A beautiful city park nestled in the cool shadows of high-rise buildings. A world-class art museum. A battalion of food trucks serving up delicious street fare. Where are you? New York City? Nope. What about Los Angeles? Not even close. Austin, Texas? You’re getting warmer, but not quite.
The truth is, it’s a lot closer than you’d imagine: Tulsa.
While not exactly a cultural hub, Tulsa boasts enough urban amenities to shatter most any preconception of what this beautiful Green Country town has to offer. At its point of cultural convergence at the heart of the nation, Tulsa practically straddles an invisible vertical line that divides the nation in half—not quite the Midwest and just removed from the South. With historic Route 66 bisecting Tulsa as well, you can only imagine what nuggets of culture travelers have brought with them as they made their way across the country.
That role as a cultural crossroads is the reason you’ll find such varied offerings as Tulsa rapper Verse’s East Coast-influenced hip-hop, Lone Wolf’s California-rooted Asian-fusion food-truck fare or the Cajun-inspired eats at Doc’s Wine and Food. The best of music, cuisine and art seeps into the city from all over the country, and the local talent mixes it up, taking a little of this and little of that to create a vast cultural landscape.
It’s a hodgepodge that’s built into the town’s bedrock, considering Tulsa’s foundation as a Native American settlement and the city’s history as “The Oil Capital of the World” that attracted people of all backgrounds to put down roots in hopes of striking black gold.
Those original tycoons and industrialists who found their riches in T-Town saw something in the city worth building their dreams on. They poured their newfound wealth back into the town, sending their towering structures toward the heavens and creating the beautiful Art Deco skyline that still stands over the city’s recently rejuvenated downtown. The metropolitan area features a number of burgeoning new businesses, and with the completion of the Guthrie Green, the urban center now boasts its own Central Park of sorts. Surrounding the park is the Brady Arts District, the long-standing bastion for the city’s vibrant and ever-expanding music scene. “The Tulsa Sound” that was created by legends like Leon Russell and J.J. Cale is continuously reborn and reinterpreted as the city carries on its tradition of crafting and attracting quality music.
Catch a show at the historic Cain’s Ballroom, where Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys created the Western-swing genre, and after you’re done with that, take a stroll down the street to find the best late-night concert of the evening. Check out the posters plastered on each bar’s windows to see who’s playing—or better yet, just cast your ear to the wind and follow the music that sounds best to you. You’re bound to end up at the Soundpony, or the Vanguard, or the Yeti, or the Hunt Club or any of Tulsa’s other stellar venues. The opportunities to hear superb music performances in Tulsa are boundless, and there isn’t a bad choice in the bunch.
If an enchanting dinner or day of boutique hopping is more your style, Tulsa’s got you covered there, too. Areas like the Brookside District attract folks who are anxious to tempt their palates with offerings from one of the city’s next great restaurants, or search for unique gifts and trendy additions to their closets. From fine-dining experiences like The Chalkboard to a street-food meal in the park, Tulsa has a culinary solution for any craving you might wish to satisfy. Looking for a classic cocktail or craft beer and a great atmosphere? Look no further than Hodges Bend or Valkyrie. And that’s just the beginning when it comes to this city.
To put it simply, Tulsa never ceases to impress. Even if you have a basic idea of what the city has to offer, you’ll be surprised to discover that Tulsa can’t be fully explored or appreciated in a single trip; and you’ll be planning your next visit before you’ve even left the hotel to return home. A word of advice for when you do check out this wonderful town: Make sure you stop and chat with its inhabitants along the way. The people of Tulsa are kind, vivacious and full of pride for their city, their state and their heritage. They built this town, and they are its true heart and soul. You can thank them later.
T-Town To-Do List
A visitor’s guide to the ‘Oil Capital of the World’
The Mayo Hotel
Built in 1925, the Mayo Hotel was the tallest building in Tulsa upon its construction. Today, the hotel is still an iconic part of the city’s skyline, with its neon “MAYO” sign clearly visible as one enters downtown. Be sure to enjoy a cocktail at the historic hotel’s Penthouse Rooftop Lounge, which features the only 360-degree downtown view in the city. The lounge was originally part of the hotel’s Presidential Suite and once played host to none other than the King himself, Elvis Presley. (115 W. Fifth St.; themayohotel.com)
The Ambassador Hotel
Another historic Tulsa fixture, the Ambassador was originally built in the late ’20s as extended-stay lodging for oil tycoons awaiting completion of their mansions. Following in the same luxurious tradition, the hotel remains a regal establishment, though it now boasts a more boutique feel. With just seven rooms to each of its 10 floors, you’ll enjoy an intimate stay with just enough of a buffer from the hustle and bustle of downtown. Even if you don’t book a room, be sure to make a reservation at the hotel’s fine-dining restaurant, The Chalkboard. It’s almost as famous as the hotel itself—for good reason. (1324 S. Main St.; ambassadorhotelcollection.com/tulsa)
The Courtyard by Marriott Downtown
Those looking for a more economical stay with the same charm as Tulsa’s historic luxury hotels should book a room at the Courtyard. While the hotel itself doesn’t have the same storied background as some of its fellow downtown lodgings, the Atlas Life Insurance Building that houses the hotel is full of history. Make sure to check out the Art Deco architecture in the lobby while you enjoy a bloody mary and some yummy diner grub from the Atlas Grill. (415 S. Boston Ave.; marriott.com)
//Eat & Drink
Tucked away in the lower levels of the Ambassador Hotel, The Chalkboard has been a Tulsa fixture since the ’70s. With its European-bistro atmosphere, seasonal menu and extensive wine list, this is the fine-dining experience you’ve been looking for. Perfect for a romantic dinner or even a laid-back lunch, you can relax on the Main Street patio or watch the well-trained chefs in the open kitchen work their magic. (1324 S. Main St.; thechalkboard-tulsa.com)
Lone Wolf Bahn Mi Food Truck
Sure, food trucks have become a bit of a fad in recent years. But if all the roving eateries were as spectacular as Lone Wolf, they might just completely replace traditional restaurants. Lone Wolf’s menu is a fusion between Vietnamese and French cuisine. The food truck’s specialty is bahn mi, a spicy pork sandwich served on a locally baked French-style baguette, topped with carrots, cucumber, jalapeno, cilantro, pickled daikon radish and your choice of aioli. Round that out with a side of caramelized kimchi fries and a beignet for dessert. Hungry yet? You better get in line because Lone Wolf is known to sell out in a hurry. (Roaming; facebook.com/lonewolftruck)
Stepping into Hodges Bend feels a lot like stepping into the heyday of the Roaring ’20s. The marble and wood bar, the jazz, the chandeliers, the vintage cocktails—it’s as if F. Scott Fitzgerald or Ernest Hemingway could walk through the door at any moment à la Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. The place doubles as a bar and coffee shop, so feel free to stop by for a scone and cappuccino in the morning and hang out until you can justify ordering that tobacco old-fashioned you’ve been eyeing all day. Or combine the best of both worlds with something like a Mexican Cartel (espresso, Cynar and Campari). (823 E. Third St.; hodges-bend.com)
The Max Retropub
What’s better than beer and arcade games? Nothing, that’s what. The Max revives the ’80s with memorabilia and posters lining the walls, themed cocktails and a host of classic arcade games from Tron to Street Fighter. Vintage television sets continuously stream flicks such as Back to the Future and The Breakfast Club, while hair metal and synth-pop blast from the loudspeakers. Think you really know the ’80s? Then stop by on Wednesdays for Retro Trivia and prove it. (114C S. Elgin Ave.; themaxretropub.com)
The Soundpony is one of those bars where it’s hard to put your finger on just what makes it so great. The music is certainly a good place to start. Whether it’s coming from the record player behind the bar or any one of T-Town’s awesome local bands performing at the front end of the shotgun-style building, there are always good tunes in the air. Aside from that, there’s also the attentive staff, great beer selection, and a fenced-in patio that is decorated with graffiti and features a spectacular view of the skyline. The fact that the Soundpony is just down the street from Cain’s Ballroom (more on this later) and that the Lone Wolf Food Truck is frequently parked right outside sure doesn’t hurt either. (409 S. Main St; thesoundpony.com)
Elote Café & Catering
If there’s one thing Elote is known for, it’s providing delicious and innovative Mexican fare crafted from fresh and locally sourced ingredients. If there’s another: live lucha libre wrestling matches. Try to name one other place where you can witness masked men and women dramatically pummel each other while you enjoy an enchilada, some tequila and a puffy taco or two. OK, so maybe you can do it in Mexico, but that’s so far away. (514 S. Boston Ave.; elotetulsa.com)
Located in the Brady Arts District downtown, Cain’s was initially built in 1924 as an auto garage, going on to serve as a dance hall and the home of Western-swing legend Bob Wills’ famous radio broadcasts before becoming one of the best small music venues in the country. Cain’s hosts a revolving variety of acts with genres ranging from indie rock, punk and jazz, all the way to dubstep. Fans bounce up and down on the spring-loaded dance floor while the ballroom’s alumni—Hank Williams, Tennessee Ernie Ford and Bob Wills himself, to name a few—look down from portraits lining the walls. (423 N. Main St.; cainsballroom.com)
Dust Bowl Lanes & Lounge
A tribute to that golden age of bowling alleys—the 1970s—the Dust Bowl features eight lanes of fun right in the center of downtown’s Blue Dome District. Channel The Dude by grabbing a White Russian from the bar, and while you’re at it, get a basket of tater tots (there are seven different kinds). Between the period pencil-and-paper scorekeeping and the green, brown and orange color scheme, the Dust Bowl is a throwback you don’t want to miss. (211 S. Elgin Ave.; dustbowltulsa.com)
The Circle Cinema
This historic theater was built in 1928 and is the only pre-1960s cinema left in Tulsa. The Circle has gone through several renovations and rebrandings over the years, but today it stands as Tulsa’s premier theater for art-house, indie and documentary features. The nonprofit organization that owns and operates the theater maintains it as a cultural center as well, scheduling frequent programming geared “to educate, to enlighten, to entertain.” Each month, you can check out performances from the Tulsa Opera or live plays broadcast from London’s famous West-End National Theatre. (10 S. Lewis Ave.; circlecinema.com)
The Guthrie Green
The Guthrie Green is a lot of things. At the most basic level, it’s an urban park located downtown in the Brady Arts District, yet it also serves as a community gathering place. Get in shape on the Green’s spacious lawn with a yoga or Zumba lesson. Stock up on fresh fruit and veggies at the Sunday farmers’ market, or enjoy a meal in the park during Food Truck Wednesday, or on the patio at Lucky’s on the Green. An on-site performance stage allows for various entertainment throughout the year as well. By the way, the word “green” in the park’s name is not just a reference to the lovely shade of the park’s turf; the entire park runs on state-of-the-art technology such as solar panels, LED lighting and a geothermal exchange that provides energy to neighboring nonprofit businesses like the Hardesty Visual Arts Center. (111 E. Brady Ave.; guthriegreen.org)
The Philbrook Museum
Villa Philbrook was constructed during Tulsa’s oil boom in the mid-1920s by industrialist Waite Phillips. Originally built as a private residence, Phillips surprised the city a little more than 10 years after the structure’s completion by gifting the 72-room mansion and surrounding 23-acre grounds to Tulsa for use as an art and cultural center. The Renaissance-inspired architecture of the villa and the beautiful gardens, featuring native Oklahoma plants and a sculpture walk, could be considered works of art in their own right. The museum itself boasts collections of early American, African, Native American, European and Asian works, as well as modern and contemporary art and a modest sampling of Egyptian, Etruscan, Greek and Roman antiquities. (2727 S. Rockford Road.; philbrook.org)
Ida Red Boutique
Located in the heart of the Brookside District, an area known for its rich shopping and dining choices, Ida Red features just about any Tulsa-centric gift or knickknack you could ask for. Known as “Tulsa’s Rockin’ Boutique,” the store specializes in clothing, art and music from local creatives and serves as the only official distributor of Cain’s Ballroom merchandise. You’ll want to check out the candy corner, where you’ll find an assortment of sweets from the common Crunch bar to more bizarre options like gummy bacon (strawberry flavored) or bacon cotton candy (bacon flavored). Be sure to grab one of the boutique’s delicious old-fashioned sodas as well. Not to worry—they have a bacon option in that department, too. (3336 S. Peoria Ave.; idaredboutique.com)
Any gentleman intimidated by boutique shopping but looking to add a little style to his wardrobe should look no further than Edit. While not necessarily a store just for men, Edit offers unique and high-quality haberdashery from designers such as The Hillside and Todd Snyder. Ladies will love the store’s selection of home décor pieces and Delirium candles, and no one can turn down one of Dude, Sweet Chocolate’s Yerbe Mate Truffles or Albatross Fudge (made with dehydrated blue cheese and sea salt). (3524C S. Peoria Ave.; editulsa.com)