There are many exceptional cultural attractions in Nebraska, from the downtown of Omaha, to the Great Platte River Road Archway along the I-80. From the history of American settlers, to the journey from the Oregon Trail to modern roadtrips. There is so much to see and learn about in this state. If you are on the road yourself, then the whole of Nebraska is available for exploration. But you can also experience a nice sample of Nebraskan culture in Omaha and the surrounding area.
Great Platte River Road Archway Monument
Along the I-80, about in the middle of Nebraska is the small town of Kearny. (I’m told it is pronounced kahr-nee). And just outside of Kearney is a massive archway that towers over the highway. When we drove under it on our way to Omaha from the west, I was so intrigued by the structure. We just had to visit on the way back. I thought the archway would be just a big viewing platform with gift shops and maybe a restaurant. But it was so much more than that!
The Great Platte River Road Archway Monument is actually an amazing, immersive history museum that’s unlike any place that I’ve ever been. It’s one of my must-see spots in Nebraska. While tickets are a little expensive for what you might consider a roadside attraction. I would argue that the $15 is worth it (2023). At least, it is worth it if you want to learn about the history of this area, the history of the Oregon Trail, and US roadtrips. Also, don’t expect this to be a quick stop. If you take in everything at the museum it could easily be a two-hour experience.
In the Museum
I won’t spoil anything much, because I want you to enjoy this exceptional place. But when you arrive, stop by the gift shop to buy your tickets. From there, you will receive a listening device, before you enter the museum. I typically am not a fan of these little recorded, self-guided tours. But take your time listen to the stories throughout the museum, it is the doorway to making the whole experience come alive.
Then, once you enter, you will follow immersive displays through time. They will take you from the origins of the Oregon Trail, all the way to the highway as it is now. I was enchanted by the history of this roadway. I had no idea before visiting that the I-80 is the legacy of the Oregon Trail and everyone who trekked across the West.
This is a surprisingly well-done spot among the cultural attractions in Nebraska; if you enjoy history, don’t miss it. That being said, if you are looking for a giant viewing platform of the road, this isn’t it. There are a few windows at the end of the museum, but nothing expansive.
They are open from 9-5 Monday to Saturday, and noon-5pm on Sunday. And they have a great gift shop!
The Durham Museum is one of several of the must-see spots in Nebraska that is located within Omaha. It’s probably also my top attraction in the whole city. While some folks might not think that’s all that much of an endorsement, Omaha has a lot to do in it. Additionally, this museum could hold its own among attractions in much larger cities.
The building itself is the repurposed Union Station that was once owned by the Union Pacific. Now, the art deco edifice is maintained by the museum. And it features many spaces and exhibits about the history of travel and railways in the United States and, of course, Omaha.
There is so so much history in this place, from indigenous history and culture, to modern day. But for me, the star of the show in the Durham Museum is the walk-through train. This will take you through several decades of train cars. And if you are lucky, they might even be manned by a volunteer who can tell you all about them. Between the artifacts, exceptional immersion, and knowledgeable volunteers, I think that the Durham Museum is one of the best cultural attractions in Nebraska.
They also have some circulating exhibits that change over time, so if you live in the area, you can see some new things over the years. When we visited there was a very nostalgic display of lunchboxes, and an interactive Lego exhibit.
The Durham museum is open on Sunday noon to 4pm, Monday, Weds-Saturday from 10am-4pm, and Tuesday 10am – 8pm. They are closed for major holidays, though, so be sure to check their website for details. Tickets are $15 for adults. (All info from 2023).
Homestead National Historic Park
Located out in the midst of the Nebraska fields, the Homestead National Historic Park is one of the out-of-the-way, but must-see spots in Nebraska. It commemorates and teaches, on the land, about the cultural and historic impacts of the Homestead Act of 1862. This act paved the way for many otherwise disenfranchised people to get land – including women and freed, formerly enslaved people. It encouraged settlement of the West and helped develop the “breadbasket” of the United States.
Not a Simple History
But it also served as a tool for the stealing of lands from indigenous people. This is because, of course, all of the land being “given” was land that Native Americans could no longer live on, as they had for thousands of years. So, while this place represents an important part of American history, it also represents the onward dissposession of Native American peoples.
The museum at the park does the best it can to represent this dichotomy. Although I suspect it will change more in the coming years to tell both sides of this story in more depth. And outside of the museum there are a variety of trails and artistic displays representing the impact of homesteading on the various states that were impacted by the Homestead Act.
One of which, no surprise, was Nebraska. Which saw more than 40% of its land homesteaded after the act was passed. Even though this spot is not super close to other places of note in the state, I still think that it’s worth the drive from among the cultural attractions of Nebraska. If you think that you might have roots in homesteading, you can also research your genealogy in the park.
The visitor center at the park is open 7 days a week from 8:30a – 6:00p, except on weekends when it opens at 9a. In the winter they also close at 5p. It is free to visit!
Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo
Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo (henceforth, Omaha Zoo, haha), is up there with some of the nicest zoos out there. They come complete with a variety of different ecotypes, featuring animals from all over the world. I was especially intrigued by the giant sphere under which was the desert displays. It’s always fun to travel hundreds of miles away from home and then find yourself surrounded by the familiar plants of the desert. They also do an exceptional job showcasing the beauty, importance, and fascinating lives of smaller animals like reptiles and insects.
While you basically know what you are going to get when it comes to a nice zoo, the size and quality of the Omaha Zoo puts it among my list of must-see spots in Nebraska.
The Omaha Zoo is also a member of Association of Zoos and Aquariums as well as the global equivalent – meaning that they have an established standard of care for their animals that seeks to maintain their well-being. They are also involved in conservation activities.
Their hours and admissions change with the season, so be sure to look at their website for details before you visit. Also, there can be very long lines at the entrance, so you might consider buying your ticket online before you go.
Old Market, Omaha
Downtown Omaha isn’t particularly big, but it does have a very nice, walkable area for tourists and locals alike – the Old Market. This area is notable for its characteristic brick buildings, areas of brick streets, and large wooden awnings over the wide sidewalks. Being the heart of Omaha, this area is a living example of the cultural attractions of Nebraska.
There are loads of good places to eat in this area, and it’s the perfect spot to pick up a souvenir that represents your time in Nebraska as well as your style. One place to visit for a unique keepsake, candy, AND an experience is Hollywood Candy. This store is massive, and will probably take you at least 20 minutes to explore. On top of everything you can purchase here, you can also play pinball, and I hear that in October they do a big haunted house. I’ve never been to a place quite like this, and for that alone, I think Hollywood candy is among the must-see spots in Nebraska.
Finally, there is a big playground north of Old Market – complete with adult sized swings and slides. Definitely check it out.
Other Spots in Omaha
Along similar lines to the Old Market, Haymarket is at the heart of downtown, Lincoln. It’s a great spot for eats, local crafts, and walking. Additionally, it is home to one of my favorite coffee and tea shops in Nebraska – the Mill Coffee and Tea. With Lincoln being the capital of the state, it’s down town is a great addition to a list of must-see spots in Nebraska.
Just north of Omaha is a little cluster of parks and open spaces which include Hummel Park and Neale Woods, among others. We visited Hummel Park on a rainy day, so we didn’t get to explore too much, but I was impressed by what I did see. They have a short set of trails through a verdant forest. There is a frisbee golf course, and a visitor center that is home to a variety of programming throughout the year. Finally, and most excitingly, they also have a couple big slides here for the adventurous ones among you!
Nestled among the many great attractions of Omaha is a small part of town called Little Bohemia. While this area truly is little, I really enjoyed visiting it. There is a nice, Slavic vibe here, and while I wish there was more shops and food linked to that, the shops and restaurants here were all very nice. Tiny House Bar was a great local spot for drinks.
The Lauritzen Garden
The Lauritzen Garden or Omaha Botanical Center is Omaha’s floral companion to the zoo. While I wouldn’t put this garden up in my top… twenty gardens that I’ve visited in the US, if you enjoy plants this is a neat spot. And in 2023, I could tell that they were hard at work building out the garden and all its offerings. That being said, I think one of the coolest things in the park was a toy train garden (never seen one before!), and indoor section of the garden. With their art displays, long walking trails, and amazing gift shop, I think this is a great addition to any list of cultural attractions in Nebraska, especially for plant-lovers.
Planning a Trip to Nebraska?
Be sure to check out Nightborn Travel’s Short Guide to Nebraska for all of my posts on this surprising state, along with some fun tidbits about its history and ecology.
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