Fargo, North Dakota

Photo: The Hotel Donaldson
Photo: The Hotel Donaldson

What’s the least visited state in the United States? If you guessed faraway Alaska, tiny Rhode Island, or ultraconservative Utah, you’re wrong. It’s actually North Dakota. Oh yeah, forgot about that one. Combine its isolated location along the Canadian border with few sites to really draw tourists, and the Peace Garden State remains vastly unexplored. But something’s going on in Fargo.

Fargo isn’t the capital of North Dakota–that would be often overlooked Bismarck–but it’s the state’s largest city. Located along the western bank of the Red River, Fargo started out as a stopping point for steamboats heading south. When the railroad arrived, Fargo became known as the “Gateway to the West.” Despite being a transportation hub, the city hasn’t had the best of luck. It’s been destroyed twice, first by a fire in the late 1800s, and later by a tornado in 1957. Add long, miserable winters, and this Great Plains city hasn’t appeared on many must-visit lists.

In the past 20 years though, downtown Fargo has been slowly undergoing a major revitalization. Historic buildings have been salvaged and turned into condominiums and independent shops. North Dakota State University has expanded. A boutique hotel finally opened. And most surprisingly, Fargo keeps popping up on lists of the best places to live.

Photo: The Hotel Donaldson
Photo: The Hotel Donaldson

That boutique hotel is The Hotel Donaldson. It’s been a hotel for more than 100 years, but it took gutting the place to turn it into the oasis it is today. Spacious rooms were designed by artists; no two are alike. A pastry basket arrives in the morning, wine and cheese are served in the afternoon, truffles appear with the turndown service, and coffee is always available.

You can walk everywhere from The Hotel Donaldson, but two of the city’s hippest spots are right at the hotel. The HoDo Restaurant serves produce from the Red River Valley–Dakota Farms beef, North Dakota Mill flour, and Prairie Harvest bison and elk. Herbs come from the rooftop garden, where you’ll also find a patio and a hot tub. And the HoDo Lounge’s signature cocktails, like a Dirty Fur Trader with gin or a Campfire Cocoa with vodka that tastes like s’mores in a glass, will keep you toasty while you listen to live music.

Should the weather cooperate so you can venture outside, explore Bonanzaville, USA, a village of 19th-century buildings that include a church, a school, and log cabins. Check out an EAA 317 Wright flyer replica, a ME 109, a Huey helicopter, and an Iskra Jet at the Fargo Air Museum. Go to a midnight movie at the Fargo Theatre, a restored 1926 Art Deco theater. Eat lunch–and stay for dessert–at Nichole’s Fine Pastry. Visit the Celebrity Walk of Fame, Fargo’s most unusual attraction. See signatures, handprints, and footprints from people like Bill Gates, Garth Brooks, and Debbie Reynolds. And then pick up chocolate-covered potato chips at Carol Widman’s Candy Company. The candy shop has been owned by the same family since 1885.

You’ve been surprised and delighted by Fargo. Give it another 20 years, and it may just end up on a few bucket lists.

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