Whether you like apples, trees, or history, you’ll enjoy yourself during a visit to adorable Nebraska City. The small southeast city of about 7,700 people is the apple capital of Nebraska, the birthplace of Arbor Day, and home to unique history from the Lewis and Clark expedition to building wooden windmills. It seems each time I visit Nebraska City, I find something new to appreciate, from great food to interesting historical nuggets. With a quaint downtown dating back to the mid-1800s, Nebraska City beckons you to visit and explore. And maybe take home a bag or two of apples along with your memories. Here are nine of my favorite reasons to visit Nebraska City.
1. Arbor Lodge State Historical Park
The statue of J. Sterling Morton stands tall over visitors to Arbor Lodge State Historical Park. With hundreds of trees adorning the 72-acre park, Arbor Lodge celebrates the life of the person who founded Arbor Day, which is celebrated across the United States and in several countries around the world. Morton came to Nebraska to work as a newspaper editor and later served as a territorial governor. He and his wife Caroline thought it would be good for Nebraskans to plant trees in an effort to populate the state, so in 1872, Nebraska hosted its first Arbor Day, with one million trees planted statewide. The movement took off nationally, and now we all celebrate the holiday each April.
The Morton family lived in a small four-room cabin. It wasn’t until eldest son Joy took over the family’s estate that the Arbor Day Lodge mansion was built around the old cabin. During tours, you can see the difference in the doorways between the cabin and the mansion. The 52-room mansion includes a bowling alley in the basement. Each room has its own name, for example, the Red Room. The mansion was designed to resemble the White House in Washington, D.C. While on the property, stroll through the gardens, which feature lilacs, a terraced garden, and an arboretum.
2. Arbor Day Farm
With more than 250 acres of adventure awaiting you, Arbor Day Farm is one of Nebraska City’s most popular attractions. Known for its apple picking season during the fall, Arbor Day Farm is a year-round adventure. Climb a 50-foot-tall treehouse that offers magnificent views of the area. Treetop Village features three acres of unique fun, including a jumping area for kids of all ages. You can walk along the trails between 11 treehouses, several feet above the ground. If the ground is more your speed, you can hike along several trails that take you through the woods and along creeks, where you’ll find unique items, such as giant chairs and even gnomes living among the trees. Following your adventure, stop in at Apple House Market, where you can pick up apple-themed treats and gifts such as apple cider, jellies, and coffee.
3. Lewis And Clark Visitor Center
The Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery spent time in the Nebraska City area during its expedition of the Missouri River in the early 1800s. The Missouri River Basin Lewis and Clark Visitor Center offers a look into their time in the area, as well as the scientific findings of their adventure. You’ll find a full-size replica of a keelboat at the center and stuffed animals that they saw during their exploration, such as bison and prairie dogs. Situated on 79 acres of land above the Missouri River, you can explore the area yourself along trails that take you to spots overlooking the river and through the woods. During the summer and fall, the visitors center hosts living history events, during which you can interact with reenactors reliving special eras of Nebraska history.
4. Civil War Veterans Museum
While still a territory, more than 3,000 Nebraskans served with the Union army during the Civil War. Afterward, more than 100 Grand Army of the Republic veterans halls were built around the United States. Today, the Nebraska City GAR hall is one of only a few remaining in the United States. The hall serves as the Civil War Veterans Museum, where you can learn about area residents’ roles during the fighting and view exhibits that feature uniforms and weapons from the era.
5. River Country Nature Center
Created by a local taxidermist, the River Country Nature Center shares the area’s wildlife history with more than 500 animals and environments with visitors. Located in downtown Nebraska City, the nature center shares its interactive exhibits in four main sections covering grasslands, deciduous, riparian, and sandhills regions. Opened in 1975, the nature center was located on the second floor of the Nebraska City fire hall. Then, in 2001, a permanent home was found in a former furniture store, and the River Country Nature Center opened in its new home in 2005.
6. Nebraska City Museum Of Firefighting
As the state’s oldest fire department, Nebraska City opened its first firehouse in 1856. The Nebraska City Museum of Firefighting celebrates the city’s history from its days as a “bucket brigade.” The department soon moved to a hook and ladder company. In 1867, the fire department added its first steam-powered engine. Today, you can walk among vintage fire engines, take in exhibits of firefighter uniforms and equipment, and learn about the department’s history.
7. Riverview Nature Park
Nature enthusiasts will enjoy hiking through Riverview Nature Park, which covers 22 acres of land at Riverview State Recreation Area along the Missouri River. You’ll hike through wooded areas as well as near the river. With an overlook that offers views of the river valley, you can also find wildlife, such as eagles, deer, coyotes, and foxes. The trails feature opportunities to enjoy the fresh air and explore the plants and trees.
8. Kregel Windmill Factory Museum
Housed in the last wooden windmill factory in the United States, the Kregel Windmill Factory Museum explores the manufacturing world of the early 20th century. Operating from 1903 until the 1940s, when its focus changed to manufacturing equipment to support the military during World War II, the Kregel factory built wooden windmills that were used to pump water wells on farms. Kregel was the last-known manufacturer of ELI windmills, and you’ll find a replica outside the museum. Inside, the museum looks like workers just stopped for the day. With more than one million artifacts on display, the museum features items from records books to manufacturing equipment. A tour of the museum takes you to each workstation, where you can view tools and pieces of wood employees would have worked on.
9. Wildwood Historic Center
In 1869, the Ware family built their 10-room house next to the “wild wood,” thus giving the house its name. Designed in Gothic-revival style, the house helps examine Nebraska City life during the Victorian era. Featuring furniture and accessories from the era, Wildwood Historic Center includes a formal and informal parlor, dining room, and kitchen. The house has four bedrooms upstairs and a maid’s quarters in the lower area. The 151-year-old home was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973.
Best Restaurants In Nebraska City
Nebraska City has a classic downtown, with buildings dating back to the mid-1800s. Take a self-guided tour of the city’s public art, featuring murals highlighting its history, including Morton Salt, which was founded by Joy Morton, son of J. Sterling, and decorative tree sculptures, prominently showcased at the Otoe County Courthouse. While downtown, enjoy lunch or dinner at The Keeping Room, which features home-cooked meals. Afterward, explore the Keeping Room’s boutique, featuring home decor and accessories.
For authentic Mexican fare, head to El Portal Restaurant. If you prefer a steak dinner, check out Timbers at Lied Lodge. With bone-in ribeye, prime sirloin, and filet mignon, Timbers cooks the steaks to your preference. You can also enjoy succulent entrees, such as pork ribeye, grilled Atlantic salmon, or a wagyu burger. You can enjoy views of Arbor Day Farm during your meal.
Pro Tip: Where To Stay
If you want to spend a weekend in Nebraska City, consider reserving a room at the Whispering Pines Bed and Breakfast. With only five rooms available, you’re guaranteed to enjoy a quiet, intimate experience highlighted by an outstanding homemade breakfast featuring seasonal fruit. Groups can also reserve the entire house. Or, for a special experience, reserve a room at the Lied Lodge. Designed by the Arbor Day Foundation as a meeting space, Nebraska City’s star hotel -- and one of the best in Nebraska -- is home to 140 nature-themed rooms. Guests are invited to take advantage of 260 acres of hiking trails that take you to Arbor Day Farm.
For another take on Nebraska City, consider fellow TravelAwaits writer Roxie Yonkey’s picks for 11 incredible reasons to visit Nebraska City, and for more Nebraska inspiration, read up on