MINNEAPOLIS -- With the Mississippi River as a glimmering backdrop, the Wild Goose Chase Cloggers were kicking up their toes and heels to the accompaniment of the Yard Buzzard String Band -- entertainment that would be considered niche if you were anywhere but in the upper Midwest.
At farmers market booths nearby, the folks at Edna's Caramels were dispensing superb artisanal candies that had been "handmade in small batches," according to the label, while the guys from Town Hall Brewery were dispensing samples of Petunia's Pumpkin Ale from little brown jugs.
College students bound for a football game streamed across the river on a vintage stone bridge, and merged with patrons arriving for concurrent matinees of "Jane Eyre" and "The Home Place" at the stunning Guthrie Theater.
It was a vibrant scene on a Saturday in autumn -- and it would have been unimaginable in Minneapolis just a few years ago.
The banks of the Mississippi River had long been the city's industrial epicenter, where a modest 50-foot waterfall powered flour mills -- Pillsbury and General Mills notable among them -- that ground up the bounty of the nation's breadbasket. When the mill operations began to move elsewhere in the last 40 years (the need for river-water power no longer an imperative), this became the gritty domain of the city's down-and-outers.
"In 1965 when I arrived, I took a Pentax camera down to the riverfront," said Nina Archabal, director of the Minnesota
It wasn't until the early 1990s that Minneapolis began to rediscover its riverfront, and the resuscitation of the region is an urban success story of profound proportions.
The two most significant prongs of the effort are the Mill City Museum, established in 2003 in the burned-out hulk of the Washburn A Mill (birthplace of General Mills), and the Guthrie Theater's relocation here last year. These impressive institutions have given residents and visitors a reason to return to this neighborhood, there to find a fair-weather farmers market, the 1.8-mile St. Anthony Falls Heritage Trail, the pedestrian-only Stone Arch Bridge (once used by trains hauling off the flour), and the postcard charm of Nicollet Island.
The Mill City Museum is an ideal place to begin any exploration of this neighborhood, because it provides an enthralling overview not only of Minneapolis' milling heritage, but of the city itself.
The 1880 building was gutted by a fire in 1991, but after the surviving walls were stabilized, an exhaustive restoration was undertaken. Today, visitors can stand in the courtyard of the mill and gaze up at stone walls that frame an open sky. In the mill's heyday, the river drove eight floors of machinery around the clock, grinding enough flour to make 12 million loaves of bread in a single day.
An elevator ride up the building pauses at each floor for archival films, oral histories from former workers and simulations of the noisy machinery, but it can't fully capture what the conditions once were like. Workers suffered from "miller's cough," which was a form of asthma brought on by breathing flour dust. They loaded 140-pound sacks onto box cars. And they worked in constant peril of explosions -- it's complicated, but flour dust can ignite -- and fire.
There is an open-air observation deck at the top, providing a sweeping view of the river and the opposite bank -- where the rooftop sign of rival Pillsbury seems vaguely taunting.
The museum exhibits are housed in a room of thick walls and a musty smell. Here, you learn of the products that prodded a generation of housewives to do more baking and dish up more flour products: Bisquick, Malt-O-Meal, Betty Crocker Cake Mix. A baking lab on the premises regularly dispenses platters of cookie and cake samples.
Right next door is the Guthrie, an eye-catching dark-blue edifice with towering, shadowy portraits of Chekov, O'Neill and other famed playwrights. For more than three decades, the theater operated adjacent to the Walker Art Center across town, and gained a stellar reputation for its productions of classic plays and edgy contemporary works.
It reopened here in June of last year, and is trying to get the word out that you don't have to attend a play to enjoy the place. "In the original building, you needed a ticket to get in," said spokesman Lee Henderson. "Now it's a public building. If time doesn't allow you to come and see a show, you can come in and have a drink, have dinner, look into all the nooks and crannies architecturally, or enjoy the view."
The view is, indeed, spectacular from a unique feature of Jean Nouvel's design -- the "endless bridge," which cantilevers 178 feet toward the river and offers a 180-degree perspective from its open-air platform. Word has it this thing vibrates in strong winds; we'll take their word for it.
The signature feature of the former Guthrie was its thrust stage, which protruded into the heart of the audience. It has been re-created here, and though the room holds 1,100 seats, the farthest away from the stage is 50 feet. At a recent performance of "Jane Eyre," we felt enveloped in the story, with actors suddenly appearing from stairwells amid the seats. ("Jane Eyre" returns to the Guthrie for a limited engagement March 8-30.)
Afterward, we settled into the Target Lounge for a post-theater glass of wine, and beheld the river in darkness, the lights of the city skyline and the neon glow of the Gold Medal Flour sign atop the old Washburn A Mill. The bar was all but deserted -- yes, Minneapolis hasn't quite grasped the idea of the Guthrie as a late-night spot.
For daytime visitors, the theater offers self-guided audio tours, a backstage tour and an architecture tour.
With the Guthrie and the Mill City Museum providing the anchors of redevelopment, the Riverfront District is burgeoning. Condos are going up at a startling rate, some housed in old industrial buildings -- notably the former woolen mill that still has its "North Star Blankets" sign on the roof.
Restaurants and clubs have sprouted here and in the adjacent Warehouse District. We were impressed 112 Eatery, Spoonriver and Cue (the Guthrie's restaurant) on the west bank, and, on other side of the river, Restaurant Alma.
"I was looking for something close to downtown, but the neighborhood wasn't there yet," said Restaurant Alma's chef-owner, Alexander Roberts. "The rent was right. People used to say, 'You have a terrible location.' Now they say, 'You have a great location.' I guess our timing was right."
Other entrepreneurs are banking on that timing with shops and galleries in the Warehouse and Riverfront districts. One is Open Book (1011 Washington Ave. S.), which houses a center for book arts (bookbinding, typesetting, paper-making), a non-profit literary press, and a venue for readings and discussions.
With all those condos overhead, home-furnishings stores proliferate, but even a visitor can enjoy a little browsing in some of the cutting-edge establishments. Poliform (100 Second Ave. N., www.poliformusa.com) exhibits sleek Italian kitchen designs in a warehouse setting, so you can get an idea of how that stainless-steel fridge would look next to a rough-hewn pillar and against a bare-brick wall. Montaggio (150 Second Ave. N.) carries contemporary European bath fixtures and kitchen appliances.
If the Guthrie has whetted a theater appetite, check the playbill for the Theatre de la Jeune Lune (105 N. First St.), whose productions are staged in a cavernous former warehouse space.
Another cultural treasure along the river is the Weisman Art Museum on the campus of the University of Minnesota. It's a jewel box of a museum, with limited exhibition space for its contemporary works, but Frank Gehry devotees make pilgrimages here just to gaze at the building, a startling jumble of curved stainless-steel panels in the vein of his Walt Disney Concert Hall in L.A. and the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. Admission is free, and the Weisman has a terrific gift shop.
The I-35W Bridge, which collapsed tragically in August, killing 13, crossed the Mississippi between the Weisman and the Guthrie. It has been dismantled and traffic diverted, but while its loss has put strain on commuter routes in and out of the city, tourists visiting the Riverfront District aren't likely to be affected by its loss, because a number of bridges cross the river in this part of downtown.
One of them is the Hennepin Avenue Suspension Bridge, which leads to picturesque Nicollet Island, a stepping stone in the middle of the river. An enclave of restored Victorian homes, many painted in bright colors, can be found at one end of the island. At the other is the Nicollet Island Inn, a charming hotel in an 1893 building that was once the Island Sash & Door Co.
The St. Anthony Falls Heritage Trail passes right by the inn on its way to the east bank, which is the leafy and peaceful side of the river. Bicyclists, baby strollers and joggers might be encountered on the winding brick path that passes the restored historic storefronts of St. Anthony Main.
Here in the Northeast ("Nordeast" in local parlance), there is a late-night institution that is guaranteed to make your Minneapolis visit complete: Nye's Polonaise Room. At the front of the house, the piano bar host knows the entire Dean Martin catalog by heart. And in a back room, the polkas of the Ruth Warren Band -- with Ruth stoically working out on accordion -- inspire all manner of novices to take to the dance floor, especially after a couple of bottles of Zywiec beer from Poland.
We were hoping the cloggers might make an appearance, but no such luck. They, after all, had experienced something quite novel for Minneapolis: a busy day down by the river.
IF YOU GO:
WHERE: Minneapolis' Riverfront District stretches along the northern edge of downtown, on both sides of the Mississippi River. An invaluable brochure is "Building on the Past: Architecture and the Minneapolis Riverfront," which includes a walking-tour map and information on historically significant sites. Look for it in tourism racks, visit www.minneapolis-riverfront.com, or call (612) 673-5123 to order one in advance. There is no printed guide to the St. Anthony Falls Heritage Trail, but information panels are posted at intervals along the way. It is demarked by Hennepin Avenue Suspension Bridge on the north, the Stone Arch Bridge on the south, and walkways along both river banks.
FARMERS MARKET: The Mill City Farmers Market will be held Saturdays from May 10to Oct. 18 next year. It runs from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. on the grounds of the Mill City Museum, 704 S. Second St. www.millcityfarmersmarket.org; (612) 341-7580.
GUTHRIE THEATER: 818 S. Second St. The public lobbies are open daily from 8 a.m. to midnight. For information on tickets, tours, the gift shop, bars and Cue restaurant, visit www.guthrietheater.org. Box office: (877) 447-8243.
MILL CITY MUSEUM: 740 S. Second St. Open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (until 9 p.m. on Thursdays), Sundays from noon to 5 p.m. Admission is $8 for adults, $6 for seniors and college students, $4 for children ages 6 to 17. www.millcitymuseum.org; (612) 341-7555.
NYE'S POLONAISE ROOM: 112 E. Hennepin Ave., (612) 379-2021.
WEISMAN ART MUSEUM: 333 E. River Road (on campus of University of Minnesota). Open Tuesday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (till 8 p.m. on Thursday), Saturday and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Free admission. www.weisman.umn.edu, (612) 625-9494.
LODGING: The Nicollet Island Inn is a charming lodging option, with 24 rooms in a historic building on a small island in the river (easily reached by bridge). Room rates from $199. 95 Merriam St., www.nicolletislandinn.com, (612) 331-1800.
The Minneapolis Westin is downtown, but still convenient to the Riverfront District. It opened this past spring after the renovation of the Farmers & Mechanics Bank building. The result is a grand lobby with a restaurant and bar where the tellers' cages used to be. Room rates from $129 on weekends. 88 S. Sixth St., www.westin.com/ minneapolis, (612) 333-4006.
RESOURCES: Guidebooks to Minneapolis are few and far between, but there is a comprehensive section on the city in Moon Handbooks' "Minnesota" (Avalon; $$19.95). Another helpful guide is "Eat, Shop: Twin Cities" (Cabazon; $14.95). The Minneapolis Popout Map (Compass; $6.95) is handy when roaming the city. On the Web, there is a lot of good information (and another map) at the aforementioned www.minneapolis-riverfront.com. Minneapolis Convention and Visitors Association: www.meetminneapolis.org, (888) 676-6757.