Downtown Hot Springs, Arkansas is famous for its iconic Bathhouse Row, Art Deco hotels, gangster history, and immersive art and food scenes. While the spa city makes for an ideal romantic getaway, there are a plethora of attractions in Hot Springs to keep the kiddos amused too! From a gangster museum to Garvan Woodland Gardens, Hot Springs offers an interesting array of activities for families. In this guide, we’ve gathered the best educational sites, hiking trails, and amusement parks in the area and lined out all the details you need to create the perfect trip to this glorious Central Arkansas destination. Consider this your ultimate guide to Downtown Hot Springs, Arkansas!
History of Downtown Hot Springs, Arkansas
Downtown Hot Springs is the epicenter of the Hot Springs National Park, America’s 16th. However, did you know Hot Springs was actually the first federal reservation, designated by President Andrew Jackson way back in 1832? This makes it more than 40 years older than Yellowstone. The site was a designated healing place for Native American tribes for centuries before it was discovered by outsiders. Hernando de Soto was reportedly the first European to visit the site in 1541, and from there, people were hooked!
The national park is unique. It doesn’t include any epic landscapes or geological marvels. Instead, it’s an urban park, the second smallest in the NPS, composed of Historic Bathhouse Row and its healing mineral waters. Hot Springs’ bustling downtown is surrounded by the densely forested Ouachita Mountains, 26 miles of hiking trails, and The Grand Promenade (great for bird-watching).
In 1862, in the midst of the Civil War, the governor moved the capital to Hot Springs due to fear that Little Rock would be besieged. The Arlington Resort Hotel & Spa was erected in 1875, making it the largest hotel in the United States at the time. Two years later, the massive U.S. Army and Navy Hospital was built just down the road, the first hospital of the kind in the nation. Over the next 10 years, eight extraordinary Victorian bathhouses were built on the site of the natural springs, transforming this rugged frontier area into the nation’s premier spa city. The beauty and anonymity of Hot Springs made it the ideal haven for seedy characters in the 1920s (more on that later).
Exploring Historic Downtown Hot Springs, Arkansas
Alright, now that we have the basics tackled, let’s dive into some of the cool things to do in Hot Springs, Arkansas! While the city is a hub for adults with romantic restaurants, glorious spa hotels, fun nightlife, funky boutiques, and a fabulous gambling complex, we are focusing here on more family-friendly activities. Just know that if you want to leave the kiddos with grandma, Hot Springs has plenty on offer for a romantic getaway or adult friends trip!
1. Get your bearings in the Visitor Center.
The Fordyce Bathhouse is an absolute stunner. It’s been completely renovated and equipped with period spa equipment to elegantly display the treatments and culture of the bathhouse experience. The house is the largest on Bathhouse Row, totaling over 28,000 square feet. It was completed in 1915 and cost $212,000 to construct. With marble floors and walls, glistening under the iridescent glow of its stained glass dome, the Fordyce is a mesmerizing trip into a much fancier time. The bathhouse serves as the visitor center for the national park, and park rangers give guided tours.
The Fordyce was a high-tech and luxurious mineral bath experience. The system was far more advanced than just soaking in a hot tub and getting a massage. Back in the day, those with arthritis pain, nerve issues, or chronic headaches would be prescribed a specific treatment and sent to the spa city with a written prescription to “take the waters.”
The Fordyce contained the most advanced medical equipment of the age, and it’s beautifully displayed today in the museum. You’ll explore strange contraptions, the 1920s-era gym, the sleeping quarters, complete with period accessories, the salons and barber shops, and the grand cocktail room. You can even see the underground hot spring in the basement! For a fun and educational experience in Downtown Hot Springs, the Fordyce should be your first stop!
2. Relax with the full treatment.
While the Fordyce Bathhouse now serves as a museum, you can still enjoy a wide range of spa treatments on Hot Springs Bathhouse Row. Quapaw Baths is an eye-catching Spanish-Colonial Revival structure with a marvelous mosaic-tiled dome. Built in 1922, it has been fully restored as a modern spa and offers hot baths, massages, and steam caves. If want a luxurious and modern spa experience, Quapaw Baths is your spot!
If you would rather experience the historic mineral bath itinerary, The Buckstaff Bathhouse still performs the original sequence. You’ll soak in an antique tub and receive a scrub down from the attendant, hop in the sitz bath, soak under hot towels, enjoy some steam, and get a quick massage. Don’t know about you, but I’m all for any history lesson that ends in a massage! I’ve personally experienced the traditional bath at The Buckstaff, and while it lacks the luxury of the Quapaw, I highly recommend it to experience a proper 1920s-era bath.
3. Hang with the gangsters.
As you stroll the funky boutiques and cupcake shops of modern-day Hot Springs, it might be difficult to imagine the streets crawling with bootleggers, gangsters, and prostitutes. However, in the 1930s, that was definitely the case. Hot Springs was known by the underworld as a place of refuge where they could run their rackets without government interference.
The federal government cracked down in the 1960s, declaring Hot Springs the “site of the largest illegal gambling operation in the U.S.” The city was home to the likes of Al Capone, Frank Costello, Lucky Luciano, and Bugs Moran. If you hop into the Ohio Club, you can snag a photo with Al Capone on the bench outside and experience the aura of the Hot Springs’ heyday at the vintage mahogany bar.
Today, the gambling is of the legal sort, but Hot Springs is still a hub. Thousands of big spenders flock to Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort during horse racing season. If you leave the kids at home, you should definitely spend a day at the races. Make sure to chow down on their famous corn beef sandwich!
If you have the kids in tow, check out The Gangster Museum of America! This little museum is tons of fun, with period-dressed guides and an interesting exhibit on the Prohibition Era fiends of Hot Springs. From power brokers to corrupt politicians and mobsters, this quirky museum details it all with authentic photos and gangster paraphernalia, set over six galleries.
4. Do some local shopping.
If your kiddos are rock lovers, then Downtown Hot Springs is going to be a big hit! Central Avenue is crawling with unique clothing boutiques, quirky rock shops, and interesting thrift stores. Take some time to explore the weird and wacky finds.
5. Take a hike.
As you’ll see in later sections, you are going to inhale some major calories while exploring Downtown Hot Springs. That means you’re going to need to get your steps in. Hot Springs is surrounded by trails, and you don’t even have to leave downtown to explore them. The trails are relatively short, starting at the trailhead just behind the bathhouses.
Here are just a few of the awesome trails on offer. Please remember that summer in Arkansas is extremely hot and humid. Ample amounts of water and a good bug spray are necessities. Please remember that summer in Arkansas is extremely hot and humid. Ample amounts of water and a good bug spray are necessities.
The Grand Promenade
For a short, easy trek, take a stroll on The Grand Promenade. This half-mile trail is fully bricked and runs parallel to Bathhouse Row. The trail begins just behind the bathhouses and includes a shaded path, resting benches, views of downtown, and a chess-playing spot!
The Arlington Trail
Pop into the lobby of the Arlington Hotel and ask the staff where the trailhead begins. The Arlington Trail is a short shaded path that connects to Lower Dogwood Trail and weaves its way up North Mountain. It’s one of the best trails that can be accessed directly from Downtown.
Trails Outside of Downtown
There are several fantastic trails just outside of downtown. While the center can get very busy, the trails are ideal for exploring the hidden places in Hot Springs, Arkansas, and escaping the crowds. If you’re into longer hikes, you can connect to them from the centrally located trailheads. If not, there’s parking at the Gulpha Gorge Campground. From there, you can access Gulpha Gorge Trail, Sunset Trail, and Goat Rock Trail.
Sunset Trail offers some of the best hiking near Hot Springs, Arkansas. The trail includes the park’s highest peak and lovely wildflower fields during the spring. It offers incredible scenery and is the longest trail in the park at 10 miles each way. The trail consists of three sections-West Mountain, Sugarloaf Mountain, and Stonebridge Road, each approximately three miles long. It also connects to North Mountain Trail, so you easily make this trail as long or short as you like!
Bring along your Arkansas birding book and keep an eye out for woodpeckers, hawks, eagles, and cardinals. The NPS warns that there are many trail spurs that venture off into private property, so make sure to stay on the marked trail at all times.
Goat Rock Trail
Goat Rock offers some of the most panoramic views over the Ouachita Mountains. The trail is 1.1 miles long and warps around North Mountain. It intersects with Gulpha Gorge and Upper Dogwood Trails if you would like to extend your hike.
6. Go small in Tiny Town.
Tiny Town is a fun tourist attraction for kiddos. Located on Whittington Ave, this unique spot features dozens of fully animated miniature models. From Native American villages to fire stations, sawmills, and fully functioning train stations, Tiny Town is a universe in miniature! Tiny Town is open from 10-3, Monday-Saturday.
7. Explore the Galaxy Connection.
If your crew is into Star Wars and Superheroes, then a visit to Galaxy Connection is a must! The VIP Tour includes over an hour of photo ops with high-grade movie props and all your favorite heroes. You’ll explore the vintage arcade, learn all the behind-the-scenes info on your favorite movies and characters, and peruse the toy store! Galaxy Connection is a labor of love by a local superhero fanatic, and it’s a “Marvel” for your little heroes too. The shop is located on Ouachita Ave and is open Friday-Monday from 10-4 and Thursday from 3-5 p.m.
8. Attend a parade or festival.
Downtown Hot Springs, Arkansas is home to the shortest St. Patrick’s Day Parade in the world! It’s become quite famous and draws tourists from all over the world. The parade takes place on Bridge Street, the world’s shortest street in everyday use. It’s just 98 feet long. It’s all the fun and frivolity of your normal St. Paddy’s Day parade, just in a miniature version!
In October of each year, downtown hosts the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival. Not only does the film festival include screenings of new films, but it also honors notable Arkansans in the film industry and provides educational workshops in filmmaking and storytelling.
There’s also the Valley of the Vapors Music Festival in March, Arts & The Park in April, the Hot Springs Music Festival in June, and many more!
9. Meet the celebs at the wax museum.
The Josephine Tussaud Wax Museum lies at the center of Hot Springs National Park and is a fun stop to meet more than 100 celebrities. The museum is a bit shabby and could use a remodel, but it’s got that funky, vintage charm that Hot Springs is famous for. There’s also a small museum detailing the history of gambling in the city and some fun gangster escape tunnels! It’s located on Central Avenue and is open seven days a week.
10. Learn about local art.
Hot Springs has been voted number 4 on the list of the 100 Best Art Towns in America! Central Ave is loaded with local art galleries and experiences. From glassblowing to pottery, there are tons of craftsmen at work that you can pop in and watch. The Hot Springs Convention Center has a marvelous temporary art gallery, and on the first Friday of each month, the city hosts its Gallery Walk. A tradition for more than 30 years now, galleries all over town premier new exhibits and hold special events for the Gallery Walk. Downtown Hot Springs is also loaded with public art, from gigantic murals to public sculpture gardens, art is all around you!
11. Spend a day at T-Rex Fun Park.
T-Rex Fun Park is an all-in-one adventure zone right in downtown. It features ropes courses, mini-golf, Go-Karts, climbing walls, laser tag, and 5D virtual rides. It’s located on Central Avenue and is open from 11-8 on weekdays and 10-8 on weekends.
12. Peruse Downtown Hot Springs on a scavenger hunt!
Let’s Roam offers an app-guided scavenger hunt that explores all the major landmarks and a few of the hidden places in Hot Springs, Arkansas. Their hunts are budget-friendly and easy to perform. Just download the app, get your tickets, and start the hunt any time you want. On your scavenger hunt, you’ll partake in trivia competitions and solve clues to learn interesting facts. You’ll also take on fun photo and video challenges to earn points and see if you can top the city-wide leaderboard! It’s a fun and unique way to start your trip in Hot Springs as you’ll learn tons of interesting facts and get the lay of the land.
13. Attend a show at Maxwell Blade Theatre of Magic.
If you’re into magic, check out the wild ride at the Maxwell Blade Theatre of Magic. The show includes more than hours of magic, dancing, and comedy by a talented cast of twelve. The theatre is located on Central Avenue and mostly hosts shows on the weekends. Check out their event calendar for details.
Cool Attractions Near Downtown Hot Springs, Arkansas
While you could spend days exploring the wonders of Downtown Hot Springs, the surrounding area is also full of awesome attractions for families. In this section, we’ll leave Central Avenue and explore the lakes, museums, and gardens of Garland County. All of these attractions are a short drive from Hot Springs National Park and make for great day trips.
1. Climb Hot Springs Mountain Tower.
Hot Springs Mountain Tower is a 216-foot steel structure with an elevator to the top. The site has been home to an observation tower of some sort since 1877. Climbing the tower offers a panoramic view of the Diamond Lakes Area and the gorgeous Ouachita Mountains. The tower is located just 1.5 miles outside of town on Hot Springs Mountain Drive. Check out the website for hours of operation, as it varies by season.
2. Visit the Mid-America Science Museum.
A staple field trip for all Arkansas students, the Mid-America Science Museum has been entertaining and educating kiddos since 1979. With over 100 interactive, the museum lets kids learn in a hands-on way. Mid-America is home to Guinness World Record’s most powerful Conical Tesla Coil which you explore in the Tesla Theatre. Enjoy a sensational galactic adventure in the state-of-the-art Digital-Dome Theatre, and share the forest with life-sized dinosaur replicas on the museum’s Dinotrek!
The museum is located just a mile from Downtown Hot Springs on Mid-America Boulevard. Operating hours are Tuesday-Saturday from 9-5 and Sunday from 1-5.
3. Learn about alligators!
Located about 10 minutes from downtown, the Arkansas Alligator Farm & Petting Zoo is home to more than 300 fun critters. Alligators of all sizes, as well as tropical birds, monkeys, and a petting zoo, are waiting for you! The gator farm is one of the oldest Hot Springs attractions. Founded in 1902, patients seeking the thermal spring water often took a break to visit the menagerie of exotic animals, and now you can too! The farm is open seven days a week from 10-5.
4. Get your thrills at Magic Springs
Magic Springs Theme and Water Park is one of the best amusement parks in Arkansas. It’s located just 10 minutes northeast of downtown and is open from April to October. With a series of epic roller coasters, a full water park, and tons of carnival games, there’s plenty to keep you busy for a full weekend. The rides are appropriate for the whole family with options for the tiniest tots to the bravest teens. They host a slew of special events too, including the massively popular “Magic Screams” during the month of October.
5. Indulge in some lake vibes.
The lakes near Hot Springs, Arkansas are known as the Diamond Lakes. In the brutal summers of AR, watersports are the name of the game! With tons of stunning lakeside lodges and Airbnbs, and easy boat rentals, a day on the lake in Hot Springs is a must! Explore the gorgeous shores of Lake Hamilton in Hot Springs, or hang out in Lake Catherine State Park in Malvern. The largest is Lake Ouachita, which is a fantastic spot for fishing, scuba diving in the clear waters, and kayaking!
6. Wander Garvan Woodland Gardens.
One of the most famous attractions in the Hot Springs area is known to locals simply as Garvan Gardens. It boasts one of the largest Christmas light shows in the state, but it’s a wonder all year long. The best thing about this botanical garden is how kid-friendly it is. Garvan Gardens includes traditional Japanese gardens, ancient Asian art, Koi ponds, and the innovative Evan’s Childrens Adventure Garden.
The kid-friendly garden includes a massive suspension bridge, a man-made exploration cave, a waterfall, and a boulder maze! Garvan Gardens is located on Arkridge Road in Hot Springs and is open daily from 10-6. They offer shorter hours in the winter and are closed for the month of January.
Downtown Hot Springs, Arkansas Lodging
Now that we’ve filled your itinerary with incredible attractions, let’s handle some of the trip-planning logistics. When it comes to places to stay in Downtown Hot Springs, Arkansas, you have a plethora of amazing options.
Arlington Resort Hotel & Spa
The Arlington was the first Hot Springs, Arkansas spa resort. It stands stately and strong at the end of Central Avenue in a prominent position in town. The hotel features a fabulous ballroom, a Venetian breakfast lounge, and a fun cocktail bar in the lobby. Book a stay in the Al Capone Suite or one of the traditional mineral water rooms. The resort also features the original spa and vintage barber shops on the lower level.
Climb to the top of the hill on the back of the property and enjoy some time in the mountainside hot tub overlooking downtown. The Arlington is no longer luxurious or fancy, but it’s in the throws of a full-on renovation! The grand old beauty is the best place in town to stay if you want to experience the Hot Springs of the 1920s.
Hotel Hale is a fairly new spot in town, located in the historic Hale Bathhouse. Rooms are a bit pricey, but you’ll enjoy a modern spa experience in the oldest structure on Bathhouse Row.
1890 Williams House Bed & Breakfast
Downtown Hot Springs is home to dozens of adorable Victorian homes that serve as bed and breakfasts. One of the best is the 1890 Williams House Bed & Breakfast on Quapaw Avenue. These homes offer traditional bedrooms with communal breakfasts in quiet homes, owned by locals. Williams House is over 6,000 square feet of Victorian glamour, including a tower room, a wrap-around porch, and 6 luxurious bedrooms. You can also book a spot in the Carriage House. The rooms included jetted tubs, large comfy beds, and the best customer service around!
The Waters Hot Springs
The new kid on the block is known as “The Waters.” It’s located on Central Avenue and is part of the Tapestry Collection by Hilton. It offers modern suites, an on-site restaurant and rooftop bar, and a fitness center.
Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort
If you left the kids at home, then spend your weekend at the luxurious Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort. With a series of suite options, several dining and drinking options, a full spa, and a top-of-the-line casino, you’ve got everything at your fingertips!
Gulpha Gorge Campground
Some of the best camping near Hot Springs, Arkansas is located at Gulpha Gorge. This campsite offers tent and RV camping and is located along a babbling creek. It also offers easy access to all the best Hot Springs, Arkansas hiking.
Best Restaurants Near Hot Springs, Arkansas
Ask any Arkansan in the know, and they’ll likely tell you that Hot Springs is the best place for foodies in the state. Here are a few of our favorite restaurants to indulge in!
Steinhaus is a traditional German restaurant located in a cellar-like atmosphere. It offers a large variety of European brews and tasty German cuisine with live music. It’s not cheap, but it’s worth it!
The Ohio Club
The Ohio Club (in my personal opinion) has the best cheeseburger on the planet. It’s one of the oldest pubs in Downtown Hot Springs, the jaunt of gangsters and ruffians, and it still retains all its original charm. Make sure to ask about the original mahogany bar and come at night for live music!
The Pancake Shop
There is only one place in Hot Springs for breakfast. Everybody who’s anybody is waiting in line for a blueberry buckwheat pancake from The Pancake Shop! You can wait your turn in The Savory Pantry- a conjoining shop that sells local food goods!
Rocky’s is hands-down the best pizza in town. Don’t let anyone tell you any different!
VAULT is a modern American dining spot presented by Praetzel Culinary Arts. It’s been winning all kinds of awards in the culinary world and makes for a perfect date-night dinner.
We’ve chosen five, but please note that there are so many fabulous restaurants near Hot Springs AR. We didn’t even get to McClard’s BBQ, Fisherman’s Wharf, Via Roma, and JB Chophouse! You can seriously eat and drink to your heart’s content in downtown!
Drinking in Downtown Hot Springs, Arkansas
If you’re taking a night out without the children, there are some fabulous brews in Hot Springs. Take a break from Bathhouse Row history and enjoy a local brew in the converted Superior Bathhouse, which is now a brewery with a beautiful Biergarten. For live music and an Irish vibe, pull up a barstool at The Copper Penny. Finally, if you love a good jazz band, show off your steps in the 1920s-era cocktail lounge in the lobby of The Arlington Hotel.
Getting to Hot Springs, Arkansas
Hot Springs is located in Central Arkansas, about one hour SW of the capital of Little Rock. It’s easily reached by major highways from anywhere in the state. Memorial Field is a very small airport near Hot Springs, Arkansas, but you will likely find the best prices by flying into the Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport in Little Rock. You’ll need to rent a car from there, but there is a large and free covered parking garage on Central Avenue in downtown, just across from Bathhouse Row.
Pack Your Bags for Hot Springs!
Hopefully, we’ve convinced you that Downtown Hot Springs, Arkansas needs to be your next family vacation destination! If you enjoy getting back to nature, immersing yourself in local history, and experiencing the slower pace of a bygone era, then there’s no better spot in the state of Arkansas. With beautiful hiking trails, fascinating museums, and the state’s best food, Downtown Hot Springs offers an educational and fun family getaway that you will want to come back to time and time again. See you soon on Central Ave!
For more excellent adventures in The Natural State, “Discover Arkansas in the Fall: From Hiking to Pumpkin Picking!”
Hot Springs isn’t the only spot in the state that knows how to throw a party. Take a look at the “Most Popular Fall Festival in Arkansas: From Pumpkins to Beans” for more family-friendly festivities in Arkansas.