What do you think of when you think of Nebraska? Farmland? Prairie land? Corn fields? Something else? Never really thought about it? Omaha, Nebraska and in fact the state of Nebraska isn’t exactly one of the most-visited areas of the United States. For those of you that don’t know, I’m running a half marathon in all 50 states and I recently ran the Hot Cider Hustle Half Marathon in Omaha, Nebraska. Nebraska was my 47th state and I was happy I had chosen a race in Omaha for my race in Nebraska. The city surpassed all of my expectations.
I read in a book (Judgmental Maps) in a bookstore in Omaha that Omaha is the “least Nebraska-like city in Nebraska.” I’ve only been to Omaha, so I can’t speak about the other cities in Nebraska. All I know is I really liked Omaha and was constantly surprised at just how much I liked it. There are so many restaurants with delicious food, all kinds of museums, and outdoor activities like a top-notch botanical garden for starters. It’s easy to quickly fill-up your days here. Omaha certainly gets a bad rap by people who have never been here, unjustly so in my opinion.
Just some fun facts before I go on. Omaha is on the Missouri River and is the largest city in Nebraska. The headquarters for five Fortune 500 companies are in Omaha including well-known Berkshire Hathaway. CEO multi-billionaire for Berkshire Hathaway Warren Buffet calls Omaha his home at least part of the year. The Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha is known for having the largest indoor rainforest in the world. The NCAA College World Series has been held in the city of Omaha for more than fifty years till present date.
So before I went to Omaha, I chatted with a local to get some suggestions for places to eat and things to do. He sent me a long list, way more than I could ever do in the few days I was going to be there but it was good because I had plenty of options. I’ll share here some of the things my family and I did and also some of the things that came recommended but we didn’t do. I realize Omaha, Nebraska isn’t at the top of most people’s list of vacation places, but honestly, I would go back if given the opportunity. There are several things we didn’t have time to do that I would enjoy doing. Who knows when you might find yourself in Omaha, Nebraska, and when that happens, you’ll have a long list of places to choose from!
As I mentioned earlier, there’s a botanical garden, Lauritzen Gardens. I would imagine the gardens are especially beautiful in the spring and fall but thanks to a conservatory, you can even visit the gardens in the dead of winter, if you choose to do so. The gardens are on 100 acres and include several diverse areas like an English Perennial Border, Rose Garden, Tree Peony Garden, Woodland Trail, and one of my favorites, the Model Railroad Garden. A Japanese Garden is currently being constructed. There are even different types of garden areas within the Marjorie K. Daugherty Conservatory. I also loved the sculptures and art work within the gardens.
Also mentioned earlier is Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium. This zoo has the world’s largest indoor desert under the world’s largest geodesic dome, the world’s largest nocturnal exhibit, and North America’s largest indoor rainforest complete with waterfalls. In addition to all of those area, there’s the Hubbard Gorilla Valley, Hubbard Orangutan Forest, Cat Complex, Butterfly and Insect Pavillion, Expedition Madagascar, African Grasslands, Asian Highlands, to name some. Owen Coastal Shores, a one-acre new home for sea lions with a $275,000-gallon pool, will be opening in spring 2020. There’s also a train, tram, skyfari, and carousel if all of that wasn’t enough. You can find ticket prices, hours, location and much more information on their website, Omaha Zoo. One good thing to know is prices vary based on season, so they’re cheaper in the winter and fall than the summer. Another plus, outside food and beverages are allowed.
The Fontenelle Forest Nature Center including the Raptor Woodland Refuge is just a short drive (10-15 minutes) from Omaha, although it’s in the nearby city of Bellevue. This is a great place to walk on trails in Fontenelle Forest and Neale Woods with a wide variety of ecosystems from wetlands to oak savanna to prairie to deciduous forest. For those wanting more adventure, there’s Treerush Adventure Park with zip lines, bridges, and swings. Fontenelle Forest invests heavily in conservation efforts in activities like habitat restoration and erosion control and volunteer opportunities.
The Old Market is known as Omaha’s arts and entertainment district. There’s so much here you might want to find out what’s here first before you go or you could be wandering around aimlessly for quite some time. Here’s where you can find information on everything to do, eat, and shop plus hotels and business services: Old Market. I found the area architecturally-pleasing and enjoyed checking out some of the cool buildings. There are several art galleries along with all of the pubs, coffee shops, and so many restaurants. Two of our favorite restaurants here are M’s Pub and Upstream Brewing Company. For a stroll down memory lane, The Imaginarium is absolutely stuffed with all of the dolls, collectibles, games, and about a million other toys that I hadn’t seen since I was a kid. No joke, I even got lost wandering around in this store and had to go back out and come in again to find my family.
If you like art museums, Joslyn Art Museum is a great one and even better, admission is free. The museum is divided into distinct sections including one for special exhibitions, American Art, American Indian Art, Asian Art, Modern and Comtemporary, just to name some. One of my favorite sections was the Asian Art area but I really enjoyed the other sections as well. There are also sculpture gardens outdoors and the Discovery Garden, an interactive outdoor space. For small children, there is an interactive hands-on experience, Art Works, with nine activity stations.
The Durham Museum is a history museum in one of the coolest spaces I’ve seen for a history museum, Union Station. When you walk in, you’re surrounded by the massive former train station complete with bronze statues made to look like former train passengers and workers and interactive displays. There’s also a gift shop and soda fountain where you can order drinks like an old fashioned phosphate (I had to ask what that was because I had no idea), milkshakes, sundaes, ice cream sodas, malts, sandwiches, and other snacks. Most of the museum is actually downstairs, where you can find many different exhibits like the original Buffett Grocery Store that opened in 1915 in Omaha’s Dundee neighborhood, replicas of a former home, teepee, and a collection of things like coins, maps, and documents of historical significance. One of my favorite things we did there was walk through a train car that was decorated for Halloween, complete with skeletons, lights, plenty of spiders and spider webs, and other fun decorations.
Also in the Durham Museum when I was there were also two temporary exhibits, Louder Than Words: Rock, Power & Politics that has interactive displays, photography and artifacts to look at how music has both shaped and reflected our society on things like civil rights, LGBTQ, feminism, war, censorship, political campaigns, political causes and international politics. I liked checking out which musician or band was singled out and associated with each president, from Eisenhower through Trump and reading about the influence they each had on one another. My family and I had already seen the second current exhibit RACE: Are We So Different? so we didn’t spend much time checking that one out but it’s a good one as well. This exhibit encourages visitors to examine race from the perspective of biology, history, and personal experiences.
About 35-45 minutes from downtown Omaha in Ashland is the Strategic Air Command and Aerospace Museum. If you’ve been to the Smithsonian Museums in Washington, D.C. and enjoyed the section there with aircraft, you will likely enjoy this museum. It’s an affiliate with Smithsonian and home to the U.S.’s largest collection of Cold War aircraft and artifacts. There’s a flight simulator, children’s learning center, and enormous collection of aircraft in 300,000 square feet.
For something a little different, there’s the Czech and Slovak Educational Center and Cultural Museum. According to this website Nebraska has “the largest number of Czech farmers of the first generation (born in Europe), or one-fifth of all who live in the United States.” At the museum, you can find a cafe with traditional kolaches, a gift shop, monthly movie night and conversational Czech language gatherings.
The Mormon Trail Center at Historic Winter Quarters has local history and also offers free admission. Here you can learn about the migration of Mormons from Illinois to Utah. Winter Quarters is just one of 90 temporary settlements utilized by the Mormons along the Missouri River in Nebraska and Iowa. Although this was meant as a short-term home, many people established businesses here and published a newspaper. You can see many artifacts, paintings, photographs, and play around with an interactive map.
My daughter is way too old for children’s museums but had we gone to Omaha when she was younger, we definitely would have visited the Omaha Children’s Museum because it looks like a really fun place for young children. There’s a Super Gravitron ball machine, Zealand, Imagination Playground, a science and technology lab, art studios, a grocery store, car repair center, splash garden, carousel and train, plus more. In addition to permanent displays there are special exhibits and special events.
In addition to the ones in Old Market that I talked about earlier, we also went to Spezia’s, a wonderful Italian restaurant with a brunch on Sunday. I could eat to my heart’s content after the race, so it was wonderful! There were so many delicious options to choose from from healthy options like salads, fruits, and vegetables to pastas and deserts and many things in-between.
Some of the many restaurants that came recommended but we just didn’t have time to go to include: Cascio’s, Johnny’s Cafe, and the Drover all for their steaks and meats; Benson Brewery and Zipline Brewery; Hook and Lime, a Taqueria and Tequila bar; Lo Solo Mio and Spaghetti Works for Italian; Oasis Falafel for Mediterranean food; eCreamery, Coneflower Creamery, and Ted and Wally’s for ice cream; Cupcake Omaha, Olsen Bake Shop, and Petit’s Pastry for bakeries.
Now are you convinced that Omaha, Nebraska is a pretty cool city with tons of things to do and really great restaurants? Of course this just scratches the surface of the highlights, too!
Have you been to Omaha, Nebraska? If so, what did you think of it? What did you see and do?