Bemidji named in Smithsonian Magazine's '15 best small towns to visit in 2022'

Bemidjians can now hold their heads a little higher, as the first city on the Mississippi was listed in Smithsonian Magazine's “The 15 Best Small Towns to Visit in 2022.”

Paul Bunyan statue
The iconic Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox statues in Bemidji, Minn.
Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer
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BEMIDJI — Bemidjians can now hold their heads a little higher, as the first city on the Mississippi was recently listed in Smithsonian Magazine's “The 15 Best Small Towns to Visit in 2022.”

Bemidji, which captured the Smithonian’s pick for “Festive Small Town," joined 14 other towns that were chosen to be on the list based on several different factors.

“Our picks for the 15 best small towns to visit this year all have a population of 25,000 or under, a high density of cultural offerings and natural beauty, and a compelling reason to visit in 2022,” the article said.

Written by travel correspondent Laura Kiniry, the article notes some of Bemidji's most popular summer events like the Bemidji Jaycees Water Carnival and the Lake Bemidji Dragon Boat Festival as reasons to visit.

Also highlighted is the upcoming inaugural Anishinaabe Art Festival, which will be held on July 22-23 at the Sanford Center.


“New this year is July’s two-day Anishinaabe Art Festival, a celebration of Indigenous art,” the article said. “The town is a center point for three nearby (tribal nations): Leech Lake, Red Lake and White Earth, which have joined together to highlight and promote Native artists and their works at the festival.”

The Nordic Whitecaps compete in one of the afternoon heats on Aug. 7, 2021, in the 15th Annual Lake Bemidji Dragon Boat Festival.
Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer

Another cultural piece of the town the article made note of is the Concordia Language Villages — a nonprofit camp nestled in the Northwoods that holds courses in 15 different languages.

“Youth and adults alike fully immerse themselves (for one to four weeks, or as adventure day camps) in the foods, sports and cultural activities of the countries where the language they’re learning is spoken, whether it be German, Korean, Arabic or French,” the article said about the program.

The outdoor lifestyle adopted by up-north Minnesotans was also a highlight of the article — an aspect of Bemidji that attracts visitors and keeps locals active in the area year-round.

“Within 25 miles of Bemidji you’ll find 400 lakes, 500 miles of snowmobile trails and 99 miles of cross-country ski trails,” the article noted. “Stroll along an elevated boardwalk above a spruce-tamarack bog at Lake Bemidji State Park, which is also the northern trailhead for the 115-mile-long multiuse Paul Bunyan State Trail.”

Bog Walk
Lake Bemidji State Park bog walk.
Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer

And, since almost nothing is quite as alluring to travelers as good food, the article made sure to mention a couple of Bemidji's popular eateries.

"From the specialty mimosas and salted caramel cinnamon rolls of modern breakfast spot Red Stu to downtown's Bemidji Brewing, serving up over a dozen site-brewed beers and snacks like classic pretzel twists, the town offers a mouthwatering selection of food and drink options," the article said.

'Rediscovering Bemidji'

Josh Peterson, executive director of Visit Bemidji, helped provide the magazine with some key information on the area in preparation for the article.


When deciding on what aspects to spotlight in front of a national audience, he hoped to bring attention to the town's go-to tourist attractions, as well as new events.

“We know that people flock to Bemidji for a couple of things: Paul and Babe and the Mississippi River,” Peterson said. “I always go with the Bemidji staples, and then the newcomers like the Anishinaabe Art Festival.”

To Peterson, the interest in Bemidji as a travel destination comes down to its art and cultural happenings.

“We are a rich arts community and we have a lot of culture," he said. "Of course, with the Concordia Language Villages it just makes Bemidji very attractive."

Campers from each of the Concordia Language Villages gather in the courtyard of the German village for the Parade of Flags during International Day held in 2019.
Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer

With Bemidji making national news as one of the best small towns to visit this year, Peterson believes it has a lot to do with recent publicity.

“We’ve pretty much saturated all forms of media in the metro, and that reaches the surrounding states," he said. "It actually has helped us be brought to the forefront. It’s reassuring that people are rediscovering Bemidji or discovering Bemidji for the first time."

Peterson said that Bemidji's presence on social media, television, radio and print, it's bringing more tourists to the town, and even inspiring people to make the Northwoods their permanent home.

“It’s exciting to be out in the forefront of all these great places in Minnesota and really draw attention to what we’ve always known about Bemidji,” Peterson said. “It’s a great place to live and also a great place to visit.”


For Abby Randall, executive director of the Bemidji Chamber of Commerce, the culture of celebration in the area comes from plenty of collaboration within the community.

“We have a lot of local volunteers and a lot of organizations that are willing to work together to put on quality festivals,” Randall said. “Anyone that takes a look at our calendar of events coming up this summer can see that we’re pretty jam-packed.”

Children ride a roller coaster at Merriam's Midway on July 1, 2021, during the Bemidji Jaycees Water Carnival.
Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer

After two years of pandemic-related challenges for Bemidji's most popular events, festivities are back in full swing. With a fun-filled summer schedule perfect for travelers and locals alike, Randall reflected on the reason for Bemidji's success in tourism and national media.

“I think the reason Bemidji gets a lot of national attention is multi-faceted — we’re a hard-working community of a lot of different types of people," she said. "It’s fascinating for people to really see our community and look at its identity and want to be a part of it.”

Madelyn Haasken is the multimedia editor at the Bemidji Pioneer. She is a 2020 graduate of Bemidji State University with a degree in Mass Communication, with minors in writing and design. In her free time, she likes watching hockey, doing crossword puzzles and being outside.
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