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Planning a Route 66 road trip through the Midwest in 2023? A must-stop is Tulsa, Oklahoma’s second largest city and “The Oil Capital of the World.” You’ll find wacky roadside attractions including a blue whale and vintage neon road signs. There are art and entertainment districts and one of Time Magazine’s Best Places to Visit, The Gathering Place, a 66-acre public park. And music fans should check out the established Woody Guthrie Center, the new Bob Dylan Center or catch a concert at the BOK Center.
Tulsa sits in Oklahoma’s northeast corner near Arkansas, Missouri and Kansas on Route 66, America’s Main Street. This former territory for relocated Native Americans boomed in the early 1900s when oil was discovered. Hard times followed including a massive race riot in 1921 and devastation caused by the Dust Bowl.
But Tulsa’s on the rise and the best part about the city is that many of the top things to do in town are totally FREE. Here are 16 of our favorite attractions.
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Check Out the Gathering Place
Voted America’s #1 Best New Attraction by USA Today when it opened in 2018, Tulsa’s Gathering Place is a unique recreational complex for all ages. Sited along the Arkansas River, the Gathering Place was built with $465 million in corporate and individual donations, has climbing castles and giant herons, a boathouse with rentals and, at the summit, Swing Hill, where you can see the entire park, the river and the downtown skyline.
If quiet’s more your thing, there are outdoor waterfront seating areas or funky indoor lounges for reading, playing board games or napping. The Gathering Place is popular, so I recommend going at either end of the day; hours are 9 a.m. – 6 p.m., 7 days a week.
Pose with the Golden Driller
What stands 76-feet tall, weighs 45,000 pounds and wears a 393-DDD shoe? Tulsa’s Golden Driller, an iconic symbol of Oklahoma’s oil drilling industry. The driller’s right hand rests on a replica of an oil derrick and his belt buckle is emblazoned with the city name.
After making appearances at petroleum industry expos in the 1950s, the Golden Driller was permanently anchored in 1966, adopted as a state landmark in 1979 and re-gilded in 2011. Parking for the Golden Driller is in Expo Square, off of East 21st Street.
Take the First Friday Art Crawl
Tulsa’s downtown has several designated neighborhoods. The Arts District is one of them and hosts a popular Art Crawl on the first Friday of every month. 2023 marks the event’s 12th year. Find the latest info here.
Music in Tulsa’s Arts District
Tulsa’s top two music attractions aren’t free but they’re must-visits while you’re in town.
The Woody Guthrie Center celebrates the life and achievements of Oklahoma-born Woody Guthrie, including his master work, “This Land is Your Land.” Admission is $12 for adults and FREE for 17 and under. Don’t miss the Dust Bowl virtual reality experience, included with admission. The Woody Guthrie Center is open until 9 p.m. on First Fridays.
With the 2022 opening of the Bob Dylan Center, Tulsa is on its way to becoming a major destination for music fans. One of my college besties, a huge Dylan fan, was blown away by the pocket notebooks with the “Blood on the Tracks” lyrics and alternate lyrics. Admission to the Center is free for kids under 17. Adult admission is $12.
Smell the Roses at Woodward Park and Gardens
Surrounded by historic neighborhoods, Woodward Park and Gardens is a manicured public space with more than 40 acres, anchored by the Upper and Lower Rock Gardens and the Tulsa Rose Garden.
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Families visiting Tulsa with children should check out the programs offered at the Linnaeus Teaching Garden inside the park.
Hike Turkey Mountain Urban Wilderness Area
A unique feature of Tulsa’s downtown is the Turkey Mountain Urban Wilderness Area. Maintained by the city’s River Parks authority, the space offers visitors miles of dirt trails and climbing boulders for children. The park welcomes leashed dogs and horses.
The red trail is an easy .8 mile loop for families with small children and a paved trail runs alongside the Arkansas River. The main parking lot is located at 67th and South Elwood.
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Take a FREE Fitness Class on Guthrie Green
In the heart of Tulsa’s Arts District, you’ll find Guthrie Green, a wide open expanse of lawn with a stage and seating areas. Free concerts and movies on Guthrie Green are popular but the real value is found in the free fitness classes, offered through a partnership with the Tulsa YMCA during the warmer months of the year.
I live in New York. A drop-in yoga class is $22. Give me free every day of the week.
Get Your Kicks on Route 66
Route 66, the Mother Road, runs right through Tulsa. Road trip devotees should consider making a pilgrimage to check out the remaining motels, neon signs and attractions. They’re free to photograph; wear some cat’s eye glasses and a circle skirt to go full vintage.
Perhaps the most beloved Route 66 attraction in Oklahoma is just outside of Tulsa in Catoosa. The Blue Whale was once a popular swimming hole for local kids. Now, it’s a silent reminder of summers past.
Walk the Art Deco District
Clustered in the city’s Central Business District, 50 sites are included in a printable map that details information about their historical and architectural significance.
Visit the Center of the Universe
If you and your kids enjoy quirky attractions, head to 1 S. Boston Ave. in downtown Tulsa. A bridge was removed in the 1980s and replaced with a pedestrian pathway.
The construction created an unintentional acoustical phenomenon. When you stand in the decorative circle and speak, your voice echoes back as if it’s amplified. One of the weird, fun and free things to do in Tulsa!
Wander the Blue Dome District
When I think of blue domes, I remember Santorini in Greece. Tulsa’s got one too – the Blue Dome Building, built in 1924 and the heart of a lively entertainment district.
Head to 2nd and Elgin for evening fun and games. The neighborhood also hosts festivals throughout the year and the latest event info is available on the Blue Dome District website.
Tour the Art at The Philbrook
The Philbrook Museum of Art is the restored home of oilman Waite Phillips and houses a collection of more than 8500 works of art. The 23-acre grounds are also worth a visit and, if contemporary art is more your thing, visit the museum’s downtown location.
Bank of America and Merrill Lynch cardholders enjoy free admission on the first weekend of every month.
Drive By the Cave House
If you’re an HGTV fan, you’ll want to take a drive through the historic Riverview neighborhood. You’ll see a variety of beautiful homes, ranging in style from Tudor to Mediterranean to Craftsman.
Then, go to the other extreme, and drive by the Cave House. Located at 1623 Charles Page Boulevard, the home was once a chicken restaurant and, possibly, a speakeasy. It looks like it was plucked from “The Flintstones” and deposited in Tulsa.
Say “Hello!” to Buck Atom, Space Cowboy
Window shopping is one of my favorite, free travel activities. In addition to art galleries, Tulsa has a couple of fun souvenir shops worth a visit.
Ida Red General Store is popular, with two locations, but I preferred tiny and quirky Buck Atom’s Cosmic Curios. Opened in 2018, the former Route 66 gas station carries a line of Tulsa gifts emblazoned with the shop’s namesake, who stands a full 21-feet tall outside the shop.
Check Out the Neon Lights
The neon lights are bright in Tulsa. Many vintage signs are still intact and provide a nostalgic feel to the city’s stretch of Route 66.
The Tulsa Route 66 Commission has matching funds available for local business owners who want to rehab their signs. Local favorites include the Desert Hills Motel, Brownie’s Hamburgers and Meadow Gold.
Snap the Tulsa Art Alley
Looking for an Instagrammable moment in Tulsa? Teens will have fun in the alley that connects 5th and 6th Streets between Maine Street and Boulder Avenue.
It’s full of bright, beautiful wall murals ready for your close-up and it’s one of the many great free things to do in Tulsa.
Tour the Gilcrease Museum
NOTE: The Gilcrease was torn down in 2021 and construction of a new building is ongoing. Find details about its reopening here.
The Gilcrease Museum is home to an important collection of art celebrating the American West. More than 35,000 pieces have a home here and manicured themed gardens occupy 23 of the museum’s 460 acres, including ones dedicated to the Pioneer, Colonial and Victorian eras. Several free admission opportunities are available.
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