As a native of small town Mississippi, it gets tempting to dream of big cities, bright lights, and year-round entertainment. What I have learned though is that if you just stop and look around, you can find a wealth of history, entertainment, and enough good food to last you a life time. This new series of articles, entitled “Daycation: ______”, will chronicle day-trips to towns dotting the South as I get to experience it on days off. Hopefully this encourages you to take a second look at the familiar world around you and have an adventure.
This first entry is dedicated to a town once described by Abraham Lincoln as “the key to the South”: Vicksburg, MS. First settled by Europeans in 1719, the town wasn’t incorporated for over a century later in 1825. Vicksburg did not become a household name until the second half of the American Civil War, when a siege by Union forces lasted 47 days until the Confederates surrendered on July 4, 1863. Today, Vicksburg is a hub for history buffs, antique collectors, and foodies. I’m a little bit of all three and here are my recommendations on how you should spend your Daycation in Vicksburg, MS.
Assuming you leave early to mid morning to get there, you’ll probably start feeling a bit hungry. After all, you need a good bit of energy to traverse the hills that cover Vicksburg. For your first stop, head south of town down the Blues Highway, Hwy 61, to a little roadside shack called The Tomato Place. Featured on numerous travel shows, periodical write ups, and over 230 Instagram tags, The Tomato Place is a mandatory stop for some legendary local food. Walking to main building, you pass through an odd variety of antique trinkets, bottle trees, brightly painted walls, and hundreds of locally grown vegetables and fruits. Open up the fridge doors and pick out a smoothy to accompany your lunch (I usually get either the Strawberry Fields, Orangeade, or the Blackberry), then head on inside to order. If this is your first visit, I strongly recommend that you order the BLT. It is life changing. Even if you’re not a tomato fan, just give this sandwich one more chance to change your mind. It may have been the 7-year tastebud changes, but I believe it was that BLT sandwich that converted me to a tomato fan after spending my first 17 years of life hating them passionately.
After you’ve filled your belly, it’s time to explore the dark jewel of Vicksburg, the Vicksburg National Military Park. Located on Clay St., this park exists as a memorial to one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. The park consists of 20 miles of trenches and earthworks, a 16 mile long tour road, a 12.5 mile long walking trail, over 1,300 markers and marble monuments, 144 cannons, two antebellum homes, a restored ironclad warship, and a partridge in a pear tree. When first arriving in the park, take a moment to walk inside the welcome center at all of the memorabilia and information on the park. Go ahead and take this moment to download the “Civil War: Vicksburg” app on your phone, as it is an all inclusive guide through the park and provides articles and videos on various stops along the way. Once you pass through the arch that once straddled Clay St., you enter the Union lines and will will begin to see that hundreds of markers, statues, and monuments mentioned earlier. If you are pressed for time, you can dip out after the Union loop, but I suggest pressing on, because the Confederate side boasts dazzling earthworks, breathtaking views of the mighty Mississippi River, and the haunting remains of the U.S.S. Cairo. The Cairo (pronounced Kay-Row) was the first US ship in history to be sunk by a torpedo and was resurrected a century later from the Yazoo River in 1964. The national cemetery is another must-see while driving through the park. This is the final resting place for Union soldiers and also commemorates lives lost in every other war since. The Confederate soldiers are buried nearby in Cedar Hill Cemetery off of Mission 66. There is a plethora of small stops in the park that many people seem to take for GRANTed. You could spend days exploring the park and still not see everything, but this is a Daycation and we have a lot more to see.
Next, we’ll head downtown to reenergize. Find a parking spot on the cobbled Washington St. and head into Highway 61 Coffeehouse. Like The Tomato Place, this coffee shop has a welcoming vibe and is chock full of decor that could be appreciated by both a 12 yr old and their grandparent. The staff was friendly and the coffee is fairly priced. While you’re waiting, or after you’ve finished your drink, be sure to walk upstairs and check out the local art for sale.
Now that you’re wired, feel free to roam the downtown area and check out some of the shops. Just two doors down from the coffee shop is the Biedenharn Coca-Cola Museum celebrating Vicksburg’s connection to the world famous soft drink. It was here in 1894 that Coke was bottled for the first time. Other shops that I would consider stopping by (especially if you are or have a lady with you) are the Cinnamon Tree and Blush and Bashful Boutique. Blush and Bashful is a trendy boutique carrying the latest women’s fashions and the Cinnamon Tree is a nice little-bit-of-everything shop. It’s actually there that I manage to find the perfect Christmas present for my mama every year.
If you walk a little bit further north, you’ll find a brand new museum dedicated to the Mississippi River. It is only open Wednesday through Sunday, and unfortunately I happened to be in town on a Tuesday so I can’t tell you what all is in it, but even if it is closed, check out the outdoor exhibit downhill. Though it may not look like it at first glance (I personally thought it was the worst putt-putt course I had ever seen), there is a nifty, scaled down model of the Mississippi River, it’s oxbow lakes, and flood planes you can walk out on and explore. It really puts the winding bends, curves, and size of the river into perspective.
Just next door this museum is a quaint little white building called Levee Street Marketplace. Do yourself a favor and walk inside to check out all of the local art, antiquities, and just some other cool looking stuff. The Marketplace rents out so many square feet to individuals so you never know what you’ll find just a few steps away and for the locals, this means that the goods are regularly exchanged. For just a few bucks, I picked up an antique Gillette safety razor from 1918 that I restored to like-new conditions.
Depending on how your time is doing at this point, you can either make one more stop, or go on to dinner. Assuming you’re up for a bit more grandeur and history, make your way back up the hill and visit The Old Courthouse Museum. This museum not only covers Vicksburg’s history in the Civil War, but also life life in the South, from Native times to the Modern Era.
Now that you’re day is winding down, it’s time to decide on what to do for dinner. I’ll break down some of my favorites based on what I’m in the mood for that day. When I want a warm, classic sit down experience, I’ll head back downtown to The Biscuit Company. It is a fun little place for some good food and wine, but not biscuits. The name actually comes from an antique advertisement for a biscuit company painted on the side of the building. If I’m wanting the full on gourmet southern experience and don’t mind paying a bit more to get it, I’ll grab a seat in Rusty’s Riverfront Grill and enjoy the deep fried delicacies that make your stomach smile. Sometimes though, I’m just in the mood to “do as the Romans do” and eat at a family owned and operated restaurant where the tea is almost as sweet as the folks the folks that make it. If you’d like a tasty catfish filet and a big ole mess of okra, do your belly a favor and go find Rowdy’s Family Restaurant. While you’re waiting, your kids (or 22yr old with a puppy-like attention span) can have fun staring at the large fish tank filled with local species. One more honorable mention for a restaurant worth stopping at is Walnut Hills. I’ve only been there with a large group, but if they can handle a dozen Roboski’s then they can handle you and yours with no problem.
This concludes my first in a (hopefully) long series of Daycations that will help you appreciate the rich history of the world around you. So gather your friends, rally your family, and go on an adventure.
Michael J. Roboski, Jr.