The easy-going city of Natchez is the oldest civilised settlement on the Mississippi River, perched on the highest promontory north of the Gulf of Mexico, 200ft (61m) above the rolling river. Across the river, which forms the state border, Natchez looks down on Louisiana.
Natchez was an Indian settlement for centuries before being colonised first by the French in 1716, then the British in 1763, the Spanish in 1779 and then joining America in 1798. The city became the first capital of the State of Mississippi in 1817 and experienced an economic boom as a centre for the export of cotton by river steamer. The cotton poured in from the vast rich plantations of Mississippi and neighbouring Louisiana.
Today Natchez has more antebellum houses than any other place in the United States, with nine available for daily tours and many more opening their doors during spring and fall pilgrimages. Many hundreds of the beautiful homes are privately owned and stand to be admired by passers-by. The city's downtown area is packed with late 19th-century buildings housing antique shops, hotels, churches and restaurants, and more than 40 Bed and Breakfast establishments.
In addition to all the historic fare, Natchez is a recreational centre offering a semi-tropical climate and numerous hunting, fishing, hiking and biking opportunities. The city is also the starting point for the famous Natchez Trace Parkway; a 450-mile (724km) national park route based on ancient Indian trails, which connects Natchez to Jackson, the state capital, 105 miles (169km) away, and ends in Nashville, Tennessee. All this, plus a healthy dose of southern hospitality, cuisine and exciting riverboat casinos, makes Natchez a tourist's delight.
The most intact antebellum estate in the United States is the magnificent Melrose, owned and operated by the National Park Service in its grounds in the Natchez National Historical Park.
Melrose was built in 1849 and still features its original hand-painted canvas flooring. The house is open daily with tours on the hour.
The gracious Monmouth, built in 1818 at 36 Melrose Avenue, was the home of John Quitman, twice governor of Mississippi as well as US senator and congressman. The house and its striking formal garden is open daily. Longwood in Lower Woodville Road was built around 1860 and is the largest and most elaborate octagonal house in the United States.
Dunleith, dating from 1856, is the only house in Mississippi completely encircled by a colossal colonnade. It is sited at 84 Homochitto Street, on top of a rise on the edge of a 40-acre park.
Numerous other houses are open to the public, and make popular venues for weddings.
The Grand Village was the main ceremonial centre of the Natchez Indians, who inhabited southwest Mississippi between 700 and 1730. Their culture reached a peak in the mid-1500s, when French explorers found the Grand Village and began to settle in the area. Eventually the Natchez were forced to abandon their land.
The 128-acre site of the Grand Village is today managed by the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, who have excavated and rebuilt two of the ceremonial mounds at the site. Entry to the village is gained through Jefferson Davis Boulevard within the Natchez city limits. The site features a museum, a reconstructed Natchez Indian house, three ceremonial mounds (Great Sun's Mound, Temple Mound and the Abandoned Mound), a nature trail and a visitor's centre. Tours are available, however advance booking is required.
Natchez features a collection of architecturally valuable historic churches of various denominations, all located in the central city area. Among them is St Mary's in South Union Street, the oldest Catholic building in Mississippi, built in Gothic Revival style back in 1840.
The Trinity Episcopal Church in South Commerce Street is the oldest church in Natchez, having been built in 1822 but remodelled in 1838. The interior of this church features two rare stained-glass windows designed and installed by the renowned Louis Comfort Tiffany.
Also notable is the First Presbyterian church in South Pearl Street, built in the Federal Style in 1828. A Romanesque chapel was added to the rear in 1901. The chapel now houses an unusual collection of historic photographs telling the story of Natchez.
The city's original waterfront area, Natchez-Under-the-Hill, reached by descending the bluff via Silver Street, was once the notorious haunt of pirates, riverboat gamblers and outlaws, known as the 'Barbary Coast of the Mississippi'.
As the use of riverboats dwindled, so did its bad reputation and today the quaint river dockside attracts tourists with restaurants, bars, gift stores and the floating Isle of Capri riverboat casino. Three passenger paddle-wheel steamers dock at the waterfront: the Mississippi Queen, the Delta Queen and the American Queen.
The Natchez Trace Parkway starts out in Natchez, southern Mississippi, and runs for 444 miles (715km) to Nashville, Tennessee, cutting across a corner of Alabama.
The parkway follows ancient Native American paths that connected the Mississippi River to salt licks in central Tennessee, originally worn by the Choctaw, Chickasaw and other tribes. Later white settlers used the ancient trails to extend their commerce and trade.
The route is now served by a scenic road, built and maintained by the National Park Service, which has equipped the popular tourist drive with marked interpretive locations, historic sites, camping and picnicking facilities. Travellers can take time to enjoy nature trails, see portions of the original trace, relax on scenic overlooks, explore historic monuments and bridges, and find out about it all at visitor centres. The parkway is particularly popular with touring cyclists.
Natchez has a semi-tropical climate with warm summer weather and fairly mild winters. The average temperature in winter is 53°F (12°C), while autumn and spring are quite comfortable with temperatures averaging about 65°F (18°C). Natchez summers are generally much warmer, with temperatures averaging 85°F (29°C), and frequent afternoon rain showers.
Natchez is a fascinating destination for anyone interested in the history of the American South and Native American heritage. The city has a number of historical churches and houses, and guided tours are a good way to learn about these sites.
Another fun way to learn about the city is on carriage tours, which depart from the Canal Street Depot and highlight important antebellum landmarks, along with restaurants other points of interest.
The Grand Village of the Natchez Indians, a former ceremonial site, is today an excellent cultural museum and nature trail. Emerald Mound is another popular American Indian site, located about 10 miles (16km) northeast of Natchez.
Natchez is also a food-centric town, and visitors can enjoy events like the Natchez Food & Wine Festival, tour the Old South Winery to sample their muscadine wine, or simply try any of the excellent Southern restaurants in town.
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