Peyton Manning talks with the Broncos offense during the second quarter Sunday in the AFC championship game against New England.Denver Broncos quarterback
Peyton Manning talks with the Broncos offense during the second quarter Sunday in the AFC championship game against New England.Denver Broncos quarterback Fans who watched the Broncos games couldn't help but notice how often, and loudly, Manning used the code word "Omaha" as he barked signals. Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce president and CEO David Brown said he wants to explore the possibility of hiring Manning, one of the sporting world's top pitchmen, to shoot a promotional ad for Omaha. (Hyoung Chang, The Denver Post)

A weekend escape to omaha?

Just a few years ago that would have been a hard sell. But cities are hot these days, even smaller ones in the middle of the country, and Omaha is riding a national wave that is making Downtown, USA, the place to live, work and play.

It helps that the good people of Nebraska know how to make this corn capital pop. They've embraced high art and rock music, world- class architecture and high-quality, kid-friendly fun. From the giant zoo to the sleek opera house, there's a surprising lot to do there these days.

And here's the best part: It's all still affordable and easy to navigate. Tourists aren't exactly flocking to Omaha these days (their loss), so the crowds, the expensive hotels, the long waits for a table are practically nonexistent.

The best place to anchor your trip and get a feel for Omaha past and present is Old Market, the city's charming, low-rise urban core. It retains the feel of a burgeoning Western outpost, but it's been rehabbed into a bustling a district of restaurants, shops and very walkable streets.

GET THERE

All of the major airlines fly from Denver into Omaha's Eppley Airfield (OMA, if you are booking). It shows up frequently on lists of cheap, last-minute weekend fares.

GET AROUND

This is the really easy part. The drive from Eppley to Old Market takes less than 10 minutes. If you're autophobic, skip the rental car and catch a few cabs to get you to and around your centrally located hotel in the district.


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But rental cars tend to be cheap in Omaha, as low as $13 a day, and there's no need to take a shuttle bus to get one. Parking is often free and plentiful, so why not get a compact and stay in control of your limited time?

STAY

good night: Magnolia Hotel (1615 Howard St. 402-342-2222, magnoliahotelomaha.com). Definitely stay here if you can - and, yes, you can, because rooms can be had for less than $100 a night if you book early online. Located within walking distance of most Old Market attractions, the luxe Magnolia is housed in a historic, ornate building that was completely redone - from the swank lobby to the finely appointed rooms - just this summer. In any other city, this level of hotel would cost you a small fortune.

sweet suites: Embassy Suites Downtown (555 S. 10th St., 402-346-9000, embassysuitesomaha .com) This chain outlet has the best location for exploring Old Market. It's all right there. Other reasons to like it: a large, indoor pool, complimentary breakfast and a decent bar. Rates start at about $200 a night

easy walk: Courtyard Omaha Downtown (101 S. 10th St., 402-346-2200,marriott.com) A business-traveler basic that's clean, efficient and affordable. Weekend warriors will appreciate the location, just a few blocks from the best restaurants and shops in the city. Rates start at about $120 a night.

DINE

worthy brew: Upstream Brewing Co. (514 S. 11th St., 402-344-0200,upstreambrewing.com). The handcrafted beers are the stars of the show at this microbrewery restaurant, but the casual fish-and-burger menu makes it a convenient stop for lunch, dinner or late-night nibbling. Finish up your evening with a glass of Blackstone Stout and a game of pool.

real scoop: Ted & Wally's Ice Cream Shop (1120 Jackson St., 402-341-5827). This is the one place in Omaha where you might have to stand in line to get the goods, but it's worth it. Get a cone full of homemade treats served up in a friendly atmosphere. Check the board for daily offerings and feel free to ask for a sample.

nice slice: Zio's Pizzeria (1213 Howard St., 402-344-2222, ziospizzeria.com). Hand-stretched pizza with a New York pedigree keeps them coming back for more - and naming this casual eatery the No. 1 pizza parlor in best-of polls. They make slices from scratch and pile on the toppings. Great for a quick lunch bite.

french surprise: La Buvette (511 S. 11th St, 402-344-8627). La Buvette just might be the best dining experience in Omaha. The simple and sophisticated French cafe serves up bistro classics at very reasonable prices. The wine selection is inspiring, and the food is fresh and plotted out daily to take advantage of the best ingredients. Grab a sidewalk table and watch the crowds stroll by.

the big dinner moment: Flatiron Cafe (1722 Saint Marys Ave., 402-344-3040,theflatironcafe.com). Another charming surprise in the lineup, Flatiron Cafe is the kind of elegant and inviting restaurant that a local might save for special occasions. Here is the spot for a fancy steak or duck and a bottle of good wine. It's located just up the hill from downtown in a building that is shaped like the New York landmark.

SHOP

very cool: Hot Shops Art Center (1301 Nicholas St., 402-342-6452,hotshopsartcenter.com). This is a fun and unusual place to buy art at great prices. Painters, sculptors, glass makers and the like have taken over an old mattress factory. It's a maze of galleries often staffed by the makers themselves, who are more than happy to discuss or demonstrate their crafts.

pause and play: Homer's Music (1114 Howard St., 402-346-0264,www.homersmusic.com) With homegrown bands like Bright Eyes making it on the national scene, Omaha has a great rock 'n' roll vibe going these days. Feel it at Homer's, a record store where the wood floors have been worn down by browsers looking for new and classic sounds.

hard to resist: room (1030 Howard St., 402-342-7666, room omaha.com). A modern furniture and accessories mecca that stands out in the historic surroundings of Old Market. A fun place to spend a little cash.

deep thoughts: Soul Desires (1026 Jackson St., 402-898-7600, soul-desires.com) Gotta love a spiritual bookstore that respects whatever kind of spirituality you bring through the door with you. Eastern, Western, traditional or New Age, the owners here just want to create an inviting place where you can explore it. The resident dog, Olivia, recommends a different selection each month and seems to have pretty good taste.

stop and shop: Niche (1109 Howard St., 402-344-4399) Home furnishings and gifts. Very tasteful stuff.

ENJOY

wild kingdom in the flesh: Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo, (3701 S. 10th St., 402-733-8400,www.omahazoo.com). Don't miss this zoo; it's one of the best in the country. An amazing compound that includes the Desert Dome, the world's largest indoor desert; the Cat Complex, with up to 100 big kitties; a gorilla valley; an orangutan forest; and a 71,000-square- foot aquarium. The vantage points for birds, penguins, elephants, giraffes and crocodiles are excellent.

look back: Durham Western Heritage Museum (801 S. 10th St., 402-444-5071,www.dwhm.org) Some cities spend decades deliberating the use of their old, glorious train station. Omaha has found the answer. This museum keeps this historic art deco structure alive with larger-than-life exhibits on trains past, galleries full of local history and a soda fountain that reminds all what it felt like to pass through the country's midsection when travel stuck to the ground.

art oasis: Joslyn Art Museum (2200 Dodge St., 402-342-3300, joslyn .org) One of the country's great (and underrated) art temples, the Joslyn has killer collections of painting and sculpture from around the world. Monet, Renoir and Pissarro share this house with American faves like Winslow Homer. Don't overlook the stunning assemblage of Chinese decorative trappings, and take a moment to appreciate the museum's addition, designed by renowned architect Norman Foster.

cavity central: Hollywood Candy Shop (501 S. 13th St., 402-884- 7688). Revel in all the nostalgic sugar-coated goodness of your favorite childhood candies. PEZ, anyone?

high end: Holland Performing Arts Center (1200 Douglas St., 402- 345-0606,omahaperformingarts.org). Architect James Polshek's hall is a dream. Lovely to look at. Wonderful to listen in. This place buzzes most nights with art offerings high, low and medium. Take a stroll up the glass stairs toward the balcony. They disappear as you ascend.

loud and local: Sokol Underground (2234 S. 13th St., 402-346-

9802). Omaha's pop music scene is hot, hot, hot. And this place is the center of it. Bands don't play here every night, but when they do, it's definitely worth checking out.

Staff writer Ray Mark Rinaldi can be reached at 303-954-1540 or rrinaldi@denverpost.com.