My first time in South Dakota, my husband and I were greeted crossing the southwestern border with the famous “Great Faces, Great Places” slogan. “Cute!” I thought, realizing that what many people, myself included, knew about the Great Plains state boiled down to those four famed faces etched into granite. “What an inventive way to capitalize on such an iconic monument.”
On our return last month, though, I learned that there’s far more to South Dakota and its motto than a couple of rocks bearing the identities of former presidents. If ever a place personified its state tagline, it’s Sioux Falls (or the whole of South Dakota, really).
Our first time, we stayed near Custer State Park in Hot Springs and Rapid City on our inaugural South Dakota vacation back in 2011. It was a particularly wet that year—not only across the entire region, but the country at large. Badlands National Park wasn’t open, so we stuck close to our campground, spent our days photographing bison and prairie dogs, stole away to motorcycle mecca Sturgis to take photos with its prominent sign.
Our most recent visit last month may not have been any less damp, but a token of a great trip is that the weather doesn’t even matter one bit. We were greeted by the locals of Sioux Falls with such warmth and enthusiasm, at times I had to double-check I wasn’t actually back in my native Southern habitat. In fact, Nashville could learn a thing or two about hospitality from the fine folks of Sioux Falls: We were summoned for coffee by entrepreneur/musician/photographer Wes Eisenhauer over Twitter, asked by chef/nutritionist Sanaa Abourezk to partake in the weekly dinner feast at her eponymous restaurant and invited to join a pair of local children’s pastors for a Guatemalan-style dinner at Jacky’s when the line was particularly long one brisk Friday night.
Every time we’d pop into a coffee shop—and in Sioux Falls, there are many—the barista would inquire where we’re from, some even going as far as to scribble down their favorite insider-y recommendations on a Post-It for us to take with us (thanks, Kylie!). Everywhere we went, complete strangers became friends; we couldn’t have felt anymore welcome had we both grown up in the area.
We’d been in California visiting family, so we arrived in Sioux Falls from San Francisco. The first thing that struck us as awesome was the convenience of the airport; not only was it one of the easiest terminals to get in and out of—and the rental car process a breeze, taking all of three minutes—but we’d only been driving two miles when all of a sudden, BAM, we were in the heart of Sioux Falls.
Our hotel, the new Hilton Garden Inn Sioux Falls Downtown, was situated right over the river, in the trendy 8th Street corridor, and we pretty much hit up every restaurant along that stretch of real estate in the next four days: craft brews and wine tastings at Prairie Berry East Bank, lattes and homemade pop-tarts at Josiah’s Coffeehouse (twice), even more beer and mashed potato pizza(!) at Monk’s House of Ale Repute.
Then, there was lunch at Sanaa’s Gourmet Mediterranean, which was a true treat—particularly as the sassy namesake herself came and joined us for a spell (sadly, we weren’t able to accept her dinner invitation as we were on our way back to Tennessee).
Each morning, I was torn between returning to Josiah’s or grabbing breakfast on the go from Breadico or Queen City Bakery—they’re both local favorites and just a couple blocks apart—so we bit the bullet and tried each spot (for the sake of “work,” y’all).
Dinner at Parker’s Bistro absolutely blew our minds—and our palates. We were not shy when we ordered the pierogies, the fish of the day and the bison meatloaf, which was one of the best dishes I’ve had in years. We also sipped our way through the cocktail menu, because with drinks as lovely as this, how could we not?
Parker’s is perhaps the most upscale dining experience in Sioux Falls, and not only did SVV and I arrive early enough—moments before they opened for the night—to nab the coveted table-for-two in the front window, but we also got to sit down with owner Stacy Newcomb-Weiland, who is one of the city’s great trailblazers, heading up the renovation of the old State Theatre and serving on the historical preservation society board for several years. She told us about Sioux Falls’ evolution, how she took a dilapidated building that was formerly a monument company (i.e. headstones) and turned it into the hottest restaurant in town, and what she and other small business owners hope to see from the city’s growth in coming years.
I’m just going to put it out there and say that if I lived in South Dakota, I’d force Stacy to be my happy hour buddy, whether she liked it or not. I’m constantly inspired by the entrepreneurs I meet on the road who invest every ounce of their energy (and dollar in their bank account) to bettering a community.
But I digress. Back to all the things we ate and drank.
The beer lover in me tried the local craft brews everywhere we went: Hydra, WoodGrain and Fernson Brewing Company, the biggest of them all which now boasts a sprawling brewery and a downtown taproom. Don’t like beer? First, you’re crazy, and, second, don’t fret: the area? has wine, too.
My pesky sweet tooth had a really hard time not separating from my body and running off to CH Patisserie for dessert every chance it got. Not only is pastry chef Chris Hanmer as nice as they come, but have you ever seen a prettier petit gateau in your life?
Yes, if ever I encountered an unexpected foodie destination, Sioux Falls was it.
But beyond eating and drinking, there’s plenty to do for those who don’t plan their trips around 5,000 calories a day. The 56 sculptures comprising SculptureWalk—from a bighorn ram to an interactive xylophone—are worth a gander, and at one of the city’s most beloved treasures, Washington Pavilion, you can learn about tribal art, see a flick on the awe-inspiring cinedome or embrace your inner science geek in the kids’ discovery center.
There’s also one heck of an entertainment complex—70,000 square feet to be exact—that arrived on the scene last Thanksgiving: Badlands Pawn. You can’t enter Sioux Falls without seeing one of its billboards beckoning you down the road to this pawn shop/speedway/radio station/casino/deli/foundry/tattoo shop/gun range/concert venue. And what kind of travelers would we be if we didn’t check out such an over-the-top concept like that?
We took a stroll around Badlands Pawn during the day, but our visit coincided with the weekly Thursday night concert, which just happened to be Night Ranger, so we returned once the sun went down to find Badlands Pawn transformed into a completely different world. (I’m pretty sure we were the only ones not in black leather—take note and plan your wardrobe accordingly if hitting up one of the summer concert series like Panic! At the Disco or Tom Keifer—though we brushed up on the lyrics to “Sister Christian” in advance just to be safe.)
So, food, drink, music, entrepreneurship—it seems Sioux Falls does indeed have a little something for everyone.
And, of course, you’re wondering where the name comes from, right? I present to you:
I traveled to South Dakota for the #MyGreatPlace campaign on behalf of Travel Mindset. For more tips on what to eat, drink, see and do in Sioux Falls and Vermillion, read my Road Trip Journal here.