Downtown Omaha is enjoying a renaissance with the newly reopened Gene Leahy Mall. The green space is a great attraction for families and out-of-town visitors, but it’s not the only free things to do in downtown Omaha. Here are my recommendations for budget-friendly fun in this historic part of Omaha.
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Where is downtown Omaha?
Omaha’s downtown is on the eastern side of the city. Generally speaking, Downtown Omaha is considered to be located West to East between 20th Street and the Missouri River, and North to South between Chicago Street and Leavenworth Street.
A few notable neighborhoods to explore in Downtown Omaha include the Old Market, Park East, and NoDo (North Downtown), as well as the new development of The RiverFront (opening in phases, with a large portion planned to open in 2023).
Free things to do in the Old Market
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. There are A LOT of dogs at the farmers market.
The hub of activity in the Old Market is found at the intersection of Howard Street and 11th Street. Typically, you’ll encounter talented street musicians, as well as horse who pull the horse-drawn carriages. The carriage rides aren’t free, but greeting the horses is. Stroll the surrounding blocks to discover more interesting things to do see and do for free.
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 streets has a neat lion fountain in front to see. There’s also the Urban Walking Labyrinth that begins at Urban Abbey, where you can pick up a map.
There are a number of art galleries in area that are free and love visitors. My favorites to browse are the Artist Co-operative Gallery, the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts and KANEKO (though, the current virtual reality experience open through Sept. 10, 2022 is not free). 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.
The Passageway is a cool indoor shopping center. There are fun stores to browse, hallways (the “passage ways”) to explore, and mysterious artwork to marvel at. Venture into the second floor gallery called Garden of the Zodiac & Gallery. In the rear of the gallery, you’ll find a door that leads outside to small, fascinating garden with sculptures. It’s one of Omaha’s hidden gems!
Until you spend the money, browsing the shops in the Old Market is free. A few of my favorite shops to pass time in are Hollywood Candy, Jackson Street Booksellers, City Limits, RAYGUN, and Imaginarium.
Many galleries and shops take part in First Fridays in the Old Market, a free monthly event highlighting local artists at various locations.
- Old Market Farmers Market, 519 S. 11th St. (May-October)
- Center of the Old Market, Howard Street and 11th Street intersection
- Urban Abbey, 1026 Jackson St.
- Artist Co-operative Gallery, 405 S. 11th St.
- Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, 724 S. 12th St.
- KANEKO, 1111 Jones St.
- Passageway & Garden of the Zodiac, 1054 Howard St.
- Hollywood Candy, 1209 Jackson St.
- Jackson Street Booksellers, 1119 Jackson St.
- City Limits, 1114 Howard St.
- RAYGUN, 1108 Jackson St.
- Imaginarium, 1113 Howard St.
- First Fridays, various locations in the Old Market
Free things to do in Park East
Park East is one of those neighborhoods in Omaha that might be too far from downtown to be Downtown Omaha, maybe it’s midtown, but it really is part of Downtown Omaha. It’s the area between from 20th Street on the east to 28th Street on the west and from Dodge Street to the north and Leavenworth Street to the south.
Two of the city’s best museums are in Park East, and one happens to have free admission. Unfortunately, you’ll have to wait to visit Joslyn Art Museum. Extensive renovations are underway and the museum is not set to reopen until 2024.
Omaha Children’s Museum is not a free attraction, though there are some fun things that are free just outside the museum. The Grass Patch is a playground for young kids, and seasonally, there’s a small sprayground open in front. Kids are also welcome to play on the vintage firetruck located under the overhang of the museum’s entrance.
14. Joslyn Art Museum, 2200 Dodge St.
15. Omaha Children’s Museum, 500 S. 20th St.
Free things to do in NoDo
NoDo, the nickname given to North Downtown, is the revitalized area falling 17th Street on the west side to about the CHI Health Center on the east side. The boundaries on the north end stretch from Seward Street to I-480 on the south.
It’s a big swath of area that includes Schwab Field (home to the NCAA College World Series), The Slowdown, and Creighton University.Charles It’s a lively area during CWS, where 10 days in June you can enjoy free activities at Fan Fest.
Year-round, though, you can find great free options. I like visiting the studios and glass blowing space at Hot Shops Art Center, especially during their spring and winter open house events.
Millworks Commons is another interesting space to explore. Outdoors is a skate park, and indoors, you can find local businesses and frequent free community events, like yoga in July.
16. CWS Fan Fest, Lot C of Charles Schwab Field, along Mike Fahey and 10th streets (only during CWS in June)
17. Hot Shops Art Center, 1301 Nicholas St.
18. Millworks Commons, 13th and Nicholas streets
Free things to do at the RiverFront
Situated between the Old Market and NoDo is the Gene Leahy Mall, which was recently redesigned to include an amphitheater, playground, dog park, and new public art. The old slides of Gene Leahy Mall remain, too. Free activities have been planned all summer long, including concerts, workouts, kids activities, and dog training.
The mall is part of the phased RiverFront development, and will be one beautiful green space connecting the downtown area to the Missouri River soon.
The Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge connects Omaha to Council Bluffs, Iowa, and is a popular Instagram spot because you can straddle the state lines. In the summer, there’s a little sprayground area on the Omaha side of the bridge, as well as a cute troll named OMAR.
Don’t skip a visit to the Lewis & Clark National Parks Service Headquarters at the base of the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge. It’s small, but has several hands-on and interactive things to do for kids, and a short documentary for history buffs. When we visited, my kids took a quick tour with a park ranger, who told them about the animals Lewis and Clark encountered.
19. Gene Leahy Mall, 1302 Farnam St.
20. Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail Headquarters & Visitor Center, 601 Riverfront Drive
21. Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge, 705 Riverfront Drive
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Book a stay in Omaha
Want to stay at one of my favorite hotels in Omaha? Check out the following:
- Embassy Suites Omaha (Downtown/Old Market) – Within walking distance to Old Market, Capital District, and the RiverFront, and the best hotel near the zoo
- Kimpton Cottonwood Hotel – In the hip Blackstone District, great outdoor pool and brunch
- Cambria Hotel Omaha Downtown – Great view of Schwab Park, usually a lower rate than other comparable downtown hotels
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