I suppose that, like many people, I didn’t think much of my hometown when I was growing up there. It was the city where I went to dance class, got my hair cut, bought school supplies and went out to eat with my parents. It was the place where I grabbed a late-night dessert after going to the movies with friends in high school, learned to drive and went to the doctor.
Hometowns are those places where ordinary things happen to ordinary people. They aren’t places we would visit on a vacation; they’re the spots on the map we return to after going somewhere interesting.
After I graduated from high school in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, I escaped my hometown for a college town in eastern Washington—a community and city in its own right that appealed to my newly independent self. I did a good job in avoiding Eau Claire for many years; after all, why would someone return to a place that was defined by haircuts, school supplies and doctor appointments—all those things that make up any other boring town?
Over those years, though, I followed Eau Claire’s local arts and culture rag (which I wrote for briefly myself) and, in the process, watched the city grow from an ordinary hometown to one that could arguably be called a destination. In recent years, Eau Claire has gone from another crusty Midwestern city to a welcoming place fostering music, performing arts, public spaces and accessibility. It is, quite frankly, a place I would like to visit.
When I “returned home” (a phrase that really means returning to the town I grew up in, since my home is now in Las Vegas), I was surprised to discover how much the local community has embraced the artistic side of Eau Claire. Community buy-in is one of the keys to a thriving, breathing city, and a city-wide focus on downtown Eau Claire has brought people out to enjoy what the area has to offer. Free Thursday night concerts in a large park by the river, chalk and art festivals scattered across green spaces, farmers markets crammed with fresh produce and other local goods, boutiques in the downtown area that support local artisans and sculpture tours designed to institute public art all encourage participation in and appreciation of this place that, for many years, paraded as just another dot on the map.
Eau Claire has redefined itself as a city for those who thrive on supporting their neighbors and participating in activities that are unique to it. As such, it is also a worthy destination for people who want to visit an inexpensive but distinctly Midwestern town replete with personality. Though there aren’t many mom-and-pop accommodations in the downtown area, there are plenty of affordable chain hotels in and around the downtown area. As for what to see and do, and where to eat, here are my top picks:
Pick up a copy of Volume One. – This is the local rag I alluded to earlier. It lists all of the performances, festivals and happenings in downtown Eau Claire, throughout the city and just beyond the city limits. It is published every other week and is available for free at dozens of restaurants and shops throughout the region.
Go to the farmers market. – The Saturday morning market at Phoenix Park that runs from May through October is the most popular of the markets, though there are other smaller markets throughout the city. The market is so popular, there is a mile-long waiting list to get a booth. In the winter, it is held the second Saturday of each month in the L.E. Phillips Senior Center.
Shop local. – There is a shop at Volume One that sells products created by local artists, such as books, music and artwork. The staff at Volume One is also very knowledgeable about the area, so feel free to ask any questions you might have about the local area. In addition, stop by Tangled Up In Hue, an arts collective, for another wide selection of crafts made by local artisans ranging from jewelry and greeting cards to pottery.
Check out other local shops. – There are many other locally owned shops in the downtown area that exist nowhere else. Brent Douglas Flowers for Everyday is a floral shop and gallery (owned by one of my former classmates, I am proud to say). An antique emporium has long been a favorite in the downtown area. The Purple Petunia and Calico Shoppe (gift and quilt shops, respectively) appeal to the lady folk while Model Train Classics seems to be made for the guys in the family.
Enjoy a festival. – Depending on when you’re in town, there may be a festival or other local event going on. Free Thursday night concerts in the park during the summer months are a favorite as are movie showings in alleys and parades or other quirky little festivals. Summertime is particularly good for arts and crafts popping up throughout downtown.
Browse the art. – For the past few years, there have been a myriad of street sculptures decorating the sidewalks of downtown. These have been part of a sculpture walk allowing people to vote on their favorite piece of art to be bought by the city and included in the city landscape. I’m not sure if the city is planning on continuing the newly created sculpture walk tradition, but look for the art if you are wandering around downtown.
Check out a theatre production. – Though there’s not always something on the stage downtown, there are two local theatre troupes that make their home there: the Eau Claire Children’s Theatre and the Chippewa Valley Theatre Guild. The Eau Claire Regional Arts Center is in downtown too, and a myriad of musical and theatre productions make their way through, so check out what’s on offer.
Eat. – One of my favorite places to eat in all of Eau Claire is Acoustic Cafe, which is located downtown. Its menu hasn’t changed in years, and its support of local artists through open mic nights and acoustic performances is revered. Eau Claire Fire House is a former firehouse turned into a new, funky bar. Rumor has it the Smiling Moose Deli is also worth a stop, but I haven’t given it a try yet. There are new restaurants and cafes popping up and closing all the time as the city weaves its new social fabric, so it’s hard to say what, exactly, you might find downtown.
Take a walk. – There is an old railroad trestle that runs from Phoenix Park across the river (this is where the Eau Claire and Chippewa Rivers meet) to the neighborhood on the other side. There is a stellar walking trail that leads down to the university district in one direction and headed out of town in the other direction. I trained for a marathon along this pathway, which which is perfect for runners and cyclists.