Travel Like a Local: Natchez, Mississippi
Words by Jennifer Kornegay
Named for the Natchez tribe of Native Americans that first settled on the hills towering 200 feet above the mighty Mississippi River, Natchez was established as a town in 1716 by the French and grew into a busy port. After the American Revolution, it became the first capital of the Mississippi Territory. Soon, as it had for indigenous people and later for Europeans, the city’s riverbank location drew cotton planters. The water’s flow made fertile farmland, the swift currents provided easy transport for cotton harvests to cities such as New Orleans, and the protected high ground in Natchez itself was perfect for the massive ornate homes. It became a cultural and commercial hub, and the successes of area plantation owners helped crown cotton king of crops in the Deep South as slavery was expanding.
The Civil War changed life in Natchez, but due to the city’s surrender to Union forces with no battle, it was spared the destruction delivered to similar Southern cities; hundreds of its historic businesses and homes remain intact. When railroads replaced steamboats as the more common method for moving goods, things changed again in Natchez, and the city lost some of its prominence and prosperity.
Today, the city is making intentional efforts to strip away the rosy romanticism that had long colored its story. This reframing of a rich heritage by offering an honest and up-close look at the past makes this old city refreshingly relevant. And its hospitality is as warm as ever. This combination of welcome and authentic history makes now the right time to visit this bluff city. Here’s what to see, do, and eat while you’re there.
Explore & Understand
Stories of times past flow freely in Natchez, but the currents have shifted in recent years with increased emphasis on uncovering and sharing the contributions of African-Americans. One of the more popular and powerful sites to see in the city is Forks of the Road, the location of what was once the second-largest slave market in the South. Several sets of replica chains encased in concrete are a haunting reminder of the brutality of slavery, while signage explains the active slave trade in Natchez as well as the broader narrative of slavery across the region. One fascinating fact: When Union forces occupied Natchez, many formerly enslaved Black men were stationed at army barracks in the same spot they’d previously been bought and sold as commodities. The site is now owned by the National Park Service, and plans are underway to build a larger and more immersive interpretive center.
One hundred years later, Blacks in Natchez fought for freedom again. During the Civil Rights Movement, hundreds were arrested for standing up for equality. In 1965, more than 150 people were incarcerated and abused for days at Mississippi State Penitentiary, also known as Parchman Farm. Their names and many others are etched into the imposing black marble Proud to Take a Stand Monument, Natchez’s first Civil Rights monument, dedicated in 2019.
Other key chapters in the tale of the area’s heritage that are worth a look include The John Banks House museum, home of the city’s first Black doctor, and later the headquarters of the local NAACP chapter; the Natchez Museum of African American History and Culture (don’t skip the section on acclaimed Black author and Natchez-area native Richard Wright); and the Concord Quarters, an 1820s building that housed enslaved people.
Natchez boasts more than 1,000 such structures on the National Register of Historic Places, including more historic homes than any other U.S. city. Greek Revival mansions, with their imposing white columns and lush gardens thick with camellias, are commonplace in the city, and many are open for the public to tour year-round. Every spring and fall, many more open their doors during the annual pilgrimage events, allowing visitors to marvel at their architecture, and inside, the art and collectibles assembled by the families that once occupied them. In some of the houses, members of the founding family still live onsite.
One home not to be missed is Longwood. At first glance, this elegant house stands out for its grand size and octagonal shape. But the real interest lies in what is—or more accurately, what is not—inside. Construction began in 1860, but in 1861, with the interior mostly unfinished, all work stopped, as rumblings of war reached Natchez. With its bare bones exposed, Longwood offers a rare look at the building methods of the time. It’s also the centerpiece of a tragic story: The wife of the family who started and halted construction ended up living in the basement of her dream home, the only finished portion, her entire life, and yet she never gave up. Just a few years before she died, she was still trying to raise the funds needed to finish the house.
Take a break from yesterday and hit the stores in the city’s charming center. Get soothed in Mother’s Natchez Apothecary and Provisions, where you’ll find organic and American-made bath and beauty products. Pop into Nest, where fresh flowers, plants, and garden gifts are always in bloom, before connecting with the local creative spirit at ArtsNatchez Gallery, which houses exhibits from area painters, potters, and more. Treat yourself to some fudge at Darby’s—you’ll need the sugar rush to adequately absorb the volume of candles, jewelry, clothes, bags, and holiday décor filling this massive “has it all” store. Make a pit stop at Steampunk Coffee Roasters for a pick-me-up. The affogato (vanilla ice cream with espresso pour-over) is your dessert and caffeine fix in one convenient package.
Several of the stores downtown have had their brush with fame. Movie and TV fans love learning that Natchez has been the film location for several recent projects, including Hallmark Channel’s “Every Time a Bell Rings,” where the city got to play itself, and hot spots that served as sets got to keep their actual names, since the story is set in Natchez. Natchez is also home base for Tate Taylor’s Crooked Letter Picture Company. Best known as director of “The Help,” Taylor’s efforts with Crooked Letter have resulted in movies such as “Ma” and “Get on Up” (filmed mostly in Natchez), and the company is boosting Natchez’s image and “film cred” by building a community of diverse, experimental storytellers and providing the resources needed for people to develop and produce films.
As evening approaches, make your way to Bluff Park on the hill above the Mississippi River. Its open green spaces host concerts, food fests, and other events, while the paved path on one edge invites residents and visitors for walks. The Park is also the place to stop for a few minutes and take in a stunning sunset over the river, where blazing orange bleeds into streaks of vibrant pink and purple as the day disappears.
Eat & Drink
The Donut Shop may not score any points for name originality, but it could call itself the “Don’t Eat Here” Shop and still have a line thirty people deep snaking past its parking lot and into the mechanic’s space next door. The crowds come—and wait—for fat, fluffy donuts of varying flavors. Donuts are this joint’s claim to fame, but those in the know don’t leave without an apple fritter or an order of tamales.
If you slept in, roll on over to The Little Easy. Calling to mind the gastronomic greatness of The Big Easy down river, this eatery is best known for its “boozy brunch” menu that’s on tap every day until 2 p.m., featuring hearty fare such as the Stump Jumper—a fried chicken breast tucked into a biscuit embellished with hot honey, gravy, cheddar, and smoky collards—and traditional muffulettas.
Follow one of The Little Easy’s signature cocktails with a cold beer from Natchez Brewing Company, just down the street and founded by a Natchez native who earned his craft brew chops in Asheville, North Carolina. You can’t go wrong with a Bluff City Blonde Ale or Candy Castle IPA. Add a Hawaiian pizza, with rings of caramelized pineapple cozied up to tender pulled pork and fired in a brick oven, and you’re set. Another lunch option, Rolling River Reloaded, serves up flavor-packed Southern standards, including fried chicken, okra, and meatloaf, alongside its creative soul-food egg rolls stuffed with mac-n-cheese and BBQ beef or grilled chicken, mustard greens, and candied yams.
Come supper time, The Kitchen Bistro and Piano Bar promises dinner and a show. The bistro’s piano bar delivers tinkling tunes in the back. Or snag a stool up front and watch the chef and his team in action in the completely open cooking space. No matter where you sit, order the deviled eggs gussied up with smoked salmon, sweet crab, and candied bacon and the roasted Cornish hen perched on jambalaya risotto and sauteed ribbons of carrot and kale. A nightcap at Smoot’s Grocery Blues Lounge, a recently restored juke joint boasting cold drinks, a colossal and colorful folk art mural, and live music from locals, ends things on a high note.
Bed-and-Breakfasts are the accommodation norm in Natchez, and Linden Bed & Breakfast is the epitome of the city’s B&B category. Close to everything but insulated from noise and bustle on its seven-acre property, the lovely house built circa 1790 with well-appointed, comfy rooms is a respite after a long day of sightseeing.