One Tank Travels: Little Rock

If you’re looking for a vacation that doesn’t call for a lot of driving that also offers a wide array of activities, then look no farther than downtown Little Rock.  And if you find you don’t want to walk the whole area, you can always hop a ride on the River Rail Trolley.

Head to the River Market District located along the Arkansas River. What was once a pretty-much abandoned strip of warehouses is now a thriving entertainment district. Within a few short blocks, you’ll find restaurants, shops, museums, the Clinton Presidential Library, the Central Arkansas Nature Center, and Heifer Village.

First, check in to the River Market District, literally. There are five lodging properties in the area, ranging from the Doubletree at the western end to the Courtyard by Marriott Downtown on the eastern edge. In between, you’ll find The Peabody Hotel Little Rock, the historic Capital Hotel, and the Hampton Inn & Suites Downtown.

You can start your adventure at any number of places in the River Market. The Clinton Presidential Library is located at the eastern end of President Clinton Avenue. You’ll get a feel for the White House when visiting the museum due in part to the authentic replicas of the Oval Office and the Cabinet Room. The informative but not boring displays are a fun way to learn about American history. There is a variety of acclaimed visiting exhibits, such as original Dr. Seuss art, a rare collection of Elvis photos, Peter Max Paints America, and Play Ball! The St. Louis Cardinals. A monthly schedule of nationally known speakers adds to the allure.

You’ll notice the Presidential Park Wetlands on the banks of the river. The 13-acres provide unprecedented public access via an elevated boardwalk and two bridges to conservation, environmental and wildlife watching opportunities. Also located there is the Clinton Presidential Park Bridge, an old Rock Island bridge converted into a pedestrian and cycling walkway, which connects Little Rock and North Little Rock.

Next door to the Clinton Center is headquarters of Heifer International, a Leed-Certified building. In Heifer Village, learn about how Heifer’s sustainability efforts to protect Little Rock’s environment and how the organization is working to end world hunger and poverty.

From there, head west back toward the district, stopping to admire Art Along the River, a series of outdoor sculpture decorating the area. Drop-in at the Central Arkansas Nature Center to explore wildlife and nature available within an urban area. Portions of the Arkansas River Trail cross the grounds. Right next door is the reinvented Museum of Discovery. It’s not just for kids any more as new interactive exhibits make it fun for all ages. See if you can lift your weight, lay on a bed of nails, send smoke signals, or get-up-close-and-personal with a tornado.

La Petite Roche Plaza is next along the Arkansas River. This beautifully landscaped park highlights the capital city’s namesake – the little rock. Interpretive signs explain the significance of the area, located at the foot of the Junction Bridge Pedestrian Walkway. Another old railroad bridge, the structure spans the Arkansas River affording gorgeous views of the surrounding terrain and is popular with bicyclists as well.

Don’t forget to bring your swimsuit so you can cool off in Peabody Park, located behind The Peabody Little Rock. The watery playground was designed from suggestions made by area children.

The majestic Old State House will definitely catch your eye as you’re strolling through the River Market. The stunning Greek Revival structure served as Arkansas’s first capitol building and it now a museum of Arkansas history.

Don’t miss the shopping opportunities here. At the Clinton Museum Store and the Shop at Heifer, you can find gifts from all over the world, along with Clinton memorabilia. Handmade jewelry, books, collectibles, shirts, hats, artworks, plus items just for kids are great take-homes. The Museum of Discovery offers the Explore Store while the Butler Center at Arkansas Studies Institute Galleries showcases some of the finest examples of local art. Other souvenirs can be picked up at 4 Square Café & Gifts, the Central Arkansas Nature Center, and Shop the Rock.

When you get hungry, there are numerous options in the area. You’ll find fresh fruit and homemade items for nibbling at the Farmer’s Market if you happen to be there on Tuesday or Saturday mornings during the season. Ethnic eateries featuring Mexican, Japanese, Thai, Middle Eastern, International and Italian are all available. You’ll find some local favorites here such as Boulevard Bread, the Copper Grill, Iriana’s and Dizzy’s Gypsy Bristro. If you like pizza loaded with ingredients, try Iriana’s Sweep the Floor Special. Check out the winner of the professional category in the 2010 World Cheese Dip Championship at Dizzy’s. You absolutely have to try an Arkansas delicacy – fried black-eyed peas – served at the Capital Bar & Grill  inside the Capital Hotel. The homemade pimento cheeseburgers are awesome as well.

See how much fun you’ve had and you have not once moved your car. There’s enough going on in the River Market District to keep you busy for days….and you won’t have to get behind the wheel once you are there..unless you want to. Talk about a money-saving vacation.
Kerry Kraus
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