I’m always on the hunt for hidden gems in Nebraska, be it a stylish boutique or an amazing cafe. Once you start roaming the state, you start to notice some Nebraska small towns have more of those must-see places than others. Here are a few of my favorite towns, and what you should do while there.
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It’s hardly a secret that there are some of the state’s largest attractions just outside of Ashland, and they get a lot of attention: Eugene T. Mahoney State Park, Lee G. Simmons Wildlife Safari Park, and Strategic Air Command & Aerospace Museum. But the real gems are found in town, especially along Silver Street. There are two stores I love on Silver Street, the boutique with swoon-worthy stationary, paper products, and books called Postscript and Salt Creek Mercantile, which always has a gorgeous seasonal decor.
For food and drinks, I recommend Glacial Till Tasting Room, which has a fantastic assortment of ciders. If you’re more of a wine fan, spend an hour or two at a table on the patio of Cellar 426 Winery, and enjoy a flight of wine and the peaceful scenery.
- Eugene T. Mahoney State Park, 28500 W. Park Highway, Ashland
- Lee G. Simmons Wildlife Safari Park, 16406 N. 292 St., Ashland
- Strategic Air Command & Aerospace Museum, 28210 W. Park Highway, Ashland
- Postscript, 1434 Silver St., Ashland
- Salt Creek Mercantile, 1502 Silver St., Ashland
- Glacial Till Tasting Room, 1419 Silver St., Ashland
- Cellar 426 Winery, 1402 S. Ninth St., Ashland
Brownville is an incredibly small town, which makes it all the more impressive that its residents have managed to cultivate quite an artsy community. While I can’t vouch for the renowned summer theater of the town, I can say that the book shops and galleries on Main Street are reason enough to stop. These include The Lyceum (also serves food), Buckaroo Bookstore, and The Bird’s Nest Trading Post.
Brownville Education Center for the Arts and Humanities is a new nonprofit bookstore in town, and its in the old Brownville Schoolhouse, which I remember as the final home of the Antiquarium Book Store. It’s a book lover’s dream place to explore.
And then there’s Whiskey Run Creek Winery & Distillery, located inside a 100-year-old barn. It’s a lovely place to sip a glass of wine, especially on a nice day out on the patio.
You can stay in one of the town’s brick cottages, like the Pierce Cottage Guest House. Breakfast is included!
- The Lyceum, 228 Main St., Brownville
- Buckaroo Bookstore, 224 Main St., Brownville
- The Bird’s Nest Trading Post, 309 Main St., Brownville
- Brownville Education Center for the Arts and Humanities, 309 Water St., Brownville
- Whiskey Run Creek Winery & Distillery, 702 Main St., Brownville
- Pierce Cottage Guest House, 974 Main St., Brownville
Wayne is one of the state’s smaller university towns, so its shops and restaurants are lucky to have a student and faculty population to draw from. But, it also attracts road trippers like me. I recently stopped at AquaPop and Johnnie Byrd Brewing Co. to pick up gourmet popcorn and beer for a camping trip. Other stops in town include Blue Cat Gallery & Studio and The Table Coffeehouse.
- AquaPop, 200 S. Main St., Wayne
- Johnnie Byrd Brewing Co., 121 N. Pearl St., Wayne
- Blue Cat Gallery & Studio, 114 W. Third St., Wayne.
- The Table Coffeehouse, 203 Main St., Wayne.
There’s a good chance if you’ve heard of Beatrice, you’ve heard of it because the nearby Homestead National Historic Park, which has preserved the first homestead that was made available under the Homestead Act of 1862. But I recommend a longer stop in the town of Beatrice, especially if you’re hungry.
One of the most popular restaurants in Southeast Nebraska, The Black Crow, is in town. There’s also a little popcorn stand nearby that’s an exact replica of the one that stood on the same street corner back in 1937 called Traubel’s Popcorn Stand. A little tip: The popcorn stand is cash-only. And if you’re thirsty, try made-in-Nebraska wine and beer at Tall Tree Tastings.
Beatrice has several shops, but the one I loved browsing was Clean Slate Soap, a locally-owned store that sold handmade soaps and scrubs.
- Homestead National Historic Park, 8523 NE-4, Beatrice
- The Black Crow, 405 Court St., Beatrice
- Traubel’s Popcorn Stand, 101 N. Fifth St., Beatrice
- Tall Tree Tastings, 122 N. Fifth St., Beatrice
- Clean Slate Soap, 813 Court St., Beatrice.
Home of Arbor Day, it’s not surprising that popular activities in Nebraska City involve trees. The town is a fall destination for Nebraska families who love to visit Kimmel Orchard & Vineyard and explore Arbor Day Farm Tree Adventure (don’t miss the fun Treetop Village there).
Take a deep dive in the region’s history at Lewis & Clark Interpretive Trail and Visitor Center, which has fascinating hands-on exhibits indoors, and replicas of a keelboat and earth lodge outdoors.
Dining options aren’t abundant in Nebraska City, at least not chain restaurant options, though I recommend either a meal at The Keeping Room, Timbers at the Lied Lodge or Porters, a barbecue spot next to Arbor Day Farm Tree Adventure.
- Kimmel Orchard & Vineyard, 5995 G Road, Nebraska City
- Arbor Day Farm Tree Adventure, 2611 Arbor Ave., Nebraska City
- Lewis & Clark Interpretive Trail and Visitor Center, 100 Valmont Drive, Nebraska City
- The Keeping Room, 717 Central Ave., Nebraska City
- Timbers at the Lied Lodge, 2700 Sylvan Road, Nebraska City
- Porters inside Apple House Market, 2611 Arbor Ave., Nebraska City
Chadron is in the beautiful and rugged part of Nebraska called the Panhandle so I recommend planning longer than just a quick stop there. At least, drive around Chadron State Park to see some of the area’s natural beauty.
Beyond a good hike, though, a must-stop for lunch, coffee — or if it’s later in the day, a drink — at Bean Broker Coffee House & Pub. If history is more of your thing, visit Dawes County Historical Museum or Mari Sandoz High Plains Heritage Center. Sandoz was one of Nebraska’s most well-known authors.
- Chadron State Park, 15951 Gold Rush Byway, Chadron
- Bean Broker Coffee House & Pub, 202 W. Second St., Chadron
- Dawes County Historical Museum, 341 Country Club Road, Chadron
- Mari Sandoz High Plains Heritage Center, 1101 Main St., Chadron
Most visitors to Ogallala are likely stopping quickly before they head to nearby Lake McConaughy (AKA Lake Mac). But stick around a little and see more of the town.
It’s hard to miss Front Street since its exterior looks straight out of an Old West movie. It’s a steakhouse for most of the year, and in the summer, Front Street Crystal Palace Revue revs up with gunfight reenactments, singing and dancing.
Petrified Wood & Art Gallery is near Front Street and it’s well-worth stopping to see. It’s an impressive collection and truly an art gallery. And the best part is that it’s free.
- Lake McConaughy State Recreation Area, 475 NE-61, Ogallala
- Front Street, 519 E. First St., Ogallala
- Petrified Wood & Art Gallery, 418 E. First St., Ogallala
Valentine is another one of those plan-a-longer-visit towns of Nebraska. For me, it’s always been a weekend trip so that my family could canoe along the Niobrara National Scenic River. It’s a pretty place to explore, and not just by canoe or, say, a tube.
The area is home to Smith Falls State Park, which has the state’s highest waterfall you can walk right up to. There’s also Merritt Reservoir State Recreation Area, which is Nebraska’s only International Dark Sky Park.
Beyond nature-y type stuff, in-town you can enjoy a meal at Peppermill Restaurant & E.K. Valentine Lounge or Old Mill Bulk Foods (it’s a confusing name since it’s a deli and pizzeria), or have a pint at the Bolo Beer Co. taproom.
- My recommended outfitter for a Niobrara National Scenic River float trip is Rocky Ford as an outfitter, 41619 River Road, Valentine.
- Smith Falls State Park, 90165 Smith Falls Road, Valentine
- Merritt Reservoir State Recreation Area, NE Highway 97 and Cedar Bay, Valentine
- Peppermill Restaurant & E.K. Valentine Lounge, 502 US Highway 20, Valentine
- Old Mill Bulk Foods, 704 E. C St., Valentine
- Bolo Beer Co., 420 E. First St., Valentine
In fairness, Fremont is large enough to be called a city, but I’m including it on this list since it often gets overlooked being so near Omaha. Fremont’s downtown is great, and it’s worth checking out. I like to get a coffee at Milady Coffeehouse whenever I’m in town. It’s near a cute boutique called Fia + Belle.
Fremont is a summer destination for the region because of the swimming and boating opportunities at Fremont Lakes State Recreation Area. Pack a picnic or grab food (and drinks) at The Tow Line Co. located inside the park. Or, cool off at the end of the day with locally-brewed beer at Five.0.Five Brewing Co.
- Milady Coffeehouse, 105 E. Sixth St., Fremont
- Fia + Belle, 108 E. Sixth St., Fremont
- Fremont Lakes State Recreation Area and The Tow Line Co., 3120 State Lakes Road, Fremont
- Five.0.Five Brewing Co., 349 N. Main St., Fremont