Cartogramme’s Must Lists are mercilessly vetted micro guides to places we’ve been. It’s what we send our friends when they ask, “Hey, got any recommendations for [fill-in-the-blank]?” Heck yeah, we do. Our cheat sheets are never influenced by advertisers or freebies; everything we include is something we believe is genuinely awesome and worth your time.
When some of our pals on the East and West Coasts found out we were headed to Fargo, North Dakota, they scoffed, a chorus of “You betchas!” ringing in their heads. Their loss. Fargo and its sister city of Moorhead, Minnesota, just over the border, boasts a small but creative food-and-drink scene, stylish indie boutiques, and plenty of other diversions to fill a long weekend. While the city isn’t as “north of normal” as its tourism board would have you believe (chain restaurants and dreary casinos abound), it’s cooler than the rest of the country is willing to admit.
WHEN TO GO
Although Fargo wasn’t actually filmed in Fargo—it was shot in neighboring Minnesota—it’s still brutally cold and snowy here a good chunk of the year. Average temps hover in the low teens in December, January, and February (with the occasional -30°F day to keep you on your frostbitten toes). It warms into the 20s and 30s in November and March, but the most pleasant time to visit is May through October. Average days in the summer months hang in the high 60s and low 70s, although peaks in the 90s are not unheard of.
THINGS TO DO FOR FUN
❇︎ The Plains Art Museum houses an impressive collection of traditional and contemporary work by Native American artists—the kinds of pieces you rarely see on such prominent display. Rotating exhibitions include works by Fritz Scholder, Wendy Red Star, Linda Whitney, and Star Wallowing Bull. There’s also a huge James Rosenquist mural hanging in the lobby. Admission is free.
❇︎ Dive into Viking culture at the Heritage Hjemkomst Interpretive Center in Moorhead, home of the storied Hjemkomst ship. This exacting reproduction of a 9th-century Viking burial ship was the passion project of middle school guidance counselor Robert Asp. Also on view: a full-scale replica of Norway’s Hopperstad wood stave church, built by another Nordic enthusiast with a big dream.
❇︎ Take pictures of St. John the Divine, an enchanting Tudor-style Episcopal church in Moorhead. The parish dates to 1875 and the 1899 building was designed by architect Cass Gilbert. Nowadays, the church doubles as a community center for Sudanese refugees and other ethnic minorities. It even holds services in Arabic.
❇︎ The restored Fargo Theatre has a fabulous neon sign, so try to catch it at night. The 92-year-old venue shows movies (including $7 matinees!) and hosts concerts, comedians, and other live events. Check the calendar for details.
❇︎ Art Alley, located on 1st Avenue North between 4th and 5th Streets, is the only legal spot in Fargo to throw up graffiti. There are some remnants of decent street art—like once upon a time someone with actual skills drew a piece that mattered—but now it’s mostly obscured by shoddy tag art and amateur-hour doodling. Unless you’re in the neighborhood and looking to kill time, skip it.
❇︎ Make Room is a gallery, studio, and shop offering D.I.Y. courses in spiced chai blending, bookbinding, lap-loom weaving, candle pouring, block printing, and indigo dyeing. Check the calendar for upcoming courses.
❇︎ If you’re into roadside attractions and headed west on I-94 anyway, stop for a photo with the World’s Largest Buffalo Monument at Frontier Village in Jamestown. It’s actually an American bison, but whatever. Farther west is the Enchanted Highway, a 32-mile stretch of deserted North Dakotan pavement dotted with the world’s largest scrap metal sculptures. These include 50-foot-tall leaping deer, giant grasshoppers, and a flock of prairie pheasants. The pieces were welded by retired school teacher Gary Greff, with the aim of bringing more tourism to rural North Dakota. The works start near Gladstone and I-94 and end in Greff’s hometown of Regent. Most are spaced several miles apart, but Greff’s long-term goal is to erect one sculpture every mile.
❇︎ Go to the opera. Why not? We caught Johan Strauss, Jr.’s Die Fledermaus at the Fargo-Moorhead Opera, then in its 49th season, and it was really entertaining. It’s a legit theater with a talented crew, plus guest performers visiting from respected companies in New York City, Sydney, and beyond. Tickets may be purchased online or at the door; ask about the pay-your-age promo for the under-40 set, where theatergoers between 20 and 40 years old can score $50 seats for a fraction of the cost.
WHERE TO SHOP
❇︎ Beyond ownership, the only things Fowlers Heritage Company and Pinch & Pour have in common is a shared wall. The former is an upscale clothing boutique selling heritage menswear, raw denim, trapper hats, Filson bags, woodsy candles, sea salt soaps, fancy Scottish shaving cream, and flannel accent pillows. Next-door shop Pinch & Pour caters to a foodier crowd with its wide selection of olive oils, balsamic vinegars, and artisan cheese. The oils are infused with ingredients both predictable (Herbs de Provence, garlic) and exotic (harissa, Persian lime). For purists, there are robust single-variety extra virgins olive oils. Friendly co-owners Julie and Gregg encourage visitors to swig as they shop; the more the oil burns your throat, the better the quality.
❇︎ Unglued Gift Shop in downtown Fargo is Etsy in brick-and-mortar form: Everything in the store is locally or regionally made. Some of the goods are pretty crafty-corny (wine toppers that resemble gnome hats or hot-pink charms for your dog’s collar that say “Bow Wow Bitches”), but you can find some nice gifts (copper and gem jewelry by Aerow Handmade, kooky stuffed animals for kids) with careful sleuthing. It’s a decent spot to buy cards and stationery, too.
❇︎ Revolver Vintage is Fargo’s first vintage clothing and housewares store. It’s heavy on the ’80s and ’90s nostalgia, including Sweet Valley High books, Punky Brewster dolls, a rock & roll Ken with combable hair, sweet Nancy Reagan glasses, and kitschy owl clocks. It’s fun for picking and the shopkeeper is happy to dork out over fond memories of TGIF.
❇︎ The White House Co. is another cute vintage store, founded by three pals. The focus here is on furniture, housewares, and vintage rental props for weddings and events. It’s total Instagram bait: richly toned glassware, decades-old trophies, succulents planted in the hollowed-out centers of old books, and rustic slices of tree trunk that you can decorate with brass spoons and ceramic salt cellars. Prices are very reasonable.
❇︎ Others Shop is a fair-trade boutique that donates 100 percent of its profits to a different charity each year. (In 2017, the lucky recipient was The Adventure Project; the year before, it was charity:water.) While the merchandise could easily skew toward the hippie-dippy, it’s actually pretty cool: Falsa blankets loomed in El Salvador, hand-printed stationery, leather satchels, delicate jewelry, soapstone bowls, and baskets woven with palm in Northern Kenya.
❇︎ Across the street from Others is Onyx + Pearl, a dusty beige-and-millennial pink explosion of bohemian fringe earrings, leopard print mules, mirrored aviators, embroidered denim jackets, and textured mugs by Santa Cruz potter Coco Chispa. It’s good stuff, and nicely displayed to boot.
❇︎ Elsewhere in the neighborhood is Violet Vintage, a legit vintage clothing store with good prices but annoyingly limited hours; Mint + Basil, a stylish kitchen and homewares shop selling artisanal bitters, raw honey, and Nordic bakeware; and Lot 2029, which pulls off high-waisted crushed velvet pants and lacy bralettes with aplomb, plus floral notebooks, milky-white ceramics, and floppy hats for all you Coachella catwalkers. It’s like a cheaper Anthropologie or a less urbane Urban Outfitters. Kittsona, meanwhile, stocks girly clothes with a Dakota twist (think: waterproof duck boots trimmed with cable-knit sweater fabric). That last one is a little college-y for our taste, what with its “Tryna Stay Warm” sweatshirts and “Let That Shit Go” mugs, but you do you.
❇︎ Thirty-year-old Zandbroz Variety is a large boutique selling a breadth of merchandise: candles, books, jewelry, soaps, crystals, dinner plates, globes, and the odd vintage urn. In the back, you’ll find Danz Boys, a 1950s soda fountain turned used bookstore. The walls are hung with old Masonite banners and the shelves are stacked with rare books. Taxidermied bobcats and bear heads watch over customers. Prices are high but it’s worth scouting.
❇︎ Outermost Layer offers a practical selection of outdoorsy clothing and camping gear, including toasty-warm hats and gloves and Fargo-proof winter coats. Brands include Patagonia, Arc’teryx, and Black Diamond.
❇︎ For music geekery, check out Vinyl Giant Records. It has new and used albums, plus turntables, receivers, speakers, and headphones. Orange Records, meanwhile, sells CDs, some okay-priced vinyl, dorm-room posters, and enough cheap incense to mask a landfill.
WHERE TO EAT + DRINK
❇︎ Did you know that one of the best restaurants in Fargo is located in a midcentury-modern furniture store? That’d be BernBaum’s, a fantastic Jewish delicatessen tucked inside The Madhaus. The combo works surprisingly well. You can eyeball a Danish Modern dining room set or orange pleather lounger while waiting for your potato and chickpea knish, everything bagel with lox, or matzoh ball soup to drop. Might we also recommend the house-baked chocolate rugelach? It beats the tuchus off the sawdust pastries we’re used to eating in New York.
❇︎ Did you also know that one of the other best restaurants in Fargo is located in a strip mall? True story. Luna shares a parking lot with a liquor store, nail salon, chiropractor, and tombstone dealer. The bougie decor, complete with yoga-mom inspirational wall quotes, leaves something to be desired, but the service is warm and the food outstanding. At 5 p.m. each night, Monday through Saturday, the dinner service takes over the casual coffeeshop/luncheonette and this is some hardcore Bon Appétit business. The chive-and-cheddar popovers sell out almost immediately, so you might have to “settle” for a bowl of aggressively flavorful lamb bacon soup as an appetizer. The entree options are forever changing: Maybe you’ll get Amish chicken thighs with farro, mixed seeds, burrata, and Meyer lemon. Maybe it’ll be seared Norwegian Skrei cod in a shellfish broth with lentils, Brussels sprouts, and sweet potato. Maybe it’ll be spaghetti squash carbonara. Maybe you’ll just have to go and find out for yourself how mind-blowing the food can be in a Fargo strip mall.
❇︎ Würst Bier Hall is bumpin’. It’s a double-wide space with long communal tables, a tremendous beer list, and excellent sausages. Try the buffalo-and-cheddar variety with sauerkraut—or the rattlesnake-rabbit combo if you’re more adventurous. The one thing you shouldn’t miss is the hot, salty, epically delicious house-baked pretzels with hot beer cheese for dipping. They come three to an order and good God almighty, they’re transcendent.
❇︎ Some locals we met were hating on Vinyl Taco because it’s not muy auténtico, but we didn’t think it was that bad—especially if you go there with gringo-fied expectations. The tacos in question are served on flour tortillas unless you request otherwise, but we wouldn’t recommend it; they’re loaded with fillings and will fall apart on a corn tortilla. For more auténtico Mexican, look for Octavio Gomez’s seasonal Tacos Bros. Food Truck. Dude has a cult following.
❇︎ Everest Tikka House in Moorhead is a decent Nepali and Indian restaurant hidden inside a decrepit 1980s shopping mall. (The tagline for Moorhead Center is “A Great Place to Shop” … maybe 30 years ago, lol.) Although the atmosphere is charmless, everything we ordered tasted delicious, especially the steamed momos. To save a little cash, split the $18.95 Nepali thali between two people. It comes with several meat and vegetable curries, daal fry, basmati rice,bracing lime pickle, and dessert.
❇︎ Balkan Food is an awesome little grocery store founded 17 years ago by a Bosnian refugee. The shop specializes in Balkan foods, of course, but also stocks hard-to-find products from Eastern Europe, the U.K., and the Caucasus. We picked up sulguni cheese from Georgia, tinned mackerel salad from Slovenia, iced gingerbread cookies from Poland, Dalmatian soup from Croatia, Tarhana soup from Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Albanian pocket candy. In the same neighborhood, you’ll also find a small African market named African Market and a large Asian grocery called Lotus Blossom.
❇︎ One of our favorite meals in Fargo was also one of the cheapest: Rugsan Cuisine, a no-frills East African restaurant with a convivial atmosphere. It’s popular with the local Somali community and we understood why after trying the outstanding chicken & rice and the flaky, beefy, perfectly seasoned sambusas. Portions are huge here, so plan to share. And if you have any questions about what to order, just ask for recommendations from the chef with the big, pearly smile. He cooks in an open kitchen and goes out of his way to make sure diners are enjoying what they order.
❇︎ Besides hiring absurdly nice baristas, Twenty Below Coffee Co. roasts its own microlot single-origin beans and serves pay-what-you-want drip coffee. Ample workspace and plenty of seating nooks make it a popular gathering spot, especially on weekends. The food is worth trying, too: cornmeal waffles with blueberries, goat cheese on sourdough with pecans and thyme, etc.
❇︎ Fargo Brewing Company is one of the oldest breweries in town. Its ale room has 14 fine beers on tap, but our top pick for hopheads is the newer Drekker Brewing Co. Try the juicy-tart People Eater, a sour made with Thai basil and 200 pounds of blueberries, or the Coconut Killer, a New England-style IPA laced with vanilla and toasted coconut. Aside from being large enough to fit you and 300 of your nearest and dearest, Drekker keeps drinkers busy with Jenga towers and games of Trivial Pursuit. For more wholesome entertainment, check out the weekly Beer & Hymns singalong at Junkyard Brewing Company in Moorhead. This is exactly what it sounds like: a room full of people swaying and humming along to soporific gospel hymns, every Sunday from 7 to 9 p.m. There weren’t a lot of rowdy, hand-clapping, Jesus-loves-me moments when we visited, which is a shame. It would have been more fun.
❇︎ On the hard liquor front, Proof Artisan Distillers, makers of vodka, gin, whisky, and aquavit, does creative cocktails for a mixed crowd, Thursday through Saturday evenings only.
WHERE TO STAY
At the time of our visit, the only boutique hotel in downtown Fargo was the Hotel Donaldson. It has 17 rooms, each filled with works by a local artist. We didn’t stay here and cannot vouch for the overall quality of the accommodations, but we weren’t too impressed with the Kool-Aid-sweet cocktails and dated decor at the Donaldson’s ground-floor bar, HoDo Lounge. With rooms starting at $165 per night and climbing into the $200s, save your money and go with one of the area’s well-reviewed chains instead: Element Fargo, Home2 Suites by Hilton, Best Western Plus Kelly Inn, or La Quinta Inn & Suites Fargo if you’re traveling with pets. Or, for about $80 per night, you can book a private home with an Airbnb superhost.
THE HUNCH LIST
On every scouting trip, there are places we don’t make it to—mostly because we run out of time or we learn about a potential spot after we’ve left. So here, we present to you the places we haven’t been ourselves but still have a pretty good feeling about. Some have been recommended by in-the-know locals; others came from traveler friends whom we trust implicitly.
❇︎ Red River Market is Fargo’s main farmers market. It runs every Saturday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., from early July through late October. In addition to the usual produce and baked goods, look out for tallow creams by Raw Dakota Kitchen, cozy alpaca yarn from Ten Seven Acres, and unique resin jewelry by local maker Wuve.
❇︎ The permanent collection at Rourke Art Gallery and Museum in Moorhead focuses on old and new masters of the Midwest, including self-taught prairie artist Annie Stein. Twentieth-century pop stars like Roy Lichtenstein and Joan Miró, Pre-Columbian art, and a hodgepodge of global works also make appearances. Public viewing hours are 1 to 5 p.m. on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. Admission is free.
❇︎ Fargo Pinball is a members-only club nestled inside an office park. Annual membership is $45 for the first year, but travelers can buy a $15 day pass at the Fargo-Moorhead Visitors Center. The current lineup of games includes Star Wars, AC/DC, Twilight Zone, Ghostbusters, and Indiana Jones. Machines cost between 25 cents and $1 to play and there are change machines onsite.
❇︎ SCHEELS is a homegrown sporting goods store that happens to have a 45-foot-tall Ferris wheel in the middle of its flagship. The SCHEELS Wheel, as it’s called, is from 1953 and features 12 cars. The 60,000-square-foot retail space is also home to a golf simulator, a shooting gallery, a showcase of creepy presidential mannequins, and a fudge shop. Yeah, America!
❇︎ The one Fargo restaurant suggested to us over and over by locals was Mezzaluna. Its Moorhead spinoff, Rustica Eatery & Tavern, came in second. We’re more bummed we didn’t get to try Darbar Palace, a Pakistani-Indian haunt recommended by a visiting opera singer, and Himalayan Yak, cousin of the aforementioned Everest Tikka. Ditto Sons of Norway, a Norwegian lunch counter inside the otherwise private Kringen Lodge #25. Specials change daily but it always serves four types of homemade soup and fresh-baked lefse. And hey, Thursday is Pie Day! Other local favorites include The Boiler Room for burgers; Wild Terra for cider and mead; Young Blood for avocado toast and third-wave coffee; Sandy’s Donuts for Bavarian Long Johns and sour cream cake rings; Nichole’s Fine Pastry for classic cookies, pies, and tarts; and the circa-1949 Moorhead Dairy Queen, inventor of the old-fashioned Dilly Bar.
❇︎ As 80-year-olds stuck in the bodies of thirtysomethings, we often find geriatric activities like shuffleboard and bingo amusing. Hence, Big Top Bingo!, the biggest bingo parlor in Fargo. Afternoon and evening sessions run daily; check the calendar for details. B-I-N-G-O!
STUFF TOURISTS LIKE
Fargo doesn’t have as many touristy spots as other cities its size, probably because it doesn’t get as many tourists. Top of the bucket list is taking your photo with the famous Fargo wood chipper, located at the Fargo-Moorhead Visitors Center, along with other props from the 1996 Coen Brothers film. (Note: The wood chipper that is displayed outside, closest to the parking lot, is a dupe. The real one is roped off indoors.) The center itself is housed in a former grain elevator, a nod to the state’s long agricultural heritage. A “Celebrity Walk of Fame” includes handprints and signatures from Jesse Ventura, Dr. Ruth, Richard Simmons, Bill Gates, Neil Diamond, and Metallica. In addition to faking your own death with the wood chipper, the center is a good resource for picking up brochures about Fargo, West Fargo, Moorehead, and destinations farther afield (Grand Forks, Bismarck, Theodore Roosevelt National Park). The staffers love when you show an interest in something other than the wood chipper and will go out of their way to be helpful. Ask them for a copy of the official visitors guide, which has some useful coupons in the back.
Fargo Air Museum is the next biggie: Two airplane hangars stuffed with aviation memorabilia and full-sized aircrafts, including a Wright Brothers’ flyer, a mustard yellow DC-3 Duggy with a smiley face painted on the front, and a sleek blue 1981 L-39 Aero Vodochody jet trainer. (That doesn’t mean anything to us either, but it was built in Czechoslovakia and looks pretty badass.)
Fargo’s Red River Zoo is another popular spot, especially with kids in tow. The zoo specializes in the care and breeding of cold-climate species, including grey wolves, North American river otters, Pallas cats, Jacob sheep, red pandas, and Sichuan Takins, which may just be the weirdest-looking creatures on earth. The zoo’s winter hours are limited to weekends only, so check the schedule before setting out. And while you’re there, look out for the colored pencil fence—it’s built with 1,000 jumbo pencils and makes for a groovy Instagram snap.
Sporty things happen at Newman Outdoor Field and FargoDome, and there’s a Roger Maris Museum at the West Acres Shopping Center if you’re into baseball. (We prefer the Japanese variety.) For an ultra-touristy, probably-not-very-good, but only-in-North Dakota experience, save a meal for Space Aliens Grill & Bar, a dorky themed microchain with extraterrestrials on the brain. (When the food sucks, don’t say we didn’t warn you.) Lastly: Bonanzaville, USA. It’s a 43-building pioneer village and history museum, heavily marketed to tourists with kiddos. Not our jam.
THE ONLY MAP YOU’LL NEED
❇︎ High Plains Reader, or HPR, is Fargo’s free indie alt weekly. It’s been around for 23 years and comes out every Thursday. Give it a browse for events and show listings.
❇︎ Fargo Monthly is worth checking for its up-to-date calendar and restaurant reviews.
❇︎ Read Chuck Klosterman’s 2002 book, Fargo Rock City: A Heavy Metal Odyssey in Rural North Dakota. It’s a funny memoir about growing up as weirdo metalhead in conservative Wyndmere, North Dakota (population: 498).