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How To Take the Perfect Mississippi Road Trip From the Pine Belt to The Gulf Coast

Mississippi Road Trips
by Margaret Littman Apr 5, 2023

There’s something undeniably liberating about a beach vacation and disconnecting, even briefly, from desks and offices and schools and everyday life.

Of course, not everyone loves a vacation that only includes a beach towel, a page-turner, and an umbrella stuck in the sand. That’s the beauty of a road trip through Mississippi’s southern Pine Belt region and along its Gulf Coast. You can get some of the pleasures of a beach getaway — complete with plates of oysters — and still have an active vacation stopping at museums, aquariums, shopping, casinos, and more.

There’s no bad time of year to explore this part of the Magnolia State. You can combine your trip with a north Mississippi road trip or plot this one out on its own. Of course, you can see Mississippi by flying into town, but you’ll miss some of the state’s best restaurants and scenic overlooks. Amtrak serves many Mississippi cities and taking the train can be a good compromise for those who want to see the countryside but don’t want to spend a lot of time behind the wheel.

This particular road trip, which includes Meridian, Hattiesburg, and the Gulf Coast, is designed for those who want to see Mississippi’s rich art and architectural treasures, eat good food, and frolic on the beach.

Start in Meridian

meridian mississippi

Photo: Sabrina Janelle GordonShutterstock

Meridian, nicknamed the Queen City, is just 90 miles from Jackson, Mississippi, and 200 miles from New Orleans. It’s easily accessed from Interstate 59 or Interstate 20. Meridian also has a thriving Union Station with Amtrak service to many cities in the South.

Any trip to Meridian has a number of must-stops, but first among them is the interactive Mississippi Arts + Entertain Experience (or simply The MAX). Here, you can throw a virtual pot, take a virtual boat ride, and otherwise immerse yourself in the music and literature of Mississippi. While The MAX is the big-budget flash, it’s hardly the only museum in Meridian.

Jimmie Rodgers, often called “the father of country music” due to his yodeling and early country music recordings, was born and raised in Meridian. Hear his music and see artifacts from his legacy at the Jimmie Rodgers Museum. Meridian is home to one of the country’s remaining historic Dentzel Carousels, housed in the city’s Highland Park. Only 11 such carousels are on the National Register of Historic Places and Meridian’s is one of them, and the only one in the South. It’s part of a theme you’ll likely notice while in town: modern sculptures of carousel horses abound similar to the way guitars do in Tupelo.

Rose Hill Cemetery is the last resting place of Kelly Mitchell, the Queen of the Romani people who died in Alabama in 1915. Her gravesite is a pilgrimage spot and is easy to find once you get to the cemetery, as the headstone is covered with disco balls and Mardi Gras beads.

weidmanns in mississippi

Photo: Visit Mississippi

If you’re traveling with young ones, you’ll want to stop at the Meridian Children’s Museum for a hands-on educational experience. Then, grab some food. Since 1870’s Weidmann’s has been a Meridian fixture, a place where people come for date night, business lunches and everything in between. Tables are set with a crock of peanut butter in a handcrafted ceramic crock made in Mississippi.

Threefoot Hotel in Mississippi

Photo: Visit Mississippi

Even the place you rest your head in Meridian is full history and museum-worthy art. The 1920s restored Threefoot Hotel in the heart of downtown is centrally located for exploring the city’s restaurants and bars and shops. Check out its Art Deco ornamentation before heading out on foot. Crooked Letter (a play on that mnemonic to remember how to spell the word “Mississippi”) is the place for local souvenirs. Loeb’s stocks men’s and women’s clothing, plus some sporting goods if you want to stock up before you take a hike or jump in a kayak.

Head to Hattiesburg

downtown hattiesburg mississippi

Photo: Sabrina Janelle GordonShutterstock

It’s just a 90-minute drive from Meridian to Hattiesburg, but HGTV fans should plan to add some extra time to stop in Laurel, the site of the popular Home Town show. You probably won’t run into Erin or Ben, of course, but you can stop in Laurel Mercantile Co. and Scotsman Co. and browse through the town’s many boutiques.

When you’ve gotten your fill of Laurel, continue on to charming Hattiesburg, which, fun fact, is the only town with that name in the world. This gem of the Mississippi Pine Belt region is a hotbed of art, dotted with creative and photo-worthy murals. Currently, the city sports about four dozen murals, with plans to have 100, plus public sculptures and painted utility boxes in the future. Follow the Public Art Trail to see them all or just find some in certain parts of town. Highlights include the tunnel at the University of Southern Mississippi, where freshmen add their handprints in paint to make their mark on their new school. If you’ve brought your bike, taking a ride on the Longleaf Trace can be a good way to see some of the city, the scenery and some murals while stretching your legs before getting back in the car.

One of Hattiesburg’s absolute spots of wonder is the Hattiesburg Pocket Museum, a small window in a downtown alley that has been reimagined as an art destination. You’ll find tiny art displays, trompe l’oeil murals, and more in this tucked-away destination. The exhibits change monthly, which is as good a reason as any to visit Hattiesburg more than once.

Located in a former Black USO outpost, the thoughtful African American Military History Museum tells the story of Black servicemen and -women throughout history. The museum includes interactive elements, such as the opportunity to ride in a Jeep. Hattiesburg’s Freedom Summer Trail allows guests to dive deep into the town’s place in Civil Rights history.

Hattiesburg’s Lucky Rabbit is a store where you can buy new and vintage souvenirs. But it’s more than that. Several of the rooms and displays inside the multi-story shop are replicas of movie sets that change with some regularity. Past displays have included National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation and Schitt’s Creek. There’s also a bus stocked with vintage Pyrex. Allow time to browse, there are 15,000 sq. ft. of displays in the beloved shop that has been featured on the Home Town TV show.

Across the street from Lucky Rabbit is Southern Prohibition Brewery, a taproom with a full kitchen. Order salads, sandwiches, or bowls and a beer as you plot your next road trip spot. Boiled peanuts, burgers, and pizzas are on the menu at nearby Keg & Barrel.

Leave a little extra time to enjoy the hopping happy hour when you check into the Hotel Indigo for the night.

On your way out of town, grab all-day breakfast at The Midtowner, near the hotel, or lunch at Birdhouse Café, Katie Dixon’s healthy restaurant tucked inside an appliance store. That will tide you over for the 90-minute drive to get to the coast.

Drive Mississippi’s Secret Coast

ocean springs mississippi welcome sign

Photo: EQRoyShutterstock

The Mississippi coast, nicknamed the Secret Coast, is a collection of towns with their own distinct attractions and personalities but a common thread: glorious white sand beaches along the Gulf of Mexico. You’ll want to pack sunglasses, swimsuits, and sunscreen, sure, as you do with any beach vacation. You’ll also want to leave time for exploring first-class museums, meals featuring bounty from the sea and tasty cocktails, plus browsing in locally owned boutiques. If casinos are your thing, you can even play a few games. While many beach towns turn their prime real estate into high-rise condos, the majority of the Mississippi Gulf Coast is unbuilt, so anyone can access the beach and enjoy the unobstructed view. As you drive from east to west, you’ll have Gulf views out the car window the whole time. There are many places to pull over to put your toes in the sand or take a sunset selfie. If you are driving a convertible, now’s the time to put the top down.

As you drive south from Hattiesburg, you’ll first arrive in Ocean Springs, a small town that was Elvis Presley’s favorite beachside getaway (you can even book a room at Gulf Hills Hotel and Resort, where Elvis used to stay). First stop? The Walter Anderson Museum of Art. Anderson is one of the region’s favorite sons, a talented painter and eclectic artist who was inspired by the landscape of coastal Mississippi. The museum, which also includes classrooms and workshop space, tells his story along with the story of the region, making it a good first stop for acclimating to the area. From there, follow the signs to Shearwater Pottery. Yes, it feels like you are going out in the wilderness, but that’s part of the charm. Founded in 1928 by Peter Anderson, Walter’s brother, the space is still a working pottery and painting studio. Many pieces are for sale for you to take home, others are historic examples of the work the Andersons have done for generations.

Grab a bubble tea and a pastry or sandwich at Biloxi’s Le Bakery, a French Vietnamese family run restaurant. You’ll want the fuel to sustain you through more museum exploration. In Biloxi, which is just a quick 15-minute drive from Ocean Springs, you’ll find two more standouts. The Maritime and Seafood Museum is a multi-story treasure that tells the story of Biloxi: who moved to town, who left, and how commercial fishing shaped the town. Don’t get so engrossed in the exhibits that you forget to take in the view.

Speaking of views, Biloxi’s nearby Ohr O’Keefe Museum of Art was designed by national architecture superstar Frank Gehry. His sleek, modern pods are nestled among live oak trees with views of the Gulf. The museum itself features the work of George Ohr, known as “the mad potter of Biloxi.” His ceramics, and those who were inspired by his work, are on display. Other exhibits look at the racial history and development of Biloxi and changing temporary exhibits by artists in the area.

beach biloxi mississippi

Photo: Rob HainerShutterstock

If you want to stop in a casino, Biloxi is the place to do it. Then, continue west another 25 minutes to reach the Mississippi Aquarium in Gulfport, home to bottlenose dolphins, river otters, American crocodiles, and other creatures of the sea. Daily tickets allow re-entry, so you can go learn about the animals who live in the ocean environments, leave to take a walk along the beach, and then return to experience touch pools and other interactive experiences. The aquarium is a popular destination and purchasing tickets in advance is recommended.

Keep driving west, stopping along the beach as often as you want, with your eventual goal of reaching Pass Christian and Bay St. Louis. These two charming towns have the seaside village vibe (much like Ocean Springs) and are where you’ll want to park the car and start walking. Both towns are dotted with restaurants, bars and boutiques you’ll want to explore. Highlights include Pass Christian Books and Art Alley in the Pass.

bay Town inn exterior in mississippi

Photo: Eddie Robinson

Settle in for the night (or two or three or a whole week) at Baytown Inn in Bay St. Louis. You get the best of both worlds: a hotel-like environment with a shared swimming pool, on-site staff and amenities, as well as a condo-life set-up with a kitchenette for breakfast and late-night snacks. Close to Bay St. Louis’s restaurants and waterfront, Baytown Inn is a good central location for exploring. Grab breakfast at Mockingbird Café or Serious Bread Company. Bay St. Louis has a charming train station which is worth seeing, even if you are not arriving by train.

Spend an evening at Bacchus on the Beach in Pass Christian, where you can feast on freshly caught seafood, hear live music, and take in Gulf views. Finally, end your coastal road trip by driving or taking a train to New Orleans, and flying home from there, or flying out of the Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport.

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