But First, Coffee

Local coffeehouses are cultural hubs, go exploring! 

by Tyler A. Thomas author of Nebraska Beer Great Plains History by the Pint and founder/managing editor of NebraskaFoodie.com

When I’m traveling, I have a strict routine. Once I get to where I am staying, I immediately search out the nearest local coffee shop. This critical routine is for two reasons; caffeine is a necessity and good coffee is the key to community exploration. 

When I am traveling, especially if I am flying, first flights are my favorite. Living in Lincoln I am often commuting via I80 to Omaha in the quiet stillness of the morning. And while I always regret hearing my iPhone rattle my side table with a blaring alarm, my morning sprint helps me maximize the time in my destination city and more time means more opportunities for exploration. And isn’t the goal of travel all about the destination? 

Once I have landed and make it to my preferred hotel or Airbnb to drop my bags, it’s usually mid-morning which is the best time to seek out the local coffee shop. You beat the morning rush and avoid the afternoon pick-me-up crowd. Similar to 99% of travelers, I use my phone and pull up maps and search “coffee.” As I let the search run, I physically get excited waiting for the pins to populate the adjacent streets on my screen. There is nothing like seeing a city and the exploration opportunities through the lens of local businesses. My three second search has uncovered the heartbeats of a local community. After scrolling past the Starbucks and other national chains that load, I pinch and pull to search out the specific spots that are within walking distance or a short Uber away. And yes, I will Uber for good coffee. 

Once I select a spot from my quick search, I immediately start to soak it all in from the moment I approach the exterior and see the chalkboard or neon sign inviting me in. While coffee is critical for that caffeine fix, local coffee shops are more than the coffee they serve. Each spot has unique cultural vibes that reflect their individual history and the neighborhoods that they serve. Regardless if the shop has been serving fresh coffee for days or decades, each one has a story to uncover. From the architecture of the space to the chosen aesthetic to the smell of fresh beans and sounds of acoustic “coffeehouse music” to the screaming steamers and casual conversations, local coffee shops have serious character. I’m always surprised and excited to start exploring what’s inside. I appreciate the coffee shops littered with eyes peeking over the top of their laptop while sipping on an Americano to the college students jamming on work proposals. To the shops featuring live acoustic music and community gathering areas to the cramped grab-and-go coffee bars, each space approaches their craft in their own unique way. And while the space and location provides originality and flares of character, the uniqueness is most clear when I diligently scan the menu board. I quickly eliminate the items I expect to see and truly dig to uncover the flavor twists and unique concoctions that caffeinate the locals. Part of exploring a new community is pushing past my comfort zone of hot black flavored coffee and digging in to try something I won’t be able to get anywhere else. And even when I do order something more “standard” like an iced coffee, I am always interested in finding out how to make it one of a kind. What type of cold brew options can I try? What can I stir in? What did the person in front of me order? Is there anything that the barista recommends? And while I don’t always go with the recommendations, there are some flavors that don’t agree with me, I never miss the opportunity to fully understand my options. 

A few flavors I don’t regret trying: lavender matcha vanilla latte, sweet and condensed milk black thai style iced coffee, two shots of espresso served with foam in the tiniest shot glass and saucer. Each cup features its own unique flavor, texture and memory of that place. And while my drink options aren’t always exoctic, the experience of what I find in a local coffee shop has been a gateway to exploring a new community and forever remembering the experience. 

In my travels I have found that coffee shops provide that window into a city or neighborhood and openly welcome those traveling through. From the early morning conversations with the barista or local who is up before the sun, to the community bulletin boards featuring upcoming events to overhearing what is being discussed by those at a table near you. You can learn about the latest gossip, art pop up, places to try and the places to avoid. And if you enter with your airpods and laptop to get something done, these same spaces welcome you with open arms and look to add to your experience. I often wonder when I am working out of one of these community shops, who has been there before me? What did they discuss? What did they work on? And while I’ll never know the answer to those questions, being part of the community even for a brief moment is something I treasure. I keep track of the spots I visit mentally documenting the drinks that hit, forgetting those that missed. Remembering what the atmosphere was like and how it made me feel. We are all creatures of habit and tend to visit the same cities or have friends and colleagues that are in search of recommendations. I like to take my coffee shop experiences and share them with my friends and Twitter followers as they look to explore new cities on their own. While I never try to influence what they order, I can happily advocate for these local caffeine-centric cultural centers. Exploration through coffee has never let me down. 

If you’re new to Lincoln or just traveling through, I encourage you to seek out one of our amazing capital city coffee shops and explore Lincoln through our caffeine communities, I have even included my local favorites: 

The Mill (multiple locations in Lincoln) – Black Iced Coffee with water in a to-go cup.

The Coffeehouse – Irish Mocha hot, pair it with a delicious fresh-baked scone. 

The Chocolate Season – Freeze brew (yummy waffles on Saturdays!).

Crescent Moon Coffee – Take a look at the daily specials and get it to stay. 

Lincoln Espresso – If you’re on the go, German Chocolate Cake candy bar latte.

Mo Java Cafe – Caramel nut toddy and be sure to check out the live entertainment schedule. 

Cultiva – Cubana paired with a Johnny Cake.


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