New Ulm, Where Minnesota Nice Meets the Best of Bavaria
By Ellen Burkhardt
In New Ulm, bars sell bier, not beer. Polka music serenades downtown shoppers. And up until World War II, people chatted in German as much as English. Nestled between river valleys and farmland, the town of 13,500 is a little slice of Deutschland right here in Minnesota. New Ulm doesn’t go overboard in parading its heritage, though. Sure, there’s a 47-foot-tall Glockenspiel, but as far as bartenders wearing lederhosen? Not so much—unless it’s Oktoberfest.
For two weekends a year since 1981, New Ulm has morphed into a miniature Munich, attracting beer-lovers and Oktoberfest aficionados from across the country with its charm and authenticity. During the day, costumed crowds flood downtown to cheer on the afternoon parade, dance to live music, and sightsee in horse-drawn trolleys. Come nightfall, the Holiday Inn reigns as bierhaus supreme. There, the best German bands around churn out polka tunes till the wee hours of the morning while kegs of Schell’s beer keep cups full and sauerkraut-topped bratwurst are never more than an arm’s length away.
For those looking for more than a crash course in German culture, take heart: New Ulm’s charm extends far beyond pickled cabbage and chiming cuckoo clocks. Wander through the maze of vintage furniture and décor that is Weeds and Reeds antique shop. Lunch on a savory spinach-and-salmon salad at Lola’s Larkspur Market. Round out the day with a nightcap at the beautifully restored Grand Kabaret or drive out to Morgan Creek Vineyard for a wood-fired pizzette, glass of wine, and live music.
Morgan Creek also hosts the be-all-to-end-all of harvest celebrations: the Cambria Crush, held the first Saturday of October. Teams gather to squish, squash, and smash their way to grape-stomping glory—and vie for a case of vino. If sloshing around in grape guts doesn’t sound appealing, head across the lawn to sample the area’s top cheese-and-wine pairings at “Say Cheese! Savor the Wine.”
When you’ve had your fill of eating, drinking, stomping, and polka-ing, join Hermann the German atop his 102-foot monument on Center Street hill. From there, take in the panorama of a town so genuine, so German, that if you squint, you can almost see the Alps gleaming in the distance.