Many drivers heading south from the Twin Cities know they're approaching Owatonna by the businesses that start to pop up along Interstate 35. But it's worth taking the off-ramp to explore the heart of this town of 25,000, which has more than 700 acres of parkland, a bustling town square, renowned architecture and historic sites.
Downtown delights: At Owatonna's heart is Central Park, an idyllic town square surrounded by historic buildings such as Firemen's Hall (107 W. Main St.) and the Steele County Courthouse (111 E. Main St.), both of which are on the National Register. Central Park has been a community landmark since its founding in 1854 and home to many events, including summer concerts and the annual Festival of the Arts, to be held July 28-29 this year.
Sixty sites are featured on Owatonna's Historic Walking Tour (maps available at the Chamber of Commerce and local businesses) and are a testament to how hard citizens worked to build a town they could be proud of. One of the finest examples of this is the must-see national historic landmark, the National Farmers' Bank (101 N. Cedar Av.). This Prairie School architectural gem, now a Wells Fargo Bank, was the vision of two men, bank president Carl Bennett and architect Louis Sullivan. Self-guided tours during bank hours highlight the handcrafted terra cotta ornamentation, giant murals, stained glass windows and cast iron chandeliers.
Shoppers wishing to meander quiet streets lined with shops, many of which have been serving the community for decades, will find small-town service in the Historic Downtown Retail District.
State orphanage history: A short distance from downtown, visitors can get a glimpse into the lives of the 10,635 children who lived in Minnesota's only state-run orphanage with a visit to the State School Orphanage Museum (540 W. Hills Circle; 1-507-774-7369; www. orphanagemuseum.com). The Minnesota State Public School for Dependent and Neglected Children operated from 1886 to 1945, and its sprawling grounds once housed 47 buildings, including a farm. Take a free self-guided tour of the museum, a restored cottage from the orphanage era and grounds. Located in what was once the orphanage's dining hall, the Owatonna Arts Center (435 Garden View Lane; 1-507-451-0533; www.oacarts.org; open Tuesday-Sunday) showcases work from local and regional artists, offers classes and hosts events.
Step back into time: Owatonna's newest attraction is the stunning Steele County History Center (1700 Austin Road; 1-507-451-1420; www.steelecohistoricalsociety .org; open Tuesday-Saturday), which opened in April. Explore exhibits highlighting county and state history, then step back into the late 19th century at the Village of Yesteryear (1448 Austin Road). Tours of the village's 15 historic buildings, including two log cabins, a general store and railroad station, are offered at 1:30 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday through Sept. 30 ($5 adults; $3 ages 7-16; free for ages 6 and under). Just across the way are the grounds of Minnesota's largest county fair, the Steele County Free Fair (1525 S. Cedar Av.; 1-800-423-6466; www.scff.org), which takes place Aug. 14-19.
Discover a legend: Legend has it that hundreds of years ago Princess Owatonna, the ailing daughter of an Indian chief, drank from springs near the "Ouitunya" river and was healed. The miraculous site, so the story goes, is now Mineral Springs Park, at Cherry Street and Mineral Springs Parkway. The park, which was developed in the 1920s, still attracts visitors today to its springs and a statue of Princess Owatonna.
See something exotic: A popular stop for kids, the Reptile & Amphibian Discovery Zoo has a 12-foot alligator, 14-foot python and -- its most popular attraction of late -- a boa constrictor once owned by teen heartthrob Justin Bieber (3297 County Road 45 N., 1-888-4-RADZOO; www.theradzoo.com; adults $9; ages 3-12 $6.50; kids under 2 free).
Sushi in small-town Minnesota? You betcha! Mizuki Fusion Japanese and Thai Restaurant (119 W. Bridge St.; 1-507-214-3131; www.mizukifusion.com) opened a year ago and has quickly become a popular dining spot. Try the Owatonna Roll filled with shrimp tempura, king crab and spicy tuna.
Central Park Coffee Co. (113 Cedar. Av. N.; 1-507-451-4242; www.centralparkcoffeeco .com) offers breakfast and lunch fare with gluten-free options. The Jaycee Herby Turkey sandwich is a favorite.
Family-owned and -operated since 1919, Costas Candies & Restaurant (112 N. Cedar Av.; 1-507-451-9050; www.costas-candies.com) is well known for its hand-rolled candies and chocolates including truffles, pecan turtles and chocolate-covered caramels. The restaurant menu features home-cooking-style fare for breakfast and lunch.
For visitor guides and information on group tours and events, visit the Owatonna Area Chamber of Commerce & Tourism (320 Hoffman Dr.; 1-800-423-6466; www.visitowatonna.org).
Myrna CG Mibus is a freelance writer based in Webster, Minn.