Ride the METRO Streetcar through Little Rock. Photo courtesy of the Little Rock Convention & Visitors Bureau

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Little Rock might not be the most obvious choice for a vacation destination, but once you learn what this dynamic capital city has to offer, you’ll know why it deserves a spot on your travel radar.

Little Rock has something for everyone

Located on the banks of the Arkansas River, Little Rock is the largest city in the state of Arkansas. It combines the best of the south with a vibrant food scene, a buzzing downtown and plenty of historic and cultural attractions.

It’s a place that embraces its past while maintaining a modern, hip vibe with an eye to the future. And what’s more, you can have a good time at a great value here.

The ESSE Purse Museum Is “History in a Handbag”

Museums abound in Little Rock. One of my favorites is the ESSE Purse Museum, the only American museum dedicated to the art of the handbag. And currently, it’s one of just two in the world (the other is in South Korea).

Started by collector Anita Davis, the museum, in its permanent exhibit, “What’s Inside: A Century of Women and Handbags 1900-1999,” takes you on a journey through the decades of the 20th century, using purses as its historical and evolutionary barometer.

If you’re a fashionista, you’ll be in heaven with all the interesting and colorful designs and brands on display. And even if you’re not, you’ll still find it a fascinating exploration of the concepts of art, history and the feminine, and how they connect with one another.

The name ESSE comes from the Latin infinitive for “to be,” which embodies what is the essence of this museum. It emphasizes that the purse is more than a bag for a woman to carry her necessities, but an extension of herself and her personal identity.

Choice of purse says a lot about a woman and “her continuous evolving position within the public sphere.”

The collection showcased, along with photos and ephemera, portrays woman’s struggles, while giving equal focus to her accomplishments, all amid the times in which she lived. It’s “history in a handbag!”

For example, in the 1920s, purses took on a more contemporary and exciting new look, typically small with thin straps or clutch varieties, as women of this decade kicked up their legs and began to experience new freedoms.

While in the 40s, during wartime, fashion was relegated to the back burner, causing purses to become larger and more practical. Fashion ruled in the 50s and a matching gloves/shoes/purses ensemble was all the rage with women sporting colorful Lucite bags, designer leather and box purses.

In the 60s, the fashion statement was youthful and fun – think of a smiley face bag! Fast forward to the 80s when logo-adorned, designer bags were a must-have.

ESSE also has a great gift shop with high-quality and unique handbags, along with eclectic jewelry, books, scarves and other items. There are purses in everything from leather and wood to felt, rubber and recycled materials – a veritable array of eye-candy!

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Get Your Art Fix at the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts

Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts. Photo by Debbie Stone
Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts. Photo by Debbie Stone

The Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts is another of my top picks. Featuring a world-class, international collection of art, along with art classes, programs and live theater productions, the museum is a work of beauty in of itself. With its creative use of light, space and form, it’s an architectural landmark for the city.

The museum’s permanent collection showcases two-and three-dimensional art with works from such well-known artists as Diego Rivera, Elaine de Kooning, Louise Nevelson, Claude Monet and more.

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You’ll notice Anne Lindberg’s installation, “passage,” which was specifically designed for a narrow corridor gallery. Made of cotton thread, it floats overhead, as visitors walk below it, making it feel like you’re under a cloud of color.

And “Spring Song” by Natasha Bowdoin is an ode to the season with boldly hued, larger-than-life flowers and leaves sprouting across the walls.

History Is Alive and Well in Little Rock

When it comes to history, there are several attractions including the Old State House, Historic Arkansas Museum, the Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site and the Clinton Presidential Library.

Delve into the Political History of Arkansas at The Old State House

The Old State House was the first capitol building for Arkansas. Constructed in 1833, it’s also the oldest standing state capitol west of the Mississippi. Over the years, it has been the Arkansas War Memorial, home of the Arkansas State Police, a medical school and since the early 1950s, a museum.

Inside are exhibits about the governors of Arkansas and their families, along with the state’s political history from territory through statehood and beyond.

You’ll get to walk inside the House of Representatives Chamber, which was returned to its likely appearance during the 1840s, complete with wooden desks, chairs and even spittoons.

First Ladies of Arkansas also get their due with an exhibit exploring the lives and accomplishments of governors’ wives throughout Arkansas’s past. It contains the largest exhibition of first ladies’ gowns outside the Smithsonian.

During my visit, there was a demonstration on Civil War medicine, done by an historian in period clothing. The tools of his trade were not for the squeamish, as they contained saws and other barbaric looking instruments.

He explained that during the war, medical surgical procedures were performed in very unhygienic conditions often using unsterilized equipment. He proceeded to show how amputation would have been done – in graphic detail!

Learn more about the Old State House Museum

Check Out the Exhibits and Demonstrations at the Historic Arkansas Museum

Little Rock Nine sculpture at the Arkansas State Capital.  Photo by Debbie Stone
Little Rock Nine sculpture at the Arkansas State Capital. Photo by Debbie Stone

A few blocks away is the Historic Arkansas Museum. Inside is an array of galleries featuring Arkansas-made art and history, ranging from indigenous people to the artists and artisans of today.

In “Conspicuous Consumption,” for example, you’ll see a host of items, such as fine silver, fashionable clothing and fancy furniture, that 19th-century Arkansans wore and displayed in their formal parlors to present themselves to their best advantage.

“We Walk in Two Worlds” tells the story of Arkansas’s first people, the Caddo, Osage and Quapaw Native American tribes, from early times to the present. Over 150 objects, such as clothing, pottery and weapons, are on display.

Another exhibit, “Intersections: Where Art Meets Craft,” features unique creations using silver, wood, crochet, paint and clay that involve the use of craft applications to produce artforms.

On the grounds outside are some of the oldest buildings in the state on their original sites, including the oldest building in Little Rock, an 1850s farmstead.

Several are available for you to peek inside, where you can interact with period-costumed interpreters who are performing activities such as weaving, or operating a print shop, a la 1800s. It’s like a mini Williamsburg.

Learn more about the Historic Arkansas Museum

Delve into the City’s Darkest Time at the Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site

Visiting the Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site is perhaps one of the most impactful experiences for visitors. The city is known for its role in the country’s civil rights struggle.

It was the epicenter of the segregation crisis in the 1950s and a focus of the national spotlight during this dark and painful period in history.

The ranger’s presentation here is informative, eye-opening and emotional, as you learn about the Little Rock Nine and their attempt to enroll in Central High School in 1957. To be accepted, the school board had several requirements.

You needed to have a 3.8 or better GPA and perfect attendance for all the years you were in school. Plus, once accepted, you wouldn’t be allowed to participate in any extracurricular activities.

Even more outrageous was that you would have to guarantee you would never retaliate or defend yourself against negative comments or behaviors directed at you by other students.

So, for example, if a white student shoved you into the lockers and called you terrible names, you wouldn’t be able to say or do anything.

Learn more about Little Rock Central High School before you visit

The Little Rock Nine and the Battle for Desegregation

These requirements were established in order to whittle down the number of applicants, which it effectively accomplished. Then the parents of those students remaining on the list were terrorized and threatened by the KKK, making them choose between their jobs and their children’s education.

I was heartbroken watching the images of these young African American students being jeered and shouted at, as well as spit upon, by a large mob of angry white protesters, as they tried to enter the school.

A showdown occurred when Governor Faubus, who in direct challenge to the federal desegregation law had called in the Arkansas National Guard to block the students’ way, was ordered to back down. He refused and ultimately President Eisenhower had to send in the federal troops for backup.

Photos of the clash, taken by the media from a gas station across the street (Gov. Faubus wouldn’t let them onsite), were shown around the country.

And even after the Little Rock Nine were admitted to the school, Gov. Faubus continued to advocate for segregation. But these nine students became symbols of courage and optimism for the future. They helped pave the way for all those who came after them.

Central High is still functioning today and you can walk past it on your tour. It’s the only operating high school located within the boundaries of a National Historic Site.

You can also see the gas station, which is a part of this historic destination. Make sure you check out the Monument to the Little Rock Nine on the grounds of the Arkansas State Capitol, too.

More on the Arkansas State Capitol

Get to Know the Man Behind the Oval Office at the Clinton Presidential Library

Gowns from the First Ladies of Arkansas, exhibited at the Old State House Museum. Photo by Debbie Stone
Gowns from the First Ladies of Arkansas, exhibited at the Old State House Museum. Photo by Debbie Stone

Allow plenty of time to explore the Clinton Presidential Library, another of the city’s top attractions. The 20,000-square-foot ultra-modern library and museum offers visitors the opportunity to really get to know the man behind the Oval Office.

There’s a timeline documenting the years of Clinton’s presidency, featuring significant events and decisions, a host of Clinton family memorabilia, photos, gifts from heads of state around the world, an extensive archive detailing Clinton’s day-to-day life in office, formal wear worn by Clinton and his wife Hillary at state dinners and much more.

There are even exact replicas of the Oval Office and Cabinet Room that you can step inside.

Learn more about the Clinton Presidential Library and Museum

Little Rock Rocks When It Comes to Outdoor Fun

Outdoor enthusiasts will also find much to like about Little Rock. After all, this is Arkansas, the Natural State! Stroll or cycle along the Arkansas River Trail, the region’s premier outdoor recreation trail.

Enjoy the beautifully landscaped Riverfront Park, which stretches eleven blocks on the banks of the Arkansas River in the downtown area. It provides oodles of greenspace with murals, sculptures, a history pavilion, an outdoor concert venue, a children’s playground and more.

And at its center is La Petite Roche Plaza, which pays homage to the city’s namesake with interpretive plaques and of course, the “little rock.”

Story has it that a French explorer, Benard de le Harpe, is credited with using the name “Little Rock” in 1722 to describe a stone outcropping on the bank of the Arkansas River. The rock was used by early travelers to denote a landmark.

Rent a kayak or take a kayaking tour with Rock Town River Outfitters and paddle the Arkansas River for great city and nature views. Hike up nearby Pinnacle Mountain for a good cardio workout and be rewarded by picturesque mountain and lake panoramas.

Or walk across the Big Dam Bridge and get your steps as you enjoy more scenic vistas.

You Can Eat Your Way through Little Rock’s River Market District

Inside the Clinton Presidential Library. Photo by Debbie Stone
Inside the Clinton Presidential Library. Photo by Debbie Stone

While downtown, explore Little Rock’s River Market District, where there’s a selection of cool shops, restaurants and watering holes. For all things crawfish and catfish, head to Flying Fish. If it’s fried chicken you want, then make a beeline for Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken.

And if you crave barbecue, Platinum Barbecue serves up southern style BBQ staples and classic sides. Other popular establishments include Cache, Doe’s Eat Place, One Eleven at the Capital, Buenos Aires Grill & Cafe and Sonny Williams’ Steak Room.

When it comes time to dining with a view, Brave New Restaurant should be at the top of your list. You’ll experience a feast for the eyes as well as the taste buds with delicious creative American cuisine dishes at one of Little Rock’s most successful and longest-running dining establishments.

Pescatarians will love the walleye, scallops, Big Eye tuna and salmon entrees, while carnivores will relish the pork tenderloin, veal, duck and chicken options. Start with the goat cheese mousse and save room for the decadent chocolate crème brûlée!

Head to SoMa for More Good Eats

Another area to check out is the Southside Main Street District or SoMa. Once a rundown and desolate section of town, SoMa underwent extensive revitalization and is now a hip “hood” with cafes, boutiques, gardens and colorful street art.

One of the more locally-beloved spots here is the Root Café, a sustainable, farm-to-table, locally-owned eatery that sources from small farms and producers across the state.

Try the biscuit or pulled pork sandwiches, chicken and dumplings, housemade sauerkraut, pimento cheese bread or kimchi fries, among other eclectic offerings.

If you’re in the mood for some yummy baked goods, head to Community Bakery, where the scones, sticky buns and buttery croissants will melt in your mouth.

But if it’s ice cream you want, Loblolly Creamery’s got you covered with flavors like Rock Town Bourbon Pecan, Banana Moon Pie, and Cookie Butter Latte.

Ride the METRO Streetcar for Free

ESSE Purse Museum.  Photo by Debbie Stone
ESSE Purse Museum. Photo by Debbie Stone

Transportation is easy in Little Rock with the METRO Streetcar. Ride one of three historic replica streetcars between the “twin cities” of Little Rock and North Little Rock for a fun way to take in the sights. And even better, it’s free!

Plenty of Options When It Comes to Accommodations

Accommodations are plentiful in Little Rock with luxury to business and budget-friendly options. If you want to stay downtown, the Little Rock Marriott is a good choice.

This amenity-rich hotel boasts spacious guest rooms, many offering views of downtown or the Arkansas River, on-site dining and a fitness center. And with its convenient location, you’ll be able to walk to a number of attractions and restaurants.

You’ll be glad to know that Classic Southern hospitality is on full display in Little Rock and the reception you’ll get as a visitor is warm and welcoming. People here really want you to like their town. I needed no further convincing.

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Author Bio: Debbie Stone is an established travel writer and columnist, who crosses the globe in search of unique destinations and experiences to share with her readers and listeners. She’s an avid explorer who welcomes new opportunities to increase awareness and enthusiasm for places, culture, food, history, nature, outdoor adventure, wellness and more. Her travels have taken her to nearly 100 countries spanning all seven continents, and her stories appear in numerous print and digital publications. 

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