The first time I visited Little Rock, the hotel desk clerk — an evacuee from Hurricane Katrina who landed in Arkansas’ capital when he headed north and finally found a place to stay — enthusiastically greeted me. After we exchanged those familiar New Orleans greetings of “Where’d you live?” and “Who’s your family?” he assured me he loved his new town, that Little Rock was a happening place.
Then I met Anita Davis, who after spending her life collecting purses opened the ESSE Purse Museum in the city’s hip South Main (SoMa) neighborhood. Davis has become one of the neighborhood’s champions, having created the Bernice Garden on the corner of Main Street and Daisy L. Gatson Bates Drive, named for a Little Rock civil rights leader and mentor of the Little Rock Nine. Davis’s museum, dedicated to women’s history through the gender’s most important accessory, is one of many cool businesses located there.
Little Rock offers plenty of history, from colony times to the Civil Rights Movement to Pres. Bill Clinton, but it’s bursting with new attractions, businesses and opportunities.
Like I was told years ago, it’s a happening place that grows with excitement every year.
WHAT’S NEW IN LITTLE ROCK
In 1957, with federal troops at their side, nine African American students became the first of their race to attend the all-white Little Rock Central High School. Today, students of all races attend the school but it’s also a National Historic Site, telling the story of the Little Rock Nine. Tours by reservation with National Park Service rangers allow visitors inside the school, now part of the U.S. Civil Rights Trail.
Renovations have only improved the MacArthur Museum of Arkansas Military History, named for Little Rock native Gen. Douglas MacArthur. Museum exhibits detail the state’s military heritage from its territorial period to the present, all located inside the historic Tower Building of the Little Rock Arsenal, the birthplace of MacArthur.
Natural beauty surrounds the city, with Hot Springs and the Ouachita Mountains a short drive to the west and the Ozarks north and northwest. Closer to home is the newly established Rattlesnake Ridge Natural Area, located between the Big Maumelle and Little Maumelle Rivers and home to rare plant and animal species. Hike during daylight hours to its highest point and view dramatic sights of the rivers and Pinnacle Mountain.
The Clinton Presidential Center and Park not only showcases the life and presidency of Arkansas native William J. Clinton — including the exact replica of Clinton’s Oval Office, — it’s also home of the Little Rock offices of the Clinton Foundation, the Clinton Presidential Library and Museum and the Clinton School of Public Service, the first U.S. institution to offer a Master of Public Service degree.
Next door to the Clinton Library is the Heifer International Center, which showcases Heifer’s work helping millions of families in more than 125 countries improve their quality of life and become more self-reliant. The visitor’s center features interactive fun while teaching about global assistance and sustainability. Don’t miss a tour of the building, which received a platinum LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification.
Enjoy live music, sample Gus’ famous Memphis fried chicken or pause in the Little Rock sculpture garden within the River Market district in the heart of downtown. It’s a lively scene of retail, restaurants and special events happening along the Arkansas River. Be sure to grab a bike or hike the Arkansas River Trail, ending your excursion at dusk to view the lighted downtown bridges.
WALKABOUT – SOUTH MAIN
The Esse Purse Museum & Store
Within lies every type, shape and style of purse, but above the permanent exhibit lies a fascinating timeline of women’s history. The museum offers changing exhibits, and this year will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Girl Scouts and conclude 2019 with a display of hats.
The Root Café, which serves up exquisite dishes — we’re still dreaming about the incredible breakfasts — comprised of locally produced foods. If time isn’t an issue, stay for one of the café’s many activities, from live music to February’s SoMardi Gras parade followed by the annual Beard and Mustache Contest.
Hip new businesses join the SoMa neighborhood every year, including Electric Ghost that specializes in local home goods, the Green Corner Store with environmentally friendly products, Reinvented Vintage upcycle store that includes classes by local artisans and South Main Creative, an urban twist on the traditional antique mall.
MARK YOUR CALENDAR
The Arkansas Cornbread Festival continues to grow each year, perhaps because cornbread remains a staple of every Southerner’s diet. This year’s event — featuring music, vendors and lots of cornbread tastings — will be Saturday, Oct. 26, on South Main Street.
Arkansas corn, wheat and rye produce the spirits at Rock Town Distillery, the first legal distillery in Arkansas since Prohibition. Visitors can tour the distillery and taste their spirits, from a vodka distilled several times to a hickory-smoked whiskey. Rock Town’s moonshine in several flavors offers a nice kick, but the Arkansas Lightning at 110 proof will knock your socks off.
For more information on Little Rock, visit littlerock.com.