It’s mid-February, and we decided to make a drive up to Fargo, North Dakota. We had planned this in advance back in January, but it still feels spontaneous as I write this two days into our sojourn. Mainly because we did this without much of a plan, like most spontaneous adventures ought to strive for. And what does one do in Fargo?

Sunset gradient descending on several buildings and a stretch of desolate plain into the horizonImage of Fargo at Sunset from Jasper Hotel

Like most trips, we planned to try a few restaurants, a few bars, and a few landmark attractions. I found more notable landmarks on the way up to Fargo than I did in the city itself, whether this is a good thing or an example of my poor research skills for this city... yet to be determined. We found Ole the Viking in Alexandria, MN a nice, 28-foot tall statuesque creation on the bank Lake Agnes. There was also a great little diner there, too (Jan’s Place).

Fargo, though, doesn’t really have anything like this. Instead, its downtown map signage points out three places to take your picture, one of which is a Super Mario Bros. mural residing in an “alley” off Broadway Dr (literally the main drag of downtown). I posed with my dog hovering over the pipe, which was admittedly kind of funny from the right angle. Otherwise, what the city doesn’t tout but should, is a considerable amount of notable neons and legacy signs adorning its buildings, including notable ones like Fargo Linoleum Co, the Fargo theater, Empire Liquors bar, and for the “best gem in the city” (as the barista at Young Blood told us) brunch spot, Bernbaum’s. Notable landmarks, perhaps not, but I do love good signage, and bonus points if it’s neon. Their water tower had some extravagant art as well.

Glowing red neon light inside bar that reads Licensed Liquor Store No. 32The neon sign inside Empire Liquors Bar

I’ll also note that seeing ‘Fargo’ lettering everywhere has its own kind of gravitas, perhaps because of the cultural associations we impress upon the city (which, I suppose if you sum it up, includes the Coen brothers’ 90s flick, the current FX anthology show, and the erroneously-applied “Minnesota” accent, even though this is North Dakota, which naturally stems from the titular film). This isn’t to marginalize Fargo as merely a poking joke from the vantage of cultural media — it is also an important transportation hub, with Amtrak coursing through it and it seated at the intersection of Interstates 94 and 29. The Air National Guard is there, too. And there is a thematic Nordic undertone to several buildings and naming conventions that we couldn’t quite put our finger on, but I’m sure there’s something there ancestrally. They do have two sister cities (Hamar, Norway and Vimmerby, Sweden).

But overall, there’s kind of the bummer with Fargo — and I don’t say this lightly, because I love a good small city visit, but there’s a lack of character here. You can build up a sumptuous fantasy about its barren location on the edge of the Great Plains, but when you get here, it’s sadly drab. Don’t get me wrong, the people are friendly and the downtown is fairly lively, but its weaknesses in expressing any level of cultural spirit are evident at every turn, and you eventually wish there was something more to grasp. Maybe it’s because it’s February and we’re in the middle of a confusingly boring winter in the midwest (no snow, lousy March-like brownish landscapes, and sunny but shitty 20s temps). But aside from some neat coffee shops (Young Blood and Atomic, as well as the yet-to-try Twenty Below Coffee), a notable hotel (The Jasper), and truly fiendish dive bars (Empire Liquors hits the spot), there just isn’t much to stick around for. Maybe we were hanging in the wrong areas, but I really didn’t get a sense of where to be.

Art deco style sign reading Bernbaums on side of buildingThe Bernbaum's Signage

This is also a driving city, no doubt, so it’s not really walkable except for the downtown area — the neighborhoods are connected by massive suburban-sized avenues buttressed by sparse strip malls that seem unwelcoming to walkability. And sure, I marked a smattering of spots to check out beyond this main drag (really wished we would have tried Sickies Garage), but I don’t know — we didn’t feel the pull of adventure here. There wasn’t enough city-cohesion. And we usually venture out in these places...

Anyway, there were several things we did enjoy, and more featured in my Fargo travel guide map here:

  • Jasper Hotel: Solid hotel with the right vibes, though it felt completely out of place in this city. It towers above nearly all the other buildings, which nets long-drawn vistas in the upper visitor floors. Lounge area is cozy, with a great restaurant on the first floor (Rosewild) serving breakfast through dinner most days.
  • Empire Tavern: Cash-only dive with a long bartop wrapping around to a cluttered rear of tables, slot machines, darts, and oddly arranged restrooms. Ah, but there is more than meets the eye here — we arrived mid-afternoon, and were handed a coupon for each drink we ordered. Then every ten minutes they announce a winner, who gets free drinks with their companion(s). Let me make this clear: any drink you want. We won twice in a row and it was the best feeling in the world.
  • Young Blood Coffee: Inviting spot just around the corner from the Broadway drag. Great, classic coffee menu with a few baked goods, and a comfortable space to hang. They also appeared to roast their own beans (kudos), and the packaging had a sassy artistic lilt, worth picking up if you’re in town.
  • Marge’s Diner: While we also did a good brunch at Bernbaums (order at the counter, get-your-plate-dropped-off-after-picking-a-seat kind of place), Marge’s had marvelous North Dakota charm and an appeal many of the other places didn’t. That warm accent was quietly heard all around us, and while the menu wasn’t anything out of the ordinary, the BLT hit nicely. The decor was also a tour de force of tchotchkes, miscellaneous art pieces, and colorfully mismatched wallpapers.
  • Zandbroz Variety: How can you not visit the local bookstore? This one is a gem, too. It’s a combo bookstore with a section for home decor, and a sneaky around-the-corner mini store-in-a-store featuring rows of old used books with a focus on the Great Plains. My wife picked up a 19th century Statutes of Minnesota tome that looks like something out of a museum. Fantastic.
  • And for a real weird time... there’s this steakhouse called 84 Italian Steakhouse inside the Radisson Hotel, that we were too tempted not to try. The vibe was so completely off we had to stay for a drink and dinner. It was dimly lit with an off-blue glow, with the music turned down to barely inaudible levels, and the seating arrangement (especially the bar location) feels like you’re intruding on the layout of the hotel rooms.
interior of bookstore lined with old books and classics, in what appears to be a hybrid bookstore and restaurant with boothsInside Zandbroz Variety bookstore

In summary, the trip was oddly worth it, but I can’t say it’s a destination unless you’re compelled to check it out for reasons unbeknownst to me (you’re a Fargo film enthusiast?). It’s not a bad weekend jaunt if you like in the Twin Cities, either, since this is only a 3.5 hour trip. It's magical in an overcast kind of way.

Otherwise, if you’re cruising through the plains, definitely take highway 90 through South Dakota instead and head to the Badlands and the Black Hills.