US Travel

Photo: Bricktown Canal in Oklahoma City, OK

No Longer Known as "Cowtown," Oklahoma City Has Morphed Into a Sophisticated, Thriving City

By Colleen Fliedner

From the "Bricktown" entertainment and restaurant district, to more than a dozen impressive museums; to the sacrosanct site of the 1995 terrorist bombing and the adjacent Memorial Museum, Oklahoma City is well worth a visit.

If you've never been to Oklahoma City, you're in for a pleasant surprise. Oklahoma City is a modern metropolitan city of high-rise buildings, hotels, a convention center, theaters, and sports venues – all within a short drive from the Will Rogers World Airport. And for antique collectors, people interested in Native American traditions and culture, history buffs, and those who enjoy all-things-cowboy, Oklahoma City is sure to provide countless things to see and do.


The story of Oklahoma City is quite unique. Once part of the region where dozens of tribes had been "relocated" when their original homelands were gobbled up by American settlers during the Westward Movement, the large region which had once been part of the Louisiana Purchase was renamed the "Oklahoma Territory" in 1890. A year earlier, on April 22, 1889, portions of the sweeping prairie had been taken back from the Native tribes and opened to settlers in the biggest land-run in history. An estimated 50,000 people from the "States" participated, claiming the land as their own. Oklahoma City was one of the largest towns created by the participants of the great land run.

In spite of the tens of thousands of acres they were forced to relinquish, Oklahoma's Native American heritage is alive and well. Not only is a large percentage of the state's population Indian, the State of Oklahoma is home to 39 nationally recognized tribes. There are numerous events honoring the state's Native American people, like the annual Red Earth Native American Cultural Festival held each June. Touted as the largest event of its type in North America, over 100 tribes from all over the country participate. ( Slated to open in 2012, a new museum dedicated to Oklahoma's tribes is under construction in the downtown area.

Another reminder of Oklahoma City's living past is "Stockyards City." Situated on the edge of town, this is home to the world's largest working cattle auction. Stockyards City is a favorite destination for tourists, especially foreign visitors, who love seeing an authentic piece of the real American West. Anyone can participate in the auction, and visitors are welcome to watch the "action," as cowboys (and cowgirls) herd the livestock into the pens. Though the cattle wrangling only takes place on Mondays and Tuesdays, Oklahoma's western culture is well represented in this area all week long. Why not visit one of Stockyard City's numerous steakhouse-style restaurants? Or do some shopping in the local stores that feature western attire and memorabilia.


Okay, so the city's cowboy and Native American heritage wasn't a surprise. What truly amazed me, however, was that there are so many wonderful museums in Oklahoma City. Time constraints only allowed me to visit five museums, but there are at least another dozen in or near the heart of town. On my next visit, I plan to visit the Myriad Botanical Gardens and Tropical Conservatory, a living plant museum, and the World of Wings Pigeon Museum…yes, I'm serious!

Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum

First and foremost, no visit to Oklahoma City would be complete without touring the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum. It's something we Americans should all do; an event we should never forget. Sadly, that's exactly what has been happening, and funding is rapidly drying up to keep the museum open. While the museum is affiliated with the National Park Service, the money to keep it open is raised through donations, entrance fees, fund raisers, and the souvenirs sold in the gift store. In any case….

The date was April 19, 1995, an ordinary, sunny spring morning. Employees arrived at the Murrah Federal Building and began their work day. A few minutes after 9:00 a.m., a 4,000-pound truck bomb exploded, ripping open the Federal Building and damaging several other buildings in the area. One hundred sixty-eight men, women and children were killed, and more than 600 others were injured. This was the worst case of domestic terrorism in our nation's history; one that shook the American people to their core. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, may have over-shadowed those of 1995 in Oklahoma City, but they in no way diminished the pain and loss suffered by so many Oklahomans.

The Memorial Museum was eventually constructed in a building that was located next door to the Federal Building. It, too, had sustained a great deal of damage. I've included a photo of a "display" inside what is now the Memorial Museum that shows an area inside the building that was left intact after the bombing of the Federal Building. Ceilings collapsed, file cabinets toppled, windows blew in. The destruction was horrific, frightening. I can't even imagine how terrible it was inside the Federal Building next door. This small corner of the (museum) building has been left untouched since the 1995 bombing, so that the magnitude of the blast's impact to the Federal Building next door can be truly comprehended. And it certainly does just that.

The exhibits cover three floors and take visitors through the events of that momentous day, and into the ensuing post-bombing events. The tastefully done displays provide a moving tribute to those who died, those who survived, and all of the people who assisted in the rescue and recovery process.

Glass cases containing personal belongings of the victims, like a pile of car keys recovered from the ruins; pieces of the rental truck that held the explosives; actual news footage; recorded voices of the rescuers; and a film in which the survivors tell their own stories – all are sobering reminders of the great human loss that spring day nearly 14 years ago. Walking through the Gallery of Honor on the Second Floor is an even more emotional experience, for it has photos of the 168 victims, each in individual glass cases with personal effects provided by their families.

Yet, the overall story that the Memorial Museum conveys is one of hope and overcoming tragedy. The residents of Oklahoma City, and indeed the entire state, worked together not only to help the victims' families, but to build this beautiful remembrance to everyone involved.

Outside the Memorial Museum, there's a portion of the chain-link fence that once cordoned off the disaster scene. The fence soon became a part of the memorial, when visitors began leaving items — toys, stuffed animals, flowers, sympathy notes — stuck in chain-link. More than 60,000 mementos were left by caring hearts and hands during the weeks and months following the bombing. Each time the fence was cleared and the items saved (or donated to children in need), more gifts and cards replaced them. Upon completion of the memorial project, it was decided to leave 200 feet of the original fence standing, thus providing an area where tokens and tributes could continue to be placed.

The rubble from the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building was cleared away and an international contest was held to find a fitting design for a park that would be built on the hallowed ground. The result is a lovely reflecting pool and a "field of empty chairs," 168 chair-like sculptures in all. Nineteen are small chairs, representing the 19 children who died in that fateful day.

The Survivor Tree at the end of the Memorial Park is a ninety-year-old American Elm that was just far enough away from the blast zone to survive. It now stands as a silent symbol of human resilience. A plaque in front of it reads, "The spirit of this city and this nation will not be defeated; our deeply rooted faith sustains us." Saplings from the Survivor Tree are sold all over the world, and the funds are used to keep the museum open. Go to the American Forest's Historic Trees Program at or write to for information about how you can buy a Survivor tree sapling to plant in your own garden.

Oklahoma City Museum of Art

Located in the heart of the downtown Arts District, the Oklahoma Museum of Art is a real class act. From the moment you walk through the front door and view the magnificent 55-foot glass sculpture, you know you're in for a special treat. I had seen photos of Dale Chihuly's glass art, but was completely blown away by his enormous, intricate creations. The internationally renowned Chihuly has a permanent display housed here, something that is a real must-see.

Gazing at the intricate mass of delicate yellow and blue tendrils that make up the huge sculpture dominating the lobby, I was reminded of the undersea kelp beds off the coast of Southern California. And that was just the beginning. An entire gallery is filled with equally mesmerizing Chihuly glass art. Other galleries feature both permanent and revolving exhibits; the same stature as works of art found in the world's finest museums. When I was there last summer, Roman antiquities completely filled the second floor.

National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum

"It's sundown and the street lamps have been lit. A chorus of crickets chirp their night song, while "Polly-Wolly-Doodle All Day" is played on a honky-tonk piano in a "saloon." No, you haven't stepped through a time-warp. You've found "Prosperity Junction," a life-sized replica of a typical Oklahoma cattle town – just one of the huge displays you'll see at the National cowboy & Western Heritage Museum. With a 40-foot-high ceiling built to accommodate the two-story buildings, the little town has stores, a bank, a prairie church, and other historic structures. Most are open, so that you (and the kids) can take a stroll into the past.

Hands-down, this is one of my all-time favorite museums…anywhere. This museum rivals some of England's finest; in fact, its layout and charm reminded me of the famous London Museum. For example, the American Rodeo Gallery celebrates this uniquely American sport with huge displays in a dramatic 6,500 sq. ft. gallery setting. The story of the Westward Movement and settlement of Oklahoma is depicted in the Frontier West Gallery. The history and culture of the American cowboy is shown in the huge American Cowboy Gallery. And the Native American population is represented through collections of art and artifacts. Allow a minimum of two hours.

Oklahoma History Center

This 215,000 sq. ft. museum and research library is a stone's throw from the State Capitol Building. This magnificent structure houses five state-of-the-art galleries, interactive and multi-media exhibits, and over 2,000 artifacts covering Oklahoma's history and culture. The Smithsonian-quality exhibits include Buffalo soldiers, Native American code talkers, and oil field wildcatters. While the focus of the Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum is…well, cowboys, the Oklahoma History Center walks visitors through the State's entire heritage, clear up to the present day.

Be sure to take the ¼-mile walking tour that replicates the terrain of the Red River Valley. It's a beautifully done botanical garden filled with trees, flowers, and assorted plants.

Ninety-Nines Museum of Women Pilots

This small museum is dedicated to the 99 women pilots who signed the original membership charter of the international organization of licensed women pilots in 1929. Today, there are 5,500 members from 35 different countries. Located in a new facility adjacent to Will Rogers World Airport, the museum facility provides a great venue for anyone interested in the history flying or women's history.

Unfortunately, I was on a tight schedule and only had time for a quick visit, but it was well worth the time and effort. Again, I was surprised by the diversity of museums that Oklahoma City offers. This one-of-a kind museum is filled with exhibits that include the women pilots' personal papers, historic artifacts, and displays depicting their amazing achievements.


The area now called Bricktown was originally constructed in the late 1890s and, until around 1990, the old-style brick buildings were used for various types of industry. That changed in the early 1990s, when the charming structures were completely renovated.

Today, there are dozens of fabulous restaurants, art galleries, a minor league ballpark, and a huge convention center, making Bricktown Oklahoma City's main entertainment district.

For those looking for a hip and happening nightlife, there are numerous clubs and restaurants that offer music and dancing, like the Purple Bar in Nonna's Ristorante. For those of us who prefer a more leisurely experience, take a stroll along the mile-long canal that meanders through the heart of Bricktown. There's even a water taxi that provides a pleasant ride, a sort of miniature version of the canals of San Antonio, Texas. Here's an idea! Take the Cocktail Cruise on the Bricktown Canal in the evening, where you're served mixed drinks or wine, while you slowly wend your way through the historic district. Very romantic.


Naturally, you'll find more steak houses per square mile here than in most other large cities. Like Dallas and other large, sophisticated metropolitan areas, Oklahoma City has an amazing selection of dining options, from expensive and sophisticated, to down-home dining at the Cracker Barrel. One of my all-time-favorite places to eat is Nonna's Ristorante in Bricktown. Be sure to try her tomato soup or one of her pasta marinara selections. They're all fabulous! Toby Keith's "I Love This Bar & Grill" is also quite good, as are Mickey Mantle's Steakhouse, and the Bricktown Brewery.


If you stay in the downtown area (and I hope you will), most of the big chain hotels are represented. The Courtyard Marriott, Westin, Renaissance, and Sheraton Hotels are all within an easy walk from pretty much everything. But if you can possibly do it, stay at the historic Skirvin Hilton, a gorgeous, completely renovated hotel oozing with old-world charm. The rooms are beautiful, beds are butter-soft, and everything I ordered (both from room service and in the restaurant on the main floor) was excellent. (


To even scratch the surface of all the wonderful things to see in Oklahoma City, I recommend staying for several days. If time permits, drive in any direction, and you'll find historical gems like Will Rogers Birthplace Ranch; the Sod House Museum; Fort Sill National Historic Landmark where Geronimo and Quanah Parker are buried; Pawnee Bill's Ranch and annual Wild West Show in Ponca City; the enormous Osage Indian Nation Reservation, and much more. Or…take a nostalgic trip along Route 66. More than 400 miles of the historic highway bisects the state. Head towards Clinton, and you'll even find a Route 66 museum.

The options are endless. This is the "horse show capital of the world," so why not schedule your trip when one of these equestrian events is going on? Whether you stay in Oklahoma City and take day-trips outside of town, or pick your destination and get on the road, you'll have a great time.

For more information, go to or for the Oklahoma City Convention and Visitors Bureau.

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