For travelers looking to understand what it means to see “America,” perhaps there’s no better city than one like Tulsa, which is looking forward while reckoning with the legacy of its past.
Attractions mentioned in this piece may have limited hours or close temporarily due to COVID-19 restrictions. Be sure to check respective websites before you travel.
This May, all eyes will again be on Tulsa as the city marks the centennial of the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921: One hundred years ago, on May 31 and June 1, mobs of white residents in Tulsa, Oklahoma, attacked Black residents and businesses in the city’s 35-block Greenwood District, once the richest African American neighborhood in North America. The attack is believed to be the single deadliest and most destructive act of racial violence in U.S. history, and its scars are still evident in Oklahoma’s second-largest city, which sits on the Arkansas River.
It is largely for this anniversary that the city has been placed on myriad “Where to Go in 2021” lists, but the racial reckoning following the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor has reassigned to Tulsa another sense of importance: For travelers looking to understand what it means to see “America,” perhaps there is no better city than one like Tulsa, which is looking forward while reckoning with the legacy of its past.
It is not only Tulsa’s past that makes it a worthwile place for travelers to visit. Long called one of the country’s best-kept secrets, the city is known for its art deco architecture, underground arts scene, and better-than-the-coast food and drink. Here, we enlist locals to share the best things to do in the city—and what they want you to know about their home.
Visit the historic Greenwood District
In late 2021, Tulsa will debut the long-awaited Greenwood Rising, a history center that will commemorate the legacy of Tulsa’s Black Wall Street. (The Greenwood Cultural Center, though currently closed due to COVID restrictions, is another excellent resource for learning.) On May 28, the new Pathway to Hope walking path—which connects core sites in the district—will be unveiled, and historic landmarks in Greenwood will finally get their dedication plaques. From May through June, the Greenwood Art Project will host a series of exhibits around the district, including Trace from artist Jessica Harvey, who uses paint to mark significant locations in the Greenwood District, and A Century Walk, which invites community members to walk the path that many citizens took the night of the Tulsa Race Massacre. Don’t miss a tour of Historic Vernon Chapel A.M.E. Church, which is the only edifice that survived the massacre.
What locals say:
Rev. Dr. Robert Turner is the pastor of Historic Vernon Chapel A.M.E. Church. He has been a Tulsa resident since 2017.
“When I give tours of the church, I like to share that we have been blessed by the legacy of members who have persevered through the worst of times. I like to show people the basement room, which is the only thing we have on Greenwood Avenue that survived the race massacre of 1921.
“I’m also a commissioner for the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission. It has been one of the joys of my life to work on remembering the history and the legacy of Black Wall Street. It’s sacred work to help commemorate this terrible event in a way that’s hopefully in good remembrance of the ancestors who were killed here. And sometimes that’s trying, because you can’t do them fully justice by just having a commemoration.
“I wish that visitors to Tulsa would understand that where they’re coming, Greenwood, is not just a tourist site. It’s still a crime scene that’s never been adjudicated. And it needs to be. Justice still has not been served.”
Learn about the area’s first residents
In 1836, the first “significant” settlements in Tulsa and the surrounding area were made by the Creek and Cherokee tribes, according to the Tulsa Preservation Commission, whose mission is to “safeguard Tulsa’s architectural and cultural heritage.” Today, three tribal boundaries converge in Tulsa: those of the Cherokee Nation, Muscogee (Creek) Nation, and the Osage Nation.
To learn more about Cherokee culture, visit the Cherokee Heritage Center in Tahlequah, which is about an hour east of Tulsa and has a living history village. Nearly the same distance from Tulsa, the Five Civilized Tribes Museum in Muskogee is packed with one-of-a-kind art and artifacts celebrating Native American life. In Tulsa proper, the Gilcrease Museum, spread across 475 acres, has one of the world’s most comprehensive collections of western American art, showcasing everything from Navajo rugs to American Indian artwork.
What locals say:
Jennifer Loren is the director of the Cherokee Nation Film Office and Original Content and the creator, executive producer, and host of the television program “Osiyo, Voices of the Cherokee People.” She attended middle and high school in Tulsa and has lived in the city since 2005.
“You can’t talk about Tulsa without including the tribes. But to truly understand Native cultures, we have to get out of the mindset that you have to go to a museum to learn about them. We are not a people of the past. Our tribal people are part of this community, just like everyone else. And so my suggestion for learning about the tribes here is to seek out specific tribes and what they have going on. If you want to learn about the Cherokee Nation, visit our visitors center, which we have in Tulsa. Same goes for the Muscogee (Creek) Nation and the Osage Nation.
“Every Labor Day weekend we celebrate the Cherokee national holiday in Tahlequah, and it’s like a homecoming. Everyone is invited to be among Cherokee nation citizens and our artisans, and we have a big powwow that everyone is invited to. In a non-COVID world, we have hundreds, maybe thousands of people who come to that powwow.”
Support homegrown businesses
In an effort to support hometown eateries, shops, sports teams, and businesses, Oklahoma’s Keep It Local program rewards consumers for doing just that: With the purchase of a $15 card, visitors to Tulsa receive a number of discounts at participating businesses, from 10 percent off all food and drink at Lone Wolf Banh Mi to a buy-one-get-one-free ticket for a Tulsa Oilers hockey game. The Boxyard, a collection of repurposed shipping containers in downtown Tulsa, is home to nearly 20 small businesses, from ice cream to a specialized science store that sells fossils, trinkets, and lab equipment.
Each year, TulsaPeople magazine also publishes its list of Black-owned businesses, which are organized by type (“arts and entertainment,” “goods,” etc.) and include hours, addresses, websites, and contact information; another resource is the Tulsa Black Owned Business Network.
What locals say:
Onikah Asamoa-Caesar is the founder of Fulton Street Books & Coffee, which she opened in July 2020. It is the only Black-owned bookstore in Tulsa. Asamoa-Caesar moved to Tulsa in 2013 as a Teach for America Corps member.
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“Tulsa is a very segregated city. As a teacher who taught Black and brown children, it was often very challenging for me to find books that reflected them. For someone who loved books as a child, seeing my students not be interested in the books and the things that were being presented was a revelation: I realized that everything I was putting in front of them denied their existence, denied the existence of the culture of their families, of their communities, of their languages. And so I had to be very intentional about seeking out books that reflected them. For Fulton Street, I wanted to be that space that when children walked in—that right when adults walked in—they saw themselves reflected.
“I want visitors to know that Black Tulsa is here. There’s a Black entrepreneurial community and the spirit of Black Wall Street that is here. One of my concerns as a Black person living in Tulsa is that this attention is going to be used in ways that don’t put money back into the Black economy. So I want people that are coming here to learn more about the history of 1921 to be very intentional about where they spend their time and their dollars. If you frequent places that are not owned by Black folks or descendants, what have you done for that history? What have you done for the present? What have you done in terms of supporting Black futures in Tulsa?”
Discover the (new) “Tulsa sound”
J.J. Cale. Charlie Wilson. Hanson. What do all three musical acts have in common? Tulsa. And while Cale is no longer alive and Hanson and Wilson are touring less than they used to, Tulsa remains fertile ground for musical talent: On any given night, you can check out country western at Cain’s Ballroom (which has been a destination since 1924 and hosted greats like Ernest Tubb and Hank Williams), free live jazz at the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame, or one of the 30 major annual performances from the Tulsa Symphony Orchestra.
For a dive into the past, Dylan fans will want to head straight to the new-as-of-2021 Bob Dylan Archive at the University of Tulsa, which comprises 6,000 items, including writings, memorabilia, and recordings. And though famous folksinger Woody Guthrie was born one hour south of Tulsa, in Okemah, his archives are also in Tulsa, housed in the Woody Guthrie Center, which bills itself as a “repository for Woody’s writings, art, and songs.” The completed renovation of Leon Russell’s Church Studio—which saw everyone from Eric Clapton to Stevie Wonder record inside the former Episcopal church—is slated for late 2021, when it will once again be open to visitors.
What locals say:
Rossitza Goza has been playing with the Tulsa Symphony Orchestra since 2006, the orchestra’s inaugural season. A native of Bulgaria, she now commutes twice a week to Tulsa, where she is the TSO’s concertmaster.
“If you come to hear us in concert, you will be impressed by how many string players there are on stage. This is necessitated partly by our concert venue, the 2,500-seat Performing Arts Center, but having a sizable string section also represents the original vision for the orchestra to have a big and lush string sound. After a decade and a half, I still get quite a thrill every time I walk on stage as the leader of so many capable musicians.
“Some of the most versatile and accomplished players with whom I absolutely love working are members of the Tulsa Symphony. But our orchestra is special not just because of the wonderful musicians who comprise it, but because of our unique musician-integrated model. We do have an administration, which is essential for the functioning of the orchestra, but the musicians are involved in all artistic decisions, from personnel to repertoire, to choice of conductors and soloists.”
Celebrate the great outdoors
Tulsa has one of the most extensive park systems in the country, with 135 parks covering roughly 8,652 acres. Its pride and joy? The Gathering Place, a $465 million riverfront park that opened in 2018 and was deemed Best City Park in the Country by USA Today in 2021. Spread across 100 acres, it includes lawns, ponds, public sculpture, sports courts, a skate park, interactive water cannons and fountains, a swing perched atop a 56-foot hill, and kayak, canoe, and paddleboat rentals.
A few miles outside of downtown, visitors will find the reaches of Turkey Mountain Urban Wilderness Area, which sprawls over 300 acres and includes two large ponds, miles of dirt trails, thick canopies of trees, and the eponymous Turkey Mountain.
Twenty minutes outside of Tulsa is the Redbud Valley Nature Preserve, which is focused on the preservation and protection of unique plant and animal life in the area. Its intricate trail system offers access to the surrounding forests, fields, and wetlands.
What locals say:
Tony Moore was the executive director of the Gathering Place until April 2021, when he relocated to Dallas to become the president and CEO of Trinity Park Conservancy. He is originally from Jamaica.
“I moved to Tulsa from Tampa two and a half years before the park was built, and saw that the race massacre of 1921 created a lot of scars that are still being felt. So going into the Gathering Place, we knew that it would not be a magical park that was going to fix everything. But we wanted the Gathering Place to be a place for everyone. Where all cultures would be welcomed, embraced. We were intentional with the name the Gathering Place.
“We draw on our different demographics by working with the community and creating programs. We have events for the Latino community, events for the African American community, events for the Native American community, events for the Asian American community. We’re not saying this is an exclusive event. Everyone is welcome. And when you plan these events and execute them, it’s awesome to overhear someone say, ‘I didn’t realize Tulsa had so much diversity.’
“I’m always careful to say that the Gathering Place is not the silver bullet that solves anything. We’re just a location that, perhaps, will help to bring the community a little closer. And I’m also clear in saying, in our limited existence so far, that by no means are we claiming that we have completed this task. It will take time. But we have a platform.
“I see a city of Tulsa that’s trying hard to recover. I see a city that’s learning to embrace this past where it wasn’t always. You can argue it is still not enough, and it’s still not where it needs to be by any measure. But I see sincere efforts.”
Nerd out over the craft beer scene
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Brew-loving hop-hounds could not fare much better than the walkable Kendall-Whittier neighborhood, which is east of downtown, west of the University of Tulsa, and a snapshot of Tulsa’s greater craft beer culture. Here, visitors will find Marshall Brewing Company, Tulsa’s first craft brewery; it is focused on German lagers and German-style beers. Down the street is American Solera, a smaller, trendier niche brewer known for limited beers. From there, you can head next door to Cabin Boys Brewery for Belgian ales, or stroll to Heirloom Rustic Ales for farmhouse ales with an artisanal spin. Nothing’s Left and Renaissance Brewing are also nearby. Stretch your legs between suds, or hop aboard a Pearl Brewery tour, which offers standard daily driving tours to microbreweries and can be fully booked for parties.
What locals say:
Eric Marshall is a fourth-generation Tulsan. After attending the University of Tulsa, Marshall apprenticed as a brewer in Munich, Germany, where he received an International Diploma in Brewing Technology from the World Brewing Academy. In 2008, he founded Marshall Brewing Company.
“When we started almost 13 years ago, there were about 1,500 craft breweries in the country, and now there’s close to 10,000, so I always joke that we started about 8,000 breweries ago. We spent a couple years getting bottles on shelves, getting established, and then started with legislative efforts to make some changes.
“We went from a couple of craft breweries to 30 or 40 now in Oklahoma. You started to see a lot of breweries pop up and decide to locate right near us. At the onset you think, man, this is kind of interesting. Why is someone going to open a brewery right next door to us? That’s a little bit crazy. In fact, what it did was helped create a district where we’ve seen foot traffic increase considerably, where people want to come and hang out and bounce around to different breweries.
“Everybody does something a little different, and it’s amazing to be able to walk down the street and have a world-class beer at several different breweries. At the end of the day, most people in the craft beer industry are beer lovers first and got into this because they are interested in the art and the craft behind it. And to be able to go experience someone else’s iteration has been really cool for me, because we were the only show in town for a long time.”
Tour top museums and underground galleries
In addition to a whole arts district packed with theaters, performance venues, and striking street art, Tulsa has no shortage of world-class art museums. Among them? The Sherwin Miller Museum of Jewish Art, the Tulsa Art Deco Museum, and the Philbrook Museum of Art, which is set within a 1920s villa that once belonged to an oil tycoon.
To learn more about local art, check out the Tulsa Artists’ Coalition; for more than 30 years, it has operated an independent gallery dedicated to exhibiting contemporary art by artists at all stages in their careers. Another nonprofit, 108 Contemporary, is housed a restored 1920s building and dedicated to showcasing and advancing the work of contemporary fine craft like knitting.
What locals say:
Elizabeth Henley is a Tulsa native whose family has lived in the city for generations. In 2018, she founded Black Moon, a collective for Black artists.
“The local talent still feels, to me, to be very underground. They are the true innovators. I believe that local artists sense this lack of support from these larger art institutions. The artists have still prevailed and stepped up anyway. We’ve started to build the spaces for our art to have a prominent place on our own walls. We’re telling our stories and not avoiding the pain and destruction that has been hidden for so long, unlike our own Tulsa history. We’re elevating each other in our individual crafts.
“I knew that Black Moon was something that I wanted to create for Black artists like me who needed support and accountability. It helped that I already knew some local Black artists who felt displaced like me in our art scene. As local artists who live and work within Tulsa, we weren’t given the same opportunities or platforms to show our work. It felt like the city was moving and investing in institutions and artists to showcase from out of state, but there wasn’t a clear space made for us locals. It felt like we were being excluded not only for being local, but it proved to be even more difficult to break into the art scene as an artist of color. Black Moon was created to showcase all of this amazing local talent, while also highlighting and holding it down for Black art.”
Dine on award-winning food
In late 2018, Tulsa’s first food hall, Mother Road Market, opened right off of the famed Route 66 replete with merch and a variety of food stalls—Brazilian fare at Doctor Kustom, artisanal breads and pastries from Tulsa mainstay Farrell Bread and Bakery, and handcrafted, small-batch scoops in flavors like raspberry habanero and honeycomb lavender from ice cream purveyor Big Dipper Creamery.
Other favorites: Chimera Cafe for all-day soups and salads, Sisserou’s Caribbean Restaurant and Catering for stewed oxtail, Wanda J’s for southern-style fried chicken, Tortilleria De Puebla for tacos with freshly made tortillas, and Leon’s Smoke Shack BBQ for tender beef brisket and spare ribs. (If you’re not eating well in Tulsa, the joke goes, you’re doing something wrong.)
For a more formal sit-down experience centered around local Oklahoma produce, make time for FarmBar, which offers a 10-course tasting menu with ingredients sourced largely from the chef’s nearby farm. Oren, in the city’s Brookside neighborhood, also prides itself on being fruit and vegetable focused, as does Amelia’s, which specializes in wood-fired cuisine and is located across from the Woody Guthrie Center.
What locals say:
Lisa Becklund is a 2020 James Beard semifinalist and the chef and owner of downtown Tulsa’s FarmBar restaurant, as well as Living Kitchen Farm & Dairy near Depew, Oklahoma. Originally from Seattle, she has lived in Oklahoma since 2005.
“Tulsa has offered me vast opportunity. In the ‘school-of-hard-knocks’ kind of way, it’s made me respect and pay attention to the weather and the world around me. As a chef and a grower I’ve had to learn a lot from my mistakes. On the other hand, one of the most life-affirming elements of moving here and starting a farm and restaurant is exactly that I had the opportunity to respect and pay attention to the weather and the world around me. It’s made me a better chef and I hope, a better human.
“FarmBar is a place people can have an extremely indulgent, intimate dining experience that literally worships the ground it stands on. Our primary focus has always been what we call agricultural cuisine of Oklahoma. Taking local ingredients and preparing them in a way that allows the ingredients to shine in an artistic, modern, clean, and delicious way.
“Tulsa is hungry for fresh flavors that also include a type of Oklahoma pride for all the amazing farmers and producers we are home to. We’re well on our way to being compared to Kansas City, Austin, Portland, and Seattle.”
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