Jaunt through this region of the Ozark Mountains for great food, outdoor adventure, American history and culture…
By Karen Kwan
Never considered road-tripping through Arkansas? Wel, you may want to set it as your next destination or switch up your route for your next trip through the U.S. so that you can explore this southern state. Dubbed the “Natural State,” Arkansas has got pretty natural springs and is lush with greenery and rolling hills–did you know the Ozarks cover much of the northern part of the state? So going through these five northern cities makes for both a scenic drive and a great playground for outdoor adventure. On top of that, Arkansas has got top-notch museums, stylish hotels, fun restaurants and plenty of Americana for history buffs to delve into. Here are some of the top must-sees to plug into your GPS before you hit the road.
While the capital city of Arkansas is where you can visit the William J. Clinton Presidential Library, for those less interested in the 42nd president and more into food and culture, you’re in luck. Known for its array of sculpture art, the city’s Vogel-Schwartz Sculpture Garden, located right on the bank of the Arkansas River features dozens of unique pieces–stroll through for a chance to stretch your legs after a long drive. Spirits lovers will not want to miss Rock Town Distillery. Using ingredients from across the state, Rock Town has a broad range of flavoured vodkas, including basil and watermelon, along with bourbon, whiskey, gin and more. To make sure you’re not drinking on an empty stomach, get a quick bite of southern comfort food at The Root Cafe (Guy Fieri is a fan of their pimento cheeseburger) or indulge in some hearty bites at Pantry West–the cheese spaetzle, bacon-wrapped dates and brussels sprouts with roasted garlic aioli will hit the spot. For an eye-opening, moving education on racial injustice, a guided tour of the Little Rock Central High School Historic Site should be a requirement for any visitor to the city. This six-floor school, still open as a school today, is where Little Rock Nine challenged racial segregation as the first African American students to enter the school in 1957. Complete your Little Rock visit with a walk through the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts–recently reopened after a four-year renovation (which re-established its stunning 1937 Art Deco facade as the building’s north entrance). The 133,000-sq-ft space, located in the oldest urban park in the city, offers free admission to view its nearly 14,000 works of art, which date from the late 14th century to the present.
Make Miss Laura’s Social Club your first stop in Fort Smith. This former bordello is now the city’s Visitor Centre, so you can combine learning more about where to explore in the city while also touring this Victorian Mansion, which is the only brothel on the National Register of Historic Places. While here, grab a copy of The Unexpected artwork map to orient yourself on a self-guided tour. Celebrating diversity, the Unexpected Project launched in 2015 with the goal of turning Fort Smith into a hub for contemporary and urban public art. Now, more than 30 pieces from renowned international artists including Ana Maria and Bordalo II liven up the streets of the city. Next, grab a savoury waffle sandwich (we reco the Rooster, which is loaded with a cheesy omelette and bacon) at Wild Waffles (it’s located in a train car) and pop next door to have a ride on the beautiful vintage Bertazzon Carousel at the Park at West End. For souvenirs for yourself or loved ones, shop independent local small businesses at The Shops at BrickCity. From Arkansas pecans and chocolate to charming children’s clothing and art from local artists, this is where you can be sure to score that unique gift. For dinner, bring your appetite to Doe’s Eat Place. The Fort Smith outpost of this Mississippi favourite serves up steaks, all aged a minimum of 21 days, and comfort-food apps such as beef-filled Delta Hot Tamales and loaded potato skins.
You may feel like you’ve landed on the set of a quirky TV series when you arrive at Eureka Springs. Take the open-air tram tour to get the history of this Victorian Village and you’ll have locals coming outside to greet you, possibly with their pet pot-bellied pig alongside them, plus you’ll get the lowdown on the beautiful historic homes and get a chance to take a quick peek of the pretty grounds of St. Elizabeth of Hungary Catholic Church. For your stay, check into the reportedly haunted Crescent Hotel & Spa. This circa 1886 property offers a Ghost Tour, where you can get the story behind the spirits that are said to still make appearances in the hotel and also visit the former morgue in the basement. Once you’re fully spooked by the hotel’s tales, get some fresh air and work off that nervous energy be spending a day at Lake Leatherwood. Get going by hiking a portion of the more than 25 miles of trails throughout the 1,610 acres and take advantage of the park’s spring-fed lake by renting a canoe at the Bait Shop.
Although Bentonville is perhaps best known by many people as the headquarters for Walmart, this thriving city is also a major hub for art. Start by staying at the 21c Musuem Hotel; this hotel group incorporates contemporary art museums into each of its boutique hotels with curated rotating exhibitions alongside commissioned installations. In Bentonville’s location, you’ll find a coin-covered Fleetwood Cadillac limo parked just outside the hotel’s main entrance and more than 12,000 sq-ft of exhibition space, which you can explore on a complimentary guided tour offered daily. Check the calendar for The Momentary ahead of your trip and time your stop in Bentonville to coincide with one of the shows scheduled at this creative space housed in a former cheese factory. Inside (and out–there’s an outdoor green space), the venue showcases visual and performing arts and culinary experiences. Finally, plan for a minimum of half a day to visit the stunning Crystal Bridges Musuem of American Art. Admission to this museum, which is set in 120 acres of the Ozark forest, is free and features American art from the colonial era to today. Besides the indoor exhibitions, you’ll find outdoor installations you can discover by walking the property’s five miles of trails.
In Fayetteville, tap into the city’s cheerful, fun vibe and plan for a playful stay. The charming year-round Farmers Market in the Towne Center is where you can kick off the day by picking up some snacks to fuel you through the morning. Rent an ebike from Pedego Fayetteville to get you easily around town to sightsee via the Razorback Greenway and the extensive set of bike trails. Make a pit stop for lunch at Arsaga’s Coffee Roasters Mill District location–the eclectic menu features everything from shrimp and grits to Turkish eggs. Looking to wet your whistle? Maxine’s Tap Room has been serving cocktails since 1950. Choose from the classics or opt for signature cocktails such as the Late Bloomer (a fruity concoction of gin, midori, chamomile orange blossom syrup and lime juice). Pro tip: You can take your cocktail to go, too–Fayetteville features an Outdoor Refreshment Area, where anyone 21 years of age or older can carry and drink alcoholic beverages outside seven days a week from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. After your nightcap, get your beauty sleep at the Graduate Fayetteville. The youthful vibes of this hotel –think retro-inspired decor that takes a cue from the University of Arkansas–makes it the perfect spot to stay in this varsity town.