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From pioneer history to roller skates: 5 free things to do around Lincoln, Nebraska

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LINCOLN, Neb. - Lincoln may be famous for Husker football, but Nebraska's capital city also welcomes visitors with free attractions for history buffs and families on a budget.

Here are five free things to see and do in Lincoln.

THE NEBRASKA CAPITOL

Few places speak to Nebraska's independent spirit as well as the state capitol. Home to the nation's only one-house, nonpartisan Legislature, the Capitol is famous for its unusual design: It was the first to break from the traditional, "federal dome" look that most state capitols adopted. The 400-foot (122-meter) tower stands high over the Plains, with an observation deck that offers sweeping views of Lincoln. It's the second-tallest state capitol in the nation, behind Louisiana's.

The Capitol was built in stages between 1922 and 1932, but the work was halted because of the Depression. Just this year, lawmakers approved $2.5 million to place a fountain in each of the Capitol's four open-air courtyards — the final, unfinished feature envisioned by architect Bertram Goodhue. The project is set for completion by 2017, when Nebraska celebrates its 150th anniversary a state.

THE RAILYARD

Amid the restaurants and bars, Lincoln's new entertainment district offers free entertainment for families and young professionals.

Admission is free for the district's new, outdoor ice-skating rink that's open during the winter months (there's a fee to rent skates). In warmer seasons, the rink is converted into a public courtyard. Visitors can watch movies, television shows and sporting events on the Cube — a set of digital screens perched on a building over the courtyard. The larger, 35-by-15-foot (10-by-5-meter) screen faces the courtyard, while a second 14-by-15-foot (4-by-5-meter) screen faces Canopy Street.

The Railyard sits across the street from the new Pinnacle Bank Arena, in the city's popular Haymarket District. The Haymarket also hosts a regular Farmers' Market on Saturday mornings, usually from May to mid-October. It's all less than a mile from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's main campus and Memorial Stadium, where the Husker football team plays.

PIONEERS PARK NATURE CENTER

Bison, elk and white-tailed deer roam the grounds at the Pioneers Park Nature Center. The 668-acre (270-hectare) park in southwest Lincoln surrounds visitors with nature and a sense of life on the Plains: Eight miles (13 kilometres) of hiking trails weave through a mixture of prairie, woodlands, wetlands and streams. A wildlife preserve gives visitors the chance to see owls, wild turkeys, a bald eagle, and other animals.

The park also includes hands-on exhibits for children and a variety of gardens. Admission is free, but donations are encouraged. Fees are charged for birthday parties and special events.

NICHE MUSEUMS

Lincoln offers a surprising mix of free museums, exploring everything from roller skates to the history of Germans from Russia.

Consider the Frank H. Woods Telephone Museum, which appeared briefly in the 2008 movie, "Yes Man," with Jim Carrey and Zooey Deschanel. The museum features more than 500 telephones and related items, in a collection that stretches back to the early 1900s.

Or swing by the National Museum of Roller Skating, which chronicles the history of skates from the 1800s to the modern roller derby. The American Historical Society of Germans from Russia provides a look into the lives of German settlers in the Russian empire and their descendants.

HOMESTEAD NATIONAL MONUMENT OF AMERICA

The Homestead National Monument of America pays tribute to the 1862 law that helped populate the western United States. Located near Beatrice, Nebraska, about 40 miles (64 kilometres) south of Lincoln, the monument includes some of the first acres successfully claimed under the law. The site also offers a heritage centre that explores the law's impact on America, a tall grass prairie, a restored cabin from 1867 and the Freeman School, which provides a look at historic schools on the frontier.

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