Have you ever had the feeling that the whole world knew something that you didn’t? That’s exactly how we felt after visiting Oklahoma City recently. To be fair, we should have known. We’re essentially neighbors; our home base is just a few hours down the interstate. We have driven past Oklahoma City, but never made it a destination. Until now. And we suddenly realized, we didn’t know OKC at all!
Oklahoma City in History
Oklahoma City had a big and colorful beginning, being a land rush town with a population that went from zero to 10,000 virtually overnight in 1889. Within 20 years, the nation’s largest stockyards were in full operation, stealing business away from Chicago and Omaha. The oil business boomed in the 1920s, and Oklahoma City was flush with money and success. The city came of age as a prominent stop to “Get your kicks on Route 66.”
In the later half of the 20th Century, Oklahoma City’s fortunes mirrored those of other large cities suffering declining populations. People moved out of the city center, and large sections of downtown laid vacant. The myth of OKC is that the recovery never came.
Why Would We Visit OKC?
If your knowledge of Oklahoma City is limited, don’t feel bad. We were in the same situation, which is why we never visited the city before. In fact, when we mentioned our plans, the number one question was, “Why Oklahoma City?”
For sports fans, that’s easy: the NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder! Baseball fans know it as the home of Johnny Bench, Bobby Mercer, and the OKC Dodgers minor league baseball team. Which is more than we knew!
Many people visit just to see the Oklahoma State Capital, and the site of the Murrah Federal Building bombing. But we’d be willing to bet that you, like us, never thought of Oklahoma City for innovative restaurants or fine art. Or, for that matter, rock climbing and river rapids. After all, Oklahoma is flat as a pancake and dry as a, well, dust bowl. (Other myths, by the way.)
We really didn’t know what to expect when we decided to visit the heart of Oklahoma City, but we did not expect what we found: A vibrant, metropolitan downtown with a thriving arts scene, stunning architecture, sports and adventure, and damn fine dining.
In coming posts, we’ll talk about itineraries and specific things to do. First, though, we want to dispel any doubts you have that Oklahoma City deserves a place in your travel plans.
A Modern Masterpiece
Oklahoma City (as we write this) is a work in progress. Since the 1990s, more than $3-billion has been pumped into public/private partnerships to revitalize downtown. We won’t lie, there is a lot of construction in the Downtown / Midtown areas, but that’s a good thing. The fact that many historic buildings are being preserved is an even better thing. It means that modern is meeting Modern, right in Oklahoma City.
Many of the historic buildings date from the first half of the 20th Century, when Modernism was the architectural style in vogue. The concrete and limestone Municipal Building, and the neighboring Civic Center Music Hall, are beautiful “government issue” Art Deco buildings. Both were part of the Public Works Administration’s efforts to put people to work after the Great Depression.
Contrasting them is the modern the steel-and-glass Devon Tower, completed in 2012 less than half a mile away. Nearby, the I.M. Pei-designed Myriad Gardens atrium recalls a futuristic vision of a space colony that could be right at home at EPCOT. They anchor a thoroughly modern 21st Century Oklahoma City.
A fine example of modern meeting Modern is the sprawling Donald W. Reynolds Visual Arts Center, home of the OKC Museum of Art. Opened in 2002, it encompasses the beautiful Samuel Roberts Noble Theatre, built in 1947. From the towering modern atrium, to the Art Deco flourishes, it’s a destination that should be on your itinerary, inside and out.
That might be an exaggeration, but Oklahoma City shines with the unexpected. Did you know there is an American Banjo Museum? How about a National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum? Would you believe, a Museum of Osteology? (That’s bones and skeletons, folks!) They all exist, right in Oklahoma City.
Oklahoma City Museum of Art
The Oklahoma City Museum of Art is, by far, our favorite in the city. The exhibits on display during our visit were outstanding, and include one renowned artist that people have been known to travel for: Dale Chihuly. The exhibit at the OKCMOA is a one of the world’s largest Chihuly collections, and features a 55-foot tall tower of more than 1,000 individual pieces of glass. The exhibit includes etched glass and drawings, as well as his trademark series.
21c Museum Hotel
You can even spend the night in an art museum in OKC! The boutique 21c Museum Hotel mixes Modern Art with Industrial Chic in an historic Ford Motor Company assembly plant that’s on the National Register of Historic Places. The lobby is all art gallery with sculpture, paintings, and assorted media. Upstairs are 135 guest rooms with custom furnishings and art work. The lobby gallery is free and open to the public 365 days a year.
The Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum
Unfortunately, when most think of Oklahoma City, the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building is still the first thing that comes to mind. The horrific events of April 19, 1995 are still hard to fathom, but this museum does a phenomenal job. The use of technology and interactive displays is impressive.
The self-guided tour walks you through an uneventful day of “business as usual” suddenly thrown into chaos in one horrific instant. The surrounding memorial plaza is as impressive and moving as the museum.
Oklahoma’s Adventure Center
The Oklahoma River flows leisurely through the city; a fact that locals and visitors take full advantage of. And so do Olympians!
You read right: Olympic kayakers and hopefuls train at RIVERSPORT Adventures, with world-class rapids that are also open to the public. Not rowing at an Olympic level? No worries. From sculls to sailboats to stand-up paddleboards, there is a variety of water options on the river, and at Lakes Hefner and Overholser. RIVERSPORT offers lessons and excursions, as well.
What’s more surprising than Olympic-class rapids in Oklahoma City? How about world-class rock climbing?
Despite a distinct lack of mountains, the city has one of the nation’s top climbing gyms! ClimbUP has repurposed a grain silo complex a short way from the Downtown district. These silos are 90 feet tall, and have climbing routes up to 140 feet, and longer – that’s among the longest in the country. For experienced climbers, there’s a challenging multi-pitch climb; perhaps the only such gym in the country. For the best views in the city, there’s an outdoor route to the top of the silos.
High Caliber Noshing
If you’ve seen our Instagram account, you know we’re fond of food and coffee. Before we decided to visit Oklahoma City, we never noticed it on any list of cities known for food or coffee. All that has changed.
Just before we left for OKC, Bon Appétit magazine came out with their Best New Restaurants for 2018. At number one was a novel restaurant in – you guessed it – Oklahoma City. It’s called Nonesuch, and it’s a literal hole-in-the-wall that’s making a tidal wave in the dining world. With seating for only 20 people, the restaurant serves only a tasting menu featuring locally sourced and foraged ingredients. With only 20 seats, reservations are mandatory, and hard to get.
If you don’t get into Nonesuch – or if breakfast is more your thing – head to Waffle Champion. The genesis for Nonesuch was here, and you should be too. They do things with waffles that you might think are unnatural. BBQ Pulled Pork. Crab Benedict. Migas…on a waffle? Yes. And yes, delicious. (Also very large.) Other waffles are more understandable: banana cream pie, S’mores, eggs and bacon, all on waffles. Get there early; the line starts growing as soon as the doors open.
Mary Eddy’s Lounge x Kitchen is the 21c Museum Hotel’s restaurant, with upscale twists on classics like pork rinds, an Asian-inspired pork shoulder, and Grilled Cheese made with Watonga Cheese Curds. More craft cocktails worth investigating are made here, as well. Brunch goes to another level, with innovative dishes alongside hearty classics.
Another great option is The Jones Assembly. Tucked into an historic building on Film Row, the restaurant is a design gem with a mix of open and cozy spaces, a performance venue, and outdoor seating. Billed as “refined regional cuisine,” the menu is varied and enticing: Nashville Hot Chicken, wood-fired pizzas, and the vegan Impossible Burger are just a few highlights. Locally influenced craft cocktails are as enticing as the menu. Our recommendation: the Dagwell Dixie (Pecan-infused Rye? Yes please!) accompanying a J Burger. But it’s the fries you’ll finish first.
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In our book, it’s high time that pretzels, beer, and brats got their own restaurant. That’s Fassler Hall, with a beer list that boggles the mind. Like any good Bavarian beer hall, there’s kraut and schnitzel, too. With indoor and outdoor seating, the family-friendly restaurant offers ping pong and live entertainment, too.
Café do Brasil serves lunch, brunch, and dinner, but we enjoyed the OKC views with tapas and cocktails on their rooftop patio. If we had a national drink here at TravelLatte, their traditional Caipirinha would be a leading contender.
Coffee Coffee Coffee
Sadly, we did not get to visit as many coffee shops as we’d like. However, that is a permanent state for us. So many coffees, so few hours in a day. One we heartily recommend, though, is Elemental Coffee. It’s often ranked as the best in town, but the real reason to visit is the range: from simple coffee to complex espresso mocktails, you will find something to love. Also, baked goods and healthy bites for breakfast, lunch, and brunch.
All About Cha is a favorite café near our home base in Texas, with a location in Oklahoma City, too. Our friends at A Brit and a Southerner visited recently, and reported back that it’s just as good as our local extension. We can’t wait to stop in on our next trip north.
Another location that’s highly rated, and was recommended by a several locals, is Clarity Coffee. Although they are coffee nerds who know the science behind the best brews, they really just want to give you a great cup of joe, with cool latte art, and maybe some pastries from local bakers.
Find the places in downtown Oklahoma City that are featured in this post here.
That OKC Vibe
Some cities just have a feeling about them; a personality of their own that sets the tone and brings together different parts and facets of the city. If Oklahoma City lived next door (which it kind of does), we’d say it’s fun, adventurous, and a little bit sophisticated. Despite being 130 years old, we’d say it seems young and full of promise. It likes good food and family, and good, clean fun.
Above all, we’d say Oklahoma City is surprising for a first time, or infrequent visitor. You could say it’s delightfully random. Walking in Midtown, we encountered bocce ball courts with an amazing view. Near our hotel was a huge neon sign for a defunct drycleaner that leant its logo and building to the new Stonecloud Brewing. A sprawling beer hall over a retro-looking bowling alley. A sandy, albeit temporary, beach in Bricktown. A restaurant making magic with waffles. We found surprise and delight around every corner, and that’s reason enough for us to want to visit again!
Somehow, the image of Oklahoma City as all stockyards and oil wells is an enduring one. It’s not a city that frequently makes cultural headlines, nor is it known as a hotbed of entertainment or innovation. As a result, it’s easy to believe OKC is a sleepy, uninteresting point on a map.
We were happily surprised to find that’s not the case. The city has been changing rapidly, and continues to do so. Oklahoma City is vibrant, hip, and growing. There’s plenty to do, no matter your interest. We enjoyed our first visit thoroughly, and are looking forward to going back for more. Let us know if we’ve convinced you to #SeeOKC as well, and what you’re most looking forward to!
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