In the late 1700s, a stony outcropping on the south bank of the Arkansas River—dubbed “La Petite Roche” (Little Rock) by French explorers—served as a signpost for water traffic as America's wild, western frontier was charted, claimed, and tamed.
Though many persist in associating the state capital now occupying the area with the Clinton years, the Little Rock of today—with miles of riverfront bike paths radiating from the River Market in a revitalized downtown now connected by a bright yellow streetcar line—is a bipartisan success story.
Explore a bevy of historic neighborhoods, like the Quapaw Quarter and the gentrifying Southside Main Street District (SoMa), that draw both suburbanites and millennials tempted by Little Rock’s local flavor, such as sweet-and-tangy buttermilk ice cream from Loblolly Creamery or old-school fried catfish at Doe’s Eat Place.
South on Main
The food is on the table, and so is journalism, at South on Main, a literary restaurant and performance space that operates in tandem with the Oxford American, a venerated quarterly magazine celebrating the American South.
The unique hybrid acts as a showcase for acclaimed musicians and writers from the South and beyond, while the supper-rati devour regional treats such as Hoppin’ John veggie burgers, country-fried steaks, and smoked duck with creamed greens.
Arkansas Arts Center
Known for its collection of drawings, including works by Pablo Picasso, Rembrandt van Rijn, and Georgia O'Keeffe, the Arkansas Arts Center boasts an impressive and wide-ranging collection that punches well above its weight.
There are delightful paintings—from a Diego Rivera cubist portrait of two women to a kinetic vision of a standing bull by Elaine de Kooning, as well as hundreds of striking contemporary craftwork done by artists such as glass master Dale Chihuly.
Little Rock Central High School
Built in 1927 as a Gothic Revival temple to academic achievement, Little Rock Central High School became a symbol of desegregation three decades later when the enrollment of nine black students sparked furious counter protests.
The institution, which remains an active high school, has been a national historic site since 1998. Park service rangers lead tours through the school's auditorium, one of the flash points of the Civil Rights Era, though the nearby visitors center and commemorative garden prove powerful experiences as well.
The ESSE Purse Museum
From clasp to clutch, at the Main Street ESSE Purse Museum there’s nothing hotter—or more revealing—than a handbag.
The brainchild of avid purse collector (and local assemblage artist and SoMa advocate) Anita Davis, the exhibits, arranged by decade from 1900 to 1999, chart the evolution of the 20th-century American woman through the bags she carried.
The Arkansas River Trail
In the past few years Little Rock has wheeled itself to the forefront of bicycle-friendly American cities.
More than 17 miles of trails line the Arkansas River, connected by three pedestrian bridges, while a larger, 88-mile route, the Arkansas River Trail connects the capital with surrounding counties and 38 pedal-friendly parks. Find yourself some wheels and get to riding.
The Historic Arkansas Museum
With an acronym as tasty as its exhibits, the Historic Arkansas Museum—HAM—offers visitors a glimpse of what life was like during the days of the pioneers.
Ruled by the Spanish and, briefly, the French before being swept into what was fast becoming the American Experiment as part of the 1803 Louisiana Purchase, the Little Rock region has seen many reversals of fortune. Explore a pre-Civil War neighborhood, the oldest still-standing house in the city, and knowledgeable historians that help bring Arkansas' heritage alive.
The William J. Clinton Library and Museum
Hillary may be the most talked about Clinton these days, but Bubba's legacy is front and center at the institution devoted to the Arkansas-born president's two terms as Commander in Chief: The William J. Clinton Library and Museum.
Set on 29-acres of riverfront near downtown, the museum helped kick off a neighborhood revival east of the city. Highlights include a presidential limousine, model Oval Office, saxophones, and, outside, a sapling grafted from the chestnut tree that grew outside Anne Frank’s Amsterdam hiding place.
Gourmands looking for a little taste of Little Rock should target Mylo Coffee, a charming café opened by a Cyprian-born Briton and his Arkansan wife in the city's leafy Hillcrest neighborhood.
The eatery's inventive menu (breakfast and lunch only) depends upon a rotating selection of locally sourced ingredients. But rest assured that on any given morning you'll start the day off right with a sugary hunk of monkey bread or Hen in a Nest, a savory cornbread muffin stuffed with sausage, gruyère, spring onion, and a soft-boiled egg.
The sprawling, 33-acre park stretches for 11 blocks along the south bank of the Arkansas River, supplying the city and its visitors with outdoor sculpture, playgrounds, gardens, and history lessons.
The Capital Hotel
An unofficial club for Little Rock’s political elite, but a sumptuous stay for anyone else, the Capital Hotel offers the rarest of combinations: inspired, first-rate service and an eccentric luxury experience—case in point being an elevator the size of a sitting room rumored to have been built to accommodate Ulysses S. Grant’s horse.
While juicy gossip and stiff drinks are always on tap at the Capital Bar and Grill, dinner at the hotel’s restaurant, One Eleven, presenting an updated take on classic surf-and-turf dishes, shouldn’t be passed up.
- Nat Geo Expeditions