Nobody honks in Omaha: It’s not polite. But nobody seems to have much of a respect for red lights, either – which only seem to urge, “Faster, you can make it!” Pretty great when you’re running late for your flight.
I can picture you now, furrowed brow, wondering, “Omaha? Why Omaha?”
Football fans the continent over know a different Nebraska city: Lincoln, home of the famed Cornhuskers (Go Big Red!), who draw legions of visitors on pigskin pilgrimages. But Omaha is Nebraska’s largest city, with almost half a million people in the city proper, and 1.2 million if you count the surrounding area. It is home to billionaire Warren Buffett; it will be home again to former Nebraska governor and senator (now New Yorker) Democrat Bob Kerrey, who has been garnering ink of late after deciding to try to reclaim his Nebraskan Senate seat over the objections of his wife, former Saturday Night Live writer Sarah Paley (whose depiction of the state in her article in the July issue of Vogue magazine is raising the ire of some Nebraskans). Omaha is also the birthplace of Malcolm X, Fred Astaire, Marlon Brando and director Alexander Payne who often uses the city as a location for his films (Election, About Schmidt.) Oh, and it’s the birthplace of the TV dinner and lays claim to the creation of the deliciously messy Reuben sandwich.
I’ve been a frequent tourist over the past decade, flying in to visit family (and am now so acclimatized to the spring tornado season that when the sky turns a spooky green and the world becomes eerily silent, I am calmly able to join my sister-in-law in trying on “Mossimo for Target” selections in the retailer’s fitting rooms – it’s like the Shopping Channel meets Storm Chasers on the ride home).
Under expansive blue skies (post-tornado season) and surrounding a quiet downtown core, you’ll find a friendly and thriving community, home to five Fortune 500 companies buzzing alongside a cool, cultural vibe that is drawing young professionals into funky factory lofts. It’s time we stop overlooking Omaha. Here, then, are seven “musts” to introduce you to the city:
1. The Music Scene: If you’re into live music, your inaugural visit should be the Red Sky Music Festival taking place outdoors from July 18 to 21. True, you have probably never thought of Omaha as a hotbed of musical activity. Surprise! This March, Omaha was named as one of the “Top 10 U.S. cities for music scene” by Liveability.com. If you can’t make the festival, check who is playing at Slowdown, considered by the music community (and given an official nod in Esquire magazine) as one of the best live indie music venues in the country. Suck on it, Seattle.
2. The Architecture: Do not miss a visit to the Durham Museum, originally completed in 1931 as Omaha’s Union Station (10,000 passengers once used the train station daily). You will be awed by this stunning example of art deco architecture. Stepping onto the patterned terrazzo floor of the Museum’s Great Hall, you can look 65 feet up at the sculpted plaster ceilings that support six huge restored brass, copper and glass chandeliers.
3. Go Artisanal: Don’t miss the charming neighbourhood of Dundee, where I often walk admiring the surrounding Colonial, Tudor and Georgian revival style homes. Stop at the Great Harvest Bread Company for a free (and generous) slice of fresh baked bread loaded with honey. If you feel like a coal-fired pizza lunch, you can walk down to Pitch, passing a trendy little vintage shop called Scout on the way. Complete your visit with a stop at the Dundee Dell and gape at its insanely thorough Scotch list (at last check it was 12 pages). If craft beer is more your style, you’ll want to head out and tour the Lucky Bucket Brewery and Sòlas Distillery (both in the same building). Try the brewery’s lager, IPA and Belgian Strong Ale and the distillery’s vodka (made with organic Nebraska wheat), Cuban-style rum and a single-malt whisky.
4. Taking it old-school: Food Network addicts may want to satisfy their deep-fried cravings by taking a drive to Big Mama’s Kitchen, featured on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. Don’t be thrown by the cafeteria-like appearance: The food is truly finger-lickin’ good (we voted the crisp, fried catfish fillets as king). If an old-fashioned steak house is more your style, soak up the atmosphere in the charming (if slightly worn) Gorat’s, a favourite haunt of Mr. Buffett’s. Our charismatic waitress had been working there long enough to fall in love with, marry and divorce the chef.
5. A Modern Market: For a more modern vibe, head to the historic Old Market area. Its brick-paved streets are full of boutiques, art galleries and cozy restaurants. The area was once a hub along the Union Pacific Railroad, its warehouses a distribution centre for a variety of goods. I love to look for the faded commercial signs painted on the brick exteriors of what are now trendy living and retail spaces. Don’t miss European-style La Buvette, a retail wine store where you pay a $4 corkage fee to open a bottle with your cheese plate.
6. Stretch your legs: The Bob Kerrey Bridge, a one-of-a-kind, $22-million pedestrian bridge S-curves its way across the Missouri River. It is one of the longest pedestrian bridge projects ever constructed (914 metres – 3,000 feet – long), giving Omaha visitors a breathtaking view of the ever-changing skyline and a fantastic jogging route. All lit up, it’s spectacular at night.
7. Getting Homey: As for a simple night in? I’d make a trip to Jacobo’s Authentic Mexican Grocery (Southern Omaha has a large Mexican community) for its famous fresh salsa and chips, followed by a stop at the Varsity Sports Café and Roman Coin Pizza to pick up one of the best thin-crust cheese pizzas I have ever eaten. Then lie back on your boutique hotel bed (try the Magnolia or Hotel Deco) and Google “Omaha timeshare” on your iPad.
Special to The Globe and Mail