Sioux Falls Offers Affordable Surprises
Inviting prairie hub Sioux Falls is the other SF.
Sioux Falls, the other S.F. offers history, scenery, and wildlife.
Photo by Kristan Lawson
How many of your friends have visited Thailand? How many of your relatives have holidayed in Manhattan? New Orleans? Cancún?
A lot, right? Don’t you want to be different? Doesn’t your East Bayite identity depend mainly on distinguishing yourself? Then be really radical. Visit Sioux Falls, S.D., the other S.F.
Built predominantly of the ultra-hard local pink quartzite, this historic college town fractionally bigger than Berkeley shimmers rosily in summer sunshine, in winter snowdrifts and in the flashing brightness of those other two seasons. What? You’re asking right now. You mean there are four? You betcha, as they say in Sioux Falls, and they mean it.
As prairie hubs go, spotless Sioux Falls is a sparkling jewel. Its bison steaks are local. Its rhubarb wines shine. Its namesake cascades flow like spun silk. Its booming economy—a 2.5 percent unemployment rate, help-wanted signs everywhere—infuses the very air and most conversations with hope, happiness, and confidence. (Remember those?)
For that matter, so do its melt-in-your-mouth salted caramels and stained-glassish gateaux. Presiding over these at CH Patisserie, is Bellagio-alum World Champion Pastry Chef Chris Hanmer. He opened the patisserie in downtown Sioux Falls shortly after winning Top Chef Just Desserts and calls his adopted hometown “the Brooklyn of the Midwest.”
This sobriquet aptly illustrates the business-suited and hipster-horn-rimmed crowds queuing up for tender, flaky, oven-fresh fig-and-Gruyére quiche at Queen City Bakery or duck with spätzle and jalapeño purée at elegantly avant-garde Parker’s Bistro. They also line up at M.B. Haskett Delicatessen, whose owner grows many ingredients on his own nearby farm, for hefty muffalettas alongside rich, smoky coffee that was roasted just four blocks away.
And it would have thrilled South Dakota’s first governor, R.F. Pettigrew, whose petrified-wood-fronted former home is now a free-admission museum. Also free is much else in town, including the different-every-year outdoor Sculpture Walk; the frontier-perfect Courthouse Museum; and student and youth tickets to a Visual Arts Center that spotlights Native American artists and augments its impressive permanent collection with traveling exhibitions of the Warhol/Rodin caliber.
But pssst. Here’s a huge secret that more famous destinations don’t want you to know, especially if you’re traveling with kids: Even the fun things in Sioux Falls that aren’t free cost far less than their coastal/metropolitan equivalents. Admission to the 1,000-animal Great Plains Zoo is roughly half the price of admission to the 660-animal Oakland Zoo. Cocktails at river-view hotspot Ode to Food and Drinks cost $8, not your ubiquitous East Bay $12. Youth tickets to Sioux Falls’ interactive Kirby Science Center, including access to full-length films in its magnificent CineDome, cost less than half the price of youth tickets to the Chabot Space & Science Center. Seeing Paula Poundstone, say, or Pippin in Sioux Falls’ Washington Pavilion costs a fraction of what such an experience would cost here at home.
But, hey: Bike the dreamy, sleek riverside. Hike the green, clean parks. Spend time outdoors as an homage to every Native American, every bighorn sheep and bison, every farmer and rancher and pioneer who ever endured the climatic majesty of America’s vast, fertile, unforgiving midsection: the legitimately great Great Plains, whose weather is a tourist attraction in its own right.
Granted, you’d probably rather avoid tornadoes. But to watch a dazzling, ear-splitting, sheets-of-rain electrical storm or snow piling up right before your eyes is to marvel at weather’s panoramic power on the prairie, where nothing can be taken for granted except maybe corn, and whose futures and fortunes depend on the whims of that pretty and punishing sky.
This awareness also infuses Sioux Falls’ very air. Every omelet you eat at Josiah’s Coffeehouse & Café and every sip of chokecherry wine you take at Prairie Berry Winery are the hard-won products of an ecology that favors the brave. In that same vein, Sioux Falls’ annual late-summer Riverfest finds some 10,000 attendees relishing local brews, local bands, kayak and canoe rides in the Big Sioux River, and such South Dakotan food-truck treats as fried pickles and shashlik-descendant chislic, cubed red meat, while bidding warm weather a passionate, wild waterside farewell.
For anyone afflicted with that endemic East Bay elitism, Sioux Falls is an alternate universe because it’s another America: a pristine-sidewalked, graffiti-free, friendly America in which strangers make eye contact. It’s an affordable America whose residents will tell you about the five-bedroom, huge-backyarded homes they’ve just bought for under $150,000.
Sometimes it’s seemingly simple things that make a place exotic. Flyover country: These days, only fools only fly over it.
Pettigrew Home & Museum, 131 N. Duluth Ave., 605-367-7097, www.SiouxLandMuseums.com
Washington Pavilion, 301S. Main Ave., 605-367-6000, www.WashingtonPavilion.org
Prairie Berry Winery, 322 E. 8th St., 605-496-7175, www.PrairieBerry.com/EastBank
CH Patisserie, 309 S. Phillips Ave., 605-275-0090, www.CHPastries.com