Elizabeth Hey

Town and Country in Nebraska

 
 

Elizabeth Hey
Published November 14, 2018

Nebraska is more than you might expect. From the largest migration of sandhill cranes in the world to spellbinding pioneer history, top-notch sports and outstanding entertainment, the state’s offering is vast. As Nebraska’s largest city, Omaha claims numerous museums, culinary tours and Boys Town, with its impressive history and mission. The capital city, Lincoln, revels in Husker mania during football season, and tours of the state Capitol and world-class entertainment at the Lied Center for Performing Arts round out the calendar.

In spring, the sandhill cranes put on a spectacle like no other in the Platte River Valley near Kearney and Grand Island. Not to be missed, the Stuhr Museum in Grand Island showcases pioneer history and hosts elaborate holiday events. And in Nebraska City, thanks to the vision of a local politician, a reverence for trees intermingles with tales of westward-bound immigrants who used this town as a jumping-off point.

All in all, Nebraskans will welcome your group with their friendliness and wow you with all there is to experience.

Omaha

Jump into Omaha’s food scene with Omaha Culinary Tours. Walking and bus tours feature five or six 15-minute stops where groups chat with restaurant chefs or owners about their signature dishes. Always popular are walking tours of the Old Market, the up-and-coming Blackstone District and themed tours such as Brews and Bites. Bus tours include the Classic Steakhouse, which visits family-owned steakhouses and features the city’s cattle history and different cuts of meat at each stop.

“Because we’re in the Heartland, Omaha establishments locally source most meats and vegetables, except seafood, which makes for some really terrific cuisine,” said Omaha Culinary Tours owner Suzy Allen. “For groups larger than 24 people, we divide them among several guides for a round-robin or progressive tour.”

West of downtown, Boys Town is one of the nation’s largest nonprofit communities for at-risk youth. Guided and self-guided tours showcase the 1929 Father Flanagan House, featured in the movie “Boy’s Town” with Spencer Tracy and Mickey Rooney; the rose garden that’s a replica from Father Flanagan’s boyhood home in Ireland; and the Hall of History. The cafe serves breakfast and lunch daily.

Omaha boasts numerous museums. One standout, the Smithsonian-affiliate Durham Museum, is housed in the Art Deco Union Station. Train cars are among the many displays and rotating exhibits, plus there’s a 1930s soda fountain that still serves treats. Via Ollie the Trolley, River City History Tours offers tablet-enhanced tours that pair historic photos with each stop.

Lincoln

At every University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) home football game, Memorial Stadium becomes the state’s third largest “city,” with 85,000-plus die-hard fans. Tours of the stadium offers an insider’s view of Husker athletics. Groups can walk through the tunnel from which the players emerge onto the empty field and take in the Osborne Athletic Complex, home to the football program’s museum and half-acre weight room, one of the nation’s largest.

Also on the UNL campus, the Sheldon Museum of Art comprises more than 12,000 works in diverse media. The museum’s comprehensive collection of American art includes 19th-century landscapes and still lifes, American impressionism and contemporary art. Events include First Fridays and Look at Lunchtime, which takes place the third Thursday of each month and features a 15-minute dialogue about an artwork currently on view.

Since 1990, the Lied Center for Performing Arts has brought music, dance and theater to the Greater Nebraska community. From touring Broadway musicals to ballet and music that spans the genres, the Lied’s calendar showcases talent year-round. Before most main stage events, a member of the company or an expert from the community gives a talk in the Steinhart Room.

“We bring the world’s greatest artists to Nebraska so people don’t have to travel to New York or Chicago to see them perform,” said executive director Bill Stephan. “We also find many opportunities to feature Nebraska’s top talent on our stage, too.”

Guided tours of Nebraska’s Capitol, designed by New York architect Bertram G. Goodhue, feature intricate mosaic ceilings and floors, paintings and sculpture inside the 400-foot-tall building.

Kearney

Near Kearney, the world’s largest gathering of sandhill cranes — more than 600,000 — occurs in the Platte River valley. The birds stop there on the way to their summer breeding grounds in the North. Groups will thrill at the sight that begins at sunrise on the river when thousands of roosting sandhill cranes pop their heads out from under their wings and lift off from sandbars to feed in the surrounding fields.

Rowe Sanctuary, near Kearney, and the Crane Trust Nature and Visitor Center, near Grand Island, provide blinds overlooking the crane migration. During peak season, from mid-March to mid-April, the Audubon Nebraska Crane Festival offers programs featuring world-renowned experts and numerous viewing opportunities.

In downtown Kearney, the World Theatre is a 1927 beauty that hosts art house movies. Renovated by Kearney native and Hollywood screenwriter Jon Bokenkamp, the original stage overlooks a dramatic interior of rose walls and plush red seats.

The white marble steps of the former Kearney post office lead to the Museum of Nebraska Art, affectionately known as the MONA. Each artist represented in the museum’s 5,000-piece collection shares significant ties to Nebraska. Rotating exhibitions and a gift shop filled with Nebraska-made artwork and items are sure to please any group.

Hard to miss on any road trip, the Archway spans I-80 and commemorates those who journeyed across the Great Platte River Road. Headsets put visitors into the action on a self-guided tour that spans the history of Nebraska from its days when the buffaloes roamed the prairie to the Pony Express, the transcontinental railroad and the Lincoln Highway. Catering, including chuck-wagon-style barbecue, is available, and the event room seats up to 150 people.

Grand Island

The Crane Trust Nature and Visitor Center near Grand Island houses interactive displays, the Hornady Art Gallery, a 30-foot-tall observation tower and a butterfly garden. Groups can trek across the prairie and river footbridges on more than 10 miles of trails among native wildflowers and birds. Three years ago, the Crane Trust reintroduced a bison herd that rotates throughout the property. During the crane migration, guided blind tours and sunset tours take place on the footbridge over the river. The March schedule features a speaker series and wildlife photography classes.

“Our one-night VIP Experience includes two meals, including beer and wine, on Crane Trust private lands, plus two guided crane-viewing experiences at sunset and sunrise,” said Kendrick Clay, relationship manager for the Crane Trust. “Two-night Crane Trust Safaris include five meals, four crane-viewing experiences and an afternoon activity, usually a guided hike or vehicle tour of the untouched prairie on private Mormon Island.”

The Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer displays an amazing variety of artifacts, from antique cars and farm machinery to Railroad Town and the replicated pioneer “road ranch” settlements of the 1850s to 1860s. Designed by renowned architect Edward Durell Stone, who designed the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the main building features art and exhibits of prairie pioneer life. One of the center’s many events, December’s “Christmas Past and Present” features historic Railroad Town decked in period holiday decor with costumed re-enactors. “Fantasy of Trees” features themed Christmas trees on display from Thanksgiving weekend through December.

Nebraska City 

Founded in 1854 on the Missouri River, the community quickly became a jumping-off spot for the Oregon Trail. According to Brian Volkmer, historian and director of the Nebraska City Museum Association, the city’s layout hasn’t changed much since the 1850s. Central Avenue’s business district, the former trail route, still extends from the river and gently rises to meet the plains.

Nebraska City has 10 museums. Several, such as the Old Freighters Museum, the Nebraska City Museum of Firefighting and the Kreigel Windmill Factory Museum, teach history buffs about the city’s early days. Visitors to the Lewis and Clark Missouri River Basin Visitors Center experience the sights and sounds of this famous expedition that focused on the flora and fauna discovered en route.

Arbor Lodge State Historical Park honors the legacy of local resident and politician Julius Sterling Morton. Morton planted many of the 260 species of trees and shrubs surrounding his 52-room mansion, where costumed docents lead tours. Arbor Day Farm, formerly Morton’s agricultural estate, hosts the interactive Tree Adventure and Lied Greenhouse, where visitors receive seedling souvenirs ready for planting. Nearby, Adirondack-style architecture distinguishes the Lied Lodge and Conference Center, where paved paths, a spa and an Olympic-size, heated indoor pool make a lovely oasis any time of year.

September’s AppleJack Festival is a citywide event. The AppleJam Carnival kicks off events, which are followed by the downtown parade, the AppleJack Craft Fair and the River City Classic Car Show. Arbor Day Farm, Kimmel Orchard and Vineyard, and Union Orchard offer abundant activities, from wine tastings to U-pick apples and pumpkins.