In the Southeastern region, Mississippi’s nicknames include “The Magnolia State” and “The Hospitality State”. The state is most famous for its landscapes, which include the Mississippi River, Gulf of Mexico, hills, and farmland.
Even with all of its natural beauty, most wouldn’t consider Mississippi to be a tourist destination. However, millions of people still travel to the state to enjoy its landmarks, history, and cultural value.
As a part of the Deep South, Mississippi’s culture is tied to agriculture, plantations, music, Civil Rights, and comfort food. There are a few major cities, but the majority of the state is connected by small towns with tight knit communities. It’s in the nooks and crannies that travelers will find the heart and soul of Mississippi, so don’t be afraid to wander from the beaten path.
Livin’ La Vida Mississippi
History of “The Magnolia State”
Around 10,000 BC, Paleo-Indians were the first inhabitants of the American South. Living a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, they hunted megafauna species like mastodons. After a few thousand years, distinct cultures began to emerge. One of the most prominent was Mississippian culture, which began in 950 AD. The culture is most famous for the construction of large earthwork mounds.
The colonial era didn’t begin until 1699 when French colonists established Fort Maurepas, which was the first European settlement in the area. The first settlement is close to present-day Ocean Springs, while the second settlement was built in Natchez in 1716. Slavery in the state began during the colonial era with European settlers relying on slave labor from Africa.
In 1817 Mississippi became the 20th state to the join the Union. Slavery would last in the state for hundreds of years with the slave population peaking at about 55% of Mississippi’s total population by 1860. By 1861, it was the second state to join the Confederate States in which it was a founder. Throughout the Civil War, Mississippi was loyal to the Confederacy, providing 80,000 soldiers to its army compared to the 17,000 that fought for the Union.
Even after the end of the war and rejoining the Union, race tensions remained throughout the state. Segregation existed and it pushed Mississippi to the front of the Civil Rights Movement. In recent decades, the state has improved to be more diverse and inclusive. However, racial hardships still exist in the current economy.
Part of the economic issues in the state stem from its coastal location, which is prone to hurricanes. Throughout the years, one of the worst storms to hit the Mississippi Gulf Coast was Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Even today, in places along the coast, communities are still recovering from the devastating effects of the storm.
Capital City of Jackson
With 153,701 residents as of 2020, Jackson is the capital and largest city in Mississippi. The city is typically called the “Crossroads of the South” because of its location halfway between Memphis, New Orleans, and Atlanta. With a mostly flat landscape, Jackson is close to the Pearl River, which flows on the city’s east side.
As one of the main destinations in the state, visitors will find a diverse array of attractions that range from historic to cultural, artsy and family-friendly. Whether staying for a quick trip or sticking around for longer, “The City with Soul” is guaranteed to be an entertaining destination. Popular areas to see include Downtown and the Riverfront.
For things to do, tourists should head to the Museum of Natural Science, Jackson Zoological Park, Mississippi Petrified Forest, Mississippi Children’s Museum, Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, Mississippi Museum of Art, Eudora Welty House and Garden, Fondren District, and the Museum of Mississippi History.
Gulfport, “Where Your Ship Comes In”
On the Gulf of Mexico is the second largest city in the state, Gulfport. Supporting 72,926 residents as of 2020, the city has become a resort destination for Mississippi and neighboring states. Tourists each year flood Gulfport during the warmer months to enjoy its coastal location and beaches. One major perk is that travelers can enjoy the beauty of the gulf, while still sticking to their budgets.
Overall, Gulfport is a laid-back destination where much of the current infrastructure has been recently rebuilt and renovated. Heavily damaged by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the city is back on its feet and welcoming plenty of tourists each year. One of the most famous attractions is the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies. Aimed at conservation and education, the institution runs the Ocean Adventures Marine Park, which is open daily to the public. Other fun activities include the Lynn Meadows Discovery Center, and Gulf Islands Water Park.
Southaven, “The Tip of the Sip”
Situated next to the border with Tennessee, Southaven is the third largest city in the state with a population of 54,648 as of 2020. Beginning as a small village, the city quickly grew during the 1970s. Since then, it has continued to expand as it becomes more popular with tourists. Keeping with its humble roots, Southaven is a quiet destination where travelers can enjoy the local shops, restaurants, venues, and events.
A few of the best attractions include the Thomas Kinkade Art Gallery, Lewis Ranch, North Creek Golf Club, Tanger Outlets, BankPlus Amphitheater, and the Urban Air Adventure & Trampoline Park.
Vicksburg, A Historic Destination
Easily the most historic tourist destination in Mississippi is Vicksburg. Located across the river from Louisiana, Vicksburg was first built by the French in 1719. During the Civil War, it was an important river-port for the Confederacy before being surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant in July 1863. Tourists that are interested in history and the military, should take a trip to see this stunning city.
Most of the local attractions are related to the history and military ties of Vicksburg. These include the Vicksburg National Military Park, USS Cairo, Vicksburg National Cemetery, Vicksburg Battlefield Museum, Pemberton’s Headquarters, Old Depot Museum, McRaven House, Old Court House Museum, and historic downtown.
Throughout the area, visitors can also enjoy the Attic Gallery, Riverfront Murals, Lower Mississippi River Museum, Biedenharn Coca-Cola Museum, Old Vicksburg Bridge, and the Ameristar Casino Hotel.
Tupelo, Home of Elvis Presley
For Elvis Presley lovers’, you can’t miss Tupelo. Supporting 37,923 residents as of 2020, this city is where The King of Rock and Roll was born. Tourists can see the singer’s birthplace, which has been preserved and turned into a museum. A part of the greater Elvis Presley Park, visitors can also see the “Elvis at 13” statue, the singer’s childhood church, and other interesting exhibits.
Beyond Elvis, attractions in Tupelo include the Tupelo Veterans Museum, Tupelo Buffalo Park & Zoo, Tombigbee Lake State Park, Tupelo National Battlefield, Gumtree Museum of Art, Main Street, city murals, and the Natchez Trace Parkway.
Ocean Springs, A Resort Destination
Not too far from Gulfport is a smaller resort destination, Ocean Springs. Home to 18,429 as of 2020, the city is popular for its art community that thrives along the coast. The hometown of painter Walter Inglis Anderson, more and more artists have been arriving in recent years.
Now, the community has sprung to life with galleries and exhibits. All art mediums are practiced here, so travelers from all walks of life can enjoy the unique artwork.
With more than art, visitors can also spend time in the local parts. Fort Maurepas City Park and Nature Preserve, Front Beach, and the Fontainebleau Nature Trail are all beautiful places that are ideal for hiking, camping, swimming, and touring. Being located on the coast, tourists can also take a boat to head out into the gulf for a day of fishing or cruising.
Gulf Islands National Seashore
Shared between Mississippi and Florida is the Gulf Islands National Seashore. Featuring stunning barrier islands and bayous, the seashore is becoming increasingly popular as a tourist destination. However, visitors should note that the majority of Mississippi’s portion of the seashore is accessible only by boat.
The only area accessible by land is the Davis Bayou Area. Nevertheless, tourists flock in droves to see the unique landscapes and wildlife.
Natchez Trace Parkway
Stretching for 444 miles through three states including Mississippi, Alabama, and Tennessee is the Natchez Trace Parkway, which has been designated as a recreational road and scenic drive. The trail follows an old corridor that was used by Native American to travel through the area.
Tourists can head to the start of the trail in Natchez, Mississippi to see some of the remarkable landscapes. Broken down into sections, each section is named after the nearby town or city. Mississippi has 9 sections: the Tishomingo-Belmont, Tupelo, Houston, French Camp, Kosciusko, Canton, Jackson, Vicksburg, and Lorman-Natchez section.
Used for transportation, many tourists will also fall in love with seeing some of the best landscapes in the south as they drive along the parkway. Stopping in various destinations along the way, there are plenty of activities, restaurants, shops, and accommodation.
De Soto National Forest
Named for Hernando de Soto, the Spanish explorer, this national forest is one of the most biodiverse areas in Mississippi and the entire Gulf Coast region. Home to wet pine savanna habitats, rare flora and fauna like the Calopogon multiflorus orchid, gopher tortoises, gopher frogs, and pitcher plants live in the area.
The most famous area within the national forest is Buttercup Flats, which has plenty of outdoor activities like hiking, camping, canoeing, fishing, bird watching, and more. Further subdivisions have been made with the Black Creek and Leaf Wildernesses. Hikers often head to the Tuxachanie or Black Creek Crail, which branch out for more than 60 miles.
Noxubee National Wildlife Refuge
For the best bird watching in Mississippi, the Noxubee National Wildlife Refuge is the place to go. Covering 48,000 acres, the refuge was originally established to protect migratory birds. Visitors will have access to many parts of the park where they have the chance to view various avian species.
Some of the best sites include the Goose Overlook, Morgan Hill Overlook, and the Bluff Lake Boardwalk. Additionally, there is an extensive network of trails that take visitors all over the refuge.
Another interesting destination is Rowan Oak in the city of Oxford, which was the home of author William Faulkner. An American writer, some of Faulkner’s most famous literary pieces are The Sound and the Fury in 1929 and As I Lay Dying in 1930. The main house features Greek Revival architecture and it was built by an Irish immigrant in the 1840s.
Preservation of the house picked up steam in 1972 when it was purchased by the University of Mississippi. Now, the home is a National Historic Landmark and tourist attraction. Public tours are offered Tuesday through Thursday with varying times. In addition to the house, visitors can enjoy the Bailey Woods Trail, which winds through the property.
Most tourism in Mississippi is driven to the coast, where visitors want to soak up the sun and relax in the sand alongside the Gulf of Mexico. However, the coastline takes up a small portion of the state and for curious travelers, there is plenty more to explore. When given the chance, Mississippi will amaze you with the diversity of its cities, towns, attractions, and landscapes.