Okay, Minnesota families. If you are looking for mini-getaway for MEA weekend, or for any other weekend or time of year…I have a great suggestion for you. Austin, Minnesota!
Austin is about 90 minutes directly south of the Twin Cities, and is probably best known for being home to Hormel Foods and the famous SPAM Museum.
I had been wanting to take the kids to the SPAM Museum for a long time, but I was also curious what else was in the area. After checking out the “Discover Austin, Minnesota” website, I learned there was actually a lot to see – enough for at least a whole weekend! Plus, everything was either FREE (like the SPAM Museum) or very affordable!
And for various reasons, Austin sounded like an ideal place to go for a little getaway during this pandemic. It’s a small town, all their major attractions are open but practicing social distancing, and they have a beautiful nature center to visit with many trails to explore.
So our family decided to head down there for a weekend getaway, and it was the perfect, affordable destination for us.
We headed to Austin early in the morning, arriving around 10:00am. We headed directly to downtown Austin, which was very quiet and peaceful. We walked around and explored, checking out the statue of George Washington and the veterans memorial.
Our first stop was the Austin Artworks Center, which has an art gift shop, an art gallery (upstairs), and a classroom and workshop downstairs. On Saturday mornings, they offer a kids studio event where kids get to make and take an art project. It’s ideal for ages 5-10, and masks are required at this time. And best of all, the cost is low (this was only $5)!
The kids studio was from 10:30am to about noon, and this week the project was a “Spooky Tree” drawing. Each week is capped at 9 students. Everything is provided and everyone has plenty of space. It was a fun event – especially for my daughter who loves art!
Check out their website for upcoming kids events and other information. They also have kids art kits you can do at home!
Piggy Blue’s BBQ
Right across the street from the Austin Artworks Center is Piggy Blue’s Bar-B-Que, “where you can eat pig or eat like a pig!”
Their menu looked good, so we went there for lunch! I ordered the Lip Smackin’ sandwich made with shredded pork, plus I picked two sides – pit potatoes and cornbread! It was super juicy and filling. My son had a hamburger with fries (his favorite). They also have baked beans, coleslaw, smoked ribs, and many other tasty meals.
After lunch, we drove to Super Fresh, a produce market and garden center. They also have gifts and a bakery, so we stopped by for some shopping and treats. It’s a family-owned business that started in the 1940s, and has grown a lot since. It really felt like fall here, with the pumpkins, apples and decorations.
They also are famous for the state’s largest donuts! (And they have plenty of other yummy baked goodies including caramel apples.)
Hormel Historic Home
Back downtown, the Hormel Historic Home is a beautiful, 14-room home where George A. and Lillian Hormel and family lived. It was built in 1871, and the family bought it in 1901. They lived there until 1927 and renovated it extensively.
The Hormel History Home is open for tours Monday to Friday from 10:00am – 4:30pm, and during special events.
It will be open during MEA on Thursday and Friday, though not on Saturday and Sunday, so if you go during MEA weekend try to get there on those weekdays.
Self-guided tours are $5 per person which is a very affordable price. The guest guide is available online so you can follow along with that or read in advance.
There are too many highlights to include here (go see it for yourself!) but here are some glimpses inside!
The fireplace in the library has oil paintings of George and Lillian on either side.
Exploring the beautiful woodwork and features of the home, while learning the history of the family was educational and interesting for all of us.
One thing I really enjoy about traveling to places I’ve never been is talking with the local residents and business owners. Sweet Reads is one of those businesses that’s very well known in the community for its featuring local crafters and authors – some of whom I met while visiting! My kids and I chatted with Lisa, the owner, who also found the perfect book for my kids – about two kids and their mom who is a blogger!
She sells not only books but gifts and as the name suggests, CANDY! There are many old-fashioned candies near the register area.
The shop has many unique fixtures (her husband was a set designer!), and a quaint sitting area in the back.
There are many genres of books here, and she sells both new and used books so there are books for all budgets! And they have been home of the world’s largest collection of Berenstain Bears books and memorabilia!
Cobblestone Hotel & Suites
It was time to check into our hotel, the Cobblestone Hotel & Suites, a brand new hotel that just opened up this summer of 2020!
Cobblestone Hotel & Suites is right near both interstate 90 and highway 218, is near many restaurants and stores, and is just a few minutes from downtown, so it’s conveniently located.
We had a two queen studio room which was clean, modern and spacious. There was also a pool, a fitness room, and a breakfast included – all of which we enjoyed!
After relaxing in our room a bit, it was time for dinner. There are so many restaurants in Austin, but we were in the mood for pizza, so we ordered a couple of pizzas from Steve’s Pizza, which offers authentic hand-tossed pizzas and free delivery. It was only 5 minutes from our hotel, and had a nice dining space, but we were tired so we picked up our order to eat in our room.
We were so hungry I didn’t get pictures until after the pizza was half gone! Suffice to say, it was good and it all got eaten.
Of course, no trip to Austin is complete without a visit to the SPAM Museum!
Due to COVID, when we entered our temperature was taken and like everywhere else, masks were required, but that didn’t stop us from having a BLAST at this bright and cheerful attraction.
Everything is about Hormel and the history of their famous SPAM product. It’s 14,000 square feet of educational and interactive fun, and they’re open year-round.
When we entered we were given Hawaiian leis with samples of SPAM!
Why Hawaiian leis?
Well, one of the many interesting things we learned is that SPAM is very popular in Hawaii, as well as countries like Japan and South Korea. Exhibits here include a world market as well as a walk through history.
Some of the interactive exhibits were closed due to COVID, but there was still plenty to do and learn. They gave us each a stylus to use on the touchscreens, for example, instead of our fingers.
And admission is FREE!
Be sure to check out the gift shop as well where you can get SPAM t-shirts, magnets, recipe books and so much more.
B & J Bar and Grill
Right around the corner was B & J Bar and Grill, which was the perfect place for lunch because, can you guess?
They had a SPAM menu!
I had a SPAM sandwich which was pretty good! We also enjoyed some cheese curds for an appetizer.
B&J Bar & Grill was a comfortable place to sit and socialize, watch the game, have a drink, and enjoy some good American food.
Jay C. Hormel Nature Center
After lunch we were fueled and ready for hiking some trails!
The Jay C. Hormel Nature Center is named after George A. and Lillian Hormel’s son, Jay, who took over the Hormel Foods company in 1935.
It has over 500 acres of prairie, forest and wetland habitat, an Interpretive Center with live animals and exhibits, and over 10 miles of trails. It’s free, too!
We explored the Interpretive Center where we learned about local wildlife, astronomy and history.
Then we walked a trail to an observatory, which was about 1.2 miles round trip. The observatory was two levels up where we had a great view above the trees. It felt good to get some sun and explore nature!
After the Nature Center we drove around a bit more (Austin is a pretty city) and then headed home.
It was a busy 2 days! As you can see, there was a lot for us to do. And there is more to do too. Check out the Discover Austin website for other itineraries and ideas for your visit! Discover Austin helped us plan our visit and they did a GREAT job. Definitely check with them for help planning your trip!
One thing we learned was that Austin is a very Autism-friendly city. In fact, in 2009, the leaders of the Hormel Historic Home made the commitment to offer programs that benefit the community of Austin, and in 2017 the Autism Friendly Initiative began. I spoke with Mary Barinka who began this project and now, dozens of businesses in Austin have been given tools and resources to be more autism-friendly. As a parent of a child on the autism spectrum, I could tell that businesses were welcoming of my child, and am thrilled about all Austin has done.
For more information about their Autism Friendly Initiative, visit their website.
Traveling during COVID in Austin
We felt very safe throughout our visit. Masks and social distancing were required everywhere. Cobblestone (like other hotels) were going to great lengths to keep everything clean and sanitary. If you feel comfortable traveling, Austin is doing everything possible to keep you stay safe and healthy.
(Disclosure: We were hosted by Discover Austin for this trip. Accommodations and some meals were provided. All opinions are 100% mine.)