Little Rock: A City Guide

By Meghan Sever, Communications Specialist, Arkansas Administrative Office of the Courts

If you find yourself in Little Rock, Arkansas – and if you are attending this year’s NASJE conference, you will – you’ll find a plethora of things to occupy your free time. Whether you prefer to spend your time perusing museums, shopping, spending time in the great outdoors or dancing the night away, you’re sure to find something that interests you in the heart of central Arkansas.

If you are looking to immerse yourself in the city’s arts and culture, rest assured Little Rock has many venues where you’ll find opportunities to explore all that Arkansas has to offer. The Arkansas Arts Center (www.arkarts.com) is the city’s prominent art museum. Here you’ll find a permanent collection, featured exhibitions, art and dance classes, lectures, and a research library.

The Arts Center also produces a children’s theatre, the only professional company in the state to bring children’s literary works to the stage. Admission to the Arts Center is free, with the exception of special exhibits. Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art (www.crystalbridges.org) is located in Bentonville, Arkansas – just a three-hour car ride from Little Rock. Founded in 2005, Crystal Bridges features a permanent collection of American works dating from the Colonial era to present day.

The Arkansas Repertory Theatre (www.therep.org) is the Arkansas’s largest non-profit professional theatre. Each season, it produces theatrical works ranging from classical dramas to contemporary comedies. The Community Theatre of Little Rock
(www.ctlr-act.org), the city’s oldest theatre, is another non-profit theatre offering a variety of shows and musicals. Still another of Little Rock’s playhouses that make up Little Rock’s non-profit theatrical community is The Weekend Theater (www.weekendtheater.org). The Weekend Theater focuses on producing socially significant plays for the people of central Arkansas.

Spend an evening listening to great music, courtesy of the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra (www.arkansassymphony.org). Each season, the orchestra performs more than 30 concerts at Robinson Center Music Hall, located in the heart of downtown Little Rock. The orchestra tours the state multiple times a year, playing at Pops on the River, Little Rock’s Independence Day celebration, and other events. They also offer many educational programs including free concerts for children, quartet demonstrations, and Orchestra and You, a program designed to introduce children to instruments.

Little Rock has a unique brewery and distillery scene. Diamond Bear Brewery (www.diamondbear.com) is one of Little Rock’s local breweries. Tours of Diamond Bear are available on Saturday and Sunday at 3:00 p.m. Vino’s Brew Pub (www.vinosbrewpub.com) and Bosco’s (www.boscosbeer.com) also make their own brews. Rock Town Distillery (www.arkansaslightning.com) is the state’s only distillery. Tours are available weekdays at 4:00 p.m. and weekends at 1:30 p.m., and the tasting room is open Wednesday through Sunday, 1:00 – 5:00 p.m.

Arkansas is known as the Natural State, and as such, is a popular destination for biking, hiking, fishing, camping and boating. Little Rock is often referred to as a “city within a park”, and for good reason: there are over 50 parks located within the greater Little Rock metropolitan area. These parks provide citizens with running and biking trails, safe playgrounds and dog parks, prime fishing locations, and clean camping spots. Burns Park, War Memorial Park, Hindman Park, and Rebsamen Park have golf courses in addition to these other amenities.

Riverfront Park, in downtown Little Rock, is encompassed by the River Market District. It features a pedestrian bridge, sculpture garden, farmers’ market and Peabody Park – a playground containing tunnels, rocks, slides and a spray pad. Also located in Riverfront Park is la Petite Roche – a French phrase which translates to “the little rock” – the rock outcropping from which the city got its name. It is one of Arkansas’ most important landmarks.

The Arkansas River Trail System is the 34-mile loop that connects 38 parks, 6 museums, and over 5,000 acres of parkland. The trail runs along the Arkansas River on both the Little Rock and North Little Rock sides, connected by the Clinton Presidential Park Bridge and the Big Dam Bridge, the longest pedestrian and bicycle bridge in the world. There are several places to rent bicycles along the river trail, including Bobby’s Bike Hike Rentals in the River Market (www.bobbysbikehike.com/littlerock/) and Fike’s Bikes (www.fikesbikes.com). Segway rentals are also available at Segway of Arkansas (www.segwayofarkansas.com).

Arkansas’ minor league baseball team, the Arkansas Travelers (www.travs.com), play at Dickey-Stephens Park. The Travelers have games most Tuesday and Wednesday evenings during the summer. Tickets can be purchased on their website. The Travelers, created in 1901, are named after a famous minstrel who roamed the state, peddling wares and singing songs. Originally, they were the Little Rock Travelers but changed to incorporate the entire state in 1957, becoming the first professional sports franchise named for a state.

Arkansas is also the world headquarters of the American Taekwondo Association. The World Championships are held each summer in Little Rock. The H.U. Lee International Gate and Garden, located outside of the Statehouse Convention Center, is a tribute to Eternal Grandmaster H.U. Lee and is a salute to martial arts.

There are many family-friendly places in Little Rock. The Little Rock Zoo (www.littlerockzoo.com) is the state’s largest and only accredited zoo, and has over 700 animals. The Little Rock Zoo is one of the only zoos in the world to have an ape exhibit with all three species of great apes: chimpanzee, orangutan, and gorilla.

Pinnacle Mountain State Park is located just outside the city limits. It features a peak more than 1,000 feet above the river valley, with two different trails to the top. Visitors can also enjoy canoeing, kayaking, picnicking, horseback riding and a visitor’s center with exhibits. The Old Mill, located in North Little Rock, is an historic re-creation of a traditional water-powered grist mill. Built in 1933, it is on the National Register of Historic Places. More than 100,000 visitors come every year to the Old Mill, famous for its part in the opening scenes of Gone with the Wind.

If you want to spend your time steeping in Arkansas’ rich history, look no further than the many different museums and exhibits located within the capital city. Most have free admission and offer a peek into Arkansas’ history and the lives of its people. The Governor’s Mansion (www.arkansasgovernorsmansion.com) is the official residence of the governor of the state of Arkansas. This Georgian Colonial, home to Governor Mike Beebe and First Lady Ginger Beebe, is open to the public for tours Tuesday mornings and Thursday afternoons by appointment only.

Little Rock Central High School is located just a few blocks away and is most famous as the site of the 1957 desegregation of public schools in Arkansas. This event is commonly referred to as the crisis at Little Rock Central High School. In addition to the school itself, which is the only functioning high school to be located within the boundaries of a National Historic Site, there is a visitor’s center across the street. The visitor’s center features interactive exhibits, tours, and a gift shop.

The Arkansas State Capitol (www.sos.arkansas.gov), located downtown, is the hub of Arkansas’s government. Built in 1915, this neo-classical structure is primarily made up of marble and limestone. The cupola is covered in gold leaf. The building houses the offices of the governor, secretary of state, and attorney general. Both the Arkansas Senate and House of Representatives meet here as well. The grounds feature a variety of plants, trees, and monuments. Highlights include many native Arkansas trees, rose gardens, iris gardens and a monument dedicated to the nine African-American students who integrated Little Rock Central entitled Testament: The Little Rock Nine Monument. Tours of the grounds and the capitol building are given weekdays; admission is free.

If you want to learn more about Arkansas’ history, the Historic Arkansas Museum (www.historicarkansas.org) offers six galleries of Arkansas’s cultural artifacts and four dwellings original to the city. These structures are the oldest houses in Little Rock today. Here you can take a guided tour and watch actors, dressed in period costumes, portray early Arkansans. The Old State House Museum (www.oldstatehouse.com) is the oldest standing state capitol west of the Mississippi. This building served as the capitol until 1911, at which time it was restored and reopened as a museum. The Old State House offers tours and exhibits on Arkansas history.

The Arkansas Studies Institute, which is located in the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies (www.butlercenter.org), is the state’s largest free-standing facility dedicated to the study of Arkansas. As part of the Central Arkansas Library System (CALS), the Arkansas Studies Institute offers the state’s largest collection of Arkansas historical and genealogical documents. More than 10 million documents and photographs on Arkansas history are available for public use. The center also has art galleries featuring local artists and sponsors a local music festival, Arkansas Sounds.

Take a walk through the Quapaw Quarter, one of the oldest neighborhoods in Little Rock, on your way down to see the William J. Clinton Presidential Center (www.clintonpresidentialcenter.org) and Park. The library chronicles the history of the Clinton Administration and features a full-scale replica of the Oval Office and the White House Cabinet Room. Other permanent exhibits include the campaign, inauguration, life in the White House and Clinton’s present-day work with the Clinton Foundation. On the grounds of the library are the William E. “Bill” Clark Presidential Wetlands. This 3,000-acre outdoor space showcases area wildlife in a restored habitat. Also on the library grounds is the Clinton School of Public Service, the first and only school in the nation to offer a Master of Public Service (MPS) degree.

Little Rock offers many opportunities to learn about the state’s military history as well as to pay tribute to those who have served. The MacArthur Museum of Arkansas Military History (www.arkmilitaryheritage.com) is named for General Douglas MacArthur, a U.S. Army general and native Arkansan, and features exhibits of artifacts, photographs, uniforms and other historically significant items. The Korean War Memorial, one of the most impressive in the country, is unique in that it was paid for almost entirely by the Republic of Korea to honor the veterans who fought and died for their freedom. The memorial is composed of granite panels, listing the names of the 461 Arkansans who lost their lives, and statues of combat soldiers and Korean children.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, located on the grounds of the state capitol, is dedicated to those who served in the Vietnam War and is inscribed with the names of the Arkansas soldiers who lost their lives during service. The Arkansas Inland Maritime Museum (www.aimm.museum) educates visitors on the impact of maritime trade, inland waterways and life on the Arkansas River. The main exhibit is the submarine USS Razorback, a veteran of World War II, the Vietnam War, and the Cold War. Tours of the submarine are available from 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. daily.

Other area highlights include Heifer International (www.heifer.org), the Museum of Discovery (www.museumofdiscovery.org), and the Witt Stephens Jr. Central Arkansas Nature Center (www.centralarkansasnaturecenter.com). Make time to visit Heifer International’s headquarters located in Arkansas’ capital city. Heifer International is a non-profit organization dedicated to ending world hunger and caring for the environment by providing livestock and training to struggling people around the world. Heifer Village, on the Heifer International campus, is an interactive education facility where visitors can learn about solutions to global hunger and poverty in a memorable way.

The Museum of Discovery, founded in 1927, is the oldest museum in Little Rock. This museum, newly remodeled in 2012 with over 85 new exhibits, offers an interactive learning environment for all ages including exhibits on nanotechnology, illusions, fossils and astronomy. This summer, a special exhibit entitled “How People Make Things” will be at the museum. This exhibit allows visitors to experience how familiar objects are made and includes hands-on activities, factory tours and live demonstrations. Near the Museum of Discovery, you’ll find the Witt Stephens Jr. Central Arkansas Nature Center. Exhibits highlight the role of fish and wildlife management in Arkansas. Activities include fish and alligator feeding, geocaching, and nature stories. Visitors can observe native fish, bugs and plants in the aquarium.

There are many opportunities to get some shopping in as well. The River Market offers a unique shopping experience with the Clinton Museum Store (www.clintonmuseumstore.com) and other local boutiques. There are also many other shopping destinations located throughout the city. In Midtown, stop by the Midtowne Shopping Center (www.midtownelittlerock.com), the Park Avenue Shopping Center (www.parkavenuelr.com), and the Park Plaza Mall (www.parkplazamall.com). In West Little Rock, don’t miss the Pleasant Ridge Shopping Center (www.schickels.com) and the Promenade at Chenal (www.chenalshopping.com).

There is just as much to do in Little Rock once the sun goes down. Catch live jazz each night at the Afterthought (www.afterthoughtbar.com). Juanita’s (www.juanitas.com), Sticky Fingerz and the Rev Room (www.revroom.com) also provide excellent opportunities for live music and good food. Visit Ernie Biggs (www.erniebiggs.com) and Willy D’s (www.willydspianobar.com), both located in the River Market, for some dueling piano fun. Share some laughs at the Looney Bin Comedy Club (www.looneybincomedy.com) or meet up with friends for pizza and a good beer – Vino’s Brew Pub has some of the city’s best. Hang out on the deck at Cajun’s Wharf (www.cajunswharf.com). Overlooking the Arkansas River, it’s a local favorite for fresh seafood.

With a strong foundation in the past, the city feels alive with the energy of its unique citizens. Forget what you thought about Little Rock; it is a city in the midst of transition. It is growing and expanding at an alarming rate. There are more opportunities to explore its culture than ever before. If it’s been a while since you last spent some time in the city within a park, come reacquaint yourself with her. If you’ve never been, you’re missing out. Come enjoy the beauty, hospitality and individuality of this southern gem. But I’ll warn you now: August is hot.