The south is filled with quaint small towns and here are three that are “must see” places this summer: Oxford, Clarksdale and Tupelo, Mississippi. Sally Walker at StyleBlueprint gives us planning tips for the trip.
With Memorial Day weekend kicking off the summer travel season, our wanderlust is palpable. If your summer travel plans are keeping you stateside and closer to home, here are three fantastic, not-too-far destinations in Mississippi that are steeped in history and each offers completely different experiences. So get packing, gas up and get ready to roll!
Clarksdale is just a 90-minute drive from Memphis, TN, and is known as Ground Zero for the Delta blues. It’s at the intersection of Highways 61 and 49, known simply as The Crossroads, a place where legend has it blues great Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil so he would be a success. Johnson, who was just 27 when he died, is considered one of the most influential of all blues musicians despite his early death. (One of our favorite songs inspired by Johnson is John Mayer’s “Crossroads,” a good download for the trip. See him perform it on YouTube here.)
Clarksdale’s musical heritage is everywhere, from the shops to the museums and clubs around town. The soulful Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art store is filled with folk art, recordings, concert posters and the like. Plus, it is home to some mini blues festivals and other performances throughout the year. The GRAMMY Museum Mississippi opened in March 2016 on the campus of Delta State University and explores not only the history of American music and the GRAMMY awards, but its exhibits delve into the history of the blues and its influence on music across the globe.
The Delta Blues Museum, located in the old train station depot, is a branch of the Smithsonian and offers an excellent tour through the history of the blues and the artists who hail from the Delta. The rustic remains of the cabin that Muddy Waters lived in while a sharecropper on the Stovall cotton plantation is just one of the artifacts on display; on any given day, you’ll meet museum-goers from across the globe who’ve made the trek to Clarksdale to absorb its musical history.
The Ground Zero Blues Club, owned by actor Morgan Freeman and Clarksdale attorney Bill Luckett, rocks day and night with music. A blues hall/restaurant, Ground Zero is known for its Jukin Burger, as well as its daily plate lunch special, just $9. It’s also known for the random couches lined up on its front porch, where folks perch between sets to chat.
For a real taste of the Delta, head over to Hicks’ World Famous Hot Tamales & Banquet Hall at 305 State St. Hicks has been serving up Delta tamales since 1960, and a serving of three is just $2.75.
If you plan to spend the night, then catching the blues is a must. There are juke joints all over Clarksdale, including Ground Zero, the Hopson Plantation Commissary, Levon’s Bar & Grill, Red’s Lounge and the Delta Blues Museum. Cat Head has a great listing of performances on its calendar web page — just scroll down after the festival listing and the ads to see the upcoming shows around town.
Lodging in Clarksdale is best termed “eclectic.” You can choose from an original sharecropper shack or cotton gin bin at The Shack Up Inn, located on the Hopson Plantation, or find a room downtown like The Squeeze Box, a 425-square-foot guest room that’s been furnished in a funky Delta style or stay in a room over Ground Zero. There are options for all.
Oxford is the epitome of a charming Southern town. Home to the University of Mississippi and its grand football tailgating tradition, Oxford also has a town square lined with boutiques and restaurants. And Oxford is also Ground Zero for Southern literature, the home of William Faulkner and the highly regarded Oxford American magazine.
City Grocery, located on the town square, is one of the most sought-after dining experiences in the South. Chef Jon Currence is the culinary force behind the restaurant, which serves up delectably Southern fare including corn bread in the bread basket and entrees that run from grilled (goat) cheese sandwiches to grilled Gulf tuna and a huge plate of shrimp and grits.
Small eateries, ice cream shops and college bars dot the square. Try the Ajax Diner for home cooking, plate lunches and veggie plates, or BBB (Big Bad Breakfast), another Currence eatery, for a killer breakfast or lunch.
Book lovers can get lost for hours at Square Books; it actually fills three separate storefronts on the square — one for children and two others categorized by interests and topics. Neilson’s Department Store has been on the square since it opened in 1839, and it is the oldest department store in the South. Neilson’s is a department store in the truest sense, with a bridal registry, makeup counter and all the usual departments. Hinton & Hinton is a men’s preppy outfitter, with a smattering of women’s clothing and accessories.
Outside the square, antique stores and malls, including The Depot Antique Mall, which features 100-plus booths, are scattered throughout Oxford and make for fun treasure hunting. And the Ole Miss campus is a beautiful spot for a walk or drive; the university’s museum features art and historical exhibits, as well as information about the historic homes associated with the university, including Faulkner’s home, the antebellum Rowan Oak, which features a glimpse into the writer’s life in Oxford.
The Convention & Visitors Bureau has a good map to make navigating all the stores and attractions easy as pie, too — download it here.
If you choose to stay the night, try The 5Twelve Bed & Breakfast, which is tucked between the square and the Ole Miss campus and features five guest rooms and a studio suite. It’s in an excellent location to experience Oxford nightlife. Or reserve a room at Castle Hill, a bed-and-breakfast that doubles as a large event space and is located just outside of town.
Tupelo’s claim to fame is that it’s Elvis’ birthplace, but there’s more to Tupelo than just Elvis-related sites. While most of us have heard of or driven parts of the Natchez Trace Parkway, few know that it is headquartered in Tupelo or how it got its name. The trace, an ancient route traveled by Native Americans, spans 444 miles from Natchez, MS, to Nashville, TN. At the Tupelo Visitor Center, guests can learn more about the parkway’s history and inhabitants.
If the kids are along for this day trip, then the Tupelo Buffalo Park and Zoo is a must. This rustic animal kingdom began as a cattle ranch, and soon its owner started removing the cattle and added buffalo, eventually amassing a large herd. Set on over 200 acres, there are now 260 animals including a giraffe named Tall Boy and a Capuchin monkey (think Night at the Museum) named Oliver, who made two escapes back in 2007 that garnered him national media attention.
So, back to Elvis. Even those who aren’t necessarily fans of the King will enjoy a visit to his birthplace and the hardware store, Tupelo Hardware, where his mother bought him his first guitar. The small-town charm of Tupelo, paired with the story of Elvis’ humble beginnings, contrast greatly with the flash of Graceland.
There’s an Elvis Presley Driving Trail, with a dozen sites celebrating his time in town, including the homecoming statue that commemorates the historic 1956 homecoming concert he played at the Tupelo Fairgrounds. Also on the driving trail is Johnnie’s Drive-In on Main, where a young Elvis used to eat Dough Burgers (hamburgers made with ground beef and bread, then fried up on the griddle) with his friends.
If you choose to stay the night, there’s any number of chain hotel options in and around Tupelo, with the Hilton Garden Inn right on Main Street and close to downtown shopping and dining.
Take a day or two this summer and explore this great region. The South is rich with history and character, and these three Mississippi towns are great places to start!