Night concert Boats and Bluegrass Winona

Must-Do Music & Art Festivals in Winona

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2018 Boats and Bluegrass Festival / Tim McG Photography & Video

Must-Do Music & Art Festivals in Winona

By Brian Fanelli

Whether you’re a fan of bluegrass, indie rock, symphonies or Shakespeare, there’s never been a better time to visit Winona. So call some friends, pack your bags, and discover one of the Midwest’s most surprising art scenes.

Performer at Steamboat Days Festival

Performer in the annual Steamboat Days Festival and Parade in Winona / Visit Winona

These days, it’s hard to imagine Winona without its vibrant summer festival schedule.

But until recently, this small southern Minnesota city was home to just one multi-day summer festival: Winona Steamboat Days.

Established in 1948, Steamboat Days is your quintessential Midwest summer festival. There’s a carnival, live music, softball tournaments, car shows, a kids fishing contest, fireworks, parades—you name it, they’ve got it. There’s even a “captain and first mate” costume contest for kids, the winners of which get to lead the Steamboat Days Kiddie Parade. And for over half a century, Steamboat Days was basically the only big summer festival in town.

Fast-forward nearly 60 years to 2004, when the Great River Shakespeare Festival showed up and changed everything. The festival’s first year was small—just two productions—but its success was undeniable. More than 10,000 people attended that year, and the festival’s popularity ushered in a new era of summer arts and music festivals in Winona.

Essential Art & Music Festivals in Winona

Mid West Music Fest

If Great River is the mother of Winona’s modern summer festival scene, Mid West Music Fest is its rebellious teenage son with a heart of gold. Set up similarly to Austin’s famous South by Southwest, this year’s fest will bring over 65 acts to multiple performance venues scattered throughout town.

Most stages are located downtown, well within strolling distance of one another, which makes navigating the massive schedule of shows a breeze for first-timers. Venues range from Levee Park on the Mississippi River, to the grandiose Historic Masonic Temple, to Winona’s must-visit dive, Ed’s No Name Bar. In between shows, take some time to wander and explore the sights and sounds of downtown Winona, from picturesque views of Sugar Loaf bluff to the simple pleasure of an ice cream cone on a hot summer’s day.

Former festival headliners include Nooky Jones, Graveyard Club, and Doomtree hip-hop artists Longshot and Lazerbeak, Charlie Parr, Them Coulee Boys and De La Buena. 

Actors on stage at the Great River Shakespeare Festival in Winona

"Comedy of Errors" at the Great River Shakespeare Festival, directed by Melissa Rain Anderson / Dan Norman

Great River Shakespeare Festival

The Great River Shakespeare Festival is undeniably Winona’s biggest summer arts festival. But despite the name, it’s not all Shakespeare. In rotation this summer with the bard's As You Like It and The Winter's Tale will be the world premiere of Melissa Maxwell's Imbroglio, about the complications two couples encounter as they navigate friendship and marriage while living next door to each other. The season runs from late June through most of July with all shows taking place at the DuFresne Performing Arts Center on the campus of Winona State University.

Minnesota Orchestra outdoors Minnesota Beethoven Festival Winona

Minnesota Orchestra performs outdoors for Minnesota Beethoven Festival / Kirk Fratzke

Minnesota Beethoven Festival

In a 2010 review for The New Yorker, music critic Alex Ross famously described the Minnesota Orchestra as “the greatest orchestra in the world.” They’ve performed in grand halls around the globe, from Finland to New York, earning international acclaim at every turn. This summer, during the Minnesota Beethoven Festival, they'll be performing a free Pops Concert at the Lake Park Bandshell. In a way, that’s the Minnesota Beethoven Festival in a nutshell: some of the world’s best musicians performing the world’s greatest symphonies in venues you wouldn’t expect.

Dixieland Jazz Festival

Established in 1987, the Dixieland Jazz Festival has been a Winona institution for over 30 years, and this beloved toe-tapping tradition shows no signs of slowing down. Its appeal is simple: Admission is free, family picnics are encouraged and, if you want to sit, it’s BYO lawn chair. Performance locations vary.

Time your trip right and you can attend the Dixieland Jazz Fest, Minnesota Beethoven Festival and Great River Shakespeare Festival all in the same weekend. Sure, you won’t be able to see all of the incredible productions taking place around town, but you can say that about nearly any summer day in culture-rich Winona.

Boats & Bluegrass Festival

You can’t talk about Winona music festivals without mentioning Boats and Bluegrass. Held on the beautiful Prairie Island Campground just a short drive from downtown, the festival’s two main stages and group campgrounds are surrounded on three sides by the Mississippi River. Not only does the festival’s close proximity to the river provide a scenic, au natural background for the music, it also makes leading the festival’s namesake boat tours a breeze.

On Friday and Saturday of the festival, Winona State staff lead educational group canoe trips into the backwaters of the Mississippi, with all necessary equipment (canoe, paddles and life vest) included in the cost of a weekend pass. Music begins Thursday evening and continues through Sunday morning, with a lineup of more than 40 groups and (hopefully) as many washboard solos.

Downtown Winona in the fall

Downtown Winona in the fall / Visit Winona

An Artsy Town Year-Round

Winona’s artistic pedigree lives on year-round thanks to its vibrant community of working artists, world-class art museums, and even the city streets themselves: The entire downtown is listed on the National Register of Historic Districts. As you walk its wide, tree-lined sidewalks, your eyes can’t help but linger on the intricate architectural flourishes and stained-glass windows of the city’s historic banks, churches and storefronts. Wander your way to Jovy Rockey Jewelry for an insider’s look at Winona’s vibrant scene of makers, with handcrafted art and goods from over 20 Minnesota artists.

Exterior photo of the Minnesota Marine Art Museum and its lush natural surroundings

No visit to Winona is complete without a trip to the Minnesota Marine Art Museum

No visit to Winona is complete without a trip to the Minnesota Marine Art Museum. The museum has played a pivotal role in Winona’s emergence as an arts and cultural center, anchoring the city’s reputation as a hub of creativity since opening its doors in 2006. Its permanent collection includes an incredible array of original pieces housed in a sleek, modern building overlooking the Mississippi River. The museum also regularly hosts traveling exhibits, gallery tours and special programming.

Brian Fanelli

Brian Fanelli is a Minneapolis-based writer. You can reliably find him browsing the sci-fi shelves in a local bookstore or biking one of Minnesota's spectacular trails.