I was walking to the Farmers Market in historic downtown Albany, Oregon, when the mascot-style platypus in the bright orange Volkswagen convertible started waving hello.
Albany is that kind of town — where friendly folks savor the Willamette Valley’s farm-fresh bounty, treasure the past, and delight in lighthearted community fun. The riverside city (population 53,500) boasts outstanding farm-to-table dining, four national historic districts, a vintage carousel, boutique shopping, and a calendar bursting with playful events and festivals (including The Great Platypus Drop).
Located about 70 miles south of Portland, Albany is in the heart of the rural Willamette Valley. The now-historic downtown got its start in the 1850s when the city’s founders, Thomas and Walter Monteith, platted a 60-acre townsite on the banks of the Willamette River and named it after the capital of New York state, their birthplace. One of the first businesses was a general store operating out of their parlor.
As the city grew, it became the transportation and communication hub of the valley. Steamboats in the 1850s, stagecoaches in the 1860s, and trains beginning in the 1870s carried mail, goods, produce, and people to destinations throughout Oregon and beyond.
Today, Interstate Highway 5 (or I-5) zips by 3 miles to the east, bypassing the historic district where it all began. But the river still runs through it, and the thriving downtown is still the heart of Albany. Here’s how to make the most of it.
Things To Do In Albany
The historic carousel is Albany’s pride and joy, but there’s much more to see and do in this walkable town. Browse for antiques, enjoy free concerts in the park, stroll through neighborhoods filled with vintage architecture or soar in a hot air balloon.
Historic Carousel And Museum
Lions, a Bengal tiger, and two bears are among the menagerie roaming the Historic Carousel and Museum in downtown Albany. Fifty-two animals, both real and mythical, twirl on the 1909 Dentzel carousel. Riders can choose among various cats, dogs, horses, and dragons, or hop on an orca, salmon, rabbit, frog, quail, buffalo, rooster, zebra, unicorn, or other unusual mount. Each creature is hand carved in the workshop downstairs and adorned with unique details, such as books, butterflies, or George Washington. Admission to the carousel building, gift shop, downstairs museum, and carving workshop is free. Rides cost $2.
Historic Architecture Tours
Architecture aficionados can discover more than 700 historic homes and buildings with self-guided tours of Albany’s four National Historic Districts. The free guide “Seems Like Old Times,” available online and at the Albany Visitors Association, includes suggested routes, building histories, and information on architectural details. Houses date from the 1840s to the 1920s and display various styles, including Queen Anne, Italianate, Craftsman Bungalow, French Second Empire, Colonial Revival, and American Foursquare, among others. Summer and holiday events offer self-guided walking tours and information about a selection of historic homes.
Monteith House Museum
Brothers Thomas and Walter Monteith came west on the Oregon Trail, arriving in the Willamette Valley in 1847. When they decided to build a sturdy two-story frame house two years later, they made sure it straddled both their land claims and included a bedroom on each end — thus meeting the government’s requirement that a man sleeps on his newly acquired land. The two men founded Albany, naming it after the capital of New York. Today the Monteith House is a living history museum showcasing life in the mid-1800s. Original furniture, wallpaper remnants, and other details bring the pioneer era to life. Baking biscuits over the fire, churning butter, and playing pioneer games are just a few of the living history activities held throughout the year. Check the Albany Visitors Association calendar for living history events. Free admission.
Shop Historic Downtown
Albany’s lively downtown features historic buildings filled with unique, locally-owned shops, galleries, and restaurants. Chat with an artist and discover gorgeous pottery, paintings, jewelry, textile art, photography, and much more at Gallery Calapooia, an artist-managed cooperative. Find all-natural food, toys, and essentials for your furry friends at Sniffany’s Pet Boutique (and say hello to Sunny, the resident Maine coon cat). Down the street, Emma Downtown is the perfect place to find a special gift among the many books, candles, purses, clothing, jewelry, baby items, toys, journals, home goods, and kitchen items. During the holidays, the entire shop becomes a winter wonderland. More than 25,000 square feet of vintage treasures await at the Albany Antique Mall.
Festivals And Events
Free summer concerts in the park are just one of the many lighthearted community events hosted throughout the year. The Great Platypus Drop (a raffle involving rubber duckies and a target), Carnival at the Carousel, and the Antiques in the Streets and Classic Car Show are among the summer events. Also, don’t miss the Northwest Art and Air Festival in August featuring artists and hot air balloons. Other events include ghost walks by lantern (the pre-COVID version was the Trolley of Terror) at Halloween, Christmas caroling, and horse-drawn carriage tours. Check the Albany Visitor Association calendar to see events and get details.
Western pond turtles, great blue herons, bobcats, and other wild creatures roam the wildlife areas near Albany. Three to explore include Luckiamute Landing State Natural Area along the Willamette River; the 1,788-acre E.E. Wilson Wildlife Area (requires ODFW Wildlife Area Parking Permit); and Talking Water Gardens, an artificial wetland 10 minutes from downtown. Talking Water Gardens features nearly 2 miles of primarily ADA-accessible paths and overlooks.
Pro Tip: For the best chance to see wildlife, go early in the morning when animals are most active.
Albany Regional Museum
This small museum in a historic Italianate building houses displays on local history and economic drivers, such as specialty metals. An exhibit on firefighting traces the development of fire departments starting in 1869. Another exhibit recreates a vintage train station and details various local locomotives. The recreated 1920s-1940s kitchen, shoeshine shop, and music store are among the most interesting exhibits. Don’t miss the permanent wave machine for curling hair. Admission to the Albany Regional Museum is free; a donation is appreciated.
Best Restaurants In Albany
From the farmers market to bistros, bakeries, and farm-to-table dining, Albany offers a variety of tasty fare and international flavors.
On Saturday mornings, the freshest fruits, vegetables, meats, and fish are in the parking lot at city hall at the Albany Farmers Market. From April to November, local farmers and artisans sell an array of produce, as well as honey, nuts, fresh-baked bread, croissants, beeswax candles, and much more. What’s available at the Albany Farmers Market varies throughout the season. Located at Fourth and Ellsworth Street, the market is open from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Chef Matt Bennett makes nearly everything on the menu (which changes monthly) at Sybaris Bistro from scratch — even the ketchup — with fresh, sustainably farmed ingredients from the Northwest. The bistro features a full bar, eclectic Northwest cuisine, and divine desserts. Indoor and patio seating are available. Reservations are strongly recommended.
Natural Sprinkles Company
Shimmering, sparkling, and colorful decorating sprinkles free from artificial colors and flavors — the mainstay of the locally owned Natural Sprinkles Company — add a festive touch to the vegan and gluten-free cupcakes at the company bakery. Cookies, brownies, croissants, and other treats round out the bakery’s offerings.
Pro tip: Stop by early for the best selection of goodies.
Brick And Mortar Cafe
One of the best places in town for breakfast and lunch, Brick and Mortar Cafe dishes up classic fare and a fresh take on old favorites. Omelets, a variety of hashes (including smoked salmon), crepes, egg Benedicts (try the Oregon bay shrimp version), pancakes, and chicken and waffles are among the breakfast offerings. Burgers, sandwiches, and salads round out the lunch menu. Indoor and seasonal sidewalk seating is available. The restaurant is open from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. on weekdays (closed on Mondays) and 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. on weekends.
Handcrafted sausages fill the menu and meat cases at the Pepper Tree sausage house. Both a sausage maker and restaurant, the Pepper Tree dishes up a variety of sausage sandwiches as well as a handful of non-sausage fare for breakfast and lunch, such as waffles, omelets, hamburgers, and sandwiches. The breakfast burrito stuffed with sausage, eggs, potatoes, cheese, salsa, and sour cream is a local favorite. The Pepper Tree also sells more than 20 traditional and specialty sausages.
Little Wuesten Cafe
Bread, pretzels, cakes, and pastries in the German style — less sugar and more seasonal fruit — fill the menu at Little Wuesten Cafe. It’s also a local favorite for an eggs-and-potatoes hearty breakfast or a soup, salad, and sandwich lunch. Ingredients are locally sourced, organic, and non-GMO.
Pro tip: Don’t miss the gluten-free tartlets, brownies, and other treats at the cafe’s booth at the Farmers Market.
There are places in Oregon that are well worth a day trip. Consider: