Story + photos by Courtney Drake-McDonough

Vacationing in Nebraska might not be at the top of anyone’s Bucket List. It might not even make it ONTO the list at all but that would be a big mistake. Right in the heart of the U.S.A., are two cities chock full of surprises, from stunning architecture to French croissants and the largest indoor desert in the world. Omaha’s Top 5 Surprises:

  1. Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium http://www.omahazoo.com/ Devote an entire and full day to this place to take in as much as possible. Must-see areas are The Lied Jungle® where you can walk among the tree-tops (almost), the Desert Dome under the world’s largest glazed geodesic dome under which sits the world’s largest indoor desert and the world’s largest nocturnal exhibit. The Suzanne and Walter Scott Aquarium has areas devoted to sharks, penguins and the creatures of the tide pool’s Touch Tank. The African Grasslands opens in 2016 and will be 28-acres of outdoor habitat for African wildlife including elephants, giraffe, lion, white rhino, cheetah, zebra and meerkat.
  2. Durham Museum (http://durhammuseum.org/) - The Durham Museum is a former train station that now celebrates area history and the marvel that is transportation. Life-size statues of people mid-conversation and stuck in time are motion-activated, allowing visitors historical eavesdropping. Downstairs, history comes alive with displays that show off all that Omaha has been. Climb aboard (All aboard) real, vintage trains and take a seat to experience how people travelled. It’s a place multiple generations will love to experience, each from their own perspective.
  3. Joslyn Art Museum (http://www.joslyn.org/ ) –Notable pieces include the Asian wall screen from the early 18th century, an 8-panel screen in red lacquer that was poisonous to work with when wet. Rembrandt’s portrait of “Portrait of Dirck van Os” was recently confirmed to be an actual Rembrandt. The painting has been restored to its original subject matter after having had a necklace and lace added in later years in response to what was more in fashion. It is now simplistic in Rembrandt’s original intent of capturing the real essence of this well-to-do merchant. Allow time for the kids to spend time in the Art Works: A Place for Curiosity, an interactive area on the lower floor.
  4. Lauritzen Gardens (http://www.lauritzengardens.org/ ) – Any time of year, there’s something to enjoy in this “living museum” of plant displays. Highlights include the Model-Railroad Garden; the Victorian Garden; and the Majorie K. Daughtery Conservatory with tiers of glass building with lush gardens within; Garden in the Glen; the Arboretum and Bird Sanctuary (a four-acre site of its own) and the Children’s Garden.
  5. The Old Market (http://www.oldmarket.com/ ) is Omaha’s historic district. What was once warehouses is now a thriving neighborhood with shopping, restaurants, galleries and entertainment. Be sure to tuck into the uber-charming courtyards for the surprises they reveal.

Where to stay and play:

All this fun makes for a good night’s sleep. A great place to tuck in is the Ramada Plaza Convention Center and Coco Key Water Resort (www.ramadaplazaomaha.com ). Deceptively large, the central atrium is a dream for kids with a boardwalk pathway, plant life and even a small bridge just for fun. For some fun for the adults, there’s a lovely lounge in the Atrium that serves cocktails by night and a continental breakfast in the morning.

Head to the back of the hotel and be surprised by the Coco Key Water Resort http://ramadaplazaomaha.com/coco-key/, an indoor water park (except there is that part of one of the slides that actually goes outside the building and back in again! Fun!). Splash and play and then rest up for more fun.

Where to eat:

Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium and Joslyn Art Museum both have cafes and the Ramada is home to The Claim House. Omaha is also known for its food scene, so be sure to try Le Bouillon, Salt 88, Dante Ristorante Pizzeria, Frank’s Pizzeria, and The Grey Plume.

Lincoln’s Top 5 Surprises:

  • Licorice International (www.licoriceinternational.com ) sells “anything licorice” and the friendly staff offers tasting samples. Our favorite: the Morette all’arancia from Italy – little buds of orange and licorice as soothing as they are tasty.
  • The Railyard https://www.facebook.com/TheRailyardLincoln?rf=257055250996141 surrounds a 10,000 square foot plaza hosting festivals, outdoor markets, movie nights and a charming skating rink in winter.
  • Lincoln Children’s Zoo http://www.lincolnzoo.org/ is geared toward kids and at the same time is utterly delightful for adults accompanying the wee ones.
  • Margie Trembley Chapeaux (http://margietrembleychapeaux.boutiquewindow.com/ ) takes an effort to find. The secluded, tiny boutique in downtown Springfield features unique millinery, the kind royalty across the pond would have if they were here.

Where to stay:

The Cornhusker’s (http://www.marriott.com/hotels/travel/lnkfs-the-cornhusker-a-marriott-hotel/ ) 300 rooms and suites are within easy walking distance of the University of Nebraska campus, Memorial Stadium, the State Capitol, the Haymarket, and the Pinnacle Bank Arena.


Where to eat:


  • MoMo Pizzeria & Ristorante (http://www.momospizzeria.com/ ) specializes in scratch-cooked traditional Italian dishes. The pizza is a must.
  • SchillingBridge Cork & Tap House (http://schillingbridgecorkandtap.com/ ) An off-shoot of the Schilling Winery, this casual eatery features beer and wine flights plus an all-American menu.
  • The Other Room (so under-the-radar that there isn’t even a website). Even the address for this back-alley, extremely exclusive speakeasy is unpublished. Ask around…everyone knows where it’s located.
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