Landmark sign near Bentonville’s historic downtown square.

Once a sleepy Ozark town known mostly for its friendly folk and Wal-Mart corporate headquarters, Bentonville, like much of Northwest Arkansas, had seen its fair share of growth over the last 20 years. Yet when Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton announced her plans to build a world-class art museum in 2005, an unexpected shift occurred, and Bentonville woke up.

Walton’s dream to bring art to the masses and create a cultural contribution for everyone — not just those living on the American coasts — was lofty, and often scoffed at by critics in some metropolitan circles. But Walton had the passion, the determination and the means to make it happen, and soon, others began to see what she could see: opportunity. Even before it was open to the public, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art became a catalyst for the social and cultural renaissance that Bentonville is experiencing today. Suddenly, this quiet town was filled with savvy, arts-minded entrepreneurs who hoped to settle in and open up shop before the inevitable flood of tourists and art-lovers began pouring in.

Though Bentonville is home to the world’s largest superstore, there’s nothing big-box about the slew of new restaurants, shops and activities shaking up the city. The growing arts destination is a fascinating mix of highbrow and Wal-Mart’s low, low prices, with modern art installations at 21c Museum Hotel less than a block away from costumed soda jerks slinging $1.75 milkshakes at Walton’s 5&10.

If Crystal Bridges was the catalyst, the city’s picturesque downtown square is its nucleus, with restaurants and shops clamoring to fill what space they can find. Every other building holds a talked about new eatery. Bentonville’s culinary scene has caught the eyes and taste buds of a national audience, and even made the “In” half of the Washington Post’s 2013 “Out/In” List (sorry about that, Charleston, South Carolina). Mostly, you’ll find food with southern roots, executed with worldly style, using ingredients procured close to home. Mostly, but not always; you’ll also find French, Mediterranean, Latin and Asian cuisine, just to name a few.

Unlike its more metropolitan counterparts, Bentonville’s wealth of natural beauty is not only tapped into, but emphasized as part of the entire experience. A trip to Crystal Bridges isn’t complete without a walk along its leafy trails, and many hotels, rental cottages and bike shops let visitors borrow bicycles to experience the city on two wheels. Weekends are scheduled around a trip to the downtown farmers market, and new buildings are constructed with optimal views of Compton Gardens or Crystal Spring — the body of water from which the museum gets its name.

After only two short years, Crystal Bridges welcomed its one-millionth visitor. It has been lauded as the most important new art museum in a generation. And with one million visitors came one million dinners served, thousands of hotel rooms booked and dozens upon dozens of new businesses created. If you visited last year, visit again this year — there are so many new opportunities, you’ll enjoy an entirely different trip.

Yet the truly beautiful thing about Bentonville is that this is not a town that models itself after other urban art meccas. Nor does it play up its southern roots in an inauthentic, “aw, shucks” sort of way. It is friendly and proud, easy and understated. It’s a cosmopolitan small town where new ideas are nursed to success, and the people rally around what they can call their own. It highlights its natural features and embraces its history without pretending to be something it’s not. A visit to Bentonville feels like a visit with an old friend — times may have changed, but you can always pick up right where you left off.

Eat & Drink

From left: dining area at Eleven at Crystal Bridge; The bar at The Hive, located at 21c Museum Hotel; the entrance to Table Mesa Bistro on the downtown square; tiramisu at Tavola Trattoria; and a raspberry walnut martini at Tusk & Trotter.

The Belfry and Old 71
Downtown Bentonville will welcome two new culinary additions this June thanks to boutique hospitality company Rope Swing Group. The Belfry will serve up local, honest fare from executive chef Matthew Cooper, formerly of Little Rock’s Cache restaurant, inside a 111-year-old church building. Meanwhile, the basement lounge, Old 71, adds another level of historic style with craft cocktails ranging from Prohibition-era to new age. 201 N.W. A St., Bentonville, BelfryBentonville.com

Crepes Paulette
Nestled in a quirky, shoebox-sized trailer across from 21c Museum Hotel, Crepes Paulette has offered up sweet and savory crepes to adoring fans since 2010. Husband and wife team Paula Jo Chitty and Frederic Henry (natives of Bentonville and Brittany, France, respectively) have used their laser-like focus and determination to make Crepes Paulette one of the most popular food trucks in the state. Be on the lookout for the couple’s first brick-and-mortar location on the ground level of Bentonville’s new Thrive building, opening this month. 213 N.E. A St., Bentonville, (479) 250-1110, Facebook.com/CrepesPaulette

Eleven at Crystal Bridges
For lunch with a side of breathtaking views, try Eleven at Crystal Bridges. The casual eatery located inside the museum’s front entrance offers southern staples prepared from ingredients found nearby. Think shrimp served with War Eagle Mill grits, or the Ozark harvest salad featuring Bentonville Farmers Market produce. Enjoy these delights while taking in the beautiful architecture, as the restaurant itself is suspended over water and offers views of the museum on all sides. 600 Museum Way, Bentonville, (479) 418-5700, CrystalBridges.org/Eleven

The Hive
Admire the galleries inside Bentonville’s 21c Museum Hotel then duck inside its mid-century mod restaurant and bar, The Hive, helmed by Arkansas native and James Beard Award semifinalist Matthew McClure. The Hive’s particular breed of southern cuisine is inspired by Arkansas ingredients and sourced close to home, for a vibe that’s refined yet familiar. Adjacent to the restaurant, the bar and lounge offers up a rotating menu of seasonal craft cocktails using the same innovative approach and local ingredients as the restaurant. 200 NE A St., Bentonville, (479) 286-6575, TheHiveBentonville.com

Petit Bistro
Upon arrival at Petit Bistro, you’ll think you’ve been invited to dinner in a rustic family home. The cozy French-Mediterranean eatery is located inside an old, stone farmhouse on the outskirts of town. Owner Dario Amini brings his European background to Northwest Arkansas in dishes such as the petit filet mignon, mussels basquaise and blackened sea scallops. When the weather’s nice, enjoy dinner on the patio, which offers serene views of the private wooded property. 2702 N. Walton Blvd., Bentonville, (479) 464-9278, PetitBistro.biz

Pressroom
No national coffee chains needed here. Bentonville’s own Pressroom café offers up a variety of favorite coffee drinks, including an Almond Joy mocha and honey vanilla latte. Get your coffee to go or stick around and enjoy the laid back-yet-artsy atmosphere, enhanced by exposed brick walls and local art. If you’re looking for a menu stocked with contemporary cooking trends — think vegan, gluten-free and small plates — stick around for bánh mì at lunch or avocado chevre crostini at dinner. 121 W. Central Ave., Bentonville, (479) 657-2905, PressroomCoffee.com

Table Mesa Bistro
After a jaunt around Bentonville’s charming downtown square, stop in at Lindie and Carl Garrett’s popular Table Mesa Bistro for modern Latin cuisine with a twist. The romantic yet lively atmosphere lends itself to anything from date nights to family outings, and offerings such as pan-seared Mahi Mahi tacos, house guacamole and an extensive wine and cocktail menu make for a can’t-lose dining combination. 108 E. Central Ave., Bentonville, (479) 715-6706, TableMesaBistro.com

Tavola Trattoria
The menu at Tavola Trattoria, the second establishment from Table Mesa owners Lindie and Carl Garrett, abounds with Italian and Mediterranean favorites from antipasti and pizza to entrées served individually or family style. Favorites include the veal Saltimbocca served with a marsala wine reduction, prosciutto and wild mushroom ravioli, or the U District pizza topped with figs, goat cheese, mascarpone and truffle oil. On a nice day, enjoy balcony or sidewalk seating. 108 S.E. A St., Bentonville, (479) 715-4738, TavolaTrattoria.com

Tusk & Trotter
Located a block off the downtown square, Rob Nelson’s brasserie is a cultivated mix of favorite Ozark flavors executed with a bit of French flair — exactly what one might expect from a Hope, Arkansas, native who received his culinary training in the south of France. As its name implies, inventive pork dishes using nearly the whole hog are the star of Tusk & Trotter, but the menu is certainly more than just meats. With offerings such as house-made risotto balls and a “vegetarian picnic” plate, there’s something for everyone at this High South gastropub. 110 S.E. A St., Bentonville, (479) 268-4494, TuskAndTrotter.com

Shop

From left: bicycles outside Phat Tire Bicycle Shop; sharing a location downtown, Shindig Paperie and Shirley’s Flower Studio are a one-stop-shop for gifts and brides; home décor at Shirley’s Flower Studio.

Elysian
The name means “characteristic of Heaven or paradise” and for fashion lovers, Elysian is just that. Owner Lisa Wright opened her downtown boutique in 2012, offering up contemporary and trendy clothing from designers such as Big Star and IT! Jeans at a price point that’s as welcoming as the staff. If you’re overwhelmed by the selection of clothing, jewelry and accessories, ask about Elysian’s personal styling services, or shop their e-commerce site from home. 106 S.E. A St., Suite 4, Bentonville, (479) 464-9261, ShopElysian.com

klothe
 For upscale contemporary designer lines such as Sanctuary and BCBGeneration, Bentonville women flock to klothe. The women’s clothing boutique, located across the street from 21c Museum Hotel, is stocked with an edited collection of trendy, sophisticated clothing, jewelry, shoes and accessories. Favorite denim lines include AG Jeans and Seven for All Mankind, while styles range from leather pencil skirts to sleek blazers and cheeky graphic tees. 203 N.E. A St., Bentonville, (479) 254-1125, ShopKlothe.com

Phat Tire Bike Shop
Bentonville is awash with scenic bike trails, and cycling aficionados head to the downtown location of Phat Tire Bike Shop for all their biking needs. Located on the ground floor of the historic Hotel Massey building, Phat Tire offers a jaw-dropping selection of bicycles, accessories and parts. Only visiting? Rent a bike for the day and enjoy one of the shop’s group bike rides. Check the BikeBentonville.com calendar for times and locations. 125 W. Central Ave., Bentonville, (479) 715-6170, PhatTireBikeShop.com

Shindig Paperie
With the success of her wildly popular stationery and gift shop in Fayetteville, Shindig owner Trisha Logan is expanding operations to a second location just off the Bentonville square. The new space offers the same curated collection of letterpress paper goods, personalized invitations, art prints and gifts that make the Fayetteville location a favorite spot, while sharing its character-filled space with Shirley’s Flower Studio to create a one-stop-shop for gift and party necessities. 120 S. Main St., Bentonville, (479) 553-7475, ShindigPaperie.com

Shirley’s Flower Studio
This go-to flower and gift shop has been a local favorite since 1975 and was voted “Best of the Best Florist in Northwest Arkansas.” Family owned and operated by three generations, Shirley’s is a mom-and-pop shop to its core, specializing in green and blooming plants, balloon bouquets, gift baskets, gourmet and fruit baskets, vases, wedding and event rentals. They now share their downtown space with Shindig Paperie, making the spot a must-stop for brides to be. 120 S. Main St., Bentonville, (479) 464-7673, ShirleysFlowersInc.com

Sleep

Exhibits in the lobby at 21c Museum Hotel.

21c Museum Hotel
This 104-room boutique hotel offers an unfussy atmosphere for travelers who appreciate a little modern art with their modern comforts. The hotel houses its own rotating exhibits of 21st century art (hence the name, 21c) open for viewing 24 hours a day. This combined with the High South cuisine at The Hive restaurant and bar and the hotel’s cheeky collection of green penguins is gaining it national recognition as the place to stay in the south. 200 N.E. A St., Bentonville, (479) 286-6500, 21cMuseumHotels.com/Bentonville

Bentonville Bungalow
Feel right at home when you spend a night in this 106-year-old historic home in downtown Bentonville. The restored Craftsman bungalow sleeps up to four people, with all the privacy and amenities any discerning traveler could ask for, including cable television and a large dining room that doubles as a meeting space. Enjoy a glass of iced tea on the shady front porch while taking in the view of Bentonville’s bustling downtown scene. Bentonville, (479) 640-7773, VRBO.com/384388

Downtown Bentonville Cottages
If you’re looking for a place to stay that captures all the small-town charm of Bentonville, book a stay at Mockingbird, Meadowlark or Sandpiper Cottages. The three neighboring cottages restored by Shelley and Kevin Kraning are perfect for large groups who wish to stay close to one another. Use one of the available bicycles to take an evening cruise along Bentonville’s leafy bike paths before returning to all the comforts of home. 301, 303 and 305 S.E. Second St., Bentonville, (479) 802-8222, DBCottages.com

The Victoria Bed and Breakfast
At the base of Crystal Bridge’s wooded trails, pedestrians encounter the stately 5,000-square-foot Victoria mansion. The Victorian-era style bed and breakfast offers five elegantly furnished rooms with views of downtown and Compton Gardens, and guests begin each morning with a complimentary gourmet breakfast before heading out to see the sites. 306 N. Main St., Bentonville, (479) 273-3232, TheVictoriaBentonville.com

Things To Do

From left: entrance to The Walmart Museum, artwork at Crystal Bridges.

Amazeum
Currently under construction in the “front yard” of Crystal Bridges Museum, the Scott Family Amazeum is slated to open in July of this year, offering 50,000 square feet of exhibits, meeting and learning spaces for children and families. The state-of-the-art museum will feature a Tinkering Studio, water area, climbable tree canopy and an exploratory wet lab, while an acre of outdoor space provides for year-round learning experiences inspired by the seasons. 209 N.E. Second St., Bentonville, Amazeum.org

Compton Gardens
With 6.5 acres of native and woodland gardens, Compton Gardens is not only a favorite public park for Bentonville residents. It’s quickly becoming a regional destination garden and special event venue. Roam the trails for peaceful, quiet views, as well as native plant collections and small wildlife, or book your next seminar or wedding in the Compton Conference Center. 312 N. Main St., Bentonville, (479) 254-3870, PeelCompton.org

Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art
Explore the history of America from colonial times to present at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, home to more than two thousand important works of American art as well as traveling exhibits such as the current Van Gogh to Rothko, featuring 76 works from 73 artists. The museum’s architecture, designed by world-renowned architect Moshe Safdie, and the 120-acre grounds are as much a part of the Crystal Bridges experience as the art inside. 600 Museum Way, Bentonville, (479) 481-5700, CrystalBridges.org

Museum of Native American History
Get a glimpse inside the lives of America’s first inhabitants with relics dating back as far as 14,000 years in the past. The museum is divided into five different time periods that guide you through the constantly shifting lives of the Native American people. Admission is free and the complete woolly mammoth skeleton is a must-see. 202 S.W. O St., Bentonville, (479) 273-2456, MOHAH.us

The Peel Mansion Museum & Heritage Gardens
Amidst the new and burgeoning businesses popping up all over town, the home of Civil War Colonel Samuel West Peel sits like a relic from another time. The first native Arkansan elected to Congress, Col. Peel built the villa tower Italianate mansion for his wife and children in 1875. Carefully preserved over time, the mansion and gardens are now open for tours throughout the week and available to rent for special events. 400 S. Walton Blvd., Bentonville, (479) 254-3870, PeelCompton.org

Wal-Mart Visitors Center
Downtown Bentonville’s Wal-Mart Visitors Center is a three-part experience: first, take a step back in time when you visit Walton’s 5&10, the dime store that started it all, now stocked with old-fashioned candies and games. Next, take a stroll through The Walmart Museum, with interactive displays, vintage products and facts about Wal-Mart and the Walton family. Finish your visit with a milkshake from The Spark Café, an old-fashioned soda fountain offering up sweet treats from another era. 105 N. Main St., Bentonville, (479) 273-1329, Walmart.com

Upcoming Events

Bentonville Film Festival, May 5-9 | Co-founded and chaired by actress Geena Davis, and featuring a star-studded board of advisors, the Bentonville Film Festival kicks off Tuesday, May 5 with four days of feature-length films, screenplays and events championing women and diversity in film. Visit BentonvilleFilmFestival.com for schedules and tickets.

Fish Stories: Early Images of American Game Fish, now through September 21 at Crystal Bridges | Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art brings the great outdoors into the galleries with Fish Stories: Early Images of American Game Fish, an exhibition that features 20 color plates by sporting artist Samuel Kilbourne, on view April 4-September 21.

Gardens on Tap, Saturday, May 16 at Compton Gardens | Taste brews from six local brewers at Compton Gardens’ Gardens on Tap, 5-7 p.m., Saturday, May 16. Tasting stations will be set up around the gardens and conference center, giving guests the chance to sample beers and enjoy 6.5 acres of native tree and plant gardens. Appetizers, wood-fire pizzas and live music will round out the evening. Visit PeelCompton.org/GardensOnTap for tickets.

Bentonville Art & Culinary Festival, June 1-June 30 | Celebrating the arts in all forms, the Bentonville Art & Culinary Festival will offer a wide variety of programming, from special culinary events and visual art shows to live music performances and film workshops. Visit DowntownBentonville.org for a full schedule.

Drink the Garden, Saturday, June 27 at The Peel Mansion | Local mixologists showcase their skills at this benefit for the Peel Compton Foundation. Enjoy live music and sample cocktail creations by bartenders from area bars and restaurants as they compete for the People’s Choice Award using locally grown herbs from The Peel Mansion heritage garden and produce from Bentonville Farmers Market. Visit PeelCompton.org/DTG for tickets.