My grandmother grew up in the city of Omaha, Nebraska. Throughout my life, I heard stories about how dull, dry and boring the area was. On my first trip to the Cornhusker State, as I sat in the car watching the green trees go by, I realized she had been a little biased.
Instead of the Dust Bowl-like conditions I had imagined, the land was stunning. Green trees filled the area and, yes, it was humid, but the air felt fresh and calm. A winding river permeated the downtown area. Puffy clouds floated by overhead.
Throughout the week I spent in the pretty city of Omaha, I immersed myself in the outdoors as much as I could. But I also found that the area was rich in history, from a train station-turned-museum to a couple of very famous birth sites. This blending of history and nature was enough to make me fall in love with this little town that held so much of my family’s history as well.
Just cruising down the streets in the suburbs was a beautiful sight. The small-town vibe hung side-by-side with downtown’s big-city feel, but the nature never dissipated. However, it paled in comparison to the beauty of the Lauritzen Gardens in Omaha.
The botanical garden is one of the loveliest, most relaxing places you’ll see in Omaha. Deemed a living museum, it reveals four different seasons of plant life, all expertly maintained in an urban oasis. Walking up to the entrance, I was greeted by an exterior garden complete with a pond covered in water lilies. After purchasing a ticket at the education center, I headed right out the back door and out into the gardens.
Offering more than 100 acres to explore, looking at the map was a little daunting at first. But I decided to meander the main path, through the woodlands, past the waterfalls and to the impressive Victorian garden. Few places I’ve been were as peaceful as this spot. Birds were chirping as I wandered, and the colors of the flowers here, organized in their individual planters, offered a stunning view.
Other notable spots include the peony garden, the loop trail that winds through the bird sanctuary and, of course, the model railroad garden. Make your way through the trees as these small trains zip by. Up high and down low, there is so much to see as they cross bridges and race through tunnels in the Omaha trees.
On your way out, make sure to also visit the greenhouse. You’ll find other exotic plants here, and possibly special exhibits as well. When I visited, a variety of birdhouses were present, celebrating the 50 states with their respective license plates.
Workin’ on the Railroad
Outside of the Lauritzen Gardens, climb the stairs to reach a beautiful landing filled with history. Omaha’s Kenefick Park is home to two locomotives from the Union Pacific Railroad. One of these engines is the world’s largest steam locomotive, Big Boy No. 4023. The other, Centenntial No. 6900, is the most powerful diesel-electric engine ever involved with the railroad.
Aside from these engines, there are signs, maps and statues that reveal even more about the Union Pacific Railroad. Plus, enjoy a variety of indigenous plants and flowers, also maintained by the botanical garden.
A Trip Back in Time
To really delve into the history of Omaha, pay a visit to the Durham Museum. This incredible gallery is housed in Union Station, offering both a look at the city and at the rail industry.
The white exterior of the museum is beautiful, but it pales in comparison the minute you step inside. Greeted by 60-foot ceilings, Belgian marble and glistening chandeliers, the Great Hall is an impressive sight. Motion-activated statues of passengers in the seating area tell stories of train travel in the past while the space behind the ticket windows houses the museum’s gift shop.
Passenger trains became less popular as air travel increased so the Omaha station was shut down in the early 1970s. The building was donated to the city a few years later and became the home of the Western Heritage Museum.
Today, the Durham Museum houses a variety of permanent galleries and exhibitions that showcase the Nebraskan lifestyle. From replicas of local homes and grocery stores to historical stories about coming to the region or traveling out of Omaha by train, there is plenty to see. In addition, there are replicas of train cars and other vehicles, antiques and more.
With a trip to the on-site soda fountain for a cherry phosphate and a bite to eat, I stayed about three hours and didn’t make it through everything so budget plenty of time to soak up the local culture.
Famous Locals in Omaha
A few memorials offer some additional history in the city of Omaha. In the middle of the city, the Gerald R. Ford birthsite marks the spot where the former president was born. There is a small kiosk that resembles his original 1913 home, detailing the history of President Ford and his wife. In addition, many different presidential mementos and audio clips are included in the display.
Surrounding the informative memorial, you’ll find a small vibrant garden. Aside from the memorial, a few statues line the area, offering glimpses of Ford’s likeness as well as that of his wife, Betty.
Civil rights activist Malcolm X was also born in Omaha. Though there is no official memorial dedicated to his life, one is in the works. In the meantime, we visited to see the official marker naming the space as his birthplace. It detailed his life, but overall, didn’t have much to offer yet.
All of the Ecosystems
While the nature you’ll find at the Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium isn’t exactly native to the city of Omaha, it’s still an incredible experience. As one of the largest zoos in the country, this amazing place combines many different ecosystems and animals.
Transport your crew to the African grasslands, one of the largest regions at the zoo. From grasses and acacia-like trees to elephants, zebra and rhinos, you’ll find many large animals here.
The Lied Jungle is another highlight, as this ecosystem serves as the largest indoor rainforest. Right there in Omaha, you can see gibbons swinging from trees, bats hanging upside down and hippos swimming below waterfalls. Ecosystems come together once more in the Desert Dome, which blends desert environments from Australia, Africa and the United States. Even the rocks and plants resemble the desert in which they can be found.
For a unique look at underwater ecosystems, visit the on-site aquarium, complete with coral reefs, a shark tunnel and numerous penguins. The neighboring butterfly house, the Berniece Grewcock Butterfly and Insect Pavilion, is a great way to explore the tiniest creatures in their natural habitat. Let the colorful butterflies land on you while meandering the waterfall-filled environment.