Culture is part of a community’s foundation that sets it apart. In Hot Springs, Arkansas, culture looks like a few different things: an insightful thought brought by the longest continuously-running poetry night in the country, a hearty laugh provided by the Pocket Theatre, the astonishment of witnessing a quirky bathtub race running down a city street, the local love found at every corner in a weekly farmer’s market fit for a Hallmark scene, and every delicious bite taken from savory BBQ or delicate catfish (both a delicacy around here).
Today, we’re going to play culture curious. Take note of anyone interested in diving into Hot Springs’ rich customs, traditions, and heritage — soaking it up for all it’s worth.
Hot Springs has an abundance of cultures uniquely its own. When visiting, there are a few avenues you will want to take to ensure you’re getting the appropriate exposure. When playing culture curious here, there’s a lot of ground to cover. But don’t worry, I’ve got what you need to know before taking flight.
When in Hot Springs, you’re never short of things to do. But a few things that have contributed to the community culture should make your itinerary.
Attend a Wednesday Night Poetry. WNP is the longest continuously-running poetry reading possibly in the world. Since Feb. 1, 1989, this poetry group has met one way or another — through rain, shine, flood, snowstorm, and global pandemic. Now meeting at Kollective Coffee+Tea every Wednesday at 6:30 p.m., come to pour your heart out, or listen with intent, at this free poetry reading that is a surviving community staple. The stamina is admirable. All of the community’s noteworthy artists and artists worldwide have delivered their words here — and invite you.
Catch a show at the Pocket Theatre. The Pocket Theatre is the most charming community theatre around. Tucked away in a warmly-lit red theatre house just off Park Avenue, you will find the Pocket. Inside, community members gather to display productions full of heart. Every community is full of hidden talents, and the Pocket has a small portion of those on full display. Upcoming shows include Little Women, the first two weekends in June, and, The Music Man, the first two weekends in August.
Take a Gallery Walk. Hot Springs’s art culture is thriving. On the first Friday evening of every month, Gallery Walk showcases it. Tour numerous galleries scattered downtown and perhaps even come away with a piece of original artwork or two. Galleries will stay open later than usual, and some serve wine and other refreshments to walkers.
Peruse the Farmer’s Market. The local Farmer’s Market is open for the Main Season from May to October. Every Saturday from 7 a.m. to noon, stroll through the robust options of 100% home-grown produce and vegetables; homemade jellies, different kinds of bread, and other goodies; and handmade items from clothing and soaps to knickknacks. Main Season will extend to Tuesdays from 4-6 p.m. from June to August.
Shop handmade pottery and glass. Among the many great artists in Hot Springs lies a few potters and glassmakers. Visit the Dryden family at Dryden Pottery. Running since 1946, this is a third-generation potter’s shop, offering a variety of unique handmade pottery. And don’t miss a chance to get your hands dirty on a factory tour. Another great potter’s shop to visit is Fox Pass Pottery. See what the Larkin’s have been up to at their shop, a Hot Springs staple since 1973. Want to witness the firey art of glass making? We’ve got that, too. At Riley Art Glass Studio, watch professional glassmakers in the studio up close. Afterward, shop their work!
Go back to The Vapors. In what was once one of the most hopping clubs for famous performers and infamous gangsters, after being shut down for nearly six decades, The Vapors is back as a live entertainment venue. Live as the greats did and catch a live show on the historic stage of The Vapors once again.
Food and drink are essential keys to experiencing one’s culture. In Hot Springs, this lies in three areas: BBQ, catfish, and drink making.
Barbeque is a southern delight and usually signifies a time of gathering among friends and family. Especially in the summertime, a good barbeque is usually only a stone’s throw away in the south. And here in Hot Springs, a few local eateries have perfected the craft of smoked meat to ensure you get your fill: Stubby’s BBQ, McClard’s Bar-B-Q, Jefferson’s Bar-B-Q, Coleman’s BBQ, and Smokin’ in Style BBQ.
What is commonly thought of as no more than a bottom feeder, catfish is a delicacy whether fried, grilled, or baked in the south. See for yourself, and grab a plate of catfish in Hot Springs at Bubba’s, Sam’s, Fisherman’s Wharf, Mr. Whiskers, or Cajun Boilers.
Drink making is so relevant to the local culture of Hot Springs because we have luckily homed some of the best of the best when it comes to breweries, distilleries, and wineries. Superior Bathhouse Brewery is one of the most important to note because they use the actual thermal waters from the hot springs to brew their product. (Bonus: It’s inside a historic bathhouse on Bathhouse Row.) Other fantastic breweries include SQZBX, an outstanding pizza joint, and Bubba Brews, which has one of the best views of Lake Hamilton at sunset. For some of the best moonshine you ever did taste (another thing specific to the south’s menu), look to Crystal Ridge Distillery. And for something a bit lighter, go to the Hot Springs Wineries for Arkansas-made wine with labels paying homage to Hot Springs (Bonus: A tasting of all wine is free!)
Hot Springs is a pretty special place in history. Luckily, preserving this history has been kept a priority among the community. There are countless historical homes here, some transformed into bed and breakfasts. For any culture vulture looking to gain the whole cultural experience, one of the following bed and breakfasts would be the way to go. Look through this list, and try to choose only one of the beautiful luxurious options. Choose two and split your time in half lodging among a few of these historic beauties: The Reserve, Lookout Point, Hilltop Manor, 1890 Williams House, The Gables, Wildwood 1884, or Hamilton House Estate. Then again, who am I to tell you how to live?
And finally, we come to save the dates! One of the best ways to celebrate local culture is by attending annual events in real-time. Lucky for you, in the months to come, Hot Springs will be holding a slew of events that make up essential aspects of its community culture. Check it out below:
Arts and the Park (April 29-May 8) — During this 10-day spring festival, see what Hot Springs and its surrounding areas have to showcase for its arts. In a massive celebration of arts and culture, this is precisely where a culture vulture needs to be.
Hot Springs Children’s Dance Theatre’s Cinderella (May 13-21) — This is your chance to see young local talent offered here! “This Spring, pumpkins will turn to coaches, rags will transform into ball gowns and dreams will come true as Hot Springs Children’s Dance Theatre Company will present Cinderella. The production will feature some of the finest guest artists from around the country. The full-length ballet will be performed in three acts to the magnificent score composed by Sergei Prokofiev.”
Memorial Weekend Fireworks (May 28) — In the largest display of its 75-year history, Hot Springs’ free Memorial Day Fireworks show will return once again, but this time at Memorial Field Airport.
Bridge Street LIVE! (Every Thursday in June) — What better way to dive into a community’s culture than attending giant community-wide block parties held every Thursday in June? Hit Hot Springs’ shortest street downtown for live music and countless vendors for endless fun this June.
Lavender Festival (June 3-4) — In this first-ever health and wellness festival, come out for a good, clean time that includes live entertainment, food trucks, and of course, lavender.
Running of the Tubs (June 4) — In one of the most significant annual events celebrating the history of the Spa City, “bathing the world,” watch whacky bathtub races up and down Central Avenue in front of Bathhouse Row. Don’t miss it. Can’t make it? No worries, catch us on ESPN! It’s the event of the year.
Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “culture opens the sense of beauty.” A community’s culture expresses its historical integrity in the arts that community members consciously and subconsciously cherish. It’s unique traditions that have been passed down and around the area. And when in Hot Springs, Arkansas, allow the culture to consume you as you experience our sense of beauty. It’s all around, culture vulture. You’ve just got to know where to look.
Cassidy is a Hot Springs-based freelance journalist. She spends most of her time exploring and writing about the city for her online platform The Hot Springs Post. In her freetime she enjoys skating, swimming, car camping and spending time with her nieces and nephews. Cassidy aspires to create a positive impact with her writing, be it fun or informative.