Northfield MN is one of those small towns that capture your heart. I kept hearing buzz about it and all the fun things to do. From the Cannon River Dam to the historic Jesse James legacy.
The town is rich in history and charm. What I didn’t expect to find was the community atmosphere and stunning beauty along the river. There are tons of fun things to do in Northfield MN. Today I’m dishing out my favorite family fun attractions.
For over 150 years, Northfield Minnesota has been attracting visitors. Sitting along the Cannon River, it became the ideal spot for farmers to gather and use the river’s power to mill.
The biggest claim to fame happened in 1876, when the James-Younger Gang tried to rob the Northfield bank. The town fought back and killed two members. It created one of the biggest man hunts in Minnesota.
Today, people come to enjoy the small town, shop along the streets, and enjoy some of the beauty of the area.
What is Northfield Minnesota Known For?
Northfield, Minnesota is known for its small town charm and rich history. Located in the southeast region of the state, Northfield is home to two prestigious colleges: Carleton College and St. Olaf College.
The town has a thriving downtown area with a variety of local shops, restaurants, and breweries, as well as cultural attractions such as the Northfield Historical Society and the Cowles House Museum.
Northfield is also surrounded by beautiful natural landscapes, including the Cannon River and several state parks and recreational areas, making it a popular destination for outdoor activities such as hiking, biking, and fishing.
Additionally, Northfield is known for its annual events and festivals, such as the Defeat of Jesse James Days and the Northfield Arts Guild Fine Arts Festival.
Best Things to do in Northfield MN 2023
Northfield Minnesota is bustling with youthful energy, partly due to two college campuses in the town. It is a great place to explore the historic buildings and riverwalk market fair. Some of the best things to do in Northfield are all within walking distance of each other.
Walk along the Cannon River in Downtown Northfield
One of the favorite places to congregate in Northfield is along the Riverwalk. It’s a stretch just a block from Downtown.
There is free parking all over the place. Grab a snack and sit on some benches along the street. There you can take in the Cannon River views.
Early in the morning, it’s a popular location for fishing. What I appreciated about the Riverwalk was that it’s available to stroll down on both sides, unobstructed by businesses. There are even pedestrian bridges.
Ames Mill Dam
The most iconic piece along the Riverwalk is the Ames Mill Dam. Once built to power the Mill, now owned by Malt-o-Meal, it no longer serves an actual function. It doesn’t produce power or help control flooding.
They built the dam in 1919, making it over 100 years old. The city routinely checks on its condition of it and has considered removing it.
The residents want it to stay because of its historical significance. When it comes time to repair the Dam, it may end up being cheaper just to remove it. Time will tell.
Shop for something unique in Downtown Northfield
The historic downtown Northfield is a fun place to shop. I think I may have enjoyed the variety of shops here better than in Stillwater.
First up, swing into Northfield Olive Oils & Vinegar and get something tasty to enhance your cooking. Then swing into the Content bookstore and get a new book.
The town has some great specialty shops like Rare Pair, Monarch Gift Shop, and Northfield Yarn.
There are a solid three blocks of shopping to exploring and I’m sure you’ll find something to your liking. Unfortunately, they don’t have a traditional candy store, but they have CakeWalk.
A custom cake store and dessert bar, selling some delicious cupcakes. It is just one of the fun things to do in Northfield MN.
Love this type of shopping? Stillwater is absolutely amazing. Check out the 39 Fun Things To Do in Stillwater.
Visit the site of the most famous bank robbery attempt in MN
Visit the First National Bank of Northfield and find out about the James-Younger Gang Demise.
408 Division St S, Northfield, MN 55057 More Info
When the Jessie – Younger Gang picked Northfield as their mark, they thought it would be easy pickings for a robbery. The gang was known for terrifying townspeople and quick escapes.
They had everything well planned and set on the day of the robbery. Little did they know, the town wasn’t so quick to let robbers come and take their life savings.
Just as the men entered the Northfield Bank, the townspeople were onto them. Immediately, they started firing back. They took down two of the robbers, and only a few escaped without injuries.
They also killed two townspeople in the attack. It led to one of the largest manhunts in history, with all but two of the gang in jail or dead.
The Defeat of Jesse James Days
Each September, Northfield commemorates the downfall of the James-Younger Gang and the town’s heroic resistance with the Defeat of Jesse James Days celebration.
You can witness a reenactment of an attempted robbery. When the festival is not going on, you can still be a part of the history.
The Northfield Historical Society Museum is attached to the First National Bank of Northfield. The bank is perfectly preserved . Inside, you’ll find information about this robbery and get to tour the bank.
On display are some items recovered from the raid, including saddles and weapons taken off the deceased.
The museum costs $5 for adults, $3 for students, and $2 for children.
More reading about Jesse James
Before visiting, check out a copy of Shot to Hell Jesse James, The Northfield Raid, and the Wild West’s Greatest Escape by Mark Lee Gardner. What I love about the book was the writing style. I didn’t feel like I was reading a biography.
It put you right into the action and reads almost like a novel. If you want to learn more about this incredible story, I highly recommend reading this book.
If you enjoyed this, you should also stop in the historic courthouse in Stillwater, where you can see where the Younger brothers were imprisoned. The self-guided tours are free and very interesting. Both the courthouse and the museum are listed on the national register of historic places.
Stillwater is an hour north of Northfield. If you love history this is one of the fun things to do in Northfield MN you don’t want to miss it.
Pick up your copy of Shot to Hell Jesse James, The Northfield Raid, and the Wild West’s Greatest Escape by Mark Lee Gardner before you go.
Walk Through Historic Downtown Northfield
Northfields historical walking tour is all about Jessie James. Don’t be afraid to explore on your own. One thing I appreciated was the architecture of the buildings and how well everything was preserved. In one alley, I even found a boiler.
Find a Mural Downtown
Art lovers who visit Northfield will love finding all the murals and hidden pieces around town. The most notable is the Love mural on the side of Domino’s restaurant.
You’ll also see sculptures installed throughout the town. These hidden pieces of the art are wonderful.
The most surprising is the sidewalk poetry. Each year, Northfield residents submit poetry, and the winning pieces are installed on the sidewalks downtown. When you stop in Northfield, look in all directions for what this fun finds.
Northfield Arts Guild
Northfield Arts Guild is a vibrant community arts center that has been enriching the cultural landscape of Northfield, Minnesota for over 60 years. It offers a place for everyone to explore and engage with the arts.
The guild provides a diverse range of arts programming, including theater, dance, music, and the visual arts, as well as arts education classes for both children and adults.
The guild’s mission is to make great art accessible for everyone, and it continues to be a vital part of the Northfield community.
Walk through the Joryo-En Japanese Garden
The Joryo-En Japanese Garden also known as the Garden of Quiet Listening is a beautiful area to explore. A five- and one-half-foot granite stone lantern stands at the entrance to the garden.
Inside, the garden is covered with small gravel stones and a stepping-stone path. The second you walk into the garden; everything becomes quiet and you are almost afraid to talk. It is absolutely serene and magical.
Northfields charm and history make for a fun day for the entire family. It reminded me a lot of Red Wing. If you haven’t been, check out these great tips!
Find our own island at the Cowling Arboretum
Google Maps had us going to the Upper Arboretum parking area, which looks more like an industrial area of the college surrounded by fields. Turn back and head for the parking area near the West Gym.
From there, there is a nice hiking trail into the woods along a stream going to the Cannon River. It leads to the Lower Arboretum trail. It’s a 2.7-mile loop.
After exploring that area, head across the street to the Lyman Lakes. Before the lakes empty into the stream, they pass down a short waterfall. The lakes have a nice pathway around them.
This is closer to what most people think of when they think arboretum. The lakes have a few different bridges leading to islands. Each one is a personal retreat.
Look to the stars at the Goodsell Observatory
If you want to see stars in Southern Minnesota, look no further than the Goodsell Observatory at Carleton College. The Observatory was built in 1885. It houses three telescopes, each over a century old.
The public is invited to open houses held on the first Friday of every month. Visitors will get the chance to observe the skies with beautiful telescopes.
Visit the historical Waterford Bridge
The Waterford Bridge to some might be an abandoned bridge. But it has a lot of historical significance in Minnesota history.
It’s just minutes from Northfield and is the first example of a Camelback through truss with rigid riveted and bolted connections.
The bridge no longer carries traffic. There is a small turnoff on the side of the road to park. The road leading up to the bridge is fighting a losing battle with the wilderness, as it’s retaking the landscape. “Caution” and “Do Not Enter” signs stop whoever might think to cross it.
It feels a little eerie walking up to it, but worth the four-minute drive from downtown to take a peek.
Find hidden waterfalls at Caron Park
Everyone knows about the waterfall at Nerstrand Big Woods State Park but very few know about Wellstone Falls.
The waterfall is in Caron Park near Northfield, about three-quarters of a mile walk. It has not one but two falls that converge.
Walk across the stepping stones and enjoy the waterfall. Get up close to it, or stand underneath it.
The best part is, no one knows about this waterfall. You’ll have the entire waterfall for yourself.
Caron Park has a nice picnic area to enjoy. You can also take your bikes with you as they have a bunch of miles of trails for mountain bikers.
Where to Eat in Northfield MN
Breakfast at Brick Oven Bakery
The Brick Oven Bakery is a traditional bakery located just off Highway 3. They sell fresh-baked bread and hand-crafted pastries. The most popular items are their mouthwatering Carmel and Cinnamon Rolls.
Dine inside or sit out on their patio. If you are like me, take your food to-go and eat it on the river walk.
At lunchtime, you can pick up soups and sandwiches.
A bite to eat anytime HideAway Coffeehouse and Wine Bar
For a good cup of coffee, you have to check out the HideAway Coffeehouse and Wine Bar. It is my favorite coffee shops in Northfield. One thing I love about the HideAway Coffeehouse is its atmosphere.
They have a great indoor dining experience along with outdoor dining on the street. Their drinks are amazing and the food is delicious.
Lunch At Hogan Brothers
Need a quick sandwich? You need to check out Hogan Brothers. They specialize in hot hoagie sandwiches, served on honey-cracked wheat bread and made fresh daily. When they aren’t serving Hoagies, they are scooping out ice-cream treats.
Dinner at the Content Cow
Stop in at the Content Cow for some British-inspired pub grub, tap beers, and live music. The entrance to the pub is in an alley. They have a great selection of food.
The best part about the restaurant was its location downtown. It sits right on the Cannon River.
Imminent Brewing is a popular brewery in Northfield, Minnesota that offers both indoor and outdoor seating to enjoy their wide selection of craft beers.
It’s perfect for families as it is kiddo-friendly and even doggo-friendly, allowing your furry friends to join you for some quality time.
Imminent Brewing serves up a variety of beers including their popular Dragon Squirrel Juicy IPA, Gateway Cream Ale, and Bawk, Balk, Bock. All in all, it’s a great spot for a casual hangout with friends and family.
Cool off with the Blast Northfield
Hidden between the lake walk and Division Street is The Blast Northfield. This amazing soft-serve ice cream location has something for everyone.
Including lactose-free soft serve and gluten-free cones. This was a great surprise when we found it.
The ice cream was out of this world. Plus, you can take your treat on the river walk and chill at a nearby bench or covered table. According to my daughter, this is Minnesota’s best lactose free ice-cream and a place she hasn’t let me forget.
Unique Dining at Red Barn Farm Pizza
If you are looking for something unique, check out the Red Barn Farm Pizza. Wednesday nights, the barn serves fresh wood-fired pizzas. Sit on the grass, and have a picnic as you enjoy fresh pizzas.
When you are done eating, roam around the grounds and meet some animals. The barn is only open on Wednesday nights and during the summer, the third Sunday of the month.
This pizza joint is very popular so get reservations in early.
Looking for more beautiful small towns to explore? Minnesota is packed with them. Click here to find more.
Where to Stay in Northfield Mn
Thinking of spending the night in Northfield. There are a few options.
You can camp at Nerstrand Big Woods State Park. It’s is just a few minutes away from Northfield.
The Archer House River Inn used to be the place to go. Unfortunately, they suffered a crippling fire in late 2020. They were a historic hotel, with beautiful Victorian rooms. They are in the process of rebuilding on the site.
The alternative option is Fairfield Inn & Suites by Marriott. They have a great property along the Cannon River and within walking distance from the Historic Downtown.
Book your stay in Historic Downtown Northfield by clicking here.
Would I go back to Northfield MN?
Yes, I love getting to explore. I’m an early riser. I love getting up and enjoying breakfast and lunch in towns and being back home for supper. In Northfield, that’s a tricky one.
I found that most of the dining everyone talked about didn’t open until 3 pm. I was even surprised to see so few people on the streets at 11:30.
Asking a local shopkeeper about it, it seems that I was just a little early for the rest of the town. By noon, the stores are packed. It seems in this college town, everyone sleeps in. Oh well, we had a great time.
This was an excellent day trip from Minneapolis and just gave me an excuse to come back again and see the nightlife.