Historic Mobile - First Pass!
- story and photographs by Ellis Anderson
If you haven’t day-tripped over to downtown Mobile in a while, our advice is simple: don’t get greedy.
Within walking distance of the Welcome Center in the downtown historic district, you’ll find multiple museums, galleries, restaurants, parks and architectural treasures. The options can be overwhelming if you haven’t done a bit of planning beforehand and might lead you to sprinting from place to place, trying to fit it all in.
Happily resign yourself to the fact that you’ll need to return several times to get a good feel for the city. Then take your time meandering through the attractions you do choose to visit.
Driving into Mobile from any direction is easy (see our link to directions below). It’s located at the intersection of I-10 and I-65, and although traffic can get dicey around rush hour, it’s not harrowing like Atlanta or Houston.
The historic city center is right off I-10, so set your GPS for the Fort Conde Welcome Center. Immediately after taking the exit, you’ll be greeted with a wonderful juxtaposition of historic and contemporary architecture. The modest skyline gives away the size of the city (under 200,000), but that’s a plus - Mobile feels both friendly and easily accessible.
The original Fort Conde was constructed in 1723 and protected the city until 1820. The replica of it that stands now was built in the 1970s. It's impressive although it's only about a third the size.
Part of the fort serves as a museum and part as a welcome center. The Welcome Center staff is both knowledgeable and friendly – although, beware: Those women can make every attraction sound irresistible. They’ll tempt you with information about the Mobile Museum of Art and the historic walking tour and the Bragg-Mitchell Mansion and then regale you with features of the popular Mobile Carnival Museum and the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception and the Battleship USS Alabama.
Our advice? Unless you’re in town for a week, take the brochures that intrigue you and tuck them away for your next visit.
If you’re tall, you’ll need to duck your head for the part of the fort that houses the artifacts. Admission to this part of the museum is free and worth a look. Just walking through the arched brick passages drops you back a few centuries in time. Many of the antique items on display were unearthed while the I-10 tunnel was being built beneath the Mobile Bay – the fort actually sits on top of the tunnel.
The museum is an enormous complex, but it needs to be. Keep in mind that Mobile was founded in 1702, fifteen years before New Orleans. The complex houses several permanent collections, including ones featuring buggies, furniture, and miniatures. A centerpiece is an enormous "Marianne" statue – the French symbol of liberty – which once stood atop the Mobile County Courthouse (demolished in the 1950s). Take your time in the lobby that showcases an amazing set of WPA-era murals painted in the 1930s. They alone are worth the price of admission.
The hotel contains three restaurants, including the Trellis Room, which is the city’s only AAA rated Four Diamond restaurant. If you're contemplating a longer stay in Mobile, the combination of historic ambiance and location will make Battle House your first choice.
Servers are helpful with offering menu selections. The plate lunches are a steal and everything we ordered was delicious. Diners at lunch get a choice of protein (fried catfish, pork chops, chicken thighs, meatloaf, crab meat omelet) with a choice of one side ($9), two ($11) or three ($13). You’ll have a tough time choosing between side items like heirloom grain salad, butter beans, kale salad and squash casserole.
Our waitress recommended the chicken thighs, which I ordered. Two large pieces were served, roasted and then pan seared, packed with flavor, incredibly tender. How did they do that? I’d drive all the way back to Mobile just for another order.
If you need a shot of caffeine to fuel the rest of the afternoon, take a break at Serda’s Coffee Company (3 South Royal Royal Street) near the intersection of Dauphin and Royal. In addition to every common coffee concoction, they have gelato in a number of flavors. The amber interior and low-key atmosphere has a way of making you feel right at home, even if it’s your first time in.
One exhibit that will be especially interesting to Bay-Waveland residents is the GulfQuest Theatre, which features a three-screen surround-sound movie about the Gulf Coast. According to the website, “Local voices narrate the 16-minute film, which takes GulfQuest visitors from location to location while they explore different aspects of the region, including recent events (Hurricane Katrina and the BP Horizon oil spill).”
Surprise! Several Bay-Waveland residents make appearances in the movie, including Marcie Baria, Jenny Bell and Bay St. Louis councilman Jeffrey Reed.
Before heading back home, take a break at the back of the museum and watch the river for a bit. If you’re lucky, you’ll catch a real monster container ship passing by at close quarters, always a breath-taking sight.