Nebraska is one of the least-visited states in the nation. And in an attempt to poke fun at common Midwestern stereotypes, the Cornhusker State recently unveiled its new state tourism slogan, “Nebraska: Honestly, it’s not for everyone.”
But Nebraska’s biggest city does have plenty of things to do and see, proving the tongue-in-cheek slogan wrong. Omaha is home to a world-renowned zoo, a unique pedestrian bridge, the NCAA Men’s College World Series, and more. Here are the best things to see and do in Omaha, Nebraska.
Note: Some of my experiences were hosted. All opinions are my own.
1. Henry Doorly Zoo And Aquarium
One of the largest and most highly-rated zoos in the world, it’s no wonder Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium is the most-visited attraction in the state. From comedic penguins from Antarctica to majestic lions from the grasslands of Africa, observe and interact with creatures from every continent at this zoo in America’s heartland.
Like all zoos, the Omaha Zoo is most enjoyable on a pleasant day. You’ll have the greatest breadth of experiences visiting in the late spring, summer, or early fall. But don’t skip this Omaha attraction just because it’s raining, cold, or snowing. The zoo is designed so that five of its most popular attractions (all indoor exhibits) are near the main entrance. This includes the Lied Jungle, home to America’s largest indoor rainforest, the Scott Aquarium, which allows guests to wander through a 70-foot tunnel while sharks and sea turtles swim overhead, and the Desert Dome. Resembling a multi-faceted round diamond erupting from the plains, the Desert Dome includes the world’s largest exhibit of nocturnal animals and is one of the most famous landmarks in Omaha.
With 160 acres of exhibits and gardens, it’s easy to hit your daily step goal pretty quickly during a visit to the Omaha Zoo. Give your feet a rest by jumping on the train or tram that winds through the park. Or, better yet, fly from the aquarium to the lion exhibit by soaring above the zoo on the Skyfari chairlift.
Find zoo hours, ticket prices, and more information to plan your visit at the Omaha Zoo website.
Pro Tip: For additional animal encounters, visit the Wildlife Safari Park in nearby Ashland, roughly halfway between Omaha and Lincoln. Just 30 minutes southwest of the hustle and bustle of Downtown Omaha is a family-friendly, drive-through animal park featuring bison, elk, sandhill cranes, and other impressive wildlife.
2. The Botanical Center
Segueing from fauna to flora, a visit to the Lauritzen Gardens is another one of the best things to do in Omaha. Stroll past millions of tulips and daffodils in the spring, breathe in fragrant roses in the summer, and enjoy a final splash of fall color as winter starts to move in.
But even when the temperatures drop and snow starts to fall, thousands of poinsettias (accented with lights at night) fill the floral display hall during the spectacular holiday poinsettia show — Merry & Bright. And throughout the year, the garden offers a variety of special events, including basket weaving, photography workshops, and yoga.
Find out about all of the special events and more by visiting the Lauritzen Gardens website.
3. Omaha’s Union Station And The Durham Museum
When Omaha’s Union Station opened in January 1931, it bustled with activity. But as Americans increasingly opted to travel by plane or car, the trains stopped running and the building fell into disrepair.
Today, when you walk across the ornately patterned floor and under the soaring chandelier-lit ceilings of this national historic landmark, it’s thanks to local civil engineer Chuck Durham and his wife, Marge, who led the efforts to restore the Great Hall to its original glory. So, in addition to admiring the art deco architectural beauty of Union Station, be sure to visit the institution that bears its name.
The Durham Museum’s permanent exhibit focuses on the history of the city, from the Omaha Native American tribe who lived in the area for thousands of years to the role of the railroad as European Americans expanded westward. Walk through several train cars from the 1940s and 1950s including a Pullman Cornhusker Club car, lounge car, and caboose. There’s also a replica of the Buffett Grocery Store. Opened in Omaha in 1915 by Warren Buffet’s grandfather and uncle, the seventh richest person in the world earned his first nickel by working in the family store as a child.
Get information about special exhibits, hours of operation, and more at the Durham Museum website.
4. Kimpton Cottonwood Hotel
Originally the Blackstone Hotel — a legendary hotel that achieved icon status during the Roaring Twenties and remained one of the country’s most successful small hotels through the 1970s — the Kimpton Cottonwood Hotel pairs Omaha history with modern luxury. Local lore proclaims that both the Reuben sandwich and butter brickle ice cream were invented here, and historians can confirm that President John and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy spent their fifth wedding anniversary at the Blackstone. Whether it’s the history or convenient midtown location that draws you in, you’re sure to be impressed by the accommodations, amenities, and on-site dining options.
5. The Old Market
With its paved brick streets, this historic district has an Old World feel. Enjoy the area by browsing the art galleries and boutiques, sipping a latte in one of the coffee shops, and indulging in a leisurely brunch, a fine Omaha steak, or a boozy beverage. Then cap it off with a scoop of ice cream at Ted & Wally’s, one of the best ice cream shops in the US.
6. Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge
If you need to work off the calories from your eggs Benedict, T-bone, craft beer, or sundae, Omaha provides a unique opportunity. The Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge — also known as “Bob” — stretches 3,000 feet over the Missouri River, allowing visitors to walk above the water between the two states. Take a comfortable stroll to Iowa and back or continue to explore the area, either by foot or on a bike, via the 150 miles of nature trails that connect to the bridge.
One of the best times to visit Bob is on a temperate evening. Hundreds of multi-colored bulbs light the way as you cross the modern S-shaped cable bridge from Omaha to Council Bluffs, Iowa.
7. The RiverFront
In the shadow of the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge, acres of greenspace butt up against the Missouri River like a lush T-bone. Connecting downtown Omaha to the river that runs through it, the Gene Leahy Mall at The RiverFront includes a performance pavilion, dog park, custom playground, sculpture garden, and interactive water features. The Mall is capped by Lewis & Clark Landing at The RiverFront to the north and Heartland of America Park at The RiverFront to the south.
8. Charles Schwab Field Omaha
Nothing signifies summer in America quite like a baseball game. If you’re visiting Omaha in June, taking in at least one game in the best-of-three College World Series is definitely one of the best things to do in Omaha.
If your itinerary doesn’t align with the College World Series, then head out to the park between February and June to cheer on the home team. The Creighton Bluejays also use Charles Schwab Field Omaha as their home field.
Fun Fact: Football fans may wonder why retired NFL quarterback Peyton Manning often shouted Omaha during games. Just like government missions and business projects have code names, the Denver Broncos used the Nebraska city to name one of their plays.
9. Joslyn Castle
Through the printing and publishing industry, George and Sarah Joslyn became Omaha’s first millionaires in the late 1800s. To firmly establish deep roots in the city in which they realized such success, the Joslyns completed a four-story, 35-room limestone mansion in 1903. Officially named Lynhurst, the Scottish Baronial Revival home is better known as the Joslyn Castle.
With a sweeping Spanish mahogany staircase, elaborate stained-glass windows, and fine details throughout, the elaborate home is impressive even by today’s standards. Built at a time when the majority of American households lacked indoor plumbing, each bedroom in the Joslyn Castle includes a full bathroom. The home was also outfitted with other modern conveniences of the time like telephones, central, and electricity.
For more information about touring this Omaha landmark (which is on the National Register of Historic Places), including how to request a tour with access to the elevator, visit the Joslyn Castle website.
10. Joslyn Art Museum
In addition to being Omaha’s first millionaires, the Joslyns were also some of the city’s first philanthropists. From child and animal welfare to education and the arts, many institutions benefited from the Joslyns’ generosity. And when George passed away in 1916, Sarah channeled her grief into creating a living memorial to her husband.
Focusing on their shared love of art and music, the Joslyn Art Museum opened to the public in 1931. With exhibits that wrap around a concert hall and a beautiful atrium, Nebraska’s biggest art museum is more than paintings and sculptures. When you visit one of America’s best examples of art deco architecture, enjoy a musical performance or tour the picturesque gardens surrounding the museum.
The permanent collection includes a wide variety of pieces, from Native American art to modern and contemporary. There are galleries dedicated to Asian and European art, and the atrium features one of American glass artist Dale Chihuly’s colorful sculptures.
There is no admission fee to visit the museum. Find hours of operation, information about special exhibits, and more at the Joslyn Art Museum website.
Note: The Joslyn Art Museum is closed until 2024 for a significant expansion and renovation.
11. St. Cecilia’s Cathedral
Built on one of the city’s highest points with rounded bell towers and a terracotta roof, the Spanish Renaissance style of St. Cecilia’s stands out in a region full of European Gothic-style cathedrals. And when it was completed in 1959, St. Cecilia’s was one of the 10 largest cathedrals in the United States.
People of all faiths are welcome to step into this Omaha landmark and gaze up at the elaborate plaster and mosaic ceiling, listen to the dual-temperament Pasi organ, and admire the detailed stained-glass windows.
The cathedral is open daily from 6:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. For more information about visiting the church, including the Mass schedule, visit the St. Cecilia Catholic Cathedral website.