This was the usual question I got from my family and friends when I told them in early September 2016 that I will be spending 5 weeks in Omaha, Nebraska as a Civic Engagement Academic Fellow of the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative. To be honest, this was the same question I asked myself when I got the results.
While I did my assignment and looked the city up online, I came to Omaha with very little clue of what I am going to experience. I already wrote about my key learnings from my time in the University of Nebraska at Omaha. This time, I’ll write about the places I’ve explored in the city that I called my home for a month.
Omaha, at the onset, contradicted the stereotypical image of the American Mid West in my head. There were huge spaces, yes, but on my way to the hotel from the airport, I didn’t see any wide cornfields or rolling hills.
The city is modern but still traditional, welcoming yet monotonous – in a sense, what my fellow journalist told me is true: “it’s a very white state.”
We came at an opportune time. It was autumn. The weather was perfect for most of our stay and the skies rarely wept. It’s relatively easy to fall in love with Omaha during autumn – the leaves are turning orange, making the scenery picturesque without the dry heat of summer but with the first cold signs of winter.
Before coming there, I wouldn’t put Omaha as a travel destination in the US Midwest. But after living there for a short while and having seen most of what is has to offer, I would definitely advise going there. Here are some of the places you need to check out when visiting the Big O!
1) Heartland of America Park
A sprawling landscape in the city’s downtown area, the Heartland of America Park is a 31-acre park beside the Missouri River, right by the border of Nebraska and Iowa. The main attraction is an artificial lake surrounded by paved walkways. There are also some fountains that perform a light show at night.
The park is perfect for morning jogs and sunset watching. It’s also connected to the Gene Leahy Mall, a pedestrian mall with lagoons, gardens, and art works with the city’s buildings in the background. We spent a couple of hours here just whiling away and taking in the fresh Nebraskan air.
2) Durham Museum
Adults pay $11
If you want to see the history of midwestern America, the Durham Museum is a great place to start. The museum is housed in the city’s former Union Station. Going down to the exhibits, you can explore old trains used for transportation during the early 20th century.
The entire museum has an old western vibe. You’ll see a lot of displays on the transportation used and lifestyle people lived during that era. There are also replicas of houses used by old Westerners and Indian Americans.
My favorite part is the Bryan Reed collection of money and coins used during the period. It takes you back in time to the old wild west (or West World if you’re a fan).
3) Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail Visitor Center
The Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail is a route access remembering the epic journey of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark – also known as the Corps of Discovery Expedition from 1804 to 1806.
This followed the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, when the US government bought the land then known as Louisiana from the French Government. This more than doubled the size of the United States.
The official headquarters of the trail, which extends around 3,700 miles, is in Omaha. The visitor center has exhibits about the explorers. There’s also a Ken Burns movie you can watch to learn more about the trip.
The great thing about this is that we were able to actually go to the end of the trail in Oregon. But that’s a story for another article.
4) Bob Kerrey Bridge
There are few places in the US where the borders of the states are over water and the Bob Kerrey Bridge is one of them. A few hundred meters from the Lewis & Clark Visitor Center, the bridge is a 3,000-foot pedestrian crossing between Omaha, Nebraska and Council Bluffs, Iowa.
In the middle of the bridge, there’s a line where the borders of the two states meet and you can stand in two places at once.
On the Iowa side, you’ll get a beautiful skyline view of Omaha and the Missouri River.
5) Joslyn Art Museum
Would you expect to see a Rembrandt painting in Omaha? Neither did I!
The Joslyn Art Museum is the principle arts museum in Nebraska. It has an extensive permanent collection from European masters like Claude Monet, El Greco, and Titian, as well as 19th and 20th century American art. There are also works depicting he American midwest in the 1830s.
A highlight of my trip was seeing a Rembrandt painting – Portrait of Dirck van Os, 1658. In February, I went to the house of Rembrandt van Rijn during my trip to Amsterdam. I didn’t expect to see another one of his paintings this year. It was surreal seeing this painting so far away from Europe.
6) Old Market
If you’re the type who likes antiques and mementoes from the early 20th century or if you’re looking for a place to buy great souvenirs, then you should head down to Old Market Omaha.
This neighborhood has many galleries, restaurants, and upscale shops. All the major hotels in the city are also here.
For the restaurants, I heartily recommend the Old Market Spaghetti Works. The food there is amazing and within reasonable prices.
7) Henry Doorly Zoo
Adults pay $18. Kids (2-11) pay $12.
In August 2014, the Henry Doorly Zoo put Omaha in the map when TripAdvisor named it the World’s Best Zoo. And for a really good reason!
The zoo has over 17,000 animals spread over 130 acres of land. Some of the must-visits are the “Kingdom of the Night,” the world’s largest nocturnal exhibit and indoor swamp, the “Desert Dome,” the world’s largest indoor desert, and the Gorilla valley.
There’s also a train that runs across the zoo if you’re tired of walking around the exhibits. The Scott Kingdom of the Seas Aquarium is also quite interesting because it has species from the polar regions to the Amazon forests.
8) Boys Town
Now for a more civic destination. Also known as Father Flannagan’s Boys’ Home, this institution was founded in 1917 and has been taking in troubled boys ever since. It started as a personal advocacy for its founder Fr Flannagan, and ended up as one of the best models for juvenile delinquency rehabilitation in the world.
Boys Town was the subject of the Academy Award winning 1938 film of the same name. They have a museum and a shop that you can visit to learn more about the institution’s history and on how you can help.
9) Omaha Brewery
I never really tried this because I didn’t have time for it but there are many breweries in the city that offer drinking tours. The city has a lively beer-drinking culture and you need to taste some of the city’s authentic beers when visiting.
I really liked Upstream Brewery in downtown. Their dark beer is a must-try for enthusiasts. For a taste of the Omaha nightlife, head to the bars in Downtown Benson. 1912 and Beercade are particularly good.
Drinking tip: Make sure to bring your ID or passport. Americans are very strict with the drinking age (21) and won’t serve you beer even if you look old.
10) Vala’s Pumpkin Patch
Adults pay $18
This is a few minutes outside Omaha but it’s definitely a must-visit. Vala’s Pumpkin Patch is a theme park for families and groups wanting to experience old midwestern fun.
We were lucky to have visited during halloween season so there was a lot of “scary” themed activities. One of the highlights was pumpkin picking on a cold Nebraskan night.
When there, don’t forget to visit the corn field maze before dark as well as try the apple games. Bring hotdogs and marshmallows that you can cook on a campfire. It’s really a whole lot of good clean fun for friends and family!
Just a note on transportation, Omaha, like many midwestern states are not commuter friendly. Public transportation is bad and it takes long to get around even in Dodge Street, the city’s main thoroughfare. It is recommended that you rent a car, if you’re a tourist, when visiting.
Are there other places that should be included in the list? Let me know in the comments below!