Lots to see and do in Little Rock
By Arvin Steinberg
I went to Arkansas to visit the Clinton Presidential Library, but learned that there is a great deal more to the state than the library, although it was a spectacular beginning for my visit to this southern city. There are many outstanding museums, eclectic restaurants, entertainment, a zoo and many nearby cities such as Hot Springs that visitors can explore on a day trip.
The Clinton Presidential Library, called the Clinton Presidential Center, is situated on the banks of the Arkansas River in the River Market District of downtown Little Rock. It is America’s twelfth presidential library. The Clinton Presidential Center is a 160-million dollar structure.
The Library, which is located in a 28-acre city park, contains the largest collection of presidential papers and artifacts in U.S. history and includes an authentic replica of the Oval Office and the Cabinet Room. I enjoyed the ceremonial films that were made during the Clinton administration as well as the exhibit of many of the gifts that the Clinton’s received while in office. It is an exceptional presidential library with numerous historical documents and displays. The Clinton’s have an apartment above the museum and the entire structure was built green with water-saving fixtures, a green roof, screens to reduce solar heat gain and is energy efficient. There is even a green cleaning program using all green cleaning chemicals, paper products and cleaning equipment.
The River Market District at Riverfront Park is located near the Clinton Center. This area of downtown Little Rock is filled with restaurants, shops, art galleries, museums, the main library, bars and a seasonal farmers market. The park stretches 11 blocks and provides large areas for outdoor events and leisure activities. The Riverfront Park also has concerts at the Riverfest Amphitheatre.
The downtown areas of Little Rock and North Little Rock are linked by replicas of vintage trolleys. The trolleys take visitors to area attractions including the Clinton Presidential Center, the Statehouse Convention Center, the River Market, hotels, restaurants, the Historic Arkansas and Discovery Museums, Robinson Center Music Hall and Riverfront Park and the Amphitheater.
I stayed at the beautiful Peabody Hotel in Little Rock. It was right on the trolley line and provided a perfect location to see the sights. The hotel was less than a 10-minute ride to the Clinton Presidential Center. There was wonderful music in the grandiose lobby in the evening on the weekend and the Peabody Duck parade each morning at 11 a.m. and every afternoon at 5 p.m. was a delightful attraction for hotel guests as well as passersby. The service at the hotel was top notch and the Capriccio Grill Italian Steakhouse served savory beef and chop selections. The breakfast buffet in the lobby restaurant was reasonably priced and featured traditional Arkansas specialties such as grits and bread pudding in addition to thick creamy oatmeal and made to order omelets with a variety of toppings.
No traveler to the city should miss the opportunity to visit the Little Rock Central High Museum and Visitors Center. A new venue, the Center opened in 2007 coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the 1957 desegregation crisis. It features a permanent exhibit covering the 1957 events that took place at Central High School and its role in the greater civil rights movements in the U. S. The Center has a Department of Parks and Recreation tour guide and audio/visual and interactive programs; the former visitor center, a restored Mobil Service Station, is now used for special programs.
The Little Rock Central High School is a national historic site and a major U.S. civil rights landmark. The site is still a working school. Nine students were the first black students admitted to the school in 1957 following a confrontation between Governor Orval Faubus, who used the state’s National Guard to block desegregation, and President Eisenhower, who sent federal troops to enforce it.
A memorial, entitled the Little Rock Nine features life-sized bronze statues and pays homage to the nine Little Rock students , Melba Pattillo, Elizabeth Eckford, Ernest Green, Gloria Ray, Carlotta Walls, Terrence Roberts, Jefferson Thomas, Minnijean Brown and Thelma Mothershed, who overcame major obstacles to integrate Little Rock Central High School . The Memorial is located on the State Capitol grounds.
There is no shortage of wonderful museums in the city. The MacArthur Museum of Arkansas Military History is located in the historic tower building of Little Rock’s Old Arsenal, a National Historic Landmark and the birthplace of General Douglas MacArthur. The building houses a museum of Arkansas’s military heritage from territorial days to present. Exhibits feature artifacts, photographs, weapons, documents, uniforms and other military items that portray Arkansas’s military history.
History buffs will also enjoy a visit to the old State House Museum, another National Historic Landmark. It is probably best known throughout the country as the scene of President Clinton’s 1992 and 1996 election night celebrations. This magnificent Greek Revival structure houses a multimedia museum of Arkansas history, with a special emphasis on women’s history, political history, and historical programming for school children. The Little Rock museum also boasts nationally recognized collections of Civil War battle flags, the inaugural gowns of governors’ wives, Arkansas art pottery, and African-American quilts.
The children will enjoy a visit at the Arkansas Museum of Discovery (AMOD). This fun-filled indoor playground has many hands-on, interactive exhibits focused on science, history and technology. It is located in the heart of the River Market District.
I enjoyed a tour of the Arkansas State Capitol, a striking Neoclassical building in downtown Little Rock. The capitol was completed in 1915 and is modeled after the United States Capitol. Guided tours are available.
If you take pleasure in looking at a variety of species, you will find more than 750 mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians the Little Rock Zoo. There is also a petting zoo and miniature train ride for the kids.
Located on the banks of the Arkansas River in North Little Rock is the Arkansas Queen. It offers riverboat cruises that sail from the North Shore Maritime Center. The sightseeing cruises take place for lunch and dinner. Reservations are recommended for lunch and dinner cruises.
I took a day trip to Hot Springs. The Springs is a National Historic Landmark District. There are a row of bath houses that were popular in the 1920’s to 1940’s. The Buckstaff Bathhouse is the only one of the eight historic buildings that continues to operate as a traditional bathhouse. The National Park Service operates the Fordyce Bathhouse as a visitor center and museum.
Hot Springs National Park protects the famous hot springs which are free to put your feet in or to take an empty jug, fill it up and drink from the Springs which are said to contain many health remedies.
Hot Springs was a popular vacation spot for gangsters such as Al Capone and Lucky Luciano when people from around the world believed the healing powers of the city’s hot mineral baths would cure them from a variety of illnesses anywhere from polio to syphilis.
Fine dining in Little Rock is available. One of my favorite meals was at Ferneau, located in the heart of the Hillcrest section. The seafood selections are not to be missed at Ferneau. Cajun’s Wharf, a Little Rock landmark also has tasty Cajun inspired seafood selections and is located on the banks of Arkansas River. I found a great oyster bar at So Restaurant and enjoyed lunch at the Copper Grill and Grocery, a casual restaurant with outstanding artesian cheeses, baked goods and special twists to old favorites.
* Old State House Museum, 300 West Markham. 501-324-9685, www.oldstatehouse.com
* Little Rock Maritime Museum, 120 Riverfront Park Drive. 501-371-8320. http://aimm.museum/
* Arkansas Museum of Discovery, 500 President Clinton Blvd. 501-396-7050, 800-880-6475. www.amod.org
* Arkansas Queen, 501-372-5777; www.arkansasqueen.comArkansas State Capitol, 501-682-5080; www.sosweb.state.ar.us
* Little Rock Zoo, One Jonesboro Dr., War Memorial Park. 501-666-2406. www.littlerockzoo.com.
* MacArthur Museum of Arknasa Military History, 503 East 9th. 501-376-4602; www.arkmilitaryheritage.com
* Peabody Hotel, Three Statehouse Plaza, Little Rock, Arkansas, 501-375-4721, www.PeabodyLittleRock.com
Photos supplied by the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism and Phyllis Steinberg.