Ultimate Mississippi Road Trip: Blues, Food & Fun
Get ready to hit the road and explore the best of the Magnolia State, from rock n’ roll in Tupelo to Delta blues in Clarksdale, from the peerless cultural legacies of Oxford and Jackson to delicious restaurants in vibrant downtowns. Here, complete with driving routes and top picks in every town, the ultimate Mississippi road trip.
TUPELO: HAIL TO THE KING OF ROCK N’ ROLL
(Calvin L. Leake/Dreamsime)
When it comes to Instagrammable destinations, it doesn’t get any more epic than the monumental statue of Elvis Presley in Tupelo, where the King of Rock n’ Roll was born. Soak up the atmosphere in Tupelo’s vibrant downtown and visit Tupelo Hardware Company, where Presley’s mother bought him his first guitar. Little did Gladys Presley know that her boy would grow up to synthesize the country, bluegrass, and blues traditions into a new musical genre that would take the mid-century world by storm. From downtown, head into the all-Elvis-all-the-time scene at the Elvis Presley Birthplace, where you can tour the small house where the King was born, spend some time chilling in Elvis Presley Park, and absorb the history, artifacts, and fun at the Elvis Presley Museum. Hungry? A meal fit for the famously ravenous King himself awaits at Neon Pig, where the “smashburger” combines several cuts of meat, including legendary Benton’s bacon.
OXFORD: A COLLEGE TOWN WITH SERIOUS LITERARY CRED(Ken Wolter/Dreamstime)
Less than an hour’s drive from Tupelo on US 278 E, Oxford is a fitting transition from Mississippi’s pop music royalty to its serious literature. Tour Rowan Oak, the family home of Nobel Prize-winning author William Faulkner, who immortalized the region in his funny and touching stories set in fictional Yoknapatawpha County. The grounds are worth a stroll even if you’re not enraptured of the famous author’s work. Oxford also happens to be a renowned college town, home to the University of Mississippi, where visitors can tour the Center for the Study of Southern Culture devoted to literature and folklore, and the unique Blues Archive with its recordings, photographs, and personal artifacts of Mississippi’s blues masters. Hankering for some live music? The historic Lyric Theater, painstakingly restored to its original splendor, plays host to major acts, and the Gertrude C. Ford Performing Arts Center hosts an array of concerts.
MISSISSIPPI BLUES TRAIL: BIRTHPLACE OF A UNIQUE MUSICAL ART FORM
About an hour and 15 minutes from Oxford on MS-6 W, the town of Clarksdale is the gateway to the Mississippi Delta region and the incredible Mississippi Blues Trail, which takes visitors through a few key towns that played a role in the development of this uniquely American musical art form. Immerse yourself in the music at the Delta Blues Museum, which chronicles the lives and careers of local blues legends such as Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, and others, including the cabin in which Waters lived as a child. At the end of your day, you can refuel and take in some live blues all at the same time at Clarksdale’s Ground Zero Blues Club.
Nearby Indianola is best known as the home of B.B. King, with the excellent B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center commemorating the life and work of the guitarist and composer who served as perhaps America’s best-known ambassador of the blues to the world via his recordings, live concerts, and television appearances. You can visit King’s grave, learn about the history and development of his work and the Delta blues tradition in general, and get up close and personal with musical instruments and memorabilia that bring the music to life. Around the corner, stop by Club Ebony, which has been serving up blues music, soul food, and beer since the 1940s.
Further along Highway 82 on the Blues Trail, the town of Greenwood has a rich musical tradition and is the final resting place of bluesman Robert Johnson, of whom little is known. Johnson died in his twenties and left behind a small body of recorded blues guitar and vocal recordings that have nevertheless inspired musicians across the U.S. and the world, including the Allman Brothers and the Rolling Stones. Stop by the Blues Heritage Gallery to learn more about Johnson’s short life and body of work. And there’s no reason to leave Greenwood hungry, with an array of excellent eateries along historic downtown’s brick-paved streets. Try Giardina’s Restaurant, a historic restaurant located downtown within The Alluvian, a boutique hotel.
JACKSON: CAPITAL OF FOOD & FUN
Less than a two-hour drive from Greenwood on MS-17 S and I-55 S, Mississippi’s capital, Jackson, boasts world-class shopping, museums, restaurants and culture. Visit the Museum of Mississippi History and the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, both of which opened during the state’s recent bicentennial in 2017. The Mississippi Museum of Art, is also here, celebrating the work of contemporary local artists as well as past masters; the museum’s garden is worth a visit for its exquisitely curated plants and flowers. Literary fans will flock to the Eudora Welty House, in the Belhaven neighborhood, where the home and garden of the Pulitzer Prize-winning author make an impression almost as spectacular as her novels and short fiction. Close out your day with a stop at Bully’s Restaurant, honored by the Southern Foodways Alliance, for traditional soul food like ribs, fried chicken, and locally sourced catfish.
MERIDIAN: ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT
About an hour’s drive from Jackson via I-20 E, Meridian is the site of the brand-new, 60,000-square-foot Mississippi Arts & Entertainment Experience, which celebrates the work of Mississippi’s creative folks with interactive exhibits devoted to Elvis Presley, B.B. King, Jimmy Buffett (who hails from Pascagoula, MS), and Jimmie Rodgers, known as the King of Country Music.
Locals Know Best: St. Louis, Missouri
Ten years ago, if you asked Tamara Keefe where she thought she’d be today, she definitely would not have said St. Louis. In 2008, she moved to the city from California “kicking and screaming,” as she puts it. But her resistance was futile. Within six months, she had fallen under its spell and to this day she declares St. Louis is her one true love. The owner of Clementine’s Creamery, which has two scoop shops in town and a third opening in the spring, joins a number of other culinary entrepreneurs who’ve made the city their home, creating an accidental community of bakers, butchers, brewers, and craftspeople who see to it that locals have fresh baked bread, handmade kombucha, and plenty other delicious eats each day. Add to that the astonishingly low cost of living and a multitude of cultural options, many of them free, and it’s clear that the risk of falling in love with this town is high. (And that’s to say nothing of how Midwesterners are “gloriously friendly people,” Tamara quickly learned.) We checked in with Tamara to learn more. A City of Neighborhoods One of the many things that’s easy to love about St. Louis is its assortment of distinct neighborhoods. And there’s enough to do in each of them that you can spend the day and still leave not having done it all. Tamara has a fondness for Lafayette Square, the city’s oldest and most historic district that’s seen a lively community grow around its historic fixtures and sprawling park. Tamara recommends starting a day there with breakfast at Sqwires (sqwires.com), a secret among locals known for its killer brunches (smoked brisket hash, anyone?) and its bloody mary and mimosa bars on the weekend. Walk it off with a leisurely stroll through the boutiques and galleries along Park Avenue, the main drag. An eatery like Polite Society (politesocietystl.com) is a top pick for lunch, with plates like wild boar ravioli among the many choices. “It’s funky American cuisine and they do it right,” Tamara says. Nearby is one of her scoop shops, so definitely drop in to try one of her boozy creations, like maple bourbon or chocolate milk stout. (Those are the “naughty” options. She’s got “nice” liquor-free ones, too, like gooey butter cake.) Unwind at the end of the day with a drink at Planter's House (plantershousestl.com), which Tamra calls a “sexy little cocktail bar.” Cherokee Street (AKA: Cherokee Antique Row) is another neighborhood that’s worth a wander. With its many antique stores, it’s a Shangri-La for vintage lovers who can easily spend hours sifting through inventories of furniture, home goods, jewelry, clothing and much more. One standout is Dead Wax Records, an overflowing vinyl shop owned by one of the same people that runs the Mud House (themudhousestl.com), a coffee shop nearby that Tamara recommends. Once you’re all shopped out, cap off the day at Chaparritos, Tamara’s go-to for amazing chili verde and mean margaritas. A Hub of Culture If you live in St. Louis, it’s easy to see—and hear—your tax dollars at work. Many museums are free, the zoo is free, there’s an outdoor theater, the Muny (themuny.org), where nearly 1500 seats are offered for free at every performance, and St. Louis is home to one of the country’s most celebrated opera companies, which you can see for as little as $12. “The arts are huge here and it’s really important for them to have access to it—for everyone to have access. It’s not just for the elite,” Tamara says. “Coming from SoCal, where you pay outrageous prices for everything, it’s just awesome.” Every city has a movie theater--or several--for regular entertainment, but St. Louis's main cinema, the independent, old-time-style Chase Park Cinema in the historic Chase Park Plaza hotel, comes with an added delight. His name is Jerry and he plays the vintage organ before every show and sees people off after the movie with a Hershey's Chocolate Kiss. Tamara estimates he's been there for decades. "Everyone knows him, everyone looks forward to it," she says. Nature Calls Should you need a break from the city, there are a few ways for heeding the call of the wild. Castlewood State Park, for one, features walking and running trails that snake along the Merrimack River. There are cliffs that make perfect perches for a picnic lunch. Tamara suggests stopping at Parker’s Table at Oakland and Yale (parkerstable.com) a wine and food market where you can pick up provisions like sandwiches, soups, and the house sausages for the day. For kids, there’s an uncommon nature sanctuary. The Butterfly House at the Missouri Botanical Garden (missouribotanicalgarden.com) is a glass-walled conservatory that’s home to more than a thousand tropical free-wheeling butterflies. “They land on eyelashes, hair, clothes," Tamara says. "It’s so sweet and kinda magical. You feel like you’re in a Disney movie.” Daytripping Everywhere you go these days it seems like you're close to a wine country, and St. Louis is no exception. About 90 minutes west, Hermann (visithermann.com), a village settled by German immigrants, is Missouri’s wine region. A concentration of wineries could certainly keep you entertained for a full day. Break up the wine tastings with a stop at Old Stone Barn (oldstonebarn.com), a working hay farm that doubles as an antique emporium. Another destination if you want to hit the road is Cottleville, and old-timey town with still yet more antique shops and charming B&Bs. Stone Soup Cottage (stonesoupccottage.com), a restaurant in an old house with just enough space for ten tables, is worth the trip alone, says Tamara. Perch yourself on the wraparound porch and start your evening gazing at the stars. Dinner, chef’s choice, consists of whatever’s fresh off the farm that day, so expect a wholesome meal.
3 Warm Places to Escape Winter
Sure, cold-weather fun is all well and good, and we love skiing, skating, and sledding as much as anyone. But when the mercury drops a little too far for a little too long, it's time to grab your beach bag, swimsuit, and flip-flops and head for a warm escape. Here, we share three spots where the temperatures are high, but the prices are surprisingly down to earth. 1. THE BAHAMAS Beaches, seafood, and cool outdoor markets. Although there are 700 islands that make up the Bahamas, we suggest you head to New Providence Island, home to Nassau, where rates at reliable hotels such as Holiday Inn Express and Courtyard start at well under $200/night. Nassau is a quick flight from major Northeast airports, and you’ll get your fill of gorgeous beaches, outdoor markets packed with handmade crafts, and, of course, seafood, seafood, seafood: Cracked conch with peas and rice is as close to a signature dish as the Bahamas can come -- you’ll love the deep-fried cutlet and the pleasantly spicy peas and rice. Wash it down with Sky Juice, a refreshing gin-and-coconut-water cocktail. 2. MIAMI Style, Cuban cuisine, and a surprisingly quiet beach (really!). First of all, let’s dispel a common myth about Miami: The city’s stylish, Art Deco-inspired hotels don’t have to break the bank. We’ve got swanky lodgings like the Hotel Breakwater, an Ascend Hotel Collection Member, starting under $200/night. Another myth: Miami’s beaches are packed. While iconic South Beach may be lined with high-rise hotels and fashionable crowds to match, you’ll find a decidedly quieter side to Miami Beach at North Beach Open Space Park, a white-sand beach with picnic tables, a dog park, and the kind of peace and quiet you left home in search of. When it comes to food, Miami’s legendary Cuban fare is available in Little Havana -- and everywhere else. Try the cubano sandwich (pork, peppers, and cheese), chicharron (pork belly), and ropa vieja (essentially Cuban beef stew). 3. COSTA RICA Eco-lodges, tropical birds, and an active volcano. Sure, Costa Rica is on everyone’s must-see list these days, but prices have not yet caught up with all that demand. You can nab reliable hotels like Radisson and Wyndham for under $150/night. If you’re craving a warm-weather escape that offers some opportunities to get wild (in a nature-appreciation kind of way), Costa Rica is one-stop shopping for the aspiring adventurer. National parks, hiking trails, monkeys, tropical birds, and even the chance to volunteer at an animal rescue center on the country’s Caribbean coast. Hungry? Costa Rica is best known for casados, meat or fresh fish served with rice, black beans, salad, and plantains. Yum!
A Tour of Louisiana Watering Holes
When you’re visiting the state that invented America’s first cocktail, the Sazerac, you’ve got to set aside some time to wet your whistle. Here, we take a look at some of the best, unique bars and music clubs in New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Lafayette, and Shreveport, plus a dive into Louisiana’s incredible array of homegrown beers, wines, and spirits. NEW ORLEANS Beachbum Berry’s Latitude 29 (Courtesy @latitude29nola.Instagram)Bacchanal Fine Wine & Spirits has a rather humble brick exterior, but once you step inside you’re entranced by sweet design, great food (tapas style!), and a fine selection of wines, beers, and signature cocktails like the King Jukebox (gin, mint, lime, yellow Chartreuse, celery, and Topo Chico). Beachbum Berry’s Latitude 29 wears its namesake owner’s affection for tiki culture and tropical drinks on its sleeve. Try the multicultural Sean & Juan (Tequila and Irish whiskey, lemon, guava, and crème de cacao). Le Bon Temps Roule is the place to be when you want to hear up-and-coming NOLA bands and sip reasonably priced beer or elaborately (and we mean elaborately) garnished Bloody Marys. The Spotted Cat is your escape from the, um, rowdier variety of NOLA tourist. You’ll hear real jazz and blues in the company of other people who appreciate authentic American roots music. The Three Muses features an entertaining mix of rising musicians, plus an exceptional menu of short ribs, jerk duck, and other specialties. Signature cocktails evolve daily — order the “Today's Riff" drink special of the day. Bullet's Sports Bar sure looks like an average dive until you realize it was featured in the HBO series Treme and it is an authentic spot to down a cold beer while grooving to live R&B, jazz, and blues. Hungry? Order the charbroiled oysters. BATON ROUGE Radio Bar is literally shaped like an old-timey radio, a harbinger of good times to be had inside. The joint has an industrial feel – for instance, to get to the patio you have to pass through garage doors. While a great selection of beers is available, the bartenders also stir up cocktails like the Aperol Spritz (Aperol, Prosecco, and soda water). Olive or Twist deserves a shout just for its subtly Dickens-inspired moniker, and its mixologists get high marks for their Ramos Gin Fizz, Sazerac, and the classic bourbon- based Old Fashioned. LAFAYETTE Artmosphere Bistro will please thirsty art lovers with its in-house gallery, brunch mimosas, and nightly live music. SHREVEPORT Strange Brew is a reliable choice for its massive beer selection, exceptional live music, and games like billiards. Bear’s not only boasts the full drink menu you’d expect from a popular Shreveport watering hole, but also hosts karaoke, burlesque night, and other games and activities that keep visitors and locals alike flocking back. Straycat gets raves for its ample patio and friendly bartenders. It’s a sweet spot to kick back with friends after seeing the sights. CRAFT BEER Abita Beer ready to taste. (Courtesy @abitabeer/Instagram) Louisiana’s deep devotion to cuisine and hospitality have led to an explosion of brewing, from small towns to big cities across the state. Abita Brewing Company in charming Abita Springs, which kicked off Louisiana’s current craft beer scene back in 1986, is now one of the largest craft brewers in the U.S. It’s in good company with other Pelican State brewers such as Parish Brewing Company in Broussard, Bayou Teche Brewing in Arnaudville, Broken Wheel Brewery at Fresh Catch Bistreaux in Marksville, Tin Roof Brewing Company in Baton Rouge, Covington Brewhouse in Covington, Chafunkta Brewing Company in Mandeville, Old Rail Brewing in Abita Springs, Flying Tiger in Monroe, and New Orleans’ NOLA Brewing Company and Courtyard Brewery. Learn more about these and other tasty Louisiana craft brewers at libations.louisianatravel.com. WINE You may not have realized that Louisiana is also home to a vibrant and growing wine industry, with vineyards hosting tastings and live music events, such as Landry Vineyards, in West Monroe, with its popular series of outdoor concerts. The annual New Orleans Wine and Food Experience provides a chance to get up-to-the-minute news about this up-and- coming wine region with its Vino Stroll, Grand Tastings, and other offerings. SPIRITS Louisiana also boasts a vibrant distillery scene. Locally grown sugarcane is transformed into world-class rum, and a variety of other spirits are distilled statewide. We suggest you begin your exploration of Louisiana spirits with a tour of a sugarcane plantation to learn the process from field to glass. Try Bayou Rum in Laccasine, Atelier Vie for a taste of real Louisiana absinthe in NOLA, and Caneland Distilling in Baton Rouge.
The Wild Side of Louisiana
If the word “Louisiana” makes you think only of Mardi Gras, we’ve got a whole new world of adventure for you to discover. In fact, the state’s nickname, “Sportsman’s Paradise” hints at what visitors have in store: state parks, miles of trails for hikers and cyclists, coastal wetlands, swamp tours, an array of colorful birds, and much more. Here, a walk on Louisiana’s wild side. STATE PARKS Louisiana makes it easy to “get wild” with endless state parks with opportunities for cycling, hiking, fishing, boating, paddling (on lakes, bayous, and swamps), and birdwatching. And if you want to spend the night out under the stars, Louisiana’s state parks offer camping and picnic areas, well-equipped cabins, and RV parks. We’ll share a few state park options, and we encourage you to explore further at louisianatravel.com. For visitors who truly want to experience wild Louisiana, Palmetto Island State Park, in the southern corner of the state, is an excellent choice, with native cypress and palmetto trees delivering that iconic swamp vibe. The Vermilion River and other waterways and bayous are perfect for exploring via kayak or canoe. Don’t miss the chance to hike a portion of the seven-mile Cypress Trail, stop by the excellent visitor center, or even spend the night in one of the park’s rental cabins. For a park experience a little closer to the city, we love Bayou Segnette State Park, in Jefferson Parish, just outside New Orleans. Kids and grownups alike will enjoy the wave pool, the chance to see (from a safe distance) alligators, bald eagles, and other swamp residents, and floating cabins right on the water. Fontainebleau State Park, outside the Northshore town of Mandeville (about an hour’s drive from New Orleans) combines paddling and hiking opportunities with local history — the park was once the site of a sugar mill, and the visitor center provides fascinating historical background. Fontainebleau also boasts a beach and water playground, a lovely place to relax. SWAMP TOURS Louisiana’s swamps have a mysterious allure thanks to their beauty, classic trees and moss, and, of course, the alligators we are all fascinated by and a bit wary of. One of the best ways to satisfy your thirst for a swamp adventure without getting too far out of your personal comfort zone is by taking a guided swamp tour. Your guide can introduce you to swamp wildlife and also to “secret” restaurants near the marshes where you can get the ultimate authentic taste of Cajun cuisine. Watercraft options range from tour boats, airboats, and kayaks. Reliable swamp guides can be hired at New Orleans Kayak Swamp Tours; Atchafalaya Basin Landing & Marina in Henderson (gateway to the incredible Atchafalaya wilderness, the largest river swamp in the U.S.); and Dr. Wagner's Honey Island Swamp Tours, exploring the 108 square miles of the beautiful swamp. Don’t forget to pack your cameras or smartphones for shots of colorful birds, gators, deer, and azaleas in season. CANOEING & KAYAKING POVERTY POINT (Bonita Cheshier/Dreamstime)For a taste of Louisiana’s amazing array of paddling opportunities, the Bayou Macon Paddling Trail, which takes you from Poverty Point State Historic Site to Poverty Point Reservoir State Park, is a great choice. It delivers flowering plants, butterflies, egrets, herons, wild turkey, white-tailed deer, palmettos, cypresses, oaks, sycamore, and cottonwood, and also takes you back in time to Poverty Point, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that was home to the earliest advanced society in America, dating back as far as 1650 BC. Choose between an 11.9-mile paddle, that can take most of the day for beginners, or a more manageable 6.5-mile paddle. CYCLING TAMMANY TRACE One of Louisiana’s finest places to cycle is Tammany Trace, with natural beauty around every bend in the trail. And the Tammany Trace trailhead is an excellent place to park your bike and enjoy fun activities with something for every family member in the small town of Abita Springs. Enjoy the impressive new Abita Springs playground, right near the trailhead, then make a pit stop at Abita Brew Pub for comfort food like poboys — and you must try the crawfish cakes for a true “taste of Louisiana.” CAMPING KISATCHIE NATIONAL FOREST We’ve already mentioned several amazing state parks where camping is not only affordable but also one of the best ways to get up close and personal with wildlife and nature. But Louisiana is also home to an incredible national forest that campers will love: Kisatchie National Forest, named for a local Native American tribe, comprises over 604,000 acres of bayous, cypress groves, old growth pine, gorgeous overlooks, and wild hiking trails. In one corner of the forest is the preserve where horticulturist Caroline Dormon lived and worked in the 1920s. Dormon was the first woman employed in forestry and convinced the US Forest Service to establish Kisatchie as a National Forest. Her cabin and her many plant drawings can be seen at the Briarwood Nature Preserve in April, May, August and November. BIRDING AND BEACHES ON GRAND ISLE (Shane Adams/Dreamstime)Traditional sandy beaches are not common in Louisiana, but Grand Isle, at the end of the state’s Highway 1, delivers sand dunes and the lapping waves of the Gulf of Mexico. The island’s state park is renowned for its pier, campground, and opportunities to collect unique seashells. But one of the main attractions is the vibrant variety of birds — both the natives and those that stop at Grand Isle in their migratory path. Keep your eyes (and cameras and binoculars!) peeled for waterfowl, songbirds, and raptors. Is it any wonder John J. Audubon spent so much time in Louisiana painting birds? Ready to plan your wild Louisiana getaway? We heartily recommend a visit to LouisianaTravel.com for trip inspiration and tips on lodging, food, and itineraries.