May 20, 2013

11 Free Things To Do In The Old Market

Updated: Feb. 16, 2019

I’ve had a love affair with the Old Market for years. The twinkling lights at night, the carriage rides, the sounds of street musicians, the smell of pizza, the lively chatter of the farmers market. I love it.

So do kids, so don’t be nervous about bringing them downtown. There are a lot of family-friendly things to see and do that don’t cost a dime. If want some kid-friendly restaurant suggestions, check this post out.

Guide to free things to do with kids in Omaha's Old Market (and nearby) #Nebraska #familytravel

Here are some of the highlights:

1. From May to October, you have to bring the family down to the Old Market for the Omaha Farmers Market on Saturday mornings from 8 to about 12:30 p.m. Live music, samples, a balloon man (free balloons, but donations are suggested), and great people watching, all for free. And dogs, lots of dogs, if your kids love them. The atmosphere is so lively, I know you’ll have fun. Read about the fun things to find at the Omaha Farmers Market!

Omaha Farmers Market shoppers I'm the Old Market
The Omaha Farmers Market in the Old Market runs from May to October each year.

2. You’ll find horse carriages parked in 11th and Howard in the Old Market, weather permitting, for much of the year. The carriage rides aren’t free, but kids love seeing the horses, so go check them out. Last time I checked (and it could’ve gone up), rides started at $25.

View from a horse-drawn carriage in the Old Market of Omaha
My daughter loved the carriage ride through the Old Market.

3. Almost any time of day or night, you’ll find street musicians throughout the old market. Take your time and listen to one that you like with your kids. Have them put some money in the collection cup to show appreciation for the music.

4. While you’re walking around the place, there is a lot of unexpected “art” to see, especially on some of the old buildings. My old apartment building on 10th and Jackson has a neat lion fountain in front to see. As you walk, see what else you and your kids can spot. Downtown Omaha has a complete art walk if you’re interest. Read this post about the Omaha Art Walk. There’s also the Urban Walking Labyrinth that begins at Urban Abbey.

5. The Passage Way is a cool indoor shopping center to visit with kids. There are fun stores to browse, hallways (the “passage ways”) to explore, and mysterious art work to marvel at. The place fascinated me as a kid, and now it has the same affect on mine. It’s also a cool place to take pictures.

Inside the Old Market Passage Way in Omaha
Lights strung in the Passage Way in the Old Market. Pictured is two restaurants in the Passage Way: V. Mertz in the foreground and in the background, Trini’s.

5. Speaking of shopping, there are some neat shops to bring your kids into, though strollers often don’t manage well in many stores, so beware. The second hand shops are full of interesting stuff to see (like the Imaginarium), City Limits is a fun one for older kids. While it’s free to go in these next two fun places, I doubt you’ll make it out without spending something: Old Market Candy Shop and Hollywood Candy. There are a ton of cool things to discover inside Hollywood Candy.

Exterior of Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts in downtown Omaha
Bemis Center for Contemporary Art has exhibitions and occasional open studios.

6. There are a number of art galleries in area that are free and love visitors. My favorites that are full of colorful things for kids to look at are the Artist Co-operative Gallery, 405 S. 11th St., the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, 12th and Leavenworth streets, and KANEKO, 1111 Jones St. I like heading to the Bemis Center with my kids when they have open studios – it’s free and a chance for kids to see where the resident artists work and live.

Know your kids, though. Do they have to touch everything? Maybe wait to bring them to a gallery until they’re a little older, or use it as a good teaching experience. There are tons, though, to check out. The ones I’ve ventured in include Anderson O’Brien, Omaha Clayworks (cool place, but I did not bring my toddlers in there!), Passageway Gallery, and Garden of the Zodiac. There’s also Mangelsen: Images of Nature Gallery, where they had a scaveger hunt for my kids the last time we went there. Here are some tips for visiting Omaha art galleries with kids.

A few blocks from the Old Market:

7. The main branch of the Omaha Public Library, W. Dale Clark, is at 215 S. 15th St. It’s not uncommon for a trip to the Old Market to include a stop here for us. The kids area is on the first floor and has computers and some toys in addition to a lot of books. It’s also a stop on the Omaha Public Art Walk that I mentioned earlier.

Gene Leahy Mall in the summer
We played at Gene Leahy Mall following a visit to the 2018. Omaha Summer Arts Festival. The festival is held along Farnam Street right next to the mall.

8. To the north of the Old Market, there’s a man-made lake at Gene Leahy Mall that’s nice to stroll around with some public art around the path and a waterfall kids love. It’s home to two large slides that are very popular with families.

Slides in downtown Omaha
When the weather is nice, you probably will find a short line to go down these slides in downtown Omaha.

Gene Leahy Mall has fallen out of favor for me, though, due to some unfortunate encounters with homeless people doing inappropriate things. It’s too bad, because I used to be a big supporter of the park and encouraged others to visit. The mall is about to undergo major renovations, soon. The slides are promised to stay, but it’s going to look totally different soon.

Just north of the Old Market is Gene Leahy Mall and this bridge
What is it about bridges that excite kids so much?

9. Just east of the mall is another wonderful lake at Heartland of America Park with a host of geese and ducks. It’s our go-to spot for picnics downtown, and it’s fun to feed the leftovers to the animals. It’s also a pleasant little stroll around the park. Like Gene Leahy Mall, this area is slated to undergo major changes very soon, though.

Fountains at Heartland of America Park, with buildings in downtown Omaha in the background
There is a path around the Heartland of America Park in downtown Omaha. The fountain at the center of the lake shoots high into the air, and you don’t wan to be downwind when that happens.

10. If you’re doing your exploring on bike, you cross a bridge on the north side of Heartland of America Park, and find yourself on your way to see the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge connecting Omaha to Council Bluffs. It’s a bit of a walk but manageable, if you’re not on a bike. Kids love watching the river and straddling the state line. In the summer time, there’s a water play area on the Omaha side of the bridge.

Kid by a bike with the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge and Missouri River in the background
There are flat bike trails that are nice to ride with kids along the Missouri River. It’s a bit of an incline to get up onto the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge (on both sides).

11. Don’t skip a quick visit to the Lewis & Clark National Parks Service Headquarters at the base of the bridge, too. The Council Bluffs side is being built up and now has a Great Lawn suitable for running around, picnicking and playing.

Fun things to do with kids in the Old Market and downtown Omaha that are absolutely free #Omaha #Nebraska

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  1. Sounds like such fun! I wish we had something similar where I live. The girls would love it!

  2. Ray Hendrickson says

    I grew up right across the river, Council Bluffs to Sidney, lived a couple years in South Omaha, I remember the Omaha Royals, I remember the SOKOL, Discovery Zone, Spaghetti Works, and Pete’s Pub. I now live in northern Michigan, and traded all of that for knowing that I’m always within five miles of water, looking south, to escape the sub-zero winters.

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