Located on Historic Route 66, Tulsa is a convenient stop on any cross-country or Midwestern road trip. We’re talking hipster cafés, nationally recognized museums, and urban parks. We’ve got you covered with this fun-filled itinerary (with or without kids) for 24 hours in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
I was born in Tulsa, and this is where most of my family still call home. The wonderful downtown developments, the new cafés, and farm-to-table restaurants while enjoying the standbys that make me love my hometown impressed me. The millennials have made their mark, scattering craft beers and artisan food stores everywhere you turn.
Tulsa rivals any city in America for the title of “Friendliest People.” It’s the kind of city that shop clerks, waiters, hotel staff will speak with you as long as you have the time. It’s a four-hour drive to Dallas or St. Louis, and Tulsa is part of the historic Route 66 from Chicago to Los Angeles.
Best Tulsa Hotels
Tulsa doesn’t boast any five-star hotels, but it offers several stylish, local options. I visited Tulsa recently for the first time in several years and stayed at the Ambassador Hotel (part of the Autograph Collection). Located within the perimeter of the downtown area, the hotel offers a complimentary SUV transfer service to and from the airport.
Rooms are freshly renovated and chic, and room service is offered by The Chalkboard restaurant in its basement—one of the best in town. There’s no pool, but there’s a small gym on site. Rollaway beds are available for families.
If the Ambassador is sold out, try the Mayo Hotel which has many suites perfect for families.
Best Tulsa Attractions
Here’s a quick list of how to get the most of what locals call T-town.
Philbrook Museum of Art
The Philbrook Museum evolved from private home of the Phillips family into a museum that has expanded in size to include an art school to make it one of the largest cultural forces in Tulsa. The collection is small and diverse, covering many periods and many cultures, so children will stay curious longer as each gallery varies so much from the previous one.
Even if your kids don’t love visiting art museums, Philbrook offers an excellent children’s visiting pack with drawing supplies for the galleries, a curated children’s selection of books and toys worth an hour of browsing in the museum gift shop.
The extensive gardens are a destination unto itself, and the best backdrop for a family picture you could create. Their beauty won’t be lost on your kids. The gazebo at the foot of the back lawn is a must for the view when you turn around and admire the Italianate home. Take the time to look at the koi in the ponds on your way. The restaurant is upscale, yet offers child-friendly fare, too.
The Gilcrease Museum
If you have more time in Tulsa, add the Gilcrease Museum to your list, offering one of the most thorough collections of American history in the country. It is only five minutes from downtown and offers extensive family programs for viewing its collection, too, including a hand-on exhibit for children showcasing the animals found in Oklahoma.
I suggest Philbrook first because of its combination of indoor and outdoor family time and ability to make you see Tulsa’s impressive place in early twentieth century residential architecture.
The Guthrie Green and Brady Arts District
The Brady Theater has been a legendary music venue in Tulsa since 1914 and was, at one time, the largest venue between Kansas City and Houston. The “Old Lady On Brady” kept the area popular as the arts district of the city, but the Guthrie Green, named after Woody Guthrie revived the area to a new level. Food trucks surround Guthrie Green during the day, while also offering yoga classes, concerts, and a sprinkler park for families.
The Woody Guthrie Center and a new modern art outpost of the Philbrook Museum is across the street from the green seal, making this area a full-day destination. The Guthrie Center may not be ideal for the whole family, but the music-loving parent can sneak away a few minutes while the other takes the kids to the food trucks or sprinklers directly across the street.
There’s a homemade chocolate maker, Glacier Confection, offers delicious treats, too, after you have snacked at many of the food trucks. Vegan and gluten-free options are available, and many flavors seem to offer a nod to Elvis, whose Glacier truffle contains peanut butter, bacon, and banana, and the most popular flavor in the rainbow-colored shelves was Blue Hawaii. Grab some giant gummy rattlesnakes as Oklahoma souvenirs.
Tulsa has an extremely dark chapter in its history. Greenwood, a predominantly African American business district that earned the name “Black Wall Street” was destroyed in a terrible race riot in 1921. For generations, Tulsa did its best to hide this event, but scholars and eyewitnesses have continued to shed light on this tragic day.
John Hope Franklin, for whom the park is dedicated, is quoted “Perhaps the first thing we need to do as a nation and as individual members of society is confront our past and see it for what it is.” For parents hoping to bring awareness and conversation to social justice issues, the park is close to the Brady Arts district.
Best Family Restaurants for Foodies in Tulsa
Lunch-Billy’s On the Square
Ask anyone who works in downtown Tulsa where to eat, and they’ll tell you Billy’s On the Square. Billy’s has been a family-owned Tulsa institution since the 1980’s, offering designer char-burgers (flame-grilled) and incredible onion rings before it became trendy again. The go-to order since Billy’s opened is the Theta Burger, covered in hickory sauce, shredded cheddar cheese, mayo, and pickle. Zucchini fries and onion rings top off the house specialties.
Tallgrass offers farm-to-plate local specialties in the nearby Blue Dome Historic District. Tulsa is into naming areas districts. I learn a new one every time I visit.
If you didn’t know that, embarrassingly, watermelon is the state vegetable of Oklahoma, you’d remember when you have the watermelon and jalapeno salad at Tallgrass.
Breakfast-Foolish Things Coffee Company
If you like venturing from your hotel to a local café for parent-strength dark roast, head to Foolish Things Coffee Company a few blocks away from the Hotel Ambassador. You’ll be transported to Portland, Oregon. Their breakfast sandwiches are delectable, and the iced coffees are bold. The hipster factor is off the charts in the hybrid café and open installation art space.
When I lived in New York City throughout my twenties, I loved bringing my East Coast friends back to visit my family with me, to show them a city they didn’t quite expect. Tulsa as a destination offers an affordable city vacation in an oil boom town rich with history and friendly people.