Minnesota Capitol building, overlooking downtown St. Paul
See the St. Paul Gay Nightlife and Dining Guide for tips on where to eat and play
One of the most striking of America's state capitol buildings, the Minnesota Capitol (75 Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., 651-296-2881) was designed by renowned architect Cass Gilbert and built in the style of St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican. In fact, the massive dome is second only to St. Peter's among unsupported marble domes. The capitol building sits on a bluff just northwest of downtown and faces a series of gardens and lawns. Free guided tours of the capitol are given daily, and visitors may also tour the building on their own.
Town House Bar, a popular lesbian bar on St. Paul's west side
W.A. Frost, an elegant restaurant in historic Summit Hill
Grand Avenue, a charming stretch of shopping and dining west of downtown
Just south of and parallel to elegant and historic Summit Avenue, Grand Avenue passes through a few lively St. Paul neighborhoods and is a great area for dining and shopping. The section just south of Summit Hill, from Dale St. west for about 10 blocks, is lined with coffeehouses, antiques stores, and other engaging shops. This spirited, slick, but unpretentious strip is the heart of Crocus Hill, a charming neighborhood of Victorian homes and streets lighted with old-fashioned street lamps.
Still farther west are two less pricey but similarly diverse neighborhoods, Merriam Park and Macalester-Groveland. At around Hamline Avenue, Selby is again a main - albeit less posh - commercial drag through Merriam Park. Along here are a few good ethnic restaurants and coffeehouses. This is a totally mixed neighborhood of families, young queers, skate punks, retirees, and different ethnicities: At one house you’ll see a rainbow wind chime on the porch, at the next you’ll see a Minnesota Vikings football pennant in the window, and at the next house you’ll see both. The hint of bohemianism continues in Macalester-Groveland, as you’ll see plenty of alternative folks and collegiate types wandering along the main streets, such as Snelling and St. Clair avenues. Grand Avenue around its junction with Snelling Avenue, right near the campus of Macalester College. Along here you'll also find the original location of the popular Twin Cities coffeehouse, Dunn Bros, at 1569 Grand Avenue.
About a 10-minute drive north of here, you'll find another cool St. Paul neighborhood that bears exploring, Como Park, which has several appealing residential blocks around it. A area rich with turn-of-the-century residences, the nicest of which are around Lake Como, which is occupies the eastern edge of Como Regional Park (1421 N. Lexington Pkwy.). On the grounds of this lush 450-acre green park you’ll find a public zoo, with some 500 animals, and a glorious glass-enclosed conservatory.
Downtown St. Paul (pictured here is the Lowertown section)
St. Paul’s workaday downtown is anchored by the intersection of Robert and 7th streets, which is also where you’ll find the visitor center run by the Minnesota Office of Tourism, which is a good place to pick up brochures and information on the region outside the Twin Cities.
From here it’s about a 10-minute walk northwest to reach the Science Museum of Minnesota, which appeals largely to children but has some fine exhibits on paleontology, biology, anthropology, and the like. The museum is not far from the large park anchored by the Cass Gilbert-designed Minnesota State Capitol, a turn-of-the-century structure rife with domes, arches, columns, and murals.
Quite likely the most engaging downtown attraction is the Minnesota History Center, whose exhaustive collection of memorabilia and artifacts capture the region’s past, from a replica of an early sod house to an actual costume worn by Prince in Purple Rain. Also notable is the massive granite and limestone complex in which these displays are housed. A short walk from here is the Minnesota Museum of American Art, a somewhat modest facility that’s strong on American painting, as well as works from Asia and Africa.
The best downtown neighborhood for exploring is the section to the southeast, down near the river and known as the Lowertown Historic District. This 17-block tract of former warehouses (one of them is pictured above) and industrial concerns bears a certain resemblance to Minneapolis’s Warehouse District. A key landmark is Depot Place, a 1920s rail depot that now houses restaurants and boutiques. Nearby is the also interesting St. Paul Farmers Market, which is held on weekend mornings.
Keep in mind that St. Paul is hillier and a bit trickier to navigate than Minneapolis, and you really need a car to investigate its most interesting neighborhoods and top attractions. Downtown is about the same size of Minneapolis’s but is mostly the home of offices and banks; except for several interesting pre-World War II skyscrapers, it doesn’t invite an especially long look. More engaging are the many historic neighborhoods west and southwest of downtown, where you’ll find ample opportunities to park your car, hop out, and stroll around.
Camp, a popular downtown gay dance bar and cabaret
Cathedral Hill B&B, a historic three-bedroom in charming Summit Hill
A lovely white 1890s house on a leafy street in St. Paul's charming and historic Summit Hill neighborhood, Cathedral Hill B&B (488 Holly Ave., 651-998-9882) is one of the city's most romantic places to overnight - and it's also very welcoming of GLBT guests (and run according to eco-conscious principles, too). Original details - from tile fireplaces to stained-glass windows - lend plenty of charm to this warmly furnished inn with three spacious rooms and suites, and rates starting around $125 per night. Guests can opt for either a quick express breakfast, a standard one, or a more substantial and elaborate spread - a helpful, personal approach to an aspect of the B&B experience that tends to vary depending on your tastes (count me among those who aren't wild about long, drawn-out morning meals alongside total strangers). Rooms, though decorated with period-era antiques, also have flat-screen TVs and high-speed Internet.
Summit Avenue Historic District, west of downtown St. Paul
If you stand on the western edge of downtown and look in a northwesterly direction, high on a hill you’ll easily spy the 175-foot-tall Cathedral of St. Paul (239 Selby Ave.). This is loosely the eastern edge of Summit Hill, although many people refer to this specific bluff as Cathedral Hill. Whatever you call it, the patch of historic redbrick homes and apartment buildings is the most charming historic residential neighborhood in the Twin Cities - you'll also find the gay-friendly Cathedral Hill B&B in this area.
Running due west from the Cathedral, Selby Avenue is lined with beautifully restored buildings, many of them housing gay-friendly shops and restaurants, a favorite being romantic W.A. Frost. Summit Avenue (pictured here, with its broad, tree-lined median) runs southwest of the cathedral and is where a young F. Scott Fitzgerald, who lived at No. 599 (a private residence), penned his first novel, This Side of Paradise. Fitzgerald lived not in one of the actual mansions on the hill but just a few doors away, in a modest third-floor apartment of a townhouse. His physical, social, and psychological relationship to the wealthy industrialists and barons around him seems not unlike between Nick Carraway and his supremely rich neighbors in Fitzgerald’s most famous work, The Great Gatsby. Also along this street lined with beautiful early-20th-century and late-19th-century mansions is the Minnesota Governor's Mansion (at 1006). A block south, Grand Avenue is lined with attractive cafes, independent shops, and easygoing coffeehouses - this neighborhood is known as Crocus Hill. This is a fine neighborhood for a stroll on a sunny afternoon.
Happy Gnome gastropub and craft-beer bar, on Selby Avenue in Cathedral Hill
Nina's Cafe, on Cathedral Hill
A Piece of Cake Bakery (and Bon Vie Cafe), on Selby Avenue in Cathedral Hill
A great place in the Summit Hill/Cathedral Hill area to break up a stroll through the neighborhood's tree-lined streets and historic homes, A Piece of Cake (485 Selby Ave., 651-846-0016) is a cheerful neighborhood bakery serving delicious coconut macaroons, frosted cut-out cookies, almond croissants, pumpkin bars, and a wide assortments of pies, tarts, and cakes. You can also grab lunch - they serve sub sandwiches, and pick up all sorts of great bread.
James J. Hill House museum, on Summit Avenue in Cathedral Hill
One of the most stunning homes built along Summit Avenue in St. Paul's prestigious Cathedral Hill neighborhood, the James J. Hill House (240 Summit Ave., 651-297-2555) is a towering stone structure that's now a house-museum with guided tours and an art gallery. Hill was the magnate who built the Great Northern Railway, and his home provides an intimate glimpse into the Gilded Age.