For travelers who check off destinations like a bird-watcher marks the sighting of rare birds, Little Rock, Ark., is flush with must-see attractions.
WHAT TO DO
Take in history: The Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site, a National Park Service museum, is across the street from Central High, where the nine black students were turned away by the Arkansas National Guard on the first day of school in September 1957. When they tried again two weeks later, rioting broke out. President Eisenhower ordered soldiers to Little Rock, enabling the nine to spend their first full day at the school.
Photographs and TV accounts explain the history, but the students’ words make the impact. From Elizabeth Eckford, then a 15-year-old junior: “I tried to see a friendly face somewhere in the mob — someone who maybe would help. I looked into the face of an old woman and it seemed like a kind face, but when I looked at her again, she spat on me.” (Free. 2120 Daisy L. Gatson Bates Drive; www.nps.gov/chsc)
Go to the William J. Clinton Presidential Library: Not surprisingly, considering Clinton’s reputation as a wonk, his library is filled with facts and stats. You would need days to read all of the information on display, so concentrate on what interests you — the timeline of Clinton’s presidency or a segment labeled “the fight for power,” which outlines Clinton’s Whitewater troubles and the impeachment battle.
Kids — as well as their parents — will get a kick out of sitting in the president’s chair in the full-size reproduction of the Cabinet Room. Most of us will never set foot in the Oval Office, but here you can step inside a duplicate of the most famous office in the land. The real fun is on the third floor, where gifts from world leaders are displayed, such as the gold-, ivory- and gem-encrusted sword and scabbard from the Indonesian minister of education (www.clintonlibrary.gov).
See the State Capitol: Especially impressive in the neoclassical Arkansas State Capitol are the stained-glass skylights in the House and Senate chambers and the 4-inch-thick, 10-foot-tall bronze doors at the east entrance. The six doors, each weighing 1,000 pounds, were purchased from Tiffany & Co. for $10,000 in 1910. Their current value has been estimated at $250,000. On the north lawn, “Testament” depicts the Little Rock Nine teenagers in bronze sculpture.
Walk the bridges: Recently designated one of the Top 10 bridges to see by the Society of American Travel Writers, the Big Dam Bridge is one of four crossings over the Arkansas River dedicated to pedestrians and bicyclists. It’s part of the Arkansas River Trail’s 17-mile loop on both sides of the river that separates the state’s capital from the smaller North Little Rock. No one says you have to walk the whole trail. It’s fun to walk just the bridges. The Big Dam Bridge, is, of course, the biggest, spanning 4,226 feet. Telescopes mounted in rest areas let you spy on upscale houses on the hills above the river. To the west, check out Pinnacle Mountain. Below, if you’re lucky, watch a boat enter the lock and be lowered (or raised) to the water level on the other side.
Explore the River Market District: It takes more than a day to check out all the attractions downtown, so start with historic Curran Hall (615 E. Capitol). In this 1842 home housing the Little Rock Visitor Information Center, we found brochures, maps, restaurant guides and more.
The Clinton Museum Store sits on the edge of the River Market District (610 President Clinton Av.). Steps away, you’ll find the Central Arkansas Nature Center and its wildlife habitat exhibits. In the next block, the Museum of Discovery is designed to entertain children, but plenty of adults will get a kick out of the interactive exhibits.
Just below the River Market, you’ll find Riverfront Park with its sculptures, kids’ climb parks and a fitness mile, which is part of the River Trail. And if you were wondering whether there is a real little rock, you’ll find it in the park. French explorers used La Petite Roche as a navigation landmark in the early 1700s. From both the park and the Clinton Library, pedestrian walkways built in former railroad bridges span the river. On the North Little Rock side, you can explore a World War II submarine or catch a cruise on the Arkansas Queen riverboat.
The Arkansas Studies Institute (401 President Clinton Av.) doesn’t sound like a tourist attraction, but it is. The building’s design incorporates more than 100 photo panels depicting Arkansas history, and the first-floor gallery offers Arkansas jewelry, art and crafts. A few blocks away, costumed guides explain 19th-century life in original dwellings that are part of the Historic Arkansas Museum (200 E. 3rd).
WHERE TO EAT
When you are done with history and everything else that Little Rock has to offer, relax with a 21st-century meal and libation at Copper Grill (300 E. 3rd; www.coppergrilllr.com).
IF YOU GO
Find more information at: www.littlerock.com, www.rivermarket.info, and www.arkansas.com.