Bemidji, a pretty little northwoods town nestled along the Mississippi River and Lake Bemidji, is a classic Minnesota getaway. It’s also one of the top 5 finalists in Minnesota Monthly’s inaugural Best MN Town contest, scoring over 73,000 votes from the public.
So what makes Bemidji so popular? Compact, laid-back and packed with outdoor activities, charming downtown shops and hearty food and beer, it’s a great choice in any season. Here’s where to play, shop and eat when you come to town.
Bemidji boomed as a lumber town, back when logging was one of the state’s major industries. The legend of lumberjack Paul Bunyan and Babe, his blue ox, has its roots in Bemidji, a former lumber town. The statues of Babe and Paul, located in the heart of the city, are easily Bemidji’s most photographed landmarks.
The pine forests of the region’s lumber days are long gone, replaced with thick forest of maple, oak, aspen and tamarack trees that offer shade in the spring and summer, shelter in the winter and blaze orange, gold and red in the autumn months. They’re a popular destination all year long.
You can still find one remaining stretch of virgin white and red pine forest — The Lost 40 — that’s untouched by man. Some of the trees (located inside the nearby Chippewa National Forest) are over 300 years old.
Winter hiking in Lake Bemidji State Park
Itasca State Park, located near Bemidji, is worth a pilgrimage in any season. It contains the Mississippi headwaters, where the river begins as a shallow stream before flowing 2,552 miles south toward the Gulf of Mexico. There are also miles of trails (including snowshoeing trails in the winter) and lots of great spots for wildlife watching.
Lake Bemidji State Park is located just a few minutes north of town. It offers pretty hiking trails and activities led by naturalists in all seasons, and swimming, boating, fishing, birdwatching, camping and biking in the summer. There’s also a neat bog walk, where you can explore a tamarack bog from a boardwalk.
Lake Bemidji State Park is a birdwatching mecca, even when the snow falls. (The bird feeders totally help.) My mom embraced her inner Snow White and made a few new friends.
To get outdoors in the center of the city, check out the hiking and biking trails around the shores of Lake Bemidji. The 123-mile Paul Bunyan State Trail connects Lake Bemidji State Park to Crow Wing State Park. The Mississippi River Trail, starts in Lake Itasca, runs through Bemidji and follows the river south.
I wrote a bit about both trail networks in an earlier post. You can read it here.
Bemidji’s compact downtown district is charming and walkable, even when the temperature cools. (Just pop into a shop to warm up!)
Don’t miss Bemidji Woolen Mills, run by the 4th generation of the Batchelder family. The company has produced beautiful wool fabric and garments since 1920 and the quality and patterns on display are beautiful. You can shop in the showroom or call ahead to arrange a factory tour. It’s a really unique place.
Yellow Umbrella is a definite must-see when you’re in town. It offers great women’s clothing and gifts with a funky edge. Its ownership team also operates 218 Home + Gift, a love letter to all things Minnesota (from rustic to quirky, silly to sublime), and The Fort Baby + Kids, a small, sweetly curated spot selling kids clothing and gifts that nobody really needs but even grown-ups want.
Rustic Minnesota themed gifts at 218 Home + Gift
I also really liked Urbanesque Boutique. It offered a visually appealing mix of women’s clothing, accessories, gifts and upcycled furniture, with a chill vibe that plays well in these parts. The Least of These is a funky little fair trade shop and handmade gift emporium that supports social change through shopping.
Since I’m an author and a book nerd, of course I’m going to send you to Bookworld. I’m also fond of stopping for something sweet at Chocolates Plus and something savory at Loide Oils and Vinegars. I know a tasting flight of balsamic vinegar sounds weird if you haven’t tried it, but it’s sublime.
In between shops, be sure to check out the Bemidji Sculpture Walk. New pieces are added every May and fan favorites sometimes stay for a few years.
Art imitates life (or maybe the other way around) as my sister Brynn checks her phone near a sculpture in downtown Bemidji.
As I’m writing this, I’m realizing that since I’m usually in Bemidji with my family, I tend to gravitate toward family dining restaurants when I’m in town. This won’t necessarily be the most well-balanced restaurant round-up, but that just means you can tell me what to try next time in the comments below!
Raphael’s Bakery Cafe offers an array of carb-lovers comfort food, from delicious, creamy wild rice soup to freshly baked bread and baked goods. (Their buns, cakes and amazing, hearty breads are especially beloved.) Stop in for the lunch special and a little people watching.
Minnesota Nice Cafe tempts diners with hearty food like grandma used to make. The menu is packed with filling, sentimental favorites like made from scratch soups, a stick to your ribs Lumberjack breakfast and fat, juicy burgers.
I also liked JJ’s Dockside, which is, as the name suggests, right on the lake. The menu is a nice mix of pasta, salads, burgers, sandwiches and more traditional dinner options. (I wrote a little about it — and included a photo of a classic Minnesota tater tot hotdish — in the story about Bemidji that I shared in the “Play” section earlier in this post.)
And of course, you know I couldn’t pass up a chance to have a few beers at Bemidji Brewing Company. Everything I tried was very good. (And between my flight and my sister’s, I think we tried everything!) The Winter IPA and the Flanders Sour Red were my favorites.
What about you?
What are your favorite outdoor activities in Bemidji?
Which Bemidji shops and restaurants do you love?
What other small cities would Bemidji fans enjoy?
(These can be anywhere in the world, not just in Minnesota.)
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