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Little Rock is one of those places you can see in a weekend, yet it’s like an onion with many layers and complexities just waiting to be peeled back. Technically a state capital, it’s more like a big small town. Home to 200,000 people (Denver has 700,000 for comparison), the city was revitalized when Clinton built his Presidential Library in 2004, completely changing the landscape of downtown. But despite the development, the city is very much an ode to another era.
Fifteen years of progress brought free trolleys, the River Market District, and Riverfront Park, but the library itself is like a time capsule replaying the Golden era on an endless loop, and subsequently making it feel like Groundhogs’ Day every day. The city is home to blacksmiths and streetcars offering even playful touches of nostalgia. The landscape is more Midwest than Southern, and the people, gussied up in gowns and bowties for ball season appear to be from another period entirely. So, pack your Sunday best and get to exploring because this is one place you just have to see for yourself.
Tour by Trolley
Called the METRO, Little Rock’s free streetcars are a throwback to the ‘30s, when they had hundreds of yellow trolleys running for miles as the city’s main form of public transportation. Now, the five hop-on, hop-off trolleys circumvent the downtown core and are a great way to get a lay of the land. Meant for sightseeing, drivers give a short history lesson as they pass iconic landmarks. There are two routes, green and blue, that run every 15 minutes seven days a week. The blue line crosses the river to North Little Rock, which is actually an entirely separate town, a distinction few outsiders realize. Not to be confused with Minneapolis, together they make up the other “Twin Cities.” The entire loop takes about an hour.
You can’t throw a stone without hitting something named after or a tribute to the Clintons. But from the street signs to the airport, nothing is a more prominent reminder of his time in office (and the city’s largest attraction) than the William J. Clinton Presidential Library. Whether you care about politics or not, it’s a fascinating look into the first family and a stark reminder of better days.
Home to 2-3% of the records of requests during his time at the White House, the library houses an estimated 80 million pages along with state gifts accepted on behalf the country — lavish treasures from world leaders ranging from vases to swords, his music collection, family mementos and holiday traditions, a year by year timeline of his accomplishments, and a replica Oval Office and Situation Room. Outside, there are boardwalks over the William E. “Bill” Clark Presidential Park Wetlands and the Clinton Presidential Park Bridge over the Arkansas River, meant to symbolize building a bridge to the 21st century.
Get a History Lesson
Part of the U.S. Civil Rights Trail, Little Rock was a major battleground for racial equality. The fight for desegregation came to a head at Central High School, one of the most beautiful and exclusive public schools in the county. Now a designated national historic site and operational high school, the visitor’s center documents the story of nine African American students who fought to receive a quality education. A major Constitutional struggle for state vs. federal rights, it was ultimately determined that separate was not equal and the students, despite much resistance, were allowed to attend the historically all-white school.
Explore the Natural State
A landscape prime for exploration, Little Rock is home to abundant parks and wilderness areas. The Arkansas River Trail is an expansive 88-mile loop that runs through the entire state connecting 38 parks, six museums, and 5,000+ acres of federal, state and local parkland. The 15.6-mile section in downtown Little Rock runs from the Clinton Presidential Bridge to the Big Dam Bridge. If that’s not enough of a workout on its own, the Big Dam Bridge is the largest intentionally-built pedestrian bridge in the U.S. and was made specifically for hikers and bikers. If you prefer your outdoor recreation a bit more waterlogged, you can also rent a kayak or take a guided tour of the Arkansas River. For even more nature, take a road trip to Hot Springs, one of the nation’s first national parks or get wanderfully lost in the Ozark Mountains.
Visit Little Rock’s Most Instagrammed Spot
The Old Mill is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, but you may also recognize it from the opening scene in Gone with the Wind. Built in 1933 but designed to look like it was from the 1800s, it’s an authentic reproduction of a working, water-powered grist mill. The park is a fairytale brought to life with decorated toadstools, tree branch-entwined bridges, and water features, the entire thing a completely unexpected gem in the the middle of a residential area.
Little Rock’s food scene is eclectic with very few chains to be found. You can count on anything on Main Street or in the Heights to be trendy and tasty with Samantha’s and Bruno’s the local go-tos. The Root Café is the best brunch spot in town and was recently featured on Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives. The Fold was also highlighted on Triple D for its creative tacos and tamales in a converted gas station. Or, make yourself a food crawl at Ottenheimer Hall, Little Rock’s first food hall which has virtually every international delicacy from Asian to the Middle East, barbecue and bakery treats.
Taste the Signature Dish
As a weird food aside, Arkansas claims to have invented cheese dip — not pimento, which is actually common in the South but what the rest of the world knows as queso. This is strange for a number for reasons but primarily because they’re nowhere near the border. After launching the World Cheese Dip Championships, Texas took issue with their claim and the states ended up having a cheese-off, which was taken all the way up to the legislative floor. In a blind taste test, Senators picked Arkansas as the better cheese-maker and they’ve hung their hat on the title ever since. Whether it’s true or not, you can find cheese dip on almost every menu in town.
Arkansas’s first ‘legal’ distillery since prohibition, Rock Town is not just grain to glass but one of the most talked about watering holes in the country. They won the coveted title of “Best Bourbon” at the International Whiskies of the World despite their unusual distillery methods (they definitely don’t age barrels seven years having only been open eight). Personally, it was their infused vodkas, frozen drinks, and creative craft cocktails I gravitated to, but if you want a true Southern experience, tuck into a moonshine or bourbon flight.
For the beer fans, Little Rock’s brewery scene is also hoppin’ with 11 microbreweries in the area you can check off on a passport program. One of the local favorites is Lost Forty, who were also the purveyors of the winning cheese dip (aka the perfect pairing).
Beat the Heat
Little Rock summer’s can get hot but that’s not the only excuse you need for a cold treat. Indulge yourself at Loblolly Creamery, which has homemade ice cream flights, ice cream sandwiches, and brownie sundaes in fun flavors like Little Rock-y Road and infusions with local liquors and Girl Scout cookies. If you prefer more handheld desserts, Le Pops makes custom ice and cream pops with DIY dippings and toppings (and throw it in a hot chocolate or coffee if you’re feeling extra crazy).
The Esse Museum is one of just three purse museums in the world and the only in the U.S. dedicated entirely to handbags. But more than that, it tells the story of women through the decades as seen through style and by what she carried with her. There’s everything from animal print clutches to crazy ‘80s soup cans and smiley faces and vintage luggage, all important symbols of the times.
Pay it Forward
Heifer International is a global NFP working to end world hunger and poverty by providing livestock and education to communities around the world. Essentially the “teach them to fish” motto but with farming, they offer agriculture-based training as a means of self-sufficiency. Headquartered in Little Rock, you can tour their farm (spoiler alert: there are llamas) and on-site museum to see where and how they’ve contributed.
Vacation Like the First Family
One of the Historic Hotels of America, The Capital Hotel has been called “Little Rock’s front porch” and a gathering place for politicians and A-listers for over a century. From the tile floor to the stained-glass ceiling, the opulent design has been immaculately preserved since the 1800s. Stately marble columns and an oversized elevator (rumored to have been built to accommodate President Grant and his horse) are only second to the cushiness of the rooms themselves.
It’s a splurge, but be sure to dine in the hotel’s signature restaurant, One Eleven, helmed by James Beard and Michelin Star award-winning chef, Joël Antunes, although the bar food is nothing to sniff at either. Pro Tip: The signature spiced pecans are insanely addictive. You may need to bring home a bag — or four.
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