The beach is the quintessential summer vacation destination: the perfect place to relax with a best seller and a frosty beverage while your kids work on tans or sandcastles, depending on their ages. But even perfection can get boring after a while, so if you’re looking for something else but still want to stick close to home, there are plenty of non-coastal options in Mississippi and Alabama.
The state capital of Mississippi is a great place to start. The Mississippi Governor’s Mansion was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1975 and is the second-oldest continuously occupied governor’s residence in the United States, according to the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. Designed by English architect William Nichols, the mansion is considered by architectural historians to be one of the best surviving examples of the Greek Revival style in America. The historic section of the Governor’s Mansion is open to the public Tuesday through Friday, 9:30 a.m. to 11 a.m. Guided tours are given every half-hour, and admission is free. Various official state functions can cause the closure of the mansion, so call (601) 359-6421 to confirm the availability of the mansion for tours in advance. Another example of fabulous architecture, the state Capitol building, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1969 and designated a Mississippi Landmark in 1986. The Capitol is open for tours Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., and admission is free. For more information, call (601) 359-3114.
Jackson, in addition to all of the standard landmarks found in any capital city, boasts numerous museums –– everything from the Eudora Welty House Museum and the International Museum of Muslim Cultures to the Mississippi Museum of Art and the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum.
And if you or your traveling companions want something a little less stuffy than museums, the Jackson Zoo has more than 100 different species and more than 700 animals on its 110 acres. The zoo is open year-round from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and admission is $8 for adults, $7.20 for seniors and $5 for children under 12. Children under 2 are free, and the zoo offers a military discount of $7 for adults and $4.50 for children. For more information, call (601) 352-2580 or visit jacksonzoo.org.
Architecture buffs will find plenty to love in Natchez, which is home to some of the finest and best-preserved examples of antebellum mansions in the South. Although many of these grand homes are open year-round, others welcome visitors only during the annual fall and spring pilgrimage tours, and some are not open to the public but can be viewed from the outside. Hours and admission fees vary by location, so call (800) 647-6742 or (601) 446-6631 or visit natchezpilgrimage.com for more information.
Viewing the homes of the antebellum South is only one part of the history of Natchez, though. The Natchez Indians were one of the last American Indian groups to live in southwestern Mississippi, with archaeological evidence indicating that the tribe occupied that area until the 1730s. The Grand Village of the Natchez Indians was the site of the Natchez tribe’s main ceremonial mound center. It now features an accredited museum; a reconstructed Natchez Indian house; three ceremonial mounds, two of which have been excavated and rebuilt to their original sizes and shapes; a nature trail; a “touch table” for children; and a visitors’ center. The site is open Monday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday from 1:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is free. For more information, call (601) 446-6502 or go to mdah.state.ms.us/hprop/gvnivisit.html.
Largely thought of as a college town, Oxford attracted national attention in the fall of 2008 when the first of the presidential debates was held at the University of Mississippi. Commonly and affectionately known as “Ole Miss,” the state university has approximately 17,000 students. But Oxford isn’t just home to students; it’s also a haven for writers and artists. William Faulkner made his home there, and Lafayette County and Oxford, the county seat, were the models for his fictional Yoknapatawpha County and Jefferson, respectively. Faulkner’s former home, Rowan Oak, is now owned by the University of Mississippi and is a popular tourist attraction in Oxford. Author John Grisham also has a second home in Oxford, a city he fell in love with while attending law school.
There are several national historic landmarks to tour in Oxford, along with the Confederate Cemetery, where soldiers who died in the Battle of Shiloh are buried, and St. Peter’s Cemetery, Faulkner’s burial site. You can also tour the Ole Miss Blues Archive, which features an extensive collection of blues memorabilia, including the personal collection of B.B. King; Southside Gallery, which displays Southern and Caribbean art, folk art and photography; or the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, which explores Southern music, folklore and literature, among other things.
The state capital of Alabama, Montgomery has a huge place in history as the birthplace of both the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement: Jefferson Davis took the oath of office as the president of the Confederate States of America in the Capitol building, and almost a century later, the town was the site of the famous bus boycott led by Rosa Parks, along with many other major events of the Civil Rights Movement. In addition to the state Capitol, you should make a point to tour the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King Jr. first preached as a young pastor. The church has a large mural depicting King’s fight for civil rights from Montgomery to Memphis, Tenn. The church is open Tuesday through Friday, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and on Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Admission is $5 for adults and $3 for children. Other attractions include the First White House of the Confederacy; the Rosa Parks Museum & Library, which features a re-creation of the bus that sparked the boycott paired with interactive video footage, as well as a children’s wing; the Hank Williams Museum; the Montgomery Zoo; the Alabama Shakespeare Festival; and Old Alabama Town, a four-block re-creation of a 19th- and early 20th-century town. For more information, go to visitingmontgomery.com.
Selma, the largest historic district in Alabama, has more than 1,200 historic structures, from antebellum and Victorian homes to warehouses for Civil War munitions. After you’ve gotten your fill of classic architecture, you can take the Martin Luther King Jr. Street Historic Walking Tour, which will take you past 20 memorials to the Civil Rights era, including Brown Chapel AME Church, where King launched the Voting Rights Movement and where the names of everyone who died for the cause are engraved in stone. Also on the list for places to see is the Edmund Winston Pettus Bridge, which became a symbol in the Civil Rights Movement. On a day known as Bloody Sunday, law enforcement officers violently clashed with voting rights marchers, led by King, on the bridge. Weeks later, this time with court protection, the march resumed, with participants crossing the bridge and marching on to Montgomery. Five months after the march, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Other noteworthy spots are the Old Depot Museum and the National Voting Rights Museum. For more information, go to alabama.travel/areas-to-visit/Selma.html.
Known as “the space capital of America,” Huntsville is home to the U.S. Space and Rocket Center, the world’s largest space attraction. With dozens of interactive exhibits, any space enthusiasts will be in heaven here. You also can take a look at the U.S. Space Camp Training Center where simulated missions are conducted.
Other attractions for the kids are Sci-Quest Hands-on Science Center –– which has such fun exhibits as Grossology, a study of the human body; the Tornado Simulator; and the Magnetic Pendulum –– and EarlyWorks Children’s Museum, which brings history to life in an interactive and exciting way. Another fun way to pass the time is the Harmony Park Safari, a 2-mile tour of a federally licensed nature preserve of free-ranging exotic and endangered animals. From your car, you can observe zebras, crocodiles, pythons, camels and more. Harmony Park is open daily from 10 a.m. to sunset, March 1 through Nov. 30.
And before you leave Huntsville, make sure to take in the Huntsville Museum of Art and the 110-acre Huntsville Botanical Garden. For more information, go to huntsville.org.
From history and science to arts and culture, Mississippi and Alabama have so much more to offer visitors than just a coastline. You can never go wrong with a beach vacation, but if you want a change this year, rest assured you can still find it close to home.