This year, the Arkansas Times Natives Guide starts at the top — the top 11 places we think help define Little Rock and our surrounds. They're the places you take your out-of-town friends, where you yourself make repeat visits, the places that say something about us. Sometimes what they say is that we've made mistakes, and the Central High School Museum Visitors Center makes sure we don't forget them. But mostly they say show off our culcha (the Arts Center), our history (the Historic Arkansas Museum), our political savvy (the Clinton Library), our worn hiking boots (Pinnacle Mountain State Park), the barbecue sauce on our shirts (Sims Barbecue), a penchant for bicycles (the River Trail and the Big Dam Bridge), our foot forward (the River Market district), fine architecture (the Quapaw Quarter), and our brilliant legislators (the State Capitol). Last but not least: A river runs through us. It brought us here in the first place, and we're finally thankful, as our new attention to it — the renewal of Riverfront Park, for example — attests.
Arkansas Arts Center
For half a century, the Arkansas Arts Center has been the preeminent museum in the state, a place where Rembrandt and Van Gogh shake hands with Georgia O'Keeffe and Jackson Pollock. The fire almost went out when Winthrop and Jeannette Rockefeller decided that the people of Arkansas and not the rich couple up on Petit Jean should support the Arts Center, but a public campaign kept the doors open, and the Arts Center began to grow in stature; it doubled in size a decade ago. The Arts Center adopted a smart strategy for an institution with limited dollars: It began to build a collection by buying works on paper. The nationally recognized collection includes works by contemporary new world artists as well as European masters. The Arts Center carved out another high-profile niche with its recognition (and collecting) of contemporary crafts as one of the most exciting American art forms today. The Arts Center's Children's Theatre is hugely popular, selling out its seasons. If you want to learn how to blow glass, sign up for the museum school; the glassblowing program here was one of the first in the country. You can, of course, take classes in drawing, painting, pottery, photography or sign up for special workshops offered by artists brought to the Arts Center by the Friends of Contemporary Crafts group. The Arts Center also manages the Terry House community museum at 411 E. 7th St., two blocks north, where various exhibits are hung in an antebellum home once owned by one of the state's most prominent families.
Arkansas State Capitol
Of all the great, crazy stories that have come out of the building, one of the wildest of all is the story of the Capitol itself. After rogue pieces of ceiling began to fall from the Senate chamber in the Old State House at the close of the 1800s, Arkansas's lawmakers put their newly endangered noggins together and resolved to jump ship and construct a new, grand Capitol on the site of a downtown state penitentiary. Fifteen years later, after a storm of wheeling, dealing, lawsuits, injunctions and dirty politicking that led to burglaries, briberies and at a jell cell for a state senator, the political comedy was finally over and Little Rock was left with the stately neo-classical monument, limestone-filled and golden-domed, that inspires both love and frustration from Arkies the state over. Since, the 247,000-square-foot edifice of halls, offices and chambers has become a town unto itself with elevator operators and snack bar employees becoming as much of the building's colorful history as the parades of legislators whose pictures hang on the walls. And next time you're driving down Capitol Avenue, check out the building's accidental "swagger." When future governor George Donaghey laid out the foundation, he passed over land surveying tools and decided to just eye it. Now the building itself is like so many lawmakers past and present, a little off the grid. The Capitol Building is open to the public Monday through Friday, 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. and weekends and holidays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. with free tours weekdays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Central High School National Historic Site
When it comes to Little Rock history, it's hard to imagine a place where the past lies heavier on the landscape than at Central High School. Here, on Sept. 23, 1957, nine black teen-agers braved howling mobs to integrate the school in one of the first true tests of the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling that struck down the concept of "separate but equal." Before it was all over, President Eisenhower had sent in the 101st Airborne to protect the black students, and America had been changed forever. The story of the Little Rock Nine has since become legend, as has the school where they fought to make the lives of all Americans better. Now officially known as the Central High School National Historic Site — Central being the only operating high school within the boundaries of a National Historic Site — the school still bears witness to their courage and sacrifice, turning out world-class graduates of all colors who regularly go on to universities like Harvard, Yale and MIT. The Central High Museum Visitor Center features a gift shop, tours of the site, and exhibits on the 1957 Central High Crisis and its aftermath. The center, at the corner of Daisy Bates Drive and Park Street, is open from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. every day of the year except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years Day. For more information, call the Visitor Center at 374-1957, or visit its website at www.nps.gov/chsc.
Historic Arkansas Museum
Little Rock came late to the preservation game, but the Historic Arkansas Museum, nee the Arkansas Territorial Restoration, works heroically to arouse pride in the state's history. A territorial-era tavern, houses and reconstructed kitchen and 1823 print shop will make history-loving hearts beat faster. The state's first newspaper, the Arkansas Gazette, was once cranked out on this block. None of this would exist without a couple of women who knew the men would let it go to ruin if not prodded. There's more to the HAM than hoop-rolling and stilt walking and dancing to "Picking Up PawPaws" (though there's plenty of that, too): The accompanying modern building holds several galleries, and if knives are your thing — they're Museum Director Bill Worthen's for sure — you'll like the gallery devoted to the Arkansas Toothpick, aka the Bowie Knife. The HAM has ardently collected Arkansas-made furniture, art, textiles and other artifacts and holds changing exhibits based on its collection and compatible objects that shine the light on a past that even our history teachers weren't sure was worth noting until recently. It gives a nod to the state's Indian past as well with its permanent exhibit "We Walk in Two Worlds," about the Caddo, Quapaw and Osage tribes from prehistory to today.
Pinnacle Mountain State Park
It's no Mount McKinley, but dang it, it's ours and we love it. The 2,100 acres of preserved woodlands, peaks, flora and fauna along the Big and Little Maumelle Rivers has been a local favorite for decades, hosting a stream of birdwatchers, sun worshippers, and folks simply looking for a little outdoor solace. The star attraction is, of course, Pinnacle Mountain itself. With a summit at just over 750 feet, Pinnacle is a natural playground for hikers, offering eight trails of varying difficulty. The West Summit Trail and the East Summit Trail are favorites. Both are 1 ½ miles, with the former great for a light afternoon workout and the latter a rockier, steeper wind for steelier calves. Mountain bikers are welcome, too, with the .7 mile long Rabbit Ridge Mountain Bike Trail and a 7.4 mile Jackfork Trail opened to the public in October 2010. Even in the ceaselessly gorgeous Natural State, Pinnacle Mountain provides some of the greatest views Arkansas has to offer. When summer scorchers begin to subside and fall turns the hills into an autumnal palette of reds, yellows and orange, there's no better place in Central Arkansas to soak in our state's organic splendor. But heads up, looky-loos: the prettier it gets, the heavier the traffic. We suggest getting there early to secure parking spots and, if you're lucky, a little mountaintop serenity.
The Quapaw Quarter/ Mount Holly Cemetery
Established in 1961 by historically minded Little Rock residents who were shocked that grand old mansions were being bulldozed in the name of urban renewal, the Quapaw Quarter is home to some of Central Arkansas's architectural gems. Though the Quarter is officially a nine-square-mile area stretching from the Arkansas River in the north to Fourche Creek in the south, the majority of the most architecturally interesting homes are clustered within the few square blocks around the Arkansas Governor's Mansion at 1800 Center St. Must-sees while driving the Quarter are the lovely Italianate Revival-style Villa Marre at 1321 S. Scott (which was famously used in the opening credits of the popular 1980s TV show "Designing Women"), the antebellum Pike-Fletcher-Terry House at 411 E. Seventh St., the former U.S. Arsenal Building at MacArthur Park (birthplace of Gen. Douglas MacArthur), and the classic Victorian, turret-crowned Hornibrook House at 2120 S. Louisiana St., which is open for guests as the Empress of Little Rock Bed and Breakfast. In addition, any tour of the Quapaw Quarter would be incomplete without a stroll through Little Rock's historic graveyard, Mount Holly Cemetery at 1200 Broadway. Dating from 1843, the crowded, picturesque cemetery has been called "The Westminster Abbey of Arkansas," and features beautiful statuary and the final resting places of 11 Arkansas governors, four U.S. senators and 21 former mayors of Little Rock, as well as David O'Dodd, the "Boy Martyr of the Confederacy," who was hanged by as a spy by Union troops at age 17. For more information on the Quapaw Quarter, visit the Quapaw Quarter Association website at www.quapaw.com. Mount Holly is open to visitors every day from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
If there is one thing about Little Rock that out-of-town visitors are likely to be impressed by, to remark favorably on — whether they're visiting friends or performing in concert at the amphitheater — it's the Arkansas River. Chances are, their hometown doesn't have a river running through it. Most towns don't. When they see ours, they're mesmerized. The people of Pulaski County can't take full credit, of course. Only God can make a river. But the locals deserve some commendation for finally, belatedly, recognizing what an asset the river is. As late as the 1970s, a prominent newspaper columnist could write that Little Rock was the only town in America that had a river and tried to hide it. Today, there's Riverfest; riverfront parks on both banks; pedestrian bridges; restaurants and bars where customers can get high on the river and other intoxicants. A revered weekly newspaper takes as its symbol the catfish that swim in the river. Tourists ride streetcars across the Arkansas River. All it lacks now is a song, like the Mississippi and the Missouri and other waterways have. Cry me a river song, you composers, and a chance to present it at the Arkansas Times Musicians Showcase is well within the realm of possibility.
The River Market
What downtown is for other cities, the River Market is for Little Rock — namely, the cultural hub. During the day, the city's hungry hordes congregate inside the Ottenheimer Hall, the official name of the building most locals call the River Market, where more than a dozen full-time vendors offer everything from paninis to pad thai. From May to October, on Tuesday and Saturday mornings, produce lovers from miles around come to the open-air pavilions behind the hall to one of Arkansas's longest running farmers' markets. Particularly on Saturdays, the market takes on a carnival-like feel. During the temperate months, the 10,000-capacity Riverfest Amphitheatre on the banks of the Arkansas River hosts big-name concerts. More often — as in at least three nights every week — the throngs pack the district for its lively bar scene, which includes two of the city's best venues, an underground dance club, an Irish pub and two dueling piano bars (they're dueling dueling piano bars). Cruising the strip is popular (if annoying), too. The River Rail Trolley winds throughout the district, and across the bridge to North Little Rock, and makes stops at the Clinton Library and Heifer International, the area's main tourist destinations. The trolley looks nice — particularly at night — but it's a traffic irritant and a terrifically inefficient way to travel. Only tourists ride it.
The River Trail
The River Trail is — seriously — one of the premier outdoor biking/hiking/running/walking trails in the country, and it's only getting better. Local activists have harangued officials for years to make the trail more accessible and bring it one step closer to completion, by incorporating the Rock Island Bridge into the trail's easternmost point. Construction on the bridge started in October 2010. Another important addition, the pedestrian bridge linking the River Trail to Two Rivers Park, will only make the trail more attractive to hikers and mountain bikers upon its scheduled completion in August of this year.
One of the things that makes the trail, and one of its key components, the Big Dam Bridge, such a great local treasure is the diversity of its users. Just go for a walk along the bridge one evening and you'll see all that Little Rock has to offer: rich and poor, young and old, natives and transplants. It's a great place to go for a run. Distances are marked along the way and water fountains are available every few miles, not to mention the view is a lot better than what you'll find jogging in your neighborhood. Parking lots at the foot of each side of the bridge provide plenty of spots. The trail, which makes a 13-mile circle through the heart of Little Rock, is perfect for short or long runs, cycling, walking your dog or a lazy evening stroll.
There's much to celebrate in the Little Rock culinary scene: Boulevard Bread Co.'s fresh-baked breads. The cheap and delicious southwest Little Rock taco truck culture. Ashley's haute cuisine take on Southern traditionalism. A thin, massive slice of Vino's Special pizza. But our vote for the number-one-can't-miss-spot? Sims Bar-B-Que. It gets top billing, not just among the local barbecue pantheon (ahead of other favorites like Whole Hog and the White Pig Inn), but as our pick for the Little Rock restaurant for four reasons. 1. It's unique. Like we said, Little Rock does a lot of different types of food well. But with the possible exception of Ashley's and cheese dip, most all of our good food is not singularly good; if you've visited bigger cities, you've experienced it all. But unless you're a Carolina 'cue aficionado, you haven't sampled a sauce as sop-worthy as Sims' thin, vinegar-mustard-and-brown sugar concoction. And we can't imagine those Carolina boys pit-smoking spare ribs and whole chickens as tender as you'll find here. 2. It's stood the test of time; a 75th anniversary is just around the corner. 3. Greens and cornbread count as one side. 4. Beer comes in 40-ounce bottles. With locations at 2415 Broadway, 7601 Geyer Springs Road and 1307 John Barrow.
William J. Clinton Presidential Center
It's a sad fact, but a lot of people living in or around Little Rock still haven't seen the inside of the William J. Clinton Presidential Library and Museum. Sure it's a huge tourist attraction, racking up visits from nearly 300,000 people from all different corners of the globe annually, but we've got laundry to do, right? Wrong. The museum does wonders for Clinton's legacy, using imaginative displays to showcase the highlights of this Arkansas boy's eight-year run as the most powerful man in the world. For those who loved him, it's a perfect place to relive what you probably consider the glory days – when people used to say things like, "George W. who?'" and "Man, it's nice to be living in a period of unparalleled prosperity that we haven't seen since the '20s!" For those who were frequent viewers of "The Clinton Chronicles," there's lots of historical information on display and lots of shiny things to look at. Peruse all the gifts Clinton was given by adoring fans and foreign dignitaries, including a bike given to the former president by Lance Armstrong. The life-size replica of the Oval Office, decorated exactly as it was when Clinton was there, is oddly awe-inspiring.
If Clinton really isn't your thing, the museum also boasts traveling exhibits. Recent displays include a look at the enormous and bedazzled collection of brooches accumulated by former Sec. of State Madeleine Albright over the years, a memorial exhibit for the Oklahoma City bombing and a collection of items from presidential libraries across the country. A Museum Store gift shop is on Clinton Avenue, about a block west of the entrance to the library.