12 Things To Do in Fort Smith, Arkansas

Last Updated on February 13, 2024 by Emily Johnson

Fort Smith is a historic and vibrant city located along the Arkansas River in western Arkansas. It offers a unique blend of history, culture, outdoor adventures and family fun. Whether you’re traveling as a couple, family or solo, there are plenty of interesting things to experience in Fort Smith to fill your itinerary.

From exploring a national historic site and a top-ranked zoo to trying some delicious local barbecue, browsing museums and enjoying the great outdoors, Fort Smith has something for everyone.
To help you make the most of your visit, we have put together this list of the 12 best things to do in Fort Smith, Arkansas.

Explore the grounds of Fort Smith National Historic Site

One of the top things to do in Fort Smith is explore the extensive grounds and exhibits at the Fort Smith National Historic Site located in the heart of downtown. As the first American settlement in Indian Territory, Fort Smith played a pivotal role in the history of westward expansion and frontier justice in 19th century America.

The star of the park is the still-standing 1838 garrison that once imprisoned the famous outlaws and gunslingers of the Old West. In addition to touring the fort and jailhouse, you can also check out exhibits detailing the history of the region and infamous figures like “Judge” Isaac Parker, known for bringing law and order to the region, earning Fort Smith the nickname “Hell on the Border”.

Check out the Unexpected Project’s creative art murals

Fort Smith’s Unexpected Project has helped transform the city into an impressive open-air art gallery thanks to the many giant murals depicting anything from wildlife scenes to famous figures now found emblazoned on exterior walls throughout downtown.

You can download maps and guides online detailing the various murals painted by renowned artists, but one of the best ways to enjoy them is just to walk or bike around the streets of downtown and the River Park and come across them as colorful surprises. Make sure not to miss the massive gateway murals greeting visitors near the historic district and the 64.6 ft Tower of Time featuring sculptures, mosaics and reliefs that commemorate Fort Smith’s past.

Tour the Fort Smith Museum of History

To dig deeper into the frontier history and culture that helped shape Fort Smith, spend some time at the Fort Smith Museum of History. Housed in the refurbished 1906 Atkinson-Williams Warehouse Co. Building, the museum features rotating exhibitions related to the region’s history.

Permanent installations provide an in-depth look at the daily lives of residents from the 1820s through the end of WWII. Native American tools and artifacts along with 1800s toys, clothing and a recreated print shop workspace bring the past to life. The facility also includes a preserved 1882 courtroom from the famed Isaac Parker era.

Spend a day at the Fort Smith Trolley Museum

All aboard for a fun and informative tour into how electric rail helped transform cities like Fort Smith in the early 20th century. The Fort Smith Trolley Museum is home to a sizeable collection of vintage electric trolleys including multiple models from the Fort Smith Street Railway Company which kept the city on the move between 1876 and 1939.

In addition to appreciating the variety of vehicles under one roof, you can climb aboard one of the restored trolley cars as it makes the 2-mile loop around the museum’s track giving you a taste of what it was like to ride the rails a century ago.

Check out the critters at the Fort Smith Regional Art Museum

Along with impressive collections of American art and fine crystal and glass objects, the Fort Smith Regional Art Museum is also home to some rather unique permanent residents – various reptiles, amphibians, arachnids, insects and small mammals! These critters are incorporated into one of the museum’s most popular attractions – Art Alive!

Featuring live animals like snakes, turtles and spiders paired with artworks depicting their likeness, Art Alive! takes visitors through interactive galleries focused on different habitats from the Ozarks to the rain forest. Kids and adults alike will appreciate getting to see some foreign yet fascinating creatures up close they might not normally encounter.

Sample the ’cue at a local barbecue joint

The South is known for its lip-smacking barbecue, and Fort Smith has plenty of joints serving up the region’s distinctive sweet and tangy tomato and vinegar-laced sauces and melt-in-your-mouth smoked meats. Two of the best places to try authentic Ozarks-style barbecue in Fort Smith are Ribs N More Bar-B-Q and Wise Pies Pizza & BBQ.

At Ribs N More Bar-B-Q, locals rave about the tender baby back ribs, brisket sandwiches, smoked bologna and hot links paired with all the classic sides like baked beans and potato salad. Wise Pies Pizza & BBQ is a casual order-at-the-counter spot cranking out tasty barbecue platters, sandwiches and pizzas at affordable prices. For some sweet heat, try one of their barbecue chicken or pulled pork pizza topped with a spicy sauce.

See rare zoo animals at the Fort Smith Children’s Zoo

Consistently ranked as one of Arkansas’ top attractions, the small yet impressive Fort Smith Children’s Zoo packs a lot of exotic animal encounters into its compact space situated within River Park along the Arkansas River.

Visitors of all ages will enjoy getting to see elusive species from around the world like the ring-tailed lemur, red panda, bald eagle, alpaca and capybara among the nearly 180 animals who call the zoo home. Friendly staff and docents are on hand to answer questions about the residents. Make sure to also carve out time to ride the zoo’s hand-carved carousel featuring endangered animals before you leave.

Pig out at Pig Little’s BBQ

While Pig Little’s bills itself as “the world’s smallest BBQ,” it serves up some of the city’s biggest and best barbecue flavors. Chef and owner, Roger McColl, takes a culinary-minded approach to preparing traditional barbecue like slow-smoked pork, chicken and savory sides like baked beans, mac and cheese, coleslaw and cornbread. Everything is made from scratch with skill and care.

So, don’t let the tiny hole-in-the-wall dining room fool you. Their ribs, brisket and baked beans are the barbecue benchmark that other Fort Smith BBQ joints strive to reach. Of course, serving barbecue out of a pint-size log cabin does mean seating is extremely limited, thus carry-out is recommended.

Rent kayaks and canoes at River Park

One of the most scenic areas to explore in Fort Smith and a hub for outdoor recreation is River Park situated along the banks of the Arkansas River as it flows through the city. Visitors to the park will find tree-lined trails, playgrounds and picnic areas along with opportunities for river activities.

River Park’s Dragon Hill Canoe & Kayak Rentals outlet makes it easy to get out on the water for a paddle whether you’re a beginner or advanced boater. Sign up for a guided tour or rent canoes, kayaks or stand up paddleboards by the hour for a peaceful, self-paced adventure ideally suited for taking in lovely river scenery at your own speed. The outfitter provides all necessary gear to get you started.

Step back in time at Miss Laura’s Visitors Center

One of Fort Smith’s best preserved 19th century properties, the 1831 Miss Laura’s Visitors Center offers visitors a glimpse into Victorian era life in the bustling river port town. A tour of the stately white two-story antebellum abode features many of the original period details from 150 years ago including candlelight fixtures, an 1800s pump organ and hand-painted Italianate murals in the formal parlor.

Costumed tour guides share fun anecdotes about the various occupants of the historic building over the years including how Miss Laura herself used the home as her headquarters in the 1930s as she worked to preserve area history. Don’t miss the life-size figures dressed in attire of the time set up throughout the house.

Sample homecooked comfort food at Calico County

When you want to take a break from barbecue and experience authentic downhome cooking Southern-style, head to Calico County. Considered one of Fort Smith’s best spots for daily lunch specials, Calico County serves up generous portions of stick-to-your ribs comfort food staples.

From fried chicken, pot roast and meatloaf to chicken fried steak, country fried potatoes and mac and cheese, all the classisc are covered. And, everything is made fresh in-house. Known for its warm, welcoming atmosphere with checkered tablecloths, rustic wooden beams and potted plants, Calico County will have you feeling right at home. Cash only so come prepared to enjoy a flavorful meal at a bargain price.

Peruse eclectic finds at antique stores

As one of western Arkansas’ largest cities, Fort Smith boasts an impressive array of antique stores, vintage boutiques and flea markets brimming with unique treasures waiting to be uncovered across various genres from furniture to books. Even if your budget doesn’t allow for hauling home that ornate sideboard or collectible Carnival glass, browsing shops like Belle Point Collectibles and Treasures and Olde Towne Antique Mall makes for enjoyable afternoon entertainment.

Fans of mid century wares will want to check out Red 20 Vintage specializing in groovy 1950s and 60s finds while Country Nostalgia stocks plenty of charming knick knacks evoking rural Americana style. Don’t miss the huge Meadow Lane Antique Mall housed within an 80,000 square foot renovated warehouse – it claims to be the largest antique mall in Arkansas so odds are you’ll score a gem there amidst its endless aisles and booths.

Catch an event at the Arkansas River Amphitheater

Thanks to a beautiful location right on the banks of the Arkansas River, the Arkansas River Amphitheater has been hosting concerts under the stars to the delight of Fort Smith residents and visitors since 1999. Seating 2,600 people with additional room for another 2,000 on the lawn, the intimate yet expansive venue attracts major touring acts spanning varied genres of music from rock to country to blues like Lynyrd Skynyrd, Little Big Town and Colin Hay of Men at Work fame.

Upcoming country concerts like Travis Tritt or folk acts like Arlo Guthrie are sure to be a boot stomping good time. Regardless of who’s performing, it’s a treat experiencing a show on a balmy Arkansas night with the twinkling bridge lights reflecting off the river in the background.

Conclusion

From exploring Fort Smith’s pivotal Wild West history at the National Historic Site to kid-friendly activities like riding the trolley at a local museum and getting nose to nose with exotic animals at one of the country’s best small zoos, there is much for visitors to experience in this charming Arkansas River city.

Arts aficionados will appreciate the creative street murals and first-rate museums showcasing fine art and glass while history buffs can geek out touring preserved-in-time homes and frontier era landmarks that capture what life was like in the old South and beyond the settled frontier. Of course, no trip to Fort Smith would be complete without indulging in some traditional Southern barbecue whether at a storied joint or tiny hole-in-the-wall gem.

With scenic riverfront locales offering outdoor recreation opportunities, plenty of stores to uncover antique treasures, cozy cafes dishing out comfort cuisine and a popular local amphitheater hosting concerts under the stars, Fort Smith truly has something fun for travelers of all interests. Use this list of top things to do from historical sites to foodie finds as your guide for an enjoyable and well-rounded Arkansas escape in Fort Smith.

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