With a new arts center and lots of small, creative businesses, this Northern Wisconsin city should be your next weekend away.

You can blame Grammy Award-winning musician Justin Vernon (Eau Claire native and member of indie-folk band Bon Iver) for injecting new energy into this city of around 69,000 residents. In 2016 he opened the 30-room Oxbow Hotel in downtown Eau Claire.

His wildly popular music festival, Eaux Claires, may be on hiatus this summer but it attracted droves of people in previous years. As for the lock-ins (called Lock Inns) he hosts with bandmate Sean Carey at the Oxbow Hotel? They fill up within minutes.

All of this has had ripple effects. In recent years, Eau Claire natives are returning home, launching small, creative-oriented businesses and filling rosters at live-music venues.

Here’s your weekend itinerary.

Friday

The Oxbow Hotel

Photo by The Oxbow Hotel

Check into Oxbow Hotel, with custom, locally made furniture in the rooms, local art on the walls and a killer food scene at its restaurant, The Lakely. Record players in the room can be put to use thanks to a vinyl stash in the lobby. Rooms are divided between the Main House (built in 1947, home to The Lakely) and The Flats (built in 1961 as a midcentury-style motor lodge).

After your bags are up in the room, pop downstairs to The Lakely for a cocktail, glass of wine or pint of craft beer on the patio. Tempting as the menu may be, try to save your appetite for brunch (reservation recommended) and order a few bites (like the Koldtbord, a Scandinavian tradition with bread, cold meats and cheeses, sauces and condiments) instead.

Grab dessert across the street from the hotel at Ramone’s, a super-cute old-fashioned ice cream parlor open until 10 p.m. during the summer. Don’t be deterred by the line out front. It’s worth it!

If it’s the last Friday of the month, head to Artisan Forge Studios in Uptown for its Final Friday event (5 to 8 p.m.) celebrating the works of 24 artists under one roof since 2015. If not, head to Infinity Beverages Winery & Distillery’s tasting lounge (open until midnight) where creative minds tinker with all things spirit to develop unique products. Most recently that meant maple-syrup rum, canned wine and ready-to-drink cocktails.

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Saturday

Red’s Mercantile; photo by Leute Photography

After a lazy farm-to-table brunch at The Lakely — although it starts at 7 a.m., from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. it’s paired with live bluegrass or folk music — sign up for a two-hour guided paddle with Riverside Bike & Skate along the Eau Claire River. Whether you are a seasoned kayaker or going out for the first time, the tour won’t be a disappointment.

Before hitting the downtown streets for boutique shopping, squeeze in a visit to Pablo Center at the Confluence, a performing/visual arts center open since 2018 in downtown Eau Claire. Evening performances are the draw, but so is a rotating exhibit in the Graham Avenue Walking Gallery.

Whether you’re looking for a new outfit, interesting coffee shop or record store, downtown Eau Claire has you covered. Dotters Books, a female-owned indie bookstore, debuted in 2018 in East Hill, a residential area near downtown. Named Wisconsin’s best record store by Vinyl Me, Revival Records is a block from The Oxbow Hotel, near Children’s Museum of Eau Claire. And across from The Oxbow Hotel is The Local Store, filled with anything and everything Wisconsin, from snacks and sweets to books and home décor.

For an artful merging of the general-store concept and Anthropologie, check out Red’s Mercantile, which also features a vintage clothing pop-up in back. Designed more for men, Northbound Supply Company is an apparel retailer (with an outdoor-adventure bent) and coffee shop in one, with men’s grooming products thrown in. Try the Wisco latte, folding in caramel-apple syrup. On Saturdays until 1 p.m. is a pop-up shop from Bogart’s Doughnut Co.

If you’re a fan of Etsy, or Milwaukee stores like Sparrow and Waxwing, you’ll love Tangled Up in Hue, retailing the works of 100 local artists. Looking for a new throw pillow, cute onesie for a friend’s newborn or an eye-catching stone necklace? You’ll find all of that here.

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Pick your vice for dinner because downtown Eau Claire’s got lots of options, from burgers in a former auto garage at The Classic Garage, a concept created by two Texas transplants four years ago, to modern Italian at Mona Lisa’s.

It’s no secret that the Northern part of the state is a hotbed for micro-brew and distillery projects. Among the newest crop is The Brewing Projekt, which moved into its taproom in February, inside a former meat-packing factory, with recycled relics like former church pews. It’s open until midnight.

In most cities, Saturday night means live music night, and Eau Claire is no exception. Check events calendars at The Acoustic Café, The Salon at Odd Humyns and The Mousetrap Tavern.

Sunday

downtown Eau Claire mural

“Cascade” by Molly Z; photo by Luete Photography

The French Press, near Oakwood Mall, is a local favorite for lingering over weekend breakfast. You can opt for a pastry (like sticky buns or white-chocolate/raspberry or buttermilk/cheddar scones) and a coffee or espresso drink, or indulge in something heartier, like crab cakes benedict.

Before hopping in the car for home, stroll downtown Eau Claire in search of vibrant murals. Two worth hunting down are the Bon Iver mural at Eau Claire Street and Farwell Street, as well as “Cascade” by Molly Z at Farwell Street and Galloway Street. They’re hard to miss!

You might also want to explore the country’s second-largest outdoor sculpture walk in downtown Eau Claire,  Sculpture Tour, featuring 53 sculptures. On Sculpture Tour’s website is a list of the works and the artist associated with each. All are for sale, in case you fall in love with one. Grab one of the hotel’s loaner bicycles so you can cover more ground or venture out onto Eau Claire’s 32 miles of paved bike trails.

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