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Best Things To Do in Omaha

AOL PICK from our Editors

From hiking in a zoo rainforest to contemplating a voyage into outer space at an air museum, or simply a voyage cross-country by covered wagon or steam locomotive, Omaha pushes the boundaries of a traditional Midwest getaway. For more than 100 years, people have been traveling to Omaha to visit what eventually became the Henry Doorly Zoo to learn about and appreciate the beauty of wildlife. There’s little more enjoyable than a warm spring day walking the grounds of this engaging zoo, unless perhaps it’s strolling through 100 acres of the nearby botanical gardens, tucked neatly between downtown and the banks of the Missouri River. But it was the people who traveled through Omaha who created some of the most interesting and memorable experiences for today’s visitors. As early as the 1830s, Swiss artist Karl Bodmer (1809-1893) traveled up the Missouri River documenting the culture of Native Americans before they were displaced by settlers. He’s one of the more celebrated artists in the collection of the Joslyn Art Museum, an Omaha jewel. Less celebrated, but equally powerful stories could be told by each of the 70,000 travelers on the Mormon Trail who crossed the river here, leaving an unforgettable legacy of faith and fortitude at the Mormon Trail Center. And more Western history comes to life at the Durham Museum, Omaha’s beautiful art deco train station turned history museum. The journey continues at the International Space Station, via local astronaut Clayton Anderson, whose story is one of many at the Strategic Air and Space Museum. So what’s your story, and how will a visit to Omaha help you tell it?

Henry Doorly Zoo

Neighborhood: Metro Omaha

Hands down, one of the best zoos in the country, the Henry Doorly wins all sorts of awards every year for its design and activities. Start out at the largest indoor rain forest in the U.S., where toucans fly overhead as gibbons swing from the trees and all sorts of creepy, crawly things ooze about in the waters below. Play patty-cake with apes at the interactive gorilla exhibit, but be sure to let them win. On a hot summer day, cool off with hours of entertainment in the penguin exhibit. Then spend the night in the desert dome. Yes, sleep out with nocturnal desert creatures who rarely appear until the sun goes down. If possible, plan on spending two days at this world-class zoo. You won’t be disappointed. And if you can’t spend that much time, be sure to check out the penguin webcam when you get home. It’s almost as much fun as being there.

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Museo Latino (El)

Neighborhood: South 24th Street

Magdalena Garcia founded the first Latino art and history museum in the Midwest in 1993, and it has evolved into a comprehensive center for anyone interested in and appreciative of the Latino community. Now located in a former elementary school, the museum overflows with dance, theater, music, art, literary presentations, workshops and discussions, filling all who visit here with the energy and vibrancy of the Hispanic community of Omaha. Of course, Cinco de Mayo is a prime time for programs, but don’t wait for May. There’s much to celebrate all year through.

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General Crook House Museum

Neighborhood: Metro Omaha

It’s sounds almost comical to say such a thing in the 21st century, but on this spot, in 1897, the Federal Government first acknowledged that the American Indian was a human being. Seriously. This was the location of the trial of Standing Bear, a Ponca Indian chief who, after being forced to relocate to Indian territory in Oklahoma, was arrested in 1879 for trying to return his son’s body to the Niobrara River banks for burial. Long story short—with the help of General George Crook, a military commander in this region, Standing Bear was granted his wish and was recognized as a person under the law. Aside from this history, the house is just a beautiful structure with wide porches, detailed woodwork and stained glass, open for tours. The grounds around the Fort have retained their historical authenticity, even after becoming home to the Metropolitan Community College.

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Strategic Air and Space Museum

Neighborhood: Metro Omaha

There was a time when, if the bad guys were going to bomb the United States, their primary target would have been the Strategic Air Command of Omaha. You can bet that Nikita Khrushchev could find Omaha, Nebraska on a world map. But when the Cold War ended, national security switched focus, and a museum dedicated to SAC and space exploration was built about halfway between Omaha and Lincoln. You’ll find approximately 30 unique military aircraft here, including a C-119 that you can spend the night in. A local boy who made it to the International Space Station shares an exhibit with artifacts from the Gemini program. There are lots of hands-on opportunities to inspire the astronaut in all of us.

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Mormon Trail Center

Neighborhood: Metro Omaha

The winter of 1846 was a cold and cruel one for thousands of Mormons, who chose this area now in the northern suburbs of Omaha as a place to hunker down in before beginning the long trek west to their new home in Utah. This museum not only bears witness to religious persecution in a country founded on religious freedoms, but also to the challenges faced by all the people who struggled during the expansion of the American frontier. The center is open year-round from 9AM to 9PM and is always free. An annual quilt show in September and the gingerbread-house display in December are always fun times to visit.

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Gerald R. Ford Birthsite and Gardens

Neighborhood: Midtown

Actually, the little boy who was born here on July 14, 1913 was named Leslie King, Jr. It was not until his parents divorced and he was adopted by his stepfather that his name became Gerald Ford. The house no longer stands, but a small kiosk contains several of the 38th president’s personal items. A lovely rose garden dedicated to Betty Ford, a fountain and numerous benches inspire reflection on Gerald Ford’s life. Busts of the President and First Lady keep watch over the grounds that are open from sunrise to sunset.

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Boys Town

Neighborhood: Metro Omaha

Founded in 1917 as a shelter for homeless boys, Boys Town continues its mission today as a shelter for at-risk youth that also offers services for their families and communities. Because of the fame bestowed on the Omaha Boys Town by the 1938 movie starring Spencer Tracy as the founder, Father Flanagan, this facility has become a tourist attraction complete with a visitor’s center that explains the history. The Academy Award Tracy won for the role of Flanagan is displayed here, along with an exhibit on the collectible stamps that have served as fundraisers for the facility. A beautiful rose garden adjacent to the Father Flanagan House is one of the many peaceful places to visit on the 900-acre campus.

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Joslyn Art Museum

Neighborhood: Midtown

Most widely known for its collection of western art, including the works of Karl Bodmer and Charles Russell, the Joslyn’s collection mixes it up with Degas, Monet and American masters such as Grant Wood, Jackson Pollock, and Dale Chihuly. The Joslyn, an art deco structure made of a pink stone, is also recognized as a great museum for children to explore and become acquainted with art. The Children’s Discovery Garden, which is always free, is filled with dozens of sculptures to inspire little people. As with most comprehensive museums, the Joslyn hosts a number of special programs in a variety of creative mediums throughout the year.

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Durham Western Heritage Museum

Neighborhood: Metro Omaha

Omaha’s Union Station, an art deco structure built in 1929, is home to the Durham, once known as the Western Heritage Museum. But now science, industry and fine art have been added to the collection, which was originally focused solely on the vibrant history of Omaha. Of course, that includes the exploration of Lewis & Clark, the Mormon and Oregon trails, the railroads and stockyards, and so much more. Inside this interactive museum, you can climb on locomotives, learn a thing or two at an old schoolhouse, and pack a wagon for heading out across the prairie along the Oregon Trail. Then relax after your hard work over a phosphate or chocolate sundae from an old-fashioned soda fountain.

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Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge

Neighborhood: Metro Omaha

Many of the city’s celebrations take place on the riverfront in the shadow of the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge. Honoring the former governor and senator from Nebraska, the bridge extends 3,000 feet across the wide Missouri into Iowa and connects more than 150 miles of biking and hiking trails. The park at the base of the bridge includes sculptures, fountains and a National Park Visitor’s Center for the Lewis and Clark Trail.

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Omaha Botanical / Lauritzen Gardens

Neighborhood: Metro Omaha

Located on a hillside overlooking the Missouri River Valley, this 100-acre garden features 20 distinct gardens, many of which are beautiful all 12 months of the year. The Model Railroad garden, a delight for children, salutes Omaha’s rail history, while highlighting the architectural heritage of the city with authentic scale buildings. However, children also have a garden all their own, as do rose lovers, bird lovers, and chefs (in the herb garden). The visitor’s center includes a small café in a plant-filled atrium, a gift shop for gardeners, and conference areas. The tranquility of the garden is occasionally lost in the noise from the nearby interstate, but the birds, butterflies and aroma of roses do their best to offset any stressful reminders of a busy city.

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