In a town known for its beer, it seemed appropriate that my friend Angie and I were having our first brew at downtown La Crosse’s Bodega Brew Pub — where the sign out front boasts more than 400 labels available. But we were there not only for the beer, but for the corned beef sandwiches we’d heard so much about.
At the adjacent lunch counter, we didn’t have to wait long in line to order our “Ozzie’s Own Reuben.” With the college crowd gone for the summer, the place was as lazy and laid back as you’d expect a river town to be.
Then again, I wouldn’t say La Crosse is a typical Mississippi River town. For one thing, it has a population of some 50,000 (without the college count), which classifies it as a small city. It has a shopping mall with more than 80 shops, and hotels and restaurants line the Interstate 90 corridor that runs alongside it.
But if you get off the interstate and go to its heart — La Crosse’s historic downtown — you’ll find the retro rivertown vibe remains, even as it continues to evolve. With a pretty riverfront, boutique shops, restaurants, pubs and music — plus its proximity to the Twin Cities (2 ½ hours away), it makes for a great weekend escape.
We made it just that. With plans to go to one of the free summer night concerts in Riverside Park, we checked into the Charmant Hotel. One of La Crosse’s newest lodgings, it’s located in a historic 1898 building — formerly the Funke Chocolate Co. — overlooking the park and the river.
But as we were checking in and asking about the free performance that evening — a Pink Floyd tribute — the friendly desk clerk scanned the event calendar on his computer. “Well, there’s a knitting club meeting tonight if you’d like to go to that.” Angie and I exchanged glances. Then, “Oh! Yes, tonight is part of the Moon Tunes concerts at Riverside. It starts at 5:30.”
Originally called Levee Park, Riverside Park opened in 1911. Today, its beautiful setting with sculptures, fountains and walking paths makes it the scene of many weddings, concerts, festivals and special events.
Since we had a couple of hours to kill, we perused our map and headed to Pearl Street, one of the main thoroughfares in the historic downtown. But we didn’t get far on it. First there was the old-fashioned ice cream shop and confectionary. The aroma of waffle cones being made wafted out to the hot sidewalk. Enticed, we discovered an authentic 1930s-era soda fountain, with girls in aprons scooping out homemade ice cream on one side. On the opposite side: a fantastic colorful candy-jar-filled wall.
A few doors down, we wandered into the independent Pearl Street Books, housed in an old shoe store. The entrance still has the vintage sign for “Arenz All Leather Shoes” spelled out in tiny tiles.
After that, jewelry and antique shops beckoned. When we ducked into the Library, we discovered it was not a bookstore, but a bar. Hence the sign on the awning: “If Mom calls, tell her I’m at the Library.”
Returning to the hotel, we passed La Crosse’s newest craft brewery, Turtle Stack, where sampling was encouraged and we had planned to stop. By then, however, we’d run out of time before the concert.
But it didn’t matter. We knew we’d be back.
Grandad Bluff is the region’s most iconic landmark. Atop the 600-foot-high-cliff, you can see three states: Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa. Hiking and biking trails abound. Rock climbing is also popular.
The Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe: A short drive takes you into a beautiful rural setting where a chapel, visitor center, restaurant and gift shop are located. The shrine church is on a hill above. The restaurant is a lovely, peaceful place for Mystic Monk-brand coffee and yummy strudel or a soft pretzel with honey mustard sauce — the head chef is a native of Germany (1-608-782-5440, guadalupeshrine.org).
Riverside International Friendship Garden: A secret gem on the north end of Riverside Park. Its beautiful gardens reflect the native plants of La Crosse’s international sister cities (1-608-789-7533, riversidegardens.org).
Where to sleep
La Crosse has numerous chain hotels and several B&Bs. In the historic downtown, the new boutique Charmant Hotel is housed in a former chocolate factory with rooms overlooking Riverside Park. It has a restaurant, coffee shop and rooftop bar, and salutes its sweet history in all sorts of details, including a 24-hour chocolate case (1-608-519-8800, thecharmanthotel.com).
Where to eat
Fayze’s Restaurant and Bakery: This popular spot serves up breakfast, lunch and dinner. Bloody Marys are delicious and the decadent chicken and bacon mac and cheese is not to be missed. The bakery is filled with old-school kolaches, kringle, pie bars and breads (1-608-784-9548, fayzes.com).
Freighthouse Restaurant: Steak, seafood, cocktails and an amazing whiskey list in a cool, 1880s-era riverfront railroad warehouse (1-608-784-6211, freighthouserestaurant.com).
Piggy’s Restaurant: A longtime La Crosse blues-and-barbecue favorite, with river views (1-608-784-4877, piggys.com).
It’s not hard to find a coffeehouse in this college town. Ungrounded Specialty Coffee (1-608-784-5282), in another beautiful old building, serves sandwiches along with coffee. Jules Coffee House (1-608-796-1200) is a hip and funky space with old-style wood booths; fruit smoothies and Italian sodas are made with their own fresh fruit-flavored syrups.
Dim Sum Tea Shop (1-608-738-1221, dimsumteashop.com) sells 150 loose tea varieties and serves bubble tea and homemade dumplings.
Where to drink beer
Famous for its just-completed Oktoberfest, La Crosse is loaded with places to soak up the suds year-round. But first, pay your respects at La Crosse’s famous landmark: the World’s Largest Six-Pack. Located at the City Brewery, it’s actually six mammoth storage tanks (painted to look like beer cans) once used by La Crosse’s G. Heileman Brewery.
Pearl Street Brewery has produced premier craft beer since 1999. Brewery tours on Sat.; tastings Tue.-Sat (1-608-784-4832, pearlstreetbrewery.com).
Bodega Brew Pub: No beer is brewed in this establishment that’s been a cafe since 1875, but more than 400 beers are available plus at least a dozen more on tap (1-608-782-0677, bodegabrewpublax.com).
Turtle Stack Brewery, the city’s newest brewery, has a tasting room with six to eight craft beers (1-608-519-2284, turtlestackbrewery.com).
La Crosse is about 150 miles (2 ½ hours) southeast of the Twin Cities via Hwy. 52 and I-90. If you take Hwy. 61 (the Great River Road), it’s approximately 160 miles (3 hours).
Donna Tabbert Long (@tabbertlong) is a Minneapolis-based travel writer.