Known as the home of the Nebraska State Fair, Fonner horse racing, and great sandhill crane watching in late winter, Grand Island offers more than seasonal attractions. With one of the best museums in the Midwest telling the story of pioneer migration as well as unique restaurants offering amazing food, the central-Nebraska city is perfect for a long weekend or quick getaway. Located about two hours west of Omaha along Interstate 80, Grand Island will be thrilled to have you visit.
1. Explore History At Stuhr Museum Of The Prairie Pioneer
With a building designed by the same architect who created the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer is worth a visit just for the main building. You may question if it’s a museum you’re visiting or a mansion when you walk into the main building, highlighted by its dual-sided white staircase with water fountains at the base. With a pond surrounding the square building, you enter across a walkway. The second floor is home to special exhibits and unique history pieces, such as an early X-ray machine.
The Fonner Building offers a look at early life on the plains, including a Native American exhibit featuring artifacts, such as gloves and moccasins, as well as a history of horses and saddles. Outside, a living history town features actual buildings, such as a blacksmith shop, general store, and a childhood home of Oscar winner Henry Fonda, who was born in Grand Island.
2. Enjoy A Hike At The Crane Trust Nature And Visitor Center
A great location for viewing during crane season, the Crane Trust Nature And Visitor Center is a perfect spot to enjoy the outdoors year-round. With 10 miles of hiking trails available near the Platte River, the nature center is home to a 35-foot-tall observation tower that provides an impressive view of the Platte River valley. The Crane Trust Nature and Visitor Center is also home to a herd of purebred bison that helps in maintaining vegetation along the river banks. During your visit to the nature center, browse the art murals, participate in interactive exhibits, and check out the souvenirs in the gift shop.
For more on sandhill crane viewing, read up on why you need to see Nebraska’s sandhill crane migration and consider the firsthand account of a photographer who finally witnessed Nebraska’s sandhill crane migration and can’t wait to go back.
3. Appreciate Wacky Art At Fred’s Flying Circus
Standing high above the ground, Fred’s Flying Circus (located at 503 E 4th Street) is an artistic collection of cartoon characters in a variety of vehicles, from The Peppermint Kid -- creator Fred Schritt’s first piece, which resembles a character from the movie Cars -- to the Red Baron flying a converted Volkswagen in battle with Snoopy. About a dozen vehicles were created by Fred at his automobile repair shop. Fred, who died in 2016, is even featured as one of the characters, riding in a hot dog vehicle. Located at an auto repair shop, Fred’s Flying Circus is free to the public and can be visited during business hours. However, the display is so tall, it’s easily seen anytime.
4. Learn About Agriculture Connection At Raising Nebraska
While not every Nebraskan is a farmer, agriculture is the state’s top industry, and that includes farming and meat processing. You can learn more about agri-business with a visit to Raising Nebraska on the campus of the state fairgrounds. With about 25,000 square feet of exhibition space, enjoy a close-up look at special exhibits and displays, which include tractors, windmills, and interactive experiences. The agriculture center often changes major displays, so no two visits are the same. Outside, take a stroll through the garden -- in the shape of the state -- where you’ll find crops and other plants to help showcase Nebraska’s agricultural diversity. While you may not get to husk corn, you’ll get a better understanding why Nebraska is known as the Cornhusker State.
5. Drive The Lincoln Highway
Grand Island is home to the last remaining paved road along the Seedling Mile, the second paved road established for the original stretch of U.S. Highway 30, also known as the Lincoln Highway. Communities interested in being part of the nation’s first transcontinental highway, which runs from New York City to San Francisco, were asked to pave a mile of road, its seedling mile. While you can’t drive along the historical stretch of road, you can visit the historical marker and take in a view of the road, which includes advertising signs commonly found along the 100-year-old highway in its early days. Nearby, the vintage Kensinger Filling Station has been open since 1933 and continues to operate as a gas station. The Grand Theatre, a movie theater in downtown Grand Island, is an art deco building that traces its history to the Lincoln Highway.
6. Shop The Railside District
As the Railside district continues to grow, downtown Grand Island has proven to be a fun area to browse and shop. With antique stores such as Railroad Towne Antique Mall dotting 3rd Street, along with boutiques and specialty shops, Railside is the place to visit to pick up a few vintage items or home accessories. Given agriculture’s influence in the area, you can find quality Western wear at Western Edge along Merchandise Mile, which is also home to a variety of shops.
7. Enjoy A Sip At Area Wineries
Located a few miles outside Grand Island, Moonlight Ridge Vineyard is a family-owned winery open Fridays and Saturdays from spring through fall. Raising grapes for more than 15 years, the winery operates a tasting room that features a 15-foot-tall stone fireplace. Enjoy the relaxing sounds of easy-listening tunes while you sample a variety of wines. Or, spend your visit on the patio overlooking the vineyard’s six acres of grapes.
Enjoy a sip of some of the best wine in Nebraska with a short drive to Miletta Vista Winery in St. Paul, about 30 minutes north of Grand Island. Open Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, the winery has produced award-winning wines since it started to raise grapes in 2007. With its vineyard situated on rolling hills, the winery offers a beautiful view of the Nebraska countryside. Bring your appetite along for a delicious lunch or dinner. The menu features entrees such as a bacon burger, chicken alfredo, and snapper with mango salsa.
Where To Eat In Grand Island
Grand Island offers a culinary scene that can rival larger cities in the state. From outstanding burgers to amazing pizza, Grand Island dishes up some great food. And don’t forget dessert.
Sin City Grill
You don’t need to go to Vegas to be bad. At least not when it comes to your diet. Sin City Grill isn’t as flashy as the Las Vegas Strip, but its ambiance resembles a Vegas eatery from the early days. They serve homemade fries with the burgers that are hand-pattied daily and have names reminiscent of Vegas classics, such as The Sammy, Ol’ Blue Eyes, and The One-Armed Bandit. Sin City Grill’s menu also features sandwiches, salads, and chili, as well as breakfast. You may also want to try one of their old-fashioned cocktails, including the Sin City Hit Me, featuring rum, vodka, creme de banana, and fruit juices. While you can’t play the slots, you can definitely walk away a winner with your dinner choices.
Wave Pizza Company And Bonzai Beach Club
You’ll feel like you’re in South Florida during your visit to Wave Pizza Company and Bonzai Beach Club. As soon as you arrive, you know you’re in for a good time. A shark practically leaps out of the wall near the front door, surrounded by surfboards. Inside, surfboards and other beach fun await you. The menu features eight- and 16-inch handmade pizzas, including the Manly Beach Pizza with shrimp, chicken, and chopped jalapenos topped with fresh tomato and onions and four cheeses. You’ll savor every bite. Appetizers, such as wings, calamari fries, and onion chips, are almost meals in themselves. While you’re at the Wave Pizza Company, check out the hippy-looking Volkswagen van for an opportunity to solve what happened to the Margaritaville salt shaker.
The Chocolate Bar
Locals will tell you that no trip to Grand Island is complete without a stop at The Chocolate Bar. A coffeehouse and wine bar, the eclectically designed dessert restaurant features three types of cake: double-layered chocolate, almond rainbow pound, and classic carrot cake squares. Add a hot coffee -- from espresso to a vanilla bean latte -- and you’ve got the perfect dessert combination. The Chocolate Bar also offers a variety of tea as well as cocktails.
For an authentic Latin experience, try lunch at La Miligrosa, 102 W. 4th Street. A Cuban market, it also serves lunch. Orders must be placed in Spanish, but no worries if you can’t do it yourself; there tends to be someone around who can help. The food is amazing! Add a Cuban soda or another drink, and you’re in for a treat.
Where To Stay In Grand Island
With a bevy of national hotel chains, you’ll have no problem enjoying a quality and comfortable stay. Choose from brands such as Fairfield Inn and Suites, Holiday Inn Express, Best Western Plus, and Quality Inn and Conference Center.