By Allison Reavis
Arkansas’s capital city is more like a big small town. You can enjoy the business energy of Arkansas’s political center, and then 30 minutes later you could be hiking one of Little Rock’s many outdoor trails. The Southern charm will win you over, and if that doesn’t work, the Southern food will. So come for the history, stay for the outdoor beauty, and with Little Rock’s affordable prices, it won’t be long until you’ll want to visit again.
How to Spend a Weekend in Little Rock, Arkansas
Friday: Welcome to Little Rock!
Check in on Friday at The Baker, a boutique hotel just over the river in North Little Rock. This Victorian mansion was built in 1886 and is on the National Register of Historic Places, but a 2018 renovation ensures that you’ll have all the modern conveniences along with historic charm. Enjoy claw-foot tubs next to HD TVs and stained-glass doors next to 100% cotton jersey bathrobes. Be sure to notice the Curly Heart Pine woodwork used throughout the hotel. The water-warped patterns are formed in rare, forgotten pines left by loggers in the Arkansas River during the pioneer days.
From the hotel, you have access to the METRO Streetcar, a trolley that will take you over the Arkansas River to downtown Little Rock, or you can cross the Junction Bridge, a converted railroad bridge now used only for pedestrians and cyclists. It is one of six bridges that adorn the Little Rock skyline, and at night, all six bridges put on a festive light display.
After you’ve settled in, head to the SoMa (South Main) area of downtown. This district sits against the Governor’s Mansion Historic District and is enjoying a recent revitalization. On your way between restaurants, you’ll want to take a peek into stores selling local gifts and souvenirs or admire the statues in The Bernice Garden, or even the ESSE Purse Museum, one of three purse museums in the world.
For happy hour, take a tour of Rock Town Distillery, the first distillery of any kind opened in Arkansas since prohibition. You can enjoy more than 50 cocktails made with Rock Town spirits. For dinner, walk over to The Root, a restaurant serving Southern food sourced almost entirely from local farms and producers. Vegans and meat enthusiasts alike will take pleasure in their diverse menu and community-minded atmosphere. End your night with dessert and a show at South on Main. This restaurant and bar includes a stage where the literary magazine Oxford American curates musical performances, literary readings, film screenings, and more to give its audience the full southern cultural experience.
Saturdays: Immerse Yourself
Start your day on Saturday at Cathead Diner, where you may choose the savory biscuits the size of a cat’s head, or the sweet gourmet donuts. This is also your chance to try chocolate gravy, a well-loved local staple. The diner is housed in a converted paint factory in the town’s East Village district, what was once the first Industrial District in Little Rock in the late 1800s, and the diner blends the warehouse feel with the coziness of Southern comfort.
East Village is also home to the William J. Clinton Presidential Library and Museum, your next stop. Here you can view replicas of the Oval Office and Cabinet Room for the United States’ 42nd President, as well as exhibits, interactive stations, and educational programs about Clinton’s life in the White House. Architects designed the building to echo Clinton’s campaign promise of “building a bridge to the 21st century” by making the library appear to jut over the Arkansas River, just like Little Rock’s six bridges.
If you still have time, hop on the trolley close to the Clinton Library and ride it through downtown. You may choose to get off at one of the many museums on the trolley route, most of which are free. Options include:
- Heiffer Village and Urban Farm — Visit alpacas just steps away from the Clinton Museum and learn more about Heiffer International’s mission to eradicate global poverty and hunger.
- Historic Arkansas Museum — Step back in time to Arkansas’s frontier days. You can view Little Rock’s oldest building, watch living history educators, or enjoy rotating art exhibits.
- Mosaic Templars Cultural Center (MTCC) — This museum is a short walk from a trolley stop, but it’s worth including. MTCC tells the story of African American history and culture in Arkansas from 1870 to present.
- Museum of Discovery (MoD) — Kids will especially love the oldest museum in Arkansas, which includes interactive exhibits in science, technology, engineering, arts, and math. MoD has a reoccurring feature on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” so you may see a few familiar faces. There is an entrance fee here.
- Old State House Museum — Visit the original state capitol in Arkansas and learn about political history in the state, including the popular exhibit featuring dresses of Arkansas’s first ladies.
Just make sure you get off the trolley in time for lunch at Three Fold, where you find made-from-scratch dumplings, noodles, and steamed buns. If you’re skeptical about finding good Chinese food in Little Rock, just know that this is where Gordon Ramsay chose to eat when he came to town. The Main Street Creative Corridor, where Three Fold is located, serves as a welcome area to artists with eco-friendly street designs, mixed-use buildings, and several art and light displays. Plus, the murals provide great photo opportunities!
After lunch, make your way to Little Rock Central High School, the only operating high school that is also a National Historic Site. The museum on site tells the story of Little Rock’s 1957 desegregation crisis, when Arkansas’s National Guard prevented nine African Americans students from entering the school. This event had a major impact on the civil rights movement, which the museum details. If you still want to see more, visit the statues of the Little Rock Nine on the grounds of the Capitol building.
Head to the Riverdale area of Little Rock for dinner at Maddies’ Place, just west of downtown on the Arkansas River. Maddie’s Place offers a New Orleans take on comfort food. Try the alligator bites, chicken livers, or crawfish if you’re looking for excitement. Arkansas is also known for its catfish, and you won’t find any better than at Maddie’s Place. Their full bar will make sure you leave full and happy.
Let your dinner settle with a nice stroll over the Big Dam Bridge, just down the road from Maddie’s Place. This dam is the longest specialty-built bicycle and pedestrian bridge in the United States. Relax and watch boats go by on the Arkansas River with the beautiful backdrop of Pinnacle Mountain. The bridge connects more than 14 miles of riverside trails, so your walk can be as long or short as you want it to be.
Still ready for more? Relish the nightlife of the River Market District. On the weekends you’re allowed to carry alcoholic beverages in all public spaces, so you can sip your drink of choice as you meander along the river, enjoying live music, the sculpture garden, lights on the bridge, or the adventure park. You have a good chance of catching a festival in this area, which frequently brings artists and other vendors for special events.
Sunday: Get Outside
Cross your fingers for good weather because Little Rock has natural beauty all around. Fuel up for Sunday’s adventure with brunch at One Eleven located in the historic Capital Hotel, which has been around since 1876. You’ll want to enjoy your leisurely meal while taking in the sights and sounds of the area. One Eleven’s chef, Joël Antunes, won the James Beard Best Chef of the Southeast Award, so savoring the simple yet elegant food won’t be hard to do.
Pack a water to-go, and drive to Pinnacle Mountain State Park, a 30-minute drive west of Little Rock. Pinnacle Mountain has 15 miles of trails, but most people start with the West Summit Trail, which begins at the picnic and playground area. The hike takes about 1.5 hours round-trip, and the top of the mountain offers beautiful views of Lake Maumelle, the Arkansas River Valley, and the Ouachita Mountains. If you’re more adventurous and enjoy rock climbing, the East Summit Trail offers a difficult .75-mile hike to the top over boulders and steep rocks. If strenuous activity isn’t your favorite, there is a base trail that allows you to experience the diversity of central Arkansas wildlife without changing your elevation.
Did you know cheese dip originated in Arkansas and that Little Rock is home to the World Cheese Dip Competition? No trip to Little Rock would be complete without cheese dip, and the best can be found at Heights Taco and Tamale. This restaurant puts an Arkansas spin on Tex-Mex dishes, including Delta-style tamales and pickle-fried chicken tacos. Their frozen mojitos and house-made sodas round out the perfect last meal for your stay in the area.
As you wind down your visit to central Arkansas, make one more stop at the Old Mill in North Little Rock on your way out of town. If it looks familiar, it’s because filmmakers used it in the opening scenes of Gone with the Wind. Bring your camera, because the sculptures, historic building, and beautiful landscaping make great photo opportunities. You’ll want to remember the area and make a note to come back soon.
Ready to plan your trip to Little Rock? Check out LittleRock.com to get started!
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