Known as the “Cornhusker State”, Nebraska is landlocked in the Midwestern region of the U.S. Aside from corn and agriculture, it’s most famous for its prairie landscapes that include the Great Plains, dunes in the Sandhills, and rock formations in the panhandle.
Covering 77,358 square miles, the state is fairly large in size and it had a population of 1,961,504 people as of 2020. Often overlooked and thought of as boring, Nebraska actually has plenty to offer its visitors.
For those that are looking for more exciting destinations, heading away from the vast plains to Omaha or Lincoln is the best plan of action. In the state’s urban areas, there are unique attractions, special events, festivals, and a thriving music scene.
With many historical sites and cultural landmarks, Nebraska also plays an important part in American history. Agriculture is big throughout the state and although most of the open land is used for farming, there are still lots of hidden gems worth exploring. Whether you’re simply passing through or have planned an epic road trip, this state will amaze you with its wonders.
History of “The Cornhusker State”
Thousands of years before the beginning of European colonization, Native American tribes lived throughout the state. Some of the most famous tribes include the Omaha, Lakota (Sioux), and Pawnee. European exploration didn’t begin until the late 1600s when Spain and France fought over the land. Both Spain and France established regular trade with the native tribes.
Eventually, France lost control of the territory after it was given to Spain during the Seven Years’ War, which occurred from 1756 to 1763. The Spanish and British clashed over the territory until eventually the United States staked their claim in 1819 by building Fort Atkinson. By 1854, the Nebraska Territory had been established by the US Congress. At the time, the capital of the territory was Omaha.
After pushing the Native Americans off their lands during the 1860s, many new settlers came to the territory during the 1870s and 1880s. It was during these decades that the state began to rely on agriculture and farming. Aided by barbed wire, steel plows, windmills, and fair weather, the agricultural industries boomed. A state since 1867, the two industries helped ensure Nebraska’s future by providing a stable economy.
During the 19th century, Nebraska became an important state for civil rights. With many Black Americans moving to the area from the South during the Great Migration (1910-1970), activism has been an important topic in big cities like Omaha. Since then, Nebraska has continued to diversify with more people of color living within the state each year.
Capital City of Lincoln
The capital of Nebraska is Lincoln, which is also the state’s second-largest city with a population of 291,082 as of 2020. A major hub for the state’s economy and culture, it’s also an important historical destination.
First founded in 1856, Lincoln started as a small village in Lancaster County. It was renamed in 1869 after President Abraham Lincoln. Throughout the city, there are museums and cultural sites, as well as the University of Nebraska.
Most tourists tend to congregate in the city’s center and downtown. However, the University of Nebraska’s campus is another popular destination because of the young students and visiting families. With most of the action taking place in the heart of the city, the downtown area really is the place to be.
Attractions in Lincoln include the Historic Haymarket District, the State Capitol Building, the University of Nebraska State Museum, Sunken Gardens, the Sheldon Museum of Art, the Lincoln Children’s Zoo, the International Quilt Study Center & Museum, and the Governor’s Residence. Just outside of the city, visitors that want to head away from the crowds can go to the Pioneers Park Nature Center.
Lincoln is also becoming well-known for its food and craft breweries. A newer industry, microbreweries are producing some of the best craft products in the country. Breweries that have great reviews are the White Elm Brewing Co., the Happy Raven, Blue Blood Brewing Co., and Zipline.
Omaha, the Largest City in Nebraska
Called “The Gateway to the West”, Omaha is the largest city in Nebraska with a population of 486,051 as of 2020. Omaha began in 1854 and since has grown to become a major metropolitan hub for both the local area and the state. Business is particularly prominent in the city with a few Fortune 500 companies and a handful of Fortune 1000 companies based in Omaha.
Tourism in the city is driven by the historic areas, riverfront, and diverse neighborhoods. A couple of areas that are worth visiting include the Old Market and Dundee neighborhood. Specific activities include the Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium, The Durham Museum, Lauritzen Gardens, Wildlife Safari Park, Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge, Joslyn Castle, Heart of America Park, and the Waterfront.
Just outside of the city center, there are many outdoor and historic attractions. The Boys Town, Florence Mill, General Crook House, Mormon Trail, Birthplace of Malcolm X, and Big Papillion Creek are all fun places to discover the local scenery, history, and culture. Omaha also has plenty of restaurants and shops that are special to each neighborhood.
Bellevue, “Beautiful View”
Home to 64,176 people as of 2020, Bellevue was originally named Bellview before taking on the French spelling of the name, which means “beautiful view”. Settled in the 1830s and incorporated as a town by 1855, it’s the second oldest settlement in Nebraska. The city sits near the Missouri River and it has a moderate elevation of 1,159 feet.
Bellevue feels like a suburb, but it’s still an exciting tourist destination. Surrounded by scenic rolling hills and the Missouri riverside, tourists come to enjoy the outdoor areas, city streets, and fun activities.
Attractions range from parks to museums, historical sites, and sporting venues. Some of the favorite highlights are the Tregaron Golf Course, Fontenelle Forest, TreeRush Adventures, the Sarpy County Museum, and the Willow Lakes Golf Course.
North Platte, “Little Chicago”
Once known as “Little Chicago” because of the high crime rates in the 1920s, North Platte has transformed into a tourist destination in West-Central Nebraska. Supporting 23,390 residents as of 2020, the city emerged because of the railroads and it continues to be serviced by the Union Pacific Railroad.
Also running through North Platte are the Lincoln Highway and Interstate 80. The most famous resident of North Platte was William Frederick Cody, better known as Buffalo Bill.
Although North Platte is a smaller community, there is still so much to see and do. Visitors can also enjoy a leisurely day of simply perusing local shops and restaurants. Or should check out the Golden Spike Tower, Buffalo Bill State Historical Park, the Lincoln County Historical Museum, riverside, Cody Park, Box Elder Canyon, Fort Cody Trading Post, Grain Bin Antique Town, and the Fort McPherson National Cemetery.
Kearney, A Small Midwestern Town
Home to 33,790 people as of 2020, Kearney is a lesser-known destination that’s often overlooked for the bigger destinations. Popular for their migratory birds, most tourists want to head out into the open outdoor spaces to enjoy hiking, wildlife viewing, and relaxing by the river. The downtown area is a quiet and attractive place to enjoy a leisure vacation.
A few places that are worth checking out include the World Theatre, Classic Car Museum, Downtown Kearney, Museum of Nebraska Art, Archway Monument, Frank House, and the Big Apple Fun Center. Plus, despite its small size, Kearney is a great spot for foodies and brewery connoisseurs. Serving Nebraska staples like burgers, steak, bacon, gravy, and waffle fries, guests will love the local restaurants.
A smaller city with a population of 53,131 people as of 2020, Grand Island was originally founded by German immigrants during the 1800s before being expanded by the railroad in the 1900s. An idyllic spot to take a vacation, the city is most famous for its scenery, museums, horse racing, and state fair. There are plenty of places to see and something to fit travelers of any age.
The top sights in Grand Island are the Stuhr Museum, Strolley Park, Oasis Water Park, Railside, the Grand Theatre, Raising Nebraska, Fonner Park Race Track, Indianhead Golf Club, and the Conestoga Mall. If you happen to be in town during the months of August and September, the Nebraska State Fair is held at Fonner Park for 11 days.
Scotts Bluff National Monument
Rising 800 feet above the North Platte River is Scotts Bluff National Monument. A landmark for the early Native American people and emigrants, the monument is still used by travelers today as a marker or for directions.
The monument protects 3,000 acres of land, but most people head straight to Scotts Bluff to see the stunning rock formations. Other attractions include the Summit Road and William Henry Jackson Artwork Collection. The visitor center also has exhibits that teach about the formation and history of the monument.
Chimney Rock National Historic Site
A mere 30 minutes down the road from Scotts Bluff is another natural formation that has become an important landmark. The Chimney Rock National Historic Site is a lone formation that maxes out at 480 feet tall. Formed during the Oligocene Age, it’ss an icon of the American West and it was frequently used as a marker for those traveling along the Oregon Trail.
Visitors can find more information about the rock and its formation at the Chimney Rock Museum. There is also a visitor center operated by History Nebraska that is open to the public. Guests of all ages are welcome at either venue and there are interactive activities and exhibits for young children.
Agate Fossil Beds National Monument
Filled with fossils and Native American heritage, the Agate Fossil Beds National Monument is a great place to travel with kids or if you’re at all interested in looking at fossil records. Found throughout the monument are fossilized skeletons of mammals from the Miocene era.
Excavated bones are housed in the visitor center. The most famous excavation sites are in the valley and they are called the University and Carnegie Hills fossil beds.
Homestead National Historical Park
Commemorating the passing of the Homestead Act of 1862, this historical park sits just outside of Beatrice, Nebraska. Surrounded by tallgrass prairie, many visitors head to the park to view the special burnings, which are used to maintain the ecosystem.
To learn more about the Homestead Act and the park’s creation, visitors should head to the Homestead Heritage Center and Education Center. Featuring various exhibits, the centers have plenty of activities for young children, teens, and adults.
The Sandhills Region
Some of the best prairie scenery in Nebraska is found in the Sandhills, which is located in the north-central region of the state. Featuring sand dunes that have been stabilized by the prairie grass, the region was named a National Natural Landmark in 1984. A huge region, some of the top sights include the Sherman Reservoir State Recreation Area and Smith Falls State Park.
The Cowboy Trail
Stretching for 192 miles in Nebraska from Valentine to Norfolk, the Cowboy Trail is a walking and biking path that takes visitors through some of the most scenic areas of the state. Paved with crushed gravel, the trail is fairly easy to navigate and it is clearly marked the entire way.
Along the way, visitors will see old parts of the railways, the Sandhills, and tall grass prairies. For the best view of a portion of the trail, visitors should go to the Niobrara National Scenic Ridge, which has preserved a historic railroad bridge.
“Nebraska. Honestly, it’s not for everyone”
Even though Nebraska is relatively flat, visitors just have to look deeper to find the beauty of this Midwestern state. Far from boring, there are dozens of places worth seeing from the urban cities to grass prairies and amazing rock formations. With plenty of off-the-beaten-path attractions, this state will surprise you with its beauty.