In recent years I’ve firmed embraced the concept of micro-vacations; quick weekend getaways to new spots. Sure, I also love those weeklong adventures halfway around the planet, but I’ve learned the necessity of leaving home more frequently as a way to decompress and mentally reset myself. Any trip we take has benefits, and most recently I found myself enjoying those benefits in Oklahoma City. I had briefly visited the capital of Oklahoma while driving Route 66, but since spending 12 hours (most of which were asleep) in a new city isn’t the best way to experience it, I was excited to return and discover everything the city has to offer. What I found was a fun and lively community that surprised me in any number of ways. I don’t often put together itineraries on this site, but to help focus your thoughts for your own OKC trip, I thought I’d assemble my ideas for a fun getaway to a city that really does hit all the right marks. And rather than list things Day 1, Day 2, etc (which I find annoying and not useful) I’m going to detail great experiences in a “Choose Your Own Adventure” format. I was the guest of VisitOKC who invited me back to better experience their amazing city.
Where to Stay
There are plenty of convenient places to spend the night during your Oklahoma City retreat, but for me there really was only one choice – the 21c Museum Hotel. Located in Oklahoma City’s West End, what is now the 21c actually began life as a Ford Motor Company assembly plant, which dates back more than a century and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It’s in this spacious facility where the owners have created what is truly a remarkable hotel. The 21c Museum Hotel Oklahoma City is a contemporary art museum and a 135-room boutique hotel with spacious guest rooms reminiscent of a Soho loft apartment. It’s also undeniably quirky which immediately endeared it to me. Great hospitality, luxurious touches, incredible style and delicious food – there really isn’t any reason not to love this temporary home away from home.
What to Do
This is where the options get a little overwhelming, which is a good thing! There’s nothing worse than visiting a new city only to discover that they lack enough to keep you occupied even for just a few days. That was not my problem in Oklahoma City, far from it. Whether your interest is in art and culture, history, sports or something further afield, here are my picks for fun ways to spend your weekend away in OKC.
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.
Depending on your level of sports fluency, you may or may not be aware of the fact that Oklahoma City is home to a professional basketball team, the Thunder. Originally the Seattle Supersonics, the team moved to Oklahoma City in 2008 and play home games in Chesapeake Energy Arena. Since then their popularity has only increased, providing Oklahomans a common team to root for away from normal college rivalries. Now let’s be clear, I’m not really a fan of the NBA but even I couldn’t help but have a lot of fun when I attended a Thunder home game. There’s just something special about attending a sporting event in person, whether or not you know anything about the teams or even the sport. There’s a certain energy in the air that’s infectious and when combined with a great arena and delicious things to eat and drink, it was a perfect night out on the town.
A common theme throughout my time in Oklahoma City was being pleasantly surprised, and that was especially true at this massive facility. Housed in an incredible 200,000 sq ft space, the museum’s collection includes an impressive 2,000 works of Western art, sharing the story of the American West from all points of view in gorgeous paintings, sculptures, pottery and more. In addition to the art on display the historical galleries include the American Cowboy Gallery, a look at the life and traditions of a working cowboy and ranching history. As I noted, I didn’t really know what to expect from this institution, but whatever preconceived notions I had were immediately replaced by awe and admiration for this impressive museum.
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.
To be honest, I had low expectations for this museum. Sure, I love quirky museums and really do seek them out wherever I go. That being said, I normally do so for the novelty of visiting and not necessarily for the content contained therein. Once again though, Oklahoma City took me by total surprise when I found myself really enjoying my time exploring this odd but extremely well curated museum in OKC’s Bricktown neighborhood. Like all great museums, this one has evolved over time and today is home to the largest collection of banjos on public display, telling the long history of the instrument in the process. The banjo is one of those few quintessentially American items and its history really does mirror that of the nation, as I learned during my time there. What really won me over was a special exhibit all about Jim Henson and the Muppets, paying homage to not only the man, but his famous banjo playing frog as well.
While I don’t always patronize art museums when I travel, a quick peek at the website for the OKC Museum of Art made me excited to spend a leisurely morning perusing the collections. One of the leading arts institutions in the region, the museum includes one of the world’s largest public collections of Dale Chihuly glass, a major collection of photography by Brett Weston, and the definitive museum collection of works by the Washington Color painter Paul Reed. In addition to permanent collections, there are of course temporary ones to add to the visitor experience, including the one I was fortunate enough to see featuring the art of the Great Depression. It was a fascinating look at some incredible artwork from the era, and certainly deepened my own understanding of the Great Depression. Whatever your level of art interest, make sure you stop by this incredible museum.
The arts are popular in Oklahoma City, whether it’s the very conventional or the avant garde, which is exactly what I found at the Factory Obscura Mix Tape. In early 2019, local art collective Factory Obscura announced it would open a permanent installation at a quirky space known as The Womb called “Mix-Tape” where the collective would add a 20th-century twist to classic audio autobiography in an immersive, interactive art space. This is the new wave of interactive art but be forewarned, it’s not for everyone. It is though great for anyone who wants to capture a special Instagram moment.
If you enjoy more outdoorsy pursuits, there are plenty of ways to stay busy, from hiking to some of the best paddling in the country. I was there in the winter though, so to satisfy my need to be surrounded by nature I visited these gardens located in the heart of the city and their famous Crystal Bridge. The centerpiece of the 15-acre Myriad Botanical Gardens is the Crystal Bridge Conservatory, home to thousands of beautifully displayed tropical and desert plantings. It is 224 feet long, 70 feet in diameter, covered by 3,028 sections of translucent, double-layered acrylic panels and is another great spot for those Instagram-worthy snaps.
As I’ve mentioned, I’m a history buff and those are always the types of museums to which I am naturally drawn. Located within sight of the Capitol Building, I wasn’t disappointed as I meandered around the exhibits at the Oklahoma History Center. This is the place to visit if you want to learn about the state’s colorful history, from ancient Native American tribal nations, to the Land Rush up through modern day. It was exactly the background I needed to better understand not only Oklahoma City, but the entire state of Oklahoma.
What to Eat
Like so many other great cities, food is an integral part of any visit to Oklahoma City and during my own visit I was overwhelmed by the options. No matter your particular culinary proclivities, I’m confident you’ll enjoy eating your way around the city as much as I did, especially if you include these establishments.
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.
Located in Oklahoma City’s West End, The Jones Assembly opened in 2017 but has already positioned itself as one of the best and most eclectic restaurants in town. It seeks to pair incredible regional cuisine with live music in a way that is, of course, a whole lot of fun. The Jones Assembly features a large restaurant and bar where they serve up some of the best bites I enjoyed during my time in Oklahoma City, but they also have a 1,600 person capacity venue for concerts that run the gamut from the Indigo Girls to Blues Traveler. This is a not to be missed spot for sure.
There are few things I enjoy more than finding regional food favorites, and in Oklahoma City that meant a proper introduction to the onion burger. In the 1920s, a smattering of cafes in Western Oklahoma sought ways to stretch beef further in their menu offerings. Cooks found that ground beef pressed with a pile of thinly shredded onions not only tasted good but helped cafes stay profitable as the Great Depression loomed. Soon, diners and cafes all over Oklahoma were serving fried onion burgers, and they have been a staple ever since. You can find these iconic burgers throughout the state, but in Oklahoma City Tucker’s was the place for me. With several locations around the city, they’ve earned a loyal following of fans thanks to their expertly crafted burgers and shakes. And how do the burgers actually taste? They weren’t just delicious, but I think my new preferred way to enjoy my favorite meal.
I love restaurants with personality and I knew that as soon as I arrived to Cattlemen’s I was in for a special treat. Oklahoma’s oldest continuously operating restaurant first opened its doors in 1910 in the middle of Stockyards City to feed hungry cowboys and ranchers. The restaurant has had just as rough and tumble a history as its customers, but it has persevered through the years thanks to its menu and rarely, if ever, changing anything. Open long hours every day, a little bit of everything is served here, but I was there for one of their famous breakfasts. Of course steak is on the menu, but so is just about everything else and along with the well-worn patina of the dining room, I couldn’t have picked a better place to start my culinary exploration of Oklahoma City.
Few cities have done as good a job at bringing old neighborhoods back to life as Oklahoma City, and one of my favorites was the Deep Deuce Neighborhood. In the 1920s and 30s this was the heart of Oklahoma City’s African American neighborhood and during that time it was famous for incredible jazz and even better food. That culinary culture has been brought back to life in any number of restaurants, including the remarkable Bar Cicchetti. Celebrity chef Fabio Viviani along with Oklahoma native Chef Jonathon Stranger have created a warm and friendly enclave where they show off their interpretations of Mediterranean staples. The emphasis is on small plates that are shared communally and whether you try the lamb meatballs, fried burrata or chicken croquettes, you’ll walk away not only satisfied with the food, but with the incredible company you kept as well.
For a fun way to start your day, be sure to stop by Waffle Champion, but also be sure to wear your stretchy pants. Classic waffles (both Liege and Brussels style), savory waffle sandwiches, cocktails and more define the very quirky but also incredibly delicious menu. I opted for the cinnamon roll waffle that is covered in spiced butter, vanilla frosting and a pecan crumble that was so good, I almost had to skip lunch.
Long weekend getaways are my new favorite way to travel. You usually don’t have to take much time off from work, the trips don’t break the bank and they offer a necessary mental release from the daily grind. That’s what I loved so much about Oklahoma City, I was able to have an incredible few days away from home and enjoy new and fun experiences in the process.