Our new series on weekend road trips aims to inspire you for what's to come as we slowly return to travel.
Covid-19 Disclaimer: Make sure to check the status of the states, regions, and establishments in which you’re planning to visit prior to travel. Many regions continue to see high infection rates and deaths, while many states and counties remain under varying stay-at-home orders. Those traveling from areas with high rates of Covid-19 should consider avoiding travel for now in order to reduce spread.
Omaha’s story goes back more than 250 years, beginning with the Omaha and Ponca Native American tribes, through the region’s 1804 explorations of Lewis and Clark, and on through the industrial booms of the late 19th and 20th centuries.
Through it all, this heartland city has been a hub of invention and commerce. Omaha was built on railroads and breweries, stockyards and agriculture, and iconic American products—from boxed cake mix, TV dinners, and Raisin Bran; to the classic pink hair curler and “top 40” radio.
That business zeal is still going strong in Nebraska’s biggest city. These days, Omaha is famously home to zillionaire Warren Buffet and a gaggle of Fortune 500 companies. They, along with the creative community, help keep Omaha’s half-million residents cultured with art, gastronomy, nature, and yes, a proud history as the “Gateway to the West.”
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The flight from Minneapolis to Omaha is just over an hour. By road, enjoy leisurely road-tripping via smaller highways (US-169, MN-60, IA-60, US-75), which takes more time at about six hours, but offers better Midwestern scenery than driving Interstates 35 and 80. (There is a train station in Omaha, but Amtrak service doesn’t link it to Minneapolis.)
Sweep into town and veer westward for your first stop, the understated Crescent Moon tavern. It’s an award-winning craft-beer bar, but locals know that it’s the best place in town for a Reuben sandwich, which was invented at Omaha’s Blackstone Hotel; they even say that the Crescent Moon makes Buffet’s favorite Reuben.
All aboard for your next stop, the Durham Museum, the former Union Station that’s a gloriously preserved time capsule of Art Deco design. Today, you can tour the 1931 station—a National Historic Landmark since 2016—and explore the museum’s preserved train cars, vintage photos, artworks, and history exhibits.
One of Omaha’s more recent skyline additions opened in 2008 to instant fanfare. The Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge forms a foot and bicycling link across the Missouri River from the Riverfront to Council Bluffs, Iowa. Named for Nebraska Senator Kerrey, the Bob’s S-shaped span sparkles at night, and invites you to go “Bobbing”—by standing in both Nebraska and Iowa simultaneously.
Catch another heightened view at 1912 Benson, a lovely lounge/gastropub pouring potent cocktails in its historic building, as well as on the roomy rooftop. When you’re ready for dinner, consider Gorat’s steakhouse, a Nebraska institution since 1944. It’s a low-key restaurant serving Italian specialties, salads, and all manner of strips and chops, not to mention being another favorite eatery of Mr. Buffet.
If you’re seeking a meal that’s hearty but far less meaty, head to Modern Love in Midtown for self-described “swanky vegan comfort food.” Its décor is bright, cocktails are creative, and its menus entice the taste buds with filling plant-based burgers, gyro bowls, pasta, and curries. For a nightcap, pull up a rolling leather chair at Pageturners Lounge, an easygoing bar and music venue co-owned by Conor Oberst, pouring classic cocktails at sweet prices.
Start your day with the difficult decision of which tasty brunch entrée to try at Railcar, one of Omaha’s best American kitchens. It’s known for its fried cheese curds and modern cocktails, but lemon ricotta pancakes, eggs Florentine, and house-made sausage patties may prove worthwhile temptations.
Omaha was and is home to many successful entrepreneurs, and the Joslyn family was among the richest at the turn of the 20th century. That will explain the 35-room Gothic Revival–style Joslyn Castle in Midtown (currently closed to public tours). And it will lead you to the Joslyn Art Museum, the city’s premier institution and an Art-Deco reliquary of international art, from ancient Greek pottery to Renaissance and Baroque pieces, to Impressionist and modern-art masterpieces.
Grab a pick-me-up at Muglife Coffee on Harney Street, then head towards the river to explore the Old Market. This historic district is Omaha’s culinary, shopping, gallery, and nightlife neighborhood, and the best place to ditch your car and wander on foot across the cobblestone streets. Browse clothing and accessories at Flying Worm Vintage and the Lotus, page through Jackson Street Booksellers, and pick up handcrafted sweets from Chocolat Abeille.
Don’t miss a visit to Hollywood Candy, one of Omaha’s most famous shops selling vintage candies, fudge, ice cream, and more. The variety store also has a wall of vintage pinball machines and an old-school soda-fountain counter; and it’s featured in this little Sweet Nostalgia video with Bill Gates and Warren Buffet.
Break for a beer and bite at Brickway Brewery & Distillery on Jackson Street, a favorite outpost pouring a full lineup of craft beer and single-malt whiskeys. Plus Brickway is now offering every guest a free 7.5-ounce bottle of house-made hand sanitizer. By the way, if you’re a craft-ale buff, be sure to make time for a taproom visit to Nebraska Brewing Company on the far west side of town.
In the Old Market, put a needle on the record at Drastic Plastic Vinyl Lounge, Omaha’s first record store featuring a full bar and a large selection of records to buy, and naturally, all music here is played on vinyl; it’s perched upstairs from the Monster Club, a horror-themed pub.
Reserve well in advance for an elegant dinner at the Grey Plume, one of Omaha’s top white-tablecloth dining experiences. You can order a la carte from the ever-changing dinner menu, or opt for a four-, six-, or eight-course chef tasting menu (all surprisingly affordable) that’s always seasonally-driven, and proudly built on the local-food movement.
Weekend brunch time starts on the late side (10 or 11 a.m.) at many favorite Omaha restaurants, like the Twisted Fork Saloon, where you’ll fill up on biscuits and gravy, huevos rancheros, various egg skillets, and more. If you’re less decisive, over in Aksarben–Elmwood Park is Inner Rail Food Hall, with 10 food vendors serving pizza, burgers, Vietnamese, Indian, and other tasty dishes.
Enjoy some of waterfront scenery with a walk through downtown’s Heartland of America Park and Fountain, part of the city’s $300-million-dollar revitalization plan to transform 90 acres of the Missouri Riverbank. Construction there is nearing completion, on the way to a landscaped public green space outfitted with a performance pavilion, urban beach, cafés, sculpture garden, and waterfalls.
Kick up the nature vibes with a visit to the Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium, considered one of the country’s best zoos. It’s on the south side of town in Deer Park and features an enormous dome with sprawling rainforest and desert ecosystems, plus an amazing variety of species dwelling in replicated natural habitats.
Before you leave town, there are two uniquely Nebraskan food items you may not know, but must try. One is the runza, a simple-and-yummy bread-pocket sandwich baked with fillings of beef and cabbage (and other variations), sold at a local fast-food restaurant chain called Runza. Another local fave is the cheese frenchee, a grilled-cheese sandwich that’s been battered and deep-fried. You’ll find its deliciousness at different restaurants, but Don & Millie’s and Amigos Kings Classic are the two most famous fast-food stops for a cheese frenchee—so don’t leave Nebraska without one.
WHERE TO STAY
New in summer 2020 is the Cottonwood Hotel, a contemporary Kimpton property inside the former Blackstone Hotel (yes, the famous one where the Reuben was born). You can find all the big-brand hotels in and around Downtown and Midtown, including the Marriott, Hilton, and DoubleTree. And near the Old Market, the Magnolia Omaha offers chic accommodations in a restored 1923 building (just remember to book your hotel early, since Omaha hosts many large-scale sporting events and conventions.
WHEN TO GO
The Nebraska plains give way to bone-chilling low temperatures in winter, though the annual Holiday Lights Festival is a lovely reason to visit in December. But summer is prime time for a visit, yielding plenty of sunshine, with the usual bouts of high humidity and thunderstorms.