While I love Colorado’s beautiful landscape and great weather, I had been eager to get back to Tulsa, OK to see the evolution it has made over the years. As someone who grew up in Tulsa and moved to Colorado over 10 years ago, I was shocked at some of the similarities but also quickly reaffirmed of its obvious differences. Regardless, for someone who had been dying to move away, I was excited to get back and see how my hometown had changed.
While Tulsa is only an hour and a half direct flight from Denver, it feels like worlds apart without the mountains to point you in the right direction. But Coloradans will soon see that this small “cow town” — that became the “oil capital of the world” almost overnight — is similar to Denver in many ways with its rich culture, colorful art and music scene and outdoor recreation.
Tulsa is the Center for the Arts
Tulsa is known as the “center for the arts,” and it’s easy to see why with its designated arts district, a reputable collection of world-class art museums, modern street art, a wealthy display of Art Deco architecture and numerous contemporary art galleries.
Philbrook Museum of Art
A must for any visit to Tulsa is the Philbrook Art Museum. Housed inside a luxurious villa once owned by the Phillips family, the Philbrook Museum is more than just an art museum, it is a place of elegance that is seen not only with its art but with its architecture and beautiful gardens.
Like so much of Tulsa, the Philbrook Villa was built with oil money during the 1920s, which is made evident in the 72-room mansion built with travertine and marble fireplaces and fountains, teak floors and ornate ceilings reminiscent of Italian villas. But don’t just stick to the inside, be sure to walk the 25-acre garden grounds. The formal gardens feature diagonal walkways, stairstep fountains, and immaculately trimmed hedges and paved pathways leading to the Tempietto.
Visitors will see works by well-known artists such as Georgia O’Keeffe, Thomas Moran and Clyfford Still, along with local artists and popular rotating exhibits such as the This is an Adventure: Accidentally Wes Anderson.
Art Deco Architecture
As previously mentioned, Tulsa struck it rich during the oil boom of the 1920s, and with that came fast wealth from oil tycoons in the area. With this surge of wealth, artists and architects were inspired by the latest trend of Art Deco that was dominating larger cities like NYC at the time.
Tulsa offers a beautiful display of this unique architecture with a simple walk downtown. Visit the Art Deco Museum (free admission) located inside the historic Philcade building to learn about the rise and fall of Art Deco and the oil tycoons who shaped the city’s skyline. And for only $25 take the Tulsa Art Deco Tour. The 1.5-mile walking tour guides you through the buildings, even down through the “secret” tunnel system that connects Tulsa’s downtown. Notable buildings include the Boston United Methodist Church, the Union Depot, Tusls Club and the Pythian Building.
Modern Art Comes to Life
But it’s not all about the history of arts in Tulsa, the progressive city is also impressing young artists and admirers with its showcase of street murals — one of which just launched the world’s largest augmented reality mural “Majestic” in October 2021.
Stop in at 108 Contemporary, housed in a restored 1920s building, a gallery dedicated to showcasing local and international artists in a variety of craft media like glass, paper, fiber and more. Living Arts is another favorite where you can “live” the arts through performance, classes, demonstrations and rotating local and national artists’ exhibits.
To get a taste of the local flavor, stop in at AHHA (the Arts and Humanities Council of Tulsa), located inside the Hardesty Center in the arts district. The multi-level center houses a variety of exhibits, classrooms, immersive and interactive art displays and a community gallery with exhibitions in partnership with its community of artists and nonprofit groups.
In the past several years, Tulsa has received a lot of attention after the airing of the Watchman, which debuted in 2019 because of its opening scene of the Tulsa Race Massacre. This came on the heels of the massacre’s 100th anniversary in 2021, putting this historic event center stage. In an effort to reconcile with its past, Tulsa has made some major moves toward racial reconciliation. It has done so with the opening of Greenwood Rising, the renaming of the Brady Theatre (originally named after W. Tate Brady who was once a member of the KKK), and the renaming of Brady Street to Reconciliation Way in 2019.
The Greenwood Rising museum shares the horrific story of the Tulsa Race Massacre but also highlights the history of Tulsa’s Greenwood District, best known as Black Wall Street, the business mecca that was destroyed by racial injustices over the years. Through interactive and informational exhibits, the museum brings the story of Black Wall Street to life. In celebration of their first year opening, entrance is free until August 2022.
Music and the Performing Arts
Tulsa also features a flourishing music and performing arts scene. As a child, I spent many hours as a ballet dancer performing at the Tulsa Performing Arts Center and attending concerts at Cain’s Ballroom, the Colony and the Brady Theatre (now called the Tulsa Theatre). It was nice to see all venues were still there, showcasing musical talents and performances. For those Coloradans who seek outdoor music venues, Tulsa brings down the house with lawn seats at the Guthrie Green.
Don’t just listen to music, learn about its history with a visit to the Woody Guthrie Center and the soon-to-open (May 2022) Bob Dylan Center. The Woody Guthrie Center honors his life and legacy with a variety of exhibits, over 100 notebooks, artifacts, photos, and a music bar where you can listen to his original hits and old ballads. The Bob Dylan Center will showcase over 100,000 exclusive items from his archives, including previously recorded unreleased recordings.
The Gathering Place
While Tulsa certainly doesn’t offer near the outdoor recreational opportunities of Colorado, it does boast one of the best biking systems and most extensive park systems, including its latest addition of the Gathering Place. Meant to be an inclusive outdoor space for everyone to use, the Gathering Place is a riverfront park overlooking the Arkansas River that opened in 2018. It quickly gained the title “Best City Park in the Country” by USA Today in 2021. Spanning 100 acres, the park features walking and biking trails, manicured lawns, ponds, public art and sculptures, sports courts, a skate park, a swing-set atop a 56-foot hill, plus kayak, canoe and paddleboat rentals. The entrance is free.
Last Little Bits
Don’t miss out on Tulsa’s vibrant craft brewery scene with a visit to Marshall Brewing and American Solera. Taste your way through its rising culinary scene with eats from Lone Wolf Banh Mi, Bohemian Pizzeria and Wanda J’s in Greenwood District for the best fried chicken in town. Cap off the night with some drinks downtown at Valkyrie, or check out the historic Brookside district at the Brook Restaurant and Bar or drinks on Cherry Street. And for a hotel that puts you in the center of it all for entertainment but keeps it fresh and modern, check in to the Hotel Indigo Tulsa.
To learn more about Tulsa and what to do, go to visittulsa.com.
All photos courtesy of Jessica Hughes.