If big-box Black Friday crowds or sprawling mall parking lots make you want to hyperventilate, head for Minnesota’s historic downtowns this shopping season. You’ll find unique stores, locally made gifts, and a pace that makes it feel like a getaway rather than a to-do list. As a bonus, most destinations offer additional seasonal fun that can spark fresh holiday traditions.
Foodies & Collectors: Stillwater
Anyone who loves holiday entertaining and creating a welcoming ambiance will find plenty of inspiration while wandering Stillwater’s riverfront downtown. It’s host and hostess central, with a full slate of holiday cooking classes and gifts for kitchen magicians at Cooks of Crocus Hill, Tradewinds Spice Company, Stillwater Oil Company (with an olive oil-and-vinegar tasting bar), and one of the state’s biggest antique stores for scoring one-of-a-kind decor, furniture and vintage textiles. Käthe Wohlfahrt, a favorite shop for travelers seeking souvenirs and Christmas heirlooms in Germany, also has its only U.S. location here.
Outdoor Enthusiasts: Duluth
Named by Outside Magazine as America’s “Best Town Ever,” Duluth rules when it comes to finding gifts for those who love the northern lifestyle. Two perennial favorites are Fitger’s Brewery Complex and Canal Park, both lined with unique shops and ideally located for Lake Superior views and grabbing a shuttle to see the magical Bentleyville light display that fills Bayfront Festival Park.
A sampling of Minnesota-made gifts you’ll find includes camping gear and handcrafted toboggans at Duluth Pack, lush photos and artwork inspired by the North Shore at Sivertson Gallery, and everything from travel bags to handcrafted wooden canoes at Frost River in Lincoln Park.
Artsy Types: Northfield
If you love the pure, high notes of Christmas carols, Northfield hums with holiday cheer and an easy-to-stroll historic downtown. Quirky and artsy, creative and fun, its shops—such as Swag, The Sketchy Artist, The Measuring Cup, and assorted clothing boutiques and antique stops—offer a refreshing array of gifts.
If you time a visit in early December, you may be able to catch the nationally broadcast St. Olaf Christmas Festival. You can even feast on lutefisk and lefse at the college’s traditional Scandinavian buffet. A downtown Winter Walk on Dec. 10 includes horse-drawn carriage rides and stores and cafes illuminated in the warm glow of candlelight.
Artisans & Craftsmen: Red Wing
You can find some of the most iconic Minnesota-made products in this elegant downtown that will bustle with everything from carolers, an ice bar and sleigh rides to a live Nativity and real penguins during its Holiday Stroll (Friday, Nov. 24). Walk through Minnesota’s oldest hotel, the St. James, then wander Main Street, home to the Uffda Shop for all things Scandinavian and the world’s largest boot at the Red Wing Shoes flagship store and museum. The store includes three floors with exhibits about the company and its footwear, a showroom and a basement factory outlet for deals.
Near downtown, Pottery Place has its share of shops and antiques galore. The adjacent Annex showcases the history of Red Wing Pottery with a new museum and lets you see modern craftsmen making the iconic salt-glazed crocks.
Kids (& Kids at Heart): Kellogg
If the holidays spark cherished memories of action figures, dolls and games, then LARK Toys along Highway 61 south of Red Wing offers the gift of Christmases past—and the chance to influence Christmases present. LARK creates its own line of Minnesota-made wooden toys, but also runs this 20,000-square-foot indoor mall packed with charm as kids try on costumes, bang on musical instruments and goof off with puppets while adults wander through free historic displays of toys throughout the century.
Reminisce about Howdy Doody, hula hoops, marbles, space guns and “Star Wars” action figures at this retro toy shop that makes it fun to buy something whimsical for grownups, too. Another allure: the state’s grandest and most imaginative merry-go-round. There’s a good chance you’ll run into Santa on the weekends, too.
Traditionalists: New Ulm
For folks who love the traditions of Christmas—fragrant trees, hand-blown glass ornaments, elegantly carved candleholders, sweetly spiced cookies and Old World carols—head to this small town southwest of the Twin Cities in the Minnesota River Valley, with its Glockenspiel and German flair, decked out throughout the holiday season in lights and garland.
Many traditions—including Christmas trees and nutcrackers—came from Germany, and you can find heirloom-worthy holiday gifts at shops such as Domeier’s German Store, the Guten Tag Haus and Lambrecht’s. The city hosts a Parade of Lights on Friday, Nov. 24, followed by an open house at the Menzel Christmas Village at the Brown County History Museum, which runs through the end of the year.
'Up North' Lovers: Walker
If you crave summers at the lake all year long, recapture that “Up North” feeling with a trip to Walker, which hugs the southern shore of northern Minnesota’s bearpaw-shaped Leech Lake. Stores such as Lundrigan’s Clothing and Christmas Point Wild Rice Co. exude an at-the-cabin vibe, while Reed’s Family Outdoor Outfitters offers all the ice fishing gear, warm layers and boots you need to get onto Minnesota’s lakes no matter the season.
Other notable stops within two or three blocks: Jenny and Company, Walker General Store, Artists and Crafters Mall, Loide Oils and Vinegars, and Aveda Copper Door Spa at Chase on the Lake, a renovated historic hotel overlooking the bay.
Find antique stores, outlet malls and more places to shop throughout Minnesota.