The Freeborn County seat is centered on a low hill between Fountain and Albert Lea Lakes. Lieutenant Albert Lea, who led a surveying expedition across the region in 1835, initially named the larger of the two Fox Lake after spying a white fox run by it. Several years later, the famous French explorer Joseph Nicollet came through the area and renamed it in Lea’s honor.
Even though I-35 and I-90 intersect here, making it “The Crossroads of the Upper Midwest,” the town sees few tourists. The city’s museums, however, are worth a stop.
The Freeborn County Museum (1031 Bridge Ave., 507/373-8003, 10 a.m.–5 p.m. Tues.–Fri. year-round, $5 adults) is the area’s best local history collection. The main hall houses the usual artifacts, plus gold records and quite a bit of memorabilia from native son Eddie Cochran. The old toys are interesting too. During the summer you can visit the one-room schoolhouse, cobbler shop, 1853 log cabin, and other historic structures out back.
Ask at the museum to see the Itasca Rock Garden, a unique outdoor folk sculpture; it is on private property, but visits are allowed.
Just about everyone will find something of interest at the Story Lady Doll & Toy Museum (131 Broadway Ave. N., 507/377-1820, noon–4 p.m. Tues.–Fri., 11 a.m.–3 p.m. Sat., $2 adults), whether it be the Raggedy Ann, Princess Diana, Cat in the Hat, or handmade Navajo dolls. There are over 1,500 dolls (and despite the name, hardly any toys) in total.
It’s easy to dismiss small-town art centers, but you’ll probably be surprised by the creative offerings at the Albert Lea Art Center (224 Broadway Ave. S., 507/373-5665, noon–2 p.m. Tues.–Sat., free admission). New displays by serious Midwest artists are hung monthly, and work by local artists is sold in the shop.
During the summer you can float around Albert Lea Lake on the Pelican Breeze Cruise Boat (507/383-2630, www.pelicanbreeze.org, 4 p.m. Sat., 1:30 p.m. Sun. June–Sept., $15), a double-decker pontoon that departs from Frank Hall Park for 90-minute narrated tours. There’s also a Friday-evening pizza cruise (6 p.m., $20, reservations required).
October’s Big Island Rendezvous (www.bigislandfestivalandbbq.com, $10 adults) is Minnesota’s largest fur-trade-era reenactment. Over 1,000 costumed traders camp out and demonstrate the crafts, games, and music of the early 1800s.
Hotels and Restaurants
Not far off I-35, the Country Inn (2214 Main St. E., 507/373-5513 or 800/456-4000, $105) has a pool, whirlpool, and fitness center, plus rooms have the chain’s usual cozy touches.
Just down the street is the simpler Countryside Inn Motel (2102 Main St. E., 507/373-2446 or 888/373-1188, www.countrysidemotel.com, $45).
Ten miles south of town the 1858 Log Cabin B&B (11859 755th Ave., 507/448-0089, www.1858logcabin.com, $110, $85 for lodging only) is just what the name claims. Antique furnishings are mixed with modern amenities such as electricity, refrigerator, and bathroom, but it still has a pioneer feel. They welcome families with young children.
One of the biggest surprises in all of Minnesota is Crescendo (118 Broadway Ave. S., 507/377-2425, www.crescendodining.com, 5–9 p.m. Thurs.–Sat., $13–25), a gourmet bistro with a Mediterranean-inspired menu. The choices change with the seasons, but sweet-potato ravioli and sautéed Atlantic salmon fillet with rhubarb marmalade are typical. Locally grown and organic ingredients feature prominently, and the wine list is impressive.
At the other end of the spectrum are Taco King (104 Broadway Ave. S., 507/377-2485, 10:30 a.m.–8 p.m. Mon.–Fri., 10:30 a.m.–5 p.m. Sat.–Sun., $3–7), a counter-service place with excellent Mexican, and The Trumble’s (1811 Main St. E., 507/373-2638, 6 a.m.–9 p.m. Mon.–Thurs., $5–20), a local favorite for family fare.
Getting to Albert Lea
Jefferson Lines (888/864-2832, www.jeffersonlines.com) buses stop at the Shell gas station (2222 Main St. E.).
© Tim Bewer from Moon Minnesota, 3rd Edition