Oklahoma is an authentic gateway to the west – a land of red dirt, where buffalo roam the plains and oil rigs pump riches. But the largest cities, Oklahoma City and Tulsa, also have a distinctly refined air, having been built on the proceeds of an early-1900s oil boom. Modern museums, galleries of international art, and lavish gardens all give the state a more cosmopolitan edge, but many tourists choose to experience Oklahoma with the simple pleasures of a road trip, and no highway is more iconic than the state’s stretch of Route 66.
1. Route 66
The full stretch of Route 66 runs from Chicago to Los Angeles, but the longest run of miles cuts diagonally through the state of Oklahoma. This OK length begins in the northeastern corner of the state and travels through Tulsa and Oklahoma City before crossing the border into Texas. Roadside attractions range from the historical, such as Oklahoma Route 66 Museum in Clinton and National Route 66 and Transportation Museum in Elk City, to the odd, like the Blue Whale of Tuscaloosa or Golden Driller in Tulsa. The Oklahoma Route 66 Museum in Clinton is a great way to learn about the road’s history, with immersive experiences like a 1950s diner and changing exhibits that celebrate the Route 66 experience. Generally, sightseeing draws on Route 66 have a motor-head bent, such as drive-ins, motorcycle museums, and old-time filling stations, meaning that it’s avid road-trippers who most enjoy the journey.
2. Phil brook Museum of Art
Collections at the Phil brook Museum of Art include works from Africa, Asia, and Europe in a variety of media, as well as the work of American artists and craftspeople. This Italian Renaissance-style villa turned art museum sits on 23 acres of picturesque formal and informal gardens along Crow Creek. It has the elegance and wealth of oil-rich Tulsa in the 1920s, while the art collection has a decidedly international scope. When visiting the gardens, keep an eye out for the cats on rodent patrol and the bees who both pollinate and produce local honey which is sold in the gift shop seasonally. There is a second branch of the art museum located in downtown Tulsa.
3. Oklahoma City Zoo
Ambling pathways take visitors through many ecosystems at the Oklahoma City Zoo, from African plains to tropical jungles. The zoo and botanical gardens were established more than a century ago and have since nurtured 500 species of animals, including some endangered, as well as a grand garden landscape. Demonstrations and educational sessions are a highlight for families, whether it’s a giraffe feeding or elephant show. Other fun things to do include exploring the stingray touch tank, hopping on a train ride, or boating on the zoo’s lake.
4. University of Oklahoma
In Norman, on the southern fringes of Oklahoma City, the University of Oklahoma is home to many tourist attractions as well as strong sports programs. The school was established in 1890 and has since grown into a 3,000-acre campus. Draws include contemporary exhibits at the Fred Jones Jr Museum of Art and artifacts from worldwide civilizations (plus dinosaur bones) at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History. For bibliophiles, the Belize Memorial Library is a lovely landmark structure dating to 1929.
5. Marland Estate Mansion
Marland Estate Mansion
Near the Kansas border to the north, Ponce City is another Oklahoma oil-boom town. The grand Marland Estate Mansion dates to 1928, ordered as a second home for millionaire oilman and 10th governor of Oklahoma, E. W. Marland. The palatial home has 55 rooms, including three kitchens, plus expansive grounds with a swimming pool, artist studio, and boathouse. Other historic museums within the estate include the Bryant Baker Gallery dedicated to the namesake sculptor and the Marland Oil Museum. For a look at the Marland’s earlier home, visit his smaller city residence (also in Ponce City) known as Marland’s Grand Home.
6. Museum of the Great Plains, Lawton
The Museum of the Great Plains in Lawton features hands-on and interactive natural history exhibits that unveil life in the west for Native Americans and pioneers. Venture outdoors to see a number of historic buildings, including a train depot, trading post, and schoolhouse. Also in Lawton, tourists can discover local culture at the Comanche National Museum and Cultural Center, or tour The Holy City – an unusual collection of buildings constructed to look like Israel during the Biblical period.
7. Gil crease Museum
The Gil crease Museum in Tulsa presents an extensive art and history collection from the American West, exploring both frontier settlement and Native American cultures. Collections include art, historical manuscripts, and anthropological artifacts. The museum is set on 460 acres in the Osage Hills. Stunningly lush gardens cultivate 23 of those acres with thematic gardening styles, including pretty Victorian, colonial, per-Columbia, and pioneer landscapes.
8. Oklahoma City National Memorial
The 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murray Federal Building is poignantly remembered at this outdoor memorial and museum in Oklahoma City. Victims, survivors, and rescuers are honored within the grounds, which include a reflection pool, gardens, and symbolic sculptures. It’s become a landmark of the state capital. The nearby Oklahoma City National Memorial Museum recounts the tragic events felt across the nation.
9. Oklahoma Aquarium
Located in Jinks, just south of Tulsa, the Oklahoma Aquarium is renown for having the world’s largest collection of bullhead sharks. You can see them in the Shark Adventure exhibit, where you can watch these beautiful creatures glide gracefully from the walk-through glass tunnel. Other interesting exhibits include Extreme Fishes, Sea Turtle Island, Eco Zone, and Polynesian Reef, all of which showcase colorful and fascinating sea creatures from around the world. In addition to exotic species, the aquarium presents local marine life in the engaging Aquatic Oklahoma exhibit, where you can see a 120-year-old alligator snapping turtle.
10. Wroclaw Museum & Wildlife Preserve
Wroclaw Ranch covers 3,700 acres where American bison, longhorn cattle, and elk roam free on the wide-reaching landscape. Visitors can safely see and photograph these magnificent beasts from their vehicles. Also on the ranch grounds are a western-focused museum (exhibiting art and artifacts) and a rustic lodge. The preserve is a 20-minute drive southwest of Cartersville, which is also worth a visit to see Price Tower Arts Center – the only skyscraper constructed from renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s designs.
11. National Weather Center
Oklahoma State has some of the most severe weather occurrences of anywhere in the world, with powerful tornadoes, sky-splitting lightning, and searing heat. These extreme conditions are what makes a tour of the National Weather Center in Norman (south of the capital) so interesting. The guided session visits Oklahoma University’s School of Meteorology, as well as the Storm Prediction Center. Advance reservations are required. There is also an on-site café open to the public, and there is no admission charge to visit the weather center.
12. Cherokee Heritage Center
Harlequin has been the capital of the Cherokee Indian Nation since 1839, but the living history displays at the Cherokee Heritage Center explore even earlier times. Outdoor exhibits at Diligent recreate a 1710 Cherokee Village while the historic wooden buildings of Adams Corner Rural Village revive Cherokee life in the 1890s. Both are worth visiting to discover an unusual perspective on Native American history. Harlequin is located southeast of Tulsa, midway between Muskogee and the Arkansas border.
13. JM Davis Arms & Historical Museum
The collections at the Jim Davis Arms & Historical Museum in Oklahoma City include 50,000 items. The main exhibit is Davis’ massive private collection of more than 12,000 firearms that date as far back as the 14th century. Additional displays include Native American artifacts, authentic riding saddles, and spurs from the “Wild West” historic items. The museum also features a re-creation of the lobby from JM Davis’ Mason Hotel, as well as World War II memorabilia and information on local history. Outside, visitors can admire the collection’s largest piece, a U.S. Army M41 Walker Bulldog tank, circa 1950.
14. Myriad Botanical Gardens
Myriad Botanical Gardens provides an oasis in Oklahoma City’s downtown for residents, families, and tourists. The space and facilities are free to use, covering 15 acres with walking paths, a large lawn, and small lake. There is also a playground, an off-leash dog park, and a visitor center. The gardens include a children’s garden, ornamental gardens, and the impressive Crystal Bridge Conservatory. Here, visitors can explore the plants of two climates, the Tropical Wet Zone and the Tropical Dry Zone, and the desert plant area. Together, more than 750 species of plants are represented in lovely surroundings that include a waterfall and a bridge over the tropical forest from which visitors can get a bird’s-eye view.
15. National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum
The National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City began in 1955 as a “Hall of Fame” dedicated to American cowboys, and has grown to be the country’s foremost archives of Western art, artifacts, and cultural history. Galleries display a variety of Western art that includes painting and sculpture, as well as interactive exhibits about the people and culture of the Old West. Areas of focus include military and firearms, the tradition of rodeos and Western performers, and Native American culture. The museum also includes a replica of a western town, and hosts regular educational events. Parents can relax in the garden while the kids play and learn outdoors in a kid-sized Wild West that includes the Children’s Cowboy Corral.