Known for its antebellum homes and haunted history, this Mississippi River city has another side to reveal.

Natchez is abundant in architectural awe, especially at historic Longwood
Robbie Caponetto

In Natchez, Mississippi, even the surrounding landscape beckons you toward a storied past, with roads cutting canyons through red-dirt forests, eventually arriving at the city’s famous bluffs. Oak limbs spread wide. Welcome to the oldest town along the Mississippi River.

Natchez is best known for its sumptuous historic homes, built throughout the 19th century when the region boomed with cotton. The incredible riches of that era are hard to fathom. But the town’s wealth has always been matched with a certain wildness: For every planter, there was a river pirate; for every ornate garden, a wailing blues guitar.

Today, Natchez is bursting with surprises, thanks in large part to a cohort of young natives who wandered away and then returned home with new ideas. Revived efforts to highlight the area’s African-American history, along with a rejuvenation of the downtown scene that includes a bevy of brand-new businesses, have brought the city into a new era.

Grab a stool at the Under The Hill Saloon, a historic dive bar.
Robbie Caponetto

Natchez Under-the-Hill 

Any tour of Natchez ought to begin where the city itself did—on the riverside strip of land known, suitably, as Natchez Under-the-Hill. The very first French colonists landed here in 1716. In the past, the neighborhood was bustling—and occasionally libertine, full of fishermen and grocers working next to bordellos and bars.

The Camp Restaurant offers Southern-Cajun flavors and serves burgers topped with fried onions.
Robbie Caponetto

Only one row of brick buildings has survived the river’s floods, but these offer modern comforts behind a rustic veneer. Silver Street Gallery & Gifts is a bright and airy storefront with an eclectic collection of river trinkets. The outdoor bar at The Camp Restaurant is a favorite spot for eating sliders and drinking microbrews while the sun sets over the water. For full frontier flavor, there is nowhere better than the Under The Hill Saloon, which purports to be the oldest tavern on the river. Dark wood and dusty brick walls, cluttered with centuries of river paraphernalia, will help you get into a suitably Huck Finn mood.

Stand on a downtown sidewalk, and you’ll see enough historic storefronts to overwhelm you. But new characters now live and work inside those walls.

Start your morning at Steampunk Coffee Roasters with a pour-over or espresso in an old brick building.
Robbie Caponetto

Downtown

A stroll through the heart of Natchez reveals an architectural gold mine—from austere Greek columns to whimsically carved gables—and the ideal fuel for ambling can be found at Steampunk Coffee Roasters. Named for its intricate brass espresso maker, this spot is a surprising treat in a town of just 15,000, serving custom-roasted coffee and Italian-style espresso from a late-1800s brick building. Owner Wilmer “Dub” Rogers, who had become accustomed to starting his day with espresso when he worked in Milan, started Steampunk to satiate his own need for craft caffeine in town. On weekend mornings, there’s double the reason to visit when Rogers slings out handmade crêpes, stuffed with anything from bacon and eggs to berries and crème fraîche.

Lisa and Patrick Miller own the Natchez Brewing Company.
Robbie Caponetto

For daytime drinking, choose from excellent sour beers and other microbrews on tap at the family-friendly Natchez Brewing Company or artisanal liquors from Charboneau Distillery. The latter are best sipped at King’s Tavern, where chef Regina Charboneau fires out hearty flatbreads and biscuit-topped pot pies from her wood-fed oven. Manager Ricky Woolfolk shakes and stirs his own unique renditions of classic cocktails. Aspiring bartenders can call to sign up for mixology classes, offered on Saturday afternoons. The restaurant updates a long-lost history: In 1799, the building’s owner, Richard King, turned it into a “public house” to serve weary travelers arriving from the Natchez Trace.

Robbie Caponetto

One of the latest additions to the town’s burgeoning nightlife is Smoot’s Grocery, which was previously a grocery and also an “unofficial juke joint,” according to Matt Willis, head of booking and entertaining. Now this old tin-sided shotgun shack has been updated and lined with salvaged wood. The taps flow freely, pool balls clink, and the dance floor echoes with live roots music (from zydeco to Texas blues) deep into the night.

WATCH: The Nation's Largest Octagonal House Is In Mississippi, And It Was Never Finished

Around Town

Natchez offers endless home tours, three of which are essential. The largest octagonal home in the United States, Longwood spans six stories and 30,000 square feet—topped with a stately dome. But it’s still unfinished. Construction, which began in 1860, was cut short by the Civil War the following year. Seeing its grand interior unvarnished only underscores the original owner’s ambitions for this palatial home.

The National Park Service (NPS) offers detailed tours of the historic properties it manages. Melrose, a mid-19th-century town house, was passed on to each new owner with all of its original furnishings, making it an incredibly intact reflection of the past. Meanwhile, the NPS-run museum in the William Johnson House offers a personal portrait of historic Natchez. Johnson, its original owner, was a free black businessman who kept a detailed diary of local gossip. The house also provides an important glimpse into the sometimes overlooked stories of African-Americans in Natchez; to dive even deeper, book a tour from Miss Lou Heritage Group & Tours LLC.

When it’s time to refuel, The Donut Shop is the only place in town to enjoy a uniquely local combo: fried pastries and Mississippi-style hot tamales. Walk them off on the 26-acre grounds of Monmouth Historic Inn & Gardens, a setting that calls for a mint julep from the on-site bar, Quitman Lounge & Study. Afterward, head for Restaurant 1818, where a white-tablecloth dinner is served in the mansion’s old parlors.

Robbie Caponetto

Where To Stay

It’s hard to go wrong with the many antebellum homes that double as bed-and-breakfasts, but here are three options that reflect this river city’s new modern twist 

Clermont Bluffs Bed and Breakfast 
This farmhouse was originally built as a wedding gift around 1906. Co-owner Troy Bickford says, “It’s furnished to match the era, but when it comes to beds and bathrooms, people just want to be comfortable.” The Cardinal Branch room, with its charming claw-foot tub and peephole window, has what must be one of the best bathrooms in town.

Shanty Bellum Too, available through Airbnb, offers a live-like-a-local experience for visitors.
Robbie Caponetto

Shanty Bellum Too
Shanty Bellum Too and its sister property, Shanty Bellum, are quaint guesthouses with a good-hearted, quirky feel. Both were built in the 1880s and are convenient to downtown and river sunsets. You can rent one or both through Airbnb.

Hotel Vue 
It’s a solid choice for budget travelers, with rooms starting at $94. As the name implies, the real treat is the setting:
The hotel stands on a bluff with a sight line extending out into Louisiana.

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