HISTORY, BEAUTY, CULTURE, SOUL — it’s all going on in Mississippi. From the authentic juke joints of the Delta to Elvis Presley’s birthplace, Mississippi’s musical heritage can be felt throughout this unique state of winding roads and wild pine forests where the Mississippi River loops past historic towns and antebellum homes toward the coast.
Mississippi’s musical legacy is matched by an exceptional literary scene — Pulitzer Prize winners William Faulkner and Eudora Welty both lived here, and modern novelists like The Help writer Kathryn Stockett maintain Mississippi’s status as a cultural incubator. Then there’s the festivals. From the Neshoba County Fair to Jackson’s hip-as-it-gets monthly block parties, Mississippians know exactly how to extend a raucous welcome to visitors.
Here are 12 incredible places you’ll only find in the rip-roaring Magnolia State.
1. The Fondren neighborhood
Fondren, in the state’s capital of Jackson, prides itself on being the funkiest, most forward-thinking neighborhood around. The neighborhood was rough around the edges until two decades ago, when a generation of young artists, entrepreneurs, restaurateurs, and business owners decided to invest in Fondren’s revival.
These days, the residential neighborhood is some of the most sought-after real estate in the city. The business district is charming, maintaining largely throwback architecture from the ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s even as thoroughly modern businesses move in.
The dining scene can compete with any city in the country, with innovative restaurants from James Beard-nominated chefs like Jesse Houston (Saltine) and Derek Emerson (Walker’s Drive-In), and regional restaurateurs (Babalu Tacos and Tapas, now a staple in several Southern cities, opened its flagship in a renovated Jackson elementary school called Duling Hall; around the corner is the vegan and organic-friendly Rainbow Co-op; and down the way is the unmissable barbecue-and-craft-beer joint Pig & Pint).
On the first Thursday of each month, Fondren turns into a giant block party. The streets are flooded with visitors strolling around the pop-up booths, exhibits, activities, and live art shows — with everything from samba demonstrations to one-night-only dog parks going on down the block. Art galleries stay open late, restaurants offer specials and sell beverages to the thirsty masses, live music can be found on every corner, and Mississippians socialize well into the night.
2. The Delta
Life moves at a different pace in the Mississippi Delta. With fields of cotton as far as the eye can see and some of the most stunning sunsets in the state, you can’t help but breathe a little slower and be a little more introspective here. Bordered by the Mississippi River to the west and the Yazoo River to the east, with 250 miles of Highway 61 (aka the Blues Highway) running through it, the Delta is a place of great fertility — in its land, but also in its food and music.
The Delta is perhaps unmatched in America when it comes to its deep-rooted culinary legacy. From soul food to Delta-style tamales to good old-fashioned Southern cookin’ like Momma makes, the Delta will make you eat foods you never thought you’d try, and like them too. Greens, fried okra, neck bones, fried catfish…all classic Delta dishes.
It’s all too easy to get immersed in Delta culture. Start with lunch at Oxbow Restaurant in Clarksdale, where you can enjoy Southern classics like pimento cheese or upscale fare such as wok-seared ahi tuna tacos. Then spend the afternoon at the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale before dining and grooving into the night at Ground Zero Blues Club — co-owned by Mississippi native Morgan Freeman.
Eat at the original Doe’s Eat Place in Greenville (also the birthplace of legendary puppeteer Jim Henson), visit the spa at the ritzy Alluvian hotel in Greenwood, stop by the soon-to-open GRAMMY Museum in Cleveland…or just wander around until you find a hole-in-the-wall juke joint with a full parking lot — that’s perhaps the truest way to experience the Delta.
3. Borroum’s drug store and soda fountain
Founded in 1865, Borroum’s is Mississippi’s oldest operating drugstore and soda fountain. When Dr. Borroum first opened the establishment, it operated as something of a general store offering everything from coffee to perfume along with prescriptions. A century and a half later, Borroum’s still runs a pharmacy, but it also acts as a museum for old medicinal artifacts and sells oddities and t-shirts. But its main draw these days is the classic diner food, hand-pulled soda fountain drinks, and milkshakes.
Borroum’s is also one of the best places to experience the culinary delicacy known as the Slugburger, found throughout northeast Mississippi but particularly in Corinth. Slugburgers actually contain no terrestrial gastropod mollusks — their patties are hamburger beef mixed with soy. The recipe gained popularity in times of meat rationing and the name comes from the slang term for a nickel, which is what the burgers cost back in the day. Despite its perhaps confusing name, Corinthians can’t get enough of the Slugburger. In fact, the town hosts a Slugburger Festival each year honoring the unsavorily named sandwich.
Thanks to Borroum’s location in the downtown district, it’s also a great starting point for a day of exploring the extensive Civil War history of Corinth (aka the Crossroads of the War).
4. Shack Up Inn
The Shack Up Inn is hard to classify. It’s not a hotel or motel. It’s not a festival scene like Burning Man. It’s not a bed and breakfast. It’s just an experience like no other.
Gleefully owning the slogan “the Ritz we ain’t,” the Shack Up Inn is unapologetic about itself. The area was originally a working plantation, and remains virtually unchanged in some ways, creating a “living history” in which to immerse yourself. Shack Up features several authentic sharecropper/tenant shacks-turned-guest rooms in the shotgun-house style, restored just enough to appeal to 21st-century tastes (indoor plumbing, heat and air conditioning, wifi, and refrigerators are all included amenities; wakeup calls and room service are not).
There’s a restaurant on the property called Rust, and you can expect to see live music pretty much every weekend. Tom Waits, the North Mississippi Allstars, Elvis Costello, Robert Plant, Morgan Freeman, Robert Plant, and many others have all played at the Inn. To top the experience off, the Shack Up Inn isn’t far from the crossroads of Highways 61 and 49, the very spot where legend has it Robert Johnson met the devil and sold his soul for a wicked talent for the blues.
5. Emmett Till historic sites
Mississippi is a state still grappling with its past and the myriad ways in which that past informs its identity and future. Like the Medgar Evers home in Jackson, the historic sites surrounding Emmett Till’s tragic death aren’t easy to visit. They force us to confront the injustices of the past. However, it is a transformative experience for both native Mississippians and outside visitors to learn about Medgar Evers and Emmett Till and all the others who became symbols in the fight for civil rights.
The Emmett Till Interpretive Center in Sumner, Mississippi, is a good place to start. The thought provoking facility is across the street from the newly restored Sumner courthouse, where the murder trial for Till was held. Bryant’s Grocery in Money, Mississippi, where Till allegedly flirted with a white woman, is also still standing today, although it’s dilapidated. Still, the site is denoted by a historical marker and it part of the Freedom Trail, which takes guests on a journey across the state to important sites in the state’s struggle for civil rights.
Natchez just might be what most outsiders think of when they imagine Mississippi — from the historic antebellum homes such as Magnolia Hall, Monmouth Plantation, Dunleith, and others (a tour of homes open to the public is collectively known as the Natchez Pilgrimage) to the Natchez National Cemetery, where many Civil War soldiers are buried.
But as with anything in Mississippi, complexity lurks just below the surface. Natchez was founded in 1716, making it the oldest city on the Mississippi River. It has since seen the state evolve many times. Originally the area was occupied by Natchez Indians, who built mounds and worshipped the sun — Emerald Mound, the second-largest indigenous mound in the United States, isn’t far from Natchez.
Later, Natchez found itself under French rule, then British, then Spanish. Eventually, Natchez became a city of great wealth through slavery and agriculture. That history renders the many relics from that era (Natchez has more than 1,000 buildings on the National Register) magnificent in design and scope, but difficult and complex in theme.
Other ways to explore Natchez’s rich history include the Natchez Visitor Center, the Natchez National Historical Park, Natchez African American History and Culture Museum, and the Natchez Literary and Cinema Celebration.
7. Eudora Welty’s house
Miss Eudora Welty is one of Mississippi’s most celebrated writers — in a long line of them. The Pulitzer Prize winner lived and wrote in a house on Pinehurst Street in Jackson for 76 years, and today that home is one of the most authentic literary houses in America. From the exterior to the furnishings, to the rugs, art, and (of course) books, the house is kept in almost exactly the state it was when Welty bequeathed it to the state of Mississippi.
The home, tucked in the Belhaven neighborhood, is now a historic site and a museum honoring Welty’s work. Visitors can look out the same window Welty did when she penned works like A Curtain of Green, Delta Wedding, The Robber Bridegroom, and countless essays and short stories. Welty was also an avid gardener, and the museum staff maintains a beautiful garden for visitors to explore.
In addition to being a lifelong reader (obvious from the thousands of books lining nearly every wall in the home), Welty was a big supporter of libraries and building a literary culture for all, so it’s wholly appropriate that near the front curb is a Little Free Library, built to look like the Welty House in miniature, where neighbors and visitors can take a book for free or leave one for another.
The Welty House is part of the Southern Literary Trail, which also includes Tennessee Williams’ Columbus home and William Faulkner’s historic Oxford residence Rowan Oak, along with sites for such authors as Richard Wright, Margaret Walker Alexander, Shelby Foote, and others.
8. B.B. King Museum and Interpretive Center
The blues were born in Mississippi — some say the day B.B. King was. Along with his trusty guitar Lucille, the music legend went from the cotton fields of Mississippi to earning 15 Grammy Awards, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, a Kennedy Center Honor, the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Recording Academy, a Polar Music Prize, and too many other accolades to list.
Although he was born in the small town of Berclair, Mississippi, it was Indianola that King called home and where he first started playing the blues for people. Even as he moved to Memphis, got discovered, and subsequently performed his unique style of the blues all over the world, he kept Mississippi in his heart. For more than three decades, King and his band would come back to Indianola and perform a concert in the town of 11,000 people, and in 2008, Indianola opened the B.B. King Museum and Interpretive Center honoring the bluesman and the rich musical history that created him. And if you find yourself so inspired, the museum is just one of hundreds of stops on the statewide Blues Trail.
9. Elvis Presley’s Birthplace
From one King to another: Elvis Presley’s birthplace is a can’t-miss for music buffs. Of course, Elvis’ story is known far and wide, but many forget that the future King of Rock n’ Roll was born in Tupelo, Mississippi, on January 8, 1935. Like B.B. King’s humble beginnings, the unassuming two-room shotgun house where Elvis lived the first years of his life serves as a reminder that greatness can come from anywhere.
The historic site also includes a museum, a chapel, the church where the Presley family worshipped, a gift shop, a statue of Elvis at 13 (the age he was when he left Mississippi), and a recreation of the family car that took the Presleys from Tupelo to Memphis, where Elvis became the Elvis we know today.
10. The Walter Anderson Museum in Ocean Springs
The Mississippi Gulf Coast is loved for its beautiful climate, views, and wildlife, and no one captured them all quite like artist Walter Anderson. Born in New Orleans to a family who instilled in him a love of culture and art, Anderson was able to attend prestigious schools, travel abroad, and learn about a vast range of subjects — from folklore to natural science to art history to philosophy and more. He eventually returned to Ocean Springs, started a family, and began his official career as an artist.
However, Anderson struggled with mental illness and eventually embarked on a solitary life, splitting his time between his pottery compound in Ocean Springs and the uninhabited Horn Island (one of five barrier islands off the Mississippi Gulf Coast). Anderson would spend long stretches of time alone on Horn Island, enduring bitter weather conditions. He was a prolific artist, painting and drawing the animals, birds, vegetation, and other life on the island.
Ocean Springs opened the Walter Anderson Museum of Art to honor the artist and his brothers, all of whom captured the spirit of the Gulf Coast in their works. From the art on the walls and display cases to the wood flooring and the water-evoking lighting, the entire museum honors the distinctive setting of the Coast.
Make it the ultimate trip by venturing out to Ship Island (the most easily accessible of the five barrier islands) to experience superb swimming, sunbathing, birding, shelling, hiking, and fishing. Then spend the evening exploring downtown Ocean Springs, which is filled with shopping, dining, and an incredible nightlife scene.
11. Neshoba County Fair
The Neshoba County Fair calls itself “Mississippi’s Giant House Party,” but that description might actually underplay the huge variety of things you’ll experience at the fair. It was founded in 1889 and has run every summer since, growing exponentially beyond its humble beginnings. Its roots are in agricultural fairs — simple two-day meetings of local farmers to discuss relevant issues — but these days you’ll see everything from antique car shows and pageants, to parades and political speeches, to exhibits, concerts, and much more during the eight-day event (July 24-31, 2015).
The site is home to over 600 cabins, and families that return year after year often deck theirs out to the nth degree, sometimes pouring as much money in them as you would on a home you live in year-round. Other visitors arrive in RV campers (more than 200 of them) or find nearby lodging.
12. 2 Mississippi Museums
The final item on the list isn’t quite a reality yet. The 2 Mississippi Museums project is an ambitious undertaking, building two state-of-the-art centers to open in 2017. The Museum of Mississippi History and the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum will open just in time to celebrate the state’s bicentennial. Drawing from the department of archives as well as artifacts and documents that have never before been public, and employing cutting-edge storytelling techniques, these two museums will explore the state’s past and present with unparalleled depth.
They will join the other incredible centers of learning and culture in the capital city of Jackson, including the Mississippi Museum of Art, the Mississippi Children’s Museum, the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science, an Agriculture and Forestry Museum, and the International Museum of Muslim Cultures.