We report on the optical properties of the nematic (N) phase formed by lyotropic chromonic liquid crystals (LCLCs) in well aligned planar samples. LCLCs belong to a broad class of materials formed by one-dimensional molecular self-assembly and are similar to other systems such as “living polymers” and “wormlike micelles.” We study three water soluble LCLC forming materials: disodium chromoglycate, a derivative of indanthrone called Blue 27, and a derivative of perylene called Violet 20. The individual molecules have a planklike shape and assemble into rodlike aggregates that form the N phase once the concentration exceeds about 0.1M. The uniform surface alignment of the N phase is achieved by buffed polyimide layers. According to the light absorption anisotropy data, the molecular planes are on average perpendicular to the aggregate axes and thus to the nematic director. We determined the birefringence of these materials in the N and biphasic N-isotropic (I) regions and found it to be negative and significantly lower in the absolute value as compared to the birefringence of typical thermotropic low-molecular-weight nematic materials. In the absorbing materials Blue 27 and Violet 20, the wavelength dependence of birefringence is nonmonotonic because of the effect of anomalous dispersion near the absorption bands. We describe positive and negative tactoids formed as the nuclei of the new phase in the biphasic N-I region (which is wide in all three materials studied). Finally, we determined the scalar order parameter of the N phase of Blue 27 and found it to be relatively high, in the range 0.72–0.79, which puts the finding into the domain of general validity of the Onsager model. However, the observed temperature dependence of the scalar order parameter points to the importance of factors not accounted for in the athermal Onsager model, such as interaggregate interactions and the temperature dependence of the aggregate length.