Don't be fooled by all the cornfields and prairie grass: Lincoln is cooler than you think. Part state capital and part university town, the city makes its mark with bike trails, breweries and eye-popping architecture under an enormous sky. Here's some of the best the city has to offer if you're planning a Great Plains getaway.
Gallery hop and market shop in the Haymarket District
In the late 1800s, the area near downtown's western edge was an open-air mart for selling cattle and hay (thus the name). Later it became a manufacturing hub that left a six-block legacy of vintage brick warehouses. Today those buildings hold funky galleries and specialty shops. Rocketship Gallery (rocketshipgallery.com) shows the spirit with fanciful, bold-hued prints, pottery and wood works. So does Licorice International (licoriceinternational.com), the USA's biggest chewy candy retailer, which hawks not just sweet but also salty licorice (a Nordic favorite). Crowds amass for the wine-soaked First Friday Artwalks, when businesses throw a street party and stay open late. They also pile in for the Saturday farmers market (lincolnhaymarket.org), a whopping spread of vendors selling wares from tomato chips to Czech fruit pastries to tables made from reclaimed barn wood.
Eat and drink beyond the norm
Cinnamon rolls, vegetable hash, burgers and pulled pork sandwiches anchor the compact menu at Bread & Cup in the Haymarket quarter. The snug cafe focuses on local ingredients and simply prepared dishes (we recommend swinging by during the boozy brunch). Beer geeks should head west a few miles to Zipline Brewing Co (ziplinebrewing.com). The low, white metal warehouse looks stark outside, but wood tables and a chalkboard list of 15 brews will beckon you to enter. The toasty Copper Alt is a stalwart, and Zipline cooks up all kinds of seasonal and small-batch elixirs. Cross your fingers the barrel-aged Chocolate Double Stout is flowing. For more adventurous eats, a strip of Vietnamese pho and banh mi slingers has formed around N 26th and W Streets. Lincoln has a sizable population from Vietnam, thanks to the city's long history of resettling refugees.
Explore the 'Penis of the Prairie' and other odd sights
It can't be helped: the 400-foot-high state capitol conjures a heckuva phallic image that has garnered its unsavory nickname. Supposedly the tower can be seen from 30 miles away. Pop inside the art deco-meets-classical building and see for yourself how far the view extends from the 14th-floor observation deck. Afterward seek out the National Museum of Roller Skating (rollerskatingmuseum.com), set in the back of a trade association office. Because where else on the planet can you ogle 19th-century skate patents and let your Xanadu musical fantasies fly? Lincoln is also home to the International Quilt Museum (quiltstudy.org). The mod, glassy building rotates textiles on display from its 3500-strong collection. The pieces span eras (dating back to the early 1700s) and multiple countries.
Cycle the trails
More than 130 miles of trails (gptn.org) stripe the city. The best of the bunch is the MoPac, a converted rail track that rolls from the university 27 miles east to Omaha's doorstep. The MoPac really gets its groove on after 84th Street, when it unfurls into a hushed landscape of woodlands and wildflower-speckled prairie, the peace broken only by birdsong. The university's Outdoor Adventures Center (crec.unl.edu/outdoor) rents bikes, and it's just a few blocks from the path. For an offbeat urban ride, join the Lincoln Hustle (lincolnhustle.blogspot.com). It's supposed to be a race, with stops and challenges along the way, but it pretty much morphs into a beery group caravan. It happens the last Thursday of each month; the website lists the location and theme for the evening.
Immerse in the university life
The University of Nebraska's 25,000 students lend a fresh vibe to Lincoln. The main campus is right in the middle of town, pumping a slew of coffee cafes, bookstores and thrift shops into the local economy. If you happen to be in the city on a fall Saturday and you notice an extra 80,000 people wandering around all clad in red, it means the university's football team is playing at Memorial Stadium. The Cornhuskers (huskers.com) have sold out every home game since 1962, a US college record. Tickets are hard to get, but the reward for your perseverance might be a hot dog shot from a cannon (an improbable device known as Der Viener Schlinger).
Hear live music
Lincoln's music scene has surged, buoyed by the young and frisky college crowd. The Bourbon Theatre (bourbontheatre.com) rocks hardest. This revamped 1920s movie palace hosts indie bands, rappers, DJs, soul singers, bluegrass players and everything in between. Musicians plug in most nights of the week. Smaller and with bands that are a bit more edgy, Vega (vegalincoln.com) is known for its excellent sound and intimate feel. Noshers can chow down an array of gourmet burgers (topped with, say, mac and cheese and smoked bacon). Zoo Bar (zoobar.com) is the granddaddy of the group. The long, narrow venue with worn wood floors and peeling posters on the walls has put blues on stage since 1973. Big names like Buddy Guy, Bo Diddley and Magic Slim have passed through over the years, but even when lesser-known bands play, the Zoo has its goodtime mojo working.