Here’s what you probably know about Omaha, Nebraska: There’s a big zoo. There are lots of cows. It’s about a three-hour drive from Kansas City. Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and aquarium is regarded as one of the best zoos in the world.
But there’s so much more to this oft-overlooked city, from the quirky bars and vintage shops to the rich art scene — and some of the very best sushi you’ll find without hopping on a plane.
A Very American Sandwich
The first thing you need to do when you get to Omaha is find yourself a Reuben. While you may know of the Reuben as a New York deli sandwich, local legend places the origin of this American classic at Omaha’s Blackstone Hotel in the 1920s. Today, you’ll find several excellent variants throughout Omaha. We heartily recommend the classic Reuben at Mayne Street Market (6207 Maple St., 402-502-0884, maynestmarket.com), where thin-shaved corned beef is piled high, the sauerkraut is good and tangy, the Swiss cheese is appropriately melty, the house-made Thousand Island dressing is sweet, and the toasted rye bread is just as Reuben Kulakofsky — the Jewish-Lithuanian immigrant credited with inventing this hallowed sandwich — intended it.
Beer and cheer
While away your afternoon in Benson, Omaha’s unofficial beer neighborhood. Benson Brewery (6059 Maple St., 402-934-8668, bensonbrewery.com) has 10 taps available, with something for everyone. Quench your thirst with a fruity mango-infused Berliner Weiss or a pint of the Karha-T, a wonderfully spiced English ale with hints of nutmeg, clove and vanilla. The Vanilla Bean Blonde at Infusion Brewing Co. (6115 Maple St., 402-916-9998, infusionbrewing.com) is a local favorite, too. Between drinks, pop into Lion’s Mane Vintage (6107 Maple St., 402-968-8015, lionsmanevintage.com), a small clothing and housewares boutique with very fair prices and fun finds — especially if you’re in the market for, say, a beaded 1980s sweater or a Mad Men-esque cocktail shaker.
Worth the drive
Sushi connoisseurs will rejoice at chef David Utterback’s menu at Yoshitomo (6009 Maple St., 402-916-5872, sushiyoshitomo.com). This stylish restaurant opened in autumn of 2017, but it operates with the authority and confidence of a seasoned dining destination. Everything here is good, and there’s plenty to choose from, but we implore you to resist the siren call of Utterback’s 24 inventive norimaki hand rolls and make a meal out of the chef’s nigiri. This is the sort of place where every bite you have is better than the last, and you will wonder how it could be possible that you have never before known the bliss that is Japan-imported Aburi wagyu cured in mojo for several days and served with uni butter or the elegance of scallop cured with salt and lemon truffle oil.
Continue your Japanese excursion with a post-dinner visit to speakeasy Kaitei (6109 1/3 Maple St.), located just down the street. In addition to an impressive collection of sake and Japanese whiskey and a delightfully tongue-in-cheek cocktail menu, this casual-cool bar — located in the basement of Ika Ramen and Izakaya (6109 Maple St., 402-558-2482, ikaramenandizakaya.com) and accessible through the restaurant or via a surreptitious door in the adjoining alleyway — also boasts a vending machine stocked with Japanese snacks, in case you are curious about what wasabi shrimp puffs taste like.
But first, coffee
Archetype Coffee (multiple locations, drinkarchetype.com) is the gold star standard for craft coffee in Omaha. Stop by the original shop in the Blackstone District, or head over to the bright, industrial space in the Little Bohemia neighborhood. The menu is the same at both locations: pastries, pretty cortados and competition-quality pour-overs, all served by seriously friendly baristas.
Admission is always free to the Joslyn Art Museum (2200 Dodge St., 402-342-3300, joslyn.org), which makes this world-class collection of art remarkably accessible. It would be easy to spend an entire day getting lost in the antiquities of ancient Rome, Greece and Egypt, diving into American history in the American Indian art collection, exploring Impressionist masterpieces or absorbing Jackson Pollock’s striking 1947 painting Galaxy.
Better with bread
With Farine+Four (3020 Leavenworth St., 402-905-2432, farineanddour.com), Ellie Pegler has designed a bubbles-forward organic bakery that meets several needs in one fell swoop. Her stylish shop does everything from breakfast sandwiches and exquisitely arranged toasts (the beet-cured salmon is a winner) to vegan ice cream (try the pink peppercorn if it’s available) and marbled bon bons that are almost too pretty to eat. Pegler mills her flour in-house, serves fresh cream in her coffee and will soon be adding cheese and charcuterie options to her menu. She’s also a certified sommelier, and her wine selection is expertly curated and incredibly affordable. If you’ve got room to take home a bottle or two — plus some of her melt-in-your-mouth olive-studded focaccia — don’t think twice.
Shop the day away
The Old Market area near downtown is the most touristy part of Omaha but still well worth a venture. Stroll through charming brick streets and repurposed buildings with century-old foundations. You’ll find a mix of restaurants, boutiques and galleries here. Pretty in Patina (1125 Jackson St., 402-990-4472, prettyinpatina.com) has a large mix of antiques and gently used designer handbags, and Flying Worm (1125 Jackson St., 402-932-3229, omahavintage.com) has a wide selection of both vintage and new clothing. Jackson Street Booksellers (1119 Jackson St., 402-341-2664, jacksonstreetbooksellers.com) is a paradise for literary enthusiasts, especially those who want to geek out on rare and out-of-print editions, and Tina Tweedy at Chocolat Abeille (421 S. 11th St., 402-315-9006, chocolatabeille.com) uses locally sourced honey to sweeten her artisan chocolates. And don’t skip the Kaneko (1111 Jones St., 402-341-3800, thekaneko.org), a nonprofit dedicated to examining the creative process across various industries. Founded by the internationally acclaimed sculptor Jun Kaneko and his wife Ree, this imaginative collection of galleries is spread out over three refurbished warehouses.
A petite bon appetit
No visit to the Old Market — or, indeed, Omaha — is complete without a stop at La Buvette (511 S. 11th St., 402-344-8627, labuvetteomaha.com), a wine bar and grocery with an exceptional patio that carries a certain je ne sais quoi usually reserved for those effortlessly chic Parisian cafes. Start with a cheese plate featuring three generous varieties and accoutrements, bread and butter, and then select a couple of dishes from the daily menu. Buy a bottle from the list at retail price, or pluck something special off the shop wall and pay a small corkage fee to open it at your table.
Tiny house, big drinks
The cozy, art-filled Tiny House Bar (1411 S. 13th St.) is big on flavor, which more than makes up for its lack of creativity when it comes to bar names (the joint is located inside a converted tiny house). Try American absinthe prepared with the traditional French drip process, or enjoy modern interpretations of classic drinks (the Green-ya Colada features green chartreuse and banana chip-infused rum). Tiny House Bar is one of of a slew of small businesses that are reviving the Little Bohemia neighborhood; if you have time, stop by Vincent Outfitters Co. (1414 S. 13th St., 402-321-2730, vincentoutfitting.com) across the street for tasteful upscale menswear.
Cap your night with some live music at The Jewell (1030 Capitol Ave., 917-748-4337, jewellomaha.com), a smooth and swanky jazz club that opened in February in downtown’s Capitol District. The Jewell is a love letter to Omaha’s rich music history, where the legendary Dreamland Ballroom — operated by Jimmy Jewell Jr. — hosted jazz icons like Nat King Cole and Dizzy Gillespie.
Be prepared to wait in line for Saddle Creek Breakfast Club (1540 N. Saddle Creek Rd., 402-932-5970), and know that it will be worth the wait. This small, chic spot spiffs up traditional brunch dishes, offering fluffy peanut butter-banana pancakes, vegan biscuits and gravy and a kimchi omelet.
Where to Stay
(1504 Harney St., 402-991-4981, hoteldecoomaha.com) is situated in the heart of Omaha’s downtown, in a historic 1930 building that was converted from offices to a hotel in 1989. The best part of Hotel Deco may be Monarch Prime & Bar, where you can experience Omaha’s famous steaks in the stunning dining room with velvet booths and sumptuous floral wallpaper or enjoy a cocktail in the art deco-inspired lounge.
The Magnolia Hotel
(1615 Howard St., 402-341-2500, magnoliahotels.com/omaha) resides in another historic downtown building, this one built in 1923 and designed to resemble the Palazzo del Bargello in Florence, Italy. Rooms are on the small side, but they’re beautifully decorated, and there’s a lovely courtyard to lounge in. Bonus: The dog-friendly Magnolia is only blocks from Old Market attractions.