What I assumed I would be a straightforward and relaxing getaway at America’s first spa resort, Hot Springs unveiled a bit more of a colorful and checkered past than first meets the eye. In a town of just 35 square miles, there’s mobster accounts, sports significance, and political relevance as the hometown of Bill Clinton with surprises at every turn.
From duck boats and carriage rides to gambling and gardens, Hot Springs is part old, part new, the best and kitschiest of American attractions under one roof in a place that somehow still manages to fly somewhat under the radar. Whether you’re looking for a long weekend with your boo, a fun and flirty girlfriend getaway, or a family retreat, head to the Midwest because there’s plenty for everyone to do in the Valley of the Vapors.
Get Lost in a Magical Garden
Where else could you see a crazy church, a 1.8-million-dollar treehouse, and a fairy garden (and that’s without even mentioning the breathtaking flower displays)? Garvan Woodland Gardens is the crown jewel of botany. Follow George the Peacock and his friends (there are three peacocks in total, including the ladies he shows off for) through the perfectly manicured flora and fauna. You could spend all day exploring their architectural marvels, hidden wonders, landscaped koi ponds, and waterfalls features, or opt for a golf cart tour around the sprawling property.
Relax at America’s First Spa Resort
While not the typical outdoor hot springs you may expect, historic bathhouse row features breathtaking European-inspired buildings with incredible architecture and tilework that’ll have you muttering “they just don’t make ‘em like they used to.” While many of the bathhouses have been converted into gift shops and museums, two are still welcoming guests to soak. Quapaw Baths has indoor thermal pools and a natural steam cave plus other spa services, while Buckstaff Bathhouse offers private reserved mineral tubs and massage combos.
Explore the Smallest (and First!) National Park
Declared a national wonder by President Jackson in 1832, Hot Springs National Park predates Yellowstone by a good 40 years. It’s one of the last remaining free national parks, and unique in that it’s in the middle of downtown with the visitor’s center a bathhouse. There are trails and greenery behind Bathhouse Row, which looks like an elevated labyrinth of greenery popping in and out of the developed city.
Cheers with a Beer
Superior Bathhouse Brewery is the first brewery to reside inside a national park and the only one to have beers (and their famous root beer) made from thermal water. They offer 4-18 4 oz. tasting flights, which they call a beer bath because you’ll definitely be bubby on the way out. Their beer cheese isn’t half bad, either.
Get Back to Nature
Lake Catherine State Park is a gorgeous and massive natural area just 20-minutes from city limits. You can rent kayaks, SUP boards, water bikes, and boats year-round by the hour or day for super cheap (fishing boats are just $60 for the day). If you’d prefer to stay on dry land, there are a number of well-marked and color-coded hiking trails, the most popular being Falls Branch, which skirts the lake and forest streams for 2-miles to a scenic waterfall and swimming hole.
If you need any more evidence that Hot Springs is off the grid, it was once a popular hideout for infamous mobsters like Al Capone, Frank Costello, Bugs Moran, Lucky Luciano, and friends. Learn all about age-old debauchery at the Gangster Museum and visit their stomping grounds at the Ohio Club, Arkansas’s oldest bar, and a former speakeasy. Snap a selfie with the statue out front and marvel at a true “if walls could talk” destination.
Shop ‘til You Drop
Across the street from Bathhouse Row for about eight blocks, downtown is lined with fun and funky boutiques. Visit Stella Mae’s for retro pin-up dresses, photograph the colorful street art, and treat your four-legged friend to a treat from Fat Bottomed Girl’s Puppy Bakery, the doggie cupcake bakery. Don’t worry there are plenty of sweet treats for humans too from fudge shops to ice cream parlors.
Pro Tip: Your pup will enjoy this vacay. Hot Springs is extremely pet-friendly, and dogs are allowed almost everywhere (including the gardens and many hotels).
Play the Ponies
As gambling was once commonplace, it should come as no surprise that Hot Springs also has one of the nicest racetracks in America. Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort is Arkansas’s #1 tourist attraction and was designed by the same architect who built the famed Wrigley Field in Chicago.
Learn About Hot Springs’ Unexpected Baseball History
Did you know Hot Springs was once home to the first spring training camp? Or where Jackie Robinson broke the league’s color barrier? Neither did I, but as a sports fan, I appreciate it. Follow Hot Springs Historic Baseball Trail’s 28-stop self-guided tour to learn all about the untold stories of America’s game.
Eat Your Way Around the World
Hot Springs’ international food influences are as eclectic as the city itself and no less palate-pleasing. With everything from Middle Eastern to Asian for every whim and whimsy, there’s no shortage of good eats. Personal standouts for me were Deluca’s, which was hands down the best New York-style pizza outside of New York. With an owner from Brooklyn, he nailed the greasy fold over. My only complaint is they only have one size – ginormous. Two of us could only muster through half, which is okay because it ended up making a great midnight snack.
Alexa’s Creperie was excellent for breakfast with sweet and savory creations plus dumplings from Russia, Poland, and beyond. The Argentinian Coffee & Wine Bar best sums up the city’s varied tastes with everything from empanadas and charcuterie boards to sangria, wine ice cream, an oxygen bar, and aqua massages under one roof. And in true fusion confusion, don’t miss Kollective, the hipster coffee shop of your dreams with siracha naan pesto breakfast sandwiches I’ll dream about, huevos rancheros, and a huge java and tea list.
Rev Your Engines
For the adrenaline junkies, Slingshot Spa City is the most fun you can have on three-wheels. Special Polaris open-aired roadsters that are the ultimate joyride, they come with a list of suggested attractions and are a much more unique way to see the sights. Because who doesn’t love a choose your own adventure day as you ride in style?
Bonus: Hunt for Diamonds
Just over an hour away, Crater of Diamonds State Park is the only place in the country where it’s finders’ keepers for precious gemstones. More than 30,000 real diamonds have been found on the ancient volcanic crater, including a 40-carat beauty, the second biggest unearthed in the US. You can bring your own mining equipment or rent tools from the park, and yes, you really get to keep everything you uncover.
Looking to Extend the Trip?
Where to Stay
One of the most convenient and surprisingly affordable hotels downtown, the Arlington, is the largest boutique hotel in Arkansas. An elegant Victorian property steeped in history, it has hosted politicians, dignitaries, actors, gangsters, and sports legends and is located right on in the middle of the action.
If you’d prefer to be a bit more removed from the action, the Lookout Point Lakeside Inn is the nicest property in town. Complete with private gardens, boat cruises, water toys, and multi-course meals, expect luxury, white-glove service at this lakefront escape.
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