Arkansas: Laid-Back Charms

Photo by Timothy Hursley
Photo by Timothy Hursley

This southern state is known for the hospitality of its residents and now it has a major art museum as well. Go on down and make yourself at home.

If you’re still longing for a breath of spring—complete with azalea and dogwood—a cost-effective solution lies in our neighboring state to the south. Arkansas will welcome temporary snowbirds from the near north for a weekend escape to preview our own springtime ahead. The newly designated Interstate 49 leads from Kansas City into northern Arkansas, ending near Bentonville where a trip to the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art is in order.  Then it’s on to the state capital of Little Rock, known for its easy-going style and gracious hospitality, where we can get a taste of both.

Crystal Bridges Ups the Cultural Ante

Crystal Bridges in Bentonville is set on 120 acres amid 500 dogwood trees, sculpture gardens and springs and boasts art works acquired from private and public collections around the country that celebrate the American tradition in art. It is Walmart heiress Alice Walton’s expression of love to the town where her father’s retail empire got its start.

Situated on 120 forested acres, the Moshe Safdie-designed museum actually spans a stream, thus providing Crystal Bridges with its name.

The William S. Paley Collection: A Taste for Modernism is on display through July 7 and features selections from the extraordinary private collection of William S. Paley, the late founder of CBS. Highlights include works by Paul Gauguin, André Derain, Henri Matisse, Paul Cézanne, Edgar Degas and Pablo Picasso, most created between 1880 and 1940, at the height of French Modernism.

The River Market District and the River Rail Electric Trolley.
The River Market District and the River Rail Electric Trolley.

The River Market District

Downtown Little Rock boasts a dynamic neighborhood, the historic River Market. This area has been part of the rebirth that has been taking place on Little Rock’s riverfront over the past decade.

The River Market is the most popular locale in Little Rock, both for tourists and locals. With more than 17 merchants housed inside, you can buy fresh breads, pastries, flowers, coffee and international groceries. There are several cafés located in the market where you can sample Japanese, Italian or local cuisines. The Farmers Market itself offers all types of fresh local produce on Tuesdays and Saturdays during the growing season.   

In the neighborhood around the market pavilions, visitors will find even more interesting shops, bars and restaurants. This is the place to find the perfect souvenir for your trip to the city. Besides, this place is always buzzing with concerts, festivals and other interesting activities. The city of Little Rock has done its best to keep the momentum going. For example each week you’ll find Big Downtown Thursdays, a sort of public happy hour.

Riverfront Park

The Little Rock skyline at sunset. The Little Rock skyline at sunset.

Riverfront Park, home to a variety of festivals and concerts and a major center of activity in Little Rock, is located on La Harpe Boulevard. The park stretches 11 blocks on the south bank of the Arkansas River downtown. It provides 33 acres of urban parkland for outdoor events, leisure activities and a glimpse of the state’s history.

Here you can see the actual “little rock” that inspired European explorer Bernard de la Harpe to name the city. Take a break from shopping and visiting museums downtown to watch barges and riverboats float down the lazy Arkansas River. Bands often perform at the amphitheater.

Take a stroll

Stroll through Riverfront Park to enjoy the many works of art installed along the path to the Clinton Presidential Center.  Inspired by the themes of President Clinton’s acceptance speech at the 1996 Democratic convention, these sculptures include “Touch the Sky,” “Eagle of the Rock” and “Harriet Tubman” to name a few.

Or Take the Trolley

The River Rail Electric Trolley has two routes—the Blue and the Green—both of which originate across from the Convention Center downtown. The Blue Line extends across the river and loops through North Little Rock before returning to downtown. The Green Line stays closer to “home” making a continuous seven-block loop in central downtown. Both lines extend east to the Clinton Library. The adult fare is one dollar per boarding. Go to for schedules and maps.

Shopping Southern-style

Little Rock has a wide variety of shopping to please every taste. The Promenade at Chenal Shopping Center located on the west side of town is home to the state’s only Apple retail store. Nearby are J Crew, Anthropologie and 45 other stores and restaurants. The Promenade is a beautiful outdoor center that helps to show off Little Rock’s naturally lovely setting.

The arts community is thriving in Little Rock, and some of the best regional artists are represented at the H. A. Hearne Gallery, 1001 Wright Ave., as fine a gallery as you could find on either coast. Owner Garbo Hearne has a devoted clientele.

Antique shops are plentiful in Little Rock as well as the entire state. From the unique like La Vien Rose Antique Jewelry, 5925 Kavanaugh Boulevard in the Heights, to the big and simple like Carrie’s, in southwest Little Rock at 8717 Geyer Springs Road.

Quapaw Quarter

Twelve blocks south of the city center is the Quapaw Quarter, which is known for its restored 19th-century homes and its business district. Most of the homes are privately owned, so access is mainly limited to walking and driving tours. However, many of the quarter’s homes are opened for tours at various points in the year under the direction of the Landmarks Trust Association. Other landmarks are open to the public for tours at various points throughout the year, including Trapnall Hall, a home dating from 1843, and Villa Marre, the mansion whose exterior was used to depict the offices of Sugarbaker Designs in the TV sitcom Designing Women.

Little Rock Central High School

Built in 1927, it was named “The Most Beautiful High School in America” by the American Institute of Architects. But it became nationally known in 1957 when the school became a crucial battleground in the struggle for civil rights, when nine African-American students entered Little Rock Central High School under federal troop protection. With the help of television news, the Little Rock Nine commanded national attention. Little Rock came to symbolize the federal government’s commitment to eliminating separate systems of education for blacks and whites. The National Park Service operates the building today as a National Historic Site.

Artifacts on display at the Clinton Presidential Library and Museum. Artifacts on display at the Clinton Presidential Library and Museum.

Clinton Presidential Center and Park

Located on the banks of the Arkansas River in the heart of Little Rock’s River Market District, the William Clinton Library provides an educational look at the American presidency. The permanent collection includes an exact replica of President Clinton’s Oval Office, the presidential limousine, and a timeline with exhibits for each year of Clinton’s presidency, and the center hosts three to four outstanding temporary exhibits every year. The center has been awarded the platinum LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Certification and two Green Globes from the Green Building Initiative. The Clinton Presidential Center is located within the 33-acre Riverfront Park, and is also home to the William E. “Bill” Clark Presidential Park Wetlands and the Clinton Presidential Park Bridge.

Where to Dine

Table 28 – Located in the Governor’s Suites, the restaurant’s chef Scott Rains has returned from San Francisco and is creating quite a reputation in his home state with his creative dishes showcasing New American cuisine. 1501 Merrill Dr.  501-224-2828

Your Mama’s Good Food – Mighty fine meatloaf with Creole sauce accompanied by huge from-scratch dinner rolls. Everybody comes to this landmark soul-food joint downtown. 215 Center St. 501-372-1811

Arthur’s Prime Steakhouse – This is the special occasion restaurant for many Little  Rockers. Top off your visit to the Promenade at Chenal with a meal here. 27 Rahling Circle.  501-821-1838

Flying Fish of Little Rock – Casual spot, great for lunch. They demonstrate why fried catfish is one of the South’s great everyday delicacies. 511 President Clinton Ave. 501-375-3474

Eleven at Crystal Bridges – Northwest Arkansas’ contender in the locavore movement, this restaurant focuses on local ingredients that showcase the Ozarks. Located in the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. 600 Museum Way, Bentonville 479-418-5700

Where to Stay

The Empress of Little Rock The Empress of Little Rock

The Capital Hotel – Historic hotel in the heart of downtown Little Rock. Fully restored to modern perfection. Architecturally stunning with an enthusiastic and welcoming staff. From $170/night double. 111 W. Markham St. 

Little Rock Marriott – Formerly the fabled Peabody, the tradition continues under the Marriott banner. Conference hotel located near everything downtown. From $156/night double. 3 Statehouse Plaza. 

Best Western Premier Governor’s Suites – Comfort and service are the watch words here. Centrally located. From $139/night double. 1501 Merrill Dr. 

The Empress of Little Rock – A real stand-out bed and breakfast experience in an 1880s Victorian complete with tower. High teas and spa treatments can be arranged.  2120 Louisiana St. 

21C – Is it an art gallery or is it a hotel? Well, it’s both. Original art is on display in all rooms and public spaces. Sleek design and a luxe experience. From $216/night double. 200 N.E. A St., Bentonville