While I always like to consider myself to be some sort of great traveler, the fact is that I make more mistakes than I care to admit. We all do of course, and that’s actually one of the great joys in the travel experience, to make and learn from mistakes. One of those happened when I drove Route 66, which I still consider to be one of the best trips I’ve ever planned. One of my errors though was not planning enough time in the many cities and towns along the way, instead wanting to experience the quirky sights in between. As such, I only spent the night when I visited Oklahoma City, an oversight I instantly regretted. I recently had the great opportunity to correct this travel mistake, when the fine folks over at VisitOKC invited me back to explore everything I had missed that first time. What I discovered was a great city with a lot to offer locals and visitors alike, which I will share in great detail in future posts. Today though I want to share the inherent qualities of Oklahoma City that made it so much fun to visit not once, but twice.
The one aspect of any destination that can’t be created or manufactured is the hospitality, or lack thereof, one feels. It’s hard to distill, one just knows it instantly and for me that happened as soon as I arrived to my temporary home for the week – the 21C Museum Hotel. I’ve long been curious about this boutique hotel company that now spans eight properties with their unusual take on the hotel experience. Combining incredible art, luxury living and chef-driven cuisine, 21C hotels are experiences unto themselves, as I finally learned for myself in Oklahoma City. While the art was great and the rooms incredibly comfortable, it was the hospitality that was extended to me throughout my stay that made all the difference. That feeling of welcome wasn’t limited to my hotel; I found it everywhere I went around the city. Kind people who were all excited to share the best of their city with me. Believe it or not, but that doesn’t occur everywhere I go and it made my time in Oklahoma City all the better for it.
One thing I look for in any city I visit is the extent to which the arts are embraced, and in Oklahoma City I was nearly blown away by the creativity on full display. While it’s easily found throughout the city, the best example I discovered was in the Plaza District, home of the Plaza Walls project. Launched in 2015 by two artists, and in cooperation with the city, Plaza Walls facilitates incredible murals on buildings throughout the district. Artists from around the state and even the world are invited to create massive murals around the Plaza District, creating a beautiful array of street art in the process. Along with the beautification, the Plaza Walls have had deep repercussions throughout the state, sparking new and creative projects in other communities and starting a new conversation about public art. Not only are the walls themselves great to admire, the Plaza District itself is fun and quirky and worth at least an afternoon to enjoy properly.
As a history buff, I’m always drawn to spots where I can learn more about the communities I visit, and in Oklahoma I was spoiled for choice. Whether it was the Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, the Oklahoma History Center or even the American Banjo Museum, learning about the history of the city and state was made easy for me, but the most profound moment was at the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum. Created to honor those who were killed in the senseless 1995 bombing, the museum itself is truly remarkable and does an amazing job at telling the full story of the attack. What truly took my breath away though was the Outdoor Symbolic Memorial. The site is anchored by the Gates of Time – the 9:01 Gate represents the innocence before the attack and the 9:03 Gate symbolizes the moment healing began. The field of 168 empty chairs represents those killed on April 19, 1995. They stand in nine rows, each representing a floor of the Federal Building where the field is now located. Each chair bears the name of someone killed on that floor. Nineteen smaller chairs stand for the children. It’s a powerful place but an amazing tribute to those who lost their lives here.
Vibrant Culinary Scene
By now it’s become redundant to comment on the incredible food scenes found in nearly every metropolitan area across the nation. The last decade has been a great one for the American food scene, and that wave of culinary creativity has thankfully also hit Oklahoma City. There are almost too many to name, and I’ll devote a post to the culinary side of the city, but one that I’d like to mention isn’t known for its hipsterism, too cool for school drinks or quirky burgers. No, instead it has brought a culinary art to the city that many may not expect. Gorō Ramen actually started as a pop-up dinner series founded by owners Jeff Chanchaleune and Rachel Cope. The menus were decidedly Japanese-inspired, but it wasn’t until Chef Jeff visited Japan that he found his culinary inspiration – Tori Paitan. This rich chicken broth was the inspiration for Gorō and the base on which his amazing ramen concoctions are founded. Anyone who has ever been to Japan will instantly recognize the authenticity of this ramen, and it’s a food staple I was surprised but thrilled to find in Oklahoma City.
It’s important to recognize when we as travelers fail. Although I visited many towns and cities during my epic drive on Route 66, I admit I didn’t delve deep enough at several of my stops. I’m thankful for the opportunity to return to Oklahoma City, to correct this oversight and, most importantly, to discover the lovely community that I very nearly missed.