The thing that initially lured me to Natchez, Mississippi was the promise of more antebellum mansions in one town than anywhere else in the south, but upon arrival in this quaint and romantic little town, I discovered many more of its charms.
Located on the banks of the mighty Mississippi River, some two hours southwest of Jackson, or three hours northwest of New Orleans, Natchez is a seemingly sleepy town but one that celebrates its southern heritage and history by beautifully preserving its historic downtown area and its stunning southern architecture. The oldest permanent settlement on the Mississippi, it is also a significant center of African-American and Native American history.
During the Civil War, this area was a mecca for cotton plantations and because many of the major plantations were actually owned by people from the north, Natchez sympathized with the Yankee army and actually provided safe haven and a base for its military units. As a result, homes here were left intact with none of the ravages that faced many other wealthy southern towns.
The visitor information center, located at 640 S. Canal St. is a good place to start your visit (although you may have a little trouble finding it when you drive into town as the signage is a little confusing). The center features a large selection of brochures, maps, hotel information, and a tour booking service. Make sure you pick up a city walking tour brochure so you can explore the historic downtown area at your leisure. When you first drive into town, you will come down Main Street, which is somewhat unremarkable and it would be easy to totally miss the street that lies parallel, Franklin Street, home to Natchez's many antique stores. Prices are relatively affordable, the selection is wide. and there is a combination of bric-a-brac, collectibles and high antiques. Beware of store hours, as an 11am opening time may translate noon, especially on a weekday.
The city center is small enough to be covered on foot in half a day or so. While walking you will be able to explore several of the mansions from the outside, or take individual house tours. Alternatively you can choose to join a Natchez Historic City Tour, a one-hour narrated motorcoach tour with a professional guide that covers some 50 antebellum houses and churches in a ten mile radius. Tours depart the Natchez Visitors Center at 10am, 11:30am, 1pm and 3pm daily and cost $20 per person.
For a more in-depth mansion experience, each spring and again in the fall, Natchez holds its pilgrimage event (www.natchezpilgrimage.com) when 25 privately owned mansions (and ten additional public properties) open their doors to the public (for a five week period in the spring and two weeks in the fall). This year's fall festival will be held from September 27 to October 11, 2009 and next year's spring event is scheduled for March 6 to April 10. The festival includes people dressed in period costumes, daily tours, musical productions, theater, nightly historic presentations and re-enactments. The same organization also runs daily tours of properties throughout the year including Longwood, Stanton Hall, Magnolia Hall, Dunleith, Auburn, Rosalie, The House of Ellicott Hill, The Briars and The Towers. Tour these mansions for $10 each, or purchase a three-mansion ticket through Natchez Pilgrimage for $24 for adults and $18 for children aged six to 13 (three mansions except for The Briars, Dunleith and The Towers).
The National Park Service owns and operates Melrose (www.nps.gov/natc), part of the Natchez Historical Park and perhaps the finest of the antebellum mansions and grounds in the area. Although I am usually adverse to formal tours of historic homes, this one was particularly insightful, informal and enjoyable. Tours of the home run daily on the hour and cost $8 for adults, $4 for children aged six to 17 and free for under sixes. One of the most outstanding features of the mansion is the fact that almost all of its furniture and fixtures are original. After touring the mansion, spend some time enjoying the grounds, especially the eerily beautiful cypress swamp.
Make sure you take some time to walk along the Mississippi waterfront, known as the Bluff, especially at sunset. A small park lines the raised river bank area, with romantic pavilions and benches to sit on. If you're lucky, you'll meet the locals, as we did, who were more than willing to share stories and historical facts about their beloved town.
The Natchez City Cemetery is a must see. Established in 1822 and covering approximately 100 acres of land, it features hundreds of historic graves from mainly the 19th century, and several from the 18th century that were moved here from various church yards. It is laid out in beautiful landscaped surrounds and besides admiring the tombstones, grave markers, mausoleums and ornate iron fences, aspects of Natchez's social and cultural history are also present with wealthy plantation and land owners buried side by side with servants.
For some down-and-dirty local fare in the form of ribs, The Pig Out Inn BBQ (tel. 601/442-8050) is a must. The casual eatery is located at 116 S. Canal St., and serves up racks of delectable ribs, miscellaneous pork dishes, chicken, and sides for low southern prices (under $15 per person).
Stay at a riverside hotel like the Natchez Grand (tel. 866/488-0898; www.natchezgrandhotel.com) which although lacking in any historic or architectural charm, is well priced (from $109 per night in a king deluxe room), is in a good position, has a small swimming pool, and comes with breakfast included. Alternatively you can choose to stay in an antebellum mansion that has been converted into a Bed and Breakfast like Dunleith (tel. 800/433-2445; www.dunleith.com); Linden (www.lindenbandb.com) the former home of Mississippi's first elected senator from $125 per night; or Monmouth Plantation (www.monmouthplantation.com) a National Historic Landmark, from $125 per night, just to name a few. Rooms at these and other mansions and historic town houses have been lovingly restored and feature magnificent antiques and adornments. There are over 50 bed and breakfasts located in the town area so you will never be starved for choice when it comes to staying in a historic home.
Natchez also marks the starting (or ending point) of the Natchez Trace Parkway, a 444 mile stretch of scenic road and historic detours that stretches all the way to Nashville, TN. The Trace includes Civil War battle sites, more antebellum mansions, native American burial mounds and stunning lakes. About ten miles outside Natchez, along the Trace, you'll find Emerald Mound (www.nps.gov/natr), the second largest Native American ceremonial mound in the country. Covering approximately eight acres, it was built by the ancestors of the Natchez Indians in the early 15th century.
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