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Best Things To Do in Tulsa

AOL PICK from our Editors
If you're traveling in the spring or fall—or even during the milder summer months—you're in luck. Some of Tulsa's best attractions are outdoors. Tulsa doesn't have an endless buffet of entertainment, but it does have some definite high points, especially if you're traveling with kids in tow. Family-friendly attractions include excellent parks, the Tulsa Zoo and a fairly new aquarium that has filled many an afternoon. No matter what the weather, there are excellent art museums that showcase everything from Renaissance masters to depictions of the Old West. And while you're here, you owe it to yourself to brush up on your Oklahoma culture with a performance of “Oklahoma!” There is no one area that hoards all of Tulsa's best attractions; rather, they are spread out around town, encouraging visitors to really get to know the city.

Oklahoma Aquarium

Neighborhood: South Tulsa
Exploring the mysteries of the ocean seems like an unlikely endeavor in landlocked Oklahoma, but the relatively new Oklahoma Aquarium, opened in 2003, makes it all possible. Sharks are a big draw here, and you can catch them at their most serene as they swim overhead as you walk through the glass-tunneled shark tank, or at their most ominous as they rip into their meals during public feedings (Mondays and Thursdays at 1:30PM). Kids can touch stingrays and sharks (small ones, not the ones you just saw go all Jaws-like during the feeding show). And there are plenty of other interesting creatures to gawk at, like octopus and jellyfish (which are so much prettier when they're not washed up on a beach). It's not a huge aquarium, but it's still an enjoyable way to pass an hour or two.

 

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Admiral Twin Drive-In

Neighborhood: Downtown West
Pack up the family, bring a cooler and re-live the 1950s at one of the largest drive-in movie theaters in the Southwest. The Admiral Twin debuted in 1951 as the Modern Aire. A year later, it opened a second screen, earning it the new name Admiral Twin. In 1983, the movie theater got to star in a film of its own when it was used as a location in "The Outsiders" by Francis Ford Coppola. ("Stay gold, Ponyboy. Stay gold.") If only the Admiral Twin played more classic films for full nostalgic effect. But, then, if popular first-run movies is what it takes to keep this slice of history alive, we can't argue with that.

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Tulsa Zoo and Living Museum

Neighborhood: Downtown

This enjoyable little zoo isn't the biggest, most exotic or most glamorous you've ever been to, but, superlatives aside (and unless you're used to heavy hitters like San Diego), it's worth a visit if you've got kids in tow. There are more than 2,800 animals on exhibit, spread out over 84 acres in Mohawk Park. All the biggies are represented: lions, tigers and bears (oh, my), as well as giraffes, monkeys and elephants. The Living Museum complex adds a new dimension to the zoo-going experience with some of the plants, minerals and geographical features of North America. It’s located just northeast of Downtown.

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Philbrook Museum of Art

Neighborhood: Midtown

No surprise that a city of Tulsa's size has a worthwhile art museum or two, but what is unexpected is the stunning setting of one of the city's best. Villa Philbrook was built as an Italian Renaissance residence back in 1927 by Tulsa oilman and entrepreneur Waite Phillips. In 1938, he donated the 72-room mansion to the City of Tulsa, and what a gift it was. The following year—this was still during the Great Depression, mind you—the city opened the home to the public as the Philbrook Art Museum. This is a true Tulsa treasure. The original home houses the museum's permanent collections, including baroque paintings from the Italian Renaissance, depictions of the Old West from American artists, and Native American pottery. One of the museum's most popular works is from its European collection: "The Shepherdess" by William-Adolphe Bouguereau. Be sure to allow enough time to wander the 23 acres of formal gardens, featuring utterly lovely hedges, flowers, ponds and a serene tempietto that dates to the original landscaping.

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Oklahoma! at Discoveryland

Neighborhood: Dowtown

When there's a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical written about your state (with an exclamation point in the title, no less) you're going to want to milk it for all it's worth. So it's no surprise that “Oklahoma!” has run all summer long every summer since 1977 at the Discoveryland amphitheater. While the production may not be Broadway caliber (and you definitely won't catch Hugh Jackman reprising his role as Curly), this production has just as much heart as more professional productions, and the outdoor amphitheater seems as fitting a setting as if you'd pulled up a bale of hay from behind the barn. This is a fun homage to the early days of the Sooner State, with kicky little musical numbers you'll be humming the whole car ride home. It’s just west of Downtown.

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River Parks

Neighborhood: Midtown

Every city has its share of little rectangular parks where one might lay a picnic or toss a ball. But with the Arkansas River running right through the middle of town, Tulsa saw a prime opportunity to maximize outdoor fun, installing over 20 miles of hike-and-bike trails dotted with playgrounds and public art stretching from 11th to 101st streets. Along the way, you'll find an old wooden railroad bridge turned pedestrian bridge that's ideal for strolling (at E. 29th Street), a skate park for more active pursuits, and an 18-hole disc golf (aka "Frisbee golf") course. In the summertime, the park hosts concerts and other events at the River West Festival Park, as well as at the Reynolds Amphitheater with its unique floating stage. If you want to get out and get a little bit of fresh air, we can hardly think of a better place.

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Tulsa Garden Center

Neighborhood: Midtown
We're not saying the average tourist should rush right out to the Garden Center and that your vacation won't be complete if you don't go, but there are a couple of compelling reasons to go, especially if you like flowers and historical homes. For starters, it's located in beautiful Woodward Park, known for its bountiful collection of azaleas that bloom each spring. Adjacent to the Garden Center is the Municipal Rose Garden, built as a WPA project in 1934 and 1935 and now showcasing 5,000 rose plants. The Center itself holds events and houses an extensive horticulture library, but even if you don't need to read up on ranunculi, you might enjoy checking out the Italianate-style villa that was once one of Tulsa's most opulent homes. The park, gardens and villa are frequently used as backdrops for portraits; bring along a camera for your own flowery photo op.

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Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame

Neighborhood: Downtown
While Tulsa isn't a jazz city in the same vein as New Orleans or Kansas City, there were many notable Oklahomans who made their mark on the genre, and this niche museum honors some familiar and not-so-familiar names. It can feel a little specialized, since it does focus on Oklahoma musicians, rather than jazz as a whole, but admission is free, so it's worth checking out—especially since it's located in Tulsa’s former Union Depot Building, a downtown art deco gem built in 1931 that's earned the place the nickname of "Jazz Depot." On Sunday nights, you can catch live jazz performances, which aren't free, but it's hands-down the most swinging time to visit.

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Art Deco Tour

Neighborhood: Downtown

Tulsa's oil-fueled boom days were in the 1920s, and, luckily for Tulsa, its heyday coincided with the art deco style of architecture. The result? A bevy of gorgeous downtown buildings that are a preservationist's dream come true. You can occasionally find a formal tour offered through different historical organizations, but your best bet is to do a self-guided tour with the help of the Tulsa Preservation Commission's website. Don't have time to explore them all? The number one stop is downtown's Boston Avenue Methodist Church at 1301 S. Boston Ave., built in 1929.

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Gilcrease Museum

Neighborhood: Downtown

Although based on the private collection of one Thomas Gilcrease, an oilman and avid collector with the cash to back up his habit, Gilcrease Museum is more than just a random collection of paintings and sculptures. The museum is dedicated to the preservation and appreciation of American art, but its real specialty is the art of the American West, reflecting Oklahoma's past with depictions of cowboys, Native Americans and life on the open range. In addition to paintings and sculptures, Gilcrease also houses a truly impressive collection of Native American artifacts, such as colorful woven blankets and massive feather headdresses. Downstairs, drawer after drawer of artifacts let you play archaeologist as you pull open each one to reveal pottery, tools, totems and toys. While you're there, don't miss the themed gardens that dot the grounds; since the museum is out on the northwest edge of town, they've got plenty of space to make them special. It’s just northwest of Downtown.

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