Arkansas’ capital can seduce you with its “Southern-ness” and impress you with its cultural amenities
Situated smack dab in the middle of Arkansas on the south bank of the state’s namesake river, Little Rock, the state capital, is the center of political and cultural life in Arkansas. But Little Rock residents don’t let those distinctions distract them from the easy-going and gracious lifestyle that has come to characterize this Southern metropolis. Little Rock’s thriving New South culture offers a burgeoning culinary scene, vibrant nightlife, world-class attractions and many opportunities for outdoorsy types to hike, bike and just commune with nature. Long overlooked, Little Rock these days loves to be included in anyone’s travel plans.
The Place to Be
When Little Rock residents and visitors are looking for a good time, they often look no further than the River Market located downtown. It’s the center of the city’s rebirth over the last decade and a half. Farmers bring their produce to sell on Tuesday and Saturday mornings. Inside plenty of vendors and stores offer fresh breads and pastries, flowers, coffee and international groceries. Just outside the River Market, dozens of shops, restaurants and bars keep the downtown scene lively, especially at night. Big Downtown Thursday is a sort of public happy hour held each week.
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Clinton Presidential Center and Park
Just a few blocks east of the River Market, the William Clinton Presidential Center provides an exciting and educational experience and is home to the William Clinton Library. The permanent collection includes an exact replica of President Clinton’s Oval Office and a timeline explaining his presidency. The Center has been awarded the platinum LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Certification and two Green Globes from the Green Building Initiative.
Take a Stroll
Steps away from the market, Riverfront Park offers a variety of trails and viewpoints to wile away the morning along 11 blocks fronting the river. Of special note, the Arkansas River Trail, which extends formiles in either direction, crosses the Junction Bridge, one of the nation’s longest bike and pedestrian bridges, to connect with sister city North Little Rock on the north bank of the river. Several sculptures accent the Sculptural Promenade, including Touch the Sky, Eagle of the Rock and Harriet Tubman.
Take the Trolley
The River Rail Electric Trolley comprises two routes, the Blue and the Green, both of which pick up and drop off passengers in central downtown. The Blue line extends across the river through North Little Rock before returning downtown. The Green line stays downtown making a continuous seven-block loop. Both lines extend to the Clinton Library. Each offers an excellent way to get a feel for downtown in about 25 minutes to complete each route. For schedules and maps, go to littlerock.com.
Little Rock Central High School
It’s hard to imagine that the city of Little Rock, today one of the most friendly and welcoming communities in the nation, at one time was the crucible of America’s civil-rights movement. The forced integration of Central High School in 1957 by nine African American students galvanized the struggle for equal rights before the eyes of the nation as television news chronicled events as they unfolded. The school was designated a National Historic Site in 1982. Today a National Park Service visitor center helps to tell the story of the courageous “Little Rock Nine” and tours of the still-operating school are available on weekdays. It’s a powerful and inspiring story. 1500 Park St.
Just 14 blocks south of the river is the Quapaw Quarter, named for the native residents of Arkansas. It’s primarily known for its lovely 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 open for tours at various times during the year. Historic landmarks that are open to the public include Trapnall Hall, which dates from 1843, and Villa Marre, the mansion whose exterior was depicted as the offices of Sugarbaker Designs on the TV sitcom Designing Women.
Arkansas for the Arts
The Arkansas Arts Center is the state’s flagship art museum. The 58th annual Delta Exhibition, featuring the best works of Arkansas artists, runs June 10-Aug. 28. Renoir’s “Madame Heriot” will be in residence at the museum through Sept. 11 on special loan. 501 E. 9th St.
The Arkansas Repertory Theatre is the state’s largest non-profit professional theatre company and produces a diverse body of theatrical works ranging from contemporary comedies to cutting-edge dramas and from musical theater to the classics of dramatic literature. Windfall will be staged June 10-26 and will be directed by Jason Alexander of Seinfeld fame. 601 Main St.
The Heights and the Hillcrest neighborhoods draw local residents. Here’s a sampling of what’s available in those old quaint neighborhoods, both anchored on Kavanaugh Boulevard.
Haus Werk has one room of baby clothing and gear, one room of women’s clothing and one room of home decor items. It’s a great domestic mix. 2919 Kavanaugh Blvd.
Tulips offers designer clothing brands for mom and baby. This Pepto-pink-painted boutique is known for selling the biggest names in fashion. 5817 Kavanaugh Blvd.
Jewelry is the main draw at Bella Boutique. Aside from the baubles, which range in price from $60 to $600, the shop has dog beds, hostess gifts, vases and beauty products. 5623 Kavanaugh Blvd., 501-603-5373.
Where to Stay
The Capital Hotel
Classic luxury in downtown Little Rock. An historic location renowned for its architecture and its Southern charm. 111 W. Markham St.
The Burgundy Hotel
A contemporary New Orleans-style boutique hotel with 40-plus suites and four presidential suites. From $149/night. 1501 Merrill Dr.
The Empress of Little Rock
One of the most exquisite examples of Queen Anne residential architecture is the setting for this luxury inn, which has made many “best of” lists nationwide. Nine rooms ranging from $139-$329/night.
2120 Louisiana St.
The Legacy Hotel
Located in the heart of Little Rock’s business district, this restored gem offers all the amenities today’s travelers expect including a fitness center. Rooms range from $70-$170/night. 625 W. Capitol Ave.
Robinwood Bed & Breakfast
Classic Southern charm in a Quapaw District mansion. Everything you want to do is only 10 minutes away. Five uniquely appointed rooms are available. Rooms from $99/night. 2021 S. Arch St.
Where to Dine
Brave New Restaurant
Chef Peter Brave always keeps it fresh for diners at this new American cuisine restaurant. The trout with spinach and crab is gluten-free. Don’t let the bland office building setting put you off. 2300 Cottendale Ave., 501-663-2677
A sophisticated contemporary urban dining experience. One of the best in Little Rock. Anyone for chicken prosciutto roulade stuffed with chevre and spinach? 425 President Clinton Ave. 501-850-0265
The on-site and full-service restaurant for the Clinton Center offers sweeping views of the Arkansas River and the 1899 Rock Island Railroad Bridge, one of the inspirations for the bridge-like building. Try it for lunch while visiting the center. 1200 President Clinton Ave. 501-537-0042
South on Main
It’s a new Southern cuisine restaurant; it’s a performance venue. Well, it’s both, and the chef offers imaginative takes on Southern classics while you listen to live music. 1304 S. Main St., 501-244-9660
Chef Scott Rains sources local Arkansas produce for his bold menu that emphasizes local charm and food representing the sea, the ranch and the farm. Diners keep coming back for more. 1501 Merrill Dr., 501-224-2828