Hot Springs, Arkansas, has quite a storied past. What once was on the fast track to becoming the Las Vegas of the South in the early 1900s, complete with gambling, casinos and brothels in plain sight on the town’s main drag, became a popular destination spot for its 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 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 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 he and his bodyguards, were notorious visitors in the town where police turned a blind eye.
At one time, there were 50 bath houses in Hot Springs using thermal waters to treat people seeking solace from ailments ranging from fatigue to syphilis. It wasn’t until the 1960s, when Winthrop Rockefeller became governor, that the casinos were shut down, which ultimately led to the decline in the bathing industry. Today, sadly, the number of bath houses has dwindled to two, which sit on Bathhouse Row. And although they offer spa services and the ability to immerse in thermal water, 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 little walkable main street (Central Avenue) and the legendary Bathhouse Row houses that still stand as markers to a bygone era. The historic Fordyce Bathhouse built in 1915 now serves as a visitor center and shows you a peek into what the baths were like in their heyday.
We spent four days kicking around Hot Springs so that we could bring you the must-do list of things to see, food to eat and places to stay. Here’s your Hot Springs, Arkansas itinerary!
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. Frosted glass transom windows house the original numbers from the building’s original use as a medical building full of doctors’ offices.
The town’s first rooftop bar will open atop the Waters in 2019, which will provide sweeping views of the city. The second floor has direct access out the back door to more than 10 miles of hiking trails. And rooms provide complimentary Mountain Valley Spring Water (in fabulous green glass bottles), soaps and coffee from local vendors.
Located directly across the street from Bathhouse Row, The Waters is within walking distance to most of Hot Springs’ main attractions.
If you like to be a little more off the beaten path, check out the boutique B&B Lookout Point Lakeside Inn. Situated just a few miles outside of town on beautiful Lake Hamilton, every room at Lookout Point has a view of the lake. Extras include a pontoon boat tour of the lake and a complimentary gourmet breakfast.
One of the cornerstones of Hot Springs, the Arlington Hotel has an amazingly rich history. It’s about to embark on a multi-million-dollar renovation and will again be a main destination for visitors. In the meantime, you can tour the hotel and visit the Al Capone suite.
WHERE TO EAT
Hot Springs’ main thoroughfare, Central Avenue, is lined with wonderful locally owned businesses. Grab a cup of java 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, which is a beautiful collection of culinary creations primarily sourced locally and regionally with a few nationals thrown into the mix.
Another 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 an even bigger mistake of eating the whole thing, which was honestly enough to feed a small family.
Your sweet tooth will thank you for making a stop at Fat Bottomed Girls Cupcake Shoppe. I’m not even a huge fan of cupcakes, but the chocolate on chocolate blew my mind. They have to-go boxes, and mine survived a plane trip home. (Side note: 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 that 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 an artistic flair and delicious flavor.
For a more upscale dining experience, pop into The Avenue, which offers a window seat to Central Avenue from the street level of The Waters Hotel. The chef-driven menu, created by award-winning chef and Le Cordon Bleu alumnus Casey Copeland, rotates seasonally and derives some of its ingredients from the rooftop garden, which also houses the bees that provide honey for the restaurant.
Across the street, pop in to the Superior Bathhouse, 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 the Bees Knees brew, which is made with honey and basil.
WHERE TO SHOP & GET OUT
While on Central Avenue, pop into Bathhouse Soapery and Caldarium and plan to leave smelling better than when you arrived. Not only does this soap shop offer locally crafted soaps and lotions, it gets outside the norm a bit with cleansing oils, shaving butters, natural deodorants and hand-crafted perfumes.
Nature lovers will enjoy the countless options to get some fresh air and exercise Hot Springs National Park. Central Avenue fronts the edge of the park and offers miles of hiking trails and natural attractions.
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, among other traditional spa services, a traditional bathing package.
Take a spin up to the top of the Hot Springs Mountain Tower for a beautiful panoramic view of the Ouachita Mountains as well as the valley in which the town of Hot Springs is nestled.
The Garvan Woodland Gardens is another spot not to be missed. Local industrialist and philanthropist Verna Cook Garvan donated 210 acres of her own personal gardens upon her death to the University of Arkansas’ Landscape Architect program with the stipulation that they be used for educational purposes. The master planned gardens opened to the public in 2002 and saw 185,000 visitors last year. With water features, seasonal blooms and among the largest azalea bushes I’ve ever seen, the gardens transport you to a fairy land. Be sure to also check out the Anthony Chapel, which is a six-story structure made entirely of glass, wood and stone.
So, 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 fabulous getaway ideas, check out our travel section, and start dreaming of your next vacation!