The Ultimate Oklahoma City Travel Guide
This former flyover city in the Southern Plains is ready for an extended layover.
Oklahoma City is steeped in stereotypes — both of the wind-swept and chicken-fried varieties. Thanks to Rodgers and Hammerstein, Twister and the endless cowboy tropes, the city has historically, put the “wild” in “wild west.” But in recent years, Oklahoma’s capital has successfully overcome those clichés in a major way.
Ever since its sudden founding during the Land Rush of 1889 and, subsequently, its population ballooning to 50,000 in mere hours like some kind of Columbusing Amazing Race, Oklahoma City has maintained momentum, transforming in recent years from cowboy calamity to a cohesive patchwork of metropolitan neighborhoods, world-class museums, award-winning restaurants, hip shops and kaleidoscopic art.
Population growth hasn’t waned, either. The city recently surpassed Nashville and D.C. to become the nation’s 20th most populous, and it didn’t even take a Land Rush to do so.
Where to stay
The matter of where to stay in Oklahoma City is crucial, because there’s a wide chasm between ritzy downtown confines and literally camping in the wilderness. In the urban core of this audaciously large metro, however, boutique hotels abound — from the colossal new Omni (complete with Soho House-esque rooftop pool) and the chic new “lifestyle” hotel The Ellison (complete with Top Chef-helmed restaurant), to the purple penguins and art galleries at the 21c Museum Hotel Oklahoma City.
If snazzy cocktails, animal prints and Vaudeville vibes are more your style, check into Bradford House, a pastel-hued mansion-cum-inn filled with dapper rooms, live jazz and top-shelf drinks at the lobby-side bar. To eat, there’s plenty of pastries to peruse at Quincy’s Bakeshop, and a full-service restaurant slinging seasonally-driven breakfast, lunch and dinner fare that’s as photogenic as it is tasty.
Downtown, the new hotness is The National, a historic bank that’s been lavishly reimagined as a skyscraping hotel and residence tower. Here, the skyline views from the handsomely appointed guest rooms are as impressive as the dining options: Italian-influenced Teller’s (in a section of the building where bank tellers used to work), Library of Distilled Spirits basement bar in a gigantic vault and the Great Hall — an ornate lobby bar that looks more Grecian than Oklahoman.
What to do
There’s a lot more to do in Oklahoma than chase tornadoes. Museums are particularly defining, from the harrowing stories on display at the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum to the video-filled galleries and mod art exhibits at Oklahoma Contemporary. The recently opened First Americans Museum is a game-changer in its own right — a partnership with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, it’s the largest tribal cultural center in the U.S., dedicated to the legacies of Oklahoma’s 39 native tribal nations. For something more whimsical and hands-on, venture through Factory Obscura — a Meow Wolf-like immersive art experience filled with twinkling flamingos, slides, love letters, stuffed animals and more retro Americana trinkets than Stranger Things.
Beyond brick-and-mortar, art is everywhere in Oklahoma City. Ranked as one of the low-key best cities for street art in the country, it’s on full display at the Plaza Walls, a lengthy alleyway display of murals — many by women and minorities — in the eclectic, gallery-filled Plaza District. While here, pop into one of the neighborhood’s quirky shops, like Dig It for eyeball rings, vintage band tees and sunglasses, or GRINMORE, a high-end fashion house for hip streetwear, sneakers and the fanciest sweatpants you’ll ever find.
In terms of wearable art, Oklahoma City is a sleeper hit for fashion. See for yourself at NASH, where eccentric streetwear comes in a rainbow of colors and cuts; Thrown Design & Wine, an enchanting boutique with esoteric vino, snake belts, scarves and hats; and Craig’s Emporium, a one-stop vintage wonderland that feels more like a magic shop from Hogsmeade.
Each neighborhood is as singular as the next, too. From the white water courses and floating films at Riversport OKC in the Boathouse District, to the San Antonio-style riverwalk along the Bricktown Canal, the sweeping sunsets and wind-surfing on Lake Hefner, and the gorgeous landscaping and skyline views from downtown’s new Scissortail Park — the city stuns at every vantage point. But while some attractions are shiny-new, older neighborhoods like Stockyards City, outfitted with taxidermy-clad saloons and boot-filled Western wear shops, preserves Oklahoma City’s honky-tonk heritage.
Where to eat and drink
For a place where the state drink is milk, Oklahoma City has made huge strides on the food and drink front. Sure, you can get your fill of milk — at cool coffee shops like Neon Coffee, vegan-friendly Elemental Coffee,and Flower & Flour, which doubles as a cafe and a plant shop, but the beverage scene goes far beyond dairy. For cocktails, you’ll find masterful classics in retro-hip confines at The R&J Lounge & Supper Club, Manhattans with a view at Vast on the 49th floor of the Devon Tower, and seasonally inspired tipples at Barkeep, which doubles as a mixology shop. For wine, The Study is a cozy, nook-filled wine pub without a drop of pretension, while the city’s brewery scene is booming, as evidenced by heavy-hitters like COOP Ale Works, Prairie Artisan Ales, Angry Scotsman and Stonecloud Brewing Company.
Oklahoma City’s food scene is just as robust. In recent years, the city has earned fanfare from Bon Appetit (which named tasting menu spot Nonesuch the best new restaurant in the country) and the James Beard Foundation (giving Oklahoma its first James Beard Award for soul food staple Florence’s Restaurant), while chefs like Andrew Black have attained local celebrity status for tasting menu concept Grey Sweater, as well as a soon-to-come patisserie, The Gilded Acorn. Then there’s Rachel Cope, a veritable queen of the local dining scene. The founder and CEO of 84 Hospitality, she’s mastered the art of the cornerstone neighborhood restaurant, starting with hip pizza-slinging Empire Slice House in the Plaza District, along with Goro Ramen and Burger Punk in the Paseo, and REV Mex in the Arts District.
From tasting menus and celeb chefs to breakfast tacos and smash burgers, Oklahoma City’s dining scene has evolved into one that’s truly world-class. In the morning, start your day with cereal milk lattes and Fruity Pebbles tarts at Stitch Cafe, or join the brunch queue at Latin-flavored Cafe Kacao, where your patience is rewarded with coquito French toast and eggs with Guatemalan sausage. Come lunchtime, 30th Street Market is a lofty all-day cafe that’s perfect for catching up on work while eating pimento cheese sandwiches on house-baked milk bread, and Spark slings burgers, frozen custard and crinkle-cut fries from the middle of Scissortail Park.
Or you can save your burger cravings for the evening, when chic Bar Arbolada pairs cocktails and local beer with smash burgers and grilled cheese sandwiches. For something spicier, ignite your taste buds at Ma Der, a new Laotion restaurant from a James Beard-nominated chef, or hole-in-the-wall Sheesh Mahal, where real-deal Indian and Pakistani flavors make it a local sleeper hit.
A prime example of Oklahoma City’s old-meets-new amalgam, Picasso Cafe reigns as a Paseo institution, an enduring vegan-friendly neighborhood tentpole that puts its stamp on Oklahoma-style comfort food with chicken-fried portobello mushrooms and vegan fry bread tacos. Because at the end of the day, no matter how cosmopolitan it gets, Oklahoma City is still a city that respects its roots — in all its chicken-fried, cowboy-clad glory.
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