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Winona: A Small Town with a Big Punch

By Brittany Trevick

A solid two hours away from Minneapolis, a Winona visit is more than worth the drive. It boasts unique venues, and plenty of culture and restaurants that rival any in the big city with views you can’t get anywhere else. “We’re just far enough away that you feel you’ve gotten away from the Cities,” says Pat Mutter, executive director for Visit Winona. “Everything is so beautiful and scenic.” 

Something for Everyone

Lesser known is the arts and culture scene found in Winona. Throughout the year, there are festivals and events going on at all times. “We’re home to many festivals and events that have really grown very popular,” says Mutter. “We’re a great arts town.”

In February there’s the Frozen River Film Festival, which screens almost 100 documentaries, many from the Mountain Film Festival in Telluride, Colorado. April brings the Mid West Music Fest, which Mutter likens to the hugely popular SXSW in Austin, Texas. The four-day festival spends two days in Winona and two in Lacrosse, Wisconsin, with 100 bands. Last year’s lineup included Big Wu, Voodoo Fix and The Honeydogs. The last few years The Current radio station has visited and done a few live recordings. “Mid West Music Fest is huge and continues to grow,” she says. 

Also in the spring is the Bluff Country Studio Art Tour, a weekend full of art galleries and artist studios. Made possible by Minnesota voters through a grant from the Southeastern Minnesota Arts Council, the event features around 25 artists who invite the public to see their studios and purchase artwork. The summer brings the Great River Shakespeare Festival and the Minnesota Beethoven Festival, which was attended a few years ago by Yo-Yo Ma and Joshua Bell. Winona Steamboat Days is also a summer classic. Fall, of course, has its own fun with the Boats and Bluegrass Festival, which involves camping and kayaking along the banks of the Mississippi River. 

And, if athletics is more your scene, the annual Trinona Triathlon has you covered with a bike ride around bluff country, a run around Lake Winona and a finish at the city’s band shell.

“There are really great top-quality events that we’re very proud of,” says Mutter. 

Basically, in Winona, your entire social calendar is booked solid. 

“We’re very affordable. It’s fun. It’s laid-back but good quality,” she says. “I think people will be surprised.” 

Keeping It Scholarly

There are three main colleges in Winona itself. One of which is Winona State University, which has two west campus venues open for events—the Tau Rotunda inside the Tau Conference Center and the Lourdes Dining Hall that sit on its west campus. 

Tau can accommodate up to 200 people at round tables and 350 theater-style. Seating up to 500 people, Lourdes Dining Hall is one of the largest venues in Winona. It has one large room with two smaller wings. Lourdes Dining Hall is available only May through August as students use it during the school year. 

“Lourdes’ front steps and large courtyard allow for a grand entrance into the building and provide a great backdrop for unique photos,” says Blandine Berthelot, conferencing assistant. “The green space and creek outside of Tau make it feel secluded.”

The on-campus dining service provides catering; projectors and sound systems can be found in both venues. 

A plus for both are the parking lots that dot the west side of campus. Each venue holds its own brand of charm, with a rich history and intricate details found inside. “These two buildings have a lot of character,” says Berthelot. “People enjoy our location on the west end of town; it’s convenient and quiet.” 

A Place to Rest Your Head

There are a variety of hotels in the area, but The Plaza Hotel & Suites may be the most con – venient, with four meeting rooms, 135 guest rooms and 45 suites. 

Each of the four conference rooms can host anywhere from five to 40 people. The Rivers Room is your standard hotel event space; the Rosewood II and Rosewood III are adjoined and have a conference-like vibe with patterned floors and screen projectors; while the Sun Room is the pièce de résistance with one wall completely covered in glass windows that looks out onto a charming patio. 

With so many amenities, guests never need to leave the property. 

“My favorite part about our meeting rooms is the ease of access to the rest of our facility,” says Nichol Araya Espinoza, general manager of the hotel. “Our guests have the ability to host a meeting and their out of town guests in the same facility—no additional transportation needed.”

Making the hotel a little more eclectic are the number of famous paintings adorning the keycards that come from the Minnesota Marine Art Museum just a few minutes away.

Partying with Picasso

Looking more like a grand house than a drafty, stale museum, the Minnesota Marine Art Museum is one of the more famous sites in Winona. In 2017 it landed on the top 10 list of the USA Today 10 Best Readers’ Choice awards. 

“The Minnesota Marine Art Museum is one of my favorite places to recommend to visitors and to visit myself,” says Espinoza, a regular visitor to the space. “The stunning location is second only to the famous artwork.”

Such famous artwork includes pieces from Picasso, O’Keefe and Monet. 

While the museum does not have an option to host weddings or other ceremonies, it does have space for cocktail parties, rehearsal dinners, board meetings and other such events. 

Two meeting rooms are found on the property: the Education Room with 720 square feet and the Atrium with 960 square feet. A Riverwalk is also available for rent. In total, the museum can accommodate up to 610 people. Its preferred caterer is Signatures Restaurant

“Each attraction in this city has its own niche and brings a unique and wonderful characteristic for visitors,” says Espinoza. “The Minnesota Marine Art Museum has exclusive artwork from world-renowned artists, a stunning location on the Mississippi River and interactive activities for all ages.” 

Signatures Restaurant

Signatures Restaurant may just have some of the best views and landscape found in Winona. The Midwest-style restaurant sits on lush rolling hills in the heart of the valley with views of the surrounding bluffs and streams that cut through the land. 

“I constantly hear remarks about how beautiful our venues are inside and out,” says Zach Murphy, president and CEO of Winona Golf and Dining Inc . “People often say our service and food is something they don’t expect to find in a small town.”

Prior to 2005, Signatures served as a part of the Winona Country Club, but that all changed when club members dissolved the club. New owners later established Winona Golf & Dining Inc. and oversaw a multimillion-dollar renovation to turn it into what it is today. 

The restaurant’s event space is massive. Four areas are available to rent. The 7,506-squarefoot Visions Event Center can host up to 300 people; with 1,226 square feet, the ballroom can hold 70 people seated and 100 cocktail style; the 1,500-square-foot Summer House also can host those same numbers; and the 502-square-foot private dining room has a maximum capacity of 32 guests. 

It truly is a standout restaurant in the area, with dishes you would find in a larger city like pan seared diver scallops, 21-day dry aged rib eye and Italian truffle potatoes dauphine. Like many restaurants, it serves as many local items as possible, including mushrooms from the surrounding bluffs and local lamb from just 10 miles down the road. 

“Signatures Restaurant has strived to be the only restaurant in Winona to offer a true fine-dining experience,” says Murphy. “With fresh, locally sourced ingredients, the chef prepares elegant and artistic entrées that you might find in a larger metropolitan area. I can attest to the high level of dedication Signatures puts into each and every plate that leaves the kitchen.” 

Breaking Outside Your Comfort Zone

While Winona is a small town, that’s part of its charm. Unique venues and convenient hotels dot the area with people that will welcome you with open arms and a CVB happy to help with anything you need. Mutter notes that people need to visit the area to try something new and get a breath of fresh air.

“It’s really easy to keep going to the same spots because they’re known to you, and they’re very comfortable and easy,” says Mutter. “But I think there is so much more to this state, and there are times when it’s great to try a new destination and try something new and be surprised that you may discover a spot that is going to be your next new favorite meeting venue.”