Five Historic Downtowns Worth Exploring
March 1, 1867. Nebraska becomes the 37th state to enter the United States of America. The last 15 decades have seemingly endless stories of grit, progress and industrialization. There are plenty of legends, lore and larger-than-life, true history to “wow” you.
Here are five of the state’s historic downtowns with beginnings in the time of pioneers, homesteaders and the great westward movement.
Historic Downtown District/Railside – Grand Island, NE
Grand Island’s story begins in the mid-1800s, when westward settlers developed the land that would soon become a bustling metropolis, home to the Union Pacific railroad and the Lincoln Highway. Throughout the late 1800s, the city continued to expand after the extension of the railroad and as new industries made their way to south central Nebraska. As of 2018, downtown Grand Island is one of only three Nebraska towns listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and has three buildings individually recognized on the list.
Today, downtown GI is more commonly known as Railside, and is the premier location for residents to enjoy specialty cuisine, shop local boutiques and experience art and culture.
Things to do:
- Catch a movie at the newly renovated Grand Theatre: Originally built in 1937, this theatre survived decades of hardship, and still shows movies on Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings!
- Shop one-of-a-kind finds at boutiques and antique stores: Stroll along Third Street in search of rare treasures at each of the antique shops or find something truly original at J. Elizabeth, where each item is a unique piece of art.
- Attend one of the events held at Railside throughout the year: Enjoy free, live music from local bands during the Hear Grand Island Concert Series, sip on something sweet (or sour) from participating bars on Third Thursdays or catch a film at the Prairie Lights Film Festival.
Historic Haymarket District – Lincoln, NE
The Haymarket has been a staple of the Lincoln community since the city’s organization. Some of its original functions being a livestock and produce market, campgrounds and feeding post, The Historic Haymarket District has been a gathering place for years. In the early 1980s, the district was recognized on the National Register of Historic Places, and shortly after began the process of revitalizing the decades-old buildings.
Fast forward to present day, the Historic Haymarket continues to act as the heart of Lincoln’s social scene, with its blocks of restaurants, bars and businesses and being only a short walk from The Railyard, the district entertains everyone in the family.
Things to do:
- Experience the culture at art galleries and theatres: Admire the contemporary and one-of-a-kind art at the Burkholder Project and JONLOVESART Gallery or laugh it up at one of The Comedy Loft’s shows.
- Get a taste of Lincoln with a variety of local restaurants: Feast on an authentic Italian meal at Vincenzo’s Risorante or browse the country’s largest selection of licorice and other gourmet candy at Licorice International.
- Grab a drink at one of downtown Lincoln’s breweries and taprooms: Sip on one of Boiler Brewing Company’s craft brews in the boiler room of the historic Grand Manse or savor an ale or lager at Nebraska’s oldest craft brewery, Empyrean Brewing Co.
River Point – Norfolk, NE
The land we now know as Norfolk was initially settled for its rich land and plentiful water resources, hence its namesake stemming from the town’s placement along the “North Fork” of the Elkhorn River. In its early days, the downtown district acted as the location for thriving stores and trading posts. The city saw an increase in business and trade in the 1870s due to the commerce brought on by the Black Hills Gold Rush.
Nowadays, downtown Norfolk is as lively and vibrant as ever, and has never lost the charm and history carried through decades of growth. Enjoy shopping, eating and experiencing the revitalized and reinvigorated River Point district.
Things to do:
- Treat your taste buds at any of River Point’s restaurants: Spoil yourself with a trip to Black Cow Fat Pig Pub & Steak for gourmet American-style fare and refreshing domestic and craft beers, or indulge in genuine Italian cuisine at Napoli’s Italian Restaurant.
- Shop the latest trends in clothing, décor and more: Check out Statement by 318 for trendy and timeless pieces to add to your wardrobe or browse beautiful home décor and furnishings at Magnolias.
- Pay homage to Johnny Carson: Appreciate the life and legend of Norfolk-native Johnny Carson by visiting the large mural dedicated to him and all of the positive contributions Carson made to the community. Follow Johnny’s story in the newly redesigned Johnny Carson Gallery at the Elkhorn Valley Museum.
Old Market – Omaha, NE
At the turn of the 19th century, Omaha was a hub of activity for the newly finished railroad system, and produce dealers, buyers and transporters. The Old Market saw serious decline in the 1950s, and that is when Sam Mercer began the task, which at that time was considered foolish by most, of renovating and repurposing the decades-old buildings. Mercer once said that tearing down the historic buildings to replace them with modern designs was akin to painting over the Mona Lisa.
The Old Market’s present is filled with the memories of the past with numerous restaurants, shops and galleries enlivening the historic cobblestone streets of the neighborhood.
Things to do:
- Immerse yourself in arts and culture: Learn more about the area’s rich history at The Durham Museum or enter an open space for your mind at the art and exhibition gallery, KANEKO.
- Satisfy your sweet tooth: Savor the homemade flavor at Ted and Wally’s ice cream parlor or behold with childlike wonder the area’s largest selection of candy and collectables at Hollywood Candy.
- Relax and take in the history: Experience a traditional horse-drawn carriage ride down the brick-paved roads or visit the historic sites and buildings with the “Omaha’s Old Market Walking Tour” podcast.
Historic Downtown Sidney – Sidney, NE
Boasting the title of oldest community in western Nebraska, Sidney began as a home for soldiers hired to protect the railroad and its crews during construction. After the population boom brought on by the gold rush and development of the railroad, Sidney grew into a bustling “old west” town, and even introduced the world’s first 24-hour theater. “The Toughest Town on the Tracks” welcomed all with its more than 80 saloons on “front street,” and acted as a pit stop for many adventurers, settlers and travelers alike.
Today, Sidney’s Main Street is one of only two downtown districts in western Nebraska to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Its rich history is still embraced and preserved in the famous architecture of the late 1800s.
Things to do:
- Relish the taste of good, home-cookin’: Dig into a juicy steak and fresh seafood at Dude’s Steakhouse or dine in at Grandma Jo’s for hearty, made-from-scratch meals (and make sure to save some room for pie).
- Follow in history’s footsteps: Uncover the stories of soldiers and civilians in the late 1800s at Fort Sidney Museum and Post Commander’s Home.
- Walk a mile in their boots: Venture to Sidney’s Boot Hill Cemetery and discover the location’s haunting past and the tough life on the western frontier.