Omaha breathes new life into old neighborhoods
Admit it. The last time only time? you thought about Nebraska's biggest city was when Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning yelled "Omaha!" about 40 times in a playoff game last January.

That was fun, sort of. Imagewise, pro sports haven't been very good to Omaha.

More than a few larger metropolitan areas have trafficked in an ominous possibility: Without their major league teams, the warning goes, they would be Omaha. In Kansas City, Royals fans know that one gets "sent down" to Omaha. It's the wrong direction.

And yet lately, Omaha is acting confident. Frisky, even.

Up here on a soaring, curvy pedestrian bridge over the Missouri River, folks are jogging, biking and walking their dogs on a summer morning, enjoying the waterfront and the views of downtown.

A mammoth fountain in nearby Heartland of America Park shoots its center plume 300 feet into the air. Next to the park, the brick-paved streets of Old Market are filling up. The dense collection of hulking industrial buildings is a well-established restaurant and entertainment district, now further fed by surrounding condos and lofts.

Add a visit to the renowned Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium, and a few other attractions, such as the Joslyn Art Museum, and that's a fine trip.

The riverfront remake of late is part of Omaha's new confidence, but there's something else: A refocus and rediscovery is taking place in some of Omaha's downtown and close-in neighborhoods that's not only good for the city but also turning into a bonanza for visitors.

FOLLOW THE FOOD AND DRINK

"We did our first tour in December. It was freezing cold, and the wind was howling, but we were so anxious to get started."

That's Jen Valandra of Omaha Culinary Tours, a new enterprise that specializes in food-tasting tours some walking, some by bus featuring Omaha originals. Yes, that's right. Food tours in Omaha.

Valandra and two partners knew that eating out in Omaha had evolved in only a few years, directed by an insurgence of young chefs who showcase local fare in urban settings. And they wanted the tours to highlight noteworthy longtimers, too.

I chose the midtown walking tour, which began in the tasting room of a store, Chef2 Oils, Vinegars and More. It opened a year ago and offers not wine but about 40 varieties of extra virgin olive oils, and balsamic and wine vinegars.

Co-owner Ben Trebbien leads us past rows of stainless steel fustis to a table with dipping bread and bowls of flavor-infused oil-and-vinegar combinations. He advocates all manner of uses besides vinaigrettes, including meat grilling and, reduced, as ice cream topping. Hmm.

I confess to Trebbien that the chipotle olive oil and chocolate balsamic pairing has too much bite for me, but I go back for seconds on the blood orange-pear champagne combo.

Soon we're headed across the street to Brix, a bistro with regular wine and drink service but also a series of wine-dispensing machines, modules that allow patrons to buy pours of 1, 2.5 and 5 ounces of more than 60 wines, self-served.

Want to taste several wines, even an incredibly pricey one? One ounce is doable.

"This gives you an opportunity to try a variety," says the restaurant's Zach Ferguson. "One of our biggest things is helping people explore."

These first few stops are at Midtown Crossing, a $325 million condo-retail-restaurant district developed by Mutual of Omaha, one of Omaha's five Fortune 500 companies. It opened in 2010.