Daytripper: Omaha’s outstanding offerings

There’s always monkey business going on at the Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha, Neb.

Omaha’s Old Market is a historic neighborhood filled with shops, pubs, restaurants and entertainment venues.

Just about 200 miles away from Lawrence, Omaha, Neb., offers summer fun galore.

A plethora of attractions — including a world-class zoo; an amazing 92,000-square-foot art center; and Old Market, a historic neighborhood filled with shops, pubs, restaurants and entertainment venues — makes the it a great weekend getaway for families.

Fresh from a $37 million expansion and renovation, the Hilton Omaha is a great place for you to hang your hat while exploring Omaha. The saltwater pool in the Health Club and Spa is refreshing (and you’ll love the fact that there’s no chlorine to sting your eyes), plus there’s also a whirlpool, sauna and 6,000 square-foot fitness area. If you desire more pampering, you can book a Hot Stone Massage or Four-Layer Face Lift at the Spa.

Another great reason to stay at the Hilton Omaha is the complimentary shuttle service (within a 3-mile radius of the hotel). That means you can park your car in the hotel’s garage for the weekend and catch rides from the friendly staff to Old Market, the Hot Shops Art Center or the Henry Doorly Zoo.

Baby boomers may remember being glued to the television set as kids while watching “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom,” hosted by zoologist Marlin Perkins. The spirit of Perkins is alive and well at the Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium, especially in the Mutual of Omaha Wild Kingdom Pavilion, which features daily animal encounters.

The zoo offers many “total immersion” experiences, which means that hummingbirds will be flying right in front of your face in the Desert Dome (the world’s largest indoor desert, located under the world’s largest geodesic dome), bats will be hovering near you in a cave in Kingdoms of the Night, lemurs might be running all around you in the Lied Jungle (the world’s largest indoor rainforest), and sharks will be swimming over your head in the Suzanne and Walter Scott Aquarium.

The zoo is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. through Oct. 31. Admission prices are $13.50 for adults, $9.00 for children ages 3-11 and $12.50 for seniors 65 and older. The entertaining Antarctic penguin exhibit alone is well worth the admission price.

The Hot Shops Art Center got its name from the molten nature of some of the artwork created via forges, welders and kilns that is showcased in this sprawling complex, once the home of the Serta Mattress Factory.

More than 80 studio artists welcome the public to observe their creative efforts. During your visit you might find an artist producing hand-blown glass or watch a sculptor making pots from clay. With three floors of studios (and four art galleries) to wander through, you’re sure to find a piece of art you can’t live without.

The center also offers classes to the public, including “Come Create It” workshops. From African drumming to painting to jewelry making to creating sock monsters, you’ll definitely get in touch with your inner artist.

Omaha’s historic warehouse district, the Old Market, is currently Nebraska’s No. 1 tourist attraction. There are no big box or chain stores here — just unique specialty shops, charming pubs and homegrown restaurants. After a day spent browsing in the one-of-a-kind boutiques, lunching at a lively restaurant like the Upstream Brewing Company and kicking back at The Old Market Tavern, you’ll know why Omaha considers the Old Market its crown jewel.

Fairmont Antiques & Mercantile boasts 20,000 square feet of shopping, including a candy shop, Hollywood Candy, offering vintage sweets you’ll remember from your childhood; antiques — everything from paper memorabilia to old speakers once used at drive-in movie theaters — and an old-fashioned soda fountain. The Old Market Candy Shop is a nostalgic trip back to the penny candy stores of yesteryear, and trooping in there (and sniffing the freshly-made fudge) is as much a treat for parents as it is for their youngsters.

Entering Tannenbaum Christmas Shop (where it’s always Christmas!) will bring a smile to even the staunchest Scrooge’s lips, and you’ll swear you can hear choirs of angels singing carols as you browse among hundreds of holiday keepsakes. And bibliophiles will think they’ve died and gone to heaven when they step inside Jackson St. Booksellers, a treasure trove of every possible genre of used books. (I could spend whole days amidst the stacks, without complaint.)

Families love Spaghetti Works in the Old Market for its cheap, flavorful all-you-can-eat pasta combinations, flavor-infused sodas and bountiful salad bar, which is displayed in the back of a truck. Afterward, head to Ted & Wally’s Premium Ice Cream Shop for real homemade ice cream, made the old-fashioned way — slow-churned with rock salt and ice. I can attest that their root beer ice cream is highly addictive.