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Arkansas’ largest city and state capital might not be your top bucket list destination, but if you know where to look, you’ll find that it has many unexpected charms. Here are 10 things you may not have known about “The Rock.” Use them to help plan what to do and see and where to stay in this pretty riverside destination.

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Photo courtesy of Margaret Littman

1. Witness a piece of Civil Rights history

There’s a National Park site that is also a public high school where 2,500 people go to school every day. Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site tells the story of the Little Rock Nine, African-American students who in 1957 braved armed protests and death threats to get a good education and, in the end, helped desegregate public schools across the country. Guided tours include the preserved Mobil gas station across the street where reporters would use the pay phone to call their editors. There’s a powerful sculpture memorial to the Little Rock Nine, called “Testaments” on the scenic grounds of the Arkansas State Capitol, too.

2. Fill up on good eats

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Fold | Photo courtesy of Margaret Littman

Man cannot live by cheese dip alone (a famous Arkansas staple) and Little Rock has a great food scene, featuring other great other dishes as well. Downtown’s historic Capital Hotel houses One Eleven, perhaps the swankiest restaurant in town, with a French-inspired menu and impeccable service. At Three Fold Noodles and Dumplings Co., choose between made-from-scratch buns, dumplings or noodles. Locally grown produce is the focus of a plant-forward menu at Root Café; don’t skip the baked, not fried, doughnut muffins for dessert. The Fold: Botanas & Bar is housed in an old filling station, and is where to go for Instagram-suitable photos and great cocktails.

3. Discover a little known bit of film history

You may think of Gone With the Wind as being set in the Deep South, which it was. But the opening sequences of the movie were filmed at The Old Mill at T.R. Pugh Memorial Park in North Little Rock. Built in 1933, the mill was designed to look like it was constructed in the 1800s. Pugh Park is also home to many faux bois sculptures (concrete, but designed to look like wood) by Mexican artist Dionicio Rodríguez.

4. Get hip to cheese dip!

By all accounts cheese dip, the favorite appetizer served with chips, was invented in Little Rock in the 1930s, and the city claims it as its own. You’ll see it on the menus of many restaurants (and not just Mexican eateries). Come to town in October for the annual World Cheese Dip Festival, held on the grounds of the William J. Clinton Presidential Library and Museum, and you’ll be able to blind sample many of the best and wackiest.

5. Explore an odd museum

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ESSE Purse Museum | Photo courtesy of Margaret Littman

There are only three purse museums in the world and the only one in the U.S. is in Little Rock. But ESSE Purse Museum is not just a purse museum, it is a women’s history museum, telling their stories through the years, with a separate display for each decade. A fun exhibit allows you to weigh the contents of your own purse and leave notes about what you carry. The gift shop, of course, is first-rate, with purses of all shapes, sizes, and colors.

6. Spy a historic submarine

Maritime Museum

Maritime Museum | Photo courtesy of Margaret Littman

You can explore a fully restored submarine (now docked in the Arkansas River). The Arkansas Inland Maritime Museum Submarine is home to the USS Razorback, which was in Tokyo Bay during World War II. Climb down a narrow ladder and see what life was like for the soldiers who lived in these very close quarters.

7. Spend the night in an old firehouse

Firehouse

Photo courtesy of Margaret Littman

General Douglas MacArthur was born in the one-time military barracks at what is now MacArthur Park. MacArthur Park is a real gem, home to the Museum of Arkansas Military History, the Arkansas Arts Center, and the charming Little Rock Firehouse Hostel and Museum. And, yes, you can sleep there, as the 1917 restored fire station is now a hostel (be sure to take a tour of the museum, whether you stay or not).

8. Visit an urban farm

You can see chickens, goats, pigs and more right in the city at the Heifer Village and Urban Farm. Heifer International’s mission is to help farmers—those in rural communities in the U.S. as well as overseas—develop sustainable methods for feeding their families. In the massive Little Rock headquarters, you can learn all about it thanks to interactive (and free), kid-friendly exhibits on water, farming, animals and more.

9. Sit behind the desk of the Oval Office

There’s an exact replica of the Oval Office at the William J. Clinton Presidential Museum and Library, and you can sit behind the desk. There are said to be more than 80 million pages of paper, 2 million photographs and more than 90,000 artifacts in this giant glass library, which helped transform the banks of the Arkansas River into a vibrant park. To immerse yourself more, stay overnight at the Holiday Inn Little Rock-Presidential-Downtown, which has an almost museum-like collection of President Clinton memorabilia.

10. Take an old streetcar around town

StreetCar

Photo courtesy of Margaret Littman

You may not need a car to see the sights. Much of downtown Little Rock is easily walkable, and the Rock Region METRO Streetcar is completely free for all of 2019. The Blue Line will take you from Little Rock to North Little Rock; the Green Line stays in Little Rock. Both lines use replicas of historic streetcars.

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Margaret Littman
Margaret Littman is both an old-timer and a relative newcomer to Nashville. After graduating from Vanderbilt University, she left Tennessee for points north over the course of her writing career. But after 17 years she could no longer resist the siren song of the Parthenon, bluegrass music, or fried pickles, so she returned to Nashville, where she writes about Music City, Southeast travel, food, entrepreneurs and more. She's the author several guidebooks that she regularly updates, including Moon Tennessee, Moon Memphis, Moon Nashville, and Moon Nashville to New Orleans, a guide to the Natchez Trace Parkway.

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