What Do You Know About Omaha?
Story & photos by Joan Rattner Heilman
Stop for a moment and think about Omaha. What do you know about it? OK, it’s the home of billionaire Warren Buffett and those famous steaks. And it’s in Nebraska, a state where there’s nothing but flat prairies as far as the eye can see and then some. Anything else?
You may be surprised to discover that Omaha is now considered a “cool” city—much like Portland–a laidback walkable town chock full of sophisticated culture, good restaurants, a lively performing arts scene, great museums, and rousing night life. For savvy Midwesterners as well as many accidental tourists who land up there on business or to attend a convention, it is a secret oasis right smack in the middle of the country.
Omaha not only is home to Warren Buffett. It is also the headquarters of a large contingent of other Fortune 500 corporations, the birthplace of TV dinners, and was once a major stopping-off point for settlers and prospectors heading west. And it was the place where the Union Pacific laid the first rails that eventually connected the nation from coast to coast.
The major area for hanging out in Omaha is the Old Market District, originally the city’s hub during its days as a great railroad center at the turn of the century. The old warehouses along the narrow cobblestone streets have been converted into restaurants, boutiques, sidewalk cafes, breweries, bars, antique stores, little quirky shops, including a couple of stores devoted to candies you haven’t seen since your childhood. If you’re new to the area and don’t know your way around, drop in at the Omaha Visitors’ Center on the corner of Farnum and 10th Streets for advice.
On a recent visit, I explored many of the city’s other claims to fame. Here are some of the most appealing:
Close by the Old Market is the meticulously preserved Art Deco Union Train Station. Now converted into the Durham Museum, it was the depot for seven different railroads, including the Union Pacific. The Great Hall, the former main waiting room, remains as it was when it was built in 1931, with tall cathedral windows, massive light fixtures, terrazzo floors, intricate brass ticket windows. The rows of wooden benches are populated by lifelike bronze statues of World War II servicemen and other travelers who passed through on their way to somewhere else. An authentic 1931 soda fountain still serves phosphates and sodas, and, downstairs, a 1940’s streetcar and 1890’s train cars are on display.
Boys Town, made famous by the 1938 movie starring James Cagney and Mickey Rooney, was founded in Omaha in 1917 by Father Flanagan, a Catholic priest, who made a home in an old rooming house for a few homeless and hopeless boys. Later he bought a farm on the outskirts of the city and gradually expanded it into a huge campus that can now care for over 500 boys and girls at a time, with similar programs all over the country. Take a tour led by one of the children through the Hall of History that tells its story with old photographs, movie clips, and memorabilia, and tour Father Flanagan’s house, a group home, and the chapel.
Walk across the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge, a unique 3,000-foot curved bridge suspended over the Missouri River, connecting the city with Council Bluffs, Iowa. The span connects nearly 150 miles of nature trails along the river valley.
The most popular attraction in entire state of Nebraska is the Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium, a world-class zoo. Anybody with a few hours to spare should head over there to meander among the world’s largest indoor desert and its inhabitants, the world’s largest nocturnal exhibit, with animals from aardvarks to bats and beavers, and the largest cat collection in North America, along with an amazing number of other rare creatures, an aerial tram, and lots of gorillas.
A treasure in this prairie city is the Joslyn Art Museum, another Art Deco masterpiece built of pink marble in 1931 by a local businessman who had then accumulated the largest fortune in Nebraska. A modern wing was added in 1994. A massive Dale Chihuly sculpture made of over 2,000 colorful pieces of blown glass hangs where the two buildings meet. The museum is known for its collection of renowned art spanning centuries, including a large collection of American Western art.
The Strategic Air and Space Museum, located a few miles out of the city, displays an amazing collection of historic military aircraft and space vehicles, including a B-52, a U-2 spy plane, a B-1A bomber, a MiG-21, the Apollo Command Space Module 009, a Lockheed SR-71A Blackbird spy plane, and a Boeing B-29 Superfortress, many of which have been carefully restored on-site by volunteer workers. Originally created by the U.S. Strategic Air Command headquartered at nearby Offutt Air Force Base, the museum includes permanent exhibits about, for example, astronauts, Doolittle’s Tokyo Raiders, and the Martin Bomber Plant that manufactured the Enola Gay.
Joan Rattner Heilman, a New York travel writer is the author of scores of magazine and newspaper articles and columns and over a dozen books, including Unbelievably Good Deals and Great Adventures That You Absolutely Can’t Get Unless You’re Over 50.