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This Coastal Alabama City Is an Underrated Immersion Into the Deep South

Insider Guides
by Matthew Meltzer Jul 26, 2023

More than any other American region, the Deep South has its distinctive draws. Large, elegant squares lined with live oak trees dripping in Spanish moss. Grand historic homes with Greek revival columns and cities where every two blocks you see a mansion that could have been ripped from Gone With The Wind. A free-spirited attitude where whiskey flows like water and bars are open until they feel like closing. And heavy air that lends itself to a slower, syrupy way of going through life that feels decidedly different.

There’s a short list of cities where the rest of the US goes to immerse itself in the Deep South. Charleston comes top of mind, right next to Savannah and New Orleans. Some more intrepid travelers may head somewhere like Natchez, Mississippi, or St. Augustine, Florida. Few, however, ever think of Mobile.

But take one walk down the grid of French colonial buildings in downtown Mobile, Alabama, and you’ll realize that the city has all the trappings of the sultry Deep South. The home of the first Mardi Gras is a complete immersion into Southern culture, from the food to the history to the let-the-good-times-roll nightlife. It’s not as big or busy as some better-known Deep South destinations, but that is precisely the point. Mobile is a place where you’ll get the best of Southern culture without gluts of tourists and bachelorette parties.

A historic city where parties run late


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Mobile is Alabama’s oldest city, founded by the French in 1702 as the capital of Louisiana. Though it’s been British, Spanish, and American since the mid-18th century, the French influence is obvious in everything from the architecture to the accents. The result of that influence is a Catholic-leaning population, which, if you’re not familiar with the South, means booze flows a lot more freely than it does in Baptist-dominated dry countries farther north.

That creates a distinct party culture in Mobile that, while not nearly on the level of New Orleans, still provides a perfect place to cut loose for a couple of days. Stroll the bars of Dauphin Street running west from downtown, and you’ll hear live music pouring out of places like the Dauphin Street Blues Company and Brickyard until well past midnight.

O’Daly’s Irish Pub packs in a younger crowd that doesn’t much seem to care what night of the week it is. A more sophisticated group lounges inside the Haberdasher, sipping craft cocktails in dim lights. Drag shows and live performances draw people into B-Bobs, and there is, of course, the requisite Wet Willie’s. As the sweet drinks, humidity, and wrought iron balconies combine in a late-night haze, Dauphin Street starts looking a lot like Bourbon Street, but you’ve dropped about half as much money.


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Admittedly, not everyone’s main objective when traveling to the Deep South is to pack themselves into sweaty bars. Those seeking a little more culture and history need only venture a block or two past Dauphin Street to find it. The streets surrounding the historic downtown are packed with historic homes where Victorian, Georgian, and Greek Revival masterpieces alternate along the sidewalks.

Mobile, in its heyday, was a cotton and shipping hub, and the magnates who made their fortunes here all built mansions near the Mobile River. Many are open to the public during select times. Among the most interesting are the Conde-Charlotte House, which was once the city’s first courthouse, and the Italianate Richards-DAR House Museum, first built by a famed riverboat captain then later taken over by the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) and turned into a museum.


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Mobile was also home to the first Mardi Gras, a fact people from Mobile will tell you with the same enthusiasm Texans tell you they’re from Texas. Rather than the few weeks Mardi Gras runs in New Orleans, in Mobile it’s a multi-month affair filled with pageants, parades, and debutante balls. You can learn the entire history at the Carnival Museum, set in another of Mobile’s historic homes on Government Street. Or come for the parade during the third weekend in February, which is a decidedly more family-friendly affair than the bacchanal in Louisiana but perhaps more of a cultural education, as well.

Mobile’s newest historical attraction is Clotilda: The Exhibition, a small museum in Africatown telling the story of the last documented slave ship to land in America. In 1860, a full 52 years after America banned the international slave trade, a rogue ship carrying 110 West Africans wrecked just off the coast of Mobile. The enslaved people who survived gained their freedom a few years later after emancipation and formed the first community in the US run by African-born Americans. The museum houses pieces of the slave ship Clotilda that were found in the Mobile River and tells the story of how this community came to thrive in the years that followed.

Feasting on alligator and fresh seafood


Photo: Mark from Mobile/Shutterstock

Another reason people venture into the Deep South is the food. Fresh seafood and deep-fried everything create menus filled with slow-paced indulgence. As a bay city, Mobile thrives when it comes to seafood, and the best place to try it is The Noble South. This narrow spot is wedged into an historic building on Dauphin Street, where you’ll find Radiatore pasta with alligator Bolognese alongside traditional dishes like redfish and shrimp and grits.

For something a little more varied, head a few blocks away to the Insider food hall, a relatively small space tucked at the end of Dauphin Street. Inside you’ll find sushi, poke, tacos, and Middle Eastern food all next to a full bar. You can also take your food or drinks to the video arcade in the back, which among other things offers a combination Pop-a-Shot and Connect Four game that can keep you there for hours.


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For a true Southern diner experience, hit Bob’s Downtown Restaurant, a graffiti-covered institution where streetside hangover breakfasts are a local tradition. While you’d be remiss to leave town without trying the cornmeal fried fish n’ smoked gouda cheese grits, or the alligator sausage and cakes, stopping in for lunch means you can try Bob’s big menu of Po’ Boys made with fresh Gulf shrimp.

If there is one must-eat item in Mobile, though, it’s the burger at Callaghan’s Irish bar. The open, breezy “social club” has one of those dive bar burgers that is inexplicably delicious, cooked on a grill that’s been seasoned for decades. The place feels like a slice of Key West on the outskirts of downtown Mobile, filled with locals swigging cheap draft beer and hungry professionals on their lunch break. You can spend hours inside enjoying the ambience, and even if you’re not hungry, odds are you’ll end up ordering a burger eventually.


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After all that food, you may feel the need to walk it off, and Mobile is a treasure trove of scenic streets. Walk through the city’s three main squares — Cathedral, Bienville, and Freedom — as the route takes you through French Revival architecture and live oak trees. Stop by Fort Conde, a replica of the original French fort that safeguarded the city in the 1700s, and you can hop on a historic trolley tour that teaches you about the city. Once you’re done, take a peek into the Battle House Hotel, the oldest and grandest hotel in Alabama that’s been open since 1908.

As with most southern cities, Mobile’s history isn’t all genteel balls and grand homes. Clotilda: The Exhibition begins with a story from the city’s slave-owning past, and even in the Carnival Museum you learn how Black residents were forced to have segregated pageants and debutante balls for decades. Mobile doesn’t shy away from its history, but its history is precisely why it’s such an underrated Southern destination. It maintains its grit in ways more popular places have not and gives you a look at modern Southern life interspersed with glimpses into the past. It might not be as sexy a name as Savannah, but for a true Deep South experience, Mobile is a welcomed surprise.

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