Photo: Jayme Halbritter/The Great Northern

Why the Great Northern Festival Should Be on Your Annual Destination Festival List

Minneapolis Festivals
by Tonia Osborne Mar 1, 2023

As a Southern girl born and raised in Houston, Texas, there are only a handful of experiences that can lure me into frigid temperatures. The Great Northern Festival in Minneapolis is high on that list. If you’re not familiar with this festival yet, there is a reason that it is considered one of the best winter festivals in the world.

Intentionally scheduled over the course of 10 days during the coldest months of the year, festival attendees are immersed in creative programming that ranges from a celebration of the arts to curated holistic wellness experiences designed to inspire intellectual conversations and inspiration.

Here are 5 reasons that The Great Northern Festival should be at the top of your travel bucket list:

Keynote conversations with local talent

great northern festival panel

Photo: Tonia Osborne

The book launch for A Darker Wilderness was my first official event of the festival, and it was a celebration of black history and literary culture with live readings from local black nature authors that contributed to this project. This book of essays reflects on the role of nature in black culture through archival objects, and the rich and poignant storytelling from the panel of present authors was an ode to the struggles and triumphs of black people across the United States.

Local author, Michael Cleburne Diggs, recounted the significance of his archival object, his grandfather’s tackle box, an item that reminds him of his time outdoors fishing with his maternal grandfather. A time where nature was the catalyst towards healing and a time where his grandparents house was a refuge following his father’s murder in the dental office that he owned.

This conversation with local talent was an ode to the inspiration that can come from embracing the ebbs and flows of nature and was one of many festival events centered around local talent and sustainability in light of climate change.

Musical performances

Photo: Jayme Halbritter/The Great Northern

Whether you are a classical music enthusiast or opera aficionado, the Great Northern Festival is full of musical performances. Over the course of my trip, I had the opportunity to attend my first opera, the world premiere of the first section of Ben Frost’s Cold Air Rises, commissioned by The Great Northern Festival, and a concert featuring artists Na’eem and Cheeky with a DJ set from DJ Keezy.

After the concert, I had a chance to sit down with Na’eem, formerly known as Spank Rock, to get insight into his inspirations as an entertainer, and unsurprisingly, one of his biggest inspirations came from local artist, Prince, which explains his tribute tattoo bearing the late singer’s hypnotic eyes and a sporadic move to Minneapolis that lasted for two years. Na’eem’s latest project, How Can We Lose When We’re So Sincere, a notable phrase from Charlie Brown, pays homage to his musical inspirations and is a testament to his creativity. I also had the chance to meet Cheeky, a classical trained pianist that composes and produces all of her music herself. Both artists were personable and lively, and as DJ Keezy entertained the crowd with energetic tracks, this event was another highlight that showed the vast diversity of program offerings available during The Great Northern Festival.

Sauna Village

Photo: Jayme Halbritter/The Great Northern

When it comes to fulfilling experiences, The Great Northern Festival’s Sauna Village ranks high on that list. Imagine negative temperatures wearing swimwear and sandals with access to more than 15 different types of outdoor saunas and add a girl from Texas that had never endured a Midwestern winter.

As sauna culture continues to grow across the Twin Cities, we had the opportunity to be guided through this daunting experience by one of the originators, John Pederson, founder of Stokeyard Outfitters. Originally started in his backyard as a form of self care, Stockyard Outfitters and sauna culture has since expanded across the Twin Cities, creating a thermaculture experience that can take place in almost any open space.

Photo: Jayme Halbritter/The Great Northern

From traditional saunas to barrel saunas, this event allowed us to preview a variety of different portable saunas styles, all with the same goals of detoxification, rejuvenation, stress reduction, and a host of other benefits that come from this natural healing tradition.

The visit to Sauna Village was as liberating as it was rejuvenating, and it opened my eyes to the healing benefits of saunas and their accessibility outside of the spa and/or luxury gym settings where they are usually housed in most domestic cities.

A thriving food scene

The bustling food scene in Minneapolis is home to some of the nation’s best chefs. I attended the soft opening of Butcher and the Boar, the latest concept restaurant by the Jester Group. While the restaurant is famous for its sausages, the menu included a variety of delectable items, and the sharable servings made it easy for our group to sample items from all sections of the menu. While everything was delicious, the items that definitely deserved an honorable mention were the sausages (my favorites are the pheasant wild rice and cheddarwurst), of course, accompanied by the blue crab beignets, pimento cheese, cornbread with miso butter, and the Brussels sprouts. The food was stellar, but I would be remiss to not mention the cocktail menu which offers mocktail versions of some of your favorite boozy signatures like the old fashioned or Manhattan.

Over the course of my stay, I also had the opportunity to visit Graze Provisions + Libations, a hyper local food collective, and home to Union Hmong Kitchen, a restaurant concept by Chef Yia Vang (a James Beard Nominee for best Midwestern chef in 2022). And if you’re in the mood for healthy soul food with a twist, I recommend Soul Bowl, a black-owned restaurant in Graze and Provisions by Chef Gerard Klass.

And if these options were not enough to convince you that the Twin Cities have a thriving and lively food scene, I recommend visiting The Market at Malcolm Yards, a food hall that features culinary concepts with food options ranging from lobster rolls to rectangle pizza.

The city of Minneapolis itself

Whether you’re looking for a food tour, walking tour, or any other type of niche experience in Minneapolis, there are a variety of different tours that highlight various aspects of the city. Minneapolis is the birthplace of musical legend Prince, and his home and museum, Paisley Park, is located about half an hour away in Chanhassen. The Paisley Park tour was one of the highlights of my trip that gave further insight into this musical legend and his impact on artists around the world. The Ultimate Experience is worth the splurge, and the best part is that you get access to unreleased Prince footage and a unique photo opportunity, since recording and/or photos are not allowed in most parts of the museum.

In order to experience the robust theater scene in Minneapolis, I recommend touring the Guthrie Theater and catching a show. In 1959, Sir Tyrone Guthrie solicited submissions from cities interested in housing a resident theater, and Minneapolis was the city selected for this endeavor against seven other contenders. The Guthrie Theater is also home to the Amber Box, which provides 360 degree views of the surrounding neighborhood and the spectacular
Endless Bridge.

And lastly, if you’re ever in Minneapolis during the Loppet Races, I recommend bundling up and enjoying a plethora of winter activities and races ranging from cross country skiing, fat tire bike riding, snowshoeing, etc.

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