Standing tall on the prairie, Lincoln is one of the great capitols of the American plains. Just 200 years ago, this eastern fringe of what’s now considered the American Midwest was still a land of swaying buffalo grass, roaring buffalo herds and Pawnee Indian settlements, engulfed by the territories of the Great Sioux.
Intrepidly came the first pioneers, and Lincoln rose as a small salt trading post on the prairie before becoming the state capital over Omaha in the 1850s. Cue two centuries of growth, boom (occasional bust too) and reinvention for Lincoln. The railroad brought workers and chugged away corn, the airfields brought fliers, the highways brought travelers and drifters heading out west.
Slowly Lincoln became larger and more cosmopolitan, transforming into the curious medley of Midwestern charm, plains life and modernity it is today. Be sure to check out all these top things to do and see in the city, going from the obvious rises of the state capitol to the pretty hinterlands of the Cornhusker State!
1. Tour the Nebraska State Capitol
Soaring in a mass of Art Deco and brilliant white in the very heart of Lincoln, the Nebraska State Capitol is a real sight to behold. It was designed by the celebrated American revivalist Bertram Goodhue, and comes complete with a series of fascinating facades, where reliefs of figures like Julius Caesar and Charlemagne meet under Nebraska’s iconic Sower statue (set high on the roof).
Inside visitors can enjoy a free tour of the various wings, flitting between the Great Hall, the legislative rooms and the grand vestibule, spotting works by Kenneth Evett and murals depicting Indian history and heritage.
Oh, and don’t forget to scale the tower to the 14th floor, where some of the best views of Lincoln unfold on all sides!
2. See creativity in the flowers at the Sunken Gardens
Packed to bursting with tulips and roses, lily pads and daisies, palm blooms and firs, perennial plants and evergreens, the Sunken Garden’s place on the list of the top 300 gardens in the United States is totally deserved.
Each year, the curators here rearrange the flower displays in a different theme, channelling real creativity into the beds and colourful bouts of botany. Visitors can walk the pathways and seek out the likes of the Perennial Garden, where hydrangeas meet spruce trees in the shade, or the so-called White Garden, inspired by the neat shrubberies and organised lawns of Sissinghurst Castle in Kent, England.
It’s all perfect for getting a breather in the midst of the city!
3. Enjoy the company of Lincoln’s students at the University of Nebraska campus
The city’s outlet of the University of Nebraska occupies a great big cut out of central Lincoln. It’s a pretty place of red-brick builds and Victorian-style lecture halls, all interspersed with groves of cherry trees and winding walkways.
During term time, the students here bring a real buzz. Rugby games erupt on the Vine Street Fields, study groups chat philosophy and politics around the leafy lawns of the Perin Porch and Arboretum, people kick-back with books on the steps of the Love Library and others sip coffees on the various benches.
Other attractions include the tall Mueller Tower (once intended to be the uni’s bell tower) and the curious installations of the Sculpture Garden.
4. Sample the Orient at Pho Factory
The Pho Factory of Lincoln is known for serving up some of the finest Oriental dishes in the city from its location on North 26th, just a short jaunt from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln campus.
The menu ranges from deep-fried tofu rolls with crispy salads to shrimp patties inspired by the streets of Hanoi. However, it’s the offering of pho (traditional Vietnamese soups) that really gets the locals’ taste-buds-tingling.
These come in all shapes and sizes, including a flavorsome oxtail pho, a salty seafood pho, a daring spicy pho and even a build-your-own pho for diners who are feeling just a tad creative.
5. Keep the kids happy at the Lincoln Children’s Museum
Set over three different levels and offering a diverse range of exhibitions and learning workshops for children of all ages, this hands-on museum space is great for travelers hitting Lincoln with kids in tow.
The various activities include Cuckoo Construction, a mock-up construction site that allows young folk to wheel bricks around, hammer walls and raise their very own urban clock tower, and the Tiny Town on the main level – a miniature city complete with bank, theatre, TV station, hospital, car garage and more.
And when patrons have had enough of make believe, there are also the regular Music and Mozzarella workshops to enjoy (fusing tunes and pizza!).
6. Go from impressionism to abstraction at the Sheldon Museum of Art
Set between the red-brick lecture halls and interesting sculpture gardens of the University of Nebraska campus, this world-class museum boasts one of the state’s finest arrays of art. With everything from American Impressionism to Pop Art and outdoor sculpture on the menu, the permanent collections here are nothing if not eclectic.
Visitors can expect to see landscapes by the likes of William Glackens, modern genre pieces by Thomas Hart Benton, photography with all the trademark chiaroscuro of Clarence Hudson White, avant-garde artworks and oodles more.
There’s also an on-site gift shop with plenty of additional materials and souvenirs available for purchase.
7. Sample the iconic Smoke Stack at Bison Witches
While the Bison Witches sandwich shop might have originated in the dusty deserts of Tucson, Arizona, there’s no question that Lincoln’s outlet of the southern brand lives up to its name! That’s right, located just a stone’s throw from the Lincoln Children’s Museum, this classic BBQ joint come deli is a real all-American treat.
The menu ranges from chicken and cheese-doused nachos to Wisconsin cheese and bacon bread soups, classic Tex-Mex chili to veggie salads. The piece de resistance has to be the range of sandwiches though.
The Angel has a great turkey and salad combo; the Beef and Brie oozes a sort of French charm, but it’s the Smoke Stack that takes the biscuit – a fusion of Russian mustard, smoked meats and cheese!
8. Petrol heads assemble at the Museum of American Speed
Sat on the eastern fringes of Lincoln, this engine-heavy (there are more than 600 engines and engine parts to see, in fact) exhibition center really knows how to get the revs up.
It’s got collections that span the complete history of American motoring, going from elegant classic cars a la The Great Gatsby to old motoring almanacs to rickety off-roaders to more modern NASCAR speedsters that ooze with petrol-fuelled sporting history from every exhaust pipe and valve.
The institution also hosts regular events for car fanatics, including motor tours of Nebraska in classic vehicles and speedster get-togethers.
9. Inline and roller derbies at the National Museum of Roller Skating
This quirky and off-the-beaten-track spot in the heart of southern Lincoln is quite possibly the most comprehensive exhibition dedicated to roller skating in the entire United States, nay the world!
It’s got cases filled with all different types of skates, from wooden relics of the early 1800s to cutting-edge models of modern times to name just two.
The site also bursts with photo exhibits, sculptures, art works and almanacs, all related to the skating world, while the on-site museum gift shop touts some of the country’s most circulated skating periodicals, cool tees, patches and more!
10. Get a taste of the Nebraskan country at the Pioneers Park Nature Center
Set between the rolling prairie of greater Nebraska on the eastern fringes of Lincoln, this sprawling nature reserve is one of the best places to sample the real backcountry character of the so-called Cornhusker State.
There are fields of swaying grasses, dense thickets of ash and birch trees, babbling rivers and creeks and riparian wetlands, all crisscrossed by mile upon mile of well-maintained hiking grounds.
However, it’s the wildlife that’s the real draw, because the Pioneers Park Nature Center boasts its very own protected elk, white-tailed deer and even a herd of rare American bison! These can all be seen dotting the prairie grasses, alongside clutches of wild turkey and fowl.
11. Get your educational fix at the Nebraska State Museum
This weld-rounded museum has exhibitions that range from Earth’s natural history to evolution, palaeontology to Nat Geo photography.
These come specially orientated to deal with each discipline in the context of Nebraska itself, which means visitors get to explore the wealth of dinosaur bones and ancient mammoths that have been discovered in the Cornhusker State, unravel tales about the first settlers of the plains, see the lifestyles of the prairie’s Native Indians and understand the challenges faced by the first pioneers of the US.
There’s also a more gruesome expose of historic weaponry, along with regular science talks and temporary exhibits.
12. See the apparitions at Antelope Park
Perfect for any travelers eager to experience a truly local side to the city of Lincoln, this pretty swathe of greenery makes its home on the south side.
It comes complete with oodles of grassy lawns and well-equipped playgrounds for the kids, along with winding walking trails and forestry, a basketball court and the occasional fountain. Picnics are uber-popular here thanks to the countless maintained picnic spots that pepper the grasses, while there are also pretty flower blooms in spring.
Some folk maintain that Antelope Park is haunted too, with reports of ghostly apparitions making themselves known to walkers.
13. Sample the hops-heavy creations at Zipline Brewing Co
Founded in 2012 by a group of local friends, Lincoln’s Zipline Brewing Co is dedicated to creating the city’s edgiest, most ground-breaking beers.
With a swish and stripped-down industrial-chic tap room awaiting just a stone’s throw from the railroad on Magnum Cir Ste, the establishment touts the likes of its light and airy kölsch, brewed in the same styles of middle Germany, the Zipline IPA, with its distinct citrus undertones, and a curious IRA that mingles grapefruit and pine.
Patrons can also expect a hefty offering of seasonal brews, going from springy farmhouse ales to brooding, wood-like porters to get you through the Nebraskan winter months!
14. Indulge yourself at Ivanna Cone
The colourful interiors and Art Deco ice-cream bar of Ivanna Cone is recognisable to every local of Lincoln, while the flavors of the creams and sorbets produced within have risen to become nothing short of legendary right throughout the Cornhusker State!
In fact, people flock from miles around to sample the creamy, butterfat milk ice-creams at Ivanna, where the flavors range from traditional chocolates and strawberries to fizzy sherbet-infused cones that push the very boundaries of ice-cream making.
There’s a loyal local following often found munching on scoops of their favorite inside the joint on 7th and P, while the folk here even sell tees and souvenirs for those really taken by the cones!
15. Have a refined dinner at The Green Gateau
Serving up a welcome fusion of American fine-dining, global flavors and elegant French cuisine, the folk at The Green Gateau have successfully established themselves as one of the city’s most cutting-edge and refined culinary teams.
There’s a real focus on regional, American-sourced ingredients on the brunch and dinner menus, with dishes that mix quark cheese with seared eggplant, or Monterey chicken with fresh-baked buns.
Then there are the more international mashups, like the Angus beef in Belgian Ale, or the eastern-infused Mandarin chicken grill with noodles. It’s all darn tasty!