Along the Red River, North Dakota city is quirky, colorful and full of surprises
Forget “Fargo.” Don’t get me wrong — I loved the Coen brothers’ dark crime comedy. But 22 years later, if you’re still thinking only about the movie when you hear that word, it’s time to rewire your brain. I’m here to tell you that this North Dakota city is not a godforsaken frozen wasteland of woodchippers. Fargo’s a slice of Oz on the eastern edge of the Great Plains — quirky, colorful and full of surprises: a ScandinavianJewish lunch counter; a gay men’s chorus; a thriving immigrant community; a winter Frostival with a mobile sauna; an artsy boutique hotel; Microsoft’s third-largest campus; and a championship football team.
More than that, it’s the people of Fargo and Moorhead, Minn., its sister city across the river, who have drawn me back multiple times. Locals are quick to credit their forebears — the Scandinavian settlers who depended on each other to raise barns, harvest crops and recover from floods. That same work ethic, dynamism and community support help a new generation of makers, entrepreneurs and artists who dream big and often succeed. When I showed up in June, I ran into a friend before we’d even had a chance to make plans — downtown’s that small. That afternoon, I heard that drivers get a friendly written warning before their first parking ticket — locals are that nice. When you go, chat them up. See the woodchipper at the visitors center if you must. Then, get acquainted with the real Fargo.
What to do
On autumn Saturdays, take your team spirit to the Fargodome, which houses the home football field of the North Dakota State Bison. Tailgating is a sight to behold: It begins at 4 a.m., and you’ll find custom-wrapped buses and motor homes, propaneheated tents and vans donning bison horns.
I love stepping into places where you momentarily forget what state — or country — you’re in. For utterly surreal, try Sons of Norway Kringen Lodge No. 25. The lodge is among the largest in this Nordic heritage fraternal organization, and the building, an old Buick dealership with red carpet and walls, is decorated with Norwegian folk art, Viking carvings and rosemaling. (The latter is a traditional painting style made up of scrolls and flowers; even the dumpster is rosemaled.)
Outside Fargo, it’s nearly impossible to mention the city without people commenting on the movie, so hats off to the Fargo-Moorhead Convention and Visitors Bureau for treating visitors to a little “Fargo.” The CVB displays the screenplay and a promotional ice scraper, but the main attraction is the original woodchipper with a leg poking out.
Where to eat
I had to smile when I walked into Brett Bernath’s Madhaus, which has largely been taken over by the fabulous lunch counter run by his wife, Andrea Baumgardner. The ScandinavianGerman and Jewish fare, reflecting the proprietors’ heritages, includes potato latkes, knishes with mustard creme fraiche, cheese blintzes with lingonberry sauce, chicken matzo ball soup and brisket with ramps schmear and pickled rhubarb. You’ll probably see Baumgardner cooking on her 1948 four-burner stove below the “Shalom” sign.
The owners of Wild Terra Cider and Brewing acknowledge the complete lack of commercial apple orchards in North Dakota. But that didn’t stop them from opening Fargo’s first cidery in December. Most of Wild Terra’s dozen offerings, which change daily, are from the Pacific Northwest or Michigan. But it does craft some of its own ciders with apples from small local growers.
Where to stay
When I first stayed at the Hotel Donaldson in 2015, I was blown away by the 17 artist-inspired rooms, daily wine-and-cheese happy hour, rooftop bar, turndown truffle and complimentary morning pastries delivered to my room. The boutique hotel is conveniently located within walking distance of the river, shops and restaurants. Rooms start at $184 per night.
Explore some more
Here’s a fun fact: The Red River flows north! This slow-moving waterway meanders 550 miles from Breckenridge, Minn., up to Lake Winnipeg in Manitoba, and most of those miles form the border between North Dakota and Minnesota. From downtown, walk across Veterans Memorial Bridge, where you’ll find signage with more trivia: “The Red River Valley is one of the flattest landscapes on Earth.” Stroll north along the river to nearby Hjemkomst Center, home to a replica Viking ship. You can rent kayaks there or farther south at Lindenwood Park on the Fargo side — which also rents bikes and has a pedestrian bridge to Gooseberry Mound Park in Moorhead. To retire by the Red at day’s end, head to Lindenwood Campground, where tent sites cost $30 a day.
Fargoans are serious about their North Dakota State Bison. And bison in general. In the city, the two often go together.
Fresh apples are ready to be put to good use at Wild Terra Cider and Brewing, Fargo's first cidery.