairview near St. Catherine’s; and Groundswell on Thomas near Hamline University.
If you want to cross the river—and I don’t mean to Minneapolis—head downtown and take the Wabasha Bridge to the West Side community of Mexican and Hispanic businesses and organizations. Cruising down Cesar Chavez Street you’ll find El Burrito Mercado, a large family-owned market selling tamales, hot dishes, and Mexican groceries, with an area to sit and chow, and smaller tiendas featuring pottery and various handicrafts. The Paul and Sheila Wellstone Center hosts dances, rallies, and gardening fairs, and also offers volunteer opportunities. Other well-known spots to eat are Boca Chica and Jerabek’s new Bohemian Coffee House and Bakery. If you’re staying late into the night, bring your headlamp and swing on over to the Wabasha Street Caves. Thursday is swing dance night!
Certain places like Mickey’s Diner downtown are living Saint Paul history, as old as Sven and Ole jokes, and Mama’s Pizza, Carbone’s, and Red’s Savoy make up the Minnesota triangle of pizza. The Town House on University is a well-known LGBTQ-friendly bar; evening events range from drag shows to dollar drink nights. For all kinds of live rock and jazz music, hit the Turf Club, an old 1940s dance bar still located on University just west of Snelling.
Looking for something completely different? Recent Macalester grad Morgan Sleeper recommends going downtown with a group, then splitting into teams to try and find “the quickest route from the St. Paul Hotel to Mears Park staying in the skyways the whole time.” Don’t know what a skyway is? Time to find out! For reference, see the Saint Paul Skyway System map.
If you haven’t had a chance to get out beyond your campus and into the communities, take a risk and check out one of these places or another of your own wanderings. You might be surprised at what’s waiting for you.