Historic Mobile - First Pass!
Our new column explores fun destinations within a two-hour drive of Bay-Waveland. This month, the Shoofly visits downtown Mobile and comes up with a fun - and delicious - one-day itinerary!
- story and photographs by Ellis Anderson
Our suggested starter itinerary for Mobile might be called “Town Center.” We’ve picked two museums, one park, a historic hotel, a bookstore, and a restaurant that became an instant favorite of ours. And everything on our itinerary is within a quarter-mile radius, so you won’t need new shoes when you get home.
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.
Fort Conde and the Fort Conde Visitors Center:
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.
Across the street, the historic Mobile City Hall and a complex of adjoining buildings has been converted to serve as the main complex for the History Museum of Mobile. Admission rates range from $10 for adults to free for children under 5. If you're lucky a fun and fascinating woman named Martha will be working at the front desk. Tell her "hi" from us!
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.
A few blocks from the history museum, marvel at the opulent lobby of The Battle House Hotel and Spa. Now run by Marriott corporation’s Renaissance Hotels, the eight-story hotel was built in 1908. Despite many modernizations and renovations through the years, the building has retained its original dazzling glory.
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.
Noble South, 203 Dauphin Street, is a popular farm to table restaurant – for good reason. Just in case, make reservations, even for lunch. The dining area is spacious and light, the perfect mix of Historic-Meets-Sleek-Contemporary. Best of all, the acoustics allow for conversation without shouting at your companions.
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.
After lunch, if you stick to our Day Tripping itinerary, you’ll start to back-track now. Stroll through Bienville Square park, which takes up an entire city block. The city leaders in the mid-1800s wisely dedicated this land for a public green space and gracious trees rise up like an oasis in the middle of the commercial district. You’ll want to check out its amazing cast iron fountain (1890s) and a Victorian style bandstand built in 1941.
Even if you don’t consider yourself a big reader, stop in at Bienville Books at 109 Dauphin Street. The atmosphere alone may convert you. The independent bookstore offers two floors of new, used and collectible books. Like everywhere else we stopped in Mobile, the staff is both friendly and extremely knowledgeable. If you’re looking for a keepsake from your Mobile trip or a gift to take home, they have a great selection of books on local lore and history.
Your final destination for the day is the GulfQuest Maritime Museum. It fronts the Mobile River, about two long blocks on the other side the Fort Conde Welcome Center (where you presumably parked). Walk past Fort Conde on Royal Street and then take a left on Monroe. It’ll take you under the I-10 overpass to where the Maritime Museum and the new cruise ship terminal sit side by side (if you want to drive over, be aware that museum parking costs $5).
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.
The GulfQuest Maritime Museum is the city’s new star attraction, that opened in the fall of 2015. The main exhibit concept is completely unique: it’s designed to replicate a full-sized multi-story container ship. Visitors can walk around the model on walkways that surround it on all sides. Behind the container facades are many of the smaller exhibits and interactive games.
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.
Chances are, on the drive back to Mississippi, you’ll be making plans for your next trip back to this charming city. We certainly are: watch for another Mobile “Day Tripping” column in 2017!