A surprisingly world-class art scene awaits in the Midwest, and it’s not where you think. Chicago may have its Art Institute, but the place to be is 450 miles due west, in Omaha, Nebraska. Here, a wide swath of works – from classical masterpieces to public art projects to hand-crafted artisan works – make their mark on and add color to this underrated city.

Omaha may have gotten its start as a railroad town in the mid-1850s, but today, it's a thriving arts and culture region, and one that may be best seen from a bike.

The skyline of Omaha Nebraska is seen at sunset with a striking orange and blue sky and lights glittering in the city
It's time to stop thinking of Omaha as 'flyover country' © Joe Willman / EyeEm / Getty Images

An unexpected art scene

A few steps inside Omaha’s Joslyn Art Museum, Degas’ Little Dancer, Fourteen Years Old reservedly welcomes visitors, casually posing in fourth position. She stands in the center of the room, flanked by masterpieces from artists like Monet, Cassatt and Renoir that grace the walls, eagerly imploring visitors to enter the gallery.

A gift to Omaha by local philanthropist Sarah Joslyn, the Joslyn Art Museum opened in 1931 and today houses more than 12,000 works of art in a 200,000-square-foot Art Deco style building made of exquisite Georgia pink marble. Beyond Impressionist works, the museum’s world-class collection features modern and contemporary artworks, Baroque and Renaissance masterworks, and pieces influenced by the American landscape.

Local artists also have a place in Omaha’s art scene, creating and inspiring at the Hot Shops Art Center in downtown Omaha. Inside this 92,000-square-foot center, you’ll find 58 artist studios and three art galleries featuring glass-blowing, bronze-casting and pottery-making.

More than 80 Hot Shops artists encourage visitors to pull up a chair to ask questions as they create their own works, taking in inspiration from the artists themselves. Sign up for a class on glass bead-making, painting with oils, even printmaking and photography.

Public art is on-trend in Omaha too. There are 22 stops on the self-guided Downtown Omaha Art Walk, which includes sculptures, statues and a 32,500-square-foot Fertile Ground mural in Omaha’s Old Market district. Painted in 2009 by celebrated muralist Meg Saligman, the work relays the history of Omaha from the first settlers to present day.

A large fountain dances in the middle of a lake with the Omaha skyline rising in the background
It's hard to beat a pretty day in Heartland of America Park in Omaha © Erin Gifford / Lonely Planet

Seeing the city from the Riverfront Trail

Tackling the 22-mile Omaha Riverfront Trail, whether by bike or on foot, is one of the best ways to see Omaha, including its works of art, as you skirt along the Missouri River – a free-flowing natural border between Nebraska and Iowa. Rent a bike at one of 70 Heartland B-cycle bike-sharing stations across town or simply set off on foot to explore numerous points of interest and attractions.

One of the most well-known stops along the trail is to see Bob. That’s short for the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge, or simply, Bob the Bridge. Bob is a 3,000-foot pedestrian bridge connecting Nebraska and Iowa. So popular is Bob that he (er, it) has his own Twitter and Instagram accounts, even a vlog that he updates now and again.

Snap a photo in the center of the bridge as you’re standing in both states at the same time and you’re doing it – you’re “bobbing.” Take that photo to the Omaha Visitors Center to score an official 0.9k marathon sticker.

Bob may be beloved, but more than a dozen stops along the trail also beckon for attention while getting to know Omaha. Kenefick Park, for one, is home to Centennial and Big Boy, two of the Union Pacific Railroad’s most powerful locomotives. Both sit at the starting point of the First Transcontinental Railroad, a 1,912-mile rail track that ran from Omaha to Oakland, connecting the existing east coast rail network with the west coast in 1869.

Another popular stop along the trail is the 31-acre Heartland of America Park. Enjoy a two-mile stroll or cycle around the lake to see views of the 320-foot dancing fountain show. Colorful light shows entertain guests in the evening. Feeding the geese and indulging in a picnic lunch are favorite pastimes at the park, as is gliding along in a gondola in summer months.

A young boy and a young girl climb on a bronze statue of a lion outside the Omaha Zoo
Omaha has some world-class attractions for families © Shannon Ramos / EyeEm / Getty Images

Kid-Friendly Fun

The whimsical, primary-colored sculptures in the Joslyn Art Museum’s Discovery Garden have been wowing children and adults alike since 2009. Playful large-than-life sculptures with names like Noodles & Doodles and 22½ Degrees with Crayon Tips delight guests strolling about the manicured gardens.

Across town, Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo is a perennial favorite, frequently ranking among the top-five zoos in the world. Start in the Desert Dome. It’s the world’s largest indoor desert, but it’s also a representation of three deserts in one – Africa’s Namib Desert, the Red Center of Australia and the Sonoran Desert in the southwest United States.

The Omaha Zoo also boasts the world’s largest nocturnal exhibit (Kingdoms of the Night) and the world’s largest indoor rainforest (Lied Jungle). There’s so many superlatives in one location. Beyond animals and exhibits, keep your eyes open for family-friendly art around the grounds, like the colorful, seven-foot tall Japanese raccoon dog sculptures called Tanukis.

For hands-on art and science exhibits, add the Omaha Children’s Museum to your itinerary. It’s the most visited museum in Nebraska, according to Omaha’s visitors’ bureau, and it’s easy to see why – with exhibits like the Art Smart Center, which opened in 2017, inviting children to express themselves creatively with sketch pencils, wood, paint and light.

A brand-new exhibit, Super Sports: Building Strength, Sportsmanship & Smarts (through April 14, 2019), encourages little ones to move their bodies, test their athletic and team-building skills, even learn the science behind sports, like why a football spins in the air.

A top-down look at two feet standing on concrete, straddling a line labeled Iowa on the left and Nebraska on the right
'Bobbing' is standing halfway along the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge with one foot in Nebraska and the other in Iowa © Erin Gifford / Lonely Planet

Make Omaha happen

The airport is less than five miles from downtown, making it convenient for exploring when you’re ready to make a weekend of Omaha. Check in at the EVEN Hotel Omaha, a sleek, modern hotel dedicated to fitness and relaxation (Bob would approve). Or consider Magnolia Omaha, an upscale hotel in a thoughtfully-restored historic 1920s building.

As home to Omaha Steaks, it’s no surprise that Omaha is chock full of tempting culinary delights worthy of a road trip or plane ride. For those who love brunch – and who doesn’t – try Early Bird for all-day brunch (yes, all-day). The menu wows with breakfast nachos, bacon samplers and chicken & donuts. Seriously, yum.

In the evening, try Wilson & Washburn for hip restored 19th-century digs and hand-crafted cocktails, as well as two dozen top-notch craft beers and imports on tap. You’ll also find comforting made-from-scratch pub grub, like mac & cheese and pulled pork sandwiches.

'Under the radar USA' is a series of articles about lesser-known USA destinations. Previous pieces explored AkronCheyenneColumbus, El Paso, FredericksburgIthaca and Paducah

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