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Cornhusker Cool in Lincoln

Nebraska’s capital city is a hidden gem in the Heartland.

Incorporated in 1869 and named for President Abraham Lincoln, this community of 280,000 welcomes with its local culture, captivating small businesses and delicious restaurants. Add to that a collection of intriguing historical attractions and museums and groups will have a well-rounded itinerary in this college town, home of the University of Nebraska.

“We have a lot of great amenities we provide to group and leisure travelers, with the feeling of that small-town community,” said Kelsey Meyer, assistant director of sales at Lincoln Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Here are some great stops for a group trip to Lincoln.

Historic Haymarket District

To check out some of Lincoln’s most vibrant and varied attractions, head downtown to the Historic Haymarket District. Named for Haymarket Square, an open-air market for produce and livestock in the late 19th century, the eight-block district was once a manufacturing hub. Efforts to reinvigorate it have been largely successful, bringing new life to downtown Lincoln.

“It’s an entertainment district, a historic part of town that has been revitalized but still has that history and the warehouse buildings and brick pavers in the streets,” Meyer said.

From annual events to weekly farmers markets, something is always happening in the Haymarket District. Art lovers can explore galleries and see public art, such as Gallery Alley, an alley painted with colorful murals and brightened with lights. The district’s many shops sell goods ranging from antiques to books. At Wax Buffalo, one of its most popular stores, groups can make their own candles.

The district doesn’t lack for culinary delights. Screamers Family Restaurant promises guests a show with their dinner. The waitstaff sing and dance as they serve a menu of burgers, steaks and other American classics. Lazlo’s Brewery and Grill, another district favorite, opened in 1991 and was Nebraska’s first brewpub. It’s popular for its creative twists on familiar comfort food and, of course, its in-house brews. At the Mill, Lincoln’s first espresso shop, groups can enjoy a coffee tasting and learn about how coffee is sourced and roasted from a master roaster. And, love it or hate it, Licorice International has the largest selection of licorice in the United States for those seeking a souvenir.

The Museum of American Speed

Few things spark an adventurous spirit — or produce an adrenaline rush — like automobile racing. Millions tune in each year to enjoy the sport in all forms, from NASCAR to drag racing, while millions more watch movies and television shows about motorsports.

The Speedway Motors Museum of American Speed in Lincoln aims to satiate the need for speed and capture the thrilling history and spirit of the sport. Opened in 1992 by “Speedy” Bill and Joyce Smith, the museum spans 150,000 square feet and displays the Smiths’ vast collection of automotive and racing artifacts.

“The museum preserves the history of the automotive and racing industry,” Meyer said.

During guided or self-guided tours of the museum’s three floors, groups will see exhibits of cars and engines dating to the 1920s, from vintage Model Ts to Corvettes and Indy race cars; the largest collection of vintage pedal cars in the world; and an art gallery dedicated to all things automotive. Motorcycle enthusiasts will appreciate the museum’s rare motorcycles, including some vintage Harley-Davidsons. Another exhibit honors legendary figures in racing. Following their tour, groups can stop by the museum’s store to buy collectible auto memorabilia.

The museum also hosts events and car shows. During Coffee and Cars, held from May to October on the last Saturday morning of the month, proud owners of specialty cars bring their cars in to be admired.

Robber’s Cave

If walls could talk, Lincoln’s only underground attraction would have plenty of stories to tell. In fact, the walls of Robber’s Cave do tell stories; visitors will find over a century’s worth of etchings on the soft sandstone sides.

In 1869, a German immigrant dug 500 feet of tunnels in a sandstone bluff, creating Robber’s Cave. In the years since then, the manmade caverns have served many purposes and become the stuff of legends. In 2020, the site was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

“Robber’s Cave is another unique experience here,” Meyer said. “The cave is older than the city of Lincoln.”

Studying the cave and telling its stories is a passion project of Joel Green, a local teacher and author of “Robber’s Cave: Truths, Legends, Recollections.” In his book, Green dispels some rumors and confirms others. One of the most famous is that Jesse James used the cave as a hideout following a robbery, hence its name. The James rumor can’t be confirmed, but the cave has been used for many other purposes. Nebraska’s first brewery stored its wares there. It was used as a dance hall, community center and even a daycare center. In the years it was closed to the public, Lincoln natives frequently broke in to explore and etch their names into or draw on the cave walls, cementing the cave’s status as a beloved local hangout and time capsule.

Groups can tour the 5,000-square-foot cave and hear about its fascinating history from Green; his research and knowledge make him an excellent tour guide. They can see the years of etchings in the cave walls and hear stories about its infamous past. Its location in downtown Lincoln, rich history and universal appeal make it one of Lincoln’s top attractions.

Nebraska’s State Capitol

Nebraska is the only state with a unicameral legislative body. Citizens voted to change the state’s bicameral legislature in 1934 so the state would have a more efficient, single legislative body, which also happens to be nonpartisan. With only 49 senators, Nebraska has the smallest state legislature in the country. Groups can learn more about what makes Nebraska’s government unique with a tour of Lincoln’s capitol building.

“The State Capitol is an iconic attraction here in Lincoln, really the heart of Lincoln and it truly tells the story of the state,” Meyer said.

Like the state’s legislature, its capitol building is different in several ways. Completed in 1932, the building’s design was a deviation from the typical state capitol building. It features a 400-foot-tall domed tower and four interior courtyards and is decorated throughout with mosaics and sculptures that memorialize Nebraska’s history. Atop the dome is “the Sower,” a 19-foot bronze statue that overlooks the city.

During free guided tours, groups can learn about the building’s rich history and see its ornate murals and sculptures. Its 14th-story observation decks give a bird’s eye view of downtown Lincoln. If the legislature in session, groups may be able to watch the proceedings or even get a quick hello from a state senator. The capitol’s beautiful courtyards, gardens and grounds are nice spots for a stroll or a picnic. For a quick breakfast or lunch, the Mulberry Café in the Capitol Dining Room is open daily, offering tasty meals and treats for visitors.