Sitting on the banks of the Arkansas River, Little Rock is home to a thriving New South culture encompassing vibrant nightlife, a thriving food scene and world class attractions. The city’s downtown district is at the heart of the action, with the majority of its entertainment spots and historic landmarks, as well as its commercial and office buildings, huddled together in this perpetually bustling area.
Little Rock also lays claim to playing a crucial role in the history of American Civil Rights, after a High School incident in 1957 brought international attention to the cause. More recently, the city was home to Bill and Hillary Clinton, with Bill announcing his candidacy to become President on the steps of the Old Statehouse in October 1991.
Needless to say, residents and visitors are rarely stumped for things to see and do in Little Rock – but what are some of the more unlikely sites and activities on offer? Here’s our pick of the best.
1. The ESSE Purse Museum
This natty little building presents a homage to the humble (and not so humble) handbag. Through a clever decade-by-decade review of the 20th-century American woman’s bags and their contents, the permanent exhibition here tells you much more about social change than about fashion. Looking at everything from 1900 to 1999, the exhibits tell the tale of a new freedom for the American woman as she was able to leave the confines of the home and encounter big changes. She gained the right to vote, lived through the austerity of the Great Depression, was startled and maybe energised by Dior’s post-war New Look, and entered the office workforce. The museum also hosts regular temporary exhibitions.
LOCATION 1510 Main Street HOURS Tues-Sun 11am-4pm Closed Mondays
2. The Old Mill
An authentic replica of an old water-powered grist mill, this eye-catching structure appears in the opening scene of the classic 1939 film Gone with the Wind and is believed to be the only building remaining from the famous movie. Built in 1933, it was designed to look old so it would appear as if it was constructed in the 1800s. As for the park itself, it is decorated with sculptures of toadstools, tree stumps, and a tree branch-entwined bridge that connects the mill to the rest of the park. The Old Mill is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is well worth a visit.
LOCATION T.R. Pugh Memorial Park, North Little Rock
3. The Bernice Garden
When visiting downtown Little Rock, take time out to sit back on a bench and reflect in the welcoming environs of the Bernice Garden. This privately owned plot is open for all to enjoy, a community garden and event space furnished with sculptures by local Arkansas artists. These take colourful, often unusual shapes, formed from all sorts of materials and with a strong focus on sustainability. People congregate under the canopy, discuss the new art installations, attend concerts or browse markets selling everything from farm produce to antiques. There’s also a garden of wild flowers and herbs, frequented by bright butterflies.
LOCATION 1401 S Main Street HOURS Mon-Sun 6am-11pm
4. River Rail Electric Streetcar
Public transport in Little Rock has moved on since the 19th century – although perhaps not as quickly as some may have liked. But one upside to the rather slow-moving evolution of the city’s transit system is the continuing presence of the oh-so-charming River Rail Electric Streetcar. A vintage streetcar system comprising electric trolleys, it officially ceased operating in 1947 but was revived in 2004 and today spans a 3.4 mile line connecting Little Rock with North Little Rock on the other side of the Arkansas River. The streetcars stop at several popular tourist attractions and operate every day.
5. River Market District
For some, the River Market district is the lifeblood of Little Rock’s downtown scene. For others, it’s a place to do business, to grab a bite to eat, or simply to meet up with friends or catch some live music. Whatever your outlook, the River Market district has become indelibly linked with day life in Little Rock. On any given day, visitors will find a wealth of cuisine from every part of the globe, skilled local artists practicing their crafts, live musical performances in the River Market pavilion, and national acts at the amphitheatre. You can browse local produce at the Farmer’s Market or shop for clothing and more in nearby boutiques. Meanwhile the scenic Riverfront Park offers an abundance of outdoor activities or simply a place to kick back and do as little as you please.
LOCATION 400 President Clinton Avenue HOURS Mon-Sat 7am-6pm Sunday closed
6. Rock Town Distillery
Like many cities and towns across America, the popularity of craft alcohol in Little Rock has been sky-rocketing for several years. At the epicentre of the city’s craft beer and spirit-making endeavours is the Rock Town Distillery. The award-winning distillery runs tours that allow visitors to observe the spirit-making process in full and learn how the humble grain can be transformed into bourbon, vodka and gin through the magic of alchemy. After touring the facility comes the bit you’ll all have been patiently waiting for – the tasting sessions. The tour takes around 30 minutes and ends in a well-stocked gift shop where you can pick up some of the products brewed on-site to take home with you. Be sure to bring your ID, and remember – the drinking age in America is 21.
LOCATION 1216 East 6th Street HOURS Sun-Wed 1pm-5pm Thurs-Sat 11am-5pm
7. South on Main
America does an excellent line in restaurants with live entertainment and in Little Rock the place to go for such a ‘fusion’ experience’ is South on Main. Diners can gorge themselves silly on mouth-watering southern cuisine while enjoying rock and jazz performances, literary readings and even movie screenings. Like the food, the entertainment is locally sourced and there’s also a bar area serving good old Southern favourites such as mint julep, a classic cocktail featuring bourbon, water, crushed or shaved ice, and fresh mint.
LOCATION 1304 Main Street HOURS Mon-Fri 11am-2.30pm, 5pm-10pm Sat 5pm-10pm Sun 10am-2pm
8. Heifer Village
While cultural centres usually exit to stir the imagination and provide intellectual nourishment for its visitors, Heifer Village has an even more high-minded ambition. Teeming with galleries, interactive hands-on exhibits and activities, the educational facility is mainly concerned with raising awareness – and money – for the fight to end hunger and poverty across the world. To this end, programmes and events are held throughout the year for school groups, families or anyone who wants to drop in. Visitors can take part in a half-hour guided tour of the village or explore on their own.
LOCATION 1 World Avenue HOURS Mon-Sat 9am-5pm Closed Sundays
9. Arkansas Arts Center
One of Little Rock’s most distinguished art institutions, the Arkansas Arts Center houses an internationally respected drawing collection, an award-winning Children’s Theatre and a Museum School. It features works of art that span from the 1400s to the current day, spanning genres including drawings, contemporary craft, paintings, photographs and prints. Many iconic names from the arts world, such as Monet, Renoir, Redon, and Rivera, are represented here, exploring themes of beauty, nature, and the human condition. Entry to the arts centre is free.
LOCATION 501 East 9th Street HOURS Tues-Sat 10am-5pm Sun 11am-5pm
10. Billy Bass Adoption Center
The Billy Bass animatronic gimmick may have faded into relative obscurity after taking the world by storm in the 1990s – making its founder extremely rich in the process – but for those who retain an affection for the kitsch singing prop will be pleased to learn of the Flying Fish restaurant in Little Rock. Here, hundreds of the once ubiquitous novelty item can be found tacked to a wall and ceiling as a quirky tribute to the latex curio, which belts out classic tunes including Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry Be Happy” and Al Green’s “Take Me to the River.” Diners visiting the restaurant donate them to the collection, which has now topped an impressive 300. But fear not, the owners take the batteries out, leaving you to enjoy your Cajun grub in peace.
LOCATION 511 President Clinton Avenue HOURS Sun-Thurs 11am-10pm Fri-Sat 11am-11pm/em>
11. H.U. Lee International Gate and Garden
Located at the far end of Main Street Bridge in the centre of Little Rock, this impressive gate and garden stands as a symbol of friendship between South Korea and America – and a salute to the ancient tradition of martial arts. Named after American Taekwondo Association Eternal Grand Master Haeng Ung Lee, considered the grandfather of martial arts throughout the world, the gate is painted in traditional Korean colours, while behind it sits a quiet and contemplative garden that provides an escape from the hustle and bustle of the city streets. A reflective pool dominates the centre of the garden, while a bust of the Eternal Grand Master Lee appears in front of a wall of black granite.
LOCATION 101 East Markham Street HOURS Open 24/7
12. Old State House Museum
The admission of Arkansas to the Union, a fatal knife fight between two prominent legislators, and the vote to officially join the confederacy and secede from The United States are just a few epoch-making events that have taken place at this venerable edifice in downtown Little Rock. Visitors can come and walk in the footsteps of some of the key protagonists in these seminal episodes while admiring its Greek revival style architecture. Since 1947, the building has housed a museum designed to preserve, share and celebrate the history of Arkansas and its people. More recently, the state’s most famous son, President Bill Clinton, held his election night celebrations here in both 1992 and 1996.
LOCATION 300 West Markham Street HOURS Mon-Sat 9am-5pm Sun 1pm-5pm