One of the most popular vacation destinations in the state is just a short drive from Little Rock. Take the day off, pack up the kids and head to Hot Springs. Hot Springs is great for families, couples and singles in the summer, winter and fall. The naturalist will find hours of enjoyment there, as will the historian, the antique shopper and the shopaholic. In other words, Hot Springs has something to offer everyone.
While the outskirts of Hot Springs have many things to offer visitors, most of the attractions can be found right on Central Avenue in Hot Spring’s “historic district”. In this central area, one can find trails leading to a pleasant hike up the mountain, arts events (the documentary film festival being one), shopping, visitor information centers and the bathhouses. There is no need to leave the main street if you are just taking a day trip!
The Heated Springs
One attribute of Hot Springs is obvious to anyone who hears the name. Naturally heated “thermal springs” can be found all over the city. While most of these have been covered, there are still a few active springs. Even in 50-degree weather, you can feel (and see) the heat that these springs give off.
These springs are a natural wonder but they also produce very good drinking water. Water spigots can be found on the streets of the city. The water that comes out of these spigots is warm (on a cold day, it’s just lukewarm) and directly from the springs. People line up to get it. The water is so popular that one man I spoke to hauled gallon containers from another state to bring some famous Hot Springs water back with him!
Baths, History and Shopping
Everyone’s favorite use for Hot Springs water can be found on Bath House Row. There are many historic bathhouse buildings lining the main avenue. Most serve other functions, such as visitor’s centers and information buildings, now and no longer used for baths. The only operational bathhouse is Buckstaff. Buckstaff is open year round and offers thermal baths and massage. A full bath package is only around $40. This is the perfect place to take your spouse for a day of pampering (and they offer gift certificates).
After your bath, walk around downtown Hot Springs and shop in the many little shops and boutiques you’ll find. You can shop for antiques, toys, apparel and more in unique and historic buildings.
Hot Springs Hotels
Hot Springs hotels offer many amenities, but most have the best thermal spas around. One hotel that has a great spa service is the historic Arlington Hotel. The Hot Springs Arlington hotel is one of the most beautiful hotels in the state. The Arlington opened in 1924 and was the biggest hotel in the state when it opened. Its rooms have slept presidents, celebrities, sports stars and Al Capone (he liked room 442 because it overlooked the Southern Club). The Arlington is located at 239 Central Avenue Hot Springs, 501-623-7771. Another neat hotel in Hot Springs is the historic Park Hotel. The Park Hotel was completed in 1929 and it’s gorgeous. The hotel building is a great example of Spanish Revival architecture. The Park Hotel is located at 211 Fountain Street, 501-624-5323.
Hot Springs has most of the chain hotels. They have a very nice Embassy Suites downtown and their Clarion Resort is right on the lake. If you’re looking for something a little more away from it all, Brady Mountain Resort is just 15 miles from Hot Springs (4120 Brady Mountain Rd in Royal, AR 501-767-3422). It’s located on Lake Ouachita and has great fishing and boating. Mountain Harbor Resort is also on Lake Ouachita and an excellent choice. It’s about 25 miles from Hot Springs. The resort houses Turtle Cove Spa. Turtle Cove has excellent spa services.
Oaklawn is the home of horse racing in Arkansas and has achieved notoriety in the horse racing world. Remember Smarty Jones? Few outside of Arkansas remember that this great horse story started in Hot Springs, AR at Oaklawn. Oaklawn is open from January to April for live racing, but they also have simulcast racing and electronic Instant Racing.
Family Fun & Nature
Hot Springs has many attractions aimed at families. In the warmer months, most families will want to go to the Magic Springs/Crystal Falls amusement park. However, even in the cooler months, there are many things to see that will keep kids occupied. Many of the family-oriented attractions are downtown (close to the attractions adults will want to see).
Mid-America Science Museum is also off from Central Avenue (on Mid-America Blvd.) but a trip worth taking if you have children. Mid-America is one the best “hands-on” museum I’ve ever been to. Their exhibits are extremely engaging and fun for everyone (even adults).
Families might also enjoy the beauty of the actual park. There are many hiking trails that will take you to the top of Hot Springs mountain and many picnic areas along the mountainside. Besides the thermal springs, Hot Springs has acres and acres of forest. A trip to the Hot Springs Mountain Tower (which takes you 180 feet above the mountain) will give you an idea of the grandeur of the park. The mountain tower is just about 5 minutes away from Central Avenue and the brave at heart can hike up to the tower from Central Avenue on one of the many hiking trails.
Another family favorite is the Arkansas Alligator Farm. During the warm months, kids can see alligator feedings and maybe even get to touch a live alligator. The feedings are a must see, so be sure to check the feeding schedule before you go.
Outside of downtown Hot Springs, you’ll find one of Arkansas’ best botanical gardens: Garvan Gardens. Garvan Gardens is located on a 210-acre peninsula on Lake Hamilton and is an amazing woodland garden. Strolling through the gardens is a relaxing way to do spend the day. It’s also great for photographers and pets are allowed.
Quirky and Fun
What attraction in Hot Springs isn’t quirky? Because Hot Springs has been around for a while and because it has always been a tourist attraction, there are lots of quirky and fun roadside type attractions there. When I was a kid, I remember going to Hot Springs to see trained chickens at the IQ Zoo (now closed) and visiting the alligator farm (described above) and tiny town (described below). To me, these quirky attractions really give you a glimpse of simpler times, when all you needed was an alligator or a wax museum to wow families.
Hot Springs has “Amphibious Duck” tours, which are a quirky way to see the city. They take you from historic Bathhouse Row in downtown Hot Springs to Lake Hamilton for a cruise around St. John’s Island. They’re fun.
Tiny Town is a miniature town created only of junk. It claims to have “the oldest kid size village and railroad in the U.S.” It’s neat and only $4 to get in. It’s on 374 Whittington Avenue, near the Alligator Farm. It’s a bit away from Central Avenue, but not that hard to find.
A newer attraction is the Hot Springs Gangster Museum. It’s small but has some original artifacts and the owners are very nice and informative. The tour might be a little boring for kids. It’s very structured, there’s a script as you move from room to room in a theatrical manner. It was interesting to the adults in the group. You learn how Hot Springs isn’t just famous for its water, but also gambling and other illicit activities. Al Capone loved Hot Springs.
I go to Hot Springs to eat. I love the food in Hot Springs.
Start the day off at the famous Pancake Shop at 216 Central Ave. They have one of the top breakfasts in the state.
Bleu Monkey Grill is newer (4263 Central Avenue), but they have some great food. Their menu is pretty eclectic and hard to describe. I would say it’s kind of a California style restaurant, but they have burgers and things like that.
Mary’s Cafe & Pie Shop makes a great stop for lunch. They are located at 432 Ouachita St.
Rolando’s is also fairly new to Central Avenue (its address is 210) but it’s pretty good. They have Mexican type food.
Belle Arti Italian Ristorante (719 Central Ave) is expensive, but it’s really good. You’ll fit in casual clothes, but probably not a good idea to come after a day of getting drenched at Magic Springs. They won’t mind, but you’ll feel underdressed.
For vegetarians or a quick lunch, try Cafe 1217 at 1217 Malvern Avenue. They have fresh sandwiches, salads and soups and some creative options. Their menu is very vegetarian-friendly, but also has plenty to offer carnivores.
Later in the day, try McClards BBQ and ribs at 505 Albert Pike Road. It was one of Bill Clinton’s faves, but always ranks among the best BBQ in the state and has been a few “must eat before you die” type lists.