Omaha has been called “America’s best-kept secret.” Few locals would argue that with you, but they will open their arms and welcome you to the Gateway to the West. Omaha offers visitors some interesting attractions to visit, most with a look into the history of the city. After you’re done checking out the area, you can enjoy a nice meal almost anywhere in town.
Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium
As you begin your travels across the city, you’ll want to visit Omaha’s main attraction – the Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium. Considered one of the world’s best zoos, Henry Doorly offers visitors the chance to visit the world’s largest indoor desert and the nation’s largest indoor rainforest. The zoo continues to add worldclass attractions annually, including the African Grasslands, which include elephants rescued from Africa. They are the first elephants at the zoo since 2010. Plan to spend several hours to a full day at the zoo when you visit.
Lauritzen Gardens and Conservatory
A short drive from the zoo sits Lauritzen Gardens and Conservatory. The 36-year-old botanical gardens offer beautiful views of flowers and plants during the summer. Other times of the year, special exhibits entice visitors to tour the grounds. The Betty Daughtery Conservatory opened in 2014 and offers visitors the chance to see tropical and temperate plants. Lauritzen often has special exhibits in this area during the winter months, such as the current Metamorphosis exhibit featuring art created from discarded plastics.
Train fans enjoy stopping by the Durham Museum, which once known as the city’s Union Stations. Thousands of people came through the depot when trains operated daily. Today, the top floor showcases the Union Station history with sculptures and décor highlighting bygone eras. The lower level is home to more Omaha history, such as a display featuring the 1898 World’s Fair and Native American life. Special exhibits are hosted in the lower level, currently featuring exhibits examining African Americans during World War II and Women in Omaha history, as well as a maze challenging a person’s knowledge of early life at Jamestown.
Omaha’s Old Market packs a lot in a small area. The area was originally a wholesale and retail area for early-day Omaha and the area. Today, it’s a retail and entertainment district. Visitors to the nine-square block area can find all sorts of things to satisfy their interests. Foodies can dine at several restaurants. Party-goers have their pick of bars and lounges. Museums and galleries are available for those interested in more refined culture. Shopping galore awaits purse strings and wallets.
Old Market Passageway
The Old Market Passageway transformed a one-time alley into a series of shops and restaurants. You can find a variety of interests – Mexican food and steak dinners, international clothing and curiosity items at stores. You can browse a litany of books, as well as check out an array of artwork. The neat thing about the area is that several of the businesses have been a part of the Passageway for decades.
New to Omaha, the Capitol District, anchored by the Marriott Hotel, is just a stone’s throw from the Century Link Arena. A retail and entertainment district, the Capitol District is home to DJ’s Dugout, Nosh and several bars and clubs. Starbucks even calls the district home. “Art of the Brick” – a special exhibit featuring life-sized sculptures created from Legos – runs through April 22.
Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge
The Bob Kerrey pedestrian bridge crosses over the Missouri River, connecting Omaha and Council Bluffs, Iowa. Built 15 years ago, the Kerrey bridge is the nation’s longest pedestrian bridge connecting two states. It anchors the riverfront’s attractions. You can stroll from the Old Market through the Heartland of America Park, up to the boardwalk area, known as the Lewis and Clark Landing. The Bob is right there – always within view. The bridge has its own twitter account, too, where it shares stories of its day.
If nature interests you, a 10-minute drive of downtown takes you to the metro area’s forest. Fontenelle Forest, which is almost 100 years old, is located in Bellevue, overlooking the Missouri River. Fontenelle Forest offers a nice place to hike. With several trails available, we prefer to take the river trail. You walk a dirt trail through the trees, up and down a few hills. Eventually, you end up near the Missouri River. You can sometimes catch views of wildlife, including deer, gray squirrels and a plethora of birds. A raptor exhibit near the visitors center features birds of prey that can no longer survive in the wild due to injuries or illness.
A trip to west Omaha presents a view to the history of Father Flanagan’s Boys Town. The history of the one-time all-boys school and farm is shared in the Hall of History. Father Flanagan’s home remains a tourist attraction is popular during the holiday season. You can even see the world’s largest ball of stamps on campus.
Where to eat
OK, so you’re done touring some of the sites of Omaha. Where do you grab dinner? With hundreds of choices, which ones are the best? How do you know you’ve chosen the correct place? Ask 100 Omahans where to get a great steak and you’ll get a variety of recommendations – Sullivan’s, Prime, Mahogany, Gorat’s, Anthony’s. The list can go on. What about Italian? Pizza? Asian? You’ll get just as many recommendations.
For us, Anthony’s rates as our favorite steakhouse. It’s also one of the few remaining classic steakhouses – locally owned and more than five decades old. Johnny’s Café near the old stockyards in South Omaha is the city’s oldest steakhouse, at nearly a century old.
One of our favorite places to enjoy Neapolitan pizza or Italian cuisine is Dante. There are actually two locations, the original in west Omaha and the new “fast fine dining” location in Midtown’s Blackstone District. The original location offers a larger menu and a longer dining experience. Dante Pizzeria Napoletana’s environment offers diners a fast and delicious meal, as they enjoy a night out in one of Omaha’s newer entertainment districts.
Trini’s – one of our favorite restaurants anywhere – has been part of the Old Market Passageway for nearly 30 years. Trini’s offers outstanding and delicious Mexican dinners. Lisa loves their fish tacos. I prefer the old standard burrito or enchilada. The appetizers are awesome; we usually go with chips and salsa. The salsa is just the right amount of spicy.
If burgers are your thing, head to Bellevue’s Stella’s. Opened since the Great Depression, it’s home to the Stellanator, a giant burger test in which if a person eats multiple burger patties with a boatload of toppings and a pound of fries, they eat for free, get a T-shirt and their picture on the wall of fame. Fail and the picture goes on the wall of shame. There are more of them than on the wall of fame.
You can always enjoy a couple of Nebraska staples – Runza and Pepperjax. If you haven’t tried a runza, you’re in for a treat – It’s a bread dough made from scratch and stuffed full of ground beef, onions, cabbage, and secret spices—and then baked fresh and served hot. They have 3 standard flavors that are always available of these tasty treats – regular, cheese and mushroom and Swiss. The delicious French fries are freshly made. During winter months, Runza offers chili and cinnamon rolls. Yum!
Pepperjax cheesesteaks were created in Omaha. Steak and chicken are cooked within minutes and topped with four slices of cheese on a hoagie. Nicknamed the best philly in America, Pepperjax challenges the best of the cheesesteaks.
Regardless of your meal preferences, you’ll likely find it in Omaha. The city has exploded in the foodie world.
We trust you’ll enjoy your visit to the Big O and we’ll have to eventually pass along the title of “America’s best-kept secret.” Enjoy your visit and have fun.
For more information on Omaha, please visit www.visitomaha.com.