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24 hours in Hot Springs

The city that was built on water.

TAKE THE WATERS: For elegant lodging.
  • TAKE THE WATERS: For elegant lodging.

Though the gangsters-and-gun-molls heyday of Hot Springs is over, so are, thankfully, the days when Bathhouse Row was lined with T-shirt shops and the hottest thing going was either losing Junior's college fund on the ponies, riding a floating bus from World War II into Lake Hamilton, or watching a chicken play tic-tac-toe at the I.Q. Zoo. Long beset with a kind of threadbare elegance after years of decline, Hot Springs has seen a gradual but steady resurgence in recent years, with the beauty, laid-back nature and affordability of the town beginning to attract young artists, chefs, tastemakers and entrepreneurs, all looking to create something new from the old. The result is an influx of energy that has finally snowballed to the point that things are changing; the city has a vibe that hasn't been felt for decades. Though what Hot Springs will be 10 years from now is still gelling up and will be for some time now, all signs point to something good. It's definitely not the cheesy tourist trap it used to be.

Have the most important meal of the day

When you're on a road trip, what's the point of eating the same food you could get at the IHOP back home? Break the chain breakfast and head to the Colonial Pancake and Waffle House, at 111 Central Ave. A Hot Springs staple since 1962, the restaurant has been featured in national magazines, including Southern Living, and features big waffles and fluffy pancakes in several styles, plus breakfast delicacies like thick ham steaks, hash browns, homemade biscuits and the preferred liquid fattener of Southerners everywhere: chocolate gravy. You haven't really been to Hot Springs if you haven't had breakfast at Colonial.

Walk in the footsteps of the Babe

Once upon a time, baseball was big in Hot Springs. It all started in 1886, when the team that would become the Chicago Cubs came to Hot Springs to get a jump on training and escape the harsh Midwestern winters. The practice caught on, and before long, a who's who of baseball greats came to Hot Springs to train with their respective clubs, including Ty Cobb, Joe DiMaggio, Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, Cy Young, Leroy "Satchel" Paige, Stan Musial, Jackie Robinson, Hank Aaron and others. The Hot Springs Historic Baseball Trail celebrates the city's colorful sporting history. A free smartphone app — available at — leads visitors to stops all over the city, explaining the significance of each to the national pastime.

Eat a well-rounded lunch

Though it's hard to screw up pizza, it's even harder to make pizza so good that it truly rises above the pack and becomes something like cuisine. That's what they do at Hot Springs' Deluca Pizza Napoletana. Anthony Valinoti, the Brooklyn native who runs Deluca, brings the Big Apple love, making everything in house for the simple menu of antipasto, meatballs, salads, pizza and two desserts. The secret is in the ingredients Valinoti uses, which are nothing but the best; imported meats and cheeses, carefully selected vegetables. Served on Deluca's signature, crisp and chewy crust, the result is a symphony on the tongue.

DELICIOUS DELUCA'S: For pizza Napoletana style from Big Apple-born chef Anthony Valinoti.
  • DELICIOUS DELUCA'S: For pizza Napoletana style from Big Apple-born chef Anthony Valinoti.

Check in

Though Hot Springs once had its share of elegant hotels, the lodging scene has been on the decline — until now. The Waters Hotel, opposite from Bathhouse Row at 340 Central Ave., opened in February 2016 after a 16-month, $8 million renovation. The work transformed the circa 1913 Thompson Building into a sleek, 62-room boutique hotel worthy of any bustling metropolis and a top-tier nightly price. Featuring an outdoor garden, shopping and nightlife just steps away, and on-site fine dining at The Avenue restaurant, The Waters is definitely the place to stay if you want an upscale Hot Springs experience.

The venerable and imposing Arlington Hotel, with its Spanish Renaissance architecture, long front porch, bathhouse, mountainside pool and old-world ambiance, has fallen into such disrepair that the city of Hot Spring has ordered the owners to make repairs or shut down. The new owners, Sky Capital Group, have promised to renovate. Time will tell.

Geek out

Opened in 1979, the Mid-America Science Museum, at 500 Mid America Blvd., is a haven for those looking to learn more about how the physical world around us works. It features hands-on exhibits demonstrating everything from the laws of motion to how rivers and mountains form. At one point, the place had gotten a little run down, what with all those sticky hands touching everything. That changed starting in 2011, when the museum was awarded a $7.8 million renovation grant from the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation. Reopened in March 2015, the museum is now cooler than ever, with over 75 new exhibits, the Guinness-recognized world's most powerful Tesla coil, plus the Bob Wheeler Science Skywalk that allows visitors to stroll high in the canopy of the forest outside via a walkway 32 feet off the ground. The skywalk ends in a giant, bowl-shaped cargo net that lets you test your tolerance of high places while lounging over the gulf. Whether you've got kids in tow or not, Mid-America is definitely worth the time.

Suds up

Though several of the historic bathhouses along Central Avenue still sit empty, entrepreneurs are beginning to breathe new life into the old spas, beginning with the triumph that is Superior Bathhouse Brewery, at 329 Central Ave. Situated at the far end of the row nearest the Arlington Hotel, the 1916 bathhouse, which had been vacant since 1983, opened in July 2013 as a brewpub. The first and only brewery situated in a U.S. National Park, it's now Hot Springs' reigning beervana for lovers of craft brews, with all the Superior suds made on site with the thermal waters that once soaked away the aches and pains of bathers. Paired with a nice menu of gastropub food and lovely views of Central Avenue, it's a great way to spend an afternoon with friends.

IT'S SUPERIOR: For brews.
  • IT'S SUPERIOR: For brews.

Test your 'skill'

Though Oaklawn Racing & Gaming runs the ponies only in winter and spring, a year-round draw these days is its gaming area, the only legal, casino-style gambling allowed in the state other than at Southland Greyhound Park in West Memphis. With the electronic gaming side of things expanded in recent years, players can try their hand at "games of skill" like video poker, roulette, craps, blackjack and other games, then either celebrate their winnings or drown their losing sorrows at Silks Bar and Grill or Pop's Lounge.

Dine lakeside

After a big day of shopping, lounging, gambling and strolling the avenue, it's time for a meal. For a romantic night out, one go-to in Hot Springs is Luna Bella, at 104 Grand Isle Way. A white linen experience that will remind you of the glory days of old Hot Springs, Luna Bella features sweeping views of Lake Hamilton and a big menu of carefully prepared dishes, including several kinds of pasta and a large selection of seafood, plus lamb chops, steaks and veal. Its wine list is one of the best in the city, with most available by the bottle or glass. Also impressive is their slate of martinis, with over a dozen varieties of the classic drink.

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