Omaha Combines the Best of Big City Culture With Small Town Friendliness

While Omaha may not top a typical list of vacation hot spots, the Midwestern city has much to offer visitors, most notably a friendly face just about any time you turn around. The largest city in Nebraska, Omaha has a population of about 466,000 in an area of about 141 square miles. Located on the Missouri River, the city has a number of cultural and historic buildings interspersed with open space and an abundance of public art.

a bronze stature of a girl in a tutu
Degas’ “Little Dancer” displayed in Omaha’s Joslyn Museum

Sculptures can be seen along city streets and throughout parks, quietly indicating that Omaha is very artist-friendly. The Joslyn Art Museum has displays both indoors and out and like other world-class museums, has both permanent and visiting exhibits. The Art Deco building dates back to 1931 and houses artwork from around the world including Degas’ “Little Dancer” as well as works by Monet, Renoir, Rodin and Rembrandt. The museum’s “Art Works” provides 1,500 square feet of interactive space for young art aficionados to experience and learn about art.

The downtown Old Market is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a popular area for shopping and dining. The area is home to over 45 restaurants and drinking establishments as well as many unique shops and galleries.

a brick storefront with large display windows - a sign says "Ernest Buffett" above the double doors
A replica of the original Buffett store sits in the basement of the Durham

Just down the street is the Durham Museum, located in the old train station. Dedicated to preserving the history of the area, this museum tells the story of Omaha’s immigrant origins and provides a walk back in time with its life-sized replicas of everything from a rawhide tepee to the original Buffett Grocery Store (the place a young Warren Buffett once worked). The rail history is not forgotten, with a section dedicated to trains, including the opportunity to walk through rail cars and experience changing times and fashions.

Omaha also has some presidential history. President Gerald Ford was born in the city and a small portion of a block with gardens and sculpture mark the location. Betty Ford is also honored here, with a garden in her name.

A visit to Omaha wouldn’t be complete without a stop at the Henry Dooly Zoo and Aquarium. Considered one of the best zoos in the world, animal habitats have been created with such thought and authenticity that visitors may forget they are in the middle of the US rather than the animals’ natural habitats. While you wouldn’t think an aquarium would be in a landlocked state, here too, animal exhibits mimic native habitats. The penguin exhibit in particular is a place where visitors pause and watch these birds swim and play.

 

The Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge takes visitors from Omaha to Council Bluffs, IA

Omaha is also home to the Lewis & Clark Historic Trail Headquarters, near the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge, a 3000-foot pedestrian bridge that spans the Missouri River, the first ever to connect two states. (Council Bluffs, Iowa sits on the other side of the bridge.) There, displays provide information about the explorers discovery and an outdoor garden provides a relaxing walk through native plants identified with small signs as well as hints of what wildlife calls this place home.

No Flight Required for This Visit to See Christmas in Poland

 

Most trips are taken with a particular purpose and destination in mind, but sometimes, an opportunity arises to go off itinerary and you discover a gem (though places that prove to be less interesting can also provide good stories). On a recent trip to New Haven, we came across a brochure entitled “Christmas in Poland.” A temporary exhibit at the Knight of Columbus Museum, it seemed interesting enough, plus it was free!

Arriving at the museum, we discovered a construction vehicle out front. After circling a couple times in search of a parking spot, we ended up in an hourly public lot with a self-serve kiosk. We thought an hour would be sufficient, most free museums are small and don’t take long to walk through. Then we got inside and heard about all the exhibits. It was then that we also learned there is free parking under the building (note: read the brochure carefully), which of course we would have seen if it weren’t blocked.

The museum’s permanent displays detail the history of the Knights of Columbus, which has origins in New Haven, CT. Founded by Michael J McGivney in 1882, it is the largest Catholic lay organization in the world. The exhibit includes several sculptures and other artwork related to both the Knights and the Catholic Church as well as bits of American history, such as steel girders from the World Trade Center.

 

a small room with two doors. Sandbags are piled ot the ceiling, supporting the dirt and split log walls
A recreation WWI bunker

A temporary exhibit dedicated to World War I has been extended to April 14, 2019.

trench binoculars, two long cylindars attached to a camera-like body, encased in leather
Trench binoculars with a leather case
black boots between a red dotted line and a dirt wall
The red dotted line indicates the depth of a typical trench, about two feet

The exhibit includes artifacts and documents
from the war and traces the contribution of the Knights to the war effort, both at home and on the battlefield. More than 1,600 of the 116,000 Americans (including both the first and last American military officers) who died in this conflict were members of the fraternal organization.

 

 

We took our time through these exhibits (moving the car to the garage after the first hour) before moving on to the reason we came – to explore Christmas in Poland. This is the 14th year the museum is showcasing the Christmas traditions of a world region.

We learned that in Poland, festivities begin December 24 with Christmas Eve dinner, called wigilia (no meat aside from fish is served at this meal; this would sadden many of our relatives) and continue until February 2, with the feast of Candlemas. People sing kolêdy, or carols and create nativity scenes called szopki. A number of examples of szopka are on display, both from their collection and on loan from museums around the world.

In addition, there are two dozen Christmas trees decorated by local elementary schools with the theme, Christmas in Poland. Visitors are invited to vote for their favorite to determine the “People’s Choice Award.” Dozens of handmade ornaments adorn each tree. Some also created szopka for under the tree and included information explaining the reason for some of the decorations. (For example, a spider ornament is included to commemorate the spider said to weave a blanket for the baby Jesus.)

Overall, it was an enjoyable way to spend a couple hours. The museum staff was friendly and informative and the exhibits were both entertaining and educational. Perhaps we’ll take a trip again next year to discover other Christmas traditions around the world.