Omaha, Nebraska

Mixing Business with Pleasure in Omaha, Nebraska

Extending a business trip into a fun-filled Omaha weekend

By Naomi Kowalski

I was sitting at my desk at work, daydreaming of palm trees swaying in the salty ocean breeze, when an email notification about our company’s annual conference popped up on my screen. This year’s location: Omaha, Nebraska. With a sigh, I snapped out of my beachside daydream, but a quick Google search landed me right back in vacation mode. Omaha looked amazing, boasting an impressive music scene, the world’s largest indoor desert and an abundance of craft beer hot spots. Sold!

Intrigued by the craft brewery options, my husband, Paul, decided to tag along. Neither of us had been to Omaha, but based on a friend’s recommendation, we booked a hotel in the Old Market District. The real story starts on Saturday morning when I hung up my conference lanyard, and Paul and I decide to explore that indoor desert located at Omaha's world-famous zoo.

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Table for two in the African grasslands

Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium sprawls across more than 160 acres, so Paul had been in charge of planning our visit while I was at my conference. First up, we made our way toward the world’s largest indoor desert, which sits under the massive desert dome. The dome’s three distinct deserts—the Namib Desert, the Red Center of Australia and the Sonoran Desert—are separated by a mountain in the middle. Paul is fascinated with the American Southwest, so we took our time checking out the exhibits featuring bobcats, rattlesnakes and cacti as we strolled through the Sonoran section.

Next, we descended the stairs to the dimly lit Kingdoms of the Night. We held hands through the bat cave, walked past life-like stalactites and stalagmites and then navigated across the winding swamp bridge, which overlooks an albino alligator. In this exhibit, the animals’ days and nights are switched so the zoo visitors can see the animals in their natural nocturnal behaviors.

I adjusted my eyes as we walked out into the beautiful sunny Omaha day. We decided to pass through the Lied Jungle—the largest indoor rainforest in the US—and walked under palm trees and past monkeys, tapirs and pygmy hippos before making our way over to the African Grasslands.

I felt as if I’d been transported to another place.

“I could go for a snack,” Paul said, pointing at the concessions area in the middle of the grasslands.

The African Lodge, complete with a thatched roof and indoor fireplace, is home to the Tusker Grill restaurant. We chose a private outside table with panoramic views of the elephant wading pool and shared an order of sambusas, fried pockets of dough filled with meat and spices that are popular in Somalia. As we watched the elephants roam the grasslands and listened to the traditional African music being piped through the outdoor speakers, I felt as if I’d been transported to another place. The giraffes were in the adjacent field, and a rhinoceros grazed behind us. The scene was truly magical.

“Hey, this song playing reminds me—are you up for a little live music later? I heard there’s a funk band playing in Benson,” I said.

Paul, aware of my love of funk music, proposed a compromise. “Hmmm… only if we can check out this bar down the street that is supposed to be filled wall-to-wall with vintage arcade games!”

We made our way through the aquarium, laughing at the waddling penguins, and then sat, transfixed, in the aquarium tunnel as sharks, stingrays and turtles swam above us.

The zoo has certainly earned its national reputation, and it exceeded all of my expectations. We left the crocodiles, elephants and sea turtles to indulge in a little old-school arcade competition and some funk music.

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Fun and games in Benson

Our Uber pulled into the bustling Benson District and let us out at Beercade, an arcade bar. We walked in and saw a long bar that spanned the left wall with more than 30 beers on tap, and dozens of retro arcade games lining the perimeter.

“Skee-Ball!” Paul exclaimed, with a giddy smile full of nostalgia. We sat at the bar and ordered local Omaha beers, and then set a competition where the winner got to choose our Sunday plans.

We played Skee-Ball, pinball and Donkey Kong. I found myself bent over laughing as I threw a wooden Skee-Ball way too hard, and it bounced off of the machine and rolled back toward me. We were deep into competition mode. Donkey Kong was next, and soon after, we left—me, defeated, and Paul, triumphant.

I could’ve spent our entire weekend in this one neighborhood.

“So, Mr. Victorious, what’s on the docket for tomorrow?” I asked as we walked down the block to the Waiting Room.

“It’s a surprise,” Paul said with a smile, and we stepped into the line forming outside of the concert venue.

Benson was alive with people walking to and from its many bars and restaurants. I could’ve spent our entire weekend in this one neighborhood. The concert was an intimate setting: one room with a stage and bar paired with excellent sound quality. Paul and I headed to the dance floor right away and danced through the encore.

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Sunday morning stroll

“Wake up, sleepy head!” Paul greeted me bright and early, ever the morning person. He handed me a to-go coffee from the hotel lobby and told me to put on my walking shoes.

We sipped our coffees and strolled across the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge. The 3,000-foot bridge crosses the Missouri River, connecting Nebraska and Iowa.

I’m in two places at once!

“Paul, take my photo!” I shouted, with one foot in Nebraska and one in Iowa. “I’m in two places at once! I read online that they call it ‘Bobbing’!”

Paul, laughing, snapped my picture, and then we walked, hand in hand, back across the beautiful bridge held up by fanned-out cables. We were enjoying the mild spring Omaha weather and the views of the downtown Omaha skyline.

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Nebraska breweries in Blackstone

Paul is the real beer guru, but I’d heard rave reviews of the craft beer in Omaha and wanted to see what the buzz was all about. Starting off at Brickway Brewery and Distillery, we sat on the patio to enjoy our brews. I was tempted to order one of their handcrafted cocktails made with house-distilled spirits, but because I was trying to get out of my comfort zone, I opted for the jalepeño and pineapple pilsner. I enjoyed the little kick from the peppers.

Next, we took an Uber a couple of miles to the Blackstone District to check out Farnam House Brewing Company. We both ordered burgers—the beef fresh from a nearby farm—with fries and a flight of their in-house brews. The menu paired every food item with a beer, and being a novice, I found this super helpful. Paul snapped a picture from across the table; he was apparently pleased to see an array of beer samples before me.

Our hotel concierge had told us about the Craft Brew Penny Pack, which makes for a bubbly and delicious deal. When you buy a beer at each participating Omaha brewery, you get your next beer for only a penny. I requested it online and discounts were instantly sent to my phone.

Cheers to Omaha.

Just down the street from Farnam House is Scriptown Brewing Company, where we decided to put our Penny Pack to use. We sat in the industrial taproom and enjoyed our penny beers while reflecting on our weekend.

“I’d rate this in my top five beer cities,” Paul said, taking a sip from his amber ale—the award-winning Muddy Mo Amber Ale to be exact.

Omaha taught me a lot about craft beer and supporting local brewers and ingredients, and there were so many more local breweries that we didn’t have time to explore… at least not this time.

“Cheers to Omaha,” I said, holding up my beer to clink glasses with Paul. “Next time my company wants me to travel to Omaha, I'm going to volunteer so we can enjoy another great weekend.”

Whether for business or pleasure, we knew we would be back—no palm trees necessary, although we did see plenty in the country’s largest indoor rainforest!

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