Tulsa: A Guide for Visiting This Up-and-Coming, Budget-Friendly City

by  Steve Larese | Sep 29, 2015
Downtown Tulsa
Downtown Tulsa / Steve Larese

When crude prices dropped in the 1980s, Tulsa, Oklahoma, the former "Oil Capitol of the World," dried up like a played-out well. But in just the past few years, this Art Deco-dotted city along the Arkansas River has gotten a second wind. A new generation of restaurants, live music venues, fun local shops, and festivals have brought energy back to the city, drawing comparisons to popular destinations like Nashville and Austin. Even better, living on Tulsa time, as the song goes, is easy on the travel budget. Here's your guide to a bargain trip.

Downtown To-Do List
Start at the epicenter of Tulsa's revival. Downtown is easily walkable and is divided into several distinct, complementary districts. The Brady Arts District is known for its restaurants, shops, galleries, museums, and public spaces. Grassy Guthrie Green is a hotspot where free music concerts, yoga classes, plays, and more are held throughout the year. Each Wednesday, food trucks line the area, and festivals such as the Center of the Universe Festival are based here, too. The historic Cain’s Ballroom and Brady Theater  both host national music acts, and plenty of smaller venues  host local musicians and bands.

The Deco District is home to some of Tulsa’s best architecture, including the 24-story, gargoyle-protected Philtower and Boston Avenue Methodist Church, considered to be one of the best examples of Art Deco in the United States. For an introduction to the design style, try the free Tulsa Art Deco Museum in the lobby of the Philcade Building. You can do a self-guided tour to see the district's architecture, and a $5 walking tour of downtown’s Art Deco buildings is led by the Tulsa Historical Society on the last Friday of every month.

Other districts worth checking out include the Greenwood District, which was known as the “Black Wall Street” in the 1920s -- the wealthiest African American community in the country -- and is anchored by Reconciliation Park and ONEOK Field, where the Tulsa Drillers play baseball throughout the summer. (A free fireworks show takes place at the field every Friday throughout the season.) The Pearl District is known for its local watering holes and live music, especially at Club Nitro -- and the Blue Dome District, named for its historic Art Deco gas station, has retro bowling, ‘80s arcade games, and pleasantly dive-y neighborhood bars.

Pro tip: If you're enjoying nightlife on the weekends, keep an eye out for the free downtown trollies that ferry people between the districts.

Outdoor Activities
River Parks is a trail system that parallels the Arkansas River and a favorite for runners, bicyclists, and casual strollers. More than 26 miles are paved and wind past sport fields, playgrounds, water fountains, and restaurants. (Bikes can be rented through Tulsa Townies.) There's also Woodward Park and Tulsa Garden Center -- 45-acres of tree-shaded grass, gardens, and water features between Cherry Street and Brookside. The rose garden, arboretum, herb garden, and conservatory are free to visit.

Route 66 buffs should check out the “East Meets West” statue at Cyrus Avery Centennial Plaza (Southwest Boulevard and Riverside Drive), and explore Tulsa’s 11th Street, which was part of U.S. Route 66 until 1985. The giant Praying Hands at Oral Roberts University and the iconic Golden Driller at the Tulsa County Fairgrounds make fun photo stops as well.

Architecture in Tulsa / Steve Larese

Museums & Attractions
The eponymous Woody Guthrie Center explores the life of the artist who penned such American classics as “This Land is Your Land” -- and who inspired all sorts of music from Bob Dylan to punk rock. Opened in 2013 and located in the vibrant Brady Arts District downtown, this museum and educational center is a must-stop for music lovers -- and anyone who’s ever sung one of Guthrie's songs around a campfire. You'll find his guitar and original notebook and lyric pages, along with listening stations and rotating exhibits detailing Guthrie’s impact on music as well as the politics and time surrounding his life. Entrance costs $8 for adults.

Often compared to the Getty in L.A., art lovers essentially can get two museum experiences for the price of one at the Philbrook institutions in Tulsa. The original Philbrook Museum of Art was built in the 1920s as the Italian Renaissance-style home of Waite Philips and his family (of Philips Petroleum). Today, the former villa displays paintings and antiquities -- from ancient Rome, to the Middle Ages, to the Italian Renaissance -- along with European, American, Native American, African, and Asian collections, but the expansive and expertly manicured gardens outside the museum walls are actually worth admission alone. With a $9 entrance fee, you'll also be able to visit the Philbrook Downtown location, which opened in June 2013. It's the home of the modern and contemporary pieces of the Philbrook collection, including works by Picasso and Warhol, as well as 20th-century Native American art by such luminaries as Allan Houser. Museums are closed Mondays.

Another estate-turned-museum, the Gilcrease Museum is nationally recognized as having one of the best collections of Western and Native American art in the nation. Bronzes and paintings by Frederic Remington, Charles Russell, John Audubon, Georgia O’Keeffe, and other American masters grace the exhibit space, which was built in the style of a Native American longhouse. Historic Native American artwork representing tribes and nations from across North and South America include leather and beadwork and pottery. Entry costs $8 per adult; closed Mondays.

The Tulsa Air and Space Museum & Planetarium's permanent exhibits include early bi-planes and World War II aircraft that were manufactured in Tulsa, as well as jet fighters and a Space Shuttle mission control simulator ($15). The Tulsa Zoo -- set on 85-acres within Mohawk Park -- is a popular stop for learning more about wildlife from every continent, including grizzly bears, elephants, snow leopards, penguins, and sea lions ($10). And, even as adults, we love the tunnel and slide made out of packing tape at the Tulsa Children’s Museum ($6). Of course, there's plenty more to play with related to music and sound, gears, and other science and math topics here, too.

Where to Stay
The historic Mayo Hotel is a 19-story Art Deco building downtown with modern rooms and a rooftop bar that was nearly demolished a few years ago. Charlie Chaplin, John F. Kennedy, and Elvis are just a few of the guests who have stayed here since it first opened in 1925. You'll be able to find rooms here between $149 and $289 per night throughout the year (and don't forget to check for specials). Looking for somewhere to spend your points? The Hyatt Regency Tulsa downtown has excellent deals throughout the year, including a fall discount of 20 percent for stays of two nights or more -- as do the Aloft Tulsa Downtown and Fairfield Inn & Suites, also downtown.

Mayo Hotel / Steve Larese

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