Espresso lovers guide to the Great River Road

(Draft...just a start...)

(need clickable map below)---and a great picture!
Sunlight drenches a grottoed deck overlooking the rippled expanse of Lake Pepin as we inhale the first whiff of fragrant arabica beans of our trip down the shores of the upper Mississippi River. Unique java joints have blossomed in the quaint River towns the last few years, and my sister and I are anxious to savor every one of them. OK, so we're coffee fanatics, even coffee snobs perhaps. But we're also old River rats, and the blend of a River drive, sunny morning and good coffee is irresistable. We're on self-appointed mission to hop from java joint to java joint, and view the River through the rising steam of a mug of fresh brew at each brewhouse vantage point. Its not difficult to find them now: from St. Paul to La Crosse, scarcely 20 miles goes by without the verdant aroma of a fresh espresso wafting across your path.

They're small and nothing at all like the institionalized chic identicality of a Starbucks or Caribou coffee. But they certainly have character, and lots of it. Some are tucked in the back of art galleries or antique stores. One is part micro-brewery. A few are strictly coffee houses. In some, River lore seems to exude from steamboat-era limestone foundations and ancient timbers. Although recent additions, somehow they seem to belong here. Each seems to be as firmly rooted and part of the River landscape as the silver maples lining the river bottoms.

For us, there is a hefty dose of nostalgia in this trip. We grew up quite literally on the River, in tune with the ebb and flow of a number of the small River towns. Many of the smaller towns were fading through the 60s and 70s, the old limestone storefronts crumbling with age and neglect. It's rewarding for us now to see the towns' vitality buoyed by a modest dose of tourism, but not so much as to dilute the slow pace of life and quaintness of these communities. That steamboat-era stonework deserves to live on! The locals likely don't drink the espresso, but they tolerate its presence, perhaps as a symbol of the towns' revival.

This trip has a sentimental note for us too. We're enroute to pay last respects to an old family friend, a true River rat, and we want to take our time soaking up the River where he belonged. Somehow, though he was not at all a contemporary java-head, today this gives us all the more reason to revel in the character of the River and its people.

Whether travelling by boat or Great River Road (Highway 35 in Wisconsin, or 61 in Minnesota), the java joints certainly provide a unique way to look at the River and her communities. Follow along with us as your guides to the Upper Mississippi's fine array of java establishments:

  • Hastings
  • Red Wing
  • Lake City
  • Wabasha
  • Winona
River Links: The Mississippi River and the Great River Road
The Mississippi River Home Page "Great River"
Don't miss the great steamboat: Julia Belle Swain
Guide to Wisconsin's Great River Road
Mississippi River Parkway Commission guide to Wisconsin's Great River Road
GORP's guide to:Bluff Country Bliss, driving Minnesota's Great River Road
Mississippi Valley Partners guide to Lake Pepin & the Mississippi Valley

Animated Coffee Gifs Sample Page

Top of Document

Back to: Fritz and Joe's Home Page

Contact:  Fritz Funk (