6 Must-Do Music & Art Festivals in Winona

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2018 Boats and Bluegrass Festival / Tim McG Photography & Video

6 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.

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

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

Performer at Steamboat Days Festival

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

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.

6 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 the newly renovated 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

With a six-week run that includes five theatrical productions and dozens of performances among them, the Great River Shakespeare Festival is undeniably Winona’s biggest summer arts festival. But despite the name, it’s not all Shakespeare. In fact, as the festival enters its 16th year, only two of the five shows were penned by the Bard: “Macbeth” and “Cymbeline.”

The remaining three consist of an 18th century Italian classic by Carlo Goldoni; Nilaja Sun’s one-person show depicting a group of 10th graders as they attempt to produce a play; and Nassim Soleimanpour’s infamous “White Rabbit, Red Rabbit,” which asks an actor to come on stage, open a sealed envelope and perform a play they’ve never seen or read before. All five shows take place at the Performing Arts Center at Winona State University.

On top of the packed performance schedule, Great River also hosts the world’s only 28-furlong running race (slightly longer than 5K), a weekly series of Saturday morning “Front Porch” conversations with scholars, performers and community members, and plenty more.

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.” Under the expertise of music director Osmo Vanska, they’ve performed in grand halls around the globe, from Finland to New York, earning international acclaim at every turn. Once a year, at the Minnesota Beethoven Festival, you can see them perform in the Winona Middle School auditorium (a very nice auditorium, to be sure).

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. This year’s performers include violinist Joshua Bell, organist Olivier Latry, the Manhattan Chamber Players, pianist Yekwon Sunwoo and the Grammy Award-winning Parker Quartet, who will play two shows at the beautiful Minnesota Marine Art Museum.

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. The festival is held on the Winona State campus, “on the green near the performing arts center,” or in the nearby science lab atrium if there’s rain.

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.

Shut Down Third Street in downtown Winona

Musicians play at the annual Shut Down Third Street festival in downtown Winona / Nathaniel Nelson, Treedome Productions

Shut Down Third Street

Back for its second year, Shut Down Third Street is poised to be Winona’s newest annual tradition. Produced by Winona’s hip, local music production house Treedome, year one brought 13 bands and 3,000 festival-goers to the scenic river city—and organizers are confident year two will be an even bigger draw.

Last year’s main stage hosted six bands including Minneapolis indie-pop darlings Early Eyes and all-grown-up teenage prodigy Lydia Liza, while the remaining seven bands played after-parties around town. The River City Ballroom Dancers also held free group dance lessons in the early evening, culminating with a swing dance party on the streets accompanied by live big band music. Organizers say this year’s festival will follow a similar format.

To help Shut Down Third Street stand out from the rest of Winona’s crowded festival scene, organizers double down on what they’re convinced is the city’s strongest asset: its community. In addition to the music, Treedome hands out prize raffle punch cards in front of its Third Street production studio—get your card punched at enough downtown businesses and win artsy prizes from the Minnesota Marine Art Museum and other venues.

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.

Just up the street, be sure to visit Art of the Rural’s national headquarters, Outpost. Exhibitions at Outpost range from Afrofuturist multimedia installations to rural photojournalism projects, but the core message that links them all together is a focus on the value, nuance and diversity of contemporary rural communities.

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 by Van Gogh, Picasso, O’Keeffe and more, all housed in a sleek, modern building overlooking the Mississippi River. The museum also regularly hosts traveling exhibits, gallery tours and special programming, including $1 admission the second Saturday of every month.

Winona also lays claim to two major universities, Winona State and Saint Mary’s, both of which boast impressive arts programming. The long-running Page Series at Saint Mary’s has brought world-class dance, music and theater to Winona for more than 30 years, while the many venues of Winona State are so deeply ingrained in the city’s arts culture, it’s hard to know where to start. You’ll also find an abundant gallery scene, live music venues galore, and numerous historical sites and museums throughout town.

Brian Fanelli

Brian Fanelli is a writer and editor for Explore Minnesota. When he isn't writing about life in The North, you'll find him browsing the sci-fi shelves in a local bookstore, biking one of Minnesota's spectacular trails or walking his Chihuahua around Minneapolis.