Content Produced in Partnership with Visit Omaha
I’m not going to lie; it’s easy to make fun of Nebraska. Beyond being our biggest college rival, the state is mostly flat farmland, they paid millions of dollars for a Coloradan to come up with the brilliant slogan, “it’s not for everyone,” and their state food, the Runza, is a glorified hot pocket. While I vehemently tout there’s no such thing as a flyover state, Nebraska, for the most part, is the exception. Omaha, however, is the anomaly.
Call it Californication or Denverization, but I have a theory that as more and more perceived western hotspots like San Francisco become overcrowded and outprice overzealous millennials, hip vibes migrate eastward. Denver essentially became the California of the mountains, and when that got too expensive, Omaha was the next logical geographical place to expand.
For a city on the plains in a state that’s largely forgettable, I couldn’t have been more pleasantly surprised by Omaha. It was refreshingly modern, despite the charming cobblestone streets of “Brick Town” and definitely showed signs of the millennial effect.
The food scene was outstanding with each meal better than the next. Trendy independent eateries far surpassed chains and franchises. One of our drivers even boasted they have the most restaurants per capita of anywhere in the country, which isn’t actually true, but you certainly are spoilt for choice. And that’s without even mentioning the world-class attractions and outdoor spaces.
Smack dab in the middle of the country, Omaha is easy to get to from all directions and a great long weekend destination you probably haven’t considered. Here’s what to do once you’re there.
But First… Brunch
With whimsical sayings like “Brunch: this was a good idea” and “Early bird gets the pancake” emblazoned on the wall, Early Bird is one of Omaha’s favorite breakfast joints. Known for their gluttonous pancake flights, larger than life Bloody Mary’s (seriously, it’s a meal in a glass), and over-the-top egg creations, sugar bombs like s’mores and cereal infused pancakes compliment an extensive benedict menu where the hardest part will be choosing just one dish.
Located in the trendy Blackstone District, be sure to stop by neighboring Bob’s Donuts (which has the same owners) for a sweet treat on the way out (or order the massive table-sized donut to share).
Embrace Your Animal Instincts
Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium is the pride and joy of the city. Home to the world’s largest indoor desert and the largest indoor rainforest in North America, you could honestly spend the entire day winding between waterfalls, swing on branches, posing with giant cactuses, and watching the animals. The mugginess and design of the interactive habitats will instantly transport you from Africa to the Amazon as you marvel at exotic hybrid looking creatures like the Tapir and Okapi and wonder at the extraordinary Arapaima, a giant breathing fish that looks like it’s from another planet entirely. Signs spill fun facts about the animals (did you know elephants are right or left tusked like humans?) along with information on their diet, size, location of origin, and conservation status.
Depending on what time of year you visit, there are a number of unique animal encounters and behind the scenes experiences you can have from feeding and caretaking to overnight safaris where you can actually sleepover at the zoo (which trumps a night at the museum). Some are family-friendly tented campouts, while others are 21+ in glamping yurts. Check their events schedule and plan accordingly.
Lunch Break: Try the Original Reuben
Fun foodie fact: did you know the Rueben wasn’t actually invented in a deli in NYC like many believe, but as a midnight snack during a poker game in an Omaha hotel? Named after a guy named Rueben who came up with the weird combination, thick cubes of corned beef are topped with sauerkraut, Thousand Island dressing, and melty Swiss cheese between soft marble rye slices. The closest to the OG recipe can be tasted at the divey biergarten Crescent Moon, which is across the street from the original Blackstone Hotel. Full disclosure: it’s a bit of an acquired taste, but worth trying when in Rome.
The Durham Museum is a National Historic Landmark in Omaha’s opulent Union Station that’s preserved and dedicated to the heyday of travel and westward expansion. There is a collection of old train cars from the ‘40s and ‘50s you can walk through, including President Harry S. Truman’s press train. Don’t miss the elaborate working model and temporary exhibits like Pulitzer Prize-winning photographs on loan from the Newseum in DC.
As the premier fine arts institute in the state, the Joslyn is home to 11,000 works both inside and out. There’s everything from paintings and sculptures from iconic artists such as Rembrandt and Monet to Pollock and Renoir. Keep an eye out for giant Chihuly piece in the lobby and modern touches throughout.
Walk the Plank
Good seafood in the Midwest may sound like an oxymoron, but Plank has more than double the reviews and higher ratings than every other restaurant in town. They also have one of the best happy hours in the city with half-price oysters Monday to Saturday 3-6:30 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 8 p.m. so slurp’s up!
When you’re done eating, take some time to walk around the cobblestone Old Market entertainment district taking in the boutiques, shops, and the sounds of the street performers. The twinkling lights of the secret alley in the Old Market Passageway is one of the city’s best photo ops (and just try not to follow your nose to the handcrafted artisan chocolate store).
Right across the street from Plank, Laka Lono Rum Club has some of the most creative (and dangerous) tiki drinks in town set to a backdrop of swings and mermaid corpses. The Zombie arrives in a massive blaze (they actually had to spray the bamboo tabletops with a fire retardant so the whole place doesn’t go up in flames), while the group cocktails fancifully serve 2-11.
Their sister bar, the Alice and Wonderland themed Wicked Rabbit, is another of Omaha’s most sought-after hotspots for craft cocktails and flaming concoctions. An authentic speakeasy, you enter by walking through a secret door that looks like a bar shelf. Alternatively, if you’re more of a beer person, a number of Omaha’s best craft breweries are part of the penny pack where you can buy a pint and get a second for just a penny. You can download the free passbook here.
Explore the Gardens
A gorgeous green reprieve just minutes from downtown, Lauritzen Gardens is an urban oasis and sanctuary in the city. While most of the botany blooms in the warmer months, it is a four-season attraction with an indoor arboretum that boasts an insane LEGO® display. Each sculpture takes around 500 hours and 40,000+ bricks to create with animals, plants, and birds organically integrated into the flora and fauna.
Omaha surprised me with tons of international dining options from ramen to Nepalese around the Old Market District, but if you venture out of downtown a bit, there are even more intriguing choices like the Venezuelan Hunger Block. You could fill up on their freak shakes alone (simply specific Oreo, vanilla, or chocolate and they’ll work their magic), but you’d be doing yourself a major disservice. The arepas, street tacos, and parrilla (grilled meat) platters are bursting with Latin flavor and flair.
Stretch Your Legs
One of the largest conservation areas in the state, Fontenelle Forest is also one of the largest private nature centers in the country. With miles upon miles of accessible boardwalks skirting along the river, it’s a great place to clear your mind and stretch your legs as you wander the wetlands and marsh.
If that doesn’t entice you, there’s a raptor sanctuary on site where you can see some truly magnificent birds in need of a little TLC. They house everything from bald eagles shot by poachers to owls ready to be rehabbed and released back into the wild. In the summer months, they also have an elaborate high ropes course to test your agility and finesse above the treetops.
The Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge is a 3000 ft. bridge over the Missouri River where Nebraska and Iowa meet. Bob, for short, he even has his own Instagram page. Walk across to feel the bridge move and “bob” as you stand in two states at once. You can get an official .9k marathon sticker if you bring your photo to the Visitor’s Center and don’t leave without selfing with their newest addition, OMAR (which stands for the Omaha Metro Area River), the friendly troll underneath.
Meat Me in Foodie Heaven
Despite all the culinary diversity, at the heart of it, Nebraska is in meat and potato country (remember good ‘ole Omaha Steaks?). If you don’t want to spend your last meal at a traditional steakhouse, try the insanely popular Block 16. Fast-casual counter-service, their contemporary twist on burgers and poutine regularly has lines out the door. Think Crab Rangoon fries, bacon and apple butter burgers, and my personal favorite, the hot chicken sandwich topped with a rich cheddar mac that I will definitely be dreaming about.
Don’t Skip Dessert
If by some act of god you’re still hungry, Omaha has two cult ice cream shops, Ted & Wally’s, the old-school, ultra-premium butterfat blend, and Coneflower, which has more modern, chef-driven flavor combinations. You’ll just have to try both to find your personal favorite. Or, if you want to be really gluttonous, there’s Brownie Bar for the true chocoholics.
Bonus: In the summer months, tanking down the scenic Elkhorn River is a major Omaha attraction. Essentially tubing in a modified stock tank/cattle trough, the makeshift vessels are jury-rigged with built-in picnic tables so groups can float down the river never having to get wet, spill their beer, or paddle. You can play cards, toss one back, and enjoy a real Midwest treasure.
After all those eating adventures, you’ll probably want to work it off. EVEN is a new health and wellness concept from the IHG brand that promotes holistic getaways. Each room is outfitted with fitness equipment like exercise bikes, balls, and bands that coincide with a bible of exercises to stay active, refreshed, and rejuvenated right from your bedside so you don’t even have to go to the hotel gym. You just may be motivated to, though. They’re centrally located near the Old Market and have a free shuttle to take you anywhere within a three-mile radius.
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