On a recent trip out west, we stopped in Little Rock, Arkansas for the weekend. I knew Little Rock is known for being the home of America’s 42nd President, Bill Clinton and I knew I’d want to stop at the Clinton Center and Park to explore the museum and earn a stamp in my Presidential Libraries passport.
Yet, as I read through LittleRock.com to search for other things to do, I quickly discovered that Little Rock is a very family friendly city and my list of “must visit” spots quickly grew! I was warned that Little Rock gets hot in the summer; Indeed, on the weekend we visited, it rose to almost one hundred degrees each day. However, the heat did not interfere too much with our plans- there are so many family friendly things to do inside (many of them are FREE!) that we could beat the heat and still have a lot of fun exploring the city. We found Little Rock to be very pedestrian friendly (drivers actual stop for people waiting in a cross walk!) and easy to walk from place to place. We walked to almost all of the following places from our hotel, but you could also take a Rock Region Metro Streetcar, which kids might enjoy. I am already planning another visit to Little Rock; it looks like they have just as many activities for year round fun!
Ten Can’t Miss Spots for Kids in Little Rock:
1. Explore over 90 different, interactive S.T.E.A.M. (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math) exhibits at the Museum of Discovery. Our children were so excited that upon entering, they literally spent about ten minutes running from station to station not knowing where to start! (Truth be told, so did my physics teacher husband, who gave his hard-to-earn stamp of approval to the interactive demonstrations led by staff educators.) There are SO many ways for kids (and adults) to learn about physics, geology, gemology, tornadoes, biology- the list could go on forever. The museum covers two floors and has six separate, themed areas. The daily schedule includes live, interactive demonstrations and educational programs. We had so much fun exploring the museum, I dedicated a whole post to the museum- read it here. Traveling with Kids: You could easily spend 2-3 hours in the museum and still not see or complete each exhibit. If we were local, I would absolutely get a family membership. No need for a stroller, as even toddlers will want to run from station to station (plus toddlers have their own “Room to Grow” area with a padded jungle gym, music station, and pretend pet clinic). There is a gift shop and a lunch room- no food served but tables and chairs to bring a picnic lunch.
2. Learn about President William Jefferson Clinton, America’s 42nd president at the Clinton Center and Park. The three floor museum has dozens of exhibits ranging from a larger than life yearly timeline of Clinton’s eight years as president (my kids loved looking through the daily agenda binders and seeing what he did on the days that would become their birthdays) to the actual Cadillac limousine used by the Clintons to the Chihuly-created Christmas “tree” that was displayed during the holidays. My children also enjoyed sitting at a chair at the table in the Cabinet room and at the desk in the Oval Office, exactly replicated to look like it did on Clinton’s last day in office. We enjoyed our visit to the Center so much, I’ve devoted a whole post to it here. Traveling with Kids: Plan on spending at least two hours in the Center. There is a restaurant on site, open for lunch each day (and a fancier dinner at night Thursday- Saturday). You can bring the stroller for toddlers, but all artifacts are safely encased in glass, so it’s safe to let kids explore.
3. Find ways to help end poverty in the world by exploring the Heifer Urban Farm. Heifer is an international company headquartered in Little Rock whose primary purpose is to end poverty and hunger. The Learning Center has several interactive exhibits teaching children about various ways to end hunger through market, trade, and education. The Center also offers family activities, arts and crafts, and a wide variety of field trip programs. There is a cafe serving lunch during the week. The 3.5 acre farm is home to goats, pot belly pigs, alpacas, chickens, turkeys, ducks, geese, and three active honey beehive and also includes a sustainable garden. Traveling with Kids: Plan to spend about an hour to an hour and a half in the Learning Center and Urban Garden. No need to bring the stroller, as kids will want to touch all the hands on exhibits. Keep a close eye on them in the barn, as the animals will stick their noses and mouths through the fences. The Center is open Monday through Saturday and is free to visit.
4. Tour the Old State House of Arkansas, which was originally used as the state capitol from 1836 until 1911 when it became the state police headquarters, a medical school, a war memorial, and finally, in 1951, a museum. The first floor has a timeline of Arkansas history and several relevant artifacts. The second floor has a replica of the 1885 Legislative Chamber room and the 1836 House of Representatives room. Check out the boxes underneath each chair- can you guess their purpose? Hint: it has something to do with tobacco. Almost 400 artifacts, on loan from the University of Arkansas Fayetteville, are on display on the second floor. Kids will be most interested in the zoology specimen cabinet (snakes, frog, fish, snails and turtles), the full rattlesnake and bat skeletons, and a collection of gems and minerals. There’s also a telephone switchboard and the first computer used in the state on display. Make sure you get a photo on front steps where Bill Clinton announced his candidacy for presidency and where he was celebrated on both election nights. Traveling with Kids: Plan to spend an hour exploring the museum, more if you have older children, a little less if you have toddlers who cannot read the descriptions of artifacts. The museum covers two floors, but has an elevator for handicap and stroller accessibility. It’s free to visit and open most days from 9am-4pm, limited hours on Sunday.
5. View a wide collection of artwork at the Arkansas Arts Center. There are six exhibits, many of which rotate on a regular schedule. There’s also a museum school, children’s theater, and lecture hall for special programs. The permanent exhibit displays an impressive collection of art, as well as hand blown glass and several pottery pieces. Traveling with Kids: Plan to spend about 45 minutes to an hour viewing the art work, more if there is a special activity or event going on. It's is handicap and stroller accessible, open every day except Monday, and is free to visit.
6. Check out the beautiful architecture and learn all about state and federal government at the Arkansas State Capitol Building. Whenever we’re visiting the capital of a state, I make it a point to try and see the state capitol building. They’re always filled with history and are beautifully designed. Arkansas’s state capitol building did not disappoint! During the week, you can take guided tours (there is also an audio version), watch an overview video, and visit the gift shop. Even though we visited on Sunday morning, we were still able to take a self guided tour with a well designed booklet to help us navigate and narrate. The almost 300,000 square foot complex, completed in 1915, was modeled after the nation’s capitol and is home to the governor, secretary of state and all senators and state legislators, in addition to housing the capitol police, a post office, and the state treasurer’s office. During the week, you can peek inside Senate and House chambers. Throughout the four floors there are displays showcasing every possible state icon (bird, flower, butterfly, tree, song etc), describing the rich history of the state, and class photos of each general assembly, Make sure to stand in the middle of the rotunda and look up (the chandelier hanging from a 73 foot chain weighs more than 70 pounds) and scope out the ten foot tall bronze doors purchased from the famous Tiffany’s in New York in 1910- they have be polished by hand every week! Traveling with Kids: Plan to spend about an hour here if you’re self guided. Bring the stroller to contain toddlers who will gleefully want to run across the beautiful floors, but can quickly take a tumble down the open, and wide, marble staircases. There are elevators for wheelchair and stroller accessibility. You’ll enter through the tunnel under the main staircase . It’s free to explore and tours offered during the week are also free.
7. Get up close and person with 19th century history at the Historic Arkansas Museum. There are four structures (three original and one reproduction) you can tour, and several indoor exhibits showcasing Arkansas made items and art work. While the children’s area is currently under renovation, kids will still be captivated by the Native American exhibit and enjoy speaking with the costumed interpreters who are often there on weekends giving background stories on the homes and artifacts. Traveling with Kids: Plan on spending about an hour touring everything. It’s open seven days a week, with limited hours on Sundays. It’s free to explore the museum center and there is a nominal charge to tour the historic grounds.
8. The River Market is a huge complex with an amphitheater, splash park, sculpture garden, playground, and Junction Bridge, which is a pedestrian and bicycle bridge connecting Little Rock and North Little Rock. There are also tons of food options inside the Bazaar. Yes, many of these spots are outside, but during summer heat waves, there are plenty of places to picnic and relax in the shade.
9. Visit Central High School National Historic Site known for its pivotal role in the desegregation of public schools in America, when in 1954 nine African American students persisted in attending the school as a direct result of the Supreme Court Brown vs Board of Education ruling. The 600,000 square foot, five story school built in 1927 was the largest high school in American at the time, and sits on 21 acres. Start in the Visitor’s Center, which has two short films on the history of the “Little Rock Nine”, lots of shorter film clips and news segments, and some interactive stations for children. Make sure you collect the four passport stamps for your National Parks passport. The 75 minute, ranger led tour brings you to the restored Magnolia Mobile Gas Station (where 80-100 news reporters gathered by a single pay phone to call in their stories to news stations each night) to the outside of the school, (during weekday tours at 9am and 1pm you can actually go inside the school) and to the 2001 Commemorative Garden. Today, over 2,000 high schoolers attend the school. Traveling with Kids: I would recommend the tour for older children- there are some serious subject matters and the tour is almost exclusively a lecture by a park ranger (unless you have a question) and there is no place to sit. My 8 and 10 year old children were good sports and did learn a lot, but after an hour, my husband took them back to the Visitor Center, to explore while I finished the tour.
10. See all the animals at the Little Rock Zoo. (Yes, this one is outside, but I think is worth braving the heat, or visiting on a cooler day). We did not get a chance to visit (there’s never enough time!) but the 33 acre zoo is home to over 700 animals, from apes and gorillas to an impressive collection of “big cats” (tigers, jaguars, and lions) to rhinoceros, camels, and elephants. You can feed the fish, ride the train around portions of the zoo or ride the “Over-the-jumps” carousel; all have a nominal surcharge. Be sure to check the daily calendar for various animal presentations and demonstrations. There are a couple of dining options, including the Cafe Africa, which has the usual concession options. Traveling with Kids: Plan to spend at least 2-3 hours to fully walk the zoo and see all the animals and exhibits. The Little Rock Zoo does participate in the Association of Zoos and Aquariums reciprocity program, which means discounted admission if you’re a member of your local zoo. Take the stroller because it is a big zoo! There is a $3/car parking fee.
Eating with the locals: The downtown area has several options, too many for us to sample during one visit. Here are some spots we did enjoy:
Diamond Bear Brewing Company has at least eight beers on tap at any given time (get the Strawberry Blonde) and a menu filled with brats, burgers, salads (I devoured the cobb salad), and sandwiches. They also offer factory tours on weekend afternoons.
Blue Canoe Brewing Company is a smaller space, with only about a dozen tables, and a smaller menu but we give the tacos and wings two thumbs up!
Whole Hog Cafe is a no frills, counter service BBQ joint that is serious about their BBQ, which probably explains the dozens of awards they have won. Take note, though: There aren’t any options besides BBQ on the children’s menu.
Kilwin’s is filled with sweets (displays of homemade chocolates made it almost impossible to pick just one or two) and about a dozen homemade ice cream flavors. We loved the blueberry waffle cone.
The River Market Hall is an indoor market (and outdoor Farmer’s Market on Saturdays from 7am-3pm) with over a dozen choices for international foods.
Staying Locally: We stayed at the Little Rock Marriott, We always like to stay at Marriott, read why here) which was centrally located to just about everything. We parked the car ourselves (they also valet) in a nearby lot for $10/day and walked everywhere. The Marriott is attached to the convention center and has tons of space, great views, and an onsite restaurant and bar, Heritage Grille Steak and Fin. Across the street is the Capital Hotel, which looked beautiful and would also be a very good option if you want to be close to all the attractions.
Disclaimer: I was given a press pass to visit some of these locations by Little Rock CVB. All opinions expressed are my own.