If you’re thinking of Nebraska as a drive-through state while you’re en route to the Rocky Mountains or lush Pacific Coast, think again. This state, highlighted by its capital Lincoln and trendy Omaha, is a destination unto itself.
It’s good enough for billionaire investor Warren Buffett, after all.
My exploration starts at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium, home to Lied (pronounced lead as in leader), Jungle, which is one of the largest indoor rainforest exhibits in the world. The zoo is also home to the world’s largest geodesic dome which houses a fascinating indoor desert exhibit. Underneath the dome, there is the world’s largest nocturnal animal exhibit, Kingdoms of the Night. In this enclosure, day-night cycles are reversed so visitors can observe animals such as the cat-like fossa of Madagascar, naked mole rats and aardvarks. The exhibit’s 600,000-litre indoor swamp is the largest in the world. As a bonus, the zoo has stellar dining options overlooking exhibits. These include the Omaha Steaks Grill and Patio nestled between the Lied Jungle and the cafeteria-style TreeTops Restaurant.
In downtown Omaha, visitors are greeted by a beautiful sculpture of a Sioux warrior outside the Joslyn Art Museum. The museum’s collection features the expected and unexpected. There’s impressive 20th century American paintings and sculptures, but the most storied is a recently restored and altered Rembrandt from the 17th century. The painting Portrait of Dirck van Os was purchased in the 1940s in the belief it was authentic, but doubt was cast and the painting was displayed as being from the Rembrandt school before eventually being tucked away in storage for 10 years. In 2012, it was retrieved and sent to Amsterdam for analysis, where it was discovered to be a true, albeit altered, Rembrandt. Restoration work included removing embellishments believed to have been added after Rembrandt painted it, including a cross and chain and lace collar. Today, the restored painting is displayed as the Joslyn’s marquis piece.
Equally impressive is the Durham Museum, as much for its building as its collection. The Durham is inside the former Union Station, an spectacular 1931 art deco passenger rail station saved from demolition. In its heyday, the building served seven different railways, including Union Pacific, peaking during the Second World War when over 10,000 passengers a day passed through. The last train left in 1971 and the building was donated to the city two years later to become a museum focusing on Omaha’s history as the Gateway to the West.
Visitors enter through the Great Hall, which once served as the main passenger lounge, Most exhibits are downstairs at track level, including those highlighting the story of the Mormon movement west and explorers Lewis and Clark. There’s a nod to Omaha’s railway heritage with a hands-on steam locomotive exhibit and a row of restored rail cars to step inside, including a luxurious Pullman and caboose. Upstairs, there’s an authentic 1931 soda fountain serving sundaes, malts, and old-fashioned phosphate sodas.
The Omaha craft beer scene is served by the likes of Benson Brewery, where instead of flagship beers there’s a constant rotation of recipes and styles, and Infusion Brewing, both in the city’s northwest. The owner of Infusion also owns Crescent Moon Ale House in Midtown, home of the 100-beer draft taps and the Blackstone reuben, chosen best in the city by the Omaha World Herald newspaper. (Locals will tell you the stack of corned beef, Swiss cheese, and sauerkraut on rye bread was invented in Omaha in the 1920s by Jewish grocer Reuben Kulakofsky, who was looking to feed hungry poker players at the Blackstone Hotel.)
An hour away in Lincoln, the focus is on the University of Nebraska Cornhuskers football and basketball teams, the latter of which play at the new 15,500-seat Pinnacle Bank Arena in the historic Haymarket District. As you might expect, the tho
usands of hungry fans arriving in Lincoln help feed an excellent and diverse food and beverage scene.
Lazlo’s Brewery and Grill in the eight-block Haymarket District was the first brew pub in the state. Outside the district and a 20-minute drive from downtown, MoMo Pizzeria and Ristorante puts a little bit of Italy into the Midwest. Pasta and pizza ingredients are either imported from Italy or sourced locally.
One of Lincoln’s favourite restaurants is Blue Orchid, a Thai restaurant owned by university professor Witawas Srisa-an and wife Malinee Kiatachikow.
Lincoln’s most testosterone-friendly attraction is the out-of-the-way Museum of American Speed. Located in an industrial park, the three-floor museum is diverse but focused on racing and hot rodding. There are hundreds of racecars, dating from the 1920s to more modern Indy cars. Collectible production cars include actress Hedy Lamaar’s seductive 1958 Cadillac. But there’s also an eclectic side to the 150,000-square-foot museum with a wall of racing-related LP album covers, rooms full of children’s pedal cars, and a collection of Buck Rogers toys.
As destinations go, there’s a bonus to visiting both Omaha and Lincoln. Each has a population of less than 500,000, making them big enough for fun, yet small enough to get around without feeling intimidated. It all helps make Nebraska a drive-to, not a drive-through, state.
Photography by Wayne Newton.