It was our last stop on the Natchez Trace. Exactly 357 days before we had begun this journey, we were finally tying a bow on this storied 444-mile parkway. But before we turned around to come home, we had a treat in store: a long weekend in Natchez, Mississippi.
Visiting and documenting large cities in the southeastern part of our country is always fraught with history, riven by conflict and conquest that stretches far beyond the first waves of Europeans who “discovered” this fertile and rich landscape. The snaking rivers, the forested crevices, the buffalo traces, the native artifacts and the incredible riches that were extracted from this region all reflect back a complicated story that seems so distant from the current times it’s almost a mirage—a ghostly past that doesn’t quite square with the reality on the ground, particularly in Natchez.
I’ll be honest in that I knew absolutely nothing about this 15,000-person city marking the southern terminus of the Trace. In fact, I just assumed it was a pitstop on the parkway and not a thriving destination of its own. Boy was I wrong. Natchez would go on to become one of my favorite Southern cities.
What to do in Natchez
Established in 1716, Natchez is the oldest settlement on the Mississippi River; in fact, it beat New Orleans by two years. Back before the Civil War, around 90 percent of inhabitants were cotton plantation owners that built their wealth on the backs of thousands upon thousands of slaves, which is why grand mansions pepper the region.
Natchez boasts the most exquisite Antebellum collection of structures we’ve ever seen in our travels, which exist alongside vast plantations with forgotten names that were burned to the ground when the Union Army took control during the Civil War, and relatives of the slaves that harvested the cotton that built these homes still live here. The Civil War left the city of Natchez relatively untouched, which is why the architecture from the 18th and 19th century has been so well-preserved.
One of Natchez’s claims to fame is its annual Pilgrimage that draws thousands of travelers to the Mississippi-Louisiana border twice a year to tour the mansions that lend it its character. The local garden clubs put on these month-long events, which go from mid-March to mid-April then late-September to late-October each year, but even if you’re visiting outside of Pilgrimage, there are several houses open year-round you can peek into.
While we enjoyed driving around and marveling at the Antebellum mansions, we only toured one, the most famous of them all, Longwood. This massive, octagonal building was started in 1859 by Haller Nutt, one of the major cotton plantation and slave owners in the area. It took 75 workers 18 months to complete what exists of Longwood today, which is only partially finished because the workers all joined battle at the start of the Civil War in 1861.
Longwood is most famed for its unique octagonal structure, which is unusual for the time period and the largest example of its type in the United States. But the most surprising fact came after we’d gone inside, seen the “basement” level (an expansive 15,000 feet with much of the original furniture still there) and were on our way upstairs…
Longwood never was finished! That’s right, the upper five levels of this mansion are still just bare wood. After falling into disrepair until the 1970s, it was acquired by the Pilgrimage Garden Club, who still manage the property. Today, the home is on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places, and is a National Historic Landmark.
If you are breezing through Natchez and only have time to do one thing, make sure it’s a visit to Longwood mansion. This 87.7-acre estate is truly remarkable and out of the ordinary. Check on the current mask requirements before you go, and reservations are always recommended.
Tour the cemeteries
Natchez City Cemetery is filled with Catholics and Jews and Blacks and Confederates and Unionists and Spanish and French and prostitutes and untold other dead lie in state, buried beneath a jumble of rolling hills, weeping Spanish moss and marble monuments. Right next door to this grand collection of tombs is the Natchez National Cemetery, which honors those who served in the armed forces, as well as their family members.
See the site of the historic slave market
Mississippi is evolving into acceptance and attempting to honor its past with tributes and reconstruction of things like the Forks of the Road Slave Market, which by some measures was one of the most prolific marketplaces for the internal slave trade in the United States and is currently only marked by a sign and a concrete slab filled with manacles and chains. Many thousands of enslaved Blacks traveled here along the Natchez Trace from the north as the southern plantation demand for labor increased and the prohibitions on the international trade of slaves came into effect in the early 1800s. Various estimates have over 1,000 human beings bought and sold each year in this very spot. It’s a sobering reality that we’re looking forward to see fully explained in the future as the site is transformed into a more meaningful location.
The Natchez National Historical Park, recognizing this is such an important part of the area’s history, has plans to expand the Forks of the Road into a full-on interpretative center in the future.
Walk the Natchez Trails
For those who love cardio with a side of history, Natchez has a comprehensive system of walking trails that tell the story of Natchez in stages and shed some light on the devastating tornado that swept through this area in 1840, leaving behind 322 casualties, another 200 people who were never found, and plenty of building carnage in its stead.
Technically, this is the last stop on the trails tour, but with 11 markers woven throughout the town’s core, starting at Fort Rosalie and ending at the Bluffs, you can take them at your own pace and which order you choose as we did.
Visit the three NPS sites
The National Park Service operates the visitor center and a trio of properties in town. The Melrose Estate is an easy 0.7-mile self-guided walking tour around the 80-acre property that features guided narration through your cell phone and is free of charge. The William Johnson House, owned and built by a freed Black slave that himself owned slaves and kept a detailed diary until his death, is a lovingly preserved artifact from the mid-1800s and available for free tours through the museum.
Fort Rosalie is connected to the greenway area along the Mississippi River and still an important archeological site. The mostly deteriorated fort and restored structures have historical markers and interactive elements that tell the story of early settlement, the First Peoples and other interesting aspects of this French settlement. Ambitious plans by the National Park Service will see a complete overhaul of the visitor’s center, deep dives into the role that Blacks played in the Civil War and a renewed focus on telling the whole story.
And yes, that is a bald eagle we saw soaring over Fort Rosalie! While I can’t promise you’ll have similar luck, be sure and look up on occasion because you never know. As SVV said, you could almost taste the freedom.
Take a golf cart tour with Sal
If you want to get a quick lay of the land, there’s no better way to do so than hopping aboard Sal’s street-legal golf cart that will carry you throughout downtown and the historic district, giving you insight as to some of the old family feuds in town, the plantations upon which Natchez’s pre-Civil War economy was built and the gorgeous old homes like the very one that Walt Disney used as his model for the Haunted Mansion.
Open Air Tours with Sal feature plexiglass dividers that keep each row of passengers safe, and she asks that the front-seat passenger—which was me—who sits beside her also wears a mask. I love a good history tour, particularly one by golf cart, and this checked all the boxes of requirements: open-air tour. Check! Interesting history. Check! Humor to boot. Check and check!
Sal offers two tours a day six days a week, and as there are just five spots per tour, you’d be wise to call a few weeks in advance to secure your spot. She’ll also do private afternoon tours upon request.
Shop downtown Natchez
For a town of such a small population, Natchez has a lot of great boutiques along Main and Franklin streets like Soiree, Nest and whimsical home decor store Olivina, which had just opened the week we were there.
Check out the art scene at Conde Contemporary
Miami art curator Stacy Conde recently moved to Natchez, where some of her family is from, relocating her seven-year-old fine art gallery to downtown. And wow is Conde Contemporary cool. We visited just after the completion of her Midnight in The Garden of Good and Evil exhibition and were able to marvel over the fairytale-like beauty of the space itself, featuring paintings and installations from artists all over the world: José Bedia, Ernesto Capdevila, Andres Conde, Courtney Egan, Darian Mederos, César Orrico, Pablo Santibáñez Servat, Noah Saterstrom, Kevin Sloan and Luis Enrique Toledo del Rio.
As public art curators in a rural region, we particularly admire the obstacles Stacey has overcome to introduce contemporary art to a small town. We had the pleasure of speaking to her briefly and are excited to see her execute plans to bring even more experiential art to Natchez in the future.
See the sunset from the Natchez Bluff
Natchez rivals the Gulf Coast in dramatic, colorful sunsets, and we were blessed with four days of clear weather and three evenings of dramatic sunsets. No matter where we were as the sun set, we dropped what we were doing and made our way for the Bluffs to see the free show.
The Bluff features a walking trail perched above the Mississippi River and offering a panorama of the area, but on one evening we drove across it to the Louisiana side and watched the sunset from the Vidalia riverfront.
Where to eat and drink in Natchez
This close to New Orleans and the Bayou, it’s no big surprise you’ll find a thriving food scene with several options from which to choose. On our first night, we dined Bluff-front at the Camp, which offered baskets of tacos and margaritas (possibly my favorite combo), while the other dinners we opted for Pig Out Inn BBQ and Pearl Street Pasta. After nine months of eating our own cooking, it felt nice to eat someone else’s for a change, so we crammed in all the foods we’ve been craving during this stay-home spell.
Natchez’s most iconic restaurant is Fat Mama’s Tamales, so for lunch we had to see what all the fuss is about, particularly the “Knock-You-Naked” margaritas. If you’ve never had Mississippi tamales, you’re in for a treat; they’re one of this region’s culinary specialties, and they don’t get any better than Fat Mama’s. We opted to sit inside, but like most restaurants in Natchez, Fat Mama’s also has patio seating.
Our other notable lunch was at Slick Rick’s Cafe in downtown, which has a patio out front and a separate seating area upstairs. We dined on generous portions of sandwiches, burgers and egg rolls.
For dessert, we filled up on no-bake cookie dough from Rolling ‘N’ The Dough Bakery. The brainchild of then-17-year-old Hannah-Grace Hinkle, this one-year-old storefront not only makes more than 30 kinds of cookie dough—around 10 of which are available on any given day—but plenty of other sweet treats like homemade toffee.
If we travel to a new town and don’t check out its eponymous brewery, were we even there? Sources say no. Meaning, you know exactly where we went on the first afternoon there: Natchez Brewing Co. Masks were worn inside, and we felt comfortable claiming a picnic table inside and tasting our way through the menu. There are also several outdoor tables in the massive front yard for those who prefer to stay outside.
A really fun and unexpected thing we did in Natchez was go to a drag bingo show. Everyone was socially distanced at tables strewn throughout the back patio of a private event venue, and all tickets and funds from the bingo cards were donated to Y’all Means All, an organization that aims to improve and promote an atmosphere of tolerance and acceptance in the greater Natchez-Miss Lou area, for suicide prevention efforts.
One of the last things I expected to find in Southern Mississippi was a city both welcoming and embracing of the LGBTQ+ community, but this was just one of many, many things that would surprise me about Natchez.
Where to stay in Natchez
Right now, we’re prioritizing rental properties and bed and breakfasts when we travel if at all possible. Why? They simply feel safer to us at this very moment in time thanks to the lack of crowds and interaction with other humans. (And even in non-pandemic times, we love the character of short-term rentals and B&Bs!).
In Natchez, we were able to check out two properties that fit the bill. On the first two nights, we stayed in a gorgeous Airbnb right on Main Street in the heart of downtown. Owned by Gwen, who also has the fabulous Soiree boutique downstairs, the Main Street Loft is a two-bedroom, one-bathroom beauty with a full kitchen, dining room, living room and other nice touches for travelers like an in-unit washer-dryer. And did I mention it’s walkable to pretty much everything in town?
The Main Street Loft experience is contact-less, meaning you can check right in without ever encountering a soul, though if you need Gwen for any reason throughout your stay, her boutique is just downstairs. It also boasts some of the best women’s fashion around, and I may have wound up filling a shopping bag with dresses, a jumpsuit and a headband even though I’m not going anywhere anytime soon! Her picks are simply irresistible.
On the B&B front, Riverboat Bed and Breakfast can’t be beat. The B&B occupies an 1864 historic home right along the riverfront that was originally owned by innkeeper/owner Marybeth Peck’s great-great-grandfather Captain Joseph Trudell, a riverboat captain, hence the establishment’s name.
There are three guest rooms: two downstairs and a larger attic room with two queen beds. We were the only ones staying at the B&B that evening, so we spread out and each took a downstairs room (because one of us snores and keeps the other up!). There’s also high-speed WiFi, a full kitchen (though Marybeth also provides breakfast) and a lounge area with a TV. It was a great setup for this traveling couple and would be perfect for a multigenerational family traveling together.
Though the two properties are just a few blocks away from each other, it was fun splitting up our trip to stay in and experience two different parts of downtown for the duration of our trip.
We covered a lot of ground in our four days in Natchez, Mississippi, but you know what? There’s still a lot we didn’t make it to, despite having a pretty lengthy stay—the sign of a great tourist destination, no doubt. I loved the mix of a small-town feel (people recognized us in shops from seeing us around and on social media! everyone was so friendly they struck up a conversation despite being masked up!) with city vibes (great restaurants, bars, museums and more).
Visiting Natchez during COVID-19
I felt perfectly safe in this small city visiting during a pandemic, but as always, SVV and I follow all the precautions. We keep to ourselves, we wear masks the second we’re outside of where we’re staying, we use hand sanitizer liberally, we wash our hands often, and we prioritize outdoor experiences over indoor.
During our visit, Adams County had a mask mandate in place, which made us feel even safer traveling to Natchez, because while we can control our behavior, we can’t dictate what those around us do. It would be interesting to return to Natchez when there’s not a pandemic going on and see how it compares, but even now, I loved the safe vibe, the outdoor space and the Southern hospitality. If you’re looking for a mix of Savannah and New Orleans—two of my favorite places in the world—without the crowds, Natchez is a perfect solution for you.