Northwest Arkansas: A Foodie & Art Lover’s Paradise

Christine Tibbetts Avatar

Walking on Coler Mountain Bike Preserve in Bentoville's Northwest Arkamsas

Outdoors isn’t the only place to experience Arkansas which calls itself the natural state.

Inside out – that’s a normal state of affairs in Arkansas because so many grand experiences flow easily from inside to outdoors and back again.

I used to think the state nickname meant going there to hike and bike, camp and kayak. True but not the only things to do in Northwest Arkansas. Here’s what I know up close after a very full weekend in two of the towns in Northwest Arkansas, Bentonville and Fort Smith.

    If you start in the capital city, Little Rock, consider the trip to Bentonville part of the plan, not a commute to simply accomplish. That natural state means grand views.

    Interstate 40 toward Fort Smith and then scenic US Route 71 to Bentonville can deliver awe and wonder. Interstate 49 runs parallel to that scenic road.

    Another option includes the 22 direct flights to Bentonville from all over the country.

    High sidewalk flowers and trees of color in Northwest Arknsas
    Tulips burst from sidewalk flower beds and trees of color reach high on downtown Bentonville streets. Photo credit: Christine Tibbetts

    Bentonville Really Believes in Beauty

    Maybe that’s because of so much free art, inside museums and galleries, office spaces, restaurants AND outdoors too.

    Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art put Bentonville on the map for travelers craving art museums. American art is the focus here – but so is the land. 120 acres of Ozarks to be precise, with five miles of walking trails.

    Scenery views and arts in Crystal Bridges in Norhwest Arkansas
    Looking at art in Crystal Bridges often means also looking at forests, waterways, and other wings of the museum. A carefully integrated expansion is underway, to increase the size by 50 percent. Photo credit: Christine Tibbetts

    True to Arkansas style, lots of windows guarantee a connection to the woods and waterways from which Crystal Bridges seems to emerge. Art, architecture, and nature feel like one.

    This is the Walton family homeland, and stories of happy childhood memories wrap into docent tours of which there are many. It’s easy in this free museum to join a 45-minute walking info session.

    SheBuysTravel Tip: Download the CB Outdoors app for trail maps and guides to plants and art. Keep an eye out for the eco-boxes throughout the grounds. A hand crank triggers the sounds of birds and animals, plus information about native plants and trail art.

    Gorgeous icicle that  means “look up” as well as forward and sideways in Northwest Arkansas
    Chihuly is the artist and Moshe Safdie the architect. That means “look up” as well as forward and sideways. Photo credit: Christine Tibbetts

    The Crystal Bridges collection spans five centuries of American art, but that’s not enough. New visitor art matters too.

    “Make Art Any Time” is a studio space where everybody can create something. Plus, there’s a big bucket of sharp pencils.

    Read More: Best Family Adventures in Northwest Arkansas

    Crystal Bridges Invites Everyone

    Helping everybody see the art fully is a Crystal Bridges distinctive too: very close to the entrance is a QR code to take a two-minute test to see if you‘re colorblind! Solution?

    Glasses are available right away.

    The collection of five centuries of American art quickly points out that Christopher Columbus wasn’t the first, that European influences weren’t the only ones and so does the arrangement of all the art. Crystal Bridges is not a gallery of this century or an exhibition of that era. Curators arrange works in ways to trigger new thoughts, or comparisons—or raise questions.

    Bridging ideas perhaps? Things to do in Northwest Arkansas in this spot most definitely include robust observations and experiences.

    Green penguin pops up in an elevator in Northwest Arkansas
    Prepare for a penguin to pop up anywhere, even your elevator. Maybe move him yourself. Photo credit: Christine Tibbetts

    21c Museum Hotel Bentonville

    Penguins like to stay in 21c Museum hotels; Bentonville’s are all green. Orange is the penguin color in the St. Louis version.

    Contemporary art is another “must have” in all eight 21c hotels—strictly 21st-century works. In Bentonville, several large art pieces are sculpted and seem to fly from the lobby ceilings.

    All 104 guest rooms in the Bentonville 21c Museum Hotel feature face pillows—dog and ostrich were in my room, filling the full square of the sofa pillow. Bees were only art forms, not honey-makers in The Hive restaurant and cocktail bar.

    Broken rim tree in Northwest Arkansas
    The unexpected should be expected in 21c hotels. Should you play ball, or just wonder? Photo credit: Christine Tibbetts

    Breakfast at The Hive was superb: eggs on quinoa for me.

    The hotel is downtown, walkable to a square of abundant flowers with people gathering en route to restaurants, or maybe just because the space is pretty. A compelling second-story bank of neon lights in geometric shapes slows returning to the 21c Museum Hotel – they demand stopping and staring.

    SheBuysTravel Tip: Connect to Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art from the hotel with a well-maintained two-mile walk on trails with art and native plants. Or a bicycle. They’re popular in Bentonville.

    People gather in Bentonville, and connect their green spaces into linear parks in Northwest Arkansas.
    People gather in Bentonville and connect their green spaces into linear parks. Photo credit: Christine Tibbetts

    That square is one of six becoming a quilt of parks–linear, connected, flowing intentionally. At least one emphasizes wheelsports—all kinds of bicycling.

    Bar Cleeta Downtown Dining

    Thank goodness for plate sharing because the menu at Bar Cleeta does not facilitate narrowing down to one entrée.

    Husband-wife owners Trae and Weisi Basore draw on restaurant experience in New York City, New Orleans and Los Angeles – cooking of course but also emphasis on wine pairings. Cleeta I did not meet, but learned she was a beloved family grandmother.

    My table of four delighted in beet carpaccio, wild baby arugula, duck rillette with red onion jam and chicken croquette with fermented aioli.  And that was just our starters.

    Bar Cleeta's presentation of beets next to arugula with red onion jam and sourdough just behind in Northwest Arkansas
    Presentation is part of the pleasure of dining in Bar Cleeta, with portions suitable for sharing. Beets next to arugula with red onion jam and sourdough just behind! Photo credit: Christine Tibbetts.

    A tarte of mushrooms and fontina joined six-day Wagyu brisket and roasted ricotta cavatelli with pancetta and mustard greens as our shared main dishes. Mousse two ways was dessert: chocolate one serving and key lime the other. Even the graham crackers were made in-house.

    Bar Cleeta is an intimate size so table conversations are actually audible. Dinner is served until 8:00 p.m. – feels like the focus is food with wine.

    Fusion of artistry with history in the Museum on Native American History in Northwest Arkansas
    Artistry merges with history throughout the Museum of Native American History in Bentonville. Photo credit: Christine Tibbetts

    Museum of Native American History

    The journey possible to take in Bentonville’s Museum of Native American History is 24,000 years back in time.

    Don’t assume anything routine by the tipi and arrowheads in the front lawn, or the bellowing 12,000-year-old wooly mammoth skeleton serving as a doorbell. This is archeology with stunning face pots and animal effigies, Kachina dolls representing cosmological spirits, and masterful weaving with beads and feathers.

    Kachina dolls representing cosmological spirits, masterful weaving with beads and with feathers in Northwest Arkansas
    Cosmology matters when looking at the Kachina dolls. Spirits are to be considered, and respected. Photo credit: Christine Tibbetts

    Groupings are small and signage succinct, so learning is easy.

    SheBuysTravel Tip: Choose a hand-held listening device because messages are only 30 seconds! No need to shy away, fearing you’ll hear more than you really want.

    David Bogle expanded a boyhood love of collecting arrowheads to the current collection honoring indigenous people from all over the Americas. Even the gift shop is real-deal art, made by indigenous people.

    I feel challenged keeping eras like Paleo and Archaic and Pre-Columbian straight, but I knew clearly here that I was in a respectful place, honoring the ancients and the Quapaw, Caddo and Osage people who had lived on this specific land.

    Pots in the shape of heads that evoke wonderment about their models in Northwest Arkansas
    Heads pots date from 1200 – 1550, evoking wonderment about their models. Photo credit: Christine Tibbetts

    Bogle’s signage records the Trail of Tears in 1838 as an injustice, and also evidence of resilience. The museum also provides a research library to use on-site. Admission is free.

    Venetian glass jewels of many colors embedded by hand in the concrete representing Mosaic insects in Northwest Arkansas
    Venetian glass is the treasure in dozens of mosaic insects set into six stories of biking/walking floors in The Ledger, shared office spaces and a rooftop patio bar. Photo credit: Christine Tibbetts

    Ledger – A New Way To Consider a Building

    Bike riders in Bentonville know switchbacks aren’t just in the forests. They are also part of a six-story downtown building known as the Ledger. Ride your bike to the rooftop bar, or just take the kids for a big view of this city of 52,000 people.

    Who would know to list riding a bike in an office building a bucket list for things to do in northwest Arkansas?

    Full disclosure: I took the elevator up and walked down but plenty were pedaling past me in both directions. Mosaics of beetles and other insects shine up from this smooth path—Venetian glass jewels of many colors embedded by hand in the concrete. The bugs are way larger than life size, just as art everywhere in Bentonville seems to be more than the average.

    Impossible not to follow the neon lights wall, and equally impossible to figure out if there is a pattern to the shapes in Northwest Arkansas
    Impossible not to follow the neon lights wall in downtown Bentonville, and equally impossible to figure out if there is a pattern to the shapes. Photo credit: Christine Tibbetts

    Oz Art might be one of the reasons why. Since 2017, they’ve been adding murals and sculpture in city spots and trails for hiking and cycling. And bejeweled insects too.  That neon geometry display near the 21c Museum Hotel? Probably.

    Visiting Bentonville creates a sense of connection among its people and places.

    Fort Smith, South of Bentonville

    Three layers of how people lived history fill a visit to Fort Smith in Northwest Arkansas with hands-on detail.

    Yes, there are restaurants and familiar lodging options, parks and bike trails, a symphony and a little theater, but three Fort Smith experiences stand out as “only-here” compelling:

    • ·       United States Marshals Museum
    • ·       Miss Laura’s Bordello
    • ·       Fort Smith National Historic Site

    U. S. Marshals Museum

    The United States Marshals Museum – opened in 2023 — uses bold graphics and engaging interactive exhibits to wind the old west tales of U.S. marshals around the role they’ve played ever since.

    You can play some poker in the saloon, sit around a campfire where marshals of different eras reminisce about what they call “the thin line that exists between decency and lawlessness.”

    Creative, bold graphic exhibits telling big stories of the timeline of transportation used by U.S. marshals in Northwest Arkansas
    This timeline of transportation used by U.S. marshals is one of many creative, bold graphic exhibits telling big stories clearly. Photo credit: Christine Tibbetts

    Marshals conducted the first census; today they partner with ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) to transport people away. Sometimes now we call them sky marshals.

    SheBuysTravel Tip: Think about how new this museum is and notice the language—-history is told with new understandings, not just repeating old versions. For instance, the Indian Removal Act of 1830 “violated treaties guaranteeing tribal nations rights to their land” is simply shared as fact.

    Bass Reeves fits right in with all the dimensions of the U.S. Marshals Museum: a big story of a formerly enslaved man who becomes a marshal. There’s a streaming movie series all about him and, elsewhere in northwest Arkansas, a sculpture of Reeves on horseback in the Fort Smith Pendergraft Park.

    Marshals themselves raise questions to help visitors think deeply. Choose which ones you want to hear from on an interactive video and audio panel.

    Compelling and engaging graphic exhibits in the U.S. Marshals Museum in Northwest Arkansas
    Exhibits in the U.S. Marshals Museum vary widely with compelling graphics and engagement. Photo credit: Christine Tibbetts

    This is a place to muse about the rights of fugitives (do they have ‘em?) in the exhibit about the Ruby Ridge standoff. Marshals were there. Stand in the center of the desegregation gallery. Just be, and feel the totality of the issues and efforts. Training simulators let visitors see if they’re up to acting decisively under stress. “No 20/20 hindsight” with their decisions is the lesson.

    Take a seat in the gallery with a huge movie screen where marshals explain a case and ask for strategic responses. Getting it right fast is the lesson.

    Going slow and reflectively is the lesson for doing the United States Marshals Museum right. Worth half a day, or more with a picnic on the grounds.

    A massive sculpture named “The Lighthorseman” that is in view of the U.S. Marshal's Museum in Northwest Arkansas
    Stories of how marshals worked on America’s western frontier include relationships with tribes in Oklahoma today. “The Lighthorseman” is in view of the museum’s Hall of Honor. Photo credit: Christine Tibbetts

    Outside, looking toward Oklahoma is a massive sculpture named “The Lighthorseman” created by Daniel Horsechief, Cherokee/Osage artist, and commissioned by the Intertribal Council of the Five Civilized Tribes of Oklahoma.

    Delving into the history of the Lighthorse who worked with U.S. Marshals are a remarkable new awareness before even going inside the museum.

    A red lamp in the parlor of Miss Laura's S
    Miss Laura’s Social Club indeed! Find this red lamp in the parlor, not the bedroom. Photo credit: Christine Tibbetts

    Bordello – Officially a Place of Historic Interest

    Should you smile a bit self-consciously going in or out of an honest-to-goodness bordello?

    The one in Fort Smith, Arkansas has credentials: listing in the National Register of Historic Places. And the tour guide through downstairs parlors and upstairs bedrooms spouted history with the assurance of a well-trained history museum docent.

    Miss Laura’s Social Club was sometimes the name of the house Laura Ziegler had built in 1898 for the purpose of prostitution. Workers needed to renew business licenses every month.

    One of the bordello bedrooms located in the second floor in Northwest Arkansas
    Find the bordello bedrooms on the second floor. Photo credit: Christine Tibbetts

    Kind of funny, the Fort Smith Convention & Visitors Bureau also uses the property as Miss Laura’s Visitor Center.

    Details abound here, not giggles but business information. Like an eight-foot fence required to block the view from the public (even though the bedrooms are on the second story.) A bibliography of 26 publications all about bordello business is available in the foyer, just in case more insight is of interest.

    House of Prostitution that was launched in 1898 and is today nationally a registered historic site in Fort Smith, Northwest Arkansas
    1898 was the launch for this new house of prostitution, today a nationally registered historic site in Fort Smith. Photo credit: Christine Tibbetts.

    Western Frontier Fort – Namesake for the Town

    The nature of the Natural State all around Fort Smith is wonderful, overlooking the juncture of the Arkansas and Poteau rivers at Belle Pointe.

    But the Fort is daunting with its gallows and “hell-on-the-border” jail.

    Respect and admiration for Judge Isaac C. Parker who presided over 13,000 criminal cases is shared readily by tour guides and on museum posters.

    You can play judge, juror, defendant and attorney in his simulated courtroom, a surprise among the things to do in Northwest Arkansas.

    Courtroom providing historic experiences in the National Historic Site of Northwest Arkansas
    The National Historic Site capturing the essence of Fort Smith’s fort provides real interactive experiences, including this courtroom. Photo credit: Christine Tibbetts

    Seems he opposed the death penalty, and believed in prisoner rehabilitation. Even so, Parker sentenced 160 men to death, 79 of whom were hanged.

    That one-room basement jail held 100 men at a time, with two buckets for sanitation, emptied once a day. Journalist Anna Dawes published the expose calling this jail “a medieval barbarity.”

    But Judge Parker was also anti-slavery and for women’s suffrage.

    Walk the National Historic Site trails, especially to the Trail of Tears overlook. Information here matches the history told in the United States Marshals Museum: The Indian Removal Act of 1830 forcibly relocated the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Muscogee (Creek) and Seminole tribes from their ancestral homelands.  

    The Elvis Presley Famous Haircut

    Amazing what survives (and thrives) as history triggering a reason for a trip about things to do in Northwest Arkansas.

    The 1958 Elvis Presley haircut and sideburn removal when he entered the Army happened in Fort Smith. So did lots of other GI buzz cuts.

    Chaffee Crossing is the name of the historic district with the Barbershop Museum, and also a Veterans Memorial Plaza, honors Fort Chaffee’s role in World War II, Korean War, relocation center for Vietnamese and Cuban refugees and Hurricane Katrina evacuation center.

    Today, 7,000 acres are all about economic redevelopment.

    Christine Tibbetts Avatar
    Christine Tibbetts believes family travel is shared discovery — almost like having a secret among generations who travel together. The matriarch of a big blended clan with many adventuresome traveling members, she is a classically-trained journalist. Christine handled PR and marketing accounts for four decades, specializing in tourism, the arts, education, politics and community development.  She builds travel features with depth interviews and abundant musing to uncover the soul of each place.
    Read full bio

    Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *