OMAHA, Neb. — While everybody talks about the “flyover” states, few people stop to see what all the chatter is about. In the midsection of the United States sits Nebraska, a state that boasts treasures worthy of unfastening your seatbelts and putting your tray-table in its upright position.
The “golden triangle” of Omaha, Nebraska City and the state capital, Lincoln, is a good place to start.
Where else could you dog the footsteps of Lewis and Clark, visit the state’s most popular venue and discover terrain that made “Little House in the Prairie” a hit?
Originally blossoming under the canopy of the Union Pacific Railroad, Omaha is now a sophisticated city with five Fortune-500 companies and much to see and do. Its Old Market district is peppered with stately brick warehouses that fell on hard times when railroads declined.
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They rest here with their ghost-like ads clinging to the exteriors still whispering of patent medicines, wood works, buggy repairs — their interiors resuscitated for new uses.
The jewel in this crown is the Durham Museum in the old Union Station. It’s an art-deco classic with multi-colored marble halls and life-sized resin replicas of folk from the ‘40s, frozen in time. A traveling salesman pores over the time table, a matron bellies up to the ticket counter, a soldier waits for the “all-aboard.”
Built in 1931, the station once handled 10,000 passengers a day, serving seven railroads. Transfixed with nostalgia, you can still score a chocolate shake at the old-fashioned soda fountain. Admission is $8 for adults, $5 for kids 3-12.
Nebraska’s most popular attraction is the Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium. Animals in the zoo are partitioned according to geographic location: South America, Asia, Africa. The site features the world’s largest indoor desert and an aquarium that offers a 70-foot water tunnel where fish slither above you.
Great places to eat in Omaha include the Boiler Room, J. Coco, the pub Dundee Dell, and Warren Buffet’s favorite, Piccolo Pete’s.
Accommodations include: The Embassy Suites Downtown, located in the Old Market district; $170-$249, (800) 362-2779; and the nearby Embassy Suites / LaVista, which sits in a convention center, (402) 541-1480. The Courtyard by Marriott costs about $109-$189, (866) 204-9388, and the Holiday Inn runs between $142-$249, (402) 341-0124.
For an authentic flavor of Nebraska don’t miss the Farmers’ Market, May through mid-October on Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at 11th and Jackson streets, Sundays at Aksarben Village, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. at 67th and West Center Road.
If you harbor a creative bent you can visit artists in their lair at Hot Shops Art Center. Located in a former mattress factory, the Center houses 80 artisans indulging their muses in everything from blacksmithing to oil painting. They welcome on-lookers.
One glance at the Lauritzen Gardens, Omaha’s botanical gardens, and you know you’re not in Kansas anymore. You can hop a tram for 10 bucks and view its 17 outdoor gardens, incredible model railroad, and massive steam locomotive that once chugged for the Union Pacific.
Ease on down I-80 about 35 minutes you’ll hit the Wildlife Safari Park, where you can take a ride on the wild side, spotting white-tailed deer, bison, elk, wolves, white pelicans — all in their natural habitat. Open April-October.
Just down the road is the Strategic Air & Space Museum featuring more than 40 military aircraft including the centerpiece, the Blackbird spy plane, still the fastest plane in the world clocking 2,200 mph.
Also in this region lies Nebraska’s most-visited state park, the Eugene T. Mahoney. A rustic Disneyland, the park boasts a water park, miniature golf, fishing ponds, indoor theater, horseback rides, nature trails, camping facilities, restaurant and bar (yes, a bar), ice skating. Open year-round. Admission $5 a day vehicle pass, attractions cost extra.
Fifty-five miles south of Omaha sits Nebraska City, an idyllic town that despite its size (4,500) boasts 300 historic sites. Explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark left their non-carbon footprints in Nebraska City. You can grasp a sense of their mission with a visit to the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Trail & Visitor Center here.
You’ll spot samples of the flora and fauna they dispatched to President Thomas Jefferson, the weapons they carried, the critters they encountered. Re-enactors simulate some of their activities from May-October.
On April 26 the Kregel Windmill Factory Museum will officially open in Nebraska City. The factory operated from 1903 to 1991, and it remains exactly as the owner left it the day he became ill. It’s the site of the oldest set of business records in the state. They still abide atop the roll-top desk, yellowed with dust. An overcoat still clings to its coat rack and the dial telephone awaits the operator. To arrange a visit before April email: Jeremykregelmuseum.org or phone (402) 873-1078.
Lied Lodge & Conference Center at Arbor Day Farm in Nebraska City offers accommodations and all kinds of activities including hiking, fruit picking, bird watching, orchard tours — all environmentally focused. Rates $109-$300, (800) 546-5433.
Whispering Pines B&B runs $119-$134 (www.bbwhisperingpines.com) and Best Western charges about $75 a night. (800-WESTERN.) For dining try Parker’s Smokehouse: BBQ with Soul (incredible brisket), El Portal Mexican Restaurant (a favorite of locals) or, for lighter fare, Janie’s Confections & Coffee.
On the way to Lincoln, stop off at Denton and the Spring Creek Prairie Audubon Center for a three-mile hike through the REAL Nebraska, the way the settlers first saw it on their way west.
Bowing prairie grasses, confetti of wild flowers, shimmering cottonwoods and the sounds of the meadow lark punctuate the undulating moraines that were nudged by glaciers eons ago. If you look carefully you can even spot ruts left by the wagons that passed this way.
Close the triangle with a visit to Lincoln, the state’s capital and its massive capitol building topped by a 400-foot limestone tower. Tours Monday through Friday on the hour from 9 to 11 a.m., 1 to 4 p.m. Entrance on the north side, second floor.
There are all kinds of museums here, from the National Museum of Roller Skating to the Quilt Study Center, with the largest publicly held collection of quilts in the universe. The Sheldon Museum of Art displays more than 12,000 works in all media, the free Nebraska History Museum at 15th and P streets, follows the state from its pre-historic times to World War II. Don’t miss the historic Haymarket District and the Children’s Zoo where you can pet a hedgehog, feed a llama or consort with hundreds of butterflies in their very own cloister.
Accommodations include the Holiday Inn downtown — $139-$148, (800) 465-4329; the Victorian Inn — $69-$105, (402) 475-4921; and the Cobbler Inn, five miles from the University Campus — $75-$80, (800) 777-4808.
For good eats try the Capital City Grill in the Haymarket area; Dish, great for seafood downtown; or La Paz Mexican Restaurant in northeast Lincoln.
IF YOU GO:
Best time to visit: Spring and fall.
Airports: Major airports in Lincoln and Omaha, smaller regional airports across the state.
Weather and road conditions: (800) 906-9069.
Time zones: Western third of the state on Mountain Time; central and eastern areas on Central Time.
Omaha Visitors Center: (866) 937-6624; www.visitomaha.com
Tourism: www.VisitNebraska.gov, www.lincoln.org, (800) 423-8212
Strategic Air & Space Museum: www.SASMuseum.com. $12 adults
State parks: www.outdoornebraska.org
Eugene T. Mahoney State Park: (402) 944-2523
Hot Shops Art Center, 1301 Nicholas St. Free. www.hotshopsartcenter.com
Lauritzen Gardens: www.lauritzgengardens.org
Nebraska City sites: www.nebraskacitymuseums.org
Kregel Windmill Factory Museum: Jeremykregelmuseum.org
State capital tours: (402) 471-0448
Nebraska History Museum in Lincoln: www.nebraskahistory.org
International Quilt Study Center: www.quiltstudy.org
The Durham Museum: www.durhammuseum.org
Nebraska’s byways: www.visitnebraska.gov/byways
Lincoln convention bureau: www.lincoln.org