This Arkansas boomtown continues to be a visual wonderland, from a world-class museum
to sculpture-studded nature trails. But you’ll also eat and drink well, too.
Bentonville is perhaps the buzziest boomtown you haven’t yet experienced. And before you say, “Oh, I went when the art museum opened,” take note: It has been almost 11 years since Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art made its debut in Northwest Arkansas and triggered a growth explosion transforming this corner of the Ozarks into a bona fide hot spot.
Never mind the irony that a sophisticated burg arose from the town first known as Walmart’s headquarters. Thanks to the vision of museum founder Alice Walton — the philanthropist daughter of the late Sam Walton, the retail giant’s founder, and part-time Fort Worth resident — this world-class museum draws visitors from everywhere. And credit new businesses and residents relocating from California, the latter spending $1 million or more for homes there, for adding to the town’s growth.
Plan a long weekend to explore everything; late October through November, when the forest is a riot of color, is prime visiting time. If you’ve been there before, you’re in for great surprises — Bentonville is changing faster than you can read this story.
Crystal Bridges pulls in people who revere art and architecture in a stellar natural setting while also showing those who might not yet be fans how easily they can be convinced otherwise.
Designed by Boston-based architect Moshe Safdie, the museum’s connected curved buildings — composed of gray concrete, cedar and copper elements — writhe through a forested ravine surrounded by glistening ponds and in full harmony with nature. Inside, astonishing collections include those by American masters as well as living artists coming into their moments. The exhibits also offer rich cultural diversity, and interactive options for young and old abound. You’ll find sculptures inside and out, including along the hike and bike trails weaving through town to the museum. And there’s more to come: Safdie Architects’ expansion will increase the existing 200,000-square-foot gallery space by a little more than 50 percent, with expected completion by the end of 2023.
Nearby, a satellite facility in a former Kraft cheese factory opened in early 2020. The Momentary is an airy complex with an ever-changing collection of contemporary art. As at Crystal Bridges, The Momentary welcomes patrons to wander in from the trails in casual clothes. Docents offer easy, friendly conversation as they share backstories of the exhibits. Check out the Onyx Coffee Lab, a java bar with a midcentury modern vibe, and the upstairs Tower Bar, the best place in town for a cocktail with a view (get the rum-fueled That’s My Jam). Outside, the sprawling grounds host concert acts ranging from regional talent to Lyle Lovett to alternative pop bands such as Japanese Breakfast.
From The Momentary, it’s just a few blocks to the 21c Museum Hotel in downtown Bentonville. All the hotel’s public spaces serve as galleries for contemporary exhibits of remarkable sculpture, paintings, drawings and multimedia work. (The vintage coin-covered Cadillac is a beacon out front.)
Throughout town, you’ll find public art in the form of enormous sculptures on sidewalks, beside bridges and on the hike and bike paths; most are accompanied by descriptive markers and labeled OZ Art (sounds like Ozark), a Northwest Arkansas proponent of art in unexpected places.
Bold enough to bill itself as “The Mountain Biking Capital of the World,” Bentonville also regards its woodsy, hilly environs as art. The town is webbed with 40 miles of trails that connect with a regional network extending an additional 150 miles. Highly recommended is Coler Mountain Bike Preserve, a glorious patchwork of forested parkland always busy with dog walkers and fat-tire enthusiasts. Enjoy the magical moment when artist Craig Colorusso’s unseen solar-powered sound installation convinces you that the bridge near the preserve’s south entrance is singing.
Nearby, Osage Park offers a wetlands boardwalk, along with an archery range and pickleball courts, plus oversized public art pieces. Next door, Thaden Field — named for native aviator Louise Thaden, an Amelia Earhart contemporary — is busy with private planes, but you can explore exhibits of vintage aircraft and more art, and enjoy food and drink while watching takeoffs and landings through big windows. A favorite breakfast/brunch spot is Louise, inside Thaden Fieldhouse: Order a cranberry mimosa with Eggs in Purgatory or the BLT with fried green tomatoes.
For lunch, head to Yeyo’s, next door to The Momentary, where James Beard Award-nominated owner-chef Rafael Rios delivers a tasty burrito bowl with the option of cauliflower grown nearby on the family farm and charred, and a barbacoa consomme served with handmade tortillas. Dinner tables stay packed at hotel 21c’s The Hive bar and restaurant, which is popular for dishes from nationally noted chef Matthew McClure including crispy pork belly with compressed watermelon and rib-eye steak with zucchini fritters. Our favorite cocktail is the Paper Plane (bourbon, aperol, amaro Nonino and lemon).
The Preacher’s Son serves a sublime supper in a renovated church with beautiful painted windows in place of the onetime stained-glass panes. Top picks include Prince Edward Island oysters with champagne mignonette; housemade burrata atop toasted brioche with fig compote and cashew butter; and branzino with capers, salsa verde and marcona almonds. Downstairs, the speakeasylike Undercroft pours delightful nightcaps with a side of live jazz.
Bentonville’s vintage town square offers charming distractions. Once Upon a Time Books sells used art tomes, classic fiction, travelogues and first editions of all kinds. Next door, Blue Moon offers cute frocks, candles, handbags and jewelry. Art on the Square anchors one corner, where paintings and glass sculpture by a host of Arkansas talent are yet more proof that in Bentonville, you’re never more than a step away from art.