There’s a magnetism specific to the lush, sweeping southern Ozarks, where soft plateaus give way to the towering peaks of the Boston Mountain range. Here, the mountains don’t spike upward so much as roll forth, dotted by dogwoods and otherwise carpeted in an emerald veneer of shortleaf pine and proliferate kudzu.
Limestone bluffs jut out from within mountain folds, suspended in mid-air over clear streams and meandering rivers. The range’s contours are so gentle you can see for miles without being atop any particular summit. It’s easy, in the throes of that aerial hypnosis, to imagine how sojourners arriving at the Ozarks’ threshold might pause and decide to stay a while, the urgency of their journey evaporating with the mountain mist.
Whatever has drawn people to Northwest Arkansas, it’s kept them here years later. The area’s population has boomed over the past three decades, much of it lured here by steady corporate gigs at Walmart and Tyson Foods. Along with those C-suite execs who migrated from across the country has come a profound growth in cultural riches, from the world-class art museum and High South culinary ventures to niche theater troupes and one of the finest coffee roasters in the country.
Get lost in the stacks
The two best independent bookstores in Arkansas are a few hundred feet apart. The stalwart Dickson Street Bookshop (325 West Dickson St., Fayetteville, Ark., 479-442-8182, dicksonstreetbooks.com) is a 40-year-old Fayetteville fixture on the main cultural thoroughfare in town. A dusty, boundless labyrinth of used and rare finds, its bookkeepers are always ready to talk shop. Around the corner at Nightbird Books (205 West Dickson St., Fayetteville, Ark., 479-443-2080, nightbirdbooks.com) you’ll find volumes of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Black Panther series mere feet away from cookbook displays and a copy of Allan Zola Kronzek’s Grandpa Magic. Don’t overlook the floor-to-ceiling octagonal birdcage and the store’s namesake pets fluttering inside.
Sip on the bean or the barley
It’s Friday afternoon, and you’re on vacation: Do you caffeinate or imbibe? Puritan Coffee & Beer (205 W. Dickson St., Fayetteville, Ark., 479-301-2365, puritancoffeebeer.com) settles this debate. An elevated patio affords taproom patrons an eagle’s-eye view of bustling Dickson Street. The espresso comes with notes on bean origin, process method and the brew’s palate. Twenty-plus craft beers make up the ever-revolving draft menu and rotate so quickly the taps are each flagged with a clip-on index card. Those bulging, black vacuum-sealed cubes of coffee stacked on the Puritan shelves? Those come from the nationally renowned Onyx Coffee Lab (2418 North Gregg Ave., Fayetteville, Ark., 479-444-6557, onyxcoffeelab.com). Onyx takes its craft seriously: A Day of the Dead-style skull print in the restroom hisses the words “small batch,” and the origin story on the Onyx website is a stultifying 1,600-word manifesto. Check out the “Adventure” section of the coffee menu, where you’ll find brews accented with bone broth, activated charcoal and black salt.
Dine at a beloved Fayetteville dive
Anyone who’s ever paid a month’s rent in downtown Fayetteville can likely still rattle off their go-to dish at Hugo’s (25 ½ North Block Ave., Fayetteville, Ark., 479-521-7585, hugosfayetteville.com), the venerable below-ground cafe at the eastern end of the campus corridor. Once a typewriter shop and still a cavernous basement, Hugo’s specializes in dynamite Angus burgers cooked as rare as you fancy, hand-cut fries and house-made quiche. Let your eyes adjust to the red glow emanating from the neon signs on the basement walls, order something strong from the bar, and finish things off with the minty Grasshopper Crepes. Or, if the Razorback game just let out and restaurant lines on Dickson Street are dozens of day drinkers deep, consider paying homage to a Fayetteville institution, Herman’s Ribhouse (2901 N. College Ave., Fayetteville, Ark., 479-442-9671, hermansribhouse.com). Since 1964, the joint’s red-and-white checkered table tops have housed platters of criminally tender dry-rub ribs, behemoth bone-in ribeye steaks and shrimp remoulade, all accompanied by a dish of saltine crackers for dipping into the signature house salsa.
Nightcap at the Smoke & Barrel
Chances are you won’t saunter into the Smoke & Barrel Tavern (324 W. Dickson St., Ste. 2, Fayetteville, Ark., 479-521-6880, smokeandbarrel.com) by accident, given it’s off-Dickson real estate. With dirt-cheap drink specials, a 2 am closing time and enough whiskey varieties to furnish a tasting session among friends (or to fuel a barrage of bad decisions), the clandestine pool hall is a favorite of employees of Fayetteville’s thriving service industry. Keep your eyes peeled, too, for posters advertising the live music schedule across the street at George’s Majestic Lounge (519 W. Dickson St., Fayetteville, Ark., 479-527-6618, georgesmajesticlounge.com), a longtime platform for compelling performances from local and touring musicians alike and home to an archive of University of Arkansas yearbooks dating back to 1907.
Eat Arkansas for breakfast
Since it opened in 2014, The Farmer’s Table Cafe (1079 S. School Ave., Fayetteville, Ark., 479-966-4125, thefarmerstablecafe.com) has garnered deserved praise from Pharrell Williams and The Food Network alike. Maybe it’s because its meticulously crafted menu is so inextricably tied to the soil around it, channeling a wave of retail dollars into the pockets of Arkansas farmers. Or maybe it’s because it’s delicious. The three varieties of pancakes — sweet potato, coconut almond and standard cake — are the fluffy stuff of dreams.
Pit stop for chocolate
A scenic detour to Kyya Chocolate (278 N. Elm St., Springdale, Ark., 844-281-4470, kyyachocolate.com) in Elm Springs affords you a reprieve from the highway with rolling hills and pastoral farmland, but it’s also a chance to sample bean-to-bar wares like caramel bonbons and Ugandan chocolate bars infused with cinnamon, pretzel bits or Kenyan coffee.
Take to the sky in East Bentonville
In 1929, aviatrix and Bentonville native Louise Thaden broke the women’s record for endurance with a flight lasting 22 hours, 3 minutes and 12 seconds. Ninety years later, there’s Louise Thaden Field (2205 S.W. I St., Bentonville, Ark., 479-254-0817, thadenfield.com), a sleek airfield alongside Lake Bentonville bearing her name. The site is home to a flight school and diner and serves as a hub for the local flying club. Book a 30-minute “Discovery Flight” on a Cessna 150/172, stroll along the terraced patio, or snap a photo with the candy apple red F2G-1 Super Corsair parked in the hangar lobby.
Grab a handheld
Once a cult favorite food truck, Crepes Paulette (100 S.W. Eighth St., Ste. 4, Bentonville, Ark., 479-250-1110, crepespaulette.com/8th-street) is now a storefront near the Bentonville Town Square. Part eatery, part food performance, the creperie-side window lets you watch while the paper-thin crisps are formed on the griddle and then stuffed with savory fillings like Black Forest ham and Tillamook sharp cheddar — or, for those with sweet tooths, apple butter, raspberry jam or Reese’s peanut butter chips.
Take the art trail to a world-class art museum
Take the 20-minute walk along Bentonville’s Crystal Bridges Trail to one of the finest and fiercest museums in the American South, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art (600 Museum Way, Bentonville, Ark., 479-418-5700, crystalbridges.org). The 120-acre museum park boasts free admission to its permanent collection, with works by Pollack, O’Keefe, Warhol and Rothko, as well as temporary exhibitions designed to challenge and provoke the viewer. That’s to say nothing of the surrounding network of trails, or the museum’s architectural acquisitions — a Usonian Frank Lloyd Wright house and a 50-foot “Fly’s Eye Dome” by inventor R. Buckminster Fuller, for example. In the unlikely event you leave feeling like you’ve seen everything there is to see, head over to the Museum of Native American History (202 S.W. O St., Bentonville, Ark., 479-273-2456, monah.us), where you’ll find a 14,000-year span of archives and artifacts.
Embrace the hive mind
A 1962 Fleetwood Cadillac limousine covered entirely in coins and giant penguin figurines leads the way into this hybrid hotel, restaurant and art museum. The Hive (200 N.E. A St., Bentonville, Ark., 479-286-6575, thehivebentonville.com) is a two-forks, two-knives sort of eatery, with a modern bee-themed art installation that encases each room therein. Dinner is accompanied by thoughtful touches — a house-made cornbread with sorghum butter alongside the meal, a whimsical tuft of cotton candy presented in a vase at the diner’s departure. Or, trade the hive for the holy, and order up steak frites with chimichurri at The Preacher’s Son (201 N.W. A St., Bentonville, Ark., 479-445-6065, thepreachersson.com) a stellar upscale American restaurant situated within a former church. You’ll dine in light refracted by stunning glass artist George Dombek, all under a grid of 288 5-inch gold church bells.
Go, hogs, go
Your best bet for Sunday brunch is Tusk & Trotter (110 S.E. A St., Bentonville, Ark., 479-268-4494, tuskandtrotter.com), a corner gastropub in downtown Bentonville that not only sources its ingredients locally but also makes no bones about celebrating the more visceral parts of the butcher’s process, with homemade pork rinds and a gargantuan mural of a pig fragmented into its edible parts. Order the house-made sodas, the carrot cake waffle or the brasserie’s That’s Belly Bovine, a set of braised pork belly cubes arranged atop a marrow-filled bone with whipped potatoes, pickled vegetables and a smoked jowl-fig gastrique.
Where to stay
Dickson Street Inn
The 10-room Dickson Street Inn (301 W. Dickson St., Fayetteville, Ark., 479-695-2100, dicksonstreetinn.com), a Victorian house built in 1894, expanded and was reimagined as a boutique bed and breakfast as a cultural boom sprung up around it. The inn features a wrap-around covered front porch and a patio deck overlooking Dickson Street, and consistently inventive programming from the Walton Arts Center (495 W. Dickson Street, Fayetteville, Ark., 479-443-5600, waltonartscenter.org) is a few footsteps away.
Quaint and quirky it is not, but The Chancellor Hotel (70 N.E. Ave., Fayetteville, Ark., 479-442-5555, hotelchancellor.com) is your best bet for maximum privacy and for any fellow travelers who might crave the creature comforts of upscale lodging: iPod docks, flat-screen TVs, a gym. Plus, it’s situated perfectly between the Fayetteville Town Square and Dickson Street, leaving many of your destinations within walking distance.
Flamingo Springs Trailer Park Resort
You’ll have to duck south of Fayetteville for it, but a stay at the 21+ Flamingo Springs Trailer Resort (15475 Greasy Valley Road, Prairie Grove, Ark., 479-824-1021, flamingospringstrailerresort.com) is a destination unto itself. Six vintage Airstream trailers, each with a different theme (one’s a pitch-perfect shrine to TV’s Friends named “The one with the Trailer”), are situated around an Astroturf-lined swimming pool in the middle of 50 acres of woodland. On your way back into town, pick up the best chocolate croissant in the region at Briar Rose Bakery & Deli (28 E. Main St., Farmington, Ark., 479-300-6027, nwacottage.com), a sunny Bavarian-style cottage where the coffee bar features canisters of freshly whipped cream and there’s an entire oven devoted to cinnamon rolls.