It’s no big secret that we’ve become smitten with Oklahoma City in the past 18 months. And if you’ve been there in recent years, you likely have, too. Not only does it have world-class hotels, 80 miles of greenway trails, and an Olympic training facility/fun park for kayaks and crew, it continues to elect progressive mayors intent on making the city a destination for visitors of all stripes instead of a flyover spot in the American lexicon. And now Oklahoma City has its own streetcar line to make visiting even easier.
We travel often, particularly within the borders of the United States, so are exposed to a wide variety of innovations, investments, entrepreneurs and formulations for the friendly competition between cities to be “the next big thing.” There are all sorts of creative ways to attract businesses, large and small, including tax credits, recruitment, investment in the arts, creative placemaking, infrastructure improvements, airlift lobbying, civic engagement and more, and there are many places across the lower 48 that are vying for that sweet spot between affordability and conveniences.
There is a certain something that creates the magical elixir of verve for a city—typically it’s hard work and vision that gets the job done—and OKC has been charging at this beast for the better part of three decades. Momentum and the ability to recognize and harness the inherent spirit of humanity for forward progression are on the side of this uniquely positioned Oklahoma city.
Upper leadership and an impressive list of community organizations are doing the heavy lifting for projects across the metro area, and the $135 million streetcar program—in conjunction with the MAPS concept born 25 years ago—is truly something to see in person.
On this trip to Oklahoma City, we were in town for a very specific purpose: the launch of the Oklahoma City Streetcar, which links all of the major neighborhoods in the downtown. We’ve both lived and traveled across Europe extensively, so the essential nature of rail transportation—and lack of it in the United States—has always bewildered us. It only makes sense to figure out a way to move millions of people without gasoline, parking, traffic and all of the other associated headaches that come with individual vehicles for every family or traveler.
Since our country is a very different animal than continental Europe—with about half the population, but nearly the same landmass—it’s been an interesting observational viewpoint to see how cities like OKC are evolving to the U.S.’s reality and embracing transportation as the keystone for urban revitalization and economic longevity, all while making themselves attractive to businesses that desire a comfortable and elevated lifestyle for their employees. It wasn’t that long ago that rail connected almost all of America, and the death of it has made for an uncertain future in the age of the automobile, cheap flights and skyrocketing real estate prices around major hubs.
Thankfully, cities like OKC are grinding away at improving transportation infrastructure within the urban environment so that the rest of us (i.e. those who don’t live in a particular city but travel to them quite often) have an option for getting from point A to point B that doesn’t involve a rental, fuel and insurance.
Heading to OKC soon? Enjoy the easy access to so many of these attractions located right along the streetcar line.
There are plenty of hotel options in downtown; last time, we stayed at the Colcord downtown, while this visit we camped out in Midtown at the glorious, historic, luxurious Ambassador Hotel.
Any Art Deco building is an immediate winner in my book—I’m a huge fan of the architecture and design elements from that period—and the Ambassador was built in the era’s heyday, with construction beginning in the late 1920s and extending through World War II. It was part of the nearby medical campus through the 60’s, then sat vacant the years until it reopened as a hotel nearly five years ago.
Today, the Ambassador is one of OKC’s most sought-after hotels and a part of the Autograph Collection, a Marriott entity. We didn’t have time to dine at the brand new Café Cuvée downstairs, but sinful smells of pastries wafted through the hotel so I may have stolen a treat to go—they were complimentary for guests in the lobby daily—and the seventh-floor O Bar offers an excellent vantage point of downtown. There’s also a streetcar stop right around the corner, so it couldn’t be more perfectly poised as a jumping-off spot for exploring OKC. And if you’re going somewhere not accessible by streetcar, the hotel does provide guests with free shuttle service within a three-mile radius, which comes in handy as we no longer rent a car in OKC thanks to the growing number of transit options.
In preparation for the Downtown Convention Center to open in late 2020, many entertainment venues and recreation options are being added to Oklahoma City on the regular—I personally can’t wait for the first phase of the 70-acre Scissortail Park to debut next fall—and others are expanding their offerings.
The beating heart of the downtown is the 15-acre Myriad Botanical Gardens, anchored by the Devon Energy Center building across the street, which will undoubtedly be a focal point for many visiting, so start there if you’re looking to explore all that OKC has to offer.
Soon, Scissortail Park, currently under construction, will provide 70 acres of connecting urban park to the Oklahoma River and Boathouse District where the whitewater rafting center—packed with group and individual activities—is located. Expect that to join the downtown fray in late 2019.
The Sports Venues
Chesapeake Energy Arena, home of NBA team the Oklahoma City Thunder, is located just off the southeast corner of the gardens, and in the decade since the Thunder—previously the Seattle SuperSonics—arrived, the city has exploded into a mass of bona-fide basketball fans. It makes sense, though: This is the only professional sports team in the state of Oklahoma. Even if you’ve never seen an NBA game in your life, a Thunder game is the perfect time to change that—there’s nothing quite like being immersed with a pack of friendly Okies cheering their pride and joy on. Thunder up! Chesapeake Arena also plays host to many of the city’s big concert tours.
On the other side of the rail line, just a few blocks away, is Bricktown, the city’s premier entertainment district and home to Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark, where beloved AAA baseball team Oklahoma City Dodgers plays. If you’re bringing your kids in after a conference, this is the perfect neighborhood to kill a day (or a weekend) with its myriad museums, hidden murals and hop-on, hop-off water taxi that traverses the canal.
North of downtown, and now connected by rail, Automobile Alley is a burgeoning district known for some of the hottest breweries and retail outposts that populate its former auto dealership spaces. A bit further north of there, and entirely reachable with micro-mobility options or by foot, the Plaza and Paseo Districts are exploding with hip art, dining, bars and boutiques.
Oklahoma City is blessed with murals scattered all over the city. But there are several right along (or just off of) the streetcar line that you need to know about.
In the last 18 months, a trio of underpasses have gotten a makeover thanks to Downtown Oklahoma City Initiatives, a non-profit public art campaign run by Downtown Oklahoma City Inc. To find them, walk from downtown to Bricktown, and you’ll find beauties by muralists Kris Kanaly (“Abstract Passages,” Main Street underpass), Chad “Nish” Earles and Rhiana Deck (“Earth to Sky,” Sheridan Avenue underpass), J. NiCole Hatfield and Steven Grounds (“Strength of the Woman,”Sheridan Avenue underpass), and Jason Pawley (“Cultivation,” Reno Avenue underpass).
“Ready for Battle”
Comanche artist Eric Tippeconnic, an artist and university professor from California, painted this mural entitled “Ready for Battle” on the side of Exhibit C in mid-2017. It’s easy to pass by without noticing it as it’s tucked on an alley, so keep your eyes peeled when heading down Sheridan Avenue toward downtown.
One of my favorite murals in the city, Jack Fowler’s Bricktown Okctopus stretches a staggering 200 feet and has 88 hidden images woven into the design. Can you spot them all?
Of course, no conversation about OKC is worth having until you’ve visited the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum, which sublimely pays tribute to the lives lost during the events of April 19, 1995. It’s a heavy experience but incredibly well done and fully immersive; even if you don’t remember much about that day—I was in middle school, so beyond flickers of news reports, much of it is a blur for me personally—you’ll leave the museum with a greater understanding of the camaraderie and community spirit that permeates OKC nearly 24 years later. The streetcar stops right in front.
The OKCMOA, a multi-level, gorgeous space that features an extensive permanent collection, rotating international artists and an art-house cinema, is located along the line, as is the American Banjo Museum, an archive of more than 400 instruments across the genre. The Red Earth Art Center, a collection of over 1,000 Native American artworks, contemporary and historical, also sits along the major artery of all the streetcar lines, and the 21c Hotel, itself a major repository of modern art in its 14,000 square feet of exhibition space, is within walking distance of the Transit Center or Library stops.
For the sports fans, Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame has a great museum on Jim Thorpe, a legendary Native American athlete who dominated at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, in addition to a wealth of memorabilia of other sports inductees. For a glimpse at famous or influential Oklahomans, the Gaylord-Pickens Museum Hall of Fame honors the thousands of people from across the state that have made a difference in the world since it became a state in 1907.
RESTAURANTS + BARS
There are so many delicious places to eat and drink that it’s going to take me at least five visits to get through the bulk of the city’s hotspots, but on this trip we made a beeline for the Kitchen at Commonplace Books, one of the most Instagrammable places in OKC. A bookstore with a house dog, a rotating mural, a midcentury design scheme and a stellar restaurant component? Commonplace fuses all of my loves, and I couldn’t be more excited about this most recent discovery.
Located side-by-side, Hall’s Pizza Kitchen and Barrios are two of SVV’s and my favorites, whether you’re looking for lunch, dinner or a midday snack. The 9th Street corridor lays claim to several casual spots, as well, like Iguana Mexican Grill, and Coffee Slingers is my new favorite coffee stop thanks to a s’mores latte made with graham cracker milk and a homemade marshmallow (divine!). Of course, you can’t visit OKC without a stop at the all-day breakfast favorite Waffle Champion—also open late night on weekends—with its dozen of varieties, delicious cocktails, shakes and other brunch options, whether you prefer savory or sweet (the Cinnamon Roll waffle is a personal favorite).
For a fancier brunch option, you can’t beat R&J Lounge and Supper Club with its liquor-forward cocktail menu and menu that includes a divine skillet. Just don’t leave without trying the Boozy Cereal; it was one of my favorite things I had all visit!
Ludivine was a new experience for us on this visit, though it’s frequently been recommended to us by Okies as the place to go for fine dining—and they were right; the intimate venue lent itself well to diving into the tasting menu (which is actually offered on happy hour special at certain times of the week). On top of such dishes as wild caught Australian pink snapper and cassoulet, you can get a shot of bourbon served alongside bone marrow, something that has quickly become a favorite pastime of my boozehound husband’s. Simply looking for a place to stop for a round? Ludivine also has a separate bar entrance—and a nightly ritual of letting a different patron give a toast at midnight.
On our first trip to OKC, the beer boom was just beginning to extend beyond the Brewers Union and into downtown thanks to the laws finally changing. A direct result of the union, Vanessa House Beer Co. opened up a taproom in Midtown right off the streetcar, and the second-level Bavarian-style Fassler Hall was overflowing with beer drinkers every time we strolled past. Stonecloud Brewing Co., Prairie Artisan Ales and Twisted Spike are also easily accessible to the streetcar.
If you’re looking for even more beer experiences, swing by the Brewers Union on your way out of town as it’s near the airport and plays host to a handful of rotating start-up breweries while they’re building out their brands.
Looking for other OKC inspiration? Check out these travel ideas:
- Urban Whitewater Rafting in Oklahoma City
- Where to Find the Best Murals and Street Art in OKC
- Oklahoma City’s Art Game is Strong: Check Out These Creative Stops
This post is part of an ongoing ambassador partnership with Visit OKC.