Revolutionary architecture, historical museums, and international food might sound like a day in the big city. What would you say if I told you this can be found in the small town of Owatonna, MN?
On this itinerary, you’ll marvel at a “jewel box of the prairie,” bike the trails at riverside parks, discover how state orphanages operated, and take a sip of healing waters. You’ll also be tempted by El Salvadorian food, hand-rolled chocolates, and delicious donuts. Ready? Let’s go!
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Day 1 – What To Do on Your Minne-Roadtrip to Owatonna, MN
It doesn’t matter if you are an architecture lover or not the National Farmer’s Bank will drop your jaw. I’m serious. At first glance, you might say this is a Frank Lloyd Wright building. It’s not. It’s the “first of eight “jewel box” banks designed by architect Louis Henry Sullivan,” who also happened to be Wright’s mentor. The bank is a combination of brick, tile, colored terracotta and sandstone, all of which change shades slightly depending on the weather and your proximity to the building.
Alongside Sullivan are several notable artists who played a key role in the bank’s creation, like William Gates who formed the colored terracotta clay, Oskar Gross who painted the pastoral scene, and George Grant Elmslie who designed and executed many of the ornamental features.
In 1906, Sullivan was hired by Carl Bennett, Executive Vice President of the National Farmers’ Bank. At the time the bank was in sound financial standing, and it cost $125,000 to build the new bank. Years later, the bank fell on hard times and closed in 1926. Today, it’s an operating Wells Fargo bank. How cool would it be to have this as your bank?
Besides the striking design, what’s interesting about its history is the fellowship between the conservative and more reserved Bennett and the sometimes incautious and heavy-drinking Sullivan. While the two had very different upbringings, they formed a friendship over their love of the arts and architecture.
Hours: Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., Saturday 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. All tours are self-guided unless with a group.
Historic Walking Tour of Owatonna or Bike Ride Along the Straight River
Afterward touring the bank, walk down to Central Park Coffee Co. for some coffee and a morning snack like waffles (on Wednesday waffles are $5). While you are taking in your daily dose of caffeine decide what you’d like to do next:
- Pedal the trails along Straight River and through Owatonna Parks with bikes rented from Straight River Sports & Fitness.
- Discover 59 historic buildings in downtown and the nearby Pillsbury District on a self-guided Historic Walking Tour of Owatonna.
- Also, you can always stop by Visit Owatonna. They are happy to help plan your day and find activities that suit your travel needs.
Costas Candies & Restaurant has been serving breakfast, lunch and hand-made chocolates for almost 100 years. They’ve mixed old-school diner charm with an international menu of Greek-inspired dishes like politki, horiatiki, and gyros, as well as, traditional staples like burgers and sandwiches. After your meal, walk over to the chocolate counter for a truffle, salted caramel, or maybe my favorite English toffee. Remember, you are on vacation and calories don’t count. Get them to go and eat them in Central Park next to the fountain.
Tip: Costas Candies & Restaurant ships their chocolates all over the country but as you can imagine not during the summer months.
Hours: Restaurant is open Monday to Saturday from 7:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Candy counter is open Monday to Friday from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., and Saturday from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.
The Village of Yesteryear showcases the early days of life in Steele County, many of which are directly related to Owatonna’s history. There are 19 historic buildings like the 1868 mansion built by Mark Hill Dunnell, a country schoolhouse, St. Wenceslaus of Moravia church, cabins, general story and Bixby depot. I recommend the guided tour as you’ll get so much more out of the experience and learn interesting factoids that you wouldn’t on a self-guided tour. If you want to learn about more history, on the same property is the Steele County History Center.
Hours: Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Closed Sunday and Monday. Guided Tours: May 1 to September 30 at 1:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. The tour takes 1.5 hours. Admission: Adult $5, Children 7-16 $3 (6 and under free).
To continue with global cuisine head back downtown to Pupuseria La Paz for El Salvadorian food. Some of the items you will know, like tacos, burritos, and tamales. Other dishes like pupusas, pastelitos and yucca fries you might be less familiar with. On this food adventure, I suggest ordering a few things to get an idea of the flavors of the country. Definitely order a pupusa, which looks like a pancake, but is made with masa (hominy) and stuffed with beans, cheese, and pork, including combinations, and the pastelitos which are stuffed with carrot and meat and comes with a dipping sauce. If you like Thai tea order their rice milk-so good! If you are not sure what to order, there are plenty of pictures to help guide you. The restaurant is a hotpost with locals and reminded me of a small eatery you’d find in New York City.
Hours: Monday to Thursday, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., Friday 9 a.m. to 11 p.m., and Saturday 10 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Day 2 – What To Do on Your Minne-Roadtrip to Owatonna, MN
Today, you have two breakfast options in historic downtown Owatonna. If you want to indulge your sweet tooth head to Perfect Day Cakes for donuts. There are plenty of standard flavors and unusual ones like S’more, Kettle Corn and Churro. If you like to kick-start your day with protein, order the maple bacon. If cupcakes are more to your liking, there are plenty of signature flavors to choose from like Almond Joy, Banana Crème Pie, and Black Forest. If you can’t do the sweet, check out their sugar-free options. They also have cookies, pastries, and lunch options. If you are a tea lover, be sure to get a cup using teas from Serenity Leaf.
Hours: Wednesday through Friday 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Saturday from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m.
If you are more of a bagel kind of person, then head to Old Town Bagels. Their bagels are homemade and baked fresh daily. And, their cream cheese is homemade too. They have a variety of breakfast and lunch bagel sandwiches.
Hours: Monday through Friday 6:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., Saturday 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Closed on Sunday.
After breakfast, drive to “the city on the hill.”
In 1885, Owatonna was chosen as the location for a state sanctioned public school for children who were neglected or orphaned. From 1886 and 1945, there were 10,635 “state schoolers” who called the “city on the hill” home. Today, it houses the city’s administrative offices and a portion of the building is designated as the Minnesota State Public School Orphanage Museum.
The living quarters consisted of 16 cottages, and boys and girls were kept separated. Some of these cottages have been removed, but Cottage 11‒a boy’s cottage‒is open to the public. The cottage offers more details about the daily life of the children and what their life was like through recreated rooms that show where they slept, played and schooled. Be sure to listen to the audio stories and watch the video. There is also staff on hand to answer any questions, and they might have been “state schoolers” themselves.
This state-run school was a good experience for some and miserable for others. I found it fascinating that it was almost entirely self-sustaining. In its height, the campus was 42 acres and 287 acres were devoted to farmlands and livestock. The school also had its own power plant, greenhouse, and icehouse.
Give yourself two to three hours to see the museum, tour the cottage, walk the grounds, and listen to the outside audio stations. The Owatonna Arts Center is also in the same building as the museum, and when I was there, a section was undergoing renovations. The Gallery Hours are Tuesday through Saturday from 1 to 5 p.m. Be sure to check out the ceiling mural.
Admission: Free with donations appreciated. Museum Hours: Monday through Friday 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday, and Sunday 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Cottage Hours: Tuesday through Sunday 1 to 4 p.m., May 1 to Labor Day, and 1 to 3 p.m. Labor Day to April 30. Closed in January and February. Tours available for groups of 10+.
Continue with the international food scene at Mizuki Fusion for Japanese and Thai-inspired food.
Hours: Monday through Thursday 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., and Sunday 12 to 9 p.m.
A trip to Owatonna isn’t complete without a stop in at Mineral Springs Park. Here you’ll take a sip of healing spring waters, which has been likened to the “famed Vichy Springs in the Ardennes of France,” and learn about the legend of the frail Princess Owatonna who drank from the springs every day and restored her health.
Afterward, walk around the park, rest by the river, or head out for some antiquing.
For your last evening, dine at the upscale Torey’s Restaurant and Bar, or for a locally-sourced experience head to Master’s Bar & Grille at Brooktree Golf Course, and Black Sheep Burgers & Brews has gourmet burgers and craft beer. (The pictures in this section are courtesy of Visit Owatonna.)
That wraps up your Owatonna Minne-Roadtrip. Not ready to go home yet? Next stop, Faribault, MN.
Visit Owatonna has lots of information and brochures and is happy to help you plan your trip and activities.
Optional Owatonna Activities:
- Cabela’s (taxidermy displays, aquarium, fudge shop and restaurant)
- Three T-38 Jets
- Warrior King Jesus on a White Stallion
- River Springs Water Park
- RAD Zoo
- Farmers’ Market on Saturdays in Central Park May through October from 7 a.m. to 12 p.m.
- Mainstreet Movie Series on Sundays at 215 N Cedar Ave. (Former State Theater Space) at 8:30 p.m. Aug. 7 “Toy Story” and Aug. 28 “Remember the Titans.”
Note: As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with complimentary accommodations and meal for the purpose of review. While it has not influenced this review, the writer believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest.
Lodging Options on the Minne-Roadtrip to Owatonna, MN
On my Owatonna visit, I stayed at the AmericInn Hotel & Suites Owatonna Conference Center, which is now Baymont Inn & Suites Owatonna. The hotel has 90 air-conditioned rooms with double queen and single king rooms, and there are options with sofabeds and suites. Prices range from $94 to $124 depending on the room, and there is a less expensive option for non-refundable rooms. There is an indoor pool, hot tub, pool table, game room, free WiFi, complimentary breakfast buffet. I was very satisfied with my room. The linens were soft and the bed very comfortable. The pool area was large, and it had an attached arcade area, which would be great if you are traveling with children. I didn’t eat at the hotel, but they had quite a breakfast with fresh fruit, cold and hot items, including biscuits and gravy.
- Northrop Oftedahl House Bed & Breakfast
- Holiday Inn Hotel & Suites Owatonna
- Country Inn & Suites
- Microtel Inn & Suites by Wyndham
- Comfort Inn
- Oakdale Motel
- Super 8 Owatonna
- Best Budget Inn
- Valu Stay
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