Dig In to Little Rock, Arkansas — 3 Days of Outdoor Adventure, History and Local CreativityBy Heide Brandes
Nestled along the banks of the Arkansas River, Little Rock instantly enchants with its abundant lakes, rivers, waterfalls, mountains and fresh air. Tucked in the middle of the “Natural State,” this city is also known for its rich history, diverse creative community and warm Southern hospitality.
Knowing how to tackle the city in a single weekend can be tough thanks to its abundance of activities, but it can certainly be done — after all, there are always repeat visits to be had. Outdoor enthusiasts will find more activities than a person can fit into three days, thanks to the Arkansas River that flows through the city, offering scenic views, riverboat cruises and waterfront parks. For those who prefer to see the sights on foot, the nearby Pinnacle Mountain State Park is perfect for hiking, biking and kayaking.
As you start planning your itinerary, keep in mind that there are a number of ways to get around. While the easiest way to see the sights is by renting a car, Little Rock is also a bicycle-friendly city and home to the Rock Region METRO public bus and streetcar system.
As always, check for travel guidelines and closures before planning your trip.
Friday: Dive In to U.S. and Civil Rights History
For your introduction to Little Rock, you’re going to take a step back in history. But first, fuel up for the day at Rosie’s Pot & Kettle, which shells out big portions of classic breakfast and friendly faces. If you’re really hungry, the loaded omelet is your best bet. For something a bit quicker, Fidel & Co Coffee Roasters nearby is a great option for a cup of java and a few pastries to go.
The city is known for its role in the Civil Rights Movement, particularly when it comes to desegregation. In 1957, the nation was changed forever when nine Black students, later dubbed the “Little Rock Nine,” attempted to enter the previously all-white Central High School in Little Rock (now part of the Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site). They faced a violent mob that included the Arkansas National Guard, and the incident strengthened the federal government’s commitment to integration in education. Today, visitors can learn about how the Little Rock Nine changed history through the site’s interactive exhibits. Visitors can take a ranger-led tour, watch the park’s interpretive film or take a self-guided walk to the Commemorative Garden, the Elizabeth Eckford Bus Bench and the Magnolia Mobil Gas Station.
Nearby, Brave New Restaurant is an upscale spot to grab a quick lunch. Try the nontraditional grilled cheese (made with fontina and baby Swiss, shrimp, tomatoes and bacon) or a fresh spinach and fruit salad with a generous helping of Arkansas pecans from Shady Grove Pecan Orchards.
An eight-minute drive will bring you to the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center (MTCC), a museum of Arkansas Heritage built to honor the history of the Mosaic Templars of America (a fraternal group focused on providing aid to the Black community) and Arkansas’ African American history. From there, either walk roughly 20 minutes or drive five minutes north to North Shore Riverwalk, where you’ll find seven interpretive panels commemorating the Trail of Tears, traversed by the Cherokee people after they were forcibly expelled to Oklahoma from their homelands. The Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek and Seminole tribes followed many of the same routes upon their own forcible removals.
Start to wrap up your day with a visit to the Clinton Presidential Center, a complex with educational exhibits that offer a unique perspective on the work and impact of the 42nd U.S. president, William Jefferson Clinton. In addition to an impressive library, the center shares the photos, handwritten correspondence and history of President Clinton’s two terms in the White House.
For dinner, you don’t have to go far. Grab a grilled Angus rib-eye steak and a 42 muddled old-fashioned at the Clinton Presidential Center’s renowned on-site restaurant, 42 Bar and Table. From there, you can admire the gorgeous views of the Clinton Presidential Park, the Clinton Presidential Park Bridge and the neighboring William E. Clark Wetlands. For something less meat-heavy, hop in the car for a six-minute drive to the Root Cafe, which serves farm-to-table Southern cuisine and was featured on the TV show “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.”
Join the local crowd after dinner at Midtown Billiards, a little dive bar whose private club license allows it to stay open until 5 a.m., way past last call for most bars. And if you aren’t there for the pool tables, this bar also hosts live music on weekends.
Saturday: Hike, Bike and Kayak the Day Away
Wake up early and hit up Flora Jean’s for a turmeric-infused golden cappuccino and a hearty vegetarian “sloppy Jean” breakfast sandwich (made with organic tofu and topped with fried local leeks and a farm-fresh egg) before exploring the natural wonders surrounding Little Rock.
Those who want to spend some time outdoors are only minutes away from the hills, waterways and trails surrounding the city. There are more than 60 city parks within city limits — Boyle, Allsopp and Knoop parks are particular favorites. Allsopp Park has not only a whole maze of little trails, but also tennis courts, playgrounds and sports fields.
For something a bit bigger, Pinnacle Mountain State Park is only a 25-minute drive from downtown Little Rock. Spend the morning hiking or biking the more than 22 miles of trails, some of which let visitors summit one of the tallest mountains in the state for unparalleled views of the Arkansas River, Lake Maumelle and downtown. Carve out at least two hours for the summit hike, especially for the more rugged 0.75-mile portion to the summit of Pinnacle Mountain, which is marked by red and white blazes. The Pinnacle Mountain Base Trail loop is a 2.7-mile moderately challenging trek, but it’s considered one of the prettiest hikes in the park.
After an action-packed morning, refuel at one of David’s Burgers‘ three central Little Rock locations. Locals swear by the double burger, which comes with fries and a drink, at this unassuming little joint. If the outdoors beckon again, head to Rock Town River Outfitters for a leisurely guided kayaking tour on the Arkansas River, or test your skill with rod and reel fishing for catfish, bass and crappie at Murray Park.
If you’re looking for something less strenuous for the afternoon, head to the (free) Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts, where you’ll find 14,000 works of art spanning eight centuries. The striking façade of this hidden gem of a museum is worth a visit alone, but do make time to experience its airy interior galleries.
For dinner, head to Three Fold, a Chinese restaurant known and loved for its noodles, dumplings and steamed buns. Then unwind with craft beers at Lost Forty Brewing in the Argenta Arts District of North Little Rock.
Sunday: Surround Yourself with Southern Charm
Spend your last day in Little Rock exploring its unique and artsy neighborhoods and shopping districts. But first, run to @ The Corner for brunch. The hot chicken and waffle paired with a pineapple margarita will hit the spot before you head to Little Rock’s South Main district (also known as SoMa) to browse the funky hipster shops and historic community spaces.
For an unusual experience, marvel at the ESSE Purse Museum & Store, one of only three purse museums in the world. The collection is a culmination of owner Anita Davis’ dream of exploring the concepts of art, history and the feminine spirit through purses. Nearby Bernice Garden, also owned by Davis, is a sculpture garden that hosts a Sunday farmers market. It’s an ideal spot to stop and enjoy a craft cone from Little Rock’s own Loblolly Creamery, a few doors down from the garden. Don’t sleep on intriguing flavors like Strawberry Buttermilk, Rock Town Bourbon Pecan and Mosaic Templars Maple Leaf Ragtime.
The Argenta Arts District in North Little Rock is an energetic neighborhood that’s a prime spot for admiring the colorful murals that seem to pop up everywhere. But it’s also a great neighborhood to spend a couple of hours in a dive bar like Four Quarter Bar, listening to live music or taking advantage of the many festivals held in this area.
Before dinner, stroll through the Vogel Schwartz Sculpture Garden at Riverfront Park, which creates various outdoor “rooms” using landscape architecture and features sculptures from local and national artists. If you still have time to spend, make a stop at the Arkansas Inland Maritime Museum — it’s the only place in the world where you can see two floating naval vessels from the World War II era.
For dinner, you’ll have no shortage of choices, including popular spots like the Whole Hog Cafe for brisket or Petit & Keet for a great burger or seared ahi tuna. And the famous catfish and buffalo ribs are always a good choice at Lassis Inn, one of Little Rock’s oldest Black-owned restaurants. After all, ending the trip with a fantastic meal is the ultimate high note.