Omaha is my hometown and the inspiration for half the posts on this blog, so it’s fair to say I have plenty of recommendations for visitors. (I’m even part of Visit Omaha’s Locals Know Best) Whether it’s your first time here or your 10th, I’ve compiled my best tips into this guide on what to see and do in Omaha, plus where to eat and what hotels to stay in. Enjoy your visit!
There’s a very good reason why Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium is consistently ranked the best, or among the best, zoos in the U.S. It’s truly impressive, and yes, you should go see it if you have any free time in Omaha…with or without kids.
Related post: 40+ Expert Tips For Visiting Omaha’s Zoo
If you go with kids, you might as well plan a full day there. It’s large, and with little legs, it’ll take some time to explore. If you don’t have young kids who must see ALL THE ANIMALS, you can skip some exhibits and cover the highlights in a half-day.
If you’re short on time and can only see one other place, go to the Old Market. It’s not far from the zoo, first of all, and second, it’s the most charming place in the city. Think brick roads, quirky shops, and great food.
A few spots to see in the Old Market include Hollywood Candy (fun for young and old), The Passageway (seek out the hidden Zodiac Garden), and just stroll Howard Street. And get ice cream at Ted and Wally’s, one of the best ice cream shops in Omaha.
Have a little more time in Omaha?
Add a museum visit: If your kids are under 8, take them to Omaha Children’s Museum. I’m totally biased, since I work there, but I also travel a lot and visit similar institutions and we are really lucky with the museum we have here.
Older kids? Choose between Joslyn Art Museum (check out their hands-on art area in the lower level), The Durham Museum (don’t skip their old-fashioned soda fountain), or KANEKO (if there’s an exhibit). All four museums are downtown, making things pretty convenient to the downtown-based visitor.
If you have an interest in other museums, check out this post to see all the great museums Omaha has.
Still more time? Venture over to The Bob, our pedestrian bridge over the Missouri River and the small but interesting Lewis & Clark National Park Discover Center. In another two years, our riverfront is going to be a top attraction with a science center, ropes course (on the Council Bluffs side), and outdoor recreation, and I’ll move this recommendation up.
Looking for dog-friendly places in Omaha? There’s a post for that!
Beyond Downtown Omaha
I am the first person to champion the great Omaha metro. But even I know that it’s a sprawling city, and for a visitor that doesn’t have a week to explore, it’s not realistic to mention all of our cooler neighborhoods or outdoorsy escapes (though if you want a nature escape, here are some nearby trails). If you want some recommendations, though, leave a comment and I’ll share some ideas.
Night out in Omaha
If you can leave your kids back at the hotel, or even better, you’re not traveling with them (just kidding, I love traveling with kids), you can find some great things to do at night in downtown Omaha.
There are no shortage of bars, but if you want a chill hang out, check out one of our craft breweries like the Brickway, Infusion Brewery, Upstream Brewing Co.
Live music? In the after-times (as I like to daydream of), you can bet there will be live music somewhere in downtown Omaha in any given night. A few venues I like: The Slowdown, 1200 Club, Harney Street Tavern, and while I haven’t been yet, I hear there are great jazz shows at The Jewell in The Capitol District.
The options in the downtown area include escape rooms, axe throwing, carriage rides in the Old Market, and visiting the arcade inside Hollywood Candy. If you’re willing to go beyond downtown, here’s a list of things to do in the summer in Omaha and nearby towns.
Omaha restaurant recommendations
There is a huge variety of locally-owned restaurants in the Old Market. Many repeat visitors (like College World Series fans) have their favorites, but if you’re new to the city, it could be a little overwhelming to discern what’s good and what’s so-so.
Everyone’s going to tell you to go to Block 16 in downtown Omaha, and I agree. It’s popular for good reason. The creative sandwiches and burgers are phenomenal. The wait is worth it. And it’s pretty kid-friendly if your kids are OK with waits (though there is no kid’s menu).
My family’s favorite downtown restaurant is The Blatt Table + Beer, located right next to TD Ameritrade Park. It’s a family-friendly pub with an excellent beer selection and pub food. My kids love it as much as I do.
Where to stay in Omaha
I have my opinions, for sure. Stay downtown, it’s just the most convenient option. During major sporting events, the prices will be much higher than the rest of the year, but you can’t beat that convenience.
There’s an entire hotel (and restaurant) guide for visitors staying downtown, geared toward College World Series fans, but it works for anyone. It has recommendations based on your unique needs, whether it’s accommodating a family or if it’s more of a couples or friends getaway.
If you prefer not to be downtown, some of the nicer hotels outside of that area include the new Kimpton Cottonwood Hotel in the stylish Blackstone District and the Element at Midtown Crossing. Both hotels have restaurants, shops and entertainment all within walking distance.
Hotels near TD Ameritrade Park & CHI Health Center
Omaha has plenty of hotels, but if you’re looking for a room within walking distance of TD Ameritrade Park during the College World Series, you’d better book early. The closest hotels will be full when CWS starts in June.
If you want to be within walking distance to TD Ameritrade Park, look at Holiday Inn Omaha Downtown, Hampton Inn & Suites, Homewood Suites by Hilton, Fairfield Inn & Suites by Marriott, and Cambria Hotel.
I can vouch for Holiday Inn being a great location for families, especially with its small indoor waterpark.
The Old Market has several hotel options as well, and they could be within walking distance if you’re willing (and don’t mind the heat!). Many will likely have some sort of shuttle service, too. My family’s favorite is Embassy Suites because the rooms are large, the manager’s happy hour is great, and it has possibly the best complimentary hot breakfast in town.
If North Downtown and Old Market hotels are booked (or out of your price range), look further afield. Consider looking at hotels that are near the airport, on the outskirts of downtown or in Midtown Omaha. DoubleTree is a great option that’s still considered in downtown Omaha. They may offer free shuttle service.
Safety & transportation tips
With just a smidge under 1 million residents spread out over 4,407 square miles, the Omaha metro is huge. And it’s a driving city. We have public transportation but it’s not intuitive or geared toward shuttling around tourists. The exception being during major sporting events, when there are free shuttles taking fans to TD Ameritrade Park or CHI Health Center.
If you stay in the Old Market or in a hotel near the above sports venues, you can get around on foot and hotel shuttles. If you plan on going anywhere outside of downtown Omaha, though, expect to drive yourself or get an Uber (which may or may not be running during a pandemic).
Downtown Omaha is pretty safe, though if you come from a small town, it may not look so. The Old Market is patrolled pretty well by Omaha Police Department because it relies so much on leisure and business travelers. Major crimes are an anomaly. Still, don’t be oblivious to your surroundings nor leave your purse attended.
I lived in Old Market for several years as a single girl in her 20s (much to my parents’ dismay) and had no problems. It’s not quite as grand as it was about a decade ago, as hard times leads to more panhandlers, but it’s still as tourist-friendly and photogenic as ever. Trust your gut and you’ll be fine.
Q. What food is Omaha known for?
A. I’m sure you’ve heard of Omaha Steaks, and yes, they are headquartered in Omaha. The most convenient place to buy Omaha Steaks for travelers will be at the kiosk in the airport.
But if you like your steak expertly prepared, Omaha has plenty of great steakhouses to choose from (some even downtown).
Omaha is also home to the Reuben sandwich, and you’ll find many eateries claim to have the best. The restaurant closest to where the sandwich is said to be have been invented (in the Blackstone Hotel) is the Crescent Moon Ale House. Not only do they have a pretty good Reuben, they have a whole Reuben week where they’ll serve stuff like Reuben egg rolls.
Q. What’s the parking like downtown?
A. Unless it’s Sunday, expect to pay for parking in downtown Omaha. There are plenty of parking meters, naturally, and you can download an app to pay for them instead of carrying a bunch of coins.
Surface parking has gotten cheaper, except when parking near sporting venues.
You can find some free parking spots, but you have to hunt for them. Look to the 10th Street Bridge near The Durham Museum and a few side streets west of The Orpheum Theater for a few options. If you’re going to see a show at The Slowdown or Film Streams, parking is free in the lot behind the buildings.
Q. Is it difficult to drive in downtown Omaha?
A. There are a few streets around the Old Market area that are one-way streets, and if you’re not familiar with them, it can be an adjustment. I’ve seen a lot of out-of-state cars going the wrong way. Pay close attention to signs before turning.
Also, be on the lookout for slow-moving horse-drawn carriages.
Q. What’s up with Dodge Street?
A. Dodge Street (AKA Highway 6) is one of the city’s main thoroughfares and a source of headaches for anyone not familiar with its peculiarities. You see, there’s a couple of miles in Midtown Omaha where the middle lane of Dodge Street switches direction depending on the time of day. So, in the morning, there are three lanes heading downtown; in the afternoon, there are only two lanes heading downtown and that middle lane is now for driving the opposite direction.
Even more frustrating is that you can only turn left off Dodge Street into a business, not a side street. You’ll see lots of signs saying “No Left Turns.” Even though we all know you can turn left into a business, most drivers will still get angry if you try to because it slows traffic. I’m sorry about that. Omaha drivers hate that left turn on Dodge. I avoid it.
Q. Where are Omaha’s main sporting venues?
Most sporting events are held at CHI Health Center Omaha & Convention Center and TD Ameritrade Park. Both are located near each other in downtown Omaha.
CHI Health Center Omaha, 455 N. 10th St. (yes, I know, it sounds like you’re going to a doctor’s appointment)
TD Ameritrade Park, 1200 Mike Fahey St.
If it’s an NCAA event, at least for 2021, the rule is: “Events hosted in cities and states where restrictions on gatherings and sporting events are such that spectators are permitted, that attendance must be capped at no more than 25% of overall venue capacity while maintaining social distance pod seating for those fans in attendance according to the existing venue or site guidelines.”
So, you may be able to attend a game, it’s just going to be harder to score a ticket with limited capacity.
Q. What are the 2021 sport events in Omaha to know about?
A. This year is a big one for sports in Omaha. Here are a few notable tournaments:
NCAA Women’s Div. I Volleyball – All rounds of the volleyball tournament will be played at the CHI Health Center in Omaha, with the championship games planned for April 22-24, 2021.
U.S. Olympic Swim Trials – Swim Trials will be held in two parts. Wave I is June 4-7, 2021, and Wave II is June 13-20, 2021. Only the athletes participating in Wave II will have the ability to qualify for the U.S. Olympic Team.
NCCA Men’s Div. I College World Series – The CWS start with the Opening Celebration Day and Friday, June 18, 2021. Games run Saturday, June 19, through Tuesday/Wednesday, June 29/30, 2021. Read the Essential CWS Guide.