8 Great Things to Do in Little Rock Arkansas • McCool Travel


Our suggested fun things to do in Little Rock, Arkansas include experiencing iconic US history, enjoying tasty food and drink, exploring superb museums, and so much more.

Whether you are visiting Little Rock AR for an event, visiting the Arkansas state capital, on a stopover between Nashville and Austin or Dallas, driving to or from New Orleans or the US Gulf Coast, or any other reason, use our suggested places to eat, see, and stay as a guide for creating your perfect trip to Little Rock.

Where is Little Rock Arkansas

Little Rock location (image from Google Maps)

Little Rock, Arkansas is at the intersection of two interstate highways—I-30 and I-40. And Little is centrally located within a day drive of many cities—Memphis is two hours away, Dallas, Oklahoma City, Nashville, and St. Louis are five hours, Kansas City and New Orleans are six hours away.

Where to Stay in Little Rock Arkansas

Little Rock Marriott is a full-service hotel located in the heart of downtown Little Rock, within a short walking distance to most of the places mentioned below. You can park once (actually let the valet driver do it) and not need it until you leave. I do love carless vacations!

McCool Travel tip: when possible and if desired, select a room on an upper floor and with a river view. It is nice seeing the bridge lights at night.

8 Great Things to Do in Little Rock Arkansas

The most popular annual events in Little Rock include Cornbread Festival, Cheese Dip Festival, Food Truck Festival, Arkansas State Fair, and Six Bridges Book Festival. Hope you get a chance to attend one or more of them. Little Rock is home to the Dillards family and, yes, Little Rock is indeed named for a small rock. Details below!

1. Clinton Presidential Center

The top Little Rock attraction and one of the most memorable things to do in Little Rock for many visitors is the Clinton Presidential Center. William Jefferson Clinton was the 42nd President of the United States of America.

The William J. Clinton Presidential Center and Park includes Clinton Presidential Library and Museum, Clinton School of Public Service (University of Arkansas), Bill Clark Wetlands, Anne Frank Tree Installation, and Clinton Presidential Park Bridge.

Clinton Presidential Library and Museum

The Clinton Presidential Library and Museum is the highlight and primary stop for most visitor to the Clinton Presidential Center. There are 13 Presidential libraries affiliated with National Archives and this is 12th.

Popular destinations within the Clinton Presidential Library and Museum are the Oval Office, cabinet room, limo, and timeline exhibit.

Cabinet Room at Clinton Presidential Center library
Cabinet Room at Clinton Presidential Center library

The Timeline room is modeled after the Trinity College (Dublin, Ireland) Long Room. Eighty million pages was generated in President Clinton’s two presidential terms. Approximately 2% of them are housed in this room in the blue boxes, protected by plexiglass.

Of the 80 million pages of documentation, 80% was paper and 20% digital. That makes it the largest physical archive collection that may ever be, since nearly all presidential documents are now digital.

McCool Travel tip: We enjoyed seeing the actual letters between President and Hillary Clinton and world leaders and celebrities. The Paul Newman series is particularly fun. Also make sure to see his childhood display and find out what his birth name was.

President Clinton’s 1993 Cadillac Fleetwood limousine is the first display after the entrance station. Note that it is much smaller than current presidential limos. The cabinet room and Oval Office replicas are stellar souvenir photo spots.

The building also includes a gift shop, catering center, and cafe (42 Bar and Table). There will also be temporary rotating exhibits and the current one, and first since the pandemic, is Women’s Vote.

McCool Travel note: The Clinton Presidential Center smartphone app covers the library, Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site, and more things to do in Little Rock and Arkansas. President Clinton narrates the tour. The 13-minute orientation video in the Clinton Library theater is on the app.

Other Clinton Presidential Center Sites

Thirteen acres of the 30-acre Clinton Presidential Center property are the William E. “Bill” Clark Presidential Park Wetlands. A 1,600-foot boardwalk allows visitors to safely explore the wetlands and witness wildlife and natural areas.

McCool Travel note: this is the only Presidential Wetlands and is a really nice feature to visit.

University of Arkansas’s Clinton School of Public Service is located in a pre-1900 train station). The building was the first Federal building to be LEED certified and the first in Arkansas to receive platinum LEED certification.

Make sure you visit the Anne Frank Tree Installation before or after the library. The exhibit of civil rights and human rights events and information surrounds a chestnut tree sapling from the tree outside Anne Frank’s home.

The entrance to the Clinton Presidential Park Bridge is between the library and wetlands. it is a pedestrian bridge over the Arkansas River and part of the magnificent Arkansas River Trail (see below). At night, the bridge is colorfully illuminated with LED lights and coordinated with two other nearby bridges.

2. Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site

Little Rock Central High School (LRCHS) was a crucial setting in the civil rights movement in the US. In September 1957, LRCHS dominated the front page national and international news as a courageous group of 10 black teenagers enrolled in the up to then all white high school.

After countless lawsuits, immense discrimination and political corruption, and continual and tremendous physical and mental abuse, the US President (Eisenhower) sent the National Guard and 101st Airborne to squash the mob and escort the students.

Known as the Little Rock Nine (one student was forced by her parents to withdraw), the black students were smuggled in and out of school by side entrances, faced 1,000 protestors, and were constantly berated, emotionally and physically harassed, and threatened even with death—all because they wanted a better education.

Eight of the Little Rock Nine are still living (65 years later!) and they are ambassadors around the world for human rights and equality.

How important was this issue to Little Rock, the US, and the world? The first Little Rock Nine student to graduate (Ernst Green) had Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. attend and sit with his parents.

And how iconic is LRCHS? It is the only school that is a National Park property. One of the most emotionally-charged experiences you can ever do and one of the top things to do in Little Rock is to join a ranger-led tour of Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site.

McCool Travel note: Before or after visiting this historic site, be sure to see Testament: The Monument to the Little Rock Nine statue collection at the State House. The students are situated to stare at the Arkansas governor’s office and so that the governor can always see them. Such a powerful and omnipresent reminder that the fight for equality is ongoing.

Testament: The Monument to the Little Rock Nine at the Arkansas State House
Testament: The Monument to the Little Rock Nine at the Arkansas State House

LRCHS National Historic Site Tour 

Ranger led tours are scheduled for each Tuesday and Saturday at 1pm. But if you are visiting on other days definitely inquire and see if it is possible to have a custom tour. Allow 90 minutes to 2 hours for the tour, plus time to explore the visitor center exhibits and gift shop (featuring several books written by the Little Rock Nine).

McCool Travel note: the street in front of LRCHS was recently renamed Little Rock Nine Way, on the 65th anniversary (September 2022).

The ranger will provide historic background (including Emmett Till and Rosa Parks) that led to the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling in 1954, which ruled that schools must be integrated. Interesting to realize that LRCHS was not the first school to be integrated, just the most famous.

Then the ranger will provide more context. There were not just nine students involved. Over 200 children applied to attend Little Rock Central High School but the all-white school board dismissed nearly all of them for various reasons.

A month before the start of the school year, the local paper leaked the names of the remaining 17 students and parents. Seven of those withdraw after threats and harassment, leaving the 10 brave students that attended the first day.

After lies from the Arkansas governor about black mob violence, the school board suing the US government to cancel integration, and non-stop harassment from the establishment, the 10 students mostly managed to enter LRCHS. One student was so harassed by a mob that she was diagnosed with PTSD and is still wary in public.

Three weeks later was the second integration attempt and the mob was estimated to be five times as large as the first day. The students could only remain in school for 90 minutes because of threats to their safety and were snuck out through the machine shop.

The next day, President Eisenhower sent the troops and they remained for most of the school year. But the guards really only protected the children outside the school, so the Little Rock Nine were constantly threatened and abused in the hallways, classrooms, cafeteria, etc.

And yet the response from the governor and school board was a referendum to cancel the following school year. For every school in Little Rock. How insane is that? It is called the Lost Year.

There is so, so, so much more enlightening information provided by the rangers on the tour and on the exhibits in the visitor center.

McCool Travel note: Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site was declared by President Clinton in 1988 and the tour currently does not enter the building. LRCHS is now a magnet school for languages and is one of the most integrated schools in Arkansas with very varied student and staff backgrounds. The school is also known as one of the most architecturally beautiful school buildings in the world, ironically. And my father was a student at LRCHS in 1953-1955 so the history here is personal.

3. Arkansas River Trail

The Arkansas River Trail is one of the best urban trails in the USA and is one of the most popular and fun things to do in Little Rock. The eastern edge of the Arkansas River Trail is the Clinton Presidential Park Bridge and the western edge is in Conway, Arkansas.

In total, the Arkansas River Trail is 88 miles along both sides of the Arkansas River. Bicycling options are covered in the next section. Pedestrians in downtown Little Rock can stroll or jog on both sides of the Arkansas River.

In addition to the Clinton Presidential Park Bridge, two other bridges do not allow vehicles and are friendly crossing points. The Junction Bridge is just west of the Clinton Bridge and the Big Dam Bridge is 7.5 miles west. The other bridges have dedicated pedestrian lanes next to the vehicle traffic lanes.

Some things to see along the Arkansas River Trail in downtown Little Rock:

Le Petite Roche

Near the Junction Bridge are a series of historic interpretative displays of Arkansas history including one on Le Petite Roche (The Little Rock). Believe me, it is there, you just have to search for it but it is on one of the paved trails.

Walking west from Junction Bridge along the Arkansas River Trail, there are several play areas.The Tunnels Playground and splash pad are favorites for children.

Vogel Schwartz Sculpture Garden

Between the Veterans Bridge (Broadway Street Street) and Main Street Bridge, find another excellent play area for children and dozens of whimsical sculptures within the landscaping. Did you find a favorite sculpture? I like the monk dancing and the pelican ones.

Vogel Schwartz Sculpture Garden Little Rock
Vogel Schwartz Sculpture Garden Little Rock

H. U. Lee International Gate and Garden

Nestled a little off the Arkansas River Trail is the tranquil and interesting H. U. Lee International Gate and Garden. The South Korean gate leads to a garden with statues, plaques, and more. This area commemorates H. U. Lee, who founded the world’s largest martial arts organization, the American TaeKwonDo Association, which he chose to headquarter in Little Rock.

4. Cycling Little Rock

Yes, I mentioned cycling above but there are A LOT of bicycling opportunities other than on the Arkansas River Trail. Little Rock and nearby areas feature an astounding 1,200 miles of cycling trails, including over 200 miles of gravel trails.

And Little Rock visitors (like you and me) do not have to bring your own bicycle. Rent a bike or join a tour with Rock Town Outfitters, located in the Little Rock River Market and across the street from the Roberts Library. They rent a wide selection of road, trail, and e-bikes. I tried my first e-mountain bike and it was fantastic.

Trail cyclists can choose from mountain bike trail systems. Monument Trails at Pinnacle Mountain State Park is the best developed and most advanced mountain bike trail system in Arkansas. River Mountain MTB Park is a park exclusively for mountain bikers, the only one in Little Rock. It was completed in 2021 and has beginner trails.

A popular 15-mile route for road cyclists is the loop including downtown Little Rock and the Big Dam Bridge. It is 7.5 miles from the Clinton Presidential Park Bridge to Big Dam Bridge. The Big Dam Bridge is the longest bridge in the US specifically designed and intended for pedestrian, bicycle, horse, and non-vehicle use.

bicycling across Big Dam Bridge in Little Rock
bicycling across Big Dam Bridge in Little Rock

Five major annual cycling events in Little Rock draw more than 1,000 entrants each. Little Rock is also at the intersection of five historic trails and there is information about Trail of Tears across the river near the Arkansas Travelers field, Dickey-Stephens park.

McCool Travel tip: visit the Big Rock Quarry Bike Park (aka the Pump Track) to get your X Games groove on. it is about 4.5 miles from the Clinton Bridge. There is no sign so ask a local or take a tour with a superb team member from Rock Town Outfitters.

5. Kayak / SUP Little Rock

On a hot Little Rock day, cool off on the water with a nice paddle excursion. A boat launch at Two Rivers Park will allow you to be in the Little Maumelle River in no time flat. And if you want to get a little further away from the city, head to Pinnacle Mountain State Park.

kayak on Little Maumelle River in Little Rock
kayaking on Little Maumelle River in Little Rock

Kayaks and canoes can be rented at Pinnacle Mountain State Park and SUPs and kayaks can be rented from Rock Town Outfitters.

McCool Travel tip: If you have limited time, energy, or interest, do what we did and sign up for a bike/paddle adventure with Rock Town Outfitters. Bike from their River Market location to their Two Rivers Park location (about nine miles) then do a two-hour kayak or SUP tour from there.

See also our Fun Places to Kayak in US.

6. Little Rock Museums

In addition to the phenomenal two museums mentioned earlier, Little Rock has several other places that museum fans will love to visit. Exploring and learning the local history is one of the best things to do in Little Rock Arkansas.

Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts

The brand spanking new Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts is scheduled to open April 22, 2023 after a $159 million renovation. It is the only museum in the world which is designed, landscaped, and executive directed by women.

The former military arsenal is also the birthplace of General Douglas Macarthur. Wow. And some recent boomer history: the statue from The Breakfast Club is in the lobby and nearby is the house from Designing Women.

McCool Travel tip: Drive by it now to see the countdown clock to the grand public opening.

Museum of Discovery

More than a children’s’ museum, Little Rock’s Museum of Discovery will inspire people of all ages. It was named one of the best science centers in the United States and offers many hands-on creativity stations for guests.

ESSE Purse Museum

Located in the heart of SoMa, the ESSE Purse Museum is a rare museum devoted to purses, handbags, and their contents. Enjoy the fascinating look at what purses and handbags carried throughout history.

Old State House Museum

The Old State House, Arkansas’s original capitol building, is the oldest state capitol building west of the Mississippi River. Permanent exhibits in the Old State House Museum cover the Arkansas Governors, Arkansas First Ladies, and Arkansas Political History. It is located between the Marriott and Doubletree hotels along the Arkansas River.

President Clinton running shoes at Old State House Little Rock
President Clinton running shoes at Old State House Little Rock

Historic Arkansas Museum

The Old State House Museum covers Arkansas history from statehood to the present. A few blocks away, Historic Arkansas Museum focuses on pre-statehood history. Frontier buildings, including Little Rock’s oldest structure, outside require a small admission fee to visit but interior exhibits are free. The Native American Gallery room is extensive and fascinating.

Arkansas State Archives

Located at 1 Capitol Mall, next to the Arkansas State Capitol, the Arkansas State Archives is a treasure trove depository of documents and information for researchers and historians. Many of their collection are also available online, so check before making the trip there. But when in Little Rock, it is worth stopping in to do a little research.

Roberts Library

Similarly, the Roberts Library local history and genealogy collection is worth exploring for those with family history connections to Little Rock (like me!). Some of their collections are available on Ancestry, like the Little Rock Central High School yearbooks and Little Rock city directories.

McCool Travel tip: make sure you check the filing cabinet with folders of surname histories and requests, along with the pertinent research books and microfiche.

Mosaic Templars Cultural Center

Located in Little Rock’s historic West Ninth Street District, the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center is a museum covering the history and culture of African Americans in Arkansas. Permanent exhibits include the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame, Entrepreneurial Spirit, and African Americans in Arkansas (1870-1970). Also onsite are a 360 degree theater and children’s gallery.

Arkansas Island Maritime Museum

Across the river tour two World War II vessels at the Arkansas Island Maritime Museum. USS Hoga is the tugboat and it saw action in Pearl Harbor. USS Razorback is the submarine which was in Tokyo Bay when the Japanese surrendered. It is a unique opportunity to see craft that were present at the start and end of the war.

7. Little Rock Restaurants

There are hundreds of fantastic places to eat here but following are seven recommended Little Rock restaurants.

Brave New Restaurant

For a celebration, splurge, or date night in Little Rock, head to Brave New Restaurant, the rare Little Rock restaurant with waterfront dining. Peter Brave has operated this gem for 22 years in this location and 32 years total in Little Rock. He is from the upper midwest so look for regional items, like walleye (flown in fresh for Peter).

McCool Travel tip: try the magnificent butterscotch ice cream and Little Rock’s original chocolate creme brûlée here.

Camp Taco

One of the most fun places to eat in Little Rock is Camp Taco, operated by the owners of Lost Forty Brewing. Here at Camp Taco you can revert to your 12-year-old summer camp self and enjoy throwback decor and dishes (food is served on metal trays) but with adult beverages, if you choose to do so.

McCool Travel tip: Camp Taco makes an excellent spicy margarita!

spicy margarita at Camp Taco Little Rock
spicy margarita at Camp Taco Little Rock

Lassis Inn

The most unlikely and unusual James Beard award-winning restaurant (the only one in Little Rock) might be the classic Little Rock hidden gem, Lassis Inn. Their iconic catfish meals and buffalo fish ribs (try one!) have been perfected over the past century in this historic home, where the Little Rock Nine would meet.

McCool Travel tip: a small or medium order of catfish is enough for two to share at lunch. Add on a hot pepper, you only live once!

The Pantry Crest

In the vibrant and exciting Hillcrest neighborhood of Little Rock, The Pantry Crest offers European beers and dishes (especially German and Czech) along with eclectic craft cocktails.

McCool Travel tip: Finishing off your Pantry Crest experience with cheesecake is almost required.

Raduno

Located in the SoMa district, Raduno is a great Little Rock restaurant for lunch or dinner. Pizzas and fresh pasta dishes are recommended menu items here.

McCool Travel tip: Nearby The Root Cafe is a super popular Little Rock restaurant, especially for eclectic breakfast items. Cannot wait to try their Breakfast Bahn Mi.

Samantha’s Tap Room

Go to Samantha’s for a beer but stay for the incredible food. Samantha’s Tap Room and Wood Grill has 32 craft beers on tap and at least 12 are local (from Little Rock or Arkansas).

McCool Travel tip: The Fried Green Tomatoes topped with Gulf shrimp is an excellent appetizer. Daily seafood special is always a wise choice for dinner entree.

Nexxus Coffee and Creative

A convenient breakfast or snack stop a block away from Rock Town River Outfitters is Nexxus Coffee. But you can also spend several hours here because it has a supportive community environment. They have an extensive coffee and loose tea collection and be sure to try a freshly cooked item from Nona Pruitt of Nona Bakes.

8. Drinking in Little Rock (Little Rock on the Rocks?)

Besides craft cocktails, local craft beer, and other libations at local Little Rock restaurants, here are two specific places to go to experience the best Little Rock adult beverages.

bottles at Rock Town Distillery in Little Rock Arkansas
Rock Town Distillery in Little Rock Arkansas

Rock Town Distillery

Opened in 2009, Rock Town Distillery is the first post-prohibition distillery in Arkansas. There are now 10 to 15 others.

Small barrels are from Gibbs Bros in Hot Springs from oak from Ozarks. So totally Ark made product. Ingredients are from within 100 miles. Larger barrels are from out of state. Smaller barrels plus Ark climate leads to quicker aging.

Uses wheat instead of rye because farmers did not grow it. Now they do. First rye grown here since 1920s. Malted barley cones from MN.

Lost Forty Brewing

The largest craft brewery is Arkansas is in the heart of downtown Little Rock, just a short walk from the riverfront hotels. Sample the 20 varieties on tap, all brewed “wild, unwavering, and uniquely Arkansas.”

Lost Forty is inspired by the pristine 40 acre lot of woods “lost” in the middle in Calhoun County, Arkansas and forgotten by lumberjacks who cleared all the other surrounding parcels.

colorful wall mural in Little Rock Arkansas
look for amazing wall murals and public art around downtown Little Rock Arkansas

As you can see, there are so many fun things to do in Little Rock Arkansas. Hope you enjoy your next (or first) visit to this exciting small city soon and discover why they like to say #BigOnLittleRock.

Sharing is caring!



Source link