A Guide to Hot Springs, Arkansas

Hot Springs National Park Visitor Center
••• Wesley Hitt / Getty Images

The historic Arkansas town of Hot Springs is great for families, couples, or single travelers and offers a variety of great eats, local treats, and, of course, hot springs. Great for visiting in the summer, winter, and fall, Hot Springs has something to offer every visitor—the naturalist will find hours of enjoyment there, as will the historian, the antique shopper, and the shopaholic.

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 (we recommend the documentary film festival), shopping, visitor information centers, and the bathhouses.

There is no need to leave the main street if you are just taking a day trip, but there are also a number of things to do around the area if you have a few more days to spend exploring. Read on to help better plan your trip to this hidden gem of Arkansas.

Visit the Heated Springs

Naturally heated "thermal springs" can be found all over the city, but while most of these have been covered due to development, there are still a few active springs tourists can visit. 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, dispensed from spigots 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, and people line up to get a taste. The water is so popular that one man hauled gallon containers from another state to bring some famous Hot Springs water back with him!

Bathhouses, Shopping, and Local Attractions

Everyone's favorite use for Hot Springs water can be found on Bath House Row where there are many historic bathhouse buildings lining the main avenue. Most serve other functions, such as visitor's centers and information buildings, and are no longer used for baths.

In fact, the only operational bathhouse is Buckstaff, which is open year-round and offers thermal baths and massage to visitors for a relatively low price (especially compared to other major cities in the United States).

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 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 to discover in the main strip.

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 at 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 as it's very structured and scripted. However, you can learn how Hot Springs isn't just famous for its water, but also gambling and other illicit activities here.

Also, if you're a fan of horse racing, Oaklawn in Hot Springs is the home of horse racing in Arkansas, having achieved notoriety by producing a number of Kentucky Derby Championship horses throughout the years. Open from January to April, Oaklawn offers an array of living, simulcast, and instant horse racing.

Accommodations in Hot Springs

Hot Springs hotels offer many amenities, but most have the best thermal spas in the region, drawing tourists from around the world to this small Arkansas settlement.

One hotel that has a great spa service is the historic Arlington Hotel, located at 239 Central Avenue, which opened in 1924 and was the biggest hotel in the state at the time; its rooms have slept presidents, celebrities, sports stars, and even Al Capone (he liked room 442 because it overlooked the Southern Club).

Another neat hotel in Hot Springs is the historic Park Hotel, which was completed in 1929. This gorgeous hotel building is a great example of Spanish Revival architecture and is located at 211 Fountain Street. 

Hot Springs also has most of the chain hotels including an Embassy Suites downtown and their Clarion Resort 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) and is located on Lake Ouachita. Mountain Harbor Resort is also on Lake Ouachita but is about 25 miles from Hot Springs and houses the Turtle Cove Spa.

Family Fun and Nature

Hot Springs has many attractions aimed at families. In the warmer months, most families will want to go to the Magic Springs and Crystal Falls amusement park. However, even in the cooler months, there are many things to see that will keep kids occupied.

The Josephine Tussaud Wax Museum, The Maxwell Blade Theater of Magic, and Pirates Cove Putt Putt are all popular family attractions that are right on Central Avenue along with the  Mid-America Science Museum, one the best "hands-on" museum in the states featuring engaging exhibits and fun activities for children.

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 city and its park. The mountain tower is just about five 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.

Outside of downtown Hot Springs, you'll find one of Arkansas' best botanical gardens: Garvan Gardens, located on a 210-acre peninsula on Lake Hamilton. Strolling through the gardens is a relaxing way to spend the day, take photos, or even take your pets for a playdate.

Dining and Food in Hot Springs

Tourists hoping to experience the rich culture of food in this Arkansas town can start their day off with a trip to the famous Pancake Shop at 216 Central Avenue, which features one of the top breakfast menus in the state. Alternatively, visitors can check out  Bleu Monkey Grill, a newer establishment that's great for some California-style American food.

Mary's Cafe & Pie Shop at 432 Ouachita Street or Rolando's at 210 Central Avenue are great spots for lunch, with Mary's offering typical American fare and Rolando's featuring a menu of exquisite Mexican food. For vegetarians, try Cafe 1217 at 1217 Malvern Avenue to sample their fresh sandwiches, salads, and soups as well as a number of quick yet creative options that are mostly vegetarian-friendly.

Belle Arti Italian Ristorante at 719 Central Ave is expensive but really good, but while you may fit in wearing casual clothes, it's probably not a good idea to come after a day of getting drenched at Magic Springs.

Later in the day, try McClards BBQ at 505 Albert Pike Road, one of Bill Clinton's favorites that have been ranked among the best in the state by multiple publications for years.