When Visit Bentonville announced that June is Art and Culinary Month in the northwest Arkansas town, it was hard not to laugh. Try finding a month when art and food aren’t the focal point in Bentonville, about a four-hour drive from Wichita.
Sure enough, event organizers (www.downtownbentonville.org/events/art-and-culinary-festival) have planned special programming, from chef demonstrations to live music performances to film workshops, to boost what has emerged as a respected art, cultural and culinary destination for couples, families and friend getaways.
There’s one reason Bentonville has made it to the list of many travel advisors’ must-see lists: Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. It’s not just the $800 million museum, it’s that the community has used the museum as a catalyst for creating a fun, accessible and affordable recreational tourism destination. The museums are unique to our region – and mostly free – the high south cuisine is abundant and adventurous, and there’s plenty to do outdoors and indoors within walking distance.
When discussing Bentonville tourism, there’s before Crystal Bridges and after Crystal Bridges. Before Crystal Bridges, most visitors to the area were business travelers visiting the headquarters of retail giant Walmart. After Crystal Bridges opened in November 2011, tourism increased. To date, 1.6 million visitors have gone through the doors of the museum, while the Walmart Museum that was drawing 55,000 visitors a year now attracts 250,000. Before Crystal Bridges, Table Mesa Bistro was one of the first new restaurants to open on the downtown square – the center of tourism in Bentonville. Today there are numerous high south cuisine restaurants with award-winning chefs and, food trucks with diners regularly waiting 40 minutes in line to order a crepe. More eateries are under construction. The museum also attracted 21c Museum Hotel, the third in a luxury boutique chain voted among the top in the world. Located just off the downtown square, 21c is the perfect base for a weekend in Bentonville.
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With about 40,000 residents, Bentonville is part of a larger regional area of nearly half a million people that stretches from Bella Vista to the north, Rogers to the east, Springdale 15 miles to the south and the college town of Fayetteville 20 miles south. Benton County and its first town, Bentonville, date back to 1836, the same year Arkansas became the 25th state. But the most important day in the history of Bentonville happened in May of 1950. Sam Walton was scouting northwest Arkansas for a place to open a business because it was not too far from where his wife grew up in Oklahoma. He found a seller on the west side of the square, and Sam’s family moved to Bentonville to open a new Ben Franklin variety store that he called Walton’s 5&10. It was the beginning for the man who would go on to create Walmart.
The original store is still there; it’s red and white awning is also the entrance to the Walmart Museum. You could spend the day eating your way around the square: steel cut oatmeal from nearby War Eagle Mill with a side of house-made sorghum sausage served at the Hive, a morning beverage from the extensive menu of handcrafted espresso drinks and other hot and cold options at Pressroom, a savory buckwheat crepe or a sweet crepe from Crepes Paulette, a cone filled with Sam Walton’s favorite Yarnell’s butter pecan ice cream, dinner from Table Mesa’s Latin-inspired menu and, finally, a dessert called Trot on Over Here at Tusk & Trotter American Brasserie. The dessert was voted best bacon dish in the South by Southern Living magazine.
From the square, it’s a mile walk or bike ride along an art trail to Crystal Bridges’ 120-acre wooded compound. Thanks to the efforts of Walmart heiress Alice Walton and funding from the Walton Family Foundation, a major collection of American art is finally in the middle of America. It’s accessible to many because Walmart sponsors admission making the permanent collection – with five centuries of painting, sculpture, drawing, photography, and installation art in chronological order – free to all. Occasionally special temporary exhibits, like the current Van Gogh to Rothko exhibit featuring 76 masterpieces by 73 influential artists from the late 19th century to present (on display through June 1), charge a $10 fee. Other temporary exhibits this summer include American Encounters: The Simple Pleasures of Still Life from May 16 through Sept. 14, Warhol’s Nature July 4 through Oct. 5 and Jamie Wyeth, July 25 through Oct. 5.
Bentonville’s main attractions
Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art
The museum takes its name from a natural spring on the wooded property that feeds into the museum ponds and the complex’s bridge construction. The Moshe Safdie design is a marvel of bridges, ponds, floor-to-ceiling glass walls and rows of curved wooden beams surrounding by acres of Ozark woods. Be sure to explore the 3.5 miles of heavily-wooded walking art trails and sculptures outside, too. Opening this fall in a spot overlooking Crystal Spring is the Frank Lloyd Wright built Bachman Wilson House that has been moved from the East Coast and reconstructed. Admission to Crystal Bridge’s permanent collection is free, along with audio tours accessible on your phone or by checking out a free device. There’s also a full schedule of free and fee-based activities and tours. www.crystalbridges.org
Tourism in Bentonville revolves around the square. In place of a performance venue, the square plays host to concerts, open-air film screenings and festivals. There’s a seasonal ice rink and a farmers market on Saturdays April 25 through Oct. 31. It’s the hub for local eateries as well as independent boutiques. During the Civil War all but 12 downtown Bentonville buildings were burned. A 1908 statue dedicated to Confederate soldiers stands at the center of the square.
Museum of Native American History
A few miles west of downtown, this free museum looks deceivingly small from the outside. Inside, visitors will find an audio tour through a well laid out collection covering five time periods. The exhibits show the changing lives of Native Americans through their ceramics, textiles, jewelry, clothing, beading, metalwork, and other relics that date back over 14,000 years. Some of the rarest pieces are authentic Mississippian head pots, believed to be the largest public display of these elaborate ceramics in the shape of human heads in one place; eagle feather headdresses; and Lone Dog’s “winter count,” a buffalo hide that records 70 years of memorable events for the Lakota Sioux.
Pea Ridge National Military Park
Within Benton County, there are 140 Civil War sites, although none within Bentonville city limits. Five miles to the northeast, Pea Ridge National Military Park marks a pivotal Civil War battle and is one of the most intact Civil War battlefields.
Peel House Mansion and Heritage Gardens
Built in 1875, this mansion is filled with antiques and artifacts on loan from the Historic Arkansas Museum and the Old State House. Tours are given on the hour for a $3-5 fee. The grounds’ outdoor museum is free and showcases historic roses, perennials and native plants. The museum stores is full of Arkansas-made products. www.peelcompton.org
Scott Family Amazeum
Scheduled to open July 15, the Scott Family Amazeum is being built to bring art and science to life for children and families. Named after retired Walmart CEO Lee Scott and his family, the 50,000-foot museum and one acre of outdoor space will have hands-on activities and interactive exhibits, such as a tinkering studio, climbable tree canopy, indoor caves, a market and art studios.
Slaughter Pen Mountain Bike Trail
The nationally-recognized 20-plus-mile Slaughter Pen Mountain Bike Trail offers a ride for every level. Bring your own bike or rent from Phat Tire Bike Shop. The shop will give you a trail map that offers access to more than 35 miles of interconnected trails, including Slaughter Pen, from its downtown location
Housed in Sam Walton’s original variety store, the Walmart Museum complex is home to a free exhibit gallery, a Walton’s 5&10 selling candy and gifts and Spark Cafe, an old-fashioned soda fountain serving Arkansas-made Yarnell’s Ice Cream, the first brand Sam sold in his stores.
21c Museum Hotel
This boutique hotel is itself a destination, whether or not you’re an overnight guest. The public is encouraged to view its free street-level gallery space filled with curated, rotating exhibitions and dynamic installations of contemporary art. Docent-led tours are offered at 5 p.m. most Wednesdays and Fridays. Look for commissioned works outside, too, and watch for a migrating flock of green penguins. These 4-foot sculptures made of recycled plastic can be anywhere from an elevator to a guest room or accompanying a group at the on-site restaurant and bar, The Hive.