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In the middle of country, Lincoln, Nebraska has a rejuvenated historic district, a growing food scene, and the largest population in the state on home football games. The University of Nebraska attracts plenty of young people, Memorial Stadium draws Huskers football fans, and the state capital draws lawmakers. There are also over a dozen free things to do in Lincoln.
Free Things to Do in Lincoln Nebraska
When my youngest daughter said she was moving to Lincoln Nebraska, I thought, well, cross that off my bucket list! Seriously though, I started looking into what the city offered. I was pleasantly surprised by its diverse offerings – and population. As a sanctuary city, Lincoln has a great ethnic food scene. And enough free things to do in Lincoln NE to fill a weekend or two. Most are things are you can do with kids. If you are taking a Midwest road trip, stop in Lincoln.
Capital Idea: the Nebraska State Capitol
Downtown Lincoln is easy to walk around because the domed Capitol, one of the tallest buildings in the city, stands out. And the streets are on a grid. [Driving has one complication; one-way streets]. This Art Decor skyscraper, built between 1922 and 1932, offers free tours daily. Or explore on your own, also for free.
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Elaborate mosaics detail Nebraska’s pioneer spirit, culture, and history. All of its rooms are thematically decorated and in pristine condition.
The building’s main attraction, the central room of the 14th Floor Observation Level, pays tribute to the “common man.” Called the Memorial Chamber, the room has eight murals representing the unsung heroes of Nebraska’s history. These murals were added to the chamber in 1996 and complement the black-marble dome, which represents the night sky.
History is Fun at the Nebraska History Museum
This museum features Native American cultures of the Great Plains, along with the lives of pioneer settlers. The museum has something for everyone. Kids can participate in hands-on learning in the Investigation Station from 1 – 4 pm daily. They can investigate historic artifacts and pretend they are members of the Lewis and Clark expedition.
We saw exhibits on products that were made in Nebraska, from violins to cars. I was surprised to learn that Kawasaki motorcycles and NYC subway cars are made in Lincoln.
Step Back in Time: Thomas P. Kennard House
Dubbed the Nebraska Statehood Memorial, the Kennard House is the oldest standing structure in Lincoln’s original boundary. Make an appointment for a free tour.
Walking Tour: Everett
The landmark Everett neighborhood, from 9th to 13th Streets, H to South, is filled with historic buildings. Don’t miss the Queen Anne houses at 920 D Street and 1039 South 11th Street.
First Friday Art Walk
Museums and galleries are open late the first Friday for every month. Some places offer free food and drink. And activities like scavenger hunts engage the whole family.
Culture Shock: the Sheldon Museum of Art has Great Art
On the campus of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the Sheldon Museum of Art, deserves a visit just for its landmark Philip Johnson building. The museum founded in 1888, includes contemporary American art. Get up close to works by Marsden Hartley, Edward Hopper, Georgia O’Keeffe, Mark Rothko, and Robert Motherwell. Scattered around the UNL campus, the sculpture garden contains more than 30 pieces by American artists..
Great Plains Art Museum
This museum focuses on Western and Native American Art. There are sculptures, paintings, photographs and textiles. The Great Plains museum is part of UNL although it is not right on the campus.
Outdoor Free Things to Do in Lincoln
When we visited Lincoln NE in the summer, we stopped at the Saturday morning Farmers Market. Sure, you can buy corn, and lots of other local goodies. But there is also live music throughout the market. And locally made crafts, jewelry, art and furniture to see. The Farmers Market is May through October, from 8 am until noon.
At night and on weekends, year-round, this area draws in young people with breweries, bars and restaurants. And even on a balmy winter day, we stopped and listened to a couple of guitar players.
Take a Hike: Pioneers Park & Nature Center
Avoid the admission fee at the Lincoln Children’s Zoo with a visit to Pioneers Park nature preserve. The 668 acres of tall-grass prairie, woodlands, wetlands, and a stream includes eight miles of hiking trails. You might see bison, white-tail deer and elk. At the hands-on indoor learning experiences, young children can explore small animal exhibits.
Not Just for Summer: Antelope Park
We expected bitter cold on our February visit to Lincoln, NE. But the weather peaked in the 50s two of the days.. Since it was sunny, we explored the walking trails. There are also a couple of playgrounds. In season, explore the rose gardens, fountains and native greenery.
Antelope Park also features the Veterans Memorial Garden, where visitors can take a walking tour of more than 20 military monuments honoring Nebraska’s sacrifices during wartime.
Stop and Smell the Flowers at the Sunken Gardens
Not much was in bloom at The Sunken Gardens when we visited in winter. The terraced garden, built during the Depression, features thousands of annuals, several reflecting ponds, a waterfall, and an ornate gazebo. The Healing Garden, meant for meditation and reflection, was inspired by the White Garden at Sissinghurst Castle in Kent, England. The Perennial Garden highlights shade plants. And The Annual Garden follows a different theme each year.
Unique Free Things to Do in Lincoln
Vintage Tractors at the Larsen Tractor Test and Power Museum
If you like vintage cars, head to the Larsen Tractor Test and Power Museum. Tractor testing began in 1919 when the Nebraska State Legislature established Tractor Law. The museum, on UNL’s east campus, features many of the tractors that were once tested at the facility. Kids have a play area and there is one tractor cab to climb into.
Roll Over to the National Museum of Roller Skating
I had to travel all the way to Lincoln to find out that the roller disco started in Brooklyn. The small National Museum of Roller Skating, open only on weekdays, is devoted to wheeled fun, from recreational skating to roller derby and inline skating.
There are displays of skates and costumes and videos of competitions. The museum also contains a large collection of historical roller skates, dating to 1819. Bring a quarter so you can play the band organ.
Peter Pan Skate Park
Lace-up your own skates – er, bring your skateboard – to this skate park, which also has a playground, sand volleyball court, and basketball court.
See the Stars at Hyde Memorial Observatory
As we flew home from Nebraska, a Delta agent whispered that we had just missed Warren Buffet. But you can see nightly stars, for free, at this observatory. There are three giant telescopes, and volunteers who can help you find constellations. Think of it as an open-air planetarium. Open on Saturday nights only.