Article updated April 2022 by Brianna Goebel
Hot Springs, Arkansas, has quite a storied past. In the early 1900s, it was on the fast track to becoming the Las Vegas of the South, complete with gambling, casinos, and brothels — which happened to exist in plain sight on the town’s main drag. Later, the locale became a popular destination for the thermal mineral water that bubbled up naturally out of the ground and was thought to have healing power.
Local folklore says the water on one side of the street could cure you of everything you caught while dabbling in the casinos and brothels on the other side. In the late 1800s, doctors would even write prescriptions for people to come to Hot Springs just to take a bath.
In its heyday, gambling wasn’t actually legal in Hot Springs; it was just allowed. Gangsters like Al Capone, who used to rent out the entire fourth floor of the historic Arlington Hotel for himself and his bodyguards, were notorious visitors in the town where police turned a blind eye.
At one time, there were 50 bathhouses in Hot Springs using thermal waters to treat people seeking relief from ailments ranging from fatigue to syphilis. It wasn’t until the 1960s, when Winthrop Rockefeller became governor, that the casinos were shut down. This ultimately led to the decline in the bathing industry. Sadly, the number of bathhouses has dwindled to two on Bathhouse Row. Although they offer spa services and access to thermal water for soaking, the “bath” has been reduced to somewhat of a novelty by today’s standards.
In the aftermath of all this rich history, Hot Springs was left with some fabulous architecture, a quaint walkable main street (Central Avenue), and the legendary Bathhouse Row houses that still stand as markers of a bygone era. The historic Fordyce Bathhouse, built in 1915, now serves as a visitor center and offers a glimpse of what the baths were like in their original glory.
We spent four days kicking around Hot Springs so we could bring you the essential list of where to stay, where to eat, and what to do in Hot Springs. Happy exploring!
WHERE TO STAY
Hands-down, the best hotel in Hot Springs is The Waters. A lovingly restored historic building that dates back to 1913 when it was constructed as The Thompson Building, this space is equal parts modern convenience and historic beauty. Original features like ceramic tile floors still proudly display cracks and blemishes, and frosted glass windows still display the numbers from the building’s original use as a medical building.
The town’s first rooftop bar sits atop The Waters, which provides sweeping views of the city, while the second floor’s back door has direct access to more than 10 miles of hiking trails. Hotel rooms offer complimentary Mountain Valley Spring Water (in fabulous green glass bottles), soaps, and coffee from local vendors.
A boutique hotel offering nine luxurious guest suites Hotel Hale is a newer addition to Hot Springs’ lineup. Originally Hale Bathhouse, the hotel was recently renovated to provide guests with a one-of-a-kind experience and opportunities to explore downtown Hot Springs. Eden, the on-site restaurant, offers everything from happy hour to dinner and brunch. The best part of Hotel Hale? Each room is equipped with a large soaking tub pumped with hot spring mineral water.
WHERE TO EAT
Hot Springs’ main thoroughfare, Central Avenue, is lined with wonderful locally-owned businesses. Grab a cup of java and order breakfast at Kollective Coffee + Tea to get you going for a day of shopping and sightseeing. The coffee rivals any major coffee chain and serves it in a much more organic and comfortable environment. Then, pop into The Savory Pantry, a beautiful market offering culinary creations primarily sourced locally and regionally.
Another great sit-down breakfast option is The Pancake Shop, which offers arguably the largest pancake on the planet. We tried the blueberry and made the mistake of ordering a stack. Then we made the even bigger mistake of eating the whole thing, which was enough to feed a small family.
Your sweet tooth will thank you for making a stop at Fat Bottomed Girl’s Cupcake Shoppe — the ‘Chocolate on Chocolate’ cupcake is mind-blowing. They even offer sturdy to-go boxes that will survive your journey home!
(SB TIP: Fat Bottom isn’t the only store on Central Avenue named after a classic rock song. The candy store down the street is aptly titled Pour Some Sugar on Me.)
If you do nothing else in Hot Springs, absolutely do not miss a stop at Deluca’s Pizzeria. Owner Anthony Valinoti doesn’t take table reservations — only pizza reservations. Call ahead to reserve your crust and ensure your scratch-made circle of deliciousness doesn’t get eaten by someone else.
For a fun, festive take on Latin cuisine, stop at Rolando’s on Central Avenue. Dishes are presented with artistic flair and vibrant flavor.
For a more upscale dining experience, pop into The Avenue. The restaurant offers a window seat to Central Avenue from the street level of The Waters, and the menu rotates seasonally. Additionally, it derives some of its ingredients from the rooftop garden, which also houses the bees that provide honey for the restaurant.
Across the street, pop into Superior Bathhouse Brewery at the Arlington Hotel, which is not a bathhouse anymore, but a super cool woman-owned craft brewery. Try some of brewmaster Rose Schweikhart’s ingenious creations, such as Madden’s No. 1, a blonde ale that uses a recipe from gangster Owney Madden.
For something more family-friendly, spend an afternoon at 420eats, a food truck court offering everything from Thai and Japanese to Cajun, Mexican, and Indian. Guests can also enjoy outdoor games, live music, picnic tables, and covered pavilion seating.
WHERE TO SHOP & EXPLORE
While on Central Avenue, pop into Bathhouse Soapery & Caldarium and plan to leave smelling better than when you arrived. Not only does this shop offer locally crafted soaps and lotions, but it also steps outside the box with cleansing oils, shaving butter, natural deodorants, and hand-crafted perfumes.
Nature lovers can enjoy countless options to get fresh air and exercise at Hot Springs National Park. Central Avenue fronts the park’s edge and offers miles of hiking trails and natural attractions. The park is also home to Northwoods Trails, located about five minutes from downtown and offers over 26 miles of world-class mountain biking trails.
If fishing is more your speed, Hot Springs draws professional anglers from all over the U.S., thanks to its spectacular lakes. Options include Lake Hamilton, Lake Catherine, and Lake Ouachita.
If you want to experience the baths, you can soak in a public thermal mineral water bath at Quapaw Baths & Spa or Buckstaff Bathhouse, which offers a traditional bathing package, among other traditional spa services.
The Garvan Woodland Gardens is another not-to-be-missed spot. Upon her death, local industrialist and philanthropist Verna Cook Garvan donated 210 acres of her personal gardens to the University of Arkansas’ landscape architect program, with the stipulation that they are to be used for educational purposes. The gardens transport you to a fairyland with water features, seasonal blooms, and some of the most enormous azalea bushes you’ve ever seen. Check out the Anthony Chapel, too — a six-story structure made entirely of glass, wood, and stone.
If you’re looking to learn something new, visit the Mid-America Science Museum to experience over 100 hands-on exhibits, including the Marvelous Motion Gallery, the Bob Wheeler Science Skywalk, the Oaklawn Foundation Dinotrek, and more.
Another great family-friendly option is Magic Springs Theme & Water Park. From roller coasters to a log flume, bumper cars, and more, this is an excellent place to spend the afternoon with your family. (SB TIP: Magic Springs offers a summer concert series every year. You can find the schedule HERE.)
Hot Springs also offers fun-filled events throughout the year. Annual favorites include the World’s Shortest St. Patrick’s Day Parade in March, the Running of the Tubs in June, and the Hot Springs Documentary Festival in October.
While the mobsters and Hollywood elite might not be seen coming and going from The Arlington anymore, Hot Springs remains a destination with something for everyone. There’s a little bit of new mixed in with a lot of fabulous history from a town that saw its original glory more than 100 years ago.
For more fun getaway ideas, check out our travel archives, and start dreaming up your next vacation!