Hop a restored 1920s train in Van Buren, tucked into the foothills of the Boston Mountains.
When Maryl Purvis moved to Van Buren, Arkansas, from Los Angeles, she was in for a surprise. “The day I moved in, neighbors started showing up with baked goods, and I thought, ‘Why are they bringing me food?’” Purvis laughs. “Now, I get it. That’s the charm of a great small town. You get to know your neighbors right away.”
As director of the Van Buren Visitors Center, Purvis can name all kinds of reasons why her adopted town is special, chief among them this one: “It’s the best of both worlds—a small town environment just a short drive from larger cities and all their amenities.”
Lay of the Land
With a population of about 24,000, Van Buren escapes the fast pace and crowds of bigger cities, yet it’s just across the Arkansas River from Fort Smith, home to over 87,000 people—and an airport. This historic little town is about two hours from capital city Little Rock; less than an hour from Razorback Central Fayetteville; and an easy drive to two Oklahoma metro areas, Tulsa and Oklahoma City (two and three hours away, respectively).
“We’re located in the foothills of the Boston Mountains, so it’s very scenic here, and we sit on the banks of the Arkansas River, which is a great recreational waterway,” Purvis explains. “I think that’s why we appeal so much to people who are looking for a small town atmosphere but don’t want to give up all the amenities that cities and college towns offer.”
There are plenty of outdoor things to do in Arkansas, aka “The Natural State,” and Van Buren has some prime offerings. Popular attractions include Lake Fort Smith State Park, which has a 1,400-acre lake; White Rock Mountain, offering stunning views of the Arkansas River Valley; and the Mulberry River, where you can paddle Class II and III whitewater.
Van Buren's Main Street National Historic District has six blocks of restored buildings that are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The town’s Main Street architecture dates back to the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. Find all sorts of locally owned shops, restaurants, and eateries downtown.
The Arkansas and Missouri Railroad (the “A&M”) offers a two-hour excursion aboard a restored 1920s passenger train. Depart from The Old Frisco Station in Van Buren, cross the Arkansas River, and enjoy scenic views of the foothills.
You can always cross the river for big-city dining in Fort Smith, but you’ll also find some interesting options in Van Buren. On Main Street, locals will point you to places like the Boomarang Diner (600 Main) for burger baskets or Oliver’s for down-home Southern food and locally famous pies (719 Main). Branch out to JC’s Bar-B-Q Place for pulled pork and brisket (2421 Kibler Road) or Frank’s for Italian (525 N. Plaza Drive) .
You'll find mostly chain lodging in and around Van Buren, but there are a couple of historic B&Bs in nearby Fort Smith.
You can still enjoy performances at the 100-year-old King Opera House on Main Street or see student and professional productions at the Van Buren School District Fine Arts Center, located on the high school campus.
Want to Live There?
Find homes anywhere from 1,200 square feet to 5,000-plus. Jimmy Bell Real Estate Company is a locally owned firm that can give you details about area properties and neighborhoods.
WATCH: Southern Places You're Probably Mispronouncing
When you live in a region with Native American, French, German, and Spanish influences, you can expect to see those cultures reflected in names of everything from rivers to French Quarter streets.